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1999

Laura is twenty-two when she steps into the bar and orders a tequila sunrise from the man behind the counter, the man who looks like he has no business serving beers in a backwater Iowa town to begin with.

“You alone?” he asks as he slides a glass over, raising an eyebrow. Laura’s stomach does a somersault at the question, and she raises an eyebrow back.

“Is that a problem?”

The answer she's rewarded with is a full smile as the man leans over the table, brushing a calloused thumb against the counter. “Depends on how long you’re going to stay.” And then he’s rocking back up straight, throwing her a wink.

“First one’s on the house, by the way.”

Laura picks up her drink, catching his eye as he goes back to wiping down freshly washed glasses. “How come?”

“How come what?” He looks genuinely confused before glancing down at the table, seemingly understanding of what she’s asked. “Oh. Well, slow night...could use the company.” He shrugs. “Figured I’d be nice.”

Laura smiles around the rim of her glass because there’s something about the man that both sounds and looks enticing, something that looks comforting, even. But Laura’s been around this block before, and four years of college in a place where dive bars were as prominent as study halls have taught her to err cautiously on nights where she was alone, no matter how intriguing the person on the opposite end of the conversation was.

“You should use Patron,” she says after a moment, unable to help herself, and the man looks up at her words.

“Excuse me?”

“Patron,” Laura repeats, gesturing to the drink he’s been mixing. “You’re making a Long Island, right? If you use Patron, it’ll taste better and hide the bitterness.”

The man inclines his head and then slowly grins, removing a different bottle from under the bar and pouring two shots. He shoves one across the counter, the liquid sloshing over the side.

“You go to bartending school or something?”

“Not exactly,” Laura says, taking the offered glass. “But I do have a lot of experience mixing drinks at family parties.”

“Well, experience or not, I’d say you just passed your first test, if you ever wanted to pick up a career moonlighting here.” The tone is casual but something jumps inside of Laura’s chest, and she quickly pulls her hair in front of her face to compensate for the fact that she doesn’t quite know how to react.

“Hawkeye.”

“What?” Laura drops her hair, looking up in confusion to find the man grinning at her, motioning to her shirt.

“Iowa Hawkeyes,” he says, dragging a hand across the front of his pants. “You’re a fan?”

“Oh,” Laura feels her face flush mildly. She had, in truth, thrown the hooded sweatshirt on before she left simply because she was worried that it would be too cold in the bar with the air conditioning on full blast. “Kind of. This actually belongs to my roommate.”

“Ah.” The man smiles wider. “Well, in any case, I’m Clint.” He offers a now clean hand across the counter and this time, Laura doesn’t bother hiding the smile she can feel crawling over her face, letting it stretch wide.

“I’m Laura.”

***

“So how long have you been in Iowa?” Laura asks as the jukebox starts on its second round of tunes; the crowds have mostly dissipated aside from a few stragglers hanging out in one of the far booths, and with little to no customers, Clint’s taken to hopping up on the counter next to her, lazily swinging a Corona back and forth between his fingers.

“Few years,” he replies easily. “Came here after a break from the Marine Corps, ended up staying around.”

“Army?” Laura asks, looking up in surprise. Clint shrugs.

“Military, technically, but yeah. That scare you?” His tone is teasing but there’s also a tiny bit of defensiveness to his words, something that makes Laura realize he probably gets a positive answer to that question more often than not. She smiles slowly, shaking her head.

“No. I guess I just didn’t picture you as an army guy. Or a bartender,” she adds as an afterthought, because it’s true. She’s not exactly sure what she pictures of Clint, because he seems to be too many things rolled into one -- something dangerous mixed with something homegrown mixed with something secretive -- and for the life of her, she can’t figure it out. “My dad served overseas.”

“Oh, yeah?” Clint shifts on the counter, his interest seemingly piqued. “What unit?”

“Air Force,” Laura says, tucking hair behind her ear. “He retired a few years ago.”

Clint lets out a breath and shakes his head. “Hell of a job, air force. I met a few of them when I served over in Iraq a few years ago.”

“And did you bartend there, too?” Laura asks gently, punctuating her question with a full smirk. Clint laughs softly.

“Nah. I mean, unless you count the vodka shots I poured for my friends when we were bored.” He puts his long-empty bottle on the counter. “So, Laura. You’ve lived here all your life?”

“More or less.” She pushes her own empty glass across the table. “I didn’t venture far for school, because I didn’t need to. Iowa State had everything I needed, and it was cheap and close to home.”

“Everything, huh?”

Laura looks down again, trying to figure out how to stop the feeling that’s churning through her stomach and suddenly, his hand is warm on her arm.

“Hey.” Clint’s face is close to her own, as if he needs to be right up in her space for no reason, and while Laura thinks she should feel intimidated, it only makes her heart beat faster. “Hey, you ever played darts?”

Laura has played darts -- the perk of having grown up as someone with more of an interest in sports than dolls -- and she’s good, but Clint is better. He hits the center of the board every time and it looks like he’s not even trying, lazily flicking the projectiles across the room. Laura watches with growing surprise and a little bit of envy as each one smacks into its target as if it’s a bullet.

“Army,” he says with a wink, as if that explains it, when she gives him a look. “You?”

“Little League,” she says, walking forward to remove the darts. “And maybe some tomboy tendencies.”

“Tomboy, huh?” Clint grins. “What, like, the short hair and stuff?”

“For your information, the short hair only lasted for two years,” Laura affirms, poking him lightly in the arm. Clint barks out a laugh and then flinches his hand away, circling it around her waist instead.

She doesn’t mean to kiss him when he brings her back in -- she doesn’t -- but all of a sudden she’s breathing in his scent, the mustiness of his fading cologne mixed with the smell of overwrought beer and liquor. The feeling is surprisingly comforting and calming, unlike other men who have tried to pick her up during nights out, and once she realizes this she stays glued to his lips, chaste and quiet while his arm tightens around her. When she finally steps back, he’s looking at her in awe.

“How, uh...how old are you again?” Clint asks a little hoarsely. Laura smiles.

“Twenty-two,” she answers. “Therefore, according to Iowa state laws -- and the state of America -- I am very, very legal.” She pauses, running her hand up his bicep. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-five,” says Clint automatically, letting out what sounds like a shaky breath and Laura smiles wider. There’s a change in the atmosphere and she’s not even sure when it happened, a breeze of familiarity that washes over her and settles her, and for a single moment there’s no dart board, no jukebox, no bar. There’s no one except Clint and his hands on her hips, Clint holding her and looking into her eyes, as if he’s amazed that he’s standing with the person in front of him.

“What are you thinking?” He bends down again, brushing his lips against her cheek, dangerously close to her mouth. “More darts?”

“No,” Laura breathes, deciding not to push the emotion away. She pulls back enough to search his eyes.

“I think you should take me home tonight.”

 ***

Tonight turns into tomorrow, which turns into three days, which turns into two weeks. And all of a sudden, Laura’s spending a lot more time at the bar without really drinking and Clint’s spending a lot more time in Laura’s dorm room without really going to school.

“You know, our first week of college, we went to some seminar that taught us about campus safety,” Laura says as they lie in bed together, cartons of Chinese food littering the floor and the television on mute across the room. “Apparently, it was a bad idea to go to bars, or clubs, or anywhere that we could be considered vulnerable.”

“Hmmm.” Clint props himself up on one elbow, lazily stroking her hair. “What did they happen to say about former military guys who make a living bartending at a place that just happens to be near school property?”

“Oh,” Laura smiles playfully. “I think I went to the bathroom during that part.” She leans over to kiss him again, rolling forward in the covers, sighing contently. It’s been a long time since she’d woken up feeling anything close to satisfied, both mentally and physically, but every time that Clint comes to visit and then stays the night, the world feels like it’s operating on an entirely different axis. The room is brighter, the bed is softer, and when he kisses her, it makes her feel like she’s finally found a part of herself that she’s been missing her entire life.

“Spit it out,” he chides, poking her foot with his toe. Laura curls her leg around his own.

“I like being here,” she says. “With you.” As if to prove her point, she kisses him again, mostly because she can. “No one has ever made me feel like this.”

“No one? Not even those hot high school boyfriends?” Clint asks jokingly and Laura groans, swatting at him.

“Definitely not. I’ll show you my yearbook if you want proof.”

“Hey, I’m just glad I apparently made the cut of ‘what Laura tolerates,’” Clint mocks, while slipping his hand into her pants. “I could keep testing that theory, you know.”

“You could,” she returns with a sly smile, not bothering to push his hand away. She’s got a paper due at noon that’s only half started, and she’s promised her sorority that she would help with their bake sale later that afternoon. And while Laura’s never been the type of person who throws away important things for a guy, she’s pretty sure that right now, she doesn’t want to do anything but stay here with Clint, even if the only thing they end up doing is watching bad romance movies and eating ice cream in bed.

And hell, Laura realizes as she meets his lips again, feeling the same thrill that she had felt in the bar during their first meeting, I love him.

 

2000

When Laura walks across the stage and emerges on the other side with a thick black booklet that holds her college diploma, Clint finds himself grinning so hard he thinks his face might split apart.

“That’s my girlfriend,” he says out loud to no one in particular as the crowds clap politely around him; he’s squished between a family of strangers and two young kids squabbling about who gets a snack. Laura’s parents are supposed to be here somewhere, but he hadn’t felt comfortable meeting them without her, and had elected to be on his own for the ceremony. He hurries down to the student seating area once the caps have been thrown into the air and the University president has officially declared the group “class of 2000,” searching the crowd until he finds her standing off to the side, hugging what Clint assumes must be another classmate.

“Congratulations, graduate,” he teases in his approach, and Laura’s friend quickly takes the hint, backing away as Clint puts two hands on her shoulders. Laura rocks up on her toes to kiss him, and he kisses her back.

“Thanks, soldier.” She brushes a stray hair off his forehead. “You know...the cum laude distinction is a pretty big deal. Did you happen bring me a present?”

“Oh, you’ll get your present later,” Clint says with a wink, running a finger down the side of her throat. “I promise. But right now, it’s parent time. And then hopefully later, drinking time.”

If Clint’s being honest, he just wants to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible -- he’d never bothered to meet anyone’s parents that weren’t his friends growing up or friends from the military, and he has no idea how Laura’s are going to take to him. She slips her hand into his own, fiddling with the sleeves of her gown as they walk towards the stands where hoards of grown-ups are frantically trying to find their kids.

“There’s my baby,” says a man that Clint assumes must be Laura’s father when they reach the foot of the bleachers. Robert “Bob” Foster is tall and mostly grey-haired, with a salt and pepper beard and all the broad shoulders and honorable stature that Clint would expect of a former Air Force major, everything that makes him look downright intimidating.

“Daddy,” Laura says, kissing him on the cheek before turning around. “This is my boyfriend, Clint.”

Bob turns and extends a hand, which Clint takes with what he hopes is a kind enough smile. “Nice to finally meet you, Clint. Heard you’ve been taking care of our daughter.”

Clint casts a quick glance at Laura, finding that she’s started a deep conversation with her mother while showing off her diploma, and struggles to find an appropriate answer.

“I’ve been keeping her in line,” he says, and a half-smile emerges on Bob’s face.

“Laura said you spent some time in the military. Iraq?”

“Force Service Support Group,” Clint answers, trying not to sound so rigid, a habit that he still finds is hard to break when asked about his past.

“I see.” Bob lets out a breath. “Well, we’re glad you’re here to celebrate with us.” He smiles again as Laura reappears, this time snuggling herself into Clint’s side, squeezing his hip.

“We should take pictures and then get out of here,” she says pointedly, looking at her father. “The traffic from the stadium is going to be terrible.”

“Thanks,” Clint mutters in her ear as they start to walk. His stomach is tying itself in knots while his back is breaking out in sweat, and Laura tightens her grip on his palm.

“You’re doing great,” she confirms as they approach the parking lot. “Just try to be yourself.”

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid I’ll be,” Clint says morosely. They’ve walked more quickly than her parents, enough to allow themselves somewhat of a safe space and Laura spins on her heel, kissing him on the cheek.

“I love you, Clint Barton. I love you for the person you are, no matter what my parents say, okay? Remember that.”

Clint nods and pastes a smile on his face as Bob hits the automatic key on the car door, sliding into the backseat, Laura close behind.

***

Laura’s father has made reservations at a restaurant that Clint feels is far too swanky for his own good, and as the meal progresses and the wine is poured, he tries not to feel entirely out of place. When Laura and her mother excuse themselves to go to the bathroom, Clint’s left staring at Bob, nervously gripping his napkin between two fingers.

“Clint. Do you intend to marry my daughter?”

“Uh.” Clint chokes on his water and covers his surprise by pretending he has a deep cough. “Maybe?” The moment the words leave his mouth he regrets them, because Bob’s face sets itself in a hard mask and fuck it all. The truth of the matter was, he had thought long and hard about possibly marrying Laura, and the only thing holding him back from putting down a chunk of his savings on a ring was the fact that she had technically still been in school until this afternoon. Still, the question blindsides him, and he finds himself internally panicking.

“I only ask because if you are, you typically should be asking the father of the girl you like for her hand,” Bob continues conversationally, picking up his wine glass. Clint nods.

“Yes, sir. I mean, yes.” His own alcohol is gone so he downs the rest of his water, wishing someone would refill his glass with something stronger, and takes a steadying breath. “I mean, I do love her. I absolutely want to marry her. But I also wanted to wait until it was the right time.”

Bob raises his eyebrow, sitting back against the chair. “Well, I can respect that,” he says slowly, stealing a glance towards where Laura and her mother are walking. “God knows I waited long enough with my own proposal. Do you have siblings, Clint?”

“A brother,” Clint says shortly, and more abruptly than he intends. “Older brother.”

“I see. And is he married?”

Clint bites back on a laugh, reminding himself this probably isn’t the best time to go off on someone about the Barton’s dysfunctional family history. “Nope. My brother’s, uh...not really the marrying type.”

