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Time Will Tell

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Natasha woke up with a gasp.

Her first concern was that she was awake. She remembered letting go, giving herself up for Clint, for the stone. She hadn’t felt an ounce of regret as she fell. She’d make that choice for him every time, had prepared herself to close her eyes and never open them again.

Her second concern was that when she did open her eyes, a green woman was standing over her, holding a knife inches from her face.

Nat flung herself backwards. The woman looked at her like Nat’s presence confused her, and she figured her own face likely wore a similar expression. Standing up, she tried to figure out what was happening. Something must have gone wrong, because if she was alive…

“Where am I? Where’s the stone?” She asked the green woman.

The stranger just looked at her. She lowered the knife, but didn’t put it away. “You came here for the stone?” Nat nodded. “But that’s impossible,” the stranger said, more to herself than to Nat. The knife danced around her hands, a nervous tick that Nat found incredibly familiar.

“What? Why? We did everything Red Skull told us to. Clint should have the stone, and I should be dead.”

“How can your...Clint…have the stone,” the woman said, “if Thanos already has it?”

The realization hit her, and she chided herself for not putting it together sooner. “You’re Gamora. Nebula’s sister.”

Gamora’s eyes lit up. “You know Nebula?”

“Yeah, she’s working with us. We’re trying to save the world.”

Nat explained everything that had happened: the snap, killing Thanos, the five years it took them to find a way to fix everything. A myriad of emotions flickered across Gamora’s face, but she remained silent the entire time. When Nat finished, they both sat in silence, and Nat wondered how she hadn’t fallen apart, how it must have felt for her to wake up and realize the world as she knew it no longer existed.

Gamora was the first to speak. “How are we alive then? Who has the stone?”

“I’m not sure. But if I’m alive, then Clint must not have it.”

“And if I’m alive,” Gamora added, “neither does Thanos.”

“It’s back where it belongs,” a voice came from above them, and they looked up to see Red Skull floating down toward them.

“I don’t understand,” Gamora said.

“The stone requires balance,” he said, “a soul for a soul. When the stone was returned, so was the soul that had been exchanged for it.”

Nat‘s face scrunched up in confusion. “They brought it back? Why?”

“The actions behind it are of no concern to me,” Red Skull said, “my sole concern is the stone.”

“Thanos would never give the stone back,” Gamora said. The woman was shaking, with fear or rage or maybe both. “I know my father. How. Am I. Alive?”

“Balance,” Red Skull answered. “The events that led to your sacrifice can no longer happen; therefore, the debt is no longer owed.”

“I still don’t understand,” Gamora yelled, and Nat noticed that the tears in her eyes threatening to spill onto her face at any moment. “I remember it — how could it not—“

“They did it,” Nat whispered. Gamora looked at her, confused, but for the first time since waking up she felt a sense of clarity. “They killed him — a past him, probably, and now he can’t kill you in the future.”

Gamora looked at her. A few tears left streaks down her face. “He’s dead? Are you sure?”

Nat smiled. “He has to be. I don’t know how, or what they did, but I can feel it — we won.”

Gamora shook her head. “Then how am I here? How am I alive if he — if the future has changed?”

“Time is a fickle creature,” Red Skull answered. “She does as She pleases. She is not some linear concept, where events happen in one predetermined order. She is a spiral, an explosion of universes and contexts, a tangled web of every possible occurrence. She is not something to be messed with — it is yet to be seen how She will react to your people’s meddling.”

“So the past can change, but the present will stay the same?” Nat asked. “We’ll still remember the snap, even though technically it never happened now?”

“It happened and it did not,” Red Skull said. “Your universe has warped itself. The past no longer fits with the present. There are errors,” he turned to Gamora, “that have become permanent fixtures in an unstable universe.”

Nat’s brain hurt just trying to comprehend everything, but Gamora seemed to be one step ahead of her.

“You say Time is a being,” Gamora said, “and that She won’t be happy with whatever they’ve done to ruin the timeline.”

“That’s correct,” Red Skull confirmed.

“Will She retaliate? What happens when She decides to deal with whatever just happened?”

“Oh, yes,” Red Skull said, “She will certainly have her revenge on your people for tampering with her delicate web.” His monotone voice, Nat thought, somehow made the statement much more chilling.

“When?” She asked. “And how do we fight Time?”

“It’s hard to say,” Red Skull answered. “She moves at Her own pace, one that none can predict. She could come within hours; She could make Her appearance eons from now. And you do not,” he said, a semblance of emotion underlining his tone for the first time, “fight time. It’s a battle none can win.”

“Then how can we stop Her?” Nat asked.

“That is none of my concern,” Red Skull said, floating back up as the words hung in the air around them. “I might suggest, however, that you start with an apology.”

“Wait!” Gamora shouted. “How do we get out of here?”

“That is none of my concern,” Red Skull said, his voice echoing across Vormir, filling the space around them. As soon as the echo of his words finished reverberating across the stones, he was gone.

Natasha looked at Gamora. Here was the woman whose name she’d known for five years, whose death had fueled Nebula more than anyone else’s. How many times had she tried and failed to get Nebula to talk about her, to properly grieve her? She felt a connection to this woman, yet she was surprised to realize she knew next to nothing about her.

She did know one thing. “You’re the space expert,” she said, “you have any ideas on how we get out of here?”

Chapter Text

Natasha knew she’d only been on two planets before, but this was officially her least favorite one.

They’d crossed through every possible climate. They’d scaled mountains, trekked through the snow, crossed a desert of dust and sand, all in their attempt to find...something. She didn’t know what they were looking for, how they planned on getting off Vormir, but neither of them could handle sitting in what should have been their graves any longer.

They hadn’t spoken since Gamora declared they needed to find a way out and started walking. Part of Nat desperately wanted to talk to her, to figure out this woman who had become a puzzle over the past five years, but instead she left the silence alone, taking a mental inventory as they crossed through another field. Part of her suit had broken on the fall. The mask still came up, but her time compass had shattered. Not that she’d use it — she had no idea what year they’d woken up in, not to mention she couldn’t leave Gamora. She didn’t know if her com still worked, but it didn’t look broken, so maybe they could salvage something from it.

But even if you could, her thoughts whispered, the odds you could get it functioning, make it useful with just the suit for extra supplies...it didn’t look great. She often prided herself on her mind, on her ability to get out of every possible situation. Ever since New York, when she’d fought aliens with a pistol and come out the other end, she’d known she was in way over her head. She refused, though, to be left in the dust, to let her lack of powers or alien DNA stop her; she always adapted, found a way to hold her own and save her ass. Even with the snap, she’d known a solution existed, and the fact that she had woken up meant she had likely been right. Now, however, as she continued on their seemingly endless journey across the barren planet, she wondered whether her luck had run its course.

They passed through the field and found themselves below another mountain. “If we can scale this,” Gamora said, the first time either of them had spoken, “we might be able to find a way out.”

“Okay, wait,” Nat said. Gamora had already started climbing by the time Nat spoke, and she stared down at her from three feet in the air. “How is climbing another mountain going to get us any closer to getting off this planet?”

“Doing nothing won’t help us.”

“I’m not saying we do nothing, I just think that—“

“What would you suggest we do then?” Gamora snapped, “what else is there to do?”

“We should stop wandering aimlessly, try and come up with a real rescue plan.”

“I’m sorry,” Gamora said, rolling her eyes, “I didn’t realize you Terrans were so fond of waiting for others to save you.”

“How many people come to Vormir usually, huh?” Nat asked, her agitation slipping into her tone. “Because there wasn’t a lot of space traffic on my flight in.”

Gamora froze, still hanging on the side of the mountain. She closed her eyes, and Nat regretted letting her irritation out. They wanted the same thing -- fighting about it wouldn’t solve anything. “No one,” Gamora whispered, “no one comes to Vormir. Nobody’s coming for us.”

She jumped down and sat on the ground. Nat sat next to her, and hesitantly put a hand on her knee. “Nobody’s coming to save us,” she agreed, “unless we can tell them we’re here.”

Gamora looked at her. “You think you can get a message to your Terran friends?”

She shook her head. “They’re too far away, and the tech isn’t advanced enough, not if all we have are pieces of my suit. We gotta call someone else, someone closer.”

“The Guardians could be anywhere,” Gamora said, “there’s a chance they could hear it.”

Nat nodded, “We can try and send out an SOS signal as far as we can. Maybe if they’re out here, they’ll catch it. But,” she said, “There is one person I know who spends most of her time in space — if anyone’s gonna hear us, I think it’s her.”

Gamora nodded, standing up. “We should start then. Now. We can work in the field, and once we get a signal we can climb the highest mountain on Vormir.” She reached down a hand for Nat, looking at her impatiently.

Nat accepted the outstretched hand and stood up. They began walking, and Gamora moved so quickly Nat nearly had to jog to keep up. She walked with such purpose: back straight, head up, and wearing an expression that could kill. She’d pulled her knife out again, and let it dance around her fingers. Nat didn’t scare easy, but she pitied the fool who ended up on the other end of that gaze. She laughed when she realized where she’d seen it before.

“What is it?” Gamora asked.

“God, you’re so much like your sister,” she said with a smile.

Gamora froze for an instant, before continuing her stride at a slower pace. “How is she?”

“She’s…” Nat started, thinking about her new ally, her new friend. “She misses you. A lot. Wouldn’t say much about you, but the only time I ever saw her get emotional was when your name came up.”

Gamora nodded. “Did she...I mean, has she been alone? Is she part of your team now?”

“She spent a lot of time with Rocket,” Nat said. “They relied on one another. Did most of their missions together. She hung out with Rhodey, too.”

“Rhodey?”

“He’s a friend,” Nat said, “Good man. Been through a lot. They worked well together. She seemed...I wouldn’t say happy, but less angry when she was with him.”

Gamora smiled. “Less angry is good.”

They walked in silence for a while. When they reached the field, Nat clicked the button on her suit, letting it cover her body before trying to take it off. “I think we can try and use some of the tech in the suit to amplify the com’s range,” she said, already working to disassemble it. “You’ll probably know more than I will about how to—“ Nat looked up, and stopped talking when she saw Gamora staring out at the sky.

Nat looked up, too. The lack of sun made the sky a mix a blues and grays, a depressing mosaic fit for Vormir. The darkness made it feel as if she stared out directly into space, into the abyss that kept them captive. It unnerved her, fueled her restlessness, but Gamora stared at it as if she saw something else, as if the sight calmed her.

“Do you think...do you really think everyone from the snap is alive?” Gamora asked. She kept her gaze upwards, as if the answer laid out there, and Nat remembered the man Nebula described as her “idiot lover” — Quill, the one they had planned to steal the power stone from.

Nat put a hand on her shoulder, and Gamora turned toward her. “They have to be.”

Gamora nodded, and looked down at the tech. “It’s not the best selection, but we could probably come up with some sort of amplifier out of this.”

Nat nodded. “Alright,” She said, shoving the restlessness and the anxiety away and replacing it with the determination that got her through the past five years, “Let’s get to work.”

Chapter Text

Nat ducked just in time to avoid the uppercut. She slid her foot out, Gamora jumping over her sweep at the same time that Nat reached for her arm. She flipped the woman over, pinning her arm down for a few seconds before Gamora tapped out.

“We’re even now,” Nat said with a smile. They’d finished the amplifier a while ago, exactly how long she wasn’t sure. Time, it seemed, had forgotten Vormir. She knew, logically, that they’d been on the planet for days, weeks maybe, but it felt like hours at most. Her body seemed suspended, needing neither food nor sleep. With no sun, the atmosphere stayed the same depressing grey, giving no indication of how long they’d been stranded. An infinite amount of time to wait for someone who might never come.

Nat helped Gamora off the ground as the woman begrudgingly accepted her outstretched hand. Once they’d finished the amplifier, they’d searched for the highest mountain on Vormir, only to come back to the very place they’d both fallen from. The Red Skull was nowhere to be found, not that Nat was complaining. They’d set it up, sending out an SOS signal as far as they could, and now all that was left to do was wait.

And by wait, she meant fight.

“How does that move work every time?” Gamora complained, and the two women sat down, silently agreeing on taking a break.

Nat laughed. “Clint still hasn’t figured that one out, either. He complains about it constantly.”

Gamora raised an eyebrow. “Clint? The one who…”

Nat swallowed and nodded, letting her gaze drop to the ground.

“Who is he?”

“He’s…” Nat started, words dying at the tip of her tongue. Who she was to him and who he was to her were two very different things. “He’s my best friend.”

Gamora bit her lip. Nat could see her hesitation, could see the words before Gamora spoke them. She silently wished they hadn’t stopped fighting. “He’s more than that, though, isn’t he?”

