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July 2023

Natasha wakes up alone.

She blinks. She’s submerged in a pool of water, but she’s not wet. It takes her a moment to remember what happened - to remember arguing with Barton, throwing herself over the edge, then him tumbling after her, and her last desperate attempt with the arrow to try and save him, to try and stop him…

She doesn’t need to see the tiny orange stone nestled in her palm, glowing like a miniature sun, to know she failed. It’s there anyway. 

She doesn’t let herself cry. There isn’t time; she needs to get the Soul Stone back to the others. She just lets the knowledge that he’s gone settle into her body, her bones, creeping slowly like frost across glass. 

When she returns, her friends are beaming, triumphant, exhausted, but assured of their victory. Until they see her. “Shit,” Rhodey says, eyes wide. “What happened?”

Natasha tells them in as few words as possible. She leans her weight against Steve, who’s the closest, and he lets her. No one seems to know what to do, until finally Tony draws himself up and says, “Well, are we gonna do this or not?”

When it comes time to use the gauntlet, she steps forward and says, “It should be me. It should have been me.

“No, no, don’t be stupid, Romanov,” Tony says, in his infuriating way. “It should be me. I’m the one who built it, after all.”

“Nope,” Bruce says. “It’s gotta be me. That’s gamma radiation, I’ve already got a bunch of that coursing through my veins. What’s a little more gonna do to me?” He sounds so resolute, so determined, that for a single instant some tiny part of herself remembers what they could have had. In another life, maybe. 

Everyone seems too exhausted to fight him on it, Natasha included, and as he screams through the pain of the stones burning his arm and manages to snap his fingers, Natasha prays to every god she never had the luxury of believing in that this works. 

The world is silent for an eternity. Then, finally, someone’s phone rings. 

“Whose phone is that?” Steve asks, and a cold certainty seizes Natasha. She goes to answer it.

“Clint?” Laura’s voice is warm, but puzzled, like Clint was supposed to pick her up from town but forgot again. “Hon, what’s going on? Where’d you go?”

---

December 2002

When Clint asks her what she’s doing for the holidays, Natasha just stares at him.

“Y’know, Christmas?” he prompts. “Hanukkah? Solstice? Festivus?”

“I’ve heard of them,” she agrees. “Except that last one. Not sure what the hell that is.”

He sighs. “It’s a Seinfeld joke. Look, don’t tell me you don’t do holidays.”

“Would that really surprise you, Barton?”

“Don’t answer my question with a question, god, that’s so annoying. Seriously, it’s gonna be a ghost town here on Wednesday and probably the rest of the week too. Don’t you have any plans? Besides holing up in your bunk and reading Crime and Punishment or whatever.”

She snorts. “Is that seriously what you think Russians do in our free time?”

“C’mon, Nat. Stop dodging the question.”

He’s like a dog who knows there’s a treat hidden in her pocket, and she’s running out of toys to distract him with. She sighs and says, “Holidays are just humanity’s attempts to assign significance to arbitrary days in order to stave off existential despair.” 

“Nat, seriously. No plans? Because I have something to ask you.”

“Oh, Barton, I’m flattered but I think SHIELD frowns on relationships between agents.”

“You’re impossible,” he groans. “Look, I’m trying to ask you to come home for Christmas with me. Take the Thursday and Friday off, nothing’s gonna be going on around here anyway. You can see my farm and meet my wife. I’ve told Laura so much about you, she’s dying to meet you. And no one should be alone on Christmas, seriously.”

Natasha bristles. The idea of Clint talking about her to anyone, even his wife, makes her wary. “Don’t you two have plans?”

“Not really. Laura’s making Christmas lasagna and we’ll probably throw on It’s a Wonderful Life at some point, but we’re not planning on going anywhere or seeing anybody. Please?” He pouts like a child asking for candy. “I promise you’ll love her lasagna.”

“Will I?” She doesn’t give him the smile he clearly wants, but her lips twitch.

“Guaranteed,” he says. “Or your money back!”

“I’m not paying you anything, Clint.” Part of her is amused that he cares so much. Part of her wants to run. But this is Clint, and not only is he a persistent asshole, he’s done nothing over the last eight months to shake her trust in him. So after a moment of silence, she nods and says, “Fine. I’ll come home with you for Christmas. But I’m not getting you anything.”

“You don’t have to!” he says, beaming. “Laura’s gonna be so excited!”

A week and a half later, she’s in the front seat of Barton’s truck, watching the scenery go by and trying to ignore his supremely awful “singing.” “I play my part and you play your gaaaame, yooooooou give loooooooove a bad name!”

“Don’t quit your day job,” she teases after the song ends. 

“Hey!” He shoots her a hurt look. “No need to be mean.”

“Not mean, honest.” She closes her eyes and lets herself settle back into the seat. 

Clint’s farmhouse is almost unbearably quaint. It’s the kind of picture that comes up when you think of a “farmhouse”: two stories, cream paint with a faded green roof, an American flag waving on the porch, and matching green shutters on all the windows. Natasha catches a glimpse of the slightly sagging but still functional barn a few hundred yards behind it, snow dusting the roof. A chestnut horse in the field, wearing a plaid blanket, raises its head to watch as the truck approaches, then goes back to grazing. 

“Aw,” she coos. “Look at you, all wholesome rural Americana.”

Clint snorts. “Yeah, we do our best. That’s Pete,” he says, nodding at the horse as they drive by. “He’s dumb as a post, but he can pull the hay cart, which is all we need. You ever ridden a horse?”

“No,” Natasha says. “Why would you think that I’ve ever ridden a horse?”

“Dunno. You can if you want. Pete’s dumb, but he’s good for beginners ‘cause he never spooks at anything.” Clint steers the trunk into a vaguely truck-shaped patch of dirt in front of the house and parks it. “C’mon, let’s get inside. Laura’s probably started dinner already.”

Clint turns the knob and opens the front door - which means they leave it unlocked, her brain tells her before she swats that impulse away - and calls “Hey honey, we’re here!” as he steps inside. Natasha, taking a defensive crouch out of habit, follows him. 

A young brunette woman comes around the corner and throws her arms around Clint, kissing him. “Hi,” she says once they break apart. “Missed you.”

“Missed you,” he murmurs, resting his forehead against hers. Then he leans back and glances at Natasha. “Laura, this is Natasha. Natasha, my wife Laura.”

Laura turns to Natasha and smiles at her. Natasha opens her mouth intending to say something sarcastic like “no, I figured this was your maid,” but instead she croaks, “Hi.” A strange feeling is twisting its way through her, something she’s not sure how to name. Laura has beautiful warm brown eyes and the kindest smile Natasha’s ever seen. 

“Hi,” Laura says, coming over to her as if to hug her, then pausing. “Oh, wait, would you like a hug? I’m a hugger, but no pressure.” She offers her hand instead. “Handshake?”

Natasha blinks. No one’s ever asked her if she wants a hug. They’ve just...either hugged her or not. “I can hug,” she says, feeling weirdly stiff as she puts her arms around Laura. 

Laura gives her a quick squeeze and then steps back. “It’s so good to meet you,” she says. “Clint’s told me so much about you.”

“Has he?” Natasha glances over at Clint, who has the decency to look sheepish. “What’s he said?”

“All good things,” Laura promises, her smile brilliant. “How you’ve saved his ass half a dozen times already, how you’re the best brawler he’s ever seen, how you’re a huge pain in his ass but he wouldn’t have a better partner.”

“Wow,” Natasha says, smirking at Clint. “Careful, Barton, people might think you like me or something.”

“She’s allergic to feelings,” Clint explains to Laura, which makes Natasha roll her eyes. 

“I’m not allergic. They’re just pointless.”

Laura nods. “I understand that. It’s hard for Mr. Softie here to comprehend, I think.” She reaches over to ruffle his hair. “He has every feeling.”

“Babe, stop ruining my cool tough guy agent image,” Clint whines playfully, twisting away from her hand before grabbing her for another kiss.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Natasha deadpans. 

Laura giggles, kissing Clint and then winking at Natasha. “You might have the right idea, Natasha. All husbands do is pretend they’re cooler than they are.” Clint makes an offended noise and she kisses him as if in apology.

It should bother Natasha, watching her coworker act like this with his wife. Public displays of affection make her uncomfortable and she’s never sure how to react. (Then again, how “public” is this, in their own home?) Oddly, watching them together makes that weird feeling twist through her again. She glances at the floor, feeling suddenly like Laura is the sun and she shouldn’t be staring at her.

“Sorry,” Laura says, when she notices Natasha’s discomfort. “Got carried away. Really rude of me. Do you want anything to drink? There’s only a couple minutes left on the food, you and Clint can probably sit at the table if you want. We’ve got water, juice, beer, probably a bottle of wine somewhere - you’re old enough to drink, aren’t you?” 

Point of fact, Natasha’s not sure exactly how old she is, but she shrugs and says, “I’m Russian, we start early.” That makes Laura laugh, and the warm feeling grows.

Soon enough, they’re all seated and digging into their steak and potatoes. Clint’s telling Laura a story about some of the younger agents’ attempted pranks on Fury and how it backfired when his cat scared the shit out of them. Laura’s laughing so hard tears roll down her face, and Natasha’s heart knocks against her chest. She ignores it and takes a second helping of potatoes.

Before they all go to bed, Laura takes Natasha into the living room and gestures to the three stockings hanging above the fireplace. “Sorry, yours was a last-minute purchase so it’s not that personalized. Mostly gift cards and candy. I hope you like candy? We can get other candy if you don’t like that candy. It’s mostly chocolate anyway. I just didn’t want you to-”

“No!” Natasha says, then regrets it when Laura looks startled. “Sorry, I just...this is really nice, Laura. Thank you. Don’t worry about it, this is more of a Christmas than I’ve ever had before.” She doesn’t mean it in a sad way, it’s just a fact.

But Laura gives her a look like she’s just said her dog died and says, “You’re always welcome for Christmas here, okay?”

“Thank you,” Natasha says again, and even though she’s unable to comprehend it (it seems absurdly generous, because Laura has just met her, what does she really know about her?), she doesn’t hate the idea.