“I see,” Bob repeats. He picks up his glass. “I was the first in my family to get married, when I met Elizabeth. I knew she was the one from the first time I saw her at the dance club I went to, when I was visiting in New York during a break.” He pauses, raising an eyebrow. “I’m sure you know the stereotypes behind army men, Clint. So I wanted to make sure that I could provide for her and give her a good life before I settled down.”

“I can provide for Laura just fine,” Clint says a little heatedly, feeling himself grow indignant. “I have money. I have savings. And I care about making her happy.”

“I believe that,” Bob says, and even though his voice has softened and he no longer sounds like he’s talking to a child, Clint can tell that his response isn’t entirely rooted in truth. “Just be sure that this is something you’re ready to be in the long haul for, when you become serious. Marriage isn’t a game.”

“No,” Clint agrees. “It’s not.” He grits his teeth, grinding them together until he feels his jaw ache as Laura and her mother return to the table. Laura slips her hand into his immediately after sitting down, their standard subtle measure of letting each other know that they’re okay, and Clint tries to reciprocate, feeling his insides burn.

***

It’s Laura’s graduation day, and the last thing Clint wants to do is make things difficult or make things about him, and bring her down thanks to his own mood. So he keeps quiet after dinner and when they’re finally walking home, having left her parents behind, Laura stops in her tracks.

“Something’s wrong.”

“No,” Clint lies, shaking his head. “I’m just tired, okay? It’s been a long day.” He casts his eyes into the distance and Laura sighs, sounding frustrated.

“What did my father say to you?”

“He didn’t…” Clint trails off, feeling suddenly trapped, despite the fact that they’re surrounded by open air. “Nothing,” he says, trying to mask the bitterness he feels creeping into his tone. “Unless you count some advice about marriage and if I’m sure I’m in this relationship for the right reasons.”

Laura sighs again, this time more resignedly. “Look, he didn’t mean to come down hard on you, Clint. He’s just looking out for me. I’m an only child and...it’s hard when you grow up in a military family and see so many people marry young just to get their benefits, only to get left behind once their wives get pregnant or something.” She reaches for his hand. “But I’m sorry he made you upset.”

“He didn’t make me upset,” Clint says grumpily. “He just told me the truth. I’m never going to be good enough for you.”

“That is entirely not true,” Laura says sharply. “And I could smack you for letting yourself believe it. Do you think I give a damn about what you do and how much money you have?”

“Laura, I’m a military vet turned bartender who dropped out of high school at sixteen,” he says tiredly, leaning back against the wall of the building they’ve stopped in front of. “I make my living helping others get drunk in small town Iowa, and when I’m not doing that, I’m picking up odd jobs to make extra cash.” He blinks, suddenly finding that his eyes are swimming in water, but manages to hold it back. “And he’s right. You’re a goddamn college graduate with honors, and you can go wherever you want in the world. Why would you want to stay here with someone who’s going to bring you down?”

Laura’s looking at him with a mixture of surprise and anger, and she crosses her arms tightly over her chest.

“What the hell happened to the confident and optimistic bartender who didn’t seem to give a shit about the worth of his life and hit on me several months ago while we played darts?”

“It was an off night,” Clint mutters sourly. Laura thins her lips.

“Look, believe me when I say that if I wanted to be anywhere else in the world, I would be there already. I would’ve taken the scholarship I got from Berkeley. I would’ve sided with my dad when he wanted to move away, instead of fighting him on staying in this place.” She stops, taking a breath. “My life is not defined by what I do, Clint. Or by who I’m with. But it doesn’t matter, because I want to be with you, I’ve always wanted to be with you, and that’s never changed.” Laura puts her palm against his face, her fingers closing in on his skin.

“Forget my parents, Clint. Be a bartender. Go back and fight. Do what you need to do in order to prove to yourself that you deserve to be happy, whatever that thing is. But don’t think for a second that if you decided to do none of those things, I wouldn’t still be here.”

Clint leans in, letting out his breath in a long exhale, sagging his weight against her as Laura pulls him into a full hug, rubbing his back.

“I really don’t deserve you,” he says quietly into her hair, ignoring the passersby and the fact he’s committing his own personal crime of annoying PDA. He feels her smile against his shoulder.

“Well, that’s a lie.” When he straightens up, she’s still holding onto his hands, swinging them back and forth. “Now, are you going to continue to lie to me for the rest of the night? Because you seem to be forgetting that present you promised earlier.”

Clint can’t help but smile when the corners of her lip turn up, her eyes dancing as they settle into his own, a clear indication of love and respect.

“Yes, ma’am.”

***

While Laura job searches, Clint puts in extra hours at the bar, and he comes home one day in the middle of the summer to find Laura drinking coffee while staring at her computer intensely.

“I don’t know how you can send so many resumes in one day,” Clint says, dropping his bag, feeling his muscles creak in protest as he flops onto the bed. Old military wounds, combined with standing all day and being hunched over, haven’t helped the fact he’s continually been feeling like an old man with a quarter-life crisis.

“Job searching’s on hold,” Laura says, turning around in her chair and pulling her leg up. “My parents recommended that I go up to my uncle's cabin for the weekend, and I thought it might be nice to take a little vacation together.”

“Weekend trip to the cornfields, huh?”

Laura rolls her eyes. “More like a lake house, actually -- there are lakes in Iowa, remember?”

“Sure,” Clint says easily. “Skinny-dipped in them all the time.”

“That does not count,” Laura mutters, but Clint notices she’s smiling as she turns back to the computer. He gets up from the bed, wincing against the pain in his knees, and wraps his arms around her from behind.

“You sure your parents won’t mind that their daughter is going away with her boyfriend?”

“Of course not,” Laura bends her head and kisses his fingers. “Anyway, it’s not like I spent half of my teenage life bringing guys home against my parents’ wishes. It’s only fair I get to exercise that rebellious stage now.”

“And we can skinny-dip together, right?” Clint asks a little hopefully. Laura groans.

“Clint.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” He kisses the side of her neck, trailing his tongue down her throat, until he reaches her collarbone.

“That is not a yes,” she grumbles, arching her head back, and when she does so he knows the argument is as good as lost.

“You won’t even consider it?”

Laura’s words are nearly unintelligible by the time she speaks again, and Clint feels her smirk against his lips.

“Fine. I’ll think about it.”

***

Laura’s uncle has a cabin overlooking Lake Red Rock, a rustic looking building with an indoor porch and a few bedrooms, and a mixture of old appliances and modern day furniture. Clint knows from Laura that her uncle had essentially inherited the house from their grandfather, who inherited the house from his own father, and despite her uncle's sudden death a few years ago, it remained in his name in the family. Still, as he walks up the property, he finds himself taken aback by the fact that he’s looking at a second home that’s more elaborate than any place he’s ever lived.

“Clint.” Laura’s standing at the doorway, raising an eyebrow. “Do I have to ask you to carry me over the threshold in order to get your attention?”

He barks out a laugh while striding forward, his trance, for the moment, broken. “I suppose, if you insist.” Laura lets out a laugh as he scoops her up with both arms, kicking her feet out, and she wraps two hands around his neck.

“So how long has it really been since you’ve visited this place?”

“Mmmm.” Laura scrunches up one eye, looking thoughtful. “Probably about five years or so. I was going to ask if you wanted a tour...preferably starting with the bedroom.”

Hmmm. Funny,” Clint says sharing a wink, “because I was going to ask the same thing.”

***

The first two days away are filled with barbeques and hikes, fire pits and swimming, and Clint and Laura making love to each other when the lights go out in the cabin. On the third day, they end up taking a ride out onto the lake, their only time on the water aside from some swimming, in Laura’s uncle’s boat.

“Kind of makes you wish you didn’t live anywhere else,” Clint muses as they steer away from the house. Laura leans back on her hands and slips on her sunglasses.

“Every time I’ve thought about leaving Iowa, I feel like I can’t,” she admits. “There’s something here that makes me feel comfortable. I never liked the big cities much.”

“Yeah.” Clint shakes back his hair as the boat cuts across the water. “You know, we stopped at every big city imaginable when we would have time off. Maybe it was just because I was used to being in close quarters all the time, but I never took to it. Everything just seemed too overwhelming.” He pauses, stopping the motor on the boat. “But this is nice.”

“It is,” Laura agrees, throwing him a smile that makes his stomach churn. He tries to settle his nerves by focusing on the open air of the lake while a silent pep talk rolls through his brain, and he tries to close out Bob Foster’s words, his judgmental face.

“Are you happy?” He finds himself asking, shielding his eyes against the sun. Laura turns, her brow furrowing until it causes a large crease between her eyes that he can see when she removes her sunglasses.

“Of course,” she says in a voice that Clint knows means nothing but the truth. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Clint shrugs, suddenly feeling stupid about asking the question. “Just wanted to make sure,” he says lamely, and Laura raises an eyebrow.

“Is this about my dad again?”

“No,” Clint says honestly. “I swear that it’s not. I was just...thinking.” He shoves his hand into his jacket pocket, his fingers brushing over the ring box. “I’ve never met anyone like you and I never want to be with anyone else but you. In the military, there were so many people that liked to go out and have one night stands and...I mean, I was one of them for awhile, but it never felt right, it never really felt real --”

“Clint.” Laura looks slightly concerned as she puts a hand on his arm, which he realizes is shaking. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” he responds, mentally cursing himself, and feeling slightly idiotic about the fact that he can shoot a gun without looking but can barely ask an important question to someone he knows he loves. He awkwardly gets down on his knee in the boat and hears her sharp intake of breath as he removes his hand from his jacket, offering up the velvet box. “Will you marry me, Laura?”

For a moment, Clint thinks she might start to cry and he can count on the fingers of one hand the times he’s seen Laura actually cry, more than just a few tears during a movie or when she’s stubbed her toe at the base of the bed. She blinks quickly a few times and then bobs her head frantically as two single tears slip down her cheek.

Clint smiles, feeling his anxiety lessen, and slides the ring onto her finger. The moment he does so, she pulls him close, her fingers clutching the back of his neck, the metal of the silver band cold against his skin as the boat rocks precariously underneath them, a gentle lullaby that seems to remind him in this moment, nothing else matters.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” he says as Laura kisses him and when she speaks again, he notices that her voice is wavering a little too much.

“Absolutely.”

 

2001

Laura picks out wedding decorations and a dress and Clint rents a tux, which Laura helps him hem.

“You know, I thought it was bad luck for the bride and groom to see each other before getting married,” Clint says gruffly as she folds back one of his cuffs, safety pinning it securely. Laura makes a face.

“You really believe those superstitions? Anyway, I’m pretty sure that applies to the bride and her dress. Which I will make sure that you will not see until I walk down the aisle.” She kisses him on the cheek. “Speaking of the actual ceremony, have you decided who from your family you want to invite?”

“Erm.” Clint suddenly looks embarrassed and Laura notices the steep blush that washes over his face. “Not really.”

“No one?” Laura tries to control the surprise that she knows is apparent in her voice. “I know it’s a small wedding, but you don’t even want your parents there?”

“My parents are dead,” Clint says abruptly and Laura feels her heart drop into her throat, letting go of his wrist as if he’s delivered an electric shock.

“What?” She takes a step back and Clint drops his eyes.

“They’re...sorry. They’re dead.” He swallows hard, continuing to look away. “I guess I should’ve told you, right? I should’ve told you. And I was going to, before, but there wasn’t ever a time, and then I wanted to make such a good impression when I met your own parents...and then we talked about wedding stuff, and then I got distracted…”

Laura can hear the words coming out of his mouth but she can’t quite understand them, and everything sounds a little bit jumbled, like a white noise machine that refuses to turn off.

“How did they die?” Laura asks quietly, sitting down on the bed. Clint runs a hand through his hair.

“Car accident.” He nods, as if he’s trying to convince himself of his own thoughts. “While I was overseas. Part of the reason I kind of kept mobile and then stayed in the military for a bit longer.” He hesitates and then joins her, putting his hand on her knee.

“I don’t have any family, really,” he continues, his voice low. “Not the way you do. Maybe a few aunts and uncles, but I haven’t spoken to them in years. I have a brother, but he’s out of pocket more than he’s in...I rarely hear from him. Couple of guys from the troop I was with are the best thing I have, if we’re talking about inviting people we care about.” Laura lets him fall into silence and then takes his hand slowly, running her thumbs over the calloused skin.

“I love you,” she says after a long moment. “I love you no matter what your family situation is, no matter what you do...you know that, right?”

Clint nods. “Yes,” he says, his voice rougher than usual, and Laura looks down at the cuffs of his tux, letting her eyes linger on the pin that’s sticking out of his wrist.

“I just...I need you to be sure. That you do want this. That you do want to marry me.”

Clint turns until he’s fully facing her, putting both hands each side of her face. “I swear to you, Laura, I have never been more sure of anything in my entire life.”

“Good,” she says softly, leaning her head on his shoulder, taking in the weight of his body, the warmth of his skin. Stay here for awhile, she says, but doesn’t say out loud. Clint seems to understand, though, reaching out to cuddle her more closely, his mouth marking gentle declarations against her scalp while they sit in silence.

***

The day Clint and Laura get married, it’s overcast and more humid than usual.

It’s a small ceremony -- Laura has her immediate family and her father's friend from the Air Force who officiates, and they get married in front of the lake where Clint first proposed, before heading to a restaurant in a nearby town to celebrate.

Clint’s nervous, she can tell, but she doesn’t blame him. For as much as Laura loves him and knows that this is the right decision -- for her, for both of them -- there’s a ball of nerves bouncing around in her own stomach, a feeling that refuses to abate. But when she walks out of the house and approaches the beach and sees Clint standing in front of the water -- fancy suit, mile-wide smile, locks of sand-colored hair brushed across his forehead -- she feels every worry disappear, and knows when she finally kisses him that he feels the same.