“I—he—“ Nat stammered, before sighing. “It’s complicated.”

Gamora nodded. “It seems to me that our closest relationships are always the most complicated.” Nat thought she would elaborate, but she stayed quiet, letting the silence fill the space around them.

With neither of them talking and nothing else to act as a distraction, the silence on the planet became unavoidable. It felt uncanny. The wind howling was the only source of noise, and even that was faint enough that she could barely hear it. Nat had seen a lot in her time on Earth, but this lack of any sort of background noise creeped her out, unnerved her in a way she didn’t ever remember feeling before. The wrongness of it all sent her instincts wild, left her with a desperation to fill the space with sound, with movement, with anything.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” she said, a little louder than necessary, “what’s the deal with you and Nebula? She refused to talk too much about you, but it was obvious that she cared more about you than anyone else.”

Gamora sighed. “We didn’t used to be that way. I — growing up, I made a lot of mistakes. Focused my anger at her because I couldn’t send it toward Thanos. She did the same with me. He made us fight all the time, and we started to resent one another for it.”

“What was that like?” She asked, “growing up with Thanos?”

“It ...it’s hard to explain,” she responded. “He was a monster, obviously. He’s a sadist who thought he was better than everyone else, smarter than everyone else. He thought he was perfect and we were flawed, so he was constantly trying to get us to live up to his idea of what we could be, but it was impossible. And we knew that, and yet…there was still a small part of me that longed for perfection, for that approval. Nebula too. She wanted it more than I did, wanted even an ounce of recognition, but he never gave it to her. She blamed me for that.”

“I’m sorry,” Nat said. “You shouldn’t have had to go through that — no child should have to go through that.”

Gamora shook her head. “I don’t deserve your apologies. For so long, I tried to be the best, tried to be the favorite, if only so I could survive. Nebula and I, we’re close now, but for years I was awful to her. I was convinced that she was just another Thanos, convinced that I had to protect myself and no one else, so I brushed her off. Dismissed her. I let her suffer at his hands because it meant that I didn’t have to. All of her metal parts, all the pain she endured at his hands, could have been avoided if I hadn’t been so selfish.”

“That is not your fault,” Nat said. “You did what you had to do in an awful situation. You didn’t have a choice.”

“No you don’t understand,” Gamora said, her voice rising slightly, “I had a choice. He used to make us fight, and the loser would get a part of their body replaced. I could have said no, could have let her win so she wouldn’t have to suffer again and again, but I was so focused on keeping myself safe that I never did. I was convinced that she was just as crazy as he was.” She took a breath, and Nat pretended like she couldn’t hear the shakiness of it. “I thought she deserved it. All that pain, I thought she deserved it. Better her than me, I’d tell myself, every time I heard her screams.” She shook her head. “She has every right to hate me.”

Nat put a hand on her shoulder. “You were in an abusive situation. That is not your fault. You didn’t do anything to her.”

“That’s the point, I didn’t do anything. I just sat there and let it happen.”

“And what would Thanos have done if you said no? If you refused? He doesn’t seem like the forgiving type to me.”

Gamora opened her mouth to speak, but closed it before anything came out.

Nat turned, making direct eye contact with her. “Listen, growing up, I — I had to do awful things to survive. I was ruthless and selfish because if I had been anything else, I wouldn’t have made it out alive. I didn’t choose that life, and neither did you. A friend once told me that we make unthinkable choices in the face of unthinkable cruelty, and then we’re the ones who have to find a way to live with it. But what Thanos did to Nebula is not your fault.”

Gamora nodded. “It’s easy to understand that, but it’s a lot harder to believe it.”

Nat nodded. “Trust me, I know.”

“Did they ever forgive you? The people you hurt?”

Nat closed her eyes, willing away the faces she’d spent so long trying to forget. “I don’t know — I’m the only one left.”

They both sat for a moment, the oppressive silence returning. Nat opened her eyes again, staring out at the desolate planet, at the place where she’d fought her best friend for the right to die.

“I’m not very good at this,” Gamora said, breaking the silence and Nat’s lost train of thought. “I don’t usually talk about these kind of things.”

Nat laughed. “Me neither. All I know how to do is throw back the words Clint used to say to me.”

“You talked to him about...this?”

“Yeah,” Nat replied, “it became difficult not to — we were traveling the world, going on missions where we’d have to sleep in cargo planes and on luggage racks. Couldn’t really hide the nightmares from him, and he refused to ignore why I always woke up crying.”

“Did it help?”

Nat sighed. “As much as I hate to admit it, yeah. It did. It was hard at first — brought back a lot of things I’d been trying really hard to forget. But it helped. If I’m being honest, it probably saved my life. It gave me Clint, gave me someone who believed I could be better than I was, gave me someone who always had faith in me, trust in me, even when I didn’t have it in myself. It gave me a family.”

Gamora nodded. “The Guardians, we— well, we’re all our own kind of crazy. We don’t really do that often — talk about the things that have happened to us. I don’t know why. It’s not like there’s a shortage of tragic backgrounds on the ship. I think they look to me for that. They shouldn’t -- I’m a hypocrite. I mean, after we fought his father I kept telling Peter he shouldn’t keep his feelings trapped inside, that he should talk about them, but then I’d refuse to talk about Thanos, not unless it was absolutely necessary.”

“It’s easy to know what you should do; it’s a lot harder to actually do it.”

Gamora nodded. “And Nebula...I don’t even know where to start. How to talk about the past when I’m so ashamed of it.”

“I don’t know if I can help you there — I’m still trying to help myself, when it comes to this stuff,” Nat said. “I mean, it took me years to open up to someone, and even with all the Avengers, with the relationships we’ve built, Clint is still the only one who knows everything. But I don’t know -- maybe it’s time to try and change that.”

Gamora sighed. “Maybe. If we ever get off this planet...maybe.”

They sat for a moment, and Nat realized the silence didn’t feel quite so loud anymore.

“I think,” Gamora said with a smile, “I’ve had enough talking for an eternity.”

Nat stood up. “Shall we get back to business then? I believe the ass-kicking I gave you left us at ten wins a piece.”

“Oh, I’d hardly call that an ass-kicking. More like a lucky shot.”

Nat laughed. “Another go? Best out of 21?”

Gamora smirked. “Only if you want your face to get reacquainted with the dirt.”

The women both stood up, shaking out limbs and getting into position, when suddenly Gamora froze. Nat stared at her in confusion, before following her gaze over her shoulder. She turned to find a stream of light heading straight for them, brighter than anything she’d ever seen.

“Please tell me that’s your friend.” Gamora said, and Nat smiled as the figure got closer, the familiar red and blue of her suit coming into focus.

Chapter Text

Carol looked like she’d seen a ghost. Which, to be fair, wasn’t completely inaccurate.

Neither of them had ever had a particularly affectionate relationship with one another, with Carol spending most of her time out in space and Nat spending her time on Earth doing her best to keep the world spinning, but when Carol hit the ground and stopped glowing, Nat nearly ran over to embraced her.

“Oh, I have never been so happy to see you,” she said as they broke their hug.

“How are up here? Where even is here? We all thought you were dead, Nat.”

“Yeah, I think I was. Well, we were,” she said, motioning behind her to where Gamora stood, arms crossed over her chest. “Carol, Gamora; Gamora, Carol.” She said, and both women nodded to one another in respect.

Realization suddenly crossed over Carol’s face. “Oh, wait. Gamora— Nebula’s sister.”

“She talked about me more than I thought.” Gamora remarked.

“No — I mean, yeah, she did, but that’s not how I know you. I met you.”

“I think I’d have remembered that.”

Carol shook her head. “Maybe not you you — another version of you. What year are you from?”

Gamora squinted her eyes. “2018. Why?”

“I know a 2014 version of you. Or, an alternate timeline you, maybe. You showed up to fight Thanos.”

“Wait, fight Thanos?” Nat interjected.

Carol nodded. “Thanos from 2014 came to the future, brought his armies with him.” She turned toward Nat. “We won this time.”

Nat's world stopped. The gravity of that sentence -- how much time had she spent during the last five years trying to hear those exact words? Fighting to hear those words, to fix the world, to do what they couldn’t do the first time? She’d died so they’d have a second chance; the fact that it worked nearly brought tears to her eyes.

“You were right,” Gamora said softly, and Nat turned to face her. “About how I’m alive,” she elaborated. “You said they must have killed Thanos in the past — before he could kill me. You were right.”

Nat turned to Carol. “How? How’d we do it?”

“Tony,” Carol said, “And you. I mean, it was a team effort, but you got us the soul stone, and then Tony used them to get rid of Thanos and his armies.”

Nat smiled. “Of course he did. He’ll never let us live that one down, that he’s 2-for-2 for saving the world.”

Carol looked away, and the silence of the moment felt oppressive, as if Time herself was holding her breath.

Dread came over her. “What? What’s wrong?”

“Tony, he—“ Carol started. She sighed, losing her signature confidence for the first time since Nat had known her. “When he used the stones, the power, it was too much for him.” She put a hand on Nat’s shoulder. “He didn’t make it. I’m sorry, Nat.”

Nat froze. The words felt wrong, as if they were in another language. Her brain didn’t know what to do with them, how to understand them. She shook her head. “No, but he has Morgan — Pepper — he can’t, he—“

She found herself backing up, until she hit the mountain behind her and Gamora eased her down onto the rock they had been sitting on before. Tony couldn’t be dead. He’d survived everything — kidnapping, poison, shrapnel in the chest. He’d fallen through a wormhole to space and woken up. He didn’t die — he couldn’t. How could a world possibly exist without him in it?

Your fault, a voice in the back of her head whispered, and she shut it out before it became too loud to ignore. She looked up at Carol, at the pity in her eyes. She hated that look.

“Who else?” She asked, her voice void of the emotions she felt boiling underneath her skin.

“Handful of the Time Lords went down. Wakanda’s army took a hit, although the Dora Milaje didn’t lose anyone. Casualties were pretty low, considering the stakes — we can probably thank Tony for that. He didn’t give Thanos’s army a lot of time to make a dent on our side.”

Nat sighed. Clint was okay. Steve was okay. Rhodey, Okoye, Nebula — all okay.

She closed her eyes, gave herself a moment to breathe, to build herself back together. Now wasn’t the time to grieve, to fall apart, not while they still sat stranded on Vormir.

“Alright,” she said, opening her eyes. “We gotta get off this planet, get back to Earth.” She turned toward Carol. “You didn’t happen to bring a spaceship with you, did you?”

Carol shook her head. “I heard the SOS signal over the COMs you gave us, and I had a feeling that I needed to head here first. It’s not safe for me to travel through space with you guys just in my arms, but I can pull something together — hit up a neighboring planet, borrow some tech. Shouldn’t take long.”

Nat nodded. “Alright. The sooner the better. You good with taking an impromptu trip to Earth?”

Carol smiled. “I’ve got someone I wouldn’t mind catching up with, if I’ve got an excuse to come back.”

Nat almost smiled, thinking of all of Carol’s “impromptu” trips to Louisiana. Before going to find Tony, when she’d first shown up demanding to know where Fury was, the first thing she did was fly to Louisiana. Said she had family there, and it didn’t take Nat long to figure out who it was that held her heart.

Carol winked at her. “You guys good to wait for me until I come back?”

“I think we can manage,” Nat said, and with a salute Carol shot back into the sky.

Gamora waited until she had disappeared before asking “What is she?”

Nat laughed, but it didn’t quite feel right yet. “She was human — now we’re not really sure.”

“I’ve never seen anything like her, and I’ve traveled the galaxy, faced some of its strongest species.”

“She’s in a class of her own. I’d be willing to bet she had a hand in how we beat Thanos.”

Gamora shook her head in disbelief, and for a moment Nat almost forgot what Carol said, almost forgot who wouldn’t be waiting for her when she got home. Almost.

Gamora seemed to sense a shift, because she turned her focus away from the sky and back toward Nat. “Listen,”

“Don’t,” Nat interrupted, “I’m fine.”

Gamora stared at her, and Nat willed her to leave it alone, to leave her alone, because she wouldn’t be able to stop if she started crying now, and she didn’t have time to be overcome with emotion.

To her credit, Gamora said nothing. She said nothing as Nat paced, itching for something to do while they waited. She said nothing as Nat sat, leg bouncing, drowning out the thoughts in her head with to do lists and plans for what to do next, what to do when they go back home.

When they saw a speck glowing in the sky, Gamora finally spoke. “If you ever wish to talk about it,” she said, eyes still pointed at the sky. “No matter where I am in the galaxy, I’ll still be here to listen. I consider you a friend, Natasha.”