They stay at the farm until Sunday afternoon. Normally Natasha would be climbing the walls after five straight days with anyone, but Clint is Clint, and Laura...Laura is something else. 

Laura offers her a choice of hot cocoa or coffee with breakfast each morning, and on the second morning Natasha gives in to curiosity and asks for hot cocoa. “Good choice,” Clint says eagerly as he waits for his own cup of cocoa. “She makes the best cocoa ever.”

“You think everything I make is ‘the best ever,’” Laura calls fondly. 

“Because it is!” Clint insists. 

Natasha’s not sure what to expect, but Laura’s hot cocoa really is delicious. It’s rich and thick and has just the right mix of sweetness (and, as Clint whispers when Laura’s gone to get eggs, just enough cinnamon to give it a kick). “Old family recipe,” Laura explains with a grin. “My grandma taught me everything I know about food.”

Natasha can’t imagine that, someone teaching her to cook. But she nods and says, “It’s very good.”

Over the next few days, she finds herself watching Laura. Not quite the way she usually watches people; it’s not risk assessment or sizing up a target. But she doesn’t know how else to get to know people. 

Laura doesn’t seem to mind. She doesn’t push Natasha to join her in whatever she’s doing, but she does ask politely if she wants to. Nine times out of ten, Natasha ends up either agreeing or hovering in Laura’s general proximity. 

It’s not even that Laura does anything particularly interesting. She’s usually either doing farm chores, cleaning the house, reading, or doing jigsaw puzzles. She has a new one Clint got her for Christmas that’s some sort of complicated cat collage. “I like cats,” Laura explains, looking a little sheepish. “But I’m allergic. So cat puzzles are the best I can get.”

“Ah,” Natasha says, tilting her head to study the picture on the box. “Do you only do cat puzzles?”

“Oh god, no,” Laura laughs. “I sort of collect them? It’s silly but it relaxes me. I like having something to focus on, something that I can see my progress as I’m going. And I like the feeling and the noise when the pieces snap together.” As she talks, she snaps one piece into place. 

“I see,” Natasha nods, even though she doesn’t.

“Also my mom used to buy them for me. She had to work a lot, but she tried to buy me new puzzles when she had the money, and when she had a day off and I didn’t have school we’d leave the TV on and work on a puzzle all day.” Laura smiles, as if lost in thought.

“I can understand that. Sorry I’m…” Natasha trails off, moving her hands around because she’s not sure what else to do with them. Sorry I have no idea how to relate to people with normal childhoods? Sorry I ask uncomfortable questions? “Sorry,” she finishes lamely. 

Laura shrugs. “It’s okay. You really don’t have to hang around in here, I think Clint’s outside chopping wood or something. I’m really boring, I know.”

“You’re not boring,” Natasha insists. “I don’t know what else I’d be doing, anyway.”

“You can help, if you want,” Laura offers. “I mean, I don’t mind you watching, but if you want to.”

So Natasha sits down in the chair on the other side of the card table and studies the pieces before her. She’s not much for small talk, and Laura seems to understand that and says, “Has Clint told you about how we met?”

“No.” Natasha tips her head in curiosity. Normally she finds “how we met” stories inane, but she likes listening to Laura talk.

“Alright, so when he starts this story he always insists on mentioning that he had just been tragically dumped by a fellow agent, and he took a couple of weeks off to lick his wounds and decided to go stay in a cute little bed and breakfast in a random town. He googled around and found one in a little Pennsylvania town that looked really cute, so he said what the hell…”

On Saturday afternoon, while Clint is taking a nap, Laura says, “I’m gonna watch my favorite Christmas movie, you want to join me?”

Natasha’s never seen a Christmas movie before this trip. It’s a Wonderful Life had been surprisingly tolerable, but she suspects that most Christmas movies lean heavy on the saccharine and heartwarming. She’s already sharpened and polished all the knives she brought, though, and she doesn’t really have anything better to do, so she shrugs and says, “Sure.”

“Great,” Laura beams. “You want popcorn?”

Natasha nods and goes into the TV room to plop herself in front of the couch. The sound of the popper floats in and, over it, Laura calls, “Do you like butter or seasoning? I’ve got cheese powder and garlic.” 

“Surprise me.”

Laura returns with a giant bowl full of popcorn dripping with butter and covered in cheese powder. “I went a little overboard,” she says apologetically, offering a napkin. “Clint and I both love this shitty cheese powder, but if he’s around when I make cheese popcorn he tries to hog the bowl.”

“That’s okay.” Natasha grins and takes first the napkin and then a handful of popcorn. 

Laura pops a VHS tape into the player and fast forwards through the commercials. Natasha prepares herself for a cute child or whimsical music.

Instead, the title screen comes up and she squints to make sure she’s seeing it right. “ Die Hard ?” Natasha asks, raising an eyebrow and glancing over at Laura. 

Laura’s grinning like a little kid. “Just watch,” she says eagerly. “It takes place at Christmas, it counts as a Christmas movie. Clint’s a sap for It’s a Wonderful Life , but this one’s my Christmas movie.”

The movie’s great, and Natasha definitely prefers this to what she was picturing when Laura said “Christmas movie” - but she ends up spending at least part of it just watching Laura watch the movie. Laura laughs at every joke, bounces in her seat during the action scenes, and even mouths along with some of the lines. “Sorry,” she says when she notices Natasha watching her. “This is my favorite movie, I get kind of into it.”

“It’s okay, you’re having fun.”

Clint pokes his head in just before the end and when he sees what they’re watching, he grunts, “Yippee ki-yi yay,” before giving them a salute and retreating.

“He doesn’t like Bruce Willis,” Laura stage-whispers to Natasha. 

Natasha snorts. “Jealous, is he?”

Laura winks. “A little. Doesn’t like Liv Tyler much either, for the same reason.”

That takes Natasha by such surprise that all she can say is, “Oh.” It’s one thing for her stupid body to be attracted to Laura - who she has just met and who is Clint’s wife - but it’s quite another to hear Laura hint at being attracted to women right in front of her. 

Laura immediately looks ashamed. “I’m sorry, that was weird. I didn’t mean to make things weird. You don’t need to know what or who I like or don’t like.” She glances at Natasha once, then quickly looks away, playing with the edge of the popcorn bowl.

Her sudden shyness makes Natasha bold. “It’s okay. Me too. Well, I don’t know who Liv Tyler is, but.” She shrugs. “I like both.”

“Oh.” Laura smiles, still looking a bit shy. “Well, um, great then. I mean, obviously same here so it’s...cool. I haven’t met a lot of people since college who...yeah.” She’s turning pink, and it’s adorable. 

“Me neither,” says Natasha, trying to stay casual even though her face feels annoyingly hot..

Just then, Clint pokes his head in again. “Oh good, you’re done. You guys wanna play Catan before dinner?”

Natasha’s startled, but she keeps herself calm and just raises an eyebrow. “Catan?”

“Settlers of Catan,” Laura explains, a little flustered herself. “It’s, um, a board game. It’s like, you’re trying to get resources to build roads and buildings and have the best settlements? Kind of a strategy game, I guess.”

“You’ll like it,” Clint promises, seeing Natasha’s doubtful expression.

Natasha is less confident, although it does turn out to be a fun game when she absolutely dominates Clint and, an hour later, earns her tenth point and wins the game.

“Aw,” he grumbles when she smirks triumphantly at him. “Beginner’s luck.”

Laura’s eyes are gleaming. “We should play Risk after dinner and see if that luck holds.”

“Oh what the hell, I’m getting my ass kicked either way. How about it, Nat? It’s even more up your alley, it’s about conquering the world through dice combat.”

Natasha’s riding the high of Laura’s smile, so she nods and says, “Sounds good to me.”

Laura beckons her into the kitchen to “help with dinner,” which turns out to be Laura whispering in her ear, “Want to team up in that game? We can beat him together.”

Ignoring the pleasant shivers running down her spine, Natasha agrees.

Risk turns out to be more of a chance-based game than Catan, but Natasha finds herself getting into this one more. Maybe that’s because she enjoys “attacking” Clint with the dice, or maybe it’s because Laura keeps grinning over at her whenever one of them wins a “battle.” Either way, it’s intensely satisfying to conquer Clint’s final territory (the Ukraine, which amuses her) and wipe him off the board. 

“I regret bringing you here,” sighs Clint to Natasha as she and Laura high-five. “At least when it’s just the two of us I win sometimes.”

“How do you know I’m not just letting you win?” Laura teases, and Clint sticks out his tongue at her.

Of course, her allegiance with Laura dissolves the instant Clint’s off the board. Natasha expected nothing less, and is even pleased when Laura starts a vicious attack on her greatest strongholds (Brazil and Ural). “All’s fair in love and war,” Laura says cheerfully, handing her the defensive dice. 

Natasha decides to ignore her impulse to say something slightly inappropriate and instead goes with, “If you had rolled over and let me win ‘cause of our former alliance, I’d feel patronized.”

“Never,” Laura says eagerly. 

“Wow,” Clint laughs. “So you’ll let me win but not her?”

Laura nods and gestures for Natasha to roll her dice. “Yep.”

Natasha does her best, but ultimately it’s Laura who wins. “Thank you, thank you,” she says, bowing dramatically as they golf-clap for her. “I promise to be a benevolent ruler. Minimal dictator behavior.”

“Glad to hear it, babe.” Clint leans over to give her a kiss. “Benevolent overlords all the way.”

“Are you accepting applications for an advisor?” Natasha asks playfully.

“I’ll consider it,” Laura says with a wink.

--- 

January 2003

It’s been weeks since Christmas and she can’t get Laura out of her head. It’s really annoying.

“Laura likes you,” Clint says one day as they’re walking to a meeting. “She keeps asking how you’re doing.”

Natasha keeps her face totally neutral, like Clint’s just commented on the weather. “That’s nice of her.”

“Yeah.” Clint looks like a little kid with a secret. “You want her email?”

That makes Natasha’s lips twitch. “What?”