She spends some time with her parents at the restaurant before realizing she hasn’t seen Clint in far too long, and a quick glance around the half-filled room shows that he’s nowhere to be found. Frowning, she excuses herself from her current conversation, wandering through the tables, her eyes searching relentlessly.

“If you’re looking for your husband, I saw him head to the bar about half an hour ago,” a server says, jerking his thumb in the direction of the entrance. Laura sighs to herself and smiles tightly in thanks, gathering up the front of the simple gown she’s changed into.

“You know, if you want alcohol, I seem to remember that my parents paid for an unlimited amount of it in another room,” she says casually, sliding onto the chair next to him. Aside from a few men who look considerably older, he’s the only one at the bar, and also the only one nursing something that’s not beer.

“What’s wrong?” Laura asks after a moment, when he doesn’t respond and doesn’t react. Clint swallows, taking a drink.

“I wish they were here,” he says, putting down the glass slowly. “My parents...someone. I wish they were here.”

Laura feels a lump well up in her throat, and puts her hand on his arm. “You have me,” she says gently. “And my parents.”

Clint smiles, and it’s an expression that looks like it hurts. “Laura, I love you. But it’s not the same.”

Laura lets out a slow breath. “I know it’s not,” she admits, taking his glass and swirling it gently. “You didn’t hear from your brother, did you?” She knows the answer, but isn’t going to press him if he doesn’t want to confirm it, and Clint shakes his head.

“Sent a letter to the last place he was supposedly seen. Called one of the women that I know he’s been traveling with recently. She said she’d deliver the message, but…” Clint trails off and Laura doesn’t need him to continue, she knows what he’s going to say. It didn’t matter if the letter ever got there or not, what mattered was that his brother wasn’t here.

“So is getting drunk on your wedding day the answer to all of this depression?” she asks seriously, still holding the glass, and Clint looks a little shameful.

“You’ve got a whole room of people who love you and want to see you happy,” he says, flattening his hand against the table. “You deserve to enjoy that. I just needed to be alone.”

“That room of people belongs to you, too,” Laura reminds him, taking a drink and immediately making a face. Unlike Clint, who could pretty much drink anything and preferred his alcohol undiluted, she’d never been a fan of straight whiskey in the same way she’d adapted to other types of liquor over the years.

“I guess.”

Laura shakes her head. “There is no, I guess,” she says firmly. “We’re married now, Clint. We share a life. And that life includes my family, my friends...as long as you want it.”

“I do want it,” Clint says almost immediately, as if he’s scared that if he doesn’t respond soon enough, she’ll take back her offer. Laura hands him his glass and slides off the stool.

“Then come back to the party and share our wedding day with me, the way you’re supposed to. Because I love you too much to let you feel sad about the people you don’t have in your life.”

Clint shakes his head, downing the rest of his drink. “Does this mean you’re going to boss me around like this forever?”

Laura feels herself start to smile. “Only when I know I’m right.”

Clint laughs, rubbing his hand across his chin before getting up and straightening his jacket.

“I guess I’ll allow it.”

“That’s better.” Laura kisses him once before tugging him towards the door. “Now, help me figure out a good cocktail, because this bartender they have working is nowhere near as good as you. All my drinks have been terrible so far.”

Clint laughs again, walking with her back into the room, squeezing her hand.

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

2002

Clint and Laura’s first apartment is big by midwestern standards but smaller than it probably should be, a one bedroom with a nice-sized living room and a kitchen with a bar that also functions as a table. It’s nothing luxurious but it’s cheap and they both don’t need much, and neither of them have ever lived anywhere bigger than a place like this, anyway.

“A house would be nice,” Laura muses over dinner one night. “A real house.”

Clint snorts. “I thought you said you didn’t want a big, real house.”

“I do want one,” she admits. “Just not now. We don’t really have the money for it. But maybe one day.”

“Maybe,” Clint echoes, shoving another forkful of take-out into his mouth. “That reminds me, I’m putting in some overtime at the bar next week. Main guy’s on vacation, so I said I’d take his shifts.”

Laura nods absently, crossing her legs under the table. Between Clint’s proposal, wedding planning, and getting married, job searching had taken a considerable back seat in that she hadn’t bothered to actively send out resumes for over two months. It’s made her feel guilty, knowing how much time Clint has spent working, especially when he’s crawled into bed at two in the morning only to get up again at five. But more than that, her savings was taking a bigger hit than she was comfortable with, and it's a thought that's starting to wear on her nerves.

“I want to try to get a job soon,” she says, picking up another slice of pizza. “I have a few interviews lined up for next week, some internships, also, that might pay a little.”

“What a shame. I kind of liked you being home to cook me dinner.”

Laura rolls her eyes. “I’m not a housewife, Clint, and I never plan to be. Sorry to break that to you.”

“I guess children are out of the question, then?”

Laura freezes with the pizza halfway to her mouth, and then puts it down slowly. “I never said that,” she says carefully, before looking up and meeting his eyes. “Clint, do you? Want kids?”

It’s not something either of them have talked about in their more serious discussions, normally they opt to focus on money or jobs or Laura’s family. But Laura suddenly realizes she’s never asked, and also that she knows the answer before he speaks.

“Yeah,” he says, putting down his own fork. “I mean, I never thought I’d be a good dad, but...I dunno, I kinda really wanna be a parent. Prove to myself I can have a damn family. And Laura, come on, I’ve seen you with kids. You’d be a good mom, you’d be a great mom.”

Laura stares at him for a long time, feeling her heart jackhammer against her rib cage. “This is a serious discussion, Clint. I mean, we’re still trying to get by as it is.”

“I know,” he says, sounding a little frazzled. “I mean, look, maybe we have to wait a few years, right? For financial reasons. But...but we should. Think about it.”

Laura takes a breath, attempting to calm her nerves, and then smiles slightly. “Well.” She swallows. “My parents will probably start harassing me about grandkids soon enough, so I guess I’ll at least have something to tell them.” She plays with the corner of her pizza crust, before finding his eyes across the table. “You really want this?”

“I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t sure,” Clint promises. “But when the time is right. For both of us.” He reaches across the table and puts his palm over her own. “Okay?”

Laura nods, soothed by the way his face is lined with emotions that are more serious than she’s seen in a long time. “Okay,” she agrees, feeling her stomach jump again. “When the time is right.”

***

By the beginning of spring, Laura’s working part-time at Iowa State as a TA for the chemistry department, and Clint has graduated more or less to full-time bartender. The hours are still late, and Laura still gets worried when he comes home early in the morning, but it’s a lot better than wondering if he’s going to kill himself by accident with construction work or something similarly dangerous while working one of his random extra jobs.

She’s hunched over the at the table grading papers, when Clint walks through the door after work one day and sits down abruptly, cracking his knuckles.

“Can I help you?” Laura asks with an eyebrow raise, because she knows he only cracks his knuckles when he’s nervous about addressing something. She puts down her red pen and looks at him expectantly while Clint puts his head in his hands.

“Clint.” Laura raises her voice in alarm. “What happened? Did you get fired? Did something happen at work?”

That seems to snap him out of whatever trance he’s in and Clint shakes his head roughly, raising his eyes. “No, no,” he promises. “God, no, I’m still...nothing like that.”

“Then what’s going on?” Laura repeats, pushing her papers out of the way. Clint rubs at his forehead.

“This is gonna sound stupid.”

Laura groans. “Seriously? You’re my husband, Clint. If you’re worried that I’m going to judge you for saying something stupid, you should reconsider our vows.”

“Ugh.” Clint leans back in his chair, clearly anxious about what he’s preparing to say. “I was working like normal, right? And all of a sudden, this man walked in out of nowhere. Like, literally out of nowhere. One minute I was cleaning glasses, the next minute some guy dressed in all black with an eye patch is staring me down like he’s an old enemy or something.” He breaks off, suppressing a shudder. “Anyway, he told me that he knew me? Or he’d been hearing about me? Something like that. He said I had certain skills, whatever that means. And then he offered me a job with this place.” Clint pushes a card across the table and Laura picks it up curiously, squinting at the small print.

"Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division,” she reads slowly, looking confused. “Is this real?”

“Seems to be,” Clint confirms. “There’s a website and everything.”

“Just because there’s a website doesn’t mean I trust a guy who came in off the street and then offered you a job at someplace that sounds like they just wanted the name of their organization to spell SHIELD,” Laura says doubtfully. Clint moves his hand to his hair, fingering the overgrown strands roughly.

“I know,” he admits. “But, I mean...why come to bum-fuck Iowa? Why come to the middle of nowhere and seek me out specifically and ask me about a job? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Did he say why he wanted you for some secret job?” Laura asks, taking her papers back. Clint shakes his head.

“Not really. Like I said -- told me that I had a specific skillset that could be useful, and that he knew about the stuff I did in the military.”

“That’s all?” Laura asks suspiciously, and Clint nods.

“Yeah. Strange, right?”

“Strange.” She pauses, going back to her work. “So, what did you tell this random guy?”

Clint shrugs. “I said I’d take his card and think about it, mostly to get him off my back. I don’t...you don’t think it’s an actual thing, do you? I mean, what if this is one of those moments you’re just supposed to trust and take a leap of faith on? We need the money and the break, right? What if this meeting thing happened for a reason?”

Laura puts down her pen again, pushing out a breath as he finishes his sentence. “I don’t know, Clint. The timing is almost too coincidental for me not to believe this is some kind of con.”

“So you’re telling me that I’m just supposed to ignore it?”

“That’s not what I said,” Laura says pointedly. “And you know it. I’m just giving you my opinion, which I believe you asked for, or you wouldn’t have come to tell me what happened.” She adjusts herself in the chair. “If this guy comes back again, just ask him to explain himself. There has to be more that he’s not telling you. And if he’s really interested in having you for some job, he’ll give you the information you want, and you’ll be able to tell if this is something worth taking a chance on or not.”

“Yeah,” Clint says slowly. “I know. I shouldn’t even be considering it like this, but I just…” He trails off helplessly. “I want a good life for us.”

Laura smiles sadly. “I do, too,” she says gently. “And right now, we’re doing okay with what we have. And I trust that you’re always going to do what you can to take care of me, even when you think you’re not doing enough.” She watches as he leans forward, slumping onto the table, as if all the energy has gone out of him.

“Have I told you yet that I feel I don’t deserve you?”

“Today?” Laura gets up from where she’s been sitting and shoves at his body until he straightens up, before settling down into his lap. “No. But the night is young.” She presses her lips to his and Clint moans.

“Your work.”

“Oh, please.” Laura pulls off her shirt in one swift motion, exposing her bra. “It’s not like I’ve never pulled all-nighters. Besides,” she continues, working her mouth across his face, kissing his cheek, his eyes, his forehead, “I hear it’s been statistically proven that sex energizes you.”

“Well, when you put it that way….” Clint lets his words die on his lips as Laura continues to kiss him and then he’s rocking back and forth against the chair, while Laura undoes his pants with one hand, coaxing him into an erection.

***

The mystery man doesn’t come back to Iowa until August, and Laura’s almost fully asleep when Clint crawls into bed beside her, settling himself next to her body, wrapping his arm around her middle and pressing his cheek into her shoulder.

“The guy with the eye patch came back,” Clint says quietly, and Laura feels herself awaken almost instantly, turning over.

“And?”

Clint lets out a long breath. “And, same thing as before. Offered me a job, and said he could use my skills. He said the job would pay well, promised I’d have enough for us to be taken care of...he didn’t give me any other information and I don’t know why, but Laura...I think I trust him.”

Laura stays quiet, breathing slowly and when she brings her face close, she can see the way Clint’s face is drawn, the way he so clearly wants to make himself believe that what his mind is telling him is actually the truth. Seeing him so vulnerable like this, his emotions laid bare across his features -- the realization of what it feels like for someone unknown to take a chance on him when he probably feels like he has nothing to give in return -- hurts her heart.

“So are you going to take it?”

“I…” Clint squeezes his eyes shut. “I want to,” he says and Laura bites down on her lip, wondering how to voice the words she so desperately needs to say out loud, the ones she was convinced would have to wait until tomorrow because she didn’t want to do this at two in the morning, and certainly not with this new piece of information.

“I’m pregnant.”

What?” He’s sitting up straight in less time than it takes him to ask the question, and Laura nods, huffing out a small laugh as she follows his lead.

“You're sure -- you mean -- this isn't --”

“Yeah,” Laura says with a small smile as Clint leans into her, his body a blunt weight against her own. “I guess someone up there finally decided to listen.”

Clint's breathing heavily, his face practically splitting apart. “Is this a good thing? It’s a good thing, right?”

Laura hesitates, thinking of her earlier reaction, how she had practically freaked out at the realization that her dreams of being a mother were finally coming true and what the weight of that meant. “I don’t know,” she says softly. “I know that we’re still short on money, and that it seemed like everything in the world was telling us to wait, but I do want to start a family with you.”

“I do, too,” Clint says, absently running his hand under her shirt, his fingers dancing against her stomach. Something about the way he’s touching her sends jolts of emotion through Laura’s brain, and she presses in next to him, suddenly desperate to be close.

“You have to be sure this is something you really want to do. This job,” Laura says after a moment. “Don’t do this because you feel like you have to prove yourself to me. Take this opportunity, this chance, whatever it is...take it if it’s what you really want, if you think it’ll make you happy. But if we really are...if we’re going to have a baby...” She breathes into his shirt, taking in the faint smell of sweat and lotion from the body wash he uses when he showers, and curls her fingers around the fabric. “I just need you to be sure.”

“I know,” Clint answers, and Laura starts tracing a pattern on his side, where she knows one of his scars is hidden.

“There is one more thing,” Clint says after a beat. “A kind of perk, I guess, that comes with taking this job.”

“Yeah?” Laura tries to smile through her emotions while also stifling a yawn she can’t control. “What’s that?”

“Well.” Clint pauses. “He said he can help get us that big house you really want.”

 

2003

The day Clint and Laura move into the house on the farm, Laura is six months pregnant, mostly cranky, and Clint is about to leave to start training.