Nat looked at her, but didn’t have a chance to respond before Carol came hurtling toward the ground, carrying a spaceship over her head.

“You ready?” She asked, placing the ship down like it weighed nothing.

Nat looked at her and forced a smile. “Yeah, I’m sure Steve is having a field day trying to keep everything running without me.”

Carol looked at Nat, a mix of awe and pity in her eyes. Nat’s heart dropped to her stomach.

“No, you said everyone else was okay — what happened to Steve?”

Carol opened her mouth, before closing it against “It’s hard to explain,” she said after a moment, “A lot has happened since you and Clint came here.”

“How much could have happened? How long have I been gone?”

Carol didn’t answer, and her silence only added to Nat’s worry.

“Carol,” She said, concern creeping into her voice, “exactly how long has it been? What year is it?”

“It’s still 2023,” she said, and Nat sighed in relief, “but it’s been months since the battle. And it’s been a weird adjustment period. Half of the population came back after what felt like seconds while the other half spent five years alone.”

Carol hit the side of the ship, and a door slid open. “It’s probably easier if I just show you,” she said, and motioned for the women to climb aboard.

As they sat down, buckling themselves in to the seats in the ship, Nat took one last look at Vormir. She wouldn’t miss this place, but for a moment she almost didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to have to face whatever was waiting for her on Earth. There had been a kind of comfort, she realized, in existing outside of time, in being stranded in a waiting period. Vormir was her own Schrodinger’s box, a place where everything might still be fine as long as she didn’t look too closely, didn’t open a door she couldn’t close again. She wouldn’t miss the planet, but she already missed the feeling.

“Everybody ready?” Carol asked, and Nat forced herself to think about the future, about what waited for her rather than what she left behind. Clint was there — that was reason enough to want to go back. She thought about everyone she’d get to see again, people she thought she might never get to see again. She looked at Gamora, and thought about her family, about Nebula and the other Guardians that she’d be reunited with.

She turned back toward the window, watched as they rode up higher and higher into the air. She let the planet fall into the background, let it fade into nothing. It was time to look forward — it was time to go home.

Chapter Text

Nat slept for the entire ride home. An exhaustion unlike anything she’d ever felt before hit her as they took off, and by the time they’d left Vormir she could barely keep her eyes open. Leaving the planet reset something in her body, reminded it that it needed things like food and sleep to survive. Coming back to life, she thought as she drifted off, took a lot of energy, energy she didn’t have. She passed out, and for one of the only times in her life, slept peacefully.

It wasn’t until they landed on Earth that Nat woke up. She looked around, saw trees and grass and the sun outside, and nearly cried. Vormir had been desolate, with endless grey skies and dust and dirt covering every inch of the planet. From the mountains to the valleys it was lifeless, in every sense of the word; Earth, however, seemed to be teeming with life. Walking out of the ship, Carol and Gamora on her heels, she closed her eyes, taking a moment to breathe in the clean air. Everything felt brighter than she’d remembered. The sky was bluer, the grass greener, the clouds fluffier. And the noise -- birds chirping, wind whistling — provided a comfort that she hadn’t realized she’d missed.

Looking around, Nat found the field they stood in both familiar and unfamiliar, as if her body remembered it but her mind did not. She turned toward Carol. “Where’d we land?”

“Avengers HQ,” she said, “though it may look a little different. We had to redo it after Thanos.” Carol smiled. “Welcome home.”

Sure enough, Nat saw a building in the distance, completely unrecognizable except for the distinct “A” on the side. The building looked bigger, more welcoming. It looked comfortable but strange, uncanny in a way that she couldn’t describe.

“How’d you rebuild so fast? I thought you said that everything was destroyed after the battle.”

“Pepper,” Carol responded, and Nat kept her eyes glued on the building. “She kinda threw herself into the rebuilding efforts after the funeral. Didn’t let anyone take so much as a day off until it was finished. It helped that she had some of us who could fly, lift more than our weight. That Strange guy helped with manpower, too. Think he might have messed with time to help us work faster.”

Nat kept staring at the building. The more she stared at it, the more something about it unnerved her. It looked pristine, as if nothing happened. As if they hadn’t fought a war, as if Tony hadn’t given his life for them, as if she—

Nat took a breath, let the feelings and thoughts simmer back down, before turning toward Carol. “Do…” she started, hesitating slightly, “do they know we’re here?”

Nat and Gamora both looked at Carol as she nodded. “I sent a message out when we left, plus they probably heard the ship land.” Carol turned toward Gamora. “We tried to reach the Guardians. They were pretty far out — looking for you, ironically — but they’re on their way. Not sure how long it’ll take, though.”

“They’re looking for me?”

“2014 you. She dipped after the battle,” Carol specified. “No one has heard from her since. After Tony’s funeral, they left to go look for her. Haven’t heard anything yet, so we assume they haven’t had any luck.”

Gamora nodded, a seemingly stoic expression on her face. Nat wondered how she dealt with that, knowing that another version of herself roamed space. Nat had been able to process a lot of insane realizations — the existence of aliens, artificial intelligence, infinity stones — but this concept of an alternate reality existing within their own rattled her brain. No wonder Time was pissed.

The sound of wheels screeching caught their attention, and they all turned to see a car speeding down the road toward where they’d landed. Out of habit, Nat tensed, preparing herself for a fight. When the car pulled up, the driver jumped out before it even came to a stop.

Nat audibly gasped when she saw him. Clint, her heart screamed, and she couldn’t help but whisper his name. Clint. Time herself couldn’t have stopped her from running over to him, from nearly jumping into his arms. He held her as if she would be whisked away at any moment, as if his arms were the only thing keeping her tethered to this Earth. She held him with the same strength, the same desperation. She sighed, doing nothing to stop the tears streaming down her face. Home. Right here, in his arms, she was home.

“Natasha,” he whispered, her name a prayer out of his lips, a sigh of relief, a sound as natural as breathing. Eons could pass before Nat would ever get tired of hearing that sound.

He broke their embrace, moving his hands to the sides of her face. His eyes scanned her body, as if he was checking to make sure every inch of her had come back unharmed.

His eyes made their way back up to hers, and she couldn’t stop herself from mirroring the smile he wore. Tear streaks covered his face, as they likely did hers. She looked at him, really looked at him. His hair was starting to grow back, that god awful haircut nearly gone. The bags under his eyes had disappeared, the haunted expression she’d left him with replaced with one of joy. His whole face lit up, and it took every ounce of her self control to not kiss him that instant.

“Are you really here?” He asked softly, and she nodded, not trusting herself enough to speak. “How? I — I don’t understand — I saw you—“

Nat cut him off. “It doesn’t matter. I’m here. I’m okay.”

He took a moment to look at her before pulling her back into his arms. She let him, relaxing in a way she only did with him.

A thud next to her brought her eyes away from Clint. She turned to find Sam landing next to her, wings folding up. He stared at her, speechless for the first time since she’d met him all those years ago. She smiled and walked to him, wiping tears as she hugged him. She hadn’t realized how much she’d grown to expect him in her life until suddenly he was gone, until she’d been forced to spend five years without his constant camaraderie and support.

“Don’t pull shit like that again,” he said, and she couldn’t help but laugh. “I’m serious,” he said, and she broke their hug to look up at him, to appreciate the sincerity in his eyes. “you’re the best of us, Nat. We can’t do this without you.”

She nodded, but before she could reply the sound of another car grabbed her attention. She looked around, saw the group that began to gather near the ship, some coming from the road while others came from the sky. Most faces she knew — Rhodey, stepping out of his armor, Okoye looking as if she’d walked straight off the battlefield, Wanda landing next to Sam, tears already in her eyes. Nat went to her first, letting the young girl collapse into her arms. “I’m sorry,” she cried, and Nat took a step back, watched the way Wanda sobbed so hard she could barely speak. “It wasn’t enough — I did it and it wasn’t enough.” For a second she was confused, but then she realized who was missing, who hadn’t come back. How could she have forgotten Vision, forgotten that he technically hadn’t died in the snap? How could she forget that for everyone who came back, it had only been a few months since the first battle? That Wanda had had no time to grieve before she’d likely been forced to fight again? She grabbed her again and held her as tight as she could, not having the words to comfort her but hoping the action would speak loud enough.

As she held her, she realized how many unfamiliar faces surrounded her. She saw Scott, but didn’t recognize the woman he held hands with. She noticed a woman with intricate braids making her way over to Carol, greeting her with a familiarity that suggested they’d known each other for some time. She noticed faces missing — Steve, Thor, Fury. Tony.

As if willed by her mind, she heard the familiar sound of a suit landing. For a moment her heart dared to hope, before she noticed the colors were all wrong, the build completely different from the classic Iron Man suit. The mask came off, and she somehow wasn’t surprised when Pepper walked over.

Nat embraced her, tears beginning to fill her eyes again. “I’m so sorry,” she told her. She’d never excelled at female friendships — or friendships in general — but in the years she’d known Pepper she’d always held a high amount of respect for her. She’d regretted the lack of time she spent around her, and around Morgan, after the snap. She’d been so caught up in her own grief, her own denial, her desire to fix everything, that it hurt to watch them move on. So she ignored them, busied herself with excuses and distractions in order to further her denial that everyone they’d lost were truly lost. All that time, valuable time she could have spent with Tony, with him and his family: wasted.

“It’s okay,” Pepper whispered, and Nat shook her head.

“No, it was never supposed to happen this way. He was supposed to be here, nothing from the present was supposed to change.”

“Hey,” she said, and Nat looked up to see tears starting to fill her eyes as well. “I always knew that Tony would never live a normal life. I got so much time with him, longer than I ever thought I would.” She wiped her tears, smiling as she said, “Besides, he’ll be happy to know that Morgan’s got another aunt who can remind her of all the stunts he pulled over the years.”

Nat smiled. “It would be an honor.”

They squeezed hands quickly, before Nat broke apart and turned around. Okoye came up to her, giving her shoulder a supportive squeeze. “It’s good to see you again,” she said, “The world is in much better hands with you here.”

“Yeah, no one else is responsible enough to run this shit,” Rhodey said, getting a laugh out of Nat as they hugged one another. She went down the rest of the line — Bucky, Bruce, Scott — before spotting an old man standing slightly away from the crowd. She stared at him, her instincts going wild with dejavu, but she couldn’t place him, couldn’t figure out why she felt like she knew him.

“I took your advice,” the man said, “Got myself a life. A pretty good one, if I do say so myself.”

The air stopped flowing through her lungs. “Steve?” She asked, and even before he nodded she knew she was right, could see it in the way he carried himself, the way he looked at her, the way everyone else looked at him.

Nat shook her head. “I don’t understand. How? What did you do?”

“When I went to take the stones back, I made a pit stop. Decided to stay for a while. Follow up on a promise I made a while back.”

Part of Nat wanted to scream, wanted to chide him for being so reckless, for messing with Time even more than they already were, but when she went to speak, all she could see was how light he looked. He actually smiled now. He seemed relaxed, at ease in a way he’d never truly been in this lifetime. Nat just laughed. “I guess you really are a fossil now, old man.” She went over to hug him, and found that he was still surprisingly strong.

“Hilarious,” he replied, and she could hear the smile in his voice.

“Oh, Steve,” she said, shaking her head as they broke apart, “Time is gonna be so pissed at you.” He looked at her, confused, and she turned to face the whole group. “I’ll give you the detailed rundown later, but the short version is that Time is a being, and She’s not too happy with the stunt we pulled.”

“Wait. Time is, like, a person?” Sam asked, and Nat nodded. She stepped back, getting a better vantage point to see everyone, and felt a hand clasp around hers. She looked to her left and saw Clint back at her side, and smiled up at him before answering the question.

“Well, not a person, exactly, but some sort of sentient being. More than just a concept.”

“Is She planning an attack?” Okoye asked, and Nat shrugged.

“Probably. Red Skull said She’s going to come for revenge.”

“When?”

“Who can say?” Nat answered. “Could be days from now; could be centuries.”

“It doesn’t matter when She comes,” Gamora said, and Nat felt bad for forgetting that she was here, that she didn’t know any of the people surrounding her. “We’ll never be able to fight her.”

“Then what do we do? How do we prepare?” Pepper asked.

“Honestly, I’m not sure there’s much we can do. She might just wait for humanity to become extinct, let someone or something else get rid of us for her.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

“Well,” Nat said, shrugging her shoulders, “then we better write one hell of an apology letter.”

“Is that how you’re here?” Clint asked, “because of Time?”

Nat shook her head. “When you guys returned the soul stone, it needed to restore the balance. The price no longer needed to be paid.”

“A soul for a soul,” he whispered, and turned to her with light in her eyes. “How did we not think of that?”