“Her email. You know.” Clint mimes typing on a keyboard. “I’d give you her phone number but service is shit out there and texts never go through. Laura and I mostly email unless something urgent’s going on. It’s all encrypted and shit. I thought you might wanna get in on that.”

“Clint, I can’t email your wife.”

His brow furrows. “Why not?”

“Because…” Natasha shakes her head. “She’s your wife , Clint.”

“Well, yeah, duh,” Clint says, rolling his eyes. “But I don’t own her, Nat. She’s her own person and stuff. And she likes you. She really likes you.”

“Oh?” Natasha’s insides kind of feel like they’re on fire.

“Yeah. And I know you don’t wanna admit it, but you like her too.” He flinches once he gets that sentence out, like he’s expecting a death glare or a punch on the arm or something. But Natasha just stares at him.

“I don’t-” She shakes her head again. “She’s important to me, but so are you.”

“Oh my god, just send her one email,” Clint sighs. “Laura’s a grownass adult and so are you. We worked it all out between us, she can date and fuck whoever as long as she’s safe about it and stuff. She wants to get to know you better. Whatever happens happens. Also, how could I be mad, you have the best taste ever in women.” This does get him a shove, which he accepts with a laugh. 

Natasha’s never had a penpal before. She’s also never genuinely tried to flirt with someone in text form. She’s left flirty voicemails and sent some dirty messages to targets, but this is something new. She has no idea what to do.

She finally starts typing: Hi Laura, Clint gave me your email. Thanks for being so nice at Christmas. I liked hanging out with you. 

Jesus. She sounds like a child being forced to write to a cousin they barely know and only vaguely tolerate.

Hi Laura, Clint gave me your email. I feel ridiculous writing like this, but I do want to talk to you more. I really enjoyed spending Christmas with you. Your smile is

Nope. This is ridiculous. Natasha sighs and, after much deliberation, finally sends this:

HI Laura, Clint thought we should be email penpals and I agree. Please excuse my writing style, I don’t have a lot of friends.

Immediately after hitting send, she books it for the gym and punches a sandbag for thirty minutes. That helps distract her a little. Of course, once she’s finished, she checks her email immediately. 

Hi Natasha! I’m excited to talk with you more and I’d like us to be friends. You can tell me as much or as little about yourself as you want, absolutely no pressure. :) Are you comfortable with me asking you questions or do you want to start by asking me things?

After a few minutes of frantic googling icebreaker questions, Natasha replies.

N: I’ll start by asking you some questions. Where would you spend all your time if you could? If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time? What’s your favorite smell? Who’s had the most impact on your life? (I’m sorry if these questions are inane. I got them from the internet. Like I said, not a lot of friends.)

L: No worries, I don’t mind internet questions! I’m used to much sillier ice breakers. I was an English major in college. :)

  • I’d spend all my time at my favorite coffee shop in town, if I could. It’s my favorite place to work, and I’m friends with some of the baristas so sometimes they give me free drinks or day-old pastries. I can’t go very often because the parking in horrible and it’s almost an hour’s walk from the farm, and the buses here are a joke, so unless I go first thing in the morning and plan to stay there at least half the day it’s not really practical. Plus I don’t like leaving the farm unattended that long. But anyway, it’s a really cute place: comfy chairs and couches, really good coffee, amazing pastries, and they have a little lending library and a quiet room for people who are there to work. I’ve written some of my best articles there.
  • That would be really bad, actually. I’d spend half the time either writing or procrastinating writing and the other half looking at catalogues and dreaming up decorations for the house. Basically what I do now, but more. Maybe I’d have to take up knitting or embroidery or something. I swore I’d never be a knitter but if I had nothing better to do…
  • My favorite smell is right after the rain, the dirt and trees and everything. I like to go sit out on the porch as the rain stops and just breathe it in. Or apple cinnamon candles. Clint makes fun of me because every time we go past a store that has candles I have to go find the apple cinnamon one and smell it. He swears they all smell the same, but they don’t. I buy the ones that smell best. I have a little collection. Is that dorky?
  • My mom, for sure. She’s been my hero all my life. After my dad walked out on us when I was three, she worked her ass off to make sure I had the best life she could give me. She ended up the regional manager of the local grocery chain, which means crazy hours but she did her best to be there for me. I know it was really hard and stressful for her but she did her best not to take it out on me or show how stressed she was. She brought me to work whenever she could so we could kind of hang out, and some of my favorite memories are of reading in a beanbag chair in her office while she answered phone calls. Sometimes if I need to relax I turn on audio of customer service calls.

Wow, this email is practically a novel. Sorry! Hope I didn’t bore you. Feel free to tell me to write less next time. :)

Natasha blinks at the screen. This kind of emotional openness takes her completely by surprise. Usually she’d be reading through this email for weak spots, trying to figure out how to best take the target out. But this...this is just getting to know someone. For no other reason than that she wants to.

She does end up reading the email several times. She can hear Laura’s voice in her writing - so warm and bright and welcoming. If she really concentrates she can imagine Laura is here, telling her these stories face to face.

She deliberates for a deeply silly amount of time before writing back.

N: That coffee shop sounds really nice. Never been a coffee shop person myself, but I’d like to see it. Does Clint like it?

Most people say they’d work more if they didn’t need to sleep. You’re the first I’ve seen who actually admits they wouldn’t. I like your honesty. Also I’d like to see you knitting, it’d be cute.

They should make candles of that after-rain smell. That’d be perfect for you. Do you buy those cinnamon-scented pine cones at Christmas too? I promise I won’t judge if you do. :)

Your mom sounds like an amazing person. Thanks for sharing all that with me. Are you still close with her? 

And you don’t have to apologize. I like reading your answers. Judging from that email, you’re a great writer.

Laura’s emails start to become something she looks forward to. Soon she knows all about Laura’s mom Delilah and her Grandpa Don and Grandma Dorothy, who Laura called Dodo. Dodo taught her how to make the lasagna Natasha and Clint love so much, and how to clean pots and pans so that they sparkle, and Grandpa Don taught her how to tell a really good story. 

L: They used to give me a sentence and then have me make up a story based on it, Laura writes. They’d set a timer and I’d just talk and talk and keep going until time was up. Dodo would write it down for me, until I learned to write for myself of course, and then after the timer went off Grandpa Don would go through and tell me what was good and what needed “tweaking.” He didn’t ever say anything I wrote was bad, just that it needed “tweaking.” He used to be a fiction editor before he retired so he really knew what he was talking about. I think that made me a better writer than any real class ever could.

N: Sounds nice. Are you still close with them?

L: Oh, no, Grandpa Don passed when I was in high school. Dodo held out until my sophomore year of college, and my mom...like I said before, cancer got her a few months after I met Clint. It wasn’t a huge shock, she’d had some health issues already, but it sucked. But Clint was so great during that time - part of the reason I fell so hard for him was that he knew exactly what I needed, and when I needed space. He’s good like that.

N: He is. I’m so sorry. 

Natasha considers writing more than that, but everything she thinks of feels too trite.

L: Sometimes I think - this is so weird but sometimes I can feel my mom looking over my shoulder when I’m doing a puzzle. Like she’s still there and she’s going to reach out and find the exact piece I need. Does that sound stupid?

It does, a little, but Natasha understands what she means. 

N: No, I get it. Sorry for making you sad. We can talk about something else.

L: No, it’s good to talk about it. And they’re a part of me, you know? I want you to know about them.

She starts listening to Joan Jett and Sleater-Kinney and Fleetwood Mac and Tegan and Sara, because Laura says they’re her favorites. Clint, with his slightly more dad rock taste, seems amused but slightly baffled. “I don’t really get this music,” he admits when Natasha puts on a Joan Jett CD to work out to one day. “I mean, I get it, but it just seems really loud to me. I’m not punk enough, I guess.” 

Natasha snickers. “Nothing about you is punk, Barton.”

After a few weeks, Laura writes, So are you comfortable with me asking you questions? It’s okay if not, and you don’t have to answer them if you don’t want to. I’d like to get to know you better, but I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.

This, like when she asked if Natasha wanted a hug at Christmas, catches Natasha off-guard and makes her more inclined to agree. 

N: Go ahead. I just won’t answer something if I’m not comfortable with it. 

L: Okay! :) Here are my questions then:

  • If you could go anywhere in the world to relax, where would you go and why?
  • What is your favorite kind of pie?
  • Have you ever been in love? If so, how did it end?
  • If you could turn into any type of animal, what would you turn into and why? Or would you opt not to turn into an animal at all?

These questions are fine. These questions aren’t pushy or invasive, they’re just goofy. She doesn’t mind answering these.

N:

  • I actually don’t find travel all that relaxing, to be honest. Bad associations. But if I had to pick, I’d want to go to a remote beach somewhere, with as few people as possible. I’d lay on the beach and read, or sunbathe, or whatever, maybe go for a swim. I’d make sure nobody could find me until I wanted to be found.
  • You’re probably expecting me to list some sort of fruit pie, but I haven’t tried very many of those. My favorites are actually pirozhki, which is sort of a pie that’s usually got meat and vegetables in it. They’re really common in Russia. Clint tried to tell me that’s just a Hot Pocket and I still haven’t forgiven him for it. Pirozhki are flavorful and delicious, dammit. Hot Pockets are an abomination of a food.
  • Nope. I’ve never been in love. Nothing to end.
  • I would want to be something small and unobtrusive, that can go unnoticed. I thought maybe a squirrel, but they can be so dumb that I’d worry I’d end up as one of the dumb ones. Also, I wouldn’t want to be a prey animal. I think I’d like to be an owl - they’re silent fliers so they can usually unnoticed, they have very few natural predators, and they’re beautiful but deadly. I can relate, I guess. :)

L: Oh, that makes sense. Sorry! Didn’t mean to bring up bad memories. A remote beach sounds nice though. I’d ask if I could tag along, but I guess that would be missing the point.

Clint does love his Hot Pockets… Sorry about his abysmal taste. You can take the boy out of the frat, etc. But pirozhkis sound really good! Do you know how to make them? (Also, I’m totally making you a fruit pie sometime.)

I could see you as an owl. Maybe one of those with the white faces. Barn owl! I had to google it. One of my college roommates hated owls, couldn’t stand them, said they were creepy, but I’ve always thought they were so pretty. I think that definitely suits you.

Natasha can tell when people are flirting with her. It’s not exactly a rare occurrence. But there’s something especially endearing about Laura’s gentle flirting.

N: I could be persuaded to let you come along, maybe. ;)

No, I don’t know how to make them. I always just bought them if I wanted one, or they were served to me. I’m sure there’s recipes online. Why do you ask? And I’d love to taste one of your pies.

I was thinking a barn owl too. What about you, what animal would you pick?

L: Wait, really? I didn’t expect that to work at all. When do we leave?

Oh, I just thought maybe you could show me how to make them if you knew. I’ll do some investigating, I’m sure I can find a good recipe somewhere. 

Hm...is it boring if I just say a cat? I’d like to pick something cooler than a housecat, so let’s say a lion or a leopard. Actually, definitely a lion, I’m the one who does all the dirty work around here!

N: I don’t think SHIELD’s going to let me off that easy, unfortunately. They tend to not like it when their assassins sneak off to remote beaches. But I’ll keep it in mind. If you ever hear someone knocking on your window in the middle of the night, it’s me.
You really don’t have to do that. But thank you.

A lioness is perfect for you. You have to promise you wouldn’t eat me, though. 

It’s a little on the nose, but what the hell.

L: That sounds awfully romantic. But also dangerous. How will I know it’s not a burglar knocking at my window?

I want to! Ask Clint, I make food for people I like.

WELL...I can’t promise that. ;)

N: Burglars aren’t exactly known for knocking before coming in. I think it’ll be pretty obvious it’s me.

You’re making me blush like a schoolgirl. Is this the part where I send you a note that says “check yes or no”?

L: I think I was the one that did that, by asking Clint to ask you to email me. :) Also I don’t believe you’re blushing, you’re a scary ex-assassin. Have you ever blushed in your life?

N: Damn, that line usually works. You’re too smart.

L: Thanks, I try to be. Hey, so do people make a lot of Anastasia jokes around you?

N: ...as in the Russian royal? I think they’re too scared to. I’ve never heard any.

L: I should show you the movie sometime. I can’t imagine it’s very popular in Russia ‘cause it’s wildly inaccurate. Rasputin does necromancy and has a talking bat friend.

N: You know what, it’s probably not the worst bastardization I’ve ever seen. You know Clint’s ringtone for me is that stupid song that goes “ra ra Rasputin Russia’s greatest love machine”? Bastard.

L: Oh yeah. He made mine “You Give Love a Bad Name” because he thinks it’s funny.

After they’ve spent a few weeks emailing back and forth, Natasha mostly asking the questions but answering whatever Laura asks her, Natasha has the uncomfortable revelation that she likes this woman a lot. 

Like, really likes her. A dangerous amount.

And it’s that realization that makes her write an email one day that says, You know who I am, right? What I’ve done?

Laura wouldn’t have any reason to know, of course, if she were just a normal citizen. But Natasha’s not sure how much Clint’s told Laura about her, if anything. She’s also not sure which would be better: if Laura has no idea who she is, or if she knows and still chooses to talk to her.

L: What do you mean? I know you’re Clint’s partner, Natasha Romanov, former KGB agent trained in the Red Room before you joined SHIELD. I know that you’ve done a lot of things you’re not proud of, and you want to make up for those things now, through your SHIELD work. I know you’re funny, and you like pirozhki and vodka and peanut butter sandwiches, and you don’t cry at movies, and you’ve never been in love. Is there anything else I need to know?

This question is stated so plainly that it makes Natasha laugh. She can picture the look on Laura’s face as she asks it: curious, eager, a little confused. Laura isn’t asking with any ulterior motives; it’s not a trick question. She genuinely wonders if she should be concerned about the things Natasha’s done. It’s naive, but also adorable.

Still, this seems too good to be true. 

N: Well, I’ve committed war crimes in four countries, murdered and tortured dozens, including a few children, set a hospital on fire which definitely killed at least a hundred more people, and I’ve lost count of the ways I know how to maim someone. But it’s a lot.

Laura doesn’t write back for almost twenty four hours. Natasha does her best not to think about it (she only sort of succeeds). Then, finally, a new email shows up. 

L: Don’t you think I went through this with Clint too?

N: Yeah, but Clint wasn’t literally a KGB assassin. It’s different, Laura. I’m different.

L: Not to me it isn’t. I like you , Tasha. And I think people can be more than their pasts. I don’t scare away that easily. :)

N: You’re taking this too lightly. War crimes, torture? I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about who I am.

L: Let me be the judge of that. I’m not a kid, Tasha. I can make my own choices, and I choose you.

“Sooooo,” Clint asks her a few days later. “How are you doing?”

“Fine.” Natasha shrugs a little. “Just doing prep work for that mission in Bulgaria. How many guns are you taking? Because I was thinking minimum four, but I don’t want to get there and be underprepared.”

Clint snorts. “Not what I meant, Nat.”

“I don’t know what you could possibly mean, Barton.”

“Oh my god,” he groans. “You’re emailing Laura! You guys have been emailing for weeks! And I caught you almost smiling earlier when you thought nobody was looking! Which means it’s going well! Or you’re thinking about murder, which is also possible but less good.”

That makes Natasha snort. “Well, I’m thinking about murder now.”

“No you’re not,” Clint says gleefully, “you wouldn’t do anything to me because it’d make your new girlfriend sad.” He drags out “girlfriend” like they’re in elementary school.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” grumbles Natasha, “and you’re being really weird about this.”

Clint shrugs. “I just like seeing my wife and my best friend happy. Doesn’t seem that weird to me.”

Natasha’s not sure how to take that, so she just shrugs and keeps walking.

N; So, Clint keeps asking me questions about “how it’s going” like an annoying middle schooler who set up two of his friends on a date. Does he does that to you too?

L: Yep. He’s insufferable once he’s got an idea in his head. Once I suggested we reroof the barn and he drove home every weekend for two months until it was done. I’m sorry. I probably got him started on this in the first place.

N: Oh, I don’t blame you at all. There are thousands of people I could be emailing or talking to. But I picked my annoying friend’s wife, and now here we are. 

L: Well, I’m the one who asked Clint to give you my email. :) Clint and I are both suckers for pretty girls.

N: Mrs. Barton, you’re trying to seduce me. ;)

L: Perhaps. Is it working?

At this point, Natasha has to go work out and then take a longer than usual shower. It’s not like she’s a virgin, for god’s sake...but this is the first time she’s considered sleeping with someone because she wants them, and not just out of physical necessity or for a job. Actually wanting someone is...weird.

N: Can I see you soon? I want to see you.

Laura’s response is almost immediate 

L: C ould you maybe come for a long weekend? Maybe when you and Clint get back from - oh shit I almost typed it out and sent it. So much for security! From your next assignment?

Their assignment in Bulgaria is supposed to last almost two weeks, and that suddenly seems so impossibly long that Natasha lets out an involuntary whine. Then she bites her lip, acutely embarrassed even though no one’s around to hear her.

N: I can do that, yeah. What do you like?

L: You? :) Honestly, Tasha, we can do whatever you want that weekend. It doesn’t have to be sex. I don’t want to push you into anything. 

N: Laura, I want this. I want you.

Natasha types “please” and then decides that too much. This is already a thousand times more vulnerable than she’s been with anyone before.

L: Okay :) I want you too, I just didn’t want to be a pushy old creep.

N: You’re not pushy. And we’re like five or six years apart, not thirty. You’re fine. 

The most annoying part is the look on Clint’s face when she tells him. “This is so great! I was thinking of taking a fishing trip after we got back anyway. I can drive you to the farm and then camp at the lake for the whole weekend.”

Natasha glances around before murmuring, “Most people wouldn’t be helping their wife cheat on them with their coworker, weirdo.”

“Dude, how many times do I have to tell you it’s not cheating?” Clint rolls his eyes. “We all know about it and are okay with it. Not cheating. Besides, I really do wanna go fishing, and Laura hates it.”

“You don’t want to...I don’t know, supervise? Watch two hot women fuck?”

“I don’t wanna watch you fuck,” he retorts, grinning. “Like, you’re objectively hot, I’ve seen your tits, you have great tits. But I don’t think we’re in the ‘watch each other fuck’ stage of friendship yet. Also, I dunno, I want it to be special for you guys and not get in the way.”

Natasha makes a face. “Please don’t tell me you’ve thought about me having sex with Laura. That would be the weirdest thing.”

“I haven’t! I just, I know how it goes, most people who are attracted to each other fuck. You guys are attracted to each other.”

“Fine, alright, whatever. After Bulgaria.”

---

When Clint stops the truck in front of the house, he winks over at her. “Have fun, stud.”

“Ew.” She shoves him. “Please never say anything like that ever again. I know where you sleep.”

His shiteating grin doesn’t waver. “Seriously. Laura’s great. I hope you guys have a good weekend.”

Natasha jumps out of the truck and drags her SHIELD-issued duffel bag (it’s not sexy but it’s the only one she has) with her. “Hope you get bit by a fish, Barton.”

“Wow. And this is the thanks I get for setting you up with my wife.”

She flips him off and heads for the house. 

“Love you!” he hollers at Laura, who blows him a kiss from where she’s standing on the porch.

And then she and Laura are standing in front of each other, and she doesn’t know what to do.

“Hi,” Laura says, eyes soft.

“Hi,” Natasha says. “You look good.” She glances down at Laura’s dress, blue with little daisies on it. She wouldn’t be caught dead in it, but it suits Laura. “Cute dress.”

“It’s my favorite,” Laura says, grinning. “Even though it kind of makes me look like a farmer’s daughter.”

“Or a farmer,” Natasha points out. “Which you are.”

“All this was Clint’s idea, mostly,” Laura laughs, waving her hand to indicate the general farm. “But I don’t mind most of it. The chickens are sweet and Pete adores me even if he never wants to do anything except eat and stand around. It does get a little lonely when Clint’s not home, but I make do.” She shrugs. “Anyway, c’mon in.” She takes Natasha’s hand gently. “I made you a pie.”