“I don’t understand why you have to go all the way to New York,” Laura complains as she watches Clint unpack in the living room. She’d tried to offer help, in order to feel less like an over-sized and useless lump, but Clint hadn’t let her do more than shove a box of utensils across the room with her foot.

“Headquarters,” Clint says, as if that explains it. “Apparently I have to go through a bunch of protocol. Not to mention get briefed on classified stuff. I swear, it’s entirely legitimate.”

“I’m not saying it’s not legitimate,” Laura says, watching him throw a blanket onto the floor. “I’m just saying that it seems like a lot of unnecessary trouble...like boot camp all over again, although you already know how to fight.”

“Maybe that’s exactly what it is,” Clint says with a shrug. “Or their version of it, anyway. But look on the bright side -- we have a house.”

They did have a house. Whether he rightfully knew or not, Clint had apparently neglected to tell Laura that the big house she always wanted also came fully furnished, something that made Laura feel grateful and also intensely uncomfortable.

“I just don’t like the idea of feeling like we’re living in someone else’s space,” she had admitted to Clint the first time they came to visit to check out the property. He had squeezed her shoulder in response.

“When we get settled enough, we’ll buy our own furniture and make it personal,” he had promised. “Plus, come on. We’re gonna have a baby. You don’t think I’m going to paper the walls with every single picture and art piece like one of those overly proud fathers?”

“Oh, I know you will,” Laura had responded with a sigh, poking him in the arm. “You’re going to be one of those insufferable fathers who buys their kid ‘daddy’s little angel’ shirts, aren’t you?” Clint had grinned in response.

“So how long will you be gone?” Laura asks as she leans forward, hating the fact that pregnancy has made parts of her body completely immobile. Clint rips open another box.

“Hopefully not longer than a month,” he says. “They told me that it’s kind of a process -- training and all that, and then eventually I’ll start actually working, traveling and stuff. Doing real assignments. They’re also gonna give me an apartment there so I have a place to stay and I don’t have to live in some small, cramped room. But I’ll get a lot of time to come home in between.”

“You better,” Laura says, trying to keep the tremor out of her voice. She wants to blame her emotions on hormones but she’s not stupid and she knows the truth -- she’s not used to being without Clint for more than one night at a time, and they’ve never been apart for any kind of reason except when Laura’s gone to visit a girlfriend for a weekend. Even with her family around, being suddenly alone is going to be harder than she expects, and she also knows that she’s going to worry about him and miss him more than she’s previously realized. They hadn’t entirely told Laura’s parents about Clint’s new job, explaining his sudden need for constant absence (and acquisition of new and expensive property) by telling them that Clint had accepted a position again with the military that paid him enough to support Laura, the house, and their unborn child. Unsurprisingly, Bob hadn’t bothered to argue with that.

“Hey.” Clint stops working on the box he’s been tearing apart and makes his way over to the couch, sitting down next to her. “I’m gonna be okay. I promise. Remember what you told me? That you needed me to be sure?”

Laura nods, and Clint brushes back her hair. “Then trust me when I say I’m sure.” He smiles, and she tries to return the sentiment. “I’ll have a handler and everything, so it’s not like I’ll be totally on my own.”

“Phillip Coulson sounds more like a businessman and less like a handler that’s supposed to keep you from dying,” Laura says, trying to sound sarcastic, but she can’t quite keep her voice from starting to break. Clint leans into her.

“He comes highly regarded, apparently. He can’t suck too much.”

Laura stays quiet for a long time, listening to him breathe against her. “You’ll come back, right?” she asks, hating the way her voice sounds, the uncertainty bleeding through. Clint places his hands on her stomach, massaging the bulge that’s grown seemingly bigger every day.

“I will always come back,” he says, leaning down to kiss her, and Laura tries to hold back emerging tears.

***

Laura goes into labor on April 13, three months after Clint gets embedded in SHIELD, while she’s relaxing at home and starting a knitting project. He’s in the middle of throwing punches in a large gym when he gets the call on his phone and he answers immediately, not bothering to wait for the message when he sees the number come up on his screen, because he’s been tracking the timing and his phone for days. He drops everything, maxing out his credit card as he beelines towards the airport to catch the first nonstop flight back to Iowa. Cooper Barton is born a few hours after midnight, a screaming, infant-sized mass of flailing limbs and light hair, the color that Clint remembers his own hair being before it aged darker.

“The miracle of life. Amazing, isn’t it?” Bob asks proudly as they stand in front of the nursery window, and Clint can’t quite find the words to respond, so he presses his hand to the glass instead while staring silently, noticing how his wide palm is essentially the size of the baby’s entire body.

Despite barely getting started, SHIELD allows Clint a healthy amount of time off after Laura gives birth and in the interim he returns to working at the bar, mostly to keep himself busy when he’s not taking care of Cooper and also because he has a feeling the person they’ve hired to replace him isn’t anywhere near as competent. Laura’s parents join them at the house after she comes home from the hospital, and although Clint initially worries that there are going to be too many cooks in the kitchen, the situation ends up working out. Laura’s parents are there during the day, and when Clint comes home late at night, he takes over most of the evening and early morning shifts, allowing Laura to get some semblance of actual sleep.

“Hey,” Laura whispers, her voice tickling his ear, and Clint attempts to blink himself awake from where he’s fallen asleep, curled into the plush chair in the living room, Cooper stretched out along his chest in the I LOVE ARROWS onesie he had forced Laura to buy.

“Hi,” he says, swallowing down sleep, squinting through the dark. “What time is it?”

“Five,” Laura says, draping a blanket over them so that the baby’s face is barely visible. “Heard you come home a few hours ago.”

“You’re supposed to be asleep,” he tries to admonish, but finds that he can’t quite muster up the strength to sound overly stern. Laura bends down next to him, sitting precariously on his right leg, careful not to put pressure on the bruises that he knows line the inside of his thigh.

“I don’t think I can sleep anymore,” Laura says with a small sigh, trailing one finger over Cooper’s head. “At least not regularly. He’s worth it, though.”

“Yeah,” Clint says quietly. “He is. Cranky little fucker.”

Clint,” Laura says sharply, raising her voice just enough and he lets a lazy smile grace his lips.

“Aw, come on. He’s asleep, he’s not gonna hear me.” Laura reaches over the takes the baby from him, cradling Cooper in her arms as she stands up.

“Swear in front of our two month old again and I’ll kill you. Now come back to bed.” She reaches her other hand forward and Clint takes it, allowing her to pull him towards the bedroom and up the stairs. When they reach the bedroom, Laura hands Cooper over while she climbs back under the covers and then takes him back, allowing Clint to follow her lead before they settle the baby between them, each of their arms curled in a protective closed circle.

It’s these times that Clint likes best, he realizes, as sleep deprived and stressed as he is. SHIELD kept him off the radar just enough so that splitting his time between Laura and his new work wreaked havoc on his body, not just physically, but mentally as well. To say Laura had been understanding of the entire situation would be an understatement and Clint finds himself wondering what’s going to happen when he starts going out in the field for real, because he can already see the worry lines starting to become prominent on her face, the words she doesn’t say each time he comes home, even though he’s so far been doing nothing but working out in a gym, filling out paperwork, and participating in mock missions to familiarize himself with his new weapon of choice: a bow and arrow.

“So, you’re going to be like Robin Hood?” Laura had asked mildly when he broke the news to her over the phone. Despite Clint’s reassurance, despite the cash advances and the new large house, she was still hesitant and cautious about this whole endeavor. Clint had feigned the sound of being wounded.

“Hopefully a lot better than Robin Hood,” he had boasted, trying make himself sound confident because the truth was, he had taken to the sport quicker than usual, a combination of old military instincts and the fact that he had already been trained in numerous firearms, not to mention being ambidextrous thanks to years of bartending. But Clint thinks there are few things in the world he’d trade for moments like these, when gets to come home and sleep with his son and his wife and sing made-up lullabies, and wake up in the middle of night to change dirty diapers.

“Stop thinking so much,” Laura says softly, her voice barely discernible. “It makes you age.”

“I’m glad you think I’m an old man,” he mutters back, trying to ignore the fact that his right leg tingles as he says so. Laura smiles.

“You are an old man. But you’re my old man,” she says, kissing Cooper’s head. Clint snorts out a laugh in return.

“Can’t argue with that,” he decides, leaning over Cooper to kiss Laura, before letting himself fall back asleep.

 

2004

The day Nick Fury visits the farm, Laura’s sitting on the front porch, holding Cooper while waiting for Clint’s latest phone call.

She sees him before she realizes that he’s actually approaching, even though the farm is set so far out that she knows no one would wander up their way unless they were lost or had been previously told about their location. The man walking towards her is certainly moving with a purpose, however, as if he knows exactly where he’s going and what he wants to do, and Laura continues to watch warily as he strides past the ailing fence, around the larger strands of grass, finally coming close enough so that Laura can see the leather overcoat and heavy boots that, in the silence, sound like thunder against the ground.

“Mrs. Barton,” the man says, stopping just before the porch step and extending a hand. Despite his eye patch and rough tone, Laura thinks she detects something gentle in his demeanor, and it’s a feeling that puts her at ease. “I’m Nick Fury. Your husband’s boss.”

It takes Laura a moment to put the pieces together, to remember all of Clint’s stories and also his very first one: some guy dressed in all black with an eye patch. She swallows, extending her hand back.

“Thank you for the lovely home,” she says because she’s not quite sure how to respond. Nice to meet you doesn’t quite seem to work; Laura feels like she’s known the man since before Clint ever joined SHIELD thanks to his unconventional recruitment method, and she has a feeling that judging by the way Fury smiles back, he knows that, too.

“It is lovely, isn’t it?” He puts a hand over his forehead, letting one eye travel over the property. “I haven’t seen this place since I first scouted it out a few years ago, but you’ve made it into quite a nice home.”

Laura can’t help but smile. “Not me,” she says, shaking her head slowly so as not to disturb Cooper. “Mostly Clint. He’s pretty much torn this place apart since we moved in.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” the man known as Fury says, climbing the steps and taking a seat next to her. “Barton loves taking on projects. And I know he’s taken on quite a few since the first time I sought him out at that bar a few years ago.” He glances over at Laura, who in turn looks down at Cooper and smiles.

“He loves being a dad,” she says a little wistfully, watching Cooper suck at the rubber top as if his life depends on it. “It’s one of the only times I’ve ever seen him happy, and not worrying about himself.” Fury leans forward at her words.

“Do you know that all of our agents are required to have code names, Mrs. Barton?”

Laura shakes her head again. Clint tells her about SHIELD work and about when he goes out into the field -- especially when it’s dangerous -- but he doesn’t quite tell her everything, and Laura’s sometimes grateful for that, given that she has to spend most of her time alone with her thoughts. Fury sighs.

“Most of them are given to people as a formality but some, like your husband’s, are chosen.” He raises an eyebrow. “Care to guess what he calls himself when he’s in the field?”

“I…” Laura trails off, searching her brain for inside jokes or nicknames, or anything she knows that might work as a secret-spy code word, coming up blank. “I don’t know,” she says finally, shifting Cooper in her arms.

“Hawkeye,” Fury supplies with a small smile. “Do you know why?”

Laura shakes her head again, though something at the edge of her brain starts to poke at her emotions until she feels her stomach do somersaults, remembering the sweatshirt she had been wearing the night they met.

“The Iowa Hawkeyes, apparently. Wasn’t aware he was into sports so much, but he told me it had meaning for him.” He glances over at her. “He wouldn’t exactly tell me why.”

Laura feels her breath hitch in her throat as she looks down at Cooper, who is still concentrating intensely on his bottle.

“I know why,” she says quietly, suddenly feeling lonely and loved at the same time. As if sensing her emotions, Fury puts a hand on her knee, and Laura meets his eyes.

“Is he...is he okay?” she asks after a moment, rocking Cooper back and forth. Fury smiles.

“Oh, he’s more than okay. Clint’s one of the best agents we’ve ever seen. A little hot-headed and sometimes makes judgment calls that we normally wouldn’t allow, but I can see why you fell for him.”

Laura feels herself inwardly blush. “I love him,” she says, lifting Cooper up so she can burp him properly. “I just want him to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for him.”

“Rest assured, Mrs. Barton, that he’s very happy right now doing all of this.” Fury gets up, flipping his coat out behind him. “And if I ever need to know where his mind is, I can bet it’s almost always on you.”

Laura smiles tightly as Fury puts his hands on his hips, surveying the landscape.

“He’s taking on another project soon...a partner, of sorts, in addition to his handler. She’ll be able to watch his back in the field, and when we can’t.” He lets his gaze finish traveling over the house and the barn, until he’s focused on Laura again. “I’m not sure if he’s going to tell you that particular bit of information.”

“So that’s why you paid me a house call?” Laura asks cautiously, because coming all the way out to Iowa seems like an insane amount of trouble to go through just to tell someone something that Laura knows could be transmitted over the phone. Fury nods.

“I know Clint Barton just as well as you do, Laura,” and she finds herself startling at the use of her name, even though she’s not surprised or shocked that he knows it. “And I know that there are some things he’d probably rather not share.”

Laura lets his words sit for a little too long before realizing with a small stab of pain that Fury’s right. If Clint neglected to tell her about a partner, it wouldn’t be because he didn’t trust her -- it would be because he thought his own wife would see him as not good enough to be competent on his own.

“Thank you,” she says quietly when she speaks again. “For the visit. And for this. I’d invite you in, but...”

“I don’t expect you to,” Fury says, holding out his hand again. “And I need to be going, anyway.” He finds her eyes. “We’ll take care of your husband, Laura. Don’t worry. And we may hide ourselves away, but we’re always here if you need help.”

Laura reaches up and shakes his hand again before he turns around, walking back the way he’d come, before disappearing completely.