“Wait,” Steve asked, “how did I not see you when I brought the stone back?”

“We woke up at the bottom of the mountain. I’m not sure when, but it was probably after you left.”

“Wait, but how is she back?” Rhodey asked, pointing toward Gamora. “Thanos never brought the stone back.”

“Balance,” Gamora answered. “When you killed Thanos from the past, it created a timeline in which he never got the stone, which meant my soul was never given in payment.”

“But wouldn’t that change the whole future?” Scott asked.

“Red Skull said something about tangled Time webs,” Nat said, “but honestly, it’s probably best not to think about it too much. None of this really makes any sense.”

“Well, I think we might as well celebrate,” Scott said, “you know, before Time comes to kick our asses.”

Nat laughed, and everyone turned toward the building. She leaned into Clint’s shoulder, not letting go of his hand as they made their way back. After a moment, she turned around, saw Gamora hanging back. “Hey,” she said, catching the woman’s attention, “come inside. I’m sure they’d all love to meet you.”

“I don’t want to impose,” Gamora said. “These are your people. Your family.”

“They can be yours too, if you let them.” Nat squeezed Clint’s hand before turning back, grabbing Gamora’s and walking with her toward the rest of the crowd. “I consider you a friend too, Gamora, and friends don’t let friends stand outside alone waiting for a spaceship to come pick them up. Not when they could be enjoying the best thing Earth has to offer.”

“Peter always said music was the best thing about Terran.”

“The music’s alright,” Nat said, them whispered “but wait till you try the food.”

As if on cue, the woman’s stomach grumbled, and Nat lost it. She laughed, harder than she ever had, and before she knew it Gamora was giggling too. She made it back to where Clint was waiting, and with Gamora on one side of her and him on the other, she went to join her family.

Chapter Text

By some miracle, her friends had planned ahead and ordered food already.

As they walked through the new base, she couldn’t stop staring. So much of the base was new, unfamiliar to her and her alone. The walls had changed colors, the structure of the space had shifted. Everything felt out of order, out of place. It irked her, set her instincts wild despite her internal reassurance that this place was safe. Her body didn’t buy it, and it took more effort than she’d like to admit to keep an aura of calm, to pretend to feel as relaxed as those around her.

Her restlessness relented slightly once they started eating. Everyone sat at the table together. Nat didn’t even know they had a table that big, but Rhodey had clicked a button and it kept expanding, growing until everyone could fit side by side. They’d ordered way too much food, a little bit from everywhere, and Nat hadn’t realized how hungry she’d been until they placed it in front of her. Now, a few hours later, everyone still sat at the table, conversation keeping the night alive.

It had been harder than she’d thought, at first. When she asked them to fill her in on the battle, and on the months after, she hadn’t expected their responses to make her feel so...lonely. They’d all fought a war together, grieved together, and she’d missed it. And it wasn’t just the intimate moments she’d missed — the funeral, reuniting with the Snap victims — she’d missed the rebuilding efforts, the world trying to put itself back together. She couldn’t help but feel angry, almost, that she had lost the chance to finish what she’d started. All the work she’d done for five years to keep the world in one piece, and when it finally mattered, when they finally brought everyone back, she wasn’t there to help.

She blinked, forcing herself back to the present. The team had moved past big group conversations, everyone picking at leftover food and talking in groups now. Scott sat on one end of the table describing the Quantum Realm in depth to a very suspicious-looking Okoye. Carol and Valkyrie were having their own conversation, one that Nat couldn’t quite make out, largely because right across from her Sam and Rhodey loudly debated the best parts of flying. The commotion was somehow comforting and overwhelming, and maybe it was because she’d come back from the dead and traveled through space, but Nat felt too tired to do anything but listen, simultaneously a part of and outside of the conversation.

Clint nudged her knee with his, drawing her attention. He’d barely left her side since they got back, and it felt right to have her hand in his, even if she knew it didn’t give him the same feeling it gave her. With his free hand, mostly hidden from the group by the table, he signed you ok?

She nodded, then let go of his hand to sign back: Just tired.

Is it weird? He asked with his hands, still hidden from the group. Not that it mattered if they could see — no one else knew how to sign, not fluently the way they did. She’d learned it nearly a lifetime ago, when they first became partners and he told her about being deaf. She’d told herself it was for work only, a better way for them to communicate on missions, but honestly, it was one of the first things she taught herself that she knew could never be used to hurt someone. And it was her choice — nobody else’s.

Is what weird? She asked back.

Being back home. Being alive again.

Nat shrugged. I’m fine.

Clint gave her a look, calling bullshit without speaking a word.

Nat sighed. What do you want me to say? Her hands moved quickly but subtly, as if visually whispering. Yeah, it’s weird having to play catch-up, but you guys fought a war. Some people have to catch up the past five years. What I went through is nothing compared to that.

You died, he responded, I wouldn’t call that nothing.

She shook her head. You know what I mean.

I’m just saying, he said, It’s okay not to be okay, Nat.

“Hey!” Sam’s voice saved her from coming up with a response, and they both looked up at him. “As much fun as this has been, some of us have to get up at the crack of dawn for patrol, so I’m gonna go ahead and call it a day.”

Pepper stood up. “Yeah, I should head out too — I left Morgan with a sitter, which ends in disaster at least 50% of the time.”

She walked toward Nat, who got up to hug her goodbye.

“When you’ve settled in, I have something I want to show you,” Pepper said, “something we did, well, before we knew.”

Nat nodded, and watched as the group began to disperse. Eventually all that was left were those who she assumed stayed at the base — Sam, Wanda, Bucky, and Rhodey — and Clint.

“Aren’t you gonna head out too?” She asked him. “Head back to my favorite niece and nephews?”

He shook his head. “They’ll survive a night without me. I’m gonna crash here, if it's alright.”

Nat nodded, but something about his words set off an alarm in the back of her head. She filed the thought away, made a note to bring it up in the morning.

“I can show you where your room is,” Clint added, “we started setting it back up a few days ago when we got Carol’s message.”

Nat nodded, and turned to tell Gamora to follow her, before she realized the woman no longer sat at her right as she had when they’d arrived.

“Hey, did you see Gamora leave?” She asked no one in particular, and everyone shook their heads. Rhodey grabbed a tablet from the table, searching for a moment before showing her the security footage of the base.

Nat turned to Clint. “Give me a minute?” She asked, and he nodded, pointing her in the direction she needed to go.

A little while later she opened the door to the roof. Gamora sat, back to her, facing the field where Carol had landed. Nat had no idea how Gamora even got up here, how it didn’t set off any alarms. She had half a thought to bring that up to Rhodey, but put her security concerns on the backburner. She quietly shut the door. “Nice night for star-gazing,” she said, getting Gamora’s attention. Nat came over and sat down next to her, staring up at the sky.

She’d always loved the stars. Tonight was no different. They were a map, a way to know exactly where she was at any time and in any place. Even now, having traveled beyond the stars, she found a comfort in their familiarity. They drew a boundary for her, served as another constant reminder that she’d found her way back home. They helped prove that she didn’t imagine their rescue, their homecoming; after all, Vormir didn’t have any stars.

“We’ve got a room for you,” she said, “and you’re welcome to stay here for as long as it takes for the Guardians to get back.”

Gamora nodded, but didn’t take her eyes off the sky. Nat sat with her, doing nothing to disrupt the silence that surrounded them. It didn’t bother her the way it did on Vormir, where even the air surrounding them felt dead. Here crickets chirped from beneath them, owls called out to one another in the trees around them, the wind sang its own song, a gentle breeze whispering melodies that she’d once taken for granted. She felt herself relax, feel at ease in a way she hadn’t since she’d first reconnected with Clint.

“Do you really think they’re coming?” Gamora asked, her voice filled with a fake indifference that Nat herself had mastered long ago.

“Of course they are.”

“All of them?”

Nat turned toward her, noticing the way her hands flipped her knife open and shut, open and shut. Nat recognized the motion, not as a cool and intimidating trick but as a way to fidget without showing weakness, a release for an anxiety warriors were forbidden from having.

“She’ll be here,” Nat said, placing a hand over Gamora’s and stopping the knife in its closed position. “I promise.”

“It’s my fault,” she whispered, and Nat forced the words out of her own head, quieted the whisper that had been echoing the same sentiment since they first found Carol. “If I hadn’t beat her all those times, if I hadn’t let so much of her get taken away, Thanos never would have found the stone.”

“It’s not your fault that Thanos used the stones,” she said. “And it’s not your fault that he was willing to kill you and torture Nebula to get them.”

“I wasted so much time,” she said, “time I can never get back.”

“You’ve got time now,” Nat shrugged, “at least, before Actual Time comes to kill us all.”

Gamora laughed, and Nat smiled despite the less than optimistic sentiment.

“Peter is going to throw a fit when he realizes I had my first taste of real Terran food without him.” Gamora said, a topic change that Nat embraced.

“What’d you think of it?” She asked, and Gamora’s face answered the question for her. Nat laughed. “Really? That bad?”

“It wasn’t bad,” she said quickly, too quickly for sincerity, “It was just...different. Odd.” She looked up. “Kind of like your stars.”

Nat looked back up. “Yeah, when I left Russia, the first thing I noticed was that the stars were different.”

“Peter told me about that -- how the stars shifts on your planet. That must be strange,” she said, “having the sky change so frequently.”

“I actually found it comforting,” she answered. “Everywhere I went they changed, just as I did. It felt like I had a partner, someone I could trust, long before I met Clint.”

They both sat for a minute, staring up at the sky.

“It must feel nice to be home,” Gamora said, and Nat tried to smile but found she no longer had the energy.

“It...it’s different. Odd,” she said with a smile, “in a way I didn’t expect it to be.”

“How so?”

Nat thought for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts. “I guess I’d convinced myself that if we could bring everybody back, it would feel as if the snap had never happened. Everything would feel normal again.”

“And It doesn’t?”

“Not yet,” Nat said, before turning her body to face Gamora. “Will it ever? Are we ever going to go back to the way we were before Thanos?” She had wrestled with that question for the past five years, and never once come up with a promising answer. So much had changed in the time it took to fix the damage done five years ago, and even with the knowledge that time travel existed, she was beginning to feel like nothing could ever be the way it once was.

“For me, ‘before Thanos’ doesn’t really exist,” Gamora answered. “He slaughtered my village when I was a child. My memories of home are few and faded, reduced to mere glimpses of a life I once lived. I’ve already spent days and nights crying because of him, begging the universe to undo what had been done. Eventually, I realized that the universe doesn’t particularly care about us, so it was best to focus on surviving each new day as opposed to trying to go back to the old ones.”

Nat turned back toward the sky, letting the words echo around them for a moment. The more she thought about it, the more she felt her calm unravel. She didn’t have the energy for the truth, not today. “Rocket was right,” she said instead, “you are the smart one.”

Even though she kept her body facing forward, she could see Gamora smile out of the corner of her eye. Nat stood up, and turned to offer Gamora a hand. The woman took it, and together they made their way back inside. Tomorrow, Nat thought as the door shut behind her, I’ll figure everything out tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Nat woke up with a gasp.

Breathing heavily, she ran a hand through her hair. She didn’t remember what happened in the dream, what part of her past had invaded her subconscious this time. It didn’t matter — she wouldn’t be falling asleep again, not tonight.

She walked out of her room, into the silence of the new Avengers building. She’d already started memorizing the layout, so she turned to her left and made her way to the studio hidden away in the back of the main gym. She’d worried that they might have gotten rid of it, but not only did they keep it, unlike the rest of the building it looked exactly as it had before. Mirrors covered one wall, with Ballet bars lining the other. Shelves stored weights and yoga mats. A giant fan stood in the corner. It gave her a comfort she hadn’t expected, seeing the familiar space where she’d spent so much time over the past five years. Sitting on the floor, she laced up her pointe shoes. She’d discovered them in a box under her bed, and she knew instantly who had found them, the one person who would have recognized them as hers and have wanted to keep them, even if he didn’t think she’d ever come back.

She stretched for about fifteen minutes before she stood up and shook out her limbs. She walked to one side of the room, closed her eyes, and got up on her toes. She spun one, twice, three times, pirouette after pirouette, until she made her way across the floor. Her mind went blank, focused only on the turn, on spotting and keeping her form. She stopped on instinct, inches before she ran into the wall.

“Haven’t seen you do that in a while,” a voice said, and she turned to see Clint standing in the doorway.

“You haven’t been around in a while,” she responded, before realizing the implications, the buried feelings it dragged up to the surface.

“Yeah,” he sighed, “yeah, I know.”

“You wanna have this talk now?”

“Good a time as any, I guess.”

“Alright,” Nat said, crossing her arms, “you wanna explain why you thought going on a killing rampage was the best way to spend the past five years?”

“It wasn’t—“

“Don’t try that with me, Clint. I saw the pictures. I saw everything.” She stepped closer. “How? How could you do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Bullshit. You made the choice over and over again to go after people, kill people, because of some warped feelings of justice. The Clint I know could never do that.”

“The Clint you knew hadn’t lost his entire family in an instant!” He responded, before taking a deep breath. “I lost all of them, Nat. All of them.

“I know,” she said quietly.

“And I just— Everything I did, I did to keep them safe. To protect them. I retired, I buried any evidence of my connection to them, I spent months at a time away from them, and it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough.” His voice broke, and Nat repressed the urge to stop now, to protect him from himself, to tell him to shut up and pretend like nothing had changed, like everything was fine.

“None of us were enough,” she said instead.

“I thought I could do what you did,” he continued. “Throw myself into work. Focus on helping people. But every time we followed a lead, went after some asshole or group of assholes, I couldn’t stop thinking that it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that those awful people were still here and my— and they were gone. And I just couldn’t handle it.” He shrugged, “I snapped.”

“You left,” she said, her voice low but strong, and she didn’t know quite where the words were coming from, but once she started she couldn’t stop. “You realize that, right? You went to get your form of justice, and you left us all behind. Left me behind. You think we all weren’t hurting? You think I wasn’t thinking the exact same things on every mission? I know I could never feel the way you do, but I loved those kids.” She started to walk closer to him, her pointe shoes accenting every step. “We all lost people that day, Clint, but then I lost you, too. And unlike the Snap victims, I didn’t think I’d ever get you back.”

“I know,” he said, “and I’m sorry. For all of it. There’s nothing I can do to change it, to go back and fix everything. I wish that I could, more than anything in this world, but I can’t. I knew that a while ago — it’s why it took me so long to stop.”

“So you knew you were wrong?”

“Of course I knew I was wrong,” he said. “I was angry and broken and dumb, and I knew instantly that I couldn’t come back from doing something like that. And I did it anyway. I didn’t care.”

“Why?”

He opened his mouth, but hesitated. She stared at him, eyes asking the question again, before he sighed. “I didn’t think I had anything worth living for. I thought, ‘No one cares if I’m good or bad anymore, so I might as well do the only thing that makes me feel something.’”

“You had me,” she said, reaching for his hand. “You’ve always had me. And you always will.”

“I know. I couldn’t face you, couldn’t bring myself to think of how you’d look at me, so I convinced myself that you didn’t care. That you never cared. And when I saw you again, I was so ashamed, I — I worried that you’d never want to talk to me again. And I knew that I wasn’t worthy of being in your life anymore. That’s why I—“

“That’s why you wanted to be the one to jump off that cliff on Vormir.”

“It’s not the only reason,” he said. “Between me and you? I’d make that choice every time.”

“Clint,” she said, “you found me at my absolute worse, and you saw something in me that I couldn’t see for myself, that I still struggle to see sometimes. There is nothing you could do that would ever make you unworthy of being in my life, of being my best friend.”

He nodded, and she pulled him into a hug. “I really missed you, Nat,” he whispered, “I thought I lost you.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” she responded. “You’re stuck with me.”

“Nowhere else I’d rather be,” he mumbled, and she smiled.

“I’ll be honest with you, though,” she said into his shoulder, “You really fucked up this time.”

He broke apart and put a hand on his head. “Yeah,” he grumbled, “I know. I — there’s something else I need to tell you.”

The words set off her instincts, and Nat forced her body to calm down, to wait for him to talk before panicking. “What is it?” She asked.

“I lied to you earlier. When I said I’d be staying here for the night.”

“I don’t understand. You did stay for the night.”

“Yeah, and I’ve stayed the night for the past few months.” He said. “After I told Laura what happened while they were snapped, she — she couldn’t look at me. Said she didn’t know who I was anymore.”

“Clint, I—“

“She left me, Nat,” he said. “Everything I did to get her back, and I lost her anyway.”

Nat didn’t say a word, just threw her arms around him and let him cry. He only ever showed this side with her. He always seemed to try to keep himself in one piece around other people, no matter what had happened. She supposed she did the same, but they’d always made an exception for one another. She couldn’t count the amount of times they’d spent in positions like this, after missions or long nights, when holding it in became too unbearable. He cried, and she found herself crying with him.

“She’s right,” he said after a while. “That’s the worst part. She’s absolutely right to leave me. I don’t deserve her anymore.”

“Hey,” Nat said, forcing him to face her. “You did some really bad shit. I won’t sugar coat it. It’s gonna be hard, and you’re gonna have to do a lot of work to earn back people’s trust. But that doesn’t mean you’re unlovable.” She smiled slightly. “You told me that, remember?”

He stood for a moment, not saying a word. Nat thought about everything they’d been through, everything that had happened since they first met. She’d begun to think that if they could make it through this, if they could survive the impossible again, then maybe they’d finally be okay. “Damn,” he said, and she looked up to see a smile on his face, “I was wondering when you got so smart.” She could hear the lightness in his voice, could hear the unspoken thanks in the way he shifted the tone of their conversation. She punched him in the arm and he laughed, the sound a little broken, the tears still flowing, but for an instant he had smiled, and that was enough.

Chapter Text

A week passed.

Nat settled into a new routine. In more ways than one, it mirrored her post-snap routine: she monitored civilian and governmental adjustment, tried to set up better communication between the Avengers and their allies, and trained mercilessly. Despite the fact that months had passed since the snap victims came back to life, the world was still in a delicately controlled chaos, and the Avengers themselves weren’t doing much better. The loss of Tony hit deep, and the absence of Steve in any sort of leadership role didn’t help. Thor seemed to be doing better, according to the others, but he’d left with the Guardians, and Bruce had all but disappeared from the public eye. The team and the world were desperate for leadership, for a familiar face to take control, and Nat knew it had to be her.

A knock on the door grabbed her attention. Wanda walked in, lingering in the doorway of the control room. Nat had spent all morning there, trying to create a comprehensive list of the different time lord who had apparently helped them fight Thanos after she died, just in case they needed to call upon allies in this inevitable fight against Time.

She turned her eyes away from the list and up to meet the young woman standing in the doorway. She’d acted as a shadow to Nat this week, finding reasons to be in the same room as her no matter what. Nat didn’t mind. She knew firsthand how loss could mess with your confidence, with your mind, and Wanda had already been through the ringer in that department.

“What’s up?”

“Do you think,” Wanda started, “maybe we could keep the lessons going? I know that must feel like forever ago to you, but—“

“Of course,” Nat said, standing up. She’d started the ballet lessons when Wanda had first joined the team, told her that understanding how to control her body might help her control her power. She’d forced her to continue them while they were fugitives, more so as a form of distraction than because of the training benefits. After the snap, it took her months to lace up her shoes again. She’d gotten so used to doing it with someone else that she hated the thought of dancing alone — even though she’d spent years in the studio by herself.

“You might have to remind me where we left off,” Nat said. She hadn’t thought about the lessons, hadn’t brought them up in the week she’d been back, and she mentally chided herself as they made their way to the studio. She needed to be better than that, needed to be on top of things. Wanda might have been one of the strongest people she knew, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t still fragile. Especially after losing Vision. Nat couldn’t afford to give her any reason to feel worse than she already did.

“I’ve missed this,” Nat said as they both started stretching.

“What, Rhodey didn’t want to lace up ballet slippers?” Wanda asked with a smile.

Nat laughed at the image. “None of the guys had any sort of interest in ballet. Although I kept trying to convince Steve to try. He’s got the best posture I’ve ever seen.”

“Oh, he would be so good at this.”

“Right? No matter how much I told him, he wouldn’t believe me. Just stuck to running.”

“Lame,” Wanda said, and they both smiled.

It lasted three seconds before Nat remembered. “I guess I don’t know if that’s still true,” she said, picturing the old man she saw a week ago. He had his own place, apparently, and Nat hadn’t built up the courage to go visit him yet.

“I miss him,” Wanda said, staring at a spot on the wall. “Is that weird? He’s still here, but I miss him.”

“It’s not weird,” Nat said. “I miss him too. He’s not the guy we remember — he lived a whole life without us.”

“I don’t know why,” Wanda said, and Nat could hear the way her voice shook slightly, the emotions she tried to keep a handle on, “but I always assumed he’d stay the same. Maybe it’s because he didn’t really age like the rest of us, but I never thought he’d outgrow me. Not that quickly, anyway. I just— I expected him to always be here, and now he’s not.”

Tony’s face flashed before her, and she tried to shove the image aside. “I thought I’d have to spend the rest of my life trying to keep him from dying. All the hero business he gets into, his constant need to sacrifice himself for everyone else, I thought — I didn’t prepare for this.”

“The worst part is we can’t get him back,” she said. She still didn’t look at Nat. “We invented time travel, and it doesn’t even matter. We can’t get him back. It isn’t fair.”

“Nothing about our lives have ever been fair,” Nat said. She had to admit, this felt particularly cruel. To be surrounded by reminders, memories, and to know that it would never be enough.

“I miss him,” Wanda said, and this time she couldn’t stop the tears from sneaking out, from making a trail down her face. “And every time I close my eyes I see it. See him. See myself—“

Nat moved across the room, put her arms around her. She knew she’d shifted, that Wanda wasn’t talking about Steve anymore. Neither are you, her mind whispered, and she let the thought echo as she ran her hand through Wanda’s hair.

“I did it,” Wanda said, and even though she sat in Nat’s arms, she sounded a thousand miles away. “I held him off. I destroyed the stone. I killed him, and it wasn’t enough. Thanos just went back and did it all over again.”

Nat froze. She didn’t know. She’d seen Vision, seen what remained, but she’d assumed Wanda hadn’t made it, assumed she didn’t have the strength, either mentally or physically. But now…

“I can’t sleep,” she continued, “and I know I should be used to it by now, but I — I just—“

“Hey,” Nat said, and as Wanda looked up at her, Nat made a vow to herself to do everything possible to make sure she never suffered like this again. “You don’t get used to losing someone like that.”

“It’s stupid,” she said, “weak. I should be stronger than this.”

“Grief doesn’t make you weak -- it makes you human.”

“Does it ever get easier?” She asked, and Nat thought back to the last five years, to her entire life before that. The faces of everyone she couldn’t save flashed before her eyes. Her own face flashed by, and she didn’t know what to make of it.

“Losing people never gets easier,” she said. “I wish I could say that it does, but it doesn’t. It’s not something you ever really learn how to do. And it isn’t something that you should get used to. Especially in our line of work.”

“I wish I didn’t care so much.”

“No,” Nat shook her head. “Trust me when I tell you that apathy doesn’t make anything better. When you force yourself to ignore pain, to ignore heartbreak, it becomes nearly impossible to feel anything else. It can’t get easier, because if it did, we’d lose our humanity. But this?” She said, motioning toward her, “This gets better. I promise you, it gets better.”

Nat wasn’t sure how long they sat there, in the middle of the studio floor. Wanda cried, and then she stopped. Nat almost cried, but didn’t. The world kept spinning, kept moving on, and Nat knew they had to move on with it.

“I changed my mind,” Wanda said after a while, after the tears had dried and her breathing calmed down, “I don’t think I want to start training today.”

Nat smiled as she unlaced her shoes and stood up. “What do you say we start tomorrow then?” She asked, holding a hand out for her.

Wanda accepted it and pulled herself up. “We’ve still got some ice cream left in the freezer,” she said with the smallest hint of a smile. “We could do a movie night instead. Haven’t had one of those in a while.”

“You go set it up,” Nat said, “I’m gonna ask Gamora if she wants to watch with us.”

Wanda nodded, and they each turned in separate directions. Nat made her way down the hall, toward the extra bedroom that Gamora had called her own for the past week. She didn’t show it, but Nat could tell that the longer it took the Guardians to show up, the more worried she became, the more time she spent hidden in her room.

She knocked on her door, and Gamora answered an instant later. “Wanda and I are going to eat some ice cream and watch a movie,” she told her. “You wanna watch with us?”

Gamora looked back at her room. Nat could see the computer she had on her desk, the building’s atmospheric radar visible from the doorway. “I think it’s best if I wait here.”

“Staring at the screen is only going to make you feel worse,” Nat said. “A distraction will be good for you.”

“But what if—“

“I’ll pull it up on my phone,” Nat said, “if something happens, we’ll know. Now come watch cheesy movies and eat weird Earth food with us.”

Gamora stood for a moment, before sighing and shutting the door behind her. “You have to sit next to the witch.”

Nat laughed. “How is it that a talking raccoon is normal but Wanda’s powers freak you out?”

“They remind me of--" Gamora started, but cut herself off as she shook her head. "They don’t feel right. I don’t trust it.”

“She’s harmless,” Nat said, then added with a smirk, “she hasn’t controlled anyone’s mind in ages.” Gamora gave her side eye, which only made her laugh harder. “I’ll sit between you and Wanda, don’t worry.” Nat practically dragged her down the hall, but she knew that if Gamora truly didn’t want to go, she wouldn’t have.

They chose The Breakfast Club. Truthfully, it wasn’t Nat’s favorite, but Wanda adored it, and it didn’t take long before Nat noticed how invested Gamora was in it, too. She’d sat down hesitantly, doing little to hide her discomfort when Wanda used her powers to grab the spoons and ice cream, but within fifteen minutes all animosity seemed to have disappeared. Wanda explained the Earth concepts Gamora didn’t understand, and they exchanged commentary throughout the entire movie.

When the credits began to roll, Gamora looked at Wanda. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Do they remain a team?”

“We don’t know,” Wanda said with excitement. “That’s part of the beauty of it. Do they decide to change? Hang out with one another when the rest of the school is watching? Or do they go back to their old ways, pretend like it never happened?”

Gamora shook her head. “No. They become a team. Stay friends.”

Wanda smiled. “That’s what I’ve always thought, too.”

Gamora stared at the DVD case as Wanda used her powers to eject the disc. “Do you have one of these called Dirty Dancing?” she asked.

“How do you know Dirty Dancing?”

Gamora smiled. “Peter claims it’s the best movie ever made; I suspect he exaggerated its level of success.”

“It’s not bad,” Wanda said, “but I don’t think a lot of people still watch it. At least, not young people.”

“Did Nebula watch any of these?” Gamora asked, turning to Nat.

“I don’t know,” Nat answered. “She spent most of her time with Tony. Probably watched a lot of Disney movies with Morgan.” Her heart stung at the realization that she had no idea what they did, that she’d missed the opportunity to find out. She forced the thoughts away, buried them deep in her subconscious where she couldn't hear them anymore.

“Disney?”

“Kid movies. Animated. They’re cute,” Nat said with a smile, “I’ll show you Frozen. You’d like that one.”

“Ooh!” Wanda said, “We should watch Mulan! She's a warrior, you’d love it.”

Gamora looked at her, and Nat could have sworn she smiled, no longer afraid of her powers. “I’d like that,” she said, and as Wanda excitedly put in the next DVD, Nat couldn’t remember a time she’d felt so at ease. Since she’d landed back on Earth she had the weight of the world sitting on her shoulders, but somehow it disappeared when she sat on the couch, friends on either side of her. Maybe this was what Steve had meant, she thought as the familiar music began to play, when he talked about getting a life.

Chapter Text

Nat didn’t have time for this. She’d been staring at her computer screen for the past hour, begging her mind to focus and read the status reports from different government agencies that had been sitting in her inbox since this morning. This was important — people still needed help, but it didn’t matter. Every time she stared at the words on the screen, her eyes glazed over.

It was all Sam’s fault. She couldn’t stop replaying the conversation they had earlier that day.

“I’m stopping by the house tonight,” he had called out as he walked into the weight room. “You wanna come with?”

She kept her eyes focused on a spot on the wall, kept lifting the weight in her hand. “Not tonight.”

“Nat.”

“I’m busy.”

“And I’m not?” He asked, and she’d finally turned toward him.

“I can’t leave Gamora,” she answered. “She tries to hide it, but I can tell she’s worried about the Guardians. And frankly, so am I. It’s been two weeks since we got back— they should be here by now.”

“You’ve been using that excuse since you got home.”

“It’s not an—“ she started, but she stopped herself. She could see him calling bullshit.

“You know you can talk to me, right?” He said. “A lot of stuff has changed around here, but that hasn’t.”

“I know,” she said softly. Yet she stayed silent, had let him walk away without saying a word. Again.

Now, hours later, she wondered whether she should have said something. She shook her head. She would talk to him. Eventually. When she found the right words to explain why she had spent the two weeks since coming home actively avoiding a five year old.

“I may be wrong,” a voice said from across the room, and Nat looked up to see Steve standing in the doorway, “but I think the screen has to be on before you can use that thing.”

She looked back at the computer, and saw that the screen had gone black. She sighed, running a hand through her hair.

Steve walked into the room, grabbing a chair and sitting across from her. She kept her eyes on the screen, still pitch black. Once her shock from first seeing his new appearance wore off, she’d found that she could hardly stand to look at him the way he was now — old, frail, weak. His skin was wrinkled and even though he tried to sit up straight, she could see the way his body hunched over, ever so slightly.

“Long day?” He asked her.

“Yeah, something like that.”

“The work never ends, does it? You save the world, and the world just fucks itself all up again.”

“Steve,” She said with the slightest smile, “you kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“I’m never gonna live that one down, am I?”

“Not in this lifetime,” Nat laughed. She looked up, but Steve’s face had dropped slightly, his smile looking more sad than happy.

“Yeah,” He said, “I think I’m about done with this one, though.”

Nat looked away. The silence sat between them, uncomfortable and awkward.

“You never asked,” Steve said, “about what I did. Why I did it.”

“Haven’t had a lot of time for talking.”

“Oh, you want to talk about time?” He asked, and his voice set her on edge. He wasn’t angry, not exactly, but his words felt sharp, intense. Like there was an equally high chance he’d start screaming or burst into tears. Either way, her instincts braced for impact.

“I’ve lived for decades without you, Nat.”

“Steve, I—“

“No.” He said. The single word paralyzed her. Even though he spoke softly, his words resonated across the entire room. “I had to spend years knowing I’d never see you again. Bucky, Sam, Wanda — I knew I’d come back to them. But I could never come back to you. Every celebration, I knew I’d never get to tell you about it; every heartbreak, I knew I’d never get to confide in you about it. Every milestone — getting married, getting older, retiring — I went through every one thinking about how you’d never get to experience it. Every single one.”

“And now,” he continued, “by some miracle, you’re back, and you’re here, and you won’t talk to me. You can’t even look at me.”

“I’m sorry, she said, eyes still aimed down at her hands, “I shouldn’t have ignored you. I should have been better.”

“Why did you?” He asked, and there was no intensity in his voice, no power. It was just sad. That, more than anything else he said, broke her.

“Because it hurts.” This time she made sure to look him in the eye, to take in the old man that replaced the one she’d known, the one she’d loved like a brother. “I’ve been avoiding you because I couldn’t handle it.”

“Couldn’t handle what?”

“You. This. Everything. You don’t think it was hard for me too?” She asked, “I came back from the dead and found out you’d gone back in time and lived an entire life without us. After everything — from New York, to Hydra, to Sokovia and Thanos — you abandoned us. You abandoned me.

“I—“

“And it made me realize that everything keeps changing,” she continued. “You’re old, something we weren’t sure would even be possible. Thor’s gone. Clint is divorced, and Wanda is traumatized again, and Time is coming to kill us, and Tony—“

She bit her lip, swallowed back the words that had almost escaped without her permission. She closed her eyes, tried to take a few deep breaths, before she continued. “You know I can’t even look at her?” She said, the words soft and sharp and nothing like she meant them to sound like. “A little girl, a kid who just lost her father, and I can’t even bring myself to be in the same room as her. What kind of person does that make me?”

Steve didn’t say anything, stared at her with something that almost resembled pity. Part of her ached to stop, to shut up and keep the words back inside where they belonged, but it was too late. She’d lost control, lost the ability to filter whatever was coming out of her mouth. She’d broken a dam, and now all she could do was watch as the flood destroyed everything.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said. “How could I possibly look that little girl in the eye and tell her that I’m the reason her father is dead? That it’s my fault he got himself into this mess? It’s my fault he had to be the hero, again, my fault he had to risk his life, again, my fault that we all got to spend more time with him than she ever will.”

“Nat, it isn’t—“

“I can’t look at myself in the mirror anymore.” She told him, although she looked at her hands instead of at his eyes. “Every time I see my reflection, I think ‘Who are you to be here? To be living this life when he isn’t? Who needs me the way she needs him? Who misses me the way Pepper misses him, the way Peter Parker misses him? The way everyone misses him?’ The world looks up to Tony. Who looks up to me that way?”

The questions lingered between them, caught in the silence of the moment. “If I could change it,” she said, when it was clear he wasn’t going to say anything, “if I could switch places with him, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’d throw myself off another cliff if it meant Morgan got her father back, if it meant she got to live a life with a dad who loves her.”

She hadn’t realized he’d moved until she felt his hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him, saw the tears falling down his face, and instinctively reached toward her own. She was almost surprised to feel the wetness on her cheek, but her body was overwhelmed, feeling too much and nothing at all at the same time, so the surprise barely registered.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I left. I’m sorry that you came back only to get the weight of the world thrown onto your shoulders. But Nat,” he said as he put his hands on the sides of her face, forcing her eyes to meet his. “What happened to Tony is not your fault.”

“I promised him nothing would change,” she whispered. “Everyone was supposed to make it back. We weren’t supposed to have to fight anymore.”

“You couldn’t have stopped that, even if you had come back from Vormir with Clint. He knew, I think, that it’d have to be him.”

“It isn’t fair. Nothing in our lives is ever fair. What do we have to do to get a break?”

“I wish I knew,” he said. They sat there, his arms on her shoulders, her head leaning back against his chest. Her mind felt empty, the space where she’d buried the words she’d just spilled as barren as Vormir. She felt simultaneously exhausted and energized, relieved and on edge, her body and mind full of contradictions.

“I didn’t think about what would come after,” she said after a while. Her voice was soft, her words lacking the energy they had earlier. “I didn’t prepare for this part, for a world that doesn’t make sense anymore, a world full of people on different timelines. I don’t know what to do.”

“Whatever has to be done, whatever problem has to be solved, I know you’ll figure it out. You always do.”

“I’m not as strong as you think I am,” she admitted, looking back at him hesitantly. Steve was one of the only people who would ever see this vulnerability she worked so hard to hide. She was glad to see that despite everything, she hadn’t lost that, hadn’t lost one of her few confidants.

“I know — you’re stronger.” He said, and she scoffed in response. “I’m serious, Nat. Do you know how much I look up to you? How much I respect you?”

“Why wouldn’t you?” She said with a coy smile, one that got a smirk out of him and took some of the weight out of the room.

“I’m serious,” he said. “You have this way of handling whatever the world throws at you. Aliens and Artificial Intelligence and men from the ‘40’s,” he said the last one with a smile, “none of it ever phases you. Tony was one of the bravest men I ever knew, but you walked into almost every battle he did, and you didn’t have a suit of armor.”

“It’s not the same.”

“Bravery isn’t the same for anybody; doesn’t mean it isn’t still bravery.”

“I still mean what I said,” she told him. “He should be here. It isn’t right that he’s not.”

“Just because we miss him doesn’t mean we don’t need you, Nat. You might not have a kid or a spouse, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a family who loves you.”

“Yeah, but—“

“We need you the way Tony’s family needs him. Clint needs you that way. Wanda needs you that way. I need you that way.”

“But—“

“No. But nothing,” he said, his tone leaving no room for disagreement. “You do not get to decide that you don’t matter as much as he did just because you’re not a parent or a fucking Halloween costume. You have a family, Nat. You have friends who care about you, people who rely on you. Just because you haven’t married any of them yet doesn’t mean you’re worth less.”

“What do you mean, ‘haven’t married any of them yet?’”

“Natasha!” The door slammed open, and Gamora stormed into the room. Nat stood up on instinct, reaching for the tablet in the woman’s hand before she realized what she was doing.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Look.” She pointed to the screen, and Nat nearly dropped it when she figured out what she was looking at. There, in the top corner of the atmospheric radar, was a blip, quickly getting closer and closer to their location.

“It’s them. It has to be.” Gamora said.

“Either way, we’re about to have company.” Nat hit a button on the screen as they walked out of the room. An alarm went off across the base, the words “airship approaching” echoing throughout the halls. As the alarm went off, the other avengers began to congregate, everyone headed toward the landing strip outside.

“I’m trying to get ears on whoever’s coming in,” Rhodey said, typing on a tablet of his own.

“Do we know if it’s them?” Bucky asked, eyes darting back toward where she’d accidentally abandoned Steve. “Should we prepare for potential hostility?”

Nat nodded, letting the calm she felt before battles take over. “Head up onto the roof just in case. Call Sam too — if he’s on his way back, have him meet you there.”

He turned, heading back toward the staircase. Nat kept moving forward, Gamora and Rhodey on her heels. “They’re getting closer,” Gamora said, “definitely heading for this planet.”

They walked through the back doors, stepping onto the space behind the base, their makeshift landing strip. Before the doors could shut behind them, Wanda burst through. “Is it them?” She asked Gamora, completely ignoring Nat and Rhodey. The two women had formed a bond over their shared taste in movies, spending most of the free time during the past week with one another.

“Yes,” Gamora responded.

Maybe,” Rhodey corrected.

“Hopefully,” Nat said, keeping her eyes on the screen in front of her. “Be ready for anything.”

“Got it!” Rhodey yelled, and an instant later the sound of static blasted out of his tablet speakers. Everyone winced.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s them, not me. Something’s messed up with their audio.”

“Let’s just listen — maybe it’ll clear up as they get closer.” Nat said, and all of them fell quiet. They waited. For two agonizing minutes, the only sound they could hear was static. It fluctuated in volume, but remained consistent in its lack of content.

Rhodey noticed it first, suddenly grabbing the tablet and adjusting audio levels. The static got louder, but then she heard it too, words coming and going, fragments of sentences hidden among the static.

“—not slowing down—“

“—would just give—“

“—idiots—“

“—sHIT SHIT SHIT—”

“—shut up and let me—“

“—not enjoyable, this is not—“

“—Damn it, Quill! Pull up!”

Gamora gasped, the last words coming in clearer than the mess that had come before. Nat looked at her, saw the tears in her eyes that she knew she’d do her best to stop from spilling onto her face.

“Something’s wrong,” Rhodey’s words got their attention instantly. “I can’t make contact.”

Nat looked back down at the screen. The dot kept getting bigger, closer, but it also kept moving faster. She stared up at the sky, saw a speck above them. “They’re not slowing down.”

The four of them looked down at the screen, and then back up. The ship looked like it was falling out of the sky rather than flying toward them, and it was getting closer by the second.

“They’re gonna crash,” Nat said, more to herself than to anyone else. She froze in disbelief. Wrong. Everything was wrong. This couldn’t be how it ended, with the Guardians crashing at Gamora’s feet, dying before they got to see her resurrection. It wasn’t fair.

“No,” Gamora whispered, eyes glued to the sky. It was all she could do, all any of them could do. She held her breath as the ship above them got bigger and bigger.

“We need to get back,” Rhodey said, but before he could move them the ship became engulfed in red. Nat heard a grunt, and turned toward her left. Wanda stood, knees bent, hands outstretched, Red entrails shooting toward the sky.

No, Nat thought instinctively. Wanda was powerful, one of the strongest among them, but this? Stopping a crashing spaceship moments before it landed? By herself?

Gamora’s gasp brought Nat’s eyes back to the ship. It was slowing down.

“Ho-ly shit,” Rhodey said under his breath. The ship got closer, and Nat could see it more clearly, could notice the details that the radar didn’t find. For one, the ship was on fire. Flames completely covered the back half, and any part that wasn’t on fire looked like it had been used as a punching bag. Parts that Nat couldn’t begin to understand the purpose for hung off the bottom by a thread. It was as if someone had thrown it through a garbage disposal and then spit it back into space.

“We gotta back up,” Rhodey said, getting her attention. “This landing isn’t gonna be pretty.”

Nat looked toward the other women. Gamora kept her eyes on the ship, watching as it got closer and closer. If Nat had to guess, they had twenty seconds before impact.

She shifted her eyes toward Wanda. Her magical grip didn’t falter as the ship got closer. Nat knew the ship had to be speeding up the closer it got to them, but with Wanda’s help it kept a steady pace. Wanda herself, however, had shifted, falling onto her knees as her powers pulsed out of her and around the ship. Nat instinctively moved closer toward her.

“Get Gamora out of here,” she told Rhodey.

“What about you guys?”

“I'm not leaving her!”

“Nat!” A voice came over the com, blasting in her ear. “Heads up!” She looked up and saw Sam flying over her, his shield dropping from the sky.

Everything after that seemed to happen in slow motion. Rhodey grabbed Gamora, throwing her beneath him as he turned on his suit. Sam’s shield fell right into her hands, as perfectly as if they’d practiced the move hundreds of times before. Nat grabbed it and lunged, throwing herself in front of Wanda as the red disappeared and the ship hit the ground.

Bits of metal and dirt went everywhere. A puff of smoke erupted around the ship, forcing Nat to squeeze her eyes shut. When the smoke settled, she stood up and saw that the ship had slid away from them, stopping yards away.

Nat got to her feet, brushing off dust and placing the shield on the ground beside her. She turned toward Wanda. She looked exhausted. She sat with her eyes closed, hand on her head, breathing heavily. Nat bent down, carefully placing her hand on the girl’s shoulder.

“Don’t get up too fast,” she told her, “you gotta take it easy.”

“Did they make it?” She groaned, eyes still shut.

Before Nat could answer, Sam landed with a thud next to them. “I got her,” he said, then reached for the shield, “and I got this. You go catch up with your girl.”

Nat looked at him confused. He motioned his head behind them, and she turned to see Gamora sprinting toward the ship. With a nod toward Sam, Nat took off after her.

The door to the ship shot off right as they reached it. Out of all the sounds Nat anticipated hearing, the last thing she expected was laughing.

“Quill! You should fly that poorly all the time!” A voice bellowed. The laughter got louder as someone stepped out of the ship. It was a man, or at least something close to one. His skin was grey — or maybe purple — and he was huge. Her body instantly told her to be afraid of him, even as he continued to chuckle to himself.

“Drax!” Gamora yelled, and the man’s face lit up as he saw her.

“Gamora!” He ran over, picked her up as if she weighed nothing. Drax, she made a mental note, thinking back to what little information Rocket and Nebula had provided them with. The stupidly brave one. No metaphors.

She heard indistinguishable yelling, and a man who looked distinctly human nearly fell out of the ship. Quill, she thought, idiot lover. Drax put her down, and Gamora ran straight into his arms. Nat watched with a smile as he held her. His arms shook slightly, his hand clutching the back of he head as if she’d disappear if he let go. His eyes were closed, but she could see the tears falling down his face. She couldn’t hear him, but she could see his lips moving, could see how he whispered into her ear over and over again: I love you.

“I’m sorry,” he said, loud enough for the group to hear, “we tried to rush here, but then we got caught in the middle of some turf war, and then some old enemies of mine may have tracked us down, and then—“

Gamora cut him off, grabbing the sides of his face and kissing him. The sight made Nat smile, made her entire body feel warm. It also made her wish Clint wasn’t out for the weekend with his kids, although she instinctively shoved that feeling back down.

“Hey!” A familiar voice called from inside the ship, “would you mind saving that shit for the bedroom? There are children present!”

“I am Groot.”

“I don’t care how quickly trees age — you act like a child, you’re getting treated like a child.”

Even though she knew what Groot was, Nat didn’t think anything could have possibly prepared her for when a living, breathing tree walked out of the ship, especially one that seemed to be scowling like a moody teenager.

Gamora laughed, and Nat decided she could get used to the tree if it meant she got to see Gamora this happy. Rocket and Groot embraced her together, and it was easily the weirdest thing she’d ever seen.

“NATASHA!” A voice roared, and Nat failed to hide her surprise when Thor walked out of the ship. Honestly, she’d been so focused on trying to make sure Gamora got to see Peter and Nebula again that she’d completely forgotten he was with the Guardians.

He engulfed her in a hug, and she smiled against his chest. He looked better, she thought, considering the last time she’d seen him he was neck deep in one of the worst depressive episodes she’d seen. His hair was braided again, and there was a lightness to the way he had walked over to her, something she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen in him.

“You look really good, Thor,” she said after they broke apart.

“You think so?” He said with a smile, “I’ve never gotten to live without the pressure of ruling Asgard before. I think I like it, just being part of a team, nothing else.”

“It suits you,” she responded. She heard a high-pitched voice, and turned to see a woman with antennae on her head beaming at Gamora. She almost laughed when she realized it barely even made it into the top five strangest things she’d ever seen.

Focused on Gamora and the bug woman (what did Rocket say her name was? Mantis?), she almost missed who came out of the ship last. Nat held her breath as Gamora walked toward her. The entire group seemed to quiet down, as if they all understood the gravity of the moment. Which, she thought to herself, they probably did.

“I’m sorry,” Nebula said, her voice quiet but strong, “I never should have asked you about the stone. I should have been better, should have known that he’d find a way to—“

Nebula went silent as Gamora threw her arms around her. She stood for a moment, frozen, before slowing raising her arms up to embrace her sister.

When Gamora broke apart, she put Nebula’s hands within her own. “Nothing that happened to me is your fault,” she told her. “I’m sorry for everything — for how I used to be, for how I’ve failed you. I’m so sorry, Nebula.”

“Yeah, well,” Nebula said, “I’m sorry for all the times I tried to kill you.”

“I can easily say that this is the weirdest family reunion I’ve ever seen.” Nat turned to see Rhodey walking up to them, smile on his face. He and Nebula nodded at one another, the closest thing to a sign of affection that Nat figured she’d give anyone besides Gamora.

A loud snapping sound interrupted the moment, and everyone turned to watch as the back half of the ship broke apart from the front half. “Umm,” Quill said, “do you guys mind if we crash here for a while? Maybe borrow a spare ship, if you’ve got one lying around?”

“Stay as long as you’d like,” Nat said, and Quill nodded in her direction. Leadership recognizing leadership, she thought.

“Hey, who do we have to thank for the landing assist?” Rocket asked. “You guys were behind all that red crap, right?”

Gamora gasped. “Wanda! Is she alright?” She turned frantically, but Nat stopped her.

“She’s fine — Sam’s with her.”

Gamora nodded, before turning back toward Quill. “My witch friend saved you. She also showed me Dirty Dancing, and it’s definitely not the best movie ever made. The Breakfast Club is.”

“You know what? I don’t even care about how wrong you are,” he said, beaming.

She smiled back at him, raising an eyebrow at him but barely containing her own laughter.

“Come!” Thor’s voice got everyone’s attention. “I call for a party in our honor! I’ll send for Valkyrie and Korg! They shall speak of tonight for eons and eons to come in New Asgard!”

Everyone started making their way inside. Nat noticed that Peter lingered back with Gamora, either keeping her hand in his or making sure he was never further than a few feet away. Nat couldn’t place where she’d seen it before, who the behavior reminded her of. It didn’t matter. Tonight wasn’t about her — this was Gamora’s night, and she’d be damned if she let anyone ruin it.

Chapter Text

Absolute chaos.

It was the only way Nat could describe it. Thor brought what felt like the entirety of New Asgard up to their headquarters for a party that lasted three days and included not one, but two separate explosions. Valkyrie rode in drunk on an honest-to-god Pegasus, already trashed before the party had even started. The Guardians joined in with no qualms, with the exception of Nebula, who Nat repeatedly found lurking in the corner, watching the party intensely without ever fully participating. Gamora and Peter often disappeared for hours at a time, and Nat tried as hard as she could to not think about what they were doing or, more importantly, where they were doing it (the base was big, but it wasn’t that big).

By the time the Asgardians crashed, finally feeling the limitations of their otherworldly tolerance after 72 hours, Nat had already accepted that worrying about the structural damage done to the base was useless. She left the stressing to Rhodey; instead, she found herself on the roof, staring out at the world in front of her. She kept staring at the lake, at the way the early sunrise seemed to grow out of the water. It lit the sky in pinks and oranges, a beautiful mess that only Earth could make.

“Never thought I’d see you up early enough to catch a sunrise,” a deep voice called out from behind her, and had it not been for her lifetime of training, she would have jumped in surprise.

“You haven’t been around in a while,” she said in response, keeping her eyes on the sky. “Things have changed.”

“Doesn’t matter how long I’m gone — if Natasha Romanoff is watching sunrises, then we really are in a screwed up timeline.”

She turned at that point, looked back at him. Fury stood a few feet behind her, his long coat waving slightly in the morning breeze. “Still a fan of dramatic entrances, I see.” She couldn’t help but smile at the words, even if her gut churned and her mind felt like it was getting pulled in a million directions.

He just chuckled in response, stepping closer toward the ledge where she sat, her feet dangling over the side of the building. Something about the way he stopped just behind her — his refusal to come next to her, to get down on her level — reminded her of why she didn’t feel overwhelming joy at the sight of him.

“You need something?” She asked, her tone sharper than she intended.

“What, I have to need something to come see you now?”

“I don’t know, you ask me. You’re the one who’s been MIA for two weeks.”

“I wasn’t—“

“You know, the first week I could understand. It was sudden, and it’s not like our job gives us much vacation time. But eighteen days? It took you eighteen days to get back here?”

“I came as soon as I could, Nat.”

She shrugged. “I don’t care — it wasn’t soon enough.” She stood up and turned towards him. “You know, I don’t ask for much, Nick, but I came back from the dead. It’s a bit of a big deal. Maybe not for you, but it is for me. I don’t get to do that a lot. And you were nowhere to be found.”

“If you would just let me explain, I—“

She shook her head. “Sorry, I’m all out of time to listen to explanations. That window closed about a week ago.”

“You’re being unreasonable.”

“Yep!” She said, and maybe it was because she was exhausted, maybe it was because she hadn’t quite gotten over the insanity that she’d thrown herself off a cliff and managed to wake up, but for the first time in the however-many-years they’d known each other, she refused to hold back with him. “I am being unreasonable. Reasonable Nat was a limited time offer, and you missed it. Now you get Bitter Nat, and she’s not feeling very forgiving this morning.”

“You got more words you wanna throw at me?” He asked, and a whisper in her mind told her to stop, told her that every complaint against him was just more reason for him to leave her, but her years-old insecurity wasn’t as strong as it used to be, and the fire in her gut kept burning.

“You know, now that you mention it,” she said, her words dripping in sarcasm as she pretended to think deeply, “we never did talk about that time Hydra killed you, and you failed to tell me you weren’t actually dead. Loved learning that one of the only people I trusted whole-heartedly couldn’t put the same faith in me. Oh, and there’s the time you had a secret connection with a space goddess that you decided to never mention to anyone else. It was so much fun when Carol almost killed me trying to find you, and I had to tell everyone else that I had no idea who she was. Thanks for that one.”

“You done?”

“No, actually, I’m not,” she said, and she didn’t know where the words were coming from, where she’d buried them for all these years, but now she couldn’t stop it. “I’ve spent years defending you. Trusting you. Telling everyone that you had a plan, that you would always be there to help. To lead. I lied to a lot of people for you — Steve, Tony, Bruce — because I believed that you could be trusted. That you could be relied on. And I let myself follow you to the ends of the earth, even when you didn’t show me the same. Because for a long-ass time, you were the only family I had, and I held onto that like my life depended on it. But I just spent five years without you, without anyone, and you know what I realized? I’m a damn good leader myself, and I don’t need you to feel like someone cares about me. I don’t need you to protect me.” She shrugged. “I don’t need you anymore.”

They stood in the silence that followed. Nat stared at him, and he at her, and neither revealed a single emotion.

He broke first. “How long have you been holding onto that?”

“I don’t know,” she said, quieter than she’d have liked, “a while, I guess.”

He sighed. “I’m sorry. I should have made it work, should have come sooner. I know I’ve failed in a lot of ways, Nat, especially when it comes to you, but never think it comes from a lack of care.”

“Then where does it come from?”

“I—“ He stammered, “I learned a long time ago that the only way to protect yourself is to never let anyone truly see you. To give yourself away in pieces, always holding on to the most important parts. When others know who you are, what makes you tick, what you care about more than anything — that makes you vulnerable. It makes the people closest to you vulnerable. And I don’t know how else to protect the people I love.”

“Are you in danger?” She asked, and even though she was pissed at him, her heart still skipped a beat at the thought.

“I’m always in danger,” he answered. “Nothing new there.”

“Then what took you so long?” She asked, and she hated how pathetic she sounded, how desperate, how sad.

“I didn’t want the world to know how much I care,” he said. “I woke up to find that five years had passed and you were dead. When I heard you were back, the only thing I could think about was getting back to you.”

“But?”

“But,” He said, “I also saw how much attention it got. The world was watching you, watching the Avengers. I didn’t want it watching me, not when I knew I wouldn’t be able to hide how much you mean to me, Nat.”

“That’s a weak excuse.”

“You’re right,” he said, “but it’s the truth. It’s all I got.”

She stared at him for a minute, let the seconds pass as slowly as they pleased. This was why she’d avoided forming connections with people for so long — whenever feelings were involved, everything always got complicated. He was the closest thing to a father she’d ever had. He was family, she knew that, but no one had ever taught her how much family is allowed to mess up, how much leeway you give the people you love. How to come back from pain and build something better, when to create distance and move on. She didn’t know.

“I don’t expect you to forgive me,” he said. “I know that whatever reasons I had, why I did what I did, that doesn’t take away from the fact that I hurt you by staying away. I just need you to know that I’m sorry.”

“Haven’t heard those words out of your mouth too often,” she said, keeping her face expressionless and her tone steady.

“And if anyone asks, I’ll deny ever saying it,” he said with a smile, and she knew he was trying, knew that his words were a form of trust to him, a vulnerability that she knew few had ever seen. But was it enough?

She didn’t say anything, and he turned to leave. She watched as he walked away, content to take her silence. Content to wait for her.

“Nick,” she called out to him as he grabbed the door handle, and he turned back toward her. “It was good seeing you.”

He nodded, and a minute later he was gone. She sat back down, somehow more exhausted than she had been before. She wished, in moments like these, that she’d grown up normal, that she didn’t have to work to create a family she didn’t know how to hold onto. She wished that she knew when to fight, knew when to push herself, knew when to quit. She never seemed to get her timing right, always jumping ship too early or refusing to leave even as she sunk into the sea.

She stared back out at the lake. It was harder, she decided, when someone else was at fault. When she had to wait on someone else’s actions, figure out how to feel based on what they gave her. She supposed that was the downside to relying on people — there was an element of control that she no longer possessed.

As the sun kept rising over the lake, dragging the blue sky up with it, she decided she didn’t want to wait anymore. She didn’t want to let others decide what she had to feel, what she had to do, not if she could help it. And as she pulled out her phone, she decided she didn’t want anyone else to have to feel the way she did. She sent out a text, and smiled as she read the response. She was done being a coward.

Chapter Text

Nat didn’t know how long she waited in her car.

The sun had finished rising, now hanging high in the afternoon sky. She’d left the base a while ago, left the entirety of New Asgard passed out over and on any flat surface. As she looked at the house, she realized this might be the first time she’d left the base since coming back. She almost laughed. Even after dying, she still couldn’t manage to get a life.

Had she been anyone else, the knock on the window would have given her a heart attack. She didn’t turn, didn’t need to look to know who stood outside her car. Instead, she unlocked the door, and waited until her companion sat down next to her.

“You know, most people come up to the front door.”

“Most people don’t have an AI with access to the cameras hidden within a 50 mile radius of their house,” she said in response.

Pepper smiled. “We both know FRIDAY isn’t the reason you’ve been hiding out here.”

“Who says I’m hiding?” She tried to put a smile in her words, but they lacked her usual bite.

“You forget who my husband was,” she said with a smile. “Tony was an expert at disappearing in plain sight.”

Nat felt as if the air got sucked out of the car entirely. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, more out of habit than anything. “It was supposed to be me. It was only supposed to be me.”

“Hey,” Pepper said, and she put her hand over Nat’s. “You know that isn’t your fault.”

“If I hadn’t come in the first place, if I hadn’t dragged him into it, maybe—“

“Maybe nothing.” Pepper took a deep breath. “I’ve always known we were on borrowed time. I’m not sure that I believe in fate, or destiny, or whatever you want to call it, but I knew that the world would need Tony again. And that when it did, he’d go. No matter what.”

Nat just nodded.

“I know it’s probably still hard for you.” Pepper continued. “The rest of us have had months to grieve together, adjust together. For you it’s been, what, weeks? I can’t imagine how lonely that must feel.”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m not,” Pepper said, and Nat looked over at her. “I mean, I’m better now than I was, but I’m discovering that I can’t compartmentalize this one. Can’t move past it. Just gotta keep going through it, carrying parts of it with me as I move forward.”

“How’s that working out for you?”

“Alright so far,” she said with a soft smile. “Some days are better than others. It helps that I have someone else to worry about. I don’t know how I’d handle this if I was alone.”

Nat swallowed. “Speaking of that,” she said, “I owe you an apology. For disappearing. And for not coming around before.”

“Don’t even start with that,” Pepper shook her head. “Just come inside. The girls are waiting for you.”

“Girls?” Nat asked, but Pepper had already opened the car door, and Nat quickly followed.

Walking into the house, the first thing she noticed was the music. Elsa’s belt of “let it go” echoed across the house, another voice layered on top.

“If I have to hear this song one more time,” Pepper said under her breath, “I’ll freeze Arrendale myself.”

They walked into the family room, and Nat froze. Standing on an ottoman was Morgan, wearing a blue princess dress and a matching crown. Sitting on the couch next to her was Nebula, an identical crown resting on her head.

Morgan turned back toward them. Nat looked at her, waiting for...well, for what exactly she wasn’t sure. Here was the very thing she’d spent weeks avoiding, years if she counted the time after the snap. She expected something to happen, to feel something, react in someway, but she felt nothing. No fear, no dread, no guilt. She was just a kid.

“Morgan,” Pepper said, “come meet Auntie Nat.” The girl ran over as Nat forced the warm feeling in her gut to simmer down.

“We’re watching Frozen!” She said by way of introduction. Morgan grabbed Nat’s hand and dragged her towards the tv. “I’m Anna, and Auntie Neby is Elsa. Because she’s blue.” She leaned in, trying to whisper into Nat’s ear but not lowering her voice at all. “When I grow up, I’m gonna be just like Auntie Neby. With a robot hand and everything.”

“That’s a good life goal,” Nat managed to say. She kept staring back at Nebula, who sat staring intensely at the movie, and Nat couldn’t decide whether she was trying to hold in a tears or a smile. Or maybe both.

They watched the rest of the movie. Morgan sang every word, and Nat was almost surprised to find Nebula nodding along with the songs.

When the credits started rolling, she finally turned back toward Nat. “Were you a friend of Daddy’s?”

“I—“ Nat started, unprepared for the girl’s bluntness. “Yeah. I was a good friend of your Dad.”

“Lots of my new Aunties were friends of Daddy,” she continued, seemingly unfazed by the topic of conversation. “I think he was the most friendliest man alive.”

“I think he was,” Nat said, “but can I tell you a secret?” Morgan’s eyes widened as Nat leaned in, and fake-whispered, “Your mom was my friend first.”

Morgan gasped, as if the news baffled her. She then, taking on as serious of a look as she could probably get, nodded. “I won’t tell anyone,” she promised, and Nat just winked at her.

Morgan ran off then, Nat’s entertainment value having worn off. “Mommy!” She called out as she left, “Put it on again! Put it on again!”

“How many times have you seen this movie?” She asked Nebula.

“Thirty-seven.”

“You’re a good aunt,” Nat said with a smile, and she watched as Nebula tried to keep her cool demeanor.

“I quite enjoy it.”

“What, the movie or being an aunt?”

“Both.”

“That’s good,” Nat said, reaching over for her friend’s hand, giving an internal sigh of relief when she didn’t pull away. “You deserve this.”

“Deserve what?”

“Happiness. Joy. Whatever else being here gives you.”

“Being here…” she started, and Nat realized she didn’t know how often Nebula had come to the Stark residence before, how often she made unsanctioned trips to Earth in the time after the snap. “Had it not been for the child, I don’t think I ever would have come back.”

Nat nodded in understanding, even as Nebula kept her eyes focused elsewhere.

“But now,” she continued, “now I can’t imagine not coming back here. Not having a place to return to every time we pass by this section of the galaxy. Not seeing her face.”

“She’s your home.”

“I wish Gamora had met him,” she said, ignoring the weight in Nat’s words. “She’d likely have punched him in the face during their first meeting, but she’d have grown to appreciate him. Just as I did.”

“I’m sorry,” Nat said.

“As am I.”

“What are you sorry for?”

“Not appreciating what you did. During those five years, you near single handedly kept this planet from falling apart. I know, because after the battle, it almost collapsed again, as did your friends.” She turned to face her, her eyes filled with an intensity that Nat had grown accustomed to. “This planet needs you on it, Natasha.”

“I don’t plan on leaving any time soon,” she said, a smile starting to sneak up onto her face.

“Good.” Nebula turned back toward the tv, just in time for Morgan and Pepper to walk back in.

“Aunty Neby, will you sing with me this time?” Morgan asked, and Nat had to physically bite back a laugh.

“‘No.”

“Come on, Aunty Neby!” She pleaded.

“Yeah,” Nat said, “come on, Aunty Neby.”

Nebula gave her a glare that could have cut through stone, before turning back toward the tv. “One song. No more.”

Morgan squealed, and Nat couldn’t hold her laughter in anymore. She sat back, and watched the familiar castle fill up the screen. Despite her protests, Nebula sang every song, and it was beautiful.