Natasha raises both eyebrows. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“But I promised.” Laura tugs her inside. “Plus I like baking for pretty girls.”

It’s so different from when targets used to call her pretty, or even Madame B. Because Laura would say it even if she didn’t want to sleep with Natasha, even if she wanted nothing at all from her. Natasha believes Laura when she says it.

She follows Laura inside, noticing the warm pie smell immediately. “I could get used to this,” she says wryly. 

Laura giggles. “What, the pie?”

“The pie...and the woman who made it waiting for me.” Natasha steps closer to her. “Thank you,” she murmurs, her arms slipping around Laura’s waist. “I definitely see why Clint fell in love with you.”

Laura hums, leaning her forehead against Natasha’s. “I do seem to have that effect on people.”

Natasha leans in and kisses her. Laura’s lips are soft and taste like chapstick, and Natasha wonders idly if she did that just for her, which makes the warmth in her belly grow. After a few chaste kisses she slips her tongue into Laura’s mouth.

“Tasha,” sighs Laura, and it’s one of the hottest things Natasha’s ever heard. She pulls her closer and kisses her until they’re both gasping.

“C’mere,” Laura says, tugging her back through the hallway toward the bedrooms. Natasha hesitates as they pass the guest room where she slept last time, but Laura guides her toward the master bedroom. “It’s okay,” she says when she sees Natasha’s uncertainty. “Come into my room.” So she does.

Once inside, she kisses Laura again and gently tips her backwards onto the bed. Laura moans as Natasha’s weight settles on top of her, which makes Natasha grin. “You like me on top?” she whispers in Laura’s ear.

Laura shivers. “Yeah,” she replies, reaching up to tug Natasha’s tank top free from her jeans. “I think it’s time for this to come off.”

Natasha laughs and scoots back so Laura can sit up and help pull it off over her head. “Only if I can do this,” she says, reaching behind Laura to start unbuttoning her dress. 

Laura adjusts to make it easier, lifting her hair out of the way. This also leaves her neck exposed, so Natasha can’t help but kiss it. “How do you feel about marks?” she murmurs against Laura’s skin.

Laura lets out another moan as Natasha’s teeth scrape gently against her neck. “Nothing I can’t cover up,” she says. “I - I like it when Clint does it too.”

That should bother Natasha - the reminder that she’s in her best friend’s bed, about to sleep with his wife, who she might also have pretty significant feelings for, but it doesn’t. “Good,” Natasha says, undoing the buttons carefully. “I wanna leave you something to remember me by.”

“Oh,” Laura giggles. “Do you use that line often? I bet it works.”

Natasha smiles. “I’ve used it before, but never meant it.” She finally finishes the row of buttons down Laura’s back and adds, “Alright, let me get this off you.”

Laura shifts so she can get the dress over her head. Once that’s done, Natasha makes quick work of the bra and then pauses to stare. “Wow,” she says, “you are so hot.”

That makes Laura preen a little. “You think so?” she asks coyly. Then she leans in to kiss Natasha and reaches to unhook her bra too. “It’s only fair,” she says. “I want to see how hot you are too.”

Finally, they’re both fully naked and Natasha pushes Laura onto her back again, kissing her firmly. “What do you want?” she asks. “Anything.”

Laura sighs, then whimpers as Natasha nips at her neck. “Touch me?”

“I am touching you,” Natasha teases, kissing down Laura’s neck toward her ear.

“More touching,” Laura insists, squirming a little. “Please?”

“I can do that.” Natasha kisses her mouth once more before shifting down to her collarbone. “So gorgeous,” she whispers. 

She kisses and nibbles her way across Laura’s collarbone, then down to her breasts. When she rolls her tongue around one of Laura’s nipples, Laura squeals. “Y-yeah,” she whines. “I like that.”

“Do you?” Natasha hums around the nipple, reaching with her hand to fiddle with the other one. She plays with them both for a little while, just listening to the cute little noises Laura makes. 

“Tasha,” Laura finally whimpers, “I - I want…” She rocks her hips against Natasha’s.

Natasha leaves one final kiss between Laura’s breasts and then starts to move downwards again. “What do you want?” she asks, punctuating her words with kisses. 

“Your mouth?” Laura breathes, and it makes Natasha nervous for a second, because she hasn’t given cunnilingus in a few years. But she nods and purrs, “I can do that,” before positioning herself between Laura’s legs. 

She’s ridiculously wet, and as Natasha begins to lap at her Laura sighs, “I...I came once already earlier, I couldn’t help it, I was just...just excited to see you…”

That makes Natasha moan against her, which makes Laura moan in turn, even louder. Natasha licks at her clit, using her tongue fast then slow then fast again, seeing what works. Laura squirms against her and lets out these breathless little whimpers that send lighting down Natasha’s spine. But it’s when Natasha slips one finger and then another inside Laura at the same time that she sucks on her clit that Laura shrieks, “God yes Tasha yes yes!” So she keeps that up, feeling a little smug.

Natasha can’t see Laura’s face as she comes, but she hears her cry out and feels her hips stutter against Natasha’s mouth. Natasha keeps licking her until Laura nudges her mouth away and says, “C’mere. I wanna kiss you.”

So Natasha does, and Laura sighs as Natasha slips her tongue into her mouth. “You taste good,” Natasha says, pulling back to nip at her bottom lip. 

“Let me taste you too,” Laura begs. “Or, or fingers, whatever you want. Please, Tasha, I wanna make you feel good.”

Natasha moves off Laura so she can sit up, then lies down on her back and pulls Laura down for another kiss. “Use your mouth too,” she says. 

Laura nods and dives in, and Natasha hasn’t previously had great experiences with receiving oral but within thirty seconds of Laura eating her out she’s ready to write a fucking sonnet about Laura’s tongue. Or she would be, if she were able to form a coherent thought beyond holy shit holy shit holy shit-

Afterwards, they lie wrapped around each other, Laura drawing patterns on Natasha’s back. Natasha feels like she might burst out of her skin, and it scares her but she also likes it. There’s a question burning at the back of her mind, though.

“Is this just supposed to be sex?” she asks, because she’s been trying to be more forthright.

There’s a flicker of dismay on Laura’s face before she asks, “Do you want it to be?” She sounds so hurt that Natasha regrets asking.

“No,” she says, shaking her head emphatically. “I...I like you. I want to...keep doing this. All of this.”

“Well, good,” Laura says, “because I was going to ask if you’d be my girlfriend.”

Girlfriend. That’s never been a word Natasha’s had cause to use for herself. She lets it settle over her like a warm coat, and decides she likes it. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, I will.”

---

April 2003

Fury’s been sending them out on back-to-back missions the last few weeks, which would have been fine six months ago. But now...well, it’s embarrassing to admit but she misses Laura. They’re still emailing, of course, and she’s been able to call once from a payphone in Cardiff, but it’s not the same. 

Do you think maybe you can come for another long weekend once you guys finish with the block of missions? Laura writes, and Natasha starts thinking. 

She and Clint are driving to the safehouse when she pokes him in the arm and asks, “Where do you take Laura on dates?”

Clint, who is in the middle of eating a Power Bar, makes a deeply stupid face as he finishes chewing his mouthful of food. “Uh,” he says once he’s swallowed it. “I dunno. We go walking a lot. Dinner? Sometimes a movie?”

Natasha sighs. “Really? How on God’s green earth are you still married to her?”

“Dude, I don’t know! It’s a minor miracle.” Clint shrugs exaggeratedly. “Also she likes it when I just plan stuff for her and she doesn’t have to worry about anything. Oh, one time I took her to a Pearl Jam concert and we got a fancy hotel and she loved it. You could maybe see if any of her favorite bands are playing. I don’t take her to concerts anymore, they hurt my ears, but I bet she’d love to go.”

“Wow, Grandpa,” teases Natasha. “Aren’t you cool.”

“Hey, you’re the one asking me for dating advice! That’s not cool either!”

But it is a good idea, and as soon as they reach the safehouse Natasha does some investigating. Fleetwood Mac is currently on a massive tour, with most locations sold out, but after a bit of digging and some favors called in she secures two tickets to the May 19th show in Philadelphia. It’s only about an hour’s drive from the farm, but she finds a cute little bed and breakfast for them to spend the night in too. Then she puts in a time off request and emails Laura.

N: Hey, what are you doing on and around May 19th?

It’s more than a month away, so she probably doesn’t have plans. At least, Natasha hopes so.

L: Nothing. Why, you free then? :)

N: As a matter of fact, I am. And I have a surprise for you. I’ll come pick you up at the farm that Sunday. Have an overnight bag ready with two days’ worth of clothes and pack an outfit you wanna show off and dance in.

L: Ooh, are we going to somewhere fancy? 

N: Not fancy exactly, but you’ll like it. 

“So did you figure something out?” Clint asks a couple of days later. “For the date, I mean.” 

“Yeah. We’re gonna see Fleetwood Mac and stay at a bed and breakfast.”

“Aw.” Clint grins. “That’s so cute.”

“Shut up,” she replies, but she can’t help grinning too. Then something occurs to her, and before she can stop herself, she asks, “So...has Laura ever dated anyone else while you guys have been married?”

Clint’s grin widens. “Are you jealous?”

“No,” Natasha scoffs, which is mostly true. “Just curious.”

“She’s been on some dates. Guys and girls, but the guys tend to get weirder when she mentions me. There was a woman she was seeing awhile back, a teacher or something, but that didn’t last long. She’s pretty picky.”

That should make Natasha feel flattered, but instead it sends up a weird flutter inside her. She tries to sound casual when she asks Laura about it.

N: Hey, silly question, how many people have you dated since you married Clint?

L: Not that many. I’ve been on a few dates here and there, but they mostly peter out. I was seeing a teacher, Emily, for a few months, but it didn’t work out. Nothing wrong with her, we just didn’t have as much in common as we thought. And I’ve been on dates with a few guys, but a lot of them get weird when I talk about Clint. Why do you ask?

N: No reason. Curiosity, I guess. I just haven’t done this whole “dating” thing before and I was wondering what you had to compare me to.

L: I wouldn’t compare you to anyone else, silly :) 

In the days leading up to the concert, and as she’s driving to New Hope, she notices a weird feeling in her chest she can’t place. It’s not until she spots the exit sign to get to the farm that she realizes that feeling might be happiness.

The front door is unlocked, so she doesn’t bother knocking. Laura is sitting at the table, working on - of course - a puzzle. “You know, you really shouldn’t leave your front door unlocked,” Natasha says playfully. “You never know what kind of scoundrel might come in and whisk you away.”

Laura giggles and stands up, wrapping her arms around Natasha. “Oh no,” she says, eyes wide. “Are you one of those scoundrels I should be worried about?”

“Maybe.” Natasha kisses her. “Are you going to let me whisk you away?”

“I’m definitely thinking about it,” teases Laura, nuzzling into her. “Where are we going? You’ve been so secretive, it’s driving me crazy.”

“Not far,” Natasha replies, grabbing Laura’s hand. “About an hour away.”

Laura grabs her bag off the floor. “Are we going out tonight?”

“No, tomorrow night. We’re staying there until Tuesday morning.” Natasha leads her out to the car and then, impulsively, kisses the back of her hand. It’s the goofiest thing she’s ever done. But it makes Laura giggle and that’s the important thing.

Traffic is better than she expects, and they arrive at the bed and breakfast around four thirty. “Aw,” Laura coos as they get out of the car. “It’s so cute.”

“I thought you’d like it. Clint suggested it, to be honest. I mean, not this specific one, just the idea in general.”

“Oh, I’ll thank him when I see him in a couple weeks,” says Laura with a wink. “Let’s go check in, I wanna see our room.”

It isn’t overly fancy, but there’s plenty of space and the bed is huge. Laura sits down on the edge of it, then sighs happily and flops onto her back. “This is great,” she grins. “So do we have plans while we’re here?”

“Well, I figured tonight we could get dinner and walk around a little, or just hang out, whatever.” Natasha shrugs. “And then tomorrow night…just a Fleetwood Mac show, that’s all.”

Laura sits up, shrieks, then slaps her hand over her mouth. “Oh my god,” she says. “Oh my fucking god, are you serious?”

“Yep.” Natasha hands her the envelope with the tickets. “See?”

“Holy shit,” Laura yelps, taking them from her carefully, like they might shatter if she’s too quick. “Tasha, you...oh my god.

“It’s nothing,” Natasha says with a little shrug. “Consider it a late Christmas present, since I didn’t get you anything last year.”

Laura scoots over and pulls Natasha onto the bed with her. “You’re incredible,” she whispers, kissing her fiercely.

Natasha smiles against her lips. “I do my best,” she says, then leans over Laura. “So, we’ve got a couple hours until dinnertime. What do you think we should do?”

“I can think of a few things,” Laura hums, pulling her in for another kiss.

Later, after they’ve both worked up an appetite, they end up at a cute little Italian restaurant for dinner. It’s oddly thrilling, paying for dinner. Natasha would never admit this to anyone, especially Clint, who would never let her live it down, but it makes her feel...normal. Like she’s just a normal person taking her girlfriend out to dinner.

They spend most of Monday exploring Philly, and then go to the latest stupid disaster movie and make out in the back row like teenagers. (Natasha has no idea if this is a thing real teenagers do or if it’s something American movies made up, but either way, she likes it.) Then they head for the concert. 

It’s only about a ten minute walk from the B&B, which Natasha did on purpose, in case Laura drinks at the show. She doesn’t really feel like drinking tonight, though. She wants to remember every detail.

The show is incredible, of course. Natasha likes this band, but she bought these tickets for Laura. Laura has a not-so-little crush on Stevie Nicks, and she knows all the words to every Fleetwood Mac song. By the end of the night, she’s hoarse and exhausted, but radiating happiness. They practically float back to the B&B, hand in hand, and fall asleep curled against each other. 

When Natasha wakes the next morning, Laura is in her arms, gazing at her. “Hi,” Laura mumbles, smiling sleepily.

“Hi,” says Natasha, kissing her. “Good morning.”

Laura hesitates, biting her lip, and then she whispers, “Tasha, can I tell you something?”

Natasha knows what’s coming. It should bother her. She’s spent most of her life avoiding this, avoiding even the possibility of love, romance, attachments - those things were distractions, even dangers, in the Red Room. They made her insufficient. But now...now she doesn’t have to worry about that. It scares her more than she wants to admit.

But Laura is lying here, eyes soft, and Natasha decides to ignore that fear. “Go ahead,” she says gently, brushing some of Laura’s hair out of her face. “You can say whatever you want.”

“I know you don’t really do feelings,” Laura says, “and I get that, but...I do. Is that okay?” She looks anxious, like Natasha might jump out of bed and run away if she so much as mentions a feeling.

And a part of her kind of does want to do that - it’s her instinct, screaming at her that attachments are a weakness. But another part of her wants this, wants Laura , so badly…

“What if I said,” she replies slowly, “that I’m thinking about giving feelings a try?”

Laura’s eyes widen, and then she smiles so big that it makes Natasha’s heart stop. “Well then,” she says playfully, “I’d say that I think I’m falling in love with you, Natasha Romanov.”

Natasha kisses her then, and hopes that will be enough, that it will mean the same as all the things she’s not sure how to say yet.

September 2003

Laura’s birthday is September 23rd. Natasha’s never cared about her own birthday, but she knows other people care, so she’s working on something for awhile. 

Clint picks up on this, of course, and starts pestering her. “So what’s your plan?” he asks, over and over, just when she hopes maybe he’s gotten bored of it. Of course he hasn’t.

“Nope,” she says cheerfully. “You figure out your own plan for your wife’s birthday.”

“Geez, I wasn’t gonna cheat off of you!” He pouts. “I was just wondering.”

She hides all of the parts of Laura’s present in places he would never think to look, and refuses to tell him anything about it.

Laura greets them both with kisses when they arrive at the farm for her birthday weekend. “Missed you both.” 

Clint leans down to kiss her forehead and asks, “Holding down the fort okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” Laura says with a smile and a shrug. “Those chicks should be hatching any day now. Maybe you two’ll get lucky enough to see them.”

“Aw. Sounds cute.” Natasha squeezes her hand. “Hey, we have presents for you.”

“And a cake!” Clint adds. “We picked it up on the way here so it’s fresh.”

Laura raises both eyebrows. “Aw, you guys didn’t have to do that, I figured I could just make one.”

“You can’t make your own birthday cake!” Clint protests. “Nat, back me up here.”

Natasha nods. “Let us spoil you, Laur.”

That makes Laura giggle. “Alright, fine, fine. Let’s see this cake.”

It’s not an overly fancy cake - they both knew Laura wouldn’t really want one, but it’s cute and it has little yellow and lavender roses on the corners and it has raspberry filling, which Clint said is Laura’s favorite. She loves it and eats two pieces. “I know it’s weird to like Safeway cakes,” she says, “but it reminds me of my mom. Either Dodo would make my cakes or my mom would buy one from her store, and they tasted exactly like this.”

“Makes sense,” agrees Natasha. Then she goes to grab the box she carefully wrapped. “Happy birthday.”

The box contains half a dozen apple-scented candles, some of which cost over fifty dollars (who knew there were high-end candles? Not her, until she did some research). It’s sort of heavy, so she has a feeling Laura knows what’s in it when she picks it up, but her eyes still light up and she kisses Natasha. “Thank you,” she says, beaming. “I know it’s silly but…”

“You like them,” Natasha says. “So I knew you’d like this. I didn’t smell them though, they might suck.”

“Hey, it’s the thought that counts.”

Clint’s present for her is an absurdly overpriced puzzle that has illustrations of “cats around the world,” where said cats are wearing silly outfits from different countries. He showed Natasha the online listing when he bought it so that she, too, could react to the original price of one hundred dollars. Laura grins when she unwraps it. “This is so cheesy, I love it.”

There are also a pair of diamond stud earrings that came with the puzzle on a “spend at least $30, get these gaudy $125 earrings for $30” deal. Natasha goaded him into buying these, because they’re sort of hideous, but she knows they’ll amuse Laura, especially once she knows the story. “You don’t actually have to wear them,” Clint chuckles. “They’re so fucking ugly.”

“No, I love that they’re so ugly,” Laura protests. “I’ll wear them every day and think of you both.”

Clint goes outside to start the grill for burgers, and Natasha and Laura curl up on the couch together to watch a movie before dinner. (Laura half-heartedly offers to help with the food, but Natasha and Clint refuse to let her get up to do anything.) 

“So,” Laura says, grinning as she nestles against Natasha. “I found a copy of Anastasia a few weeks ago.”

“Oh yeah?” Natasha smirks. “I’m guessing this means that’s what we’ll be watching?”

“We don’t have to,” teases Laura, “but I feel like you should have this experience.”

May 2004

L: So...I have something I wanted to talk to you about.

Natasha stares at Laura’s email, trying to figure out how to take it. She’s fairly sure this isn’t a precursor to Laura breaking up with her, considering Laura’s last email was all about how excited she is to have Natasha come visit over Memorial Day weekend. Still, she’s cautious as she types, What is it? Everything okay?

L: Everything’s fine. But...Clint and I have been talking about trying for a baby soon and I was wondering how you felt about kids. Having them, I mean.

And there it is - the question she always knew was coming. She’s a little surprised it took this long. So she steels herself and responds. 

N: Kind of a sore subject, to be honest. It’s complicated.

L: Oh no, I’m sorry! Never mind, we don’t have to talk about it right now.

N: It’s alright. It would’ve come up sooner or later, especially if you guys want kids. I can’t have them, so I haven’t given it a lot of thought. Sorry to be a downer.

L: No, it’s my fault for bringing it up, don’t apologize. I’m sorry.

Natasha glances at the clock, which reads 10:28 PM. Then she grabs one of the burner phones she has stashed in her bedside table and emails Laura, Can I call you?

L: Yeah.

Laura sounds hesitant on the phone. “We can talk about something else if you want,” she says right away. 

“No, it’s okay. It’s...I don’t want to write it out.”

She tells Laura everything, and once she’s done Laura just says, “Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah.” Natasha shifts so she’s lying on her back. “So that’s where I’m at.” She keeps her tone light and jokey.

“You don’t have to do that, Tasha.”

“Do what?” 

“That fake happy thing you do with your voice when you’re talking about something serious but you don’t want people to know it.” Laura’s voice is gentle. “You can feel stuff with me. I want you to feel stuff with me.”

Natasha swallows. It’s harder than it should be. “Sorry. Old habits and all.”

“I know.” Laura sighs. “I don’t want to push you, I just...I want you to feel safe with me.”

“Laur, I’ve already told you way more things than most people know about me.” It’s true. Besides Clint, Laura is the person who knows the most about her.

“Okay, okay.” She can hear the smile in Laura’s voice. “But...if Clint and I start trying for a baby, how would you feel about that?” Now her voice is shaking a little.

Natasha considers this. She’s known Clint wants kids for awhile - he’s one of those guys who’s really suited to being a dad. And Laura…Laura would be an incredible mom. She pictures Clint and Laura with smaller versions of themselves, tiny little people who would probably have Clint’s sense of humor and Laura’s taste in music and their own quirks. It’s a nice mental image.

Of course, she can’t figure out where she would fit into that, but she pushes that thought down and says, “I think you two will be amazing parents.”

“Okay,” Laura says. “I didn’t want to do anything without talking to you first. You’re just as important to me as he is.”

“Thanks,” Natasha says, and she wants to believe what Laura’s saying more than anything. Then she pauses before asking mischievously, “So, what are you wearing?”

Laura bursts into giggles. “Tasha! This isn’t that kind of phone call!”

“Not right now it isn’t.” Natasha chuckles. “But I really just wanted to hear you laugh. I like your laugh.”

“Aw,” Laura says, giggling again. “Y’know you don’t have to flirt with me, I’m already dating you.”

“But I like flirting with you.”

They keep talking for awhile, until Laura dozes off in the middle of a story Natasha’s telling about the first time Maria dragged her to a dyke bar. “Sorry,” she mumbles. “Go ‘head an’ finish.”

“I think you need to sleep,” teases Natasha. “Don’t you have to be up for the chickens in like five hours?”

“Fuck,” groans Laura. “Alright, alright. I’ll hang up now. I love you.”

“I know.”

August 2004

She and Clint are sparring when a level 2 agent appears, hovering in the doorway of the training room awkwardly. Natasha finds this annoying, so after she flips Clint over onto his back, she looks up and grunts, “Need something?”

The woman jumps. “Um, Agent Barton has a phone call. He needs to come to Director Fury’s office.”

“Oh shit,” Natasha teases, grinning down at Clint, “someone’s in trouble.”

Clint swats half-heartedly at her and gets up, heading out toward Fury’s office. Natasha takes a shower and heads back to her bunk to do some paperwork she’s been putting off, not thinking anything of it until Clint barges in without knocking. “Jesus, Barton, where’s the fire?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

Clint runs over and is hugging her before she can really process what’s happening. “Nat, Laura’s pregnant!” 

“Really?” 

Clint’s smiling so big that Natasha’s face kind of hurts just looking at it. “Yeah! She just got back from her doctor’s appointment. She’s six weeks, give or take. I guess my little guys are pretty powerful.”

“Jesus, Barton, I never want to hear anything about your sperm ever again,” groans Natasha, but she’s smiling too. This is good news. She’s happy for them, she really is.

“Oh hush, I don’t even know what the hell I’m saying, I’m so…” Clint shakes his head and laughs. “She said she sent you an email about it too. Wanted me to tell you first, but she said that you can take your time answering it.”

“I’ll look at it later,” Natasha says, trying for nonchalant. “We have some celebrating to do, daddy.

Exactly like she knew he would, Clint physically recoils. “I said I was sorry for the cum joke, god, never call me that again,” he says with a shudder.

Natasha winks at him. “Fine. What about Big Papa?”

“Jesus Christ, Nat.”

“I’m just playing. C’mon, this deserves a toast. Drinks are on me.”

Natasha doesn’t look at Laura’s email until after Clint’s gone back to his bunk, pleasantly drunk and deliriously happy. Only then does she slip into her bed and open it.

Tasha, I’m sure Clint’s told you I’m pregnant already. I wanted to tell you here rather than on the phone so that you didn’t have to have some big reaction in front of people. I can’t know what you’re thinking or feeling, and I don’t want to presume anything. But I want you to know that I was serious when we talked about this before. I’d love you to be a part of this child’s life, if you’re comfortable doing that. Clint considers you his sister, and you know what you mean to me. Just because Clint and I are adding to our family doesn’t mean you aren’t still part of it too, if you want to be. 

But I will understand if you need space for awhile. Please don’t feel like you need to reply to this email right away. Take your time. I’ll wait. I love you.

Natasha feels childish for being even the slightest bit upset about this - after all, it’s not as if it comes out of nowhere. She knows Clint and Laura have been trying for a baby for a couple of months, and she and Laura have talked about this. But this is...different. 

What is the kid supposed to call her? How will they explain that, well, when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much, but also when Mommy loves Auntie Natasha… Is that who she’ll be to this baby? 

She’s glad Laura gave her the options to process things before she responds. She waits a couple of days before replying, Congratulations :) Does that make me Auntie Nat?

If you want to be, Laura writes back. I’ll understand if you don’t. But I love you and I’m sure this baby will love you too.

Natasha isn’t sure, but she doesn’t say that to Laura.

The first time she visits during Laura’s pregnancy is when she’s about three and a half months along, not quite showing yet. Laura insisted she stay away until after she stopped throwing up a minimum of twice a day. “Hi,” Laura says, nuzzling into her when she meets her at the door. “I missed you.”

Natasha holds her close and notices that she even seems softer now. “Hey,” she says, petting Laura’s hair. “How are you feeling?”

“Better now,” Laura chirps. “The morning sickness was a real bitch, but I think it’s finally over.”

“Good.” Natasha drops her bag. “How’s Junior?”

“Good. Not much going on. Everything seems normal and they don’t do ultrasounds until eighteen to twenty weeks. The book says it’s the size of a peach.” Laura rolls her eyes. “They really like using fruit to describe it for some reason.”

“Everyone knows what fruit looks like,” Natasha says with a shrug. “Makes sense to me.”

“How about you?” Laura asks suddenly. “I mean, how are you feeling about it?”

Natasha shrugs again, feeling awkward. “I’m happy for you both.”

Laura frowns. “Tasha, you don’t have to pretend. Not with me.”

“I’m not,” Natasha insists. “I’m very excited to meet Junior.” This leaves out the growing knot of fear in her belly that insists that Laura won’t, can’t love her the same way once she gets a real family.

Laura sighs. “Alright, we don’t have to talk about it right now if you don’t want to.”

“I really don’t,” Natasha says, trying to keep her tone light. “We only have a couple days together and I just got back from a really rough mission, let’s just watch a movie or something.”

Laura still looks displeased, but she nods.

They don’t really talk about it until the night before Natasha’s supposed to leave. “Tasha?” Laura whispers into the dark of her bedroom.

Natasha could pretend to be asleep, but she asks, “Yeah?”

“Clint and I really do want you to be part of our family.” Laura’s voice is shaking a little. “You and this baby. I know kids are a painful topic for you and I won’t force you, of course, but I wanted you to know that I’m not just going to...I don’t know, kick you to the curb and play happy heterosexual housewife now. I don’t want to lose you.”

Natasha bites her lip. “And what, I’m the baby’s second mommy? Scary Mommy?”

“I’m serious. You don’t have to be a parent to this baby but I…I want it to know how important you are to us.”

“Okay. I’ll...I’ll think about it.”

“Okay.”

But Natasha knows how this goes. She knows that no matter how much Laura wants to stay together, it just won’t work. People can look the other way, can pretend not to notice, when it’s all adults doing this, but when there’s a kid involved? All it would take was one nosy neighbor on their moral high horse for everything to fall apart. She does some research, finds evidence that in some cases families like this can work, but finds a lot more stories where they don’t. She even finds one article, only a few years old, about a woman with multiple partners whose child was taken from her. 

That cinches it. She can’t let that happen. It will tear her to pieces, but she has to end this.

She means to do it during Thanksgiving, but chickens out. Still, at that point Laura’s showing, and it’s impossible for her to ignore the realness of this baby. So she makes a deal with herself. She’ll do it while she’s there for Christmas, and that weekend will be her last happy weekend with Laura.

On Christmas Eve, they’re all cuddled up together in bed, Laura on her back in the middle like usual. Natasha’s got her head pillowed on Laura’s chest, and Clint is spooning Laura’s other side. None of them are quite tired enough to doze off yet. Clint and Laura are half-heartedly debating which Star Trek captain is better, which Natasha doesn’t even pretend to understand. She lets her eyes drift shut - not sleeping yet, just listening.

“You can’t honestly think Janeway is a better captain than Picard,” Clint says. 

“I can and I do.”

“Nat.” She feels Clint poke her face. “Nat, tell her how wrong she is.”

Natasha grunts. “For the thousandth time, I don’t know what the hell either of you are talking about and I don’t care.”

“I like the hot lady captain and Clint likes the bald man captain,” Laura simplifies.

“Oh. Well, in that case.” Natasha cracks an eye and grins. “Hot lady captain all the way.”

“Goddammit,” grumbles Clint. “No fair. You simplified it way too much, babe.”

“You asked her first,” Laura points out.

“Swear to god, the next assassin I bring home I’m not letting you show her any TV. You’re a corrupting influence!”

“Well, I’ll be home with the baby most of the time. What if I show it nothing but Voyager ?” 

“You wouldn’t.”

“I could.”

“You’d deprive our baby of Data? Uhura? Jadzia Dax?”

Natasha snorts and shuts her eyes, pretending to sleep as they continue to playfully argue. But secretly, she’s soaking all this up: the fondness under the bickering, the warmth of Laura’s body next to hers. She’ll need these memories.

She doesn’t do it on Christmas - she’s not heartless. Two days later, on their last full day before they’re due to drive back, she waits until Clint’s gone out to fix a leak in the barn roof before saying to Laura, “Hey, can we go for a walk?” She doesn’t want to break up with Laura here, in the farmhouse. Even as big as it is, it still seems too small for a conversation like this. She also doesn’t want Clint barging in in the middle of things, or figuring out what she’s up to and trying to talk her out of it.

Laurea looks at her like she’s suggesting chopping off a limb for fun. “It’s cold out, Tasha. It might snow.”

“Not that cold,” Natasha says, trying for playful. “C’mon, aren’t you supposed to get exercise every day? Plus, I wanna talk to you about something.”

Laura narrows her eyes in suspicion but agrees.

Once they’ve gone a ways (slowly, because Laura’s belly is starting to make walking a challenge), Natasha clears her throat. “So.”

“So.” Laura raises an eyebrow. “What did you want to talk to me about that you couldn’t do inside?”

Natasha sighs. Here she goes. “I’ve been doing some thinking.”

“Have you?” Laura sounds too casual.

“Yes. And I thought…” Why is there suddenly a lump in her throat? That’s irritating. She swallows and continues, “I don’t think I should see you anymore.”

Laura stops walking and stares at her. “Sorry?”

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” Natasha continues, ignoring the ache spreading in her chest, “for me to keep seeing you. Not like we have been.”

“You don’t think it’s a good idea?” Laura’s voice is deceptively calm, but Natasha can hear the disbelief in her voice. “What exactly is ‘not a good idea’?”

“I…” The words stick in Natasha’s throat. She tries again. “I don’t want to put you or Clint or the baby in danger.”

Danger ?” Laura asks, and it’s a little shrill. “What are you talking about, Natasha?”

“I’m an ex-assassin who works in black ops, routinely undertaking top secret intel and reconnaissance missions, and you’re my pregnant secret girlfriend,” Natasha points out, her lips quirking up despite herself. “What about that doesn’t spell danger?”

“Well, it’s not like you’re dragging your targets here to interrogate them!” Laura points out, eyes blazing. “Clint and I have managed to keep anyone from finding out about me or this place, why should it be any different for you?”

“I…” Natasha shakes her head. “It’s not just that, Laura.”

“What else is there?”

“It’s just not a good idea.”

Why not? ” Laura’s shouting loudly enough that Clint can probably hear her, back at the barn.

“Because...because that’s not how we end up!” It bursts out of her, the truth she’s been thinking but hasn’t wanted to say.

Laura’s face is pale and her eyes are bright with tears. “What?”

“Laura, you know we can’t stay together.” She hates the look on Laura’s face. She wants more than anything to take it all back, to apologize and kiss her and tell her they’ll be together forever, but that would be far crueler. “Especially not once you guys have kids. What are we gonna tell them? What about when someone finds out about you and me? Someone got her kid taken away because she had multiple partners, Laura. I looked it up, it was a huge court case and almost no one was on her side. I won’t make you choose between me and your kids, Laura. I did the math. This doesn’t work.

“Well, I didn’t!” Laura snaps. “You think I haven’t thought of all of this before? Clint and I talked about it for hours before we started trying to get pregnant! And we both agreed we want you to be a part of the kids’ lives! Don’t you…” Laura lets out a choked sob. “Don’t you know you mean just as much to me as he does? That I’ve been thinking of this as our baby too?”

The words feel like a punch to Natasha’s gut. Our baby. She knows Laura means it, and that makes saying no hurt all the more. “I just can’t,” she says, voice resolute. “I can’t risk this, Laura. I won’t put your family at risk.”

Laura’s crying now, and she opens her mouth like she’s about to argue more, but Natasha walks off. Behind her, she hears Laura calling her name, but after a few times she stops. When she finally glances back, Laura’s nowhere to be seen.

Natasha stays away until it gets too cold to be outside anymore. When she gets back to the farmhouse, she opens the back door to the smell of beef stew and mushrooms, like nothing’s changed. Clint gives her a nod but says nothing, and Laura doesn’t even look up from the stove. Natasha goes into the guest room, which she’s barely set foot in all weekend, and doesn’t come out until dinner is ready.

She’s not really sure what to expect, but when she gets to the table Laura hands her a plate and gives her a polite smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Hi, Nat,” she says, like nothing has happened. “How was your walk?”

When she and Clint leave the next morning, she and Laura don’t touch, just wave goodbye. Clint’s barely pulled out of the driveway before he turns to Natasha and yelps, “Jesus Christ, Nat, what did you do to her?”

“I broke up with her.”

“Yeah, I know that , duh. I got that much out of her when she walked into the house sobbing yesterday afternoon.” Clint shakes his head. “I meant, why did you break up with her? Did something happen with you guys?”

Natasha shakes her head. “Not really. I just didn’t think it was a good idea to keep seeing her when you guys are, y’know. Starting a family.”

“Oh my god,” mutters Clint. “Do you not get that you’re part of our family, Romanov? That Laura loves you just as much as she loves me, and you’re the absolutely infuriating Russian sister I never had? I love you but I’m so goddamn mad at you right now. If you didn’t want to have anything to do with this kid you could’ve just fucking said so instead of breaking her heart!”

Natasha bites her lip. “I’m not talking about this anymore, Clint. I’ve made up my mind. I can’t be with her anymore.”

Clint lets out a colossal sigh and growls “Fine” before reaching to crank up the stereo volume. They barely say a word to each other for the rest of the drive home.

She doesn’t email Laura anymore. She checks it, occasionally, and there are a few sporadic messages from Laura. Nothing like before - short, cordial updates on how she’s feeling and how the baby’s doing. Clint, too, keeps her updated. And this is enough, she tells herself. It is enough to watch her best friend and the first woman she’s ever loved be so happy and excited about their new family. 

And then, one night about two weeks after Clint’s left for paternity leave, her phone wakes her from a dead sleep. “Barton,” she grunts sleepily after glancing at the screen, “this better be because someone’s on fire.”

“Nat, Laura’s having the baby!”

“Congratulations, but-”

“She’s asking for you,” Clint adds, sounding near-frantic. “She’s, uh, she really really wants you here.” There’s shouting in the background and Natasha can only just make out Laura’s voice saying, “Is that Tasha? Are you talking to her, is she coming?” and she sounds so frightened that Natasha sits up in bed. 

“Please come?” Clint asks, and he sounds tired and also a little frightened. “She’s been in labor for like seven hours and she hasn’t stopped asking for you the whole time.”

“Yeah.” Natasha stands up and reaches for the jeans she tossed on the floor earlier. “Yeah, I can take one of the cars. I’ll make them clear it. Where are you guys?”

“Abington Memorial.” Laura screeches in pain and Clint sighs. “Hurry up, please.”

Natasha breaks every speed limit, not caring because it’s three in the morning and Laura needs her. When she gives her name at the check-in desk, a kind-faced nurse brings her to Laura’s room. “Don’t worry, Ms. Romanov,” she says cheerfully, “your sister’s doing just fine. Everything’s normal, first labors are always the roughest.”

“Sister” takes Natasha by surprise, but she nods. “Good. I, uh, didn’t expect her to ask me to be here for this. We’re...we haven’t been close lately.”

The nurse gives her a sympathetic smile. “I think having a baby gives a lot of people perspective on what’s really important. Maybe being an auntie will be just what you two need to reconnect.”

“Maybe,” agrees Natasha, trying to ignore the way her stomach tightens.

She hasn’t seen Laura since Christmas, aside from a couple of pictures Clint took on his phone. Inside the room, Laura’s lying down, sweaty, red-faced and grunting in pain as she rides out a contraction. 

She’s beautiful, and Natasha’s missed her so much.

Once Laura’s able to focus on her, she yelps “Tasha!”

“Hey,” she says, going over to grab Laura’s hand. “I’m here. Sorry I didn’t come earlier.”

“You came,” Laura says. Her voice is tired but her eyes are shining.

“Yeah, of course.” Natasha squeezes her hand. “How are you feeling?”

“Exhausted,” Laura admits. “Clint’s fallen asleep twice already.”

“I said I was sorry!” Clint whines. “It’s way past my bedtime.”

“Hush,” Natasha says, waving her hand dismissively at him. “How much longer?” She directs this question to the nurse.

“She’s almost fully dilated, so hopefully we can get ready to start pushing soon.”

Laura groans. “What if I just stopped right now, how bad would that be?”

“You’re not gonna do that,” Natasha says lightly. “You can’t introduce this kid to Janeway and dress her up as a little Starfleet captain if you don’t push her out.”

“Hey, yeah,” Clint says, grabbing Laura’s other hand. “How are we gonna do that kickass Starfleet family portrait if you don’t have this baby, Laur?”

Laura laughs, but she’s interrupted by another contraction. “Jesus Christ!”

Cooper Patrick Barton is born at 4:37 AM on April 19th, 2005. Clint and Laura are both crying by the end, and Natasha feels a little self-conscious for not crying too. But she understands, all the same. Newborns are ridiculous-looking, but Cooper...well, it’s cliche to say, but he’s beautiful. Natasha loves him the instant the nurse passes him to her. 

“Hey, little guy,” she whispers, when Laura’s dozed off and Clint’s gone to the bathroom. “You’re pretty lucky, you know that? You’ve got the best parents ever. They’re gonna love you so much, and I’m...I’m gonna love you too. And your dad’s probably gonna start teaching you to shoot arrows as soon as you can walk, and your mom’s gonna show you Die Hard and play all her favorite albums as your lullabies and make you the best lasagna in the world. And I can...I can be your Auntie Nat and bring you cool toys from all over the world and teach you how to pick locks and untie knots and kick bad guys’ asses.” There’s heat behind her eyes but she will not cry , dammit. “And I’ll keep you all safe,” she adds. “I promise.”