***

Laura lets a month and a half of phone calls pass, giving Clint a chance to come clean about the partner information Fury had told her about, deciding to see if he’ll give her the news himself. Their chats, however, are filled with everything but that particular bit of info: Clint tells her about the work he’s been given, the assignments he’s been going on and the people he’s met; he sometimes drops Coulson’s name but conveniently leaves out the fact that there’s anyone else involved.

“So what’s his name?” Laura asks one day when Clint’s finally home for a two week break, bouncing sixteen month old Cooper on his knee, who is clapping happily in response. Clint looks up, puzzled.

“What do you mean?”

Laura mentally prepares herself, deciding that beating around the bush isn’t going to get them anywhere, and that she’d rather just get things over with. “I mean, I’m curious about this phantom partner that you apparently acquired, but seem to forget exists when we talk.”

Clint freezes with Cooper mid-bounce, and the movement is so sudden that Cooper starts to cry, apparently upset at the interruption. Laura frowns and snatches him from Clint’s arms, rocking back and forth as she walks around the living room.

“For your information, he is a she,” Clint says, getting up. “Her name is Natasha.” Laura whirls around a little too fast.

“So you didn’t tell me who your partner was because she’s a woman?”

“What?” Clint suddenly looks like he’s going to be sick. “Jesus, no. You think -- you thought --”

“No, I thought nothing,” Laura says, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb Cooper, who’s starting to calm down. “Because I didn’t know anything. Should I think something?”

Clint shakes his head, sitting back down on the couch. “She was a rogue assassin that we turned a year or so ago, right after I joined. One of my first missions was to go kill her but...but I couldn’t.”

Laura feels her heart jump into her throat. “You never told me that,” she accuses a little stiffly, and Clint looks chagrined.

“I couldn’t. You know I don’t like telling you those kind of things anyway, but that...hell, that was hardcore security protocol, Laura. I couldn’t even tell anyone besides my boss.”

“Nick Fury,” Laura supplies, watching Clint’s face pale a little as she says the words. “I know your boss, Clint. He paid me a visit a few months ago.”

“He -- and you didn’t tell me?”

“You didn’t tell me you had a partner!” Laura says, feeling her frustrations rise, bouncing Cooper a little more intensely as she tries to keep from screaming. “You didn’t even tell me who you’ve been reporting to all this time! I’m fine with being in the dark, Clint, but I can’t be in the dark for everything when I’m stuck here by myself.” Cooper’s started crying again, no doubt thrown by his parents’ continual arguing, and Laura suddenly feels like she wants to cry herself.

“Here,” Clint says shortly, getting up, taking the baby back and putting him against his shoulder. Laura sits down in the space he’s vacated, blinking back tears, fighting against the instinct to fully break down.

Clint moves slowly, rocking back and forth in the same way Laura had been doing, fingers trailing through strands of curly, ash-colored hair. He’s singing something -- Laura can’t figure out what, but she can see the movement of his lips from across the room -- and when Cooper’s head starts to drop onto his shoulder, the cries becoming sniffling hiccups, Clint inclines his own head, slowly stopping his movements. And in that moment, Laura thinks she might actually lose it, because there are few things that make her emotional that don’t involve Clint very obviously loving his son. He stands frozen while Cooper nestles against his chest, and then walks slowly back towards Laura, sitting next to her.

“I’m sorry,” Clint says, dropping his voice to a level that’s barely audible. “Laura, I’m sorry. I should’ve told you. About Fury...Natasha…I should’ve told you all of it, even if I knew I couldn’t.” His face is awash with what Laura recognizes as overwhelming guilt and she reaches up, smoothing back his hair, suddenly realizing that maybe this whole thing isn’t just about keeping secrets. Maybe this is what they needed. Maybe it was worth it to break down the walls, maybe it was worth it to reconnect again, in order to come back to the beginning.

“So then tell me about Natasha,” Laura says after another moment when she thinks they’ve both calmed down enough to have a normal conversation, continuing to run her fingers through his hair while Cooper snuggles contentedly.

“She’s, uh…she’s nice. She’s a great partner. An even better agent. Young, but smart.”

“How young?” Laura asks curiously, and Clint sighs.

“Twenty-one. We think. It’s kind of a long story...she’s not exactly from around here.”

“Where exactly is she from?” Laura moves closer to Clint as he closes his eyes.

“Russia. She was involved in a program that was pretty intense...she didn’t have the greatest upbringing.” He lets a small smile flit over his lips, and Laura can see him starting to relax. “But she’s seen war, and she thinks I’m good at what I do.”

“You’ve seen war, too,” Laura points out. “And you are.” She knows instinctively her words won’t help; Clint could hear her tell him that eight times a day and it would still take him years to believe it. He laughs softly.

“Not like she has. War, I mean. The things she did when she was in that place…” He swallows. “Look, I don’t really want to talk about it, okay?”

Laura nods, putting her hand on his shoulder. “Okay,” she agrees softly, listening to his breathing slow, a sign of his anxiety lessening. “You know, you’re barely here and apparently, it doesn’t matter.” She nods towards Cooper. “He’s still better with you than he is with me.”

“Guess I have the magic touch,” Clint says, forcing out a smile that Laura can tell isn’t entirely genuine. She pulls up her legs, curling into him.

“I love you,” she says, tightening her fingers around his bicep. “So much. Hide things from me if you think it’s for the best but please don’t hide things if you don’t have to, okay? For me.” She drops her voice even further. “For him.”

Clint nods, closing his eyes. “Okay,” he says softly, and then, a little more strongly, “I promise.”

Laura shifts so that she’s lying down with her head on her arm, Cooper still fast asleep on Clint’s other shoulder.

 

2005

Laura’s just finished folding the laundry and is filling a kettle for tea when the front door bursts open, as if a rough wind has torn it from its hinges with the same furious nature that she used to see when she witnessed severe tornadoes as a child.

“What --” She barely has time to register the unknown woman falling through the threshold before she zeroes in on the figure behind her, a frame she would know like the back of her hand that’s currently slumped against the girl’s shoulder.

“Oh my god,” Laura says, dropping the kettle in the sink with a resounding clank and hurrying forward. The woman’s head snaps up, a hard face set around a bob of curly red hair, her green eyes flashing with an intensity that reminds Laura of a docile animal that’s just been provoked.

“Don’t touch him,” she says roughly, her voice almost a snarl, and Laura’s about to protest hysterically because what the hell, it’s her house and it’s her husband when she realizes why the other woman’s words have been so harsh. There’s a pool of blood that’s steadily collecting underneath Clint’s feet, dripping from somewhere along his stomach, his eyes are half-lidded and his face is the same white color as the bathroom tub.

“We need to get him stable and stitched or he’s going to bleed out,” the other woman says curtly and as she starts to move again, Laura realizes with a start that this must be Natasha. It would make sense, at least: someone who was with him when whatever went wrong happened, and who was overly clinical about life or death situations. Laura tries to ignore the blood trailing across the hardwood floor as Natasha drags him further into the room and lowers him to the carpet.

It’s the sight of Natasha letting go of Clint’s body, his prone form splayed motionlessly against the floor, that causes Laura to break. She sinks against the wall of the living room and puts her head in her hands as the world swims in front of her, she can feel the sweat breaking out on the back of her neck, her lungs closing off as she gasps, trying to breathe, failing to draw air into her body while her vision darkens.

“Laura. Laura...Laura.”

The voice, first loud and then annoyingly sharp, filters through the rush in her ears as she tries to focus.

“Laura. I need you to snap out of this and come back to me. I promise that I will let you throw up anywhere you want, and I will not judge you. But right now, we have to take care of your husband, okay? Because if we don’t, we’re going to be visiting a morgue, not a hospital room.”

Laura raises her head at the words and manages to nod, still struggling to work air into her compromised lungs. The redhead nods back and holds out a hand which Laura takes slowly, and Natasha pulls her up on what she realizes are shaking legs.

“Good. Stay with him while I get my things,” Natasha says, glancing quickly at Clint before hurrying back out the door. Laura maneuvers her way around his body until she’s right by his head, staring at his slack face, breathing slowly to calm her nerves as Natasha walks back in the house.

“Why didn’t you take him to a hospital?” Laura asks when she finally finds her voice. Natasha sighs, a sound rooted half in frustration and half in anger.

“He wouldn’t let me, stubborn asshole that he is. Even tried to give the pilot of our quinjet directions to this place before he more or less passed out. Thankfully, I have access to his files...I really don’t understand him sometimes.”

“Quinjet…” Laura trails off as Natasha starts unpacking a large black bag, and the other woman shakes her head.

“Right. Sorry, I forgot that you probably…it’s uh, kind of like a private plane. SHIELD uses them to transport people, or things.” Natasha peels back Clint’s jacket, exposing the large gash on his torso and Laura makes an audible sound when she sees both the severity of the wound and the red oozing angrily and steadily from the cut skin. 

“Hold this,” Natasha says, taking what looks like an old sweatshirt out of her bag and putting it against the wound. Laura does so and tries to stop her fingers from trembling.

“What are you doing?” she asks after another moment, watching Natasha remove more items.

“Like I said, if we don’t get him stitched up, he’s going to bleed out.” She starts ripping open packages. “So, I’m going to stitch him up, and I need you to hold him and make sure he doesn’t move too much. Because if he wakes and messes up my work, it won’t be good for either of us.”

Laura sucks in a breath, watching Natasha thread a needle. “Have you done this before?” she asks uncertainly and Natasha smiles grimly, showing off bright, white teeth that seem a little too sharp.

“Too many times,” she responds in a tone that makes Laura half-want to ask if that answer means she’s done it too many times to herself, or to Clint. The other half of her realizes she doesn’t particularly want to know. “Just hold him, okay?”

Laura nods, swallowing down another bout of nausea and takes her hands from where she’s been putting pressure on the wound, moving them to his shoulders. Natasha removes the now-soaked piece of clothing and slowly and deliberately starts to pierce his skin, while Laura swallows down a sudden rush of bile that threatens to eject itself from her throat. The first stitch goes in without incident but when Natasha pulls out again, Clint suddenly groans, his body jerking roughly.

Laura strengthens her hold, pushing down harder as he tries to move, lowering her head to his own. “Hey…hey, Clint.” She has no idea if he can hear her in whatever state he’s in, but she figures she doesn’t have anything to lose. At this point, she might as well be talking to keep herself from passing out.

“Hey, you remember the first time we went to dinner together, after I met you at the bar? Our first real date. I thought you stood me up because you were over an hour late…and I was going to be so angry,” Laura says, trying to keep her voice light while concentrating on his face, which is contorted with too much pain. “You brought me flowers because you felt bad about making me wait, but then you left them at the shop because you were so worried about getting there on time. I teased you about it for days. Then when we got married, you made sure you bought me those same flowers, to make up for it.” Laura swallows again as she glances up, watching Natasha pull another stitch.

“Keep talking,” she mutters as she continues to work, and Laura looks down again.

“Remember the last day that you spent with me before you went off to work for the first time? We took a walk and then sat underneath the tree, and you drank wine and you told me how worried you were about going away. I told you that you shouldn't be worried because you were the strongest person I knew, and you promised to always come home. Because I was pregnant, and because you needed to be home to be a dad, like you always wanted to be. I reminded you of our vows, remember? You don't get to die first. I meant it, you idiot.” Laura hears her voice break and pauses her words, watching Natasha pull the last stitch. The other girl may have had too many instances like tonight, but at any rate, it definitely helped with efficiency -- Laura knows if their position were reversed, she’d likely still be on the first needle pierce.

“He’s good,” Natasha says in a ragged voice. “Or as good as he’ll be, for now. You can let him pass out if you want.”

“And he’ll…he’ll be okay?” Laura asks, watching Natasha gather a handful of bloody bandages. She stands up, wincing against sore legs.

“To be honest, I don’t really know how much blood he lost,” Natasha admits. “But I won’t be able to do anything else for a few hours. For now, he’s stitched up and cleaned up, and his body should let itself rest if it can.”

Laura nods, letting go of Clint before leaning down to kiss his forehead gently, smoothing back hair from his face.

“Sorry about your floor,” Natasha says, walking to the kitchen to deposit the bandages in the trash. “And your rug, for that matter.” Laura shakes her head, surprised at how little she cares about this whole thing: the state of her house and moreover, this strange woman bursting into her house without pretense, carrying her nearly-dead husband on her shoulder.

“It’s fine. Really, it’s…it’s fine,” she says quietly. The stains aren’t going to be the easiest thing in the world to clean up, she knows, but she’d rather have Clint be alive than worry about how much money they’re going to have to spend to re-decorate. Laura approaches Natasha, who is washing her hands in the sink, and then stops halfway.

“What happened?” she asks softly, gripping the back of one of the kitchen chairs. “Why wouldn’t he let you take him to the hospital?”

Natasha lets out a long breath and shakes her hair back. “First things first -- Laura, right?” She wipes her hands on a dishtowel, smearing red against blue and yellow checkered squares, and Laura nods.

“Natasha.”

The grim smile returns, though this time, the look seems rooted in a little less malice.

“So he has told you about me.”

“He -- of course,” Laura says, frowning slightly. “You’re his partner. He talks about you a lot.”

Natasha sits down at the table, laughing quietly. “Do you have any idea how much he talks about you?” She rolls her eyes. “I have to shut him up sometimes. And I swear to god, if I have to hear that damn proposal story one more time, I’m going to snap. No offense.”

Laura finds herself smiling, despite the anxiety that still grips every inch of her body. “We went to my uncle’s lake house the summer after I graduated college,” she says, sitting down across from Natasha. “He brought me out on a boat and gave me the ring. He was so worried -- my father had freaked him out, and he thought that he wasn’t good enough for me. I don’t think he let go of that for awhile. I had a feeling, so it wasn’t as much of a surprise as it could have been, but I’d never tell him that. He was so happy and proud for making it a memorable moment.”

Natasha lets her gaze travel past Laura and towards the living room as Laura finishes speaking. “We were doing a sweep of an old house,” she says slowly. “Routine stuff, really. But someone decided they wanted to make sure that no one ever found out about whatever they were hiding in there, and blew us up.” She barks out a laugh, as if the story is the kind of thing that happens every day. “Goddamn stupid security measures, right? Anyway, we got out with enough time to be safe, but Clint…Clint just had to stop because he thought he heard someone trapped in there. Got hit by falling debris when he went back in, then fell through another floor and was cut pretty badly by some already broken furniture.” She pushes a hand through messed-up curls as she stops talking. “I’m gonna kill him.”

“Me, too,” Laura decides, trying to make her voice sound angry enough to match Natasha’s, who tilts her head in Laura’s direction.

“You sound like me, once upon a time,” she notes. “Always trying to be tough when something happens that you know you can’t control.”

Laura looks down at the table, realizing her hands are still shaking slightly. “You should get some sleep,” she says, in lieu of not knowing what else to say. “You can take the upstairs guest bedroom, if you want.”

Natasha’s gaze travels to the living room. “You’ll stay here with him,” she says, and it’s not a question. Laura nods, because sleep is absolutely out of the question for her, and Natasha knows it just as well as she does.

“I will.” She gets up, casting her own glance towards the floor, where Clint lies still, quickly deciding if Natasha doesn’t seem concerned about his unconsciousness, then she can try to let herself relax a little. She motions for the other girl to follow, leading her up the stairs, past Cooper’s room and into another spare bedroom, which she knows is overflowing with housework projects and baby items. As she opens the door, she gives a silent prayer of thanks that her mother had serendipitously decided she wanted to take Cooper and babysit for the night.

“I keep a lot of spring cleaning stuff in here, but you can take some of my clothes in that drawer if you need it,” Laura continues, motioning to the dresser, eyeing Natasha's black leather suit, trying to ignore the gun holster on her right leg. Clint carried a gun too, she knew, even though he preferred to use his bow in the field. “And there are extra blankets under the bed.”

Natasha nods. “I have some painkillers in that bag downstairs,” she trades. “In the blue bottle. They’re probably a lot stronger than whatever you have here. Feel free to give him one or maybe ten if he wakes up.”

Laura manages a smile as she meets Natasha's tired eyes. “If you need us, we’ll be right here. Downstairs.”

“Oh, I know,” Natasha says, sighing. “Trust me. You’ll know if I need you.”

The way she responds makes Laura wonder just how much this kind of situation is old hat for her -- for them -- and it also makes her wonder exactly what Natasha means by her response. She can’t deal with any other bombshell revelations tonight, though, so she swallows down her question and steps out of the room before Natasha can say anything else, closing the door behind her.

***

Laura spends the rest of the night downing coffee and cleaning what she can of the blood stains on the floor, and is caught off guard by Natasha inching her way down the stairs around three in the morning.

“Can’t sleep?” Laura asks casually, seeing the faint swatch of red hair illuminated by the thin slivers of outside light. She's changed into Laura's clothing, leggings and a long-sleeved Iowa State shirt that swims on her slim body, and Natasha shakes her head, looking a little embarrassed.

“I’m never good at doing that when he’s like this,” she admits quietly, joining Laura on the couch where she’s sitting with her legs up, clutching her half-filled mug, Clint silent and still on the floor in front of them. In that singular moment, Laura thinks she sees herself: someone who cares so much for their other half that they’re physically incapable of putting their emotions aside, no matter what walls they keep up for the sake of the world.

“I take it he gets hurt a lot,” Laura says, trying to keep the bitterness and worry out of her voice. She’s no stranger to the fact Clint has come home on more than one occasion with bandages and bruises and concussions, but she’s realizing suddenly that she really has no idea how much danger he probably puts himself in on a daily basis. Natasha smiles faintly.

“Only when he’s an idiot -- which, as you’re probably aware, is often.” She stretches out, making herself comfortable. “I take it he doesn’t share these kind of things with you.”

Laura looks over at Natasha and shakes her head. Natasha sighs.

“I figured as much. For some reason, he’s intent on keeping this part of his life separate from what we do, despite the fact he talks about you as if you’re there with him.”

“It’s safety,” Laura responds firmly. “He never wanted to drag me in like this. He does tell me what he can, but…”

“But?” Natasha looks at her with a pointed gaze and Laura feels her jaw clench.

“But not this.”

Natasha reaches for Laura’s hand automatically and Laura blinks in surprise as her stomach rolls when the other girl's palm slips into her own. She ignores the feeling, chalks it up to anxiety and over-exhaustion, and then forgets about it completely when Clint makes a noise from the floor.

“Clint?”

It’s Laura that responds first but both of them move from the couch, kneeling on the floor. Laura puts a hand on the side of his face, trying to ignore the heat she feels emanating from his flesh, the warmth that signals there’s probably the start of a fever or infection beginning to take hold that they’ll need to attempt to combat. “Hey, come on. Wake up, okay?”

Grey-blue eyes blink open slowly, and Laura instinctively moves so that Natasha can get closer, her hands moving over his body.

“See you met Natasha,” he manages to croak out and Laura suddenly feels like bursting into tears.

“This is not how I wanted to meet your partner,” she says tightly, swiping at her cheek when she feels the water sliding down her face. “Jerk,” she adds as an afterthought, and a ghost of a smile emerges onto Clint’s face.

“M’fine.”

“You are absolutely not fine,” Natasha cuts in, her hands by his torso. “And if you think you are, that’s the blood loss talking.”

“See? Fine,” Clint mutters and when Natasha rolls her eyes, Laura once again wonders how much this happens when she’s not around. She ignores the thought and takes Clint’s hand, squeezing it gently.

“Gonna…sleep...stay,” Clint mutters, his voice dropping off as he passes out again and Laura glances up at Natasha, who gives her a quick eyebrow raise. She nods, mostly to herself, running her thumb gently over his palm.

“Yeah,” Laura says quietly. “Don’t worry, Clint. I’ll stay.”

***

It takes Clint over a week to recover from a burgeoning infection and another three weeks after that before he can move easily without feeling a large amount of pain from Natasha's stitches and various other small injuries he'd incurred from his fall. During the time that he spends at home, Natasha also stays at the house.

She keeps to herself mostly and eats dinner with them and occasionally helps watch Cooper, though mostly when Laura and Clint are present since the toddler is still more or less warming up to the stranger that’s all of a sudden spending more time with him than his grandparents usually do. Laura lets Natasha stay in the guest room that she seems to adopt as her own, though she doesn’t entirely stay stationary -- she never tells anyone where she’s going but she fades in and out, sometimes coming back in the middle of the night and knocking over furniture when she tries to break in. The third time it happens, waking Cooper from his nap, Clint relents and gives her a spare key.

“You know, she could just tell us when she’s coming back so we could plan our feedings and nap times around her,” Laura says with a disgruntled sigh as she makes coffee while Cooper plays with his toys in the living room, bringing a mug to Clint who’s propped up on the couch, his legs stretched out on the coffee table. Clint shakes his head.

“That’s not Nat,” he says simply, taking the cup from her. “She doesn’t like to tell people what she’s doing, even if she trusts them.”

“Well, she’s staying in a house with a toddler, so she should start changing that,” Laura says, sitting down beside him, prodding at the dressing on his stomach. It’s been days since he’s put on a shirt of any kind, and Laura thinks that’s about the only perk to his injury. “How do you feel?”

“Today? Or in general?” When Laura shoots him a look, he makes a face. “Fine, I guess. Still in pain, but the pills are helping.”

“Good.” Natasha had come back during one of her random trips with a host of medication that Laura assumes were probably not acquired all that legally, but she had quickly ignored the feeling of wariness. It was becoming a common theme to throw caution to the wind where certain actions of both her husband and his partner were concerned. “You think you can do some walking today?” It was the barest form of physical therapy, but as Laura was intent on keeping him at home as long as possible, she was willing to let him go a little easy on his body.

“Natasha,” he says in response and Laura furrows her brow in confusion.

“What?”

“Natasha,” he repeats, right before the front door opens. Laura turns and arches a brow; she hadn’t even heard the other girl approach.

“Why can’t she do that at night?” Laura mutters under her breath as she gets up, ignoring Clint’s smirk as Natasha puts down a large grocery bag and shakes out her hair.

“I see blood loss hasn’t stopped your intake of caffeine,” she says sarcastically to Clint, before looking over at Laura. “Sorry for taking so long. You have some time to help me with a few things?”

Laura tilts her head curiously. “Sure,” she says, kissing Clint, following Natasha back out the door.

“I actually didn’t really need help,” Natasha admits as soon as the door is closed, walking down the porch stairs and stopping a few meters from the house. “I just wanted to tell you that I’m going to be leaving tomorrow, for good. I won’t be coming back, so you don’t have to worry about me waking up your son in the middle of the night.”

“Leaving?” Laura tries to shake off the feeling of anxiety at Natasha’s words. It wasn’t exactly that having Natasha around, however vaguely, had made her feel safer, although she’d be lying to say that having a trained agent in her house -- not to mention one with specific medical training -- hadn’t soothed her more than a little. It was also that she had gotten used to the three of them being together, and having Natasha there provided a level of comfort Laura hadn’t realized she’d been craving. “Where are you going?”

“There are things that need my attention,” Natasha says with a small sigh. “Work related things. I need to take care of them, and it makes sense to do it while he’s laid up like this, so that when he gets back we can focus on our normal jobs.” Laura frowns.

“So you’re not going to tell him?”

“That I’m leaving?” Natasha smiles a little sadly, and then shrugs. “He’s used to it, in case you couldn’t tell. Besides, if I do tell him, he’ll just worry about me and I can’t afford to have him spend all his energy that way. Not when he needs to recover.” There’s more that she’s not saying, Laura’s almost certain of it, but she also doesn’t feel she has the authority or the guts to push.

“Anyway, I just wanted to thank you,” Natasha continues. “For letting me stay.”

“No.” Laura shakes her head, reaching out and grabbing Natasha’s hand. “I should be thanking you. If it wasn’t for you, my husband would be dead. I can’t….” She stops herself, not wanting to finish, not wanting to let herself think about what she already knows will keep her up for nights on end when Clint finally leaves. Natasha smiles again, squeezing Laura’s hand until it hurts.

“That’s why I take care of him, you know. For this. Because of this. So that he can come home.”

***

Natasha retreats upstairs to take a shower and Laura returns to the living room, picking Cooper up from the floor, where he’s entertaining himself by singing off-tune, nonsensical words.

“Is Nat leaving?” Clint asks quietly, and he looks so emotionally drained that Laura finds she doesn’t have it in her heart to lie.

“Yes,” she says slowly. “Tomorrow.”

Clint nods. “I figured.” He turns his gaze to the window, and Laura sits down next to him, putting Cooper on her lap. He turns and smiles at his mom, before opening his arms to Clint.

“No touching daddy, remember?” Laura asks seriously as she lets him wiggle out of her grip. “Daddy has a really big band-aid on his body, but you can hug his arm if you want.” Cooper nods, crawling over the couch and attaching himself to the curve of Clint's elbow, sticking a thumb in his mouth and his head on his skin.

“She’s coming back, you know. She told me that.”

“Yeah,” Clint says, smiling faintly, tangling his hands in Cooper's hair. “She’s said that before. I know she always comes back. Goes off to do whatever repentance she figures she needs and then comes back so we can keep fighting the bad guys.” There’s a hint of bitterness to Clint’s voice and Laura runs her hand through his hair.

“You don’t think she needs you.”

“No,” Clint says slowly. “I think she does. But whatever she’s running from, or trying to amend, it’s something that I know I can’t help her with. And now that I’m like this, I really can’t help her.”

Laura swallows hard; Cooper has taken to singing again, this time using Clint’s arm as a microphone.

“Just focus on getting better,” she says, watching both of them, trying to figure out how her heart can feel so full while also hurting. “We’ve got you here. We’ll take care of you. And Natasha will be okay.”

Clint nods, but Laura can tell he doesn’t quite believe her words.

 

2006

Due to missions and then the aftermath of Clint feeling badly about him and Natasha becoming a lot more intimate than just partners, Natasha doesn’t come back to the farm for longer than a day or two at a time, until Clint brings her home for a few days during Christmas.

“Sorry,” he apologizes under his breath as he walks through the door, catching Laura’s eye. He tries not to feel guilty, but it doesn’t work. “She didn’t really have anywhere else to go.”

“Clint, it’s fine.” Laura opens her arms and brings Natasha in for a hug, and Natasha hugs back tentatively.

“Mommy, who’s that?” The three adults walk further into the house, and Laura smiles at her son, who’s eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the contents of which are ending up more on his face than in his mouth.

“That’s Natasha...remember Natasha? Daddy’s friend.” Laura pauses to let the words sink in. “We’re going to have Christmas with her.”

“Daddy has friends?” Cooper asks seriously and Laura chokes down a laugh as Natasha smirks. Clint frowns.

“A few,” she allows, ruffling his hair, while Clint opens his mouth in protest.

“Hey!” he says indignantly. “Daddy has lots of friends at work, you just don’t know them.” When Cooper doesn’t stop grinning, Clint shakes his head, bending down to kiss him. “Eat your lunch, kiddo.”

“You have friends?” Natasha asks innocently at some point later on, when they’re safely upstairs, out of earshot, and Clint is bringing her to her room. Clint groans as he opens the door and flops down on the bed.

“Oh, shut up.”

***

Christmas morning brings Cooper waking his parents up right around five, two full pots of coffee for Clint, matching pajamas, and Natasha sitting awkwardly on the edge of the couch while both Clint and Laura help Cooper open gifts under a tree dripping with ornaments from Laura’s childhood plus a few new decorations that Clint’s picked up from his around-the-world travels.

“You’ll get your gifts from grandma and grandpa later,” Laura encourages as Cooper tears through wrapping paper like the world is ending. She glances up at Natasha, who smiles back.

“Enjoying the view?”

“Who, me?” Natasha shrugs, taking another sip of coffee, the purple mug she’s stolen from Clint in lieu of Laura having to get up again to run the machine. “I’m the one who got to sleep until eight.”

“She has a point,” Clint grumbles with a sigh. Between wrestling a toddler, dinner with Laura’s parents, and the fact that he feels like he’s still technically recovering from his injury, he knows it’s going to be a long day no matter what -- and the fact that he’d only gotten three hours of sleep wasn’t exactly helping with his mental state.

“Hey Coop, do me a favor and bring Nat her gift, okay?”

Natasha looks up in surprise as Cooper takes a small wrapped package from Clint’s hands and waddles over slowly to where Natasha’s sitting, holding it out.

“Thanks,” she says slowly, offering Cooper a smile before looking up again. “I didn’t -- you didn’t have to get me anything. I didn’t get anything for you guys.”

“Stop that. You’re here, and we didn’t want you to feel left out,” Laura says. “Plus, Clint insisted, and I can only tell him ‘no’ so many times before he gets on my nerves. Come on. Open it.”

Natasha looks a little wary, but starts ripping away the paper until she uncovers a small black box. Clint hides his own smile as she opens it, revealing a single brass key hanging from a black and red fob.

“That’s yours,” he says, when she doesn’t immediately respond. “It’s not a spare anymore -- you can put it on your keychain or keep it in your uniform. But it’s your own personal key, so you can come and go from here when you want.” He watches Natasha’s face change as she examines the small object, running her fingers over jagged edges with a careful ease, as if she’s handling something too fragile to hold properly.

“Thank you,” she says quietly as Cooper starts to rip open more presents, yelling loudly about something involving trains, drowning out her response. Clint catches Natasha’s eye and smiles again, and Laura puts one hand on his knee.

***

The days between Christmas and New Years seem to stretch longer than they should, and with the stress of the holidays having mostly passed, Clint doesn’t have a way to distract himself from the talk he knows he needs to have with Laura.

“Tell her,” Natasha says one day while Clint’s babysitting Cooper, Laura having sequestered herself in the perpetually under construction sunroom to catch up on work. “You need to tell her.”

He does, and he knows that Natasha is right -- the longer he waits, the harder it’s going to be, but the fact that Laura won’t get so angry she picks up Cooper and leaves is what stops him from pushing himself.

“If you don’t do it before we go back to New York, I’ll do it myself,” Natasha says finally and that gets his attention, his gaze narrowing.

“Don’t you dare,” he says amidst a growing pit in his stomach, because he knows she would. Natasha stares back, unrelenting in her stern gaze, and Clint groans.

“Fine.”

He decides to wait until Cooper’s gone out for the day with Laura’s mother, and Natasha has wisely excused herself to take a nap that Clint figures she is absolutely not taking, though he appreciates the effort.

“We gotta talk,” Clint says as he walks into the bedroom, where Laura’s sitting at the table near the window, reading a dense hardcover. She lifts her head at his words.

“What about?” She closes the book and puts it down and Clint knows he doesn’t need to really preface himself any further. Laura could read him like the back of her hand, and she knew exactly when something was serious enough to warrant her full attention.

“I need to tell you something.” He shoves his hands in his jeans pockets as Laura stands up, putting her hands on her shoulders, her reading all but forgotten.

“Clint…” She searches his eyes, one hand tangling in the short strands of his hair. “Are you okay?”

“I…” He takes a breath, trying to make himself say the words that he keeps repeating silently in his mind. “I kissed Natasha,” he says, averting his eyes the moment he says the sentence out loud. Laura tenses, but doesn’t move.

“You kissed her?”

“No,” Clint says, shaking his head, because now that the admission is out, he can’t seem to stop himself. “More than that, actually.” Laura raises an eyebrow.

“Did you sleep with her?”

Clint shakes his head again. “But we were naked together...in bed. And we kissed. And…” He trails off, swallowing down the nausea that he feels rising up in his throat. “It happened a few months ago. We had come back from an op in Hamburg, and we were just...shot. Not literally or anything. I couldn’t come back here because I had to go in for work the next day and file paperwork for Fury, and she ended up staying over once we got back to my apartment because she didn’t want to go home alone. One thing led to another and then…” He loses his sentence again and Laura runs her hand down his shoulders, her nails still scraping along his scalp gently and methodically.

“Do you love her?”

Clint takes a breath. “As a partner, yes. She saved -- saves -- my life, more than she should. As a person, I….I don’t know, Laura.” He suddenly feels like he’s going to break down. “But I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’m devoted to you. Hell, I want to have another kid with you. But I can’t…”

“But you can’t stop thinking about her,” Laura finishes gently as Clint lets his head fall forward with a ragged sigh. Laura matches the sound, pulling him in close, rubbing circles across his back.

“I’m glad you told me,” Laura says after a moment. “I want you to come to me and tell me these things.”

“Even if I’m worried you’re going to throw me out?” Clint asks morosely, lifting his head, unable to stop the anxiety from overtaking his brain. Laura half-smiles.

“Clint, I would never throw you out. You could tell me that you’re living with Natasha and I would still call you my husband and let you come home. Nothing about my feelings for you have changed since that first day we met. And nothing ever will. I trust you, and I trust the love you have for me.”

“I don’t deserve you,” Clint says quietly, because he doesn’t really know what to say. He tries to laugh, but it comes out sounding like a demented sob. “God, Laura. I really don’t deserve you.”

“Yes, you do. You deserve everyone who has ever loved you. Including me. Including Cooper. And including Natasha.” She entwines her hand in his own, bringing him close again. “You are important to me, Clint. What kind of person would I be if I didn’t want you to be important to other people, too? Especially people who are with you every moment I’m not, and who save your life?”

“But I...I just told you that I kissed my partner,” Clint responds. “I mean, most women wouldn’t even bother to listen to that.”

“I’m not most women, and you know it,” Laura says, kissing him, as if to make her point. “I took a vow the day I married you -- til death do us part. And I don’t plan on breaking that. Remember our promise?”

Clint nods slowly, closing his eyes. “I don’t get to die first.”

“No,” Laura agrees. “You don’t. So if it makes you happy, go be with Natasha when you’re not with me. Allow yourself to feel loved, without feeling guilty. And when you’re home, I’ll do the same, and things will be like they always are.”

“Promise?” Clint asks hoarsely as Laura runs a finger down his lips.

“I promise.” She tugs him down onto the bed, letting herself fall onto the covers. Clint takes the hint, kissing her back, while his hands start to explore her body as the sun dips behind the trees, casting the room in a soft, evening glow.

 

2007

The summer of 2007 brings hurricane-like rains more often than Laura has the patience for, especially when it comes to being trapped inside the house with a four-year-old for days on end.

“When you come home again, I’m going to talk to you about building one of those indoor decks like we have at the lake house,” Laura says when Clint calls from Jakarta. He laughs.

“Hang on. You’re actually giving me home projects, instead of rolling your eyes or something?”

“Yes, because these home projects involve my sanity,” Laura replies shortly, switching to speakerphone as Cooper pulls at her arm. “Hold on. Cooper, say hi to daddy.”

“Daddy, today I found a snail in the mud!” Cooper shrieks happily into the phone before falling onto the couch in overwhelming excitement. Laura huffs out a smile as he keeps talking, suddenly startled by a loud noise that sounds like it’s come from the basement.

“Cooper, tell daddy what else you found,” she says, keeping her voice light so that Clint doesn’t bother to suspect something’s wrong, though Laura knows with her luck, he’s probably heard the commotion. “Mommy will be right back.” She slips out of the room and downstairs, navigating her way past old exercise equipment and a few stray arrows, until she clearly can see the source of the distraction.

Natasha?”

The redhead looks up from where she’s crouched by the floor, shivering with her arms wrapped around her waist, and Laura’s maternal instincts kick in immediately at the sight. “Natasha, what --”

“I’m sorry,” Natasha gasps, and when Laura looks closer, she can see the paleness of her face. “I’m sorry.”

Laura puts her lips together and then wraps one arm around Natasha’s waist, helping her up. “Come on,” Laura says gently. “I’m going to take you upstairs, okay?”

She helps Natasha climb the rickety steps, praying that Cooper’s still too tied up talking to Clint to realize what’s happening. When she hears the telltale sound of her son’s voice now describing a run-in with a rogue garden snake, she breathes a sigh of relief, maneuvering Natasha up the stairs and into the guest bedroom that’s since become her own.

“I’ll be right back,” Laura promises after helping her into bed, and Natasha doesn’t reply, almost as if she’s catatonic, curling up on her side. It’s a sight that scares Laura more than she realizes, because she’s never known Clint’s partner to be anything less than capable. Cooper’s still on a tangent about animals when she returns downstairs, and Laura gently pries the phone out of his hand.

“He misses you,” she says as she takes the phone off speaker, trying to ignore the image of a clearly shaken Natasha in the bedroom upstairs. She can almost see Clint smile over the phone.

“I miss him, too. I should be home next month for three full weeks, as long as this op goes okay.”

“Mmmm. Maybe then we can work on that other project,” Laura responds teasingly, glancing up to where Cooper has returned to the kitchen table to build Legos. With Clint more or less settled into SHIELD they had broached the topic of having another kid more than once, but timing hadn’t lent itself to either of them being in the right place at the right time in order to make it happen.

“My favorite kind of project,” Clint confirms, and Laura smiles. “I gotta go, I’ll call you later. Love you.”

“Love you, too.” Laura ends the call and then takes a few deep breaths, taking in the silence of the house peppered with Cooper’s small noises. She double checks that her son is occupying himself well enough for her to sneak away again, and then goes back upstairs, rooting around in the bathroom for a bottle of pills. When she returns to the room, opening the door slowly, Natasha seemingly hasn’t moved.

“Nat,” Laura tries quietly, because despite Christmas and gifts and late night chats over her husband’s broken body, she’s never really addressed his partner as anything more than an acquaintance. The words feel strange and also familiar on her tongue for reasons that she can’t figure out. “Natasha.”

She turns over slowly at Laura’s words, her fiery red hair splayed against the pillow like a brilliant halo of blood, and lies straight on her back while staring up at the ceiling. Laura moves closer, keeping her gait slow.

“I want you to take this,” she says, unscrewing the pill bottle and putting two white capsules on the table. The Motrin will help with the fever she’s felt radiating from the other girl's body, she knows, but hopefully it will also help her sleep for a few hours. “Please.”

Natasha turns her head slowly as if she’s listening but not really comprehending, her eyes still freakishly unfocused in a way that makes Laura’s blood chill. She’s long convinced herself that despite whatever Clint had mentioned about her past, and whatever she specifically knew about her past, that Natasha would never hurt him or anyone close to him -- she was reformed from that now, and her partnership with Clint had been a defining factor of that reform. But Laura can’t help feeling that the look Natasha is giving off right now is something that’s decidedly not her.

She sits up slowly, grabbing for the pills and downing them dry before turning back over again without saying a word. Laura’s about to open her mouth again when she realizes that the bed is shaking, that Natasha is shaking, her entire body reverberating against the mattress.

Laura swallows down a lump in her throat and reaches out, stroking Natasha’s hair the same way she’s used to doing with Clint, the same way she does when Cooper gets upset. She stays there, running her fingers gently along her scalp, a silent, comforting presence as Natasha cries, until she stops shaking and falls fully asleep.

***

Laura always finds it harder to sleep when Clint’s not home, even with Cooper safe and sound in his room next door, but worrying about Natasha adds as an entirely new level to that anxiety that Laura didn’t even know existed. If she was anyone else, she thinks she would find her overabundance of concern laughable, considering that for as much as she felt close to Natasha, she didn’t really know her. But there was something about the way she was almost an extension of Clint in the same way that Laura was an extension of him that made her feel like she needed to protect and care for the girl.

She gives up at six, Cooper wakes at seven, and has tired himself out with cartoons by nine and by the time Natasha finally makes her way into the kitchen.

“Well. Look who’s up,” Laura says tiredly, offering a small smile as she looks up from her paper. “Coffee?”

Natasha nods, her face is still pale and her eyes are dull but the unfocused look, Laura is relieved to see, is gone, and the sweat breaking out along her forehead indicates that her fever has at least broken.

“You had a rough night,” she says as she removes a mug from the dishwasher. “Did you sleep okay?”

Natasha nods again as Laura hands her the cup. “Thank you,” she says, looking down into her coffee. “I don’t know what happened.” Laura can tell by her words that she’s lying -- that she does know -- but Laura’s keen enough on reading her husband’s emotions to respect when someone doesn’t want to open up.

“It’s alright.” She joins Natasha at the table and reaches out, putting her palm on the other girl’s hand. “Do you remember coming here, at least?”

“Yes,” Natasha says heavily. “I...this is the only place I wanted to go.”

Laura stares at her a little sadly. “I told you...this is a home for you.” When Natasha doesn’t answer she entwines their fingers together, brushing her thumb over bruised, sweaty skin.

“I’ve left some things in the bathroom for you to shower with, if you want to clean up,” Laura says gently, fighting a sudden urge to take Natasha into her arms the same way she had wanted to do last night. “I have to take Cooper to an appointment at noon, but you’re free to stay here as long as you need to until you feel better.”

Natasha looks up and Laura catches the look in her eye -- it’s more than a thank you, and it’s more than gratitude -- it’s surprise, she realizes the more she stares, trying to tear herself away. It’s the kind of surprise that Laura innately knows comes with someone not being used to anyone showing a level of kindness that probably wasn’t rooted in an ulterior motive.

“Thank you,” Natasha says again, sipping her coffee with her free hand. Laura picks up her own cup and joins her in silence, suddenly content for the first time in awhile to do nothing else except just be.

***

Natasha ends up staying at the farm for over a week, even though Laura figures out that she’s recovered well enough after a day and a half. She suspects that Natasha is biding her time because she doesn’t want to be alone in the wake of whatever it was that had triggered her breakdown, which Laura feels like she can at least understand. But the more Natasha stays around, the more Laura also realizes how much happier and comfortable she is, and how much of a difference it makes to have another trustworthy person in her presence when she’s used to doing everything alone, from shopping to cleaning to thinking.

Clint calls for his daily check-ins but Laura doesn’t tell him about Natasha’s overlong visit -- not because Natasha tells her not to, but because Laura feels like it’s wrong to violate the other girl’s privacy. Laura’s well aware that Clint and Natasha share things between them that they likely wouldn’t tell other people, but whatever had happened that had caused Natasha to show up in the manner she’d arrived at the house in was obviously more personal than she cared to let on.

It’s during one lazy afternoon when the rain is coming down hard for the fourth day in a row and Cooper is in his room playing with a toy Clint's picked up from one of his travels that Natasha comes into the living room, wearing borrowed sweatpants with pulled back hair, settling herself down next to Laura, who is reading under the dim light.

“Hi,” Laura says with a small smile, tossing a glance in her direction as Natasha curls up, almost intimately so, the way that Cooper or Clint would if they wanted to relax. She goes back to her book and absently reaches over without thinking about it, lazily stroking Natasha’s hair the same way she had done when she was sick.

“Laura,” Natasha says suddenly, an edge to her voice, and when Laura looks up again Natasha leans over and kisses her gently.

The suddenness of the action catches Laura off guard, allowing her to gasp quietly into Natasha’s mouth as she covers it with her own, kissing back. When she breaks away, she realizes her face is flushed and her hands are shaking.

“I’m sorry,” Natasha says after a beat, her eyes clouding over, as if she’s just realized she’s probably made a terrible mistake. “But I couldn’t help it.”

“No,” Laura breathes out, shaking her head. “No, no, it’s…” She searches for words that she can use to explain herself aside from good and perfect, coming up empty. “You’ve kissed girls before?”

Natasha’s face splits apart in a grin. “Oh, yes,” she says lightly, tracing a hand down Laura’s cheek and sending chills through her body. “I don’t believe Clint has ever told you about the Red Room, the place where I trained before he rescued me.” Her smile grows wider, something mischievous settling in her lips. “You?”

Laura nods slowly. “Once. In college. It was a sorority dare kind of thing at my first real party, nothing special, but I...I kind of liked it.”

“And yet you grew up and married an ex-military bartender with a bad sense of humor,” Natasha says teasingly as she leans in again, this time putting her lips against Laura’s mouth a little more firmly. Laura stiffens, letting herself kiss back before pulling away.

“You’re twenty-three.”

“Which is like, forty-seven in Red Room years,” Natasha says loftily. “Trust me. I’m a big girl, I can be mature in bed.”

“That’s not --” Laura stops, swallowing, her mind racing. “That’s not what I asked,” she finishes, and Natasha looks at Laura as if she’s seeing her for the first time.

“Clint loves you.”

“Clint loves you,” Laura trades, and Natasha sighs.

“Ain’t that the truth. Yet he refuses to believe that he can be in love with both of us.” She pauses, picking at a thread on the couch. “You’ve got a thick-headed and stubborn husband, Laura.”

“I know,” Laura admits, feeling her heart swell. “That’s why I love him.”

Natasha laughs. “Yeah,” she says with a nod. “Me too.” She reaches for Laura’s hand again, and Laura feels herself stiffening up.

“What is this?” She suddenly wonders if this is how Clint felt when he told her about his feelings for his partner. It had been so easy for her to comfort him on the other end, being secure in her own feelings for her husband and, moreover, his feelings for her, and she now wishes she had someone that could do the same thing for her.

“This,” Natasha answers, pausing for overly dramatic effect, “is whatever you want it to be.” She gets up with a wink. “But Clint’s not home for awhile anyway, right? So...let’s just say that the ball’s in your court.”

 

2008

Despite Laura’s hesitation, she pursues Natasha’s subtle invitation.

The redhead visits on and off over the following months, mostly when she can sneak away for a few days, and while Laura never does more than cuddle with her or share a kiss, she does use the time to let herself accept the developing feelings that she knows are different than just caring about Natasha as a friend or Clint's partner. Laura finally decides to break the news to Clint a month after they decide to try for a second pregnancy, largely because she doesn’t want to wait until they have bigger problems to deal with on either of their ends. Clint’s in the middle of getting ready for bed when she casually drops that her and Natasha “have a little bit of a thing going on,” and then almost falls over.

“So, let me get this straight,” he says when he’s recovered and is sitting down, his shirt off and lying forgotten on the bed rail. “I’m in love with you, but I’m also in love with my partner. You’re in love with me, but you’re also in love with my partner. My partner is in love with both of us. And you and me are trying to have another baby together.”

“Something like that,” Laura says slowly. “Love is a strong word for what this is right now. I told you, it’s just kind of a...thing.”

“Okay, so what would you call it? Aside from a thing?” Clint asks, and Laura sighs.

“Lust, maybe,” she says, looking over at Clint as he shakes his head.

“Jesus Christ,” he mutters. “How did this even happen?”

“Well.” Laura swallows. “Either you have really good taste in women, or both of us realized that we were way too worried about you to continue to suffer through our lives alone.”

“Funny,” Clint snorts, rubbing a hand across his face, but Laura notices he doesn’t refute her words. “I mean, how is this even going to work?”

Laura shrugs, moving to the bed. “The same way it has been working, I suppose. You and Natasha work together, you live at home and come home when you can. Natasha visits, and occasionally, you visit together.”

“Visits,” Clint says suspiciously, his tongue lingering on the last letter. “Has she been over here without me since...you know…this started?”

Laura hesitates. “Yes,” she admits as Clint raises an eyebrow. “Clint, come on. Nothing has happened, I promise. And I don’t exactly intend to start having threesomes tomorrow. Especially when we're going to eventually have another baby on the way in the next year or so.”

Clint makes a face. “You’re being surprisingly laid back about all of this,” he says after a minute. “I had to work up the courage for months to tell you about Nat, just to tell you we were kissing and stuff, being worried you would kill me. And now you just drop your own bomb out of the blue.”

“I know,” Laura says slowly. “It’s...strange, and it’s not anything I would’ve ever expected. Maybe I wouldn’t even be attracted to anyone else. Maybe it’s just her.” She stops, attempting to collect the thoughts that are spilling out of her. “I don’t know, Clint. You make me feel safe. Natasha makes me feel safe, too.”

“And if I remember correctly, someone told me there was nothing wrong with that,” Clint says, reaching forward and pulling her close. “I want you to feel safe, too.” Laura’s quiet for a long time, while Clint rubs at her stomach gently.

“It’s hard,” she says softly when she finally speaks again, water pooling at the corner of her eyes, half genuine emotion and half hormonal triggering. “When you’re gone and when I’m alone.”

Clint closes his eyes, biting down on his lip. “I know,” he admits, drawing her in closer, settling his head on top of hers. “I know. It sucks, it fucking sucks -- I can say that, right?”

“I currently don't have a child in my womb, so yes, you can say that,” Laura responds. “I’m so proud of you, Clint. I am. But I’m also so lonely.”

“And nothing changes that,” Clint says into her hair, nuzzling her scalp. Laura blinks a few times.

“Natasha does,” she says quietly. “It feels like...a little bit like home. Maybe because I know she gets it, when you’re away. Maybe because I know she’s looking for some place to feel like she belongs, too, when she’s not with you.”

“So is that what you like about Natasha when she’s here?” Clint asks curiously. “The fact that she understands you?”

Laura nods. “And it’s just...comfortable, I guess. I don't know. I’m still trying to figure all of this out.”

“I think we all are,” Clint says matter-of-factly. “And we’ll have more to figure out, too, if this one that we plan on having isn’t a boy.” He pokes at Laura’s still-flat stomach, and she smiles.

“Admit it. You want a girl just so you can teach her archery, because Cooper has proven that he has no interest whatsoever in trying the sport.”

“Well, how else am I going to get someone around here to carry on my namesake?” Clint asks a little grumpily. Laura grins.

“I’ll make sure you find someone...Hawkeye.” She settles in against him and presses herself to his body, letting his hand rest on her stomach, and sighs.

***

The first time both Clint and Natasha are home for an extended amount of time after all three of them have vaguely realized the complexity of their relationship is right before Easter.

They don’t become entirely intimate -- Natasha still sleeps in the guest bedroom -- but when they’re together they do end up curling around each other, sitting close to one another on the couch, playing with each other’s hair and stealing kisses and touching knees and fingers together at breakfast, mostly when Cooper’s not around to raise questions.

It’s slightly stressful at first to have both of them here, Laura realizes. She’d been used to focusing her attention and also her emotions on one person at one time -- either Clint when he was home for a break, or Natasha when she came over to visit. It’s a delicate balancing act now that they’re both here, especially now that Clint doesn’t bother to hide the way he interacts with his partner, which Laura definitely can tell depicts a more comfortable relationship than just having each other’s backs in the field.

Laura’s in the middle of prepping dinner when she hears the front door slam hard followed by the sound of footsteps disappearing up the stairs, the door smacking closed with an equally loud slam and she winces, thankful that Clint has taken Cooper outside.

“Natasha?” Laura calls mildly, not getting an answer. She walks out of the kitchen and sneaks a glance outside, Clint is still sitting with Cooper and playing with a collection of his toy trucks but Laura can tell from the way Clint’s back is tensed that he’s far from okay. She sighs to herself and leaves her cooking on the counter, opening the front door.

“Clint,” she says stepping outside and not waiting for an answer. “What happened?”

Cooper looks up with big grey-blue eyes, the ones that remind Laura so much of her husband, and Laura smiles tightly. “Daddy time,” she says firmly as Clint gets up and walks a few steps away.

“Did you get angry?”

“Did I --” Clint looks like he wants to punch something; it’s an overly violent look that she’s not entirely used to, one that seems more army-based than gentle-bartender based, and it sends a shiver down her spine. “I didn’t do anything. She got mad at me. Then stormed off as if she had someplace to go.”

Laura watches her husband’s face and sighs. She wasn’t born yesterday, but she also has no idea how to truly deal with this, and she’s not sure how she feels about having to obviously play mediator between two people she loves.

“Do you want me to go talk to her? Or are you going to be mature enough to fix this yourself?”

Clint grits his teeth. “It’s her own damn fault she’s mad at me,” he says and Laura rolls her eyes.

“Fine,” she says shortly, not bothering to cull her tone. “Go back to your toys.” She turns on her heel and walks back inside, closing the door behind her, trying to control the urge to scream. Clint could be many things, but thick-headed stubborn bastard was about as accurate as anything.

After a few calming breathing exercises that allow her heart to stop racing, she composes herself and walks upstairs, knocking softly on the door to the guest bedroom.

“Natasha?” She opens the door slowly when there’s no answer and is met with a bare room, the bed neatly made and curtains drawn, as if no one has been inside all day. Puzzled, Laura turns around and when she looks back at the hallway, she notices the door across the hall is slightly ajar.

She finds Natasha in their bedroom, sitting on the bed with her legs curled up, and while Laura’s first instinct is to be annoyed, she realizes that she’s technically given up her privacy a long time ago -- more so now that Natasha and her and Clint have become a thing that Laura is still trying to put into words. It’s not so out of place for Natasha to be showing up in their bedroom, in the end.

“It’s more comfortable, isn’t it?” Laura asks as she closes the door and Natasha doesn’t answer, slamming her fist into the mattress. She bounces slightly from the overwhelming force, but the bed does little else.

“He’s so goddamn stupid,” she bursts out, and Laura feels her lips rise slightly.

“Yes,” she agrees. “He is. And I can give you millions of stories that corroborate that, but right now, do you want to tell me why you’re so angry at him?” She sits down next to Natasha, kissing her neck, and Natasha sighs.

“We were talking about some future assignments,” Natasha says, and as Laura continues to kiss her skin gently, she feels the other girl start to relax, the edges rolling off her words and becoming less sharp. “I’m supposed to go to Indonesia. He’s supposed to go to Cairo.”

“Okay,” Laura says, still unsure of why that’s caused such a big blowout, because she knows they run separate missions all the time. It’s part of how they’d all been able to build up their relationships with each other.

“He’s turning down his own op because he knows that I have a history with where I’m going. That when I was in the Red Room, I was sent to the same place I’m going to be sent on this assignment, the same place I killed dozens of people, and he’s trying to put his whole life on hold just to try to protect me.”

“Oh,” Laura says quietly, suddenly understanding. It’s not even the fact that Natasha had verbally admitted a part of her past that Laura always knew was there, hidden under the surface, rarely touched or prodded. It’s that she gets it -- she gets why Clint wants to protect her, and she also gets why Natasha would be angry that he wants to.

“He knows I’ll be fine!” Natasha continues, speaking harshly. “But he doesn’t trust me. Over three years in this partnership and I swear to god he still treats me like I’m a child, when he’s not fucking me senseless at one in the morning.”

Laura raises an eyebrow, a bemused expression playing over her lips. “So you’ve been sleeping together?”

Natasha suddenly looks embarrassed, averting her eyes while Laura continues to stare. “Shit,” she mutters, before shaking back her hair and looking up. “Yeah. Only a few weeks, though. And not really regularly.” She waves her hand around. “Mostly after missions when we need to let off steam for one reason or another. Apparently, it works for us.” She pauses. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“No,” Laura says. “I’m okay.” And she is, that’s the thing. But it’s all a little much for her to take in at the moment, the fight and the information presented to her, about both Natasha and her relationship with Clint and the confirmation of just how intimate they really are. “I’m just...still trying to figure this out for myself, that’s all.”

Natasha’s gaze softens as she moves closer, putting her head on Laura’s shoulder. “You know, you take such good care of me,” she says quietly. “Of us.”

“You take care of him,” Laura returns with a sigh. “Because of you, I patch up bruises and cuts. I don’t pay for surgery or casts.”

“Most of the time,” Natasha says lightly, and Laura tries to smile back. The truth