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Clint shoots up in bed with a gasp, his heart hammering behind his ribcage, threatening to burst from his chest.

He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to erase the colors from his mind -- glowing purple and orange, flashes of red hair, a scream. Her hand slipping out of his, the words “let me go” that isn’t the Natasha he knows now but the Natasha he knew years ago, the one who stood at the other end of his arrow telling her to kill him but then softly said “let me go” when she thought he couldn’t hear her.

That time, he had refused.

This time, he can’t keep his hold, and when she hits the hard ground a scream tears itself from his throat.

“Hey, hey, hey.”

There’s a hand on his back, one that rubs comforting circles against his sweaty skin. He drags in deep breaths while the voice continues to murmur quietly in the dark room, his body shaking as the adrenaline of the nightmare bleeds out of his system. When he opens his eyes, Laura is staring at him with concern, her eyes soft and sad.

“You here with me?”

Clint nods rapidly, swallowing against a burning throat. “Yeah.”

Laura nods back, moving her hands to his shoulders. She rubs them gently.

“Same one?”

“Yeah,” Clint repeats hoarsely, rolling out of bed and standing up on shaking legs. “Same one.”

Laura’s eyebrows crease in worry as she watches him struggle to stand, and she sits up straighter in bed. “Maybe you should go talk to someone.”

“I don’t need to talk to anyone,” Clint spits out forcefully, trying to keep his voice down for the sake of his sleeping children. “I need to talk to Natasha and I can’t do that unless you’ve found some fucking ghost portal, so don’t tell me that I need to talk to some fucking shrink!”

He’s only mildly ashamed of his outburst, because he knows Laura’s heard too many of them at this point to judge him or be surprised. She extends a hand, her face alight with shared pain.

“Can you please try and come back to bed?”

He shakes his head. “No,” he answers. Laura looks frustrated, which only makes him feel angrier.

“What the fuck do you want me to say, Laura? Lie to you? I’m not gonna go back to sleep.”

Laura takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “Fine,” she says shortly. “But we have to deal with three children in about four hours and if we’re both running on no sleep. things are going to get bad really fast, so at least let me try to get some rest.”

Clint watches as she pulls the covers back over her body and slumps down in bed. Grabbing a worn flannel, he shrugs it on over his bare chest and takes the stairs two at a time, ending in the living room but misjudging the small steps and almost stumbling into the door frame separating the living room from the stairway.

Shit!”

“Dad?”

“Coop?” Clint rubs his shin, trying to adjust his eyes in the dark. “Why are you up?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Cooper answers with a shrug. “Thought I’d read until I got tired. Why are you up?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Clint trades, walking to the couch. “Figured I’d let your mom sleep, though.” He stretches out with a groan. “Didn’t mean to scare you before. Just can’t seem to remember that those stairs don’t have great depth perception.”

“Dad, we’ve lived here for like, eight years now,” Cooper says, rolling his eyes. “Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Clint mutters, rubbing his shin again. “Give an old man a break, will ya?”

Cooper grins as Clint settles back on the couch, but his expression immediately sobers. “Can you not sleep because you’re still sad about Nat?”

“Kind of.” He feels bad about lying to his son, but he’s also not going to list the ten million reasons that tie into the words sad about Nat. Cooper twists his mouth into a frown and looks down at the floor.

“I thought about her today. I mean, I thought about calling her but then I remembered I couldn’t.”

Clint smiles sadly. “I know the feeling.” He clears his throat quietly. “You know if you ever need to talk, we’re here -- your mom and I. Or we can find someone for you to talk to.”

“I know,” Cooper says, sounding resigned. “I just...I dunno if I’m ready for that yet.”

“Yeah.” Clint nods in the dark. “That’s fair, buddy. How do you feel about ice cream, though?”

Cooper’s tired eyes light up and he throws his book onto the couch, racing into the kitchen. Clint follows, flicking on the light and letting his son take out a carton of Rocky Road and two spoons.

“Are you ever gonna get rid of that thing?” Cooper asks through a mouthful of ice cream. Clint looks down at where Cooper’s eyes are focused, laughing quietly when he realizes the flannel is riding up his arm, exposing part of his tattoo.

“You still don’t like it, huh?”

“S’okay. Kinda badass. Just looks weird.” Cooper digs his spoon deeper into the ice cream and glances up, as if he’s trying to figure out how he can sneak a loophole into this late night ice cream jaunt. “Can I get one?”

“No,” Clint says instantly. “No, not for a long, long time -- and that’s if I ever say yes. I’m a grown-up and I can make my own decisions. You’re thirteen, and I still check your homework.”

Cooper makes a face. “Worth a shot. I thought mom liked the tattoos.”

Clint reaches over and ruffles his hair. “Is that what she told you?”

“It’s what she told her friend on the phone the other day,” Cooper answers slyly. Clint laughs.

“Well then, as long as your mom likes it, I’ll probably keep it.”

Cooper looks down, digging another spoonful of ice cream out of the carton. “Mom’s gonna be mad, isn’t she? About the ice cream?”

“Not if she doesn't find out,” Clint answers, meeting his curious look with a wink. “I’ll do recon and clean the spoons, and after we eat, you go back upstairs and try to go back to sleep. And don’t act too tired in the morning or tell mom we had a secret sad bonding night. Deal?”

Cooper smiles, digging his teeth into his lower lip in a mischievous grin that Clint swears he must have picked up from Natasha at some point. He manages to smile back, even though the thought hurts him more than he expects it to.

“Deal.”

 

***

 

If there’s one thing that Clint’s gotten good at over the years, it’s working through pain with seemingly no one in his family being any the wiser. He’s come home from missions that have left him distraught and compromised, still managing to be up the next morning, making pancakes with cheerful smiley faces and joking with his kids. He’s come home with bruises and sprains and concussions and integrated back into his daily life as if nothing has happened, with no one suspecting much of anything except maybe a slight annoying injury.

And so despite getting only three hours of sleep, he’s up before Laura, making the rounds on his children’s rooms to get them out of bed before moving downstairs to start coffee and breakfast. He’s already two cups of coffee in, his Bluetooth offering soft distracting music in his right ear, when Cooper drags himself downstairs, followed by Nate who bounds his way into the kitchen with a much smoother trajectory than Clint knows he’d demonstrated the night before.

“Who wants waffles?” Clint asks with a smile, opening the lid of the waffle maker and checking on the batter. After a few more quick turns, he expertly slides each one onto a plate and grabs two bottles from the refrigerator, bringing them to the table.

“One waffle with syrup,” he says, placing the plate in front of Cooper with a flourish. “And one with ketchup.”

“Ugh, gross.” Cooper looks at his brother with a disgusted look as he grabs for the syrup bottle. “Who puts ketchup on a waffle?”

“Your brother, apparently,” Clint answers with a cheeky smile, watching Nate happily squirt a rather intense amount of red liquid over his breakfast. “We’ll yell at him about it when he’s older. Eat up, okay? Bus is gonna be here in fifteen, you know the drill.”

Grabbing his coffee and heading outside to check on the bird feeder, he’s stopped short by the sight of Laura standing on the porch in sweatpants and a floral robe.

“Figured I’d get some stuff done while you made breakfast,” she says as he joins her. “Sorry if I’m taking your chores.”

Clint snorts. “Please, there’s ten million other things I can do to keep myself busy out here besides check on the bird feeder.”

“Don’t I know it.” Laura pauses, taking the coffee from his hands and taking a sip. “Lila’s staying home from school today.”

“Huh?” Clint turns his gaze from the barn to his wife. “Why?”

Laura shrugs. “She says she’s not feeling well. She told me her stomach hurts and she cries every time I try to touch her. I’m not going to risk it, especially since two kids in her class have come down with something in the past few weeks. I’m just going to leave her for awhile and maybe try to get her out of bed during lunch.”

Clint blows out a heavy breath and rolls his eyes. “She’s not sick, Laur.”

“Clint.” Laura inclines her head with a glare. “I know my daughter.”

“I’m not saying you don’t, but I’m telling you she’s not sick,” Clint argues. “She’s upset about Natasha and she’s using that as an excuse to stay home.”

Laura shakes her head slowly, taking another sip of coffee. “I’m not --”

“For fuck’s sake, read the room, Laura!” Clint waves his hand around angrily. “She’s been an on and off mess for the past few weeks, and we all know it. We’re just tiptoeing around everything because we’re happy I’m back but no one here is doing well and we should all just admit it already!”

Laura takes a deep breath and Clint can see her counting to ten in her head. In any other situation, he would know he’s entered dangerous territory by pushing her like this, but he’s reached the point where he doesn’t care if she gets pissed at him or even if she makes him sleep in the barn.

“Clint.” Laura’s voice drops to a low whisper and she glances inside to make sure Cooper and Nate are still eating. “We are trying, okay? We’re all trying our best and none of it is easy and I know you hurt more than anyone right now, but we are trying. We can’t fix this. We have to move forward with it.”

“Yeah, well. Maybe I don’t want to move forward with it.”

He grabs the mug back with unnecessarily strong force, causing some of the precious caffeine to slosh over the side, and storms back into the house. The moment he gets in sight of his kids however, his entire demeanor changes; his body relaxes and he forces himself to smile.

“Time’s up, kiddos. Get your stuff together, you’re almost late for school.”

Nate dutifully slides out of the chair and Cooper gives Clint a look as he follows. “Where’s Lila?”

“Your sister’s not feeling well, so she’s going to stay home today,” Clint responds easily. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure she feels extra bad about the homework she’s going to have to make up. That’s only fair, right?”

Cooper grins wickedly as Clint shoves him towards the door, where Laura’s waiting to help give out their backpacks and coats. He watches as Cooper and Nate finish getting ready, hugging Laura goodbye and waving to Clint, who makes faces at both his sons, causing them to laugh as they leave the house.

Clint sighs as the door closes, letting himself slump onto the couch. After a moment, Laura’s hand finds its way to his shoulder with a soft squeeze.

“You okay?”

“Fine,” he mutters. “It’s just exhausting.”

“Parenting?” Laura asks in a soft joking tone, and Clint suddenly wants to throw something.

“Pretending.”

He gets up and climbs the stairs, pausing at the door to Lila’s room. Composing himself, he walks inside; the light is still off but there’s enough light to see thanks to the sun peeking through the blinds that have been clearly opened in a half-hearted attempt to face the morning. Lila’s pulled the covers fully over her head, allowing Clint to see only a lump and not her face.

“Heard you weren’t feeling well,” Clint says as he walks into the room, sitting down. The lump next to him shifts, one small eye emerging from the blankets.

“I don’t. My stomach hurts.”

“I know,” Clint says with a nod. “Mom told me. I came to see if you wanted me to bring you anything.”

Lila pulls the covers back over her head and the blue bed sheets shake back and forth. Clint sighs, getting up and putting a palm on what he thinks might be her leg.

“Alright. I’ll be downstairs with mom. Let me know if you need anything.”

He walks towards the door, making sure he’s causing enough noise to be serious about leaving. As his hand closes on the knob, a small voice rises from the back of the room.

“Wait.”

Clint turns around, watching as Lila slowly lifts her head, messy hair falling around her face.

“Don’t leave.”

Clint smiles sadly, moving back to the bed. “I won’t,” he promises as he sits down again. “You let me know if you want to talk, though.”

Lila pushes hair from her eyes and shakes her head again, but Clint can tell she’s trying to keep herself together. The moment he reaches for her hand, her face crumples.

“Hey, come on, it’s okay,” Clint murmurs as she flings the covers off, crawling towards him. “I got you. I’m here.” He lets her settle in his arms, hugging her tightly despite her gangly frame. “You miss her?”

Lila manages to nod and Clint kisses her on the head, sighing into her hair. “I know. It’s not easy, is it? Pretending to be okay?”

Lila shakes her head, sniffling quietly. “How did she do it?”

“Nat?” Clint finds himself smiling. “She had a lot of practice. More practice than I had. She knew that the most important people in her life couldn’t see her upset, so she never let herself show it.”

“That was stupid,” Lila scoffs. Clint laughs softly.

“Yeah, it was. I yelled at her about it but every time I did, she just said I was mad because I thought she wasn’t showing emotion.”

“I saw her cry once,” Lila says, her head settling against Clint’s chest. “It was after one of Nate’s birthday parties. She had that really bad blonde hair.”

“You hated it too, huh?” Clint asks, which gets Lila to smile.

“It was really bad.” She pauses. “I never told her I saw her like that. She was in the barn. I ran away before she could find me.”

“Probably a good thing,” Clint answers conversationally. “She would’ve made you fight her. You never want to fight Auntie Nat when she’s angry, you know.”

Lila giggles. “I know.” She clears her throat hesitantly. “Um, I need to tell you something.”

“Shoot,” Clint answers, even though he already knows what’s coming thanks to years of parenting.

Lila lowers her voice to a whisper. “I’m not really sick. I just didn’t want to go to school because I’m sad.”

Clint bites down on the inside of his tongue, trying to hold in his pain. “Well,” he starts. “You know, sometimes we have to let ourselves be sad. Even if it means missing school.”

“We do?” Lila asks, looking at him in surprise, like she can’t believe he’s not going to go tattle on her despite the fact that she admitted she’d lied about staying home.

“Yes,” Clint says. “We do. I think I know how you feel, and I think I know how I can help you feel a little better.”

“You’re not going to make me go back to school, are you?” Lila asks in a small voice. Clint shakes his head, hugging her again.

“Nah, you could use a day off. Plus, I don’t want you to get everyone else sick. But I’ve got some errands to do, and I’m thinking maybe you could come with me? Fresh air always helps me when I’m not feeling well.” He leans over and smiles, pushing back hair from her eyes, and dabs at her nose. “Whaddya say? You wanna keep your boring dad company until your brothers get home from school? Maybe we can even do some archery if we get done early.”

Lila nods slowly. “Yes. I don’t wanna get dressed though.”

“Well, who said anything about getting dressed?” Clint points to his sweatpants. “Running errands in pajamas is totally the way to go.”

 

***

 

Clint knows that part of moving on is, well, actually moving on. But he’s never been good at moving on, and he knows he doesn’t want to move on from this. At the same time, he knows what it’s doing to his family and to himself when he’s not being the cheerful, put-together dad that he’s had to be his entire life. So he figures the only way to fix himself is to, well, fix what he can’t figure out.

Clint gives himself three and a half weeks after he comes home before he calls Bruce, and spends a half an hour arguing in his study with the door tightly closed, whisper-yelling so as not to draw attention from the rest of his family.

“Clint, please don’t ask me to do this.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you,” Clint answers forcefully. “Just send over what you have, and I’ll make sense of it.”

“Look, Clint, you’re a good guy and you’re smart -- you’re smarter than a lot of people would give you credit for, and I mean that.” Bruce pauses. “But even without the time travel stuff, this is complicated science. I couldn’t even figure it out without Tony. I don’t know what you’re going to get out of it.”

“Do you think I give a shit at this point what I do or don’t understand?” Clint asks angrily. “Just give me the goddamn files and let me look at them. Or are you worried that I’m gonna fuck up your work and do something that makes you snap away by accident?”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Bruce answers slowly. “You’re unstable right now, and you’re asking for things that you’re not thinking straight about.”

Clint’s blood boils at Bruce’s words, and he forces himself not to burst out in an angry yell. “First of all, if you think I’m unstable, you should see how I am every single day,” he responds hotly. “I make lunches and I put my kids to bed and I tell them stories and I do school pick-ups and I help Laura around the house, and no one suspects that I’m upset. So maybe you can do me the courtesy of believing me when I say I just want some fucking background on this stuff so I can see if there’s any possible way I can fix it, okay?”

Bruce is silent for a long time. “I miss her too, you know. And I wish there was a way to fix this. I think about that every day, Clint. But we’re all just trying to move on.”

“Yeah, well. I’m not. And I don’t want to.” He hangs up and only has a moment’s pause of how, years ago, he’d never consider doing something like hanging up on the Hulk.

Two days later, a fedex package arrives with a stack of papers, pages of notes, and a flash drive.

He hadn’t been lying -- he did want to make sense of it, all of the papers and all of the notes and all of the theories. But he knows he’s in over his head, because for as much as he learned practical knowledge over the years and studied what he never got to learn in a high school or in college, he was never a science nerd to the extent that Bruce and Tony and even Scott were.

He gathers the papers and the information with one promise to himself -- that he won’t let the work interfere with his everyday life and he won’t make Laura suspicious of the fact that he’s not exactly keeping his promise of trying to move on. He makes sure here’s there for his children when they’re waking up or coming home from school or having dinner or doing bedtime rituals, but late at night or early in the morning -- or on days when Laura goes out on her own -- he hunkers down in the basement with the papers spread out before him, making notes and trying to rationalize his thoughts.

“What are you doing?”

Clint doesn’t turn around at her voice, keeping his eyes focused on what’s in front of him. “Working.” He pushes his glasses up his nose. “I’ll be upstairs in a few, keep my dinner warm for a few minutes, okay? Just wanna finish this.”

Laura leans against the doorframe. “Is this about Natasha? About the stones?”

Clint doesn’t respond and Laura sighs quietly, moving into the room. “You said you’d stop.”

“Yeah, well. I lied,” Clint answers shortly, moving his gaze away from the papers. “What are you gonna do it about it?”

Laura shakes her head. “Nothing,” she says sadly, sitting down next to him and taking his hand. “Because I know there’s nothing I can do.”

“Right. So like I said, let me finish this and I’ll be up for dinner,” Clint repeats. “I’ll even do the dishes.”

Laura raises her eyebrows. “You’re going to have to do more than dishes at this point, Clint.”

That makes him turn around fully and he leans back in his chair, flinging his glasses off and letting them land on the floor as he crosses his arms.

“You know, with the way you’re talking, I almost wonder if you don’t want Natasha back.”

Laura’s mouth opens and closes in silence before her lips slot themselves into a neat thin line. “Clint, that’s completely unfair and completely uncalled for,” she says when she speaks again, her voice a measured yell. “You know I miss her just as much as you do. You know I’d do anything to get her back.”

“Yeah, well, the way you’re acting right now with not letting me focus on this seems like you want the opposite,” Clint snaps, the frustration coursing through his body. The truth is, he’s got no idea what Bruce’s notes mean. He knows that his friend sent them to him mostly out of pity and to shut him up, and he really has no idea how he’d even go about bringing her back short of taking another trip to Vormir which would require things like a spaceship, a new quantum platform, and another suit. But he can’t admit that, and so he needs to do the next best thing, which is exhaust every possible option of knowledge until he’s bled himself dry with nothing else to give him hope.

“You really believe that?” Laura asks, her voice both hard and sad. “After everything, after all our years together, you really believe that I wouldn’t want to get her back? That I’m fine with her just...just being dead?”

“So you do care about what I’m doing,” Clint argues, knowing that he’s not making this any easier but refusing to give in to both of their emotions.

“Of course I do!” Laura snaps back, and he can see tears starting to manifest in her eyes. “I want Natasha back, but I want my husband back, too!”

Clint looks down at his hands, noticing that they’re shaking more than they usually do after long hours without sleep or food. He clenches his fists, rolling his head to the side, meeting Laura’s eyes.

“You know I’m so happy I’m home. You know I don’t want to be anywhere else,” Clint starts slowly. “I know that I got lucky bringing you back. The days I spent without you, fuck...Laura, those five years I can’t even talk about --”

“I know,” Laura says quietly, threading their fingers together as her free hand strokes his hair.

“You don’t,” Clint says tiredly. “Because when I look at you and when I look at the kids, I can’t be grateful. All I can think about is how this is the consequence. Because we’re here, she’s dead. That’s the only goddamn reason I’m able to even sit here with you is because she’s dead and I can’t...I can’t…”

Laura kneads her fingers harder against his scalp. “No one is asking you to be okay,” she says softly. “I know it’s complicated.”

Clint huffs out a laugh, because complicated is probably the easiest way to put it. “You think?”

“I do,” Laura answers, her voice dropping into sadness. “I hate seeing you like this. I hate when you’re hurting and I can’t do anything about it.”

Clint swallows hard. “You can do something about it by letting me work and leaving me alone.”

Laura frowns and gets up, holding out her hand. “Maybe after dinner.”

Clint looks up, trying to muster up the strength for another retort, but he finds himself coming up empty and realizes he’s too tired to keep arguing. He takes her hand and lets her lead him up the stairs, but he purposely keeps the light in the basement on.

 

***

 

“Clint.”

“Mmmm.” He’s vaguely aware of someone saying his name, but he doesn’t feel like opening his eyes, especially once his brain starts to register the harsh pounding of rain against the farmhouse. He squints as someone pushes him, half of his cheek pushed deep into the pillow, focusing just enough to make out Laura’s lower half, which shows her wearing jeans and a green raincoat.

“Where you goin’?”

“Out,” Laura says simply. “Nate wants to visit a friend and I owe Coop and Lila a trip to the farmer’s market. Well, the indoor farmer’s market at least. It’s horrible out.”

“Duh,” Clint grunts, rolling over. He manages to open his other eye with intense effort. “Whaddya want me to do?”

“I thought you might want to have the day to yourself,” Laura says, and even in his half-asleep state, Clint can tell she’s trying to make some kind of truce after their argument the night before. “Maybe you can get some work done.”

He nods against the pillow, figuring he might as well accept the olive branch. “Thanks.”

Laura leans over, kissing him before leaving the room. He stays in bed listening to Lila run down the stairs, listening to Cooper throw a baseball against the wall in his room, listening to Nate whine sharply about not wanting to put on those ugly boots, until the door closes and the voices vanish. When he finally does get up, he finds the room chilly and damp and he realizes that he must have left the window open overnight.

Shivering slightly, he closes the bedroom window and pulls on an old SHIELD sweatshirt, letting it settle over his bare chest. Slippers on his feet and and last night’s coffee mug in hand, he exits the bedroom and makes his way to the kitchen, knowing Laura has at least already made the coffee he’s so desperately craving.

Maybe he’d go through more of Bruce’s papers today. He puts the old mug in the sink and pulls a new one from the cabinet, pouring from the carafe. As he sips the hot caffeine, listening to the rain outside, he lets his brain wander; there were more theories he needed to try to understand and he could look into some of the books that Bruce had listed in the small notebook he had sent along with the papers Clint had practically begged him for.

“A good soldier never sleeps,” he mutters as he takes another sip of coffee, startled by a sharp knock on the front door. He frowns at the empty house; it’s too early for a package or for the mail and he knows Laura would use her key if she needed to come home for something she’d forgotten. He considers maybe she did and Cooper or Lila or Nate have been sent in her stead, but he also knows those knocks would’ve been continued annoying raps inherent of children, not steady and hesitant pounds.

Maybe a neighbor then, or someone who had driven the wrong way and needed help finding direction. Granted, the last thing he wants to do right now is be civil to a stranger, especially when he hasn’t fully woken up yet, but Clint could certainly help if he needed to. He walks to the front door, the dark slab of wood making him unable to see who might be on the other side. Clint tenses, readying himself and trying to put his senses on alert just in case; he’s not entirely over letting his guard down when it comes to unauthorized visitors but, well...five years as Ronin has taught him that even if all he has is a coffee cup and a sweatshirt, he could defend himself pretty well, especially if he’s alone and doesn’t have to worry about anyone else in the house.

He opens the door, allowing some of the heavy rain to splatter onto his slippers as the wind pushes the water forward, and his heart stops. Clint blinks, struggling to remember how to breathe, grabbing onto the door frame to keep himself from passing out as the bones in his legs turn to liquid. The coffee cup he’s holding slips out of his hands and falls to the ground, shattering onto the floor as he stares at the person standing in front of him.

“Natasha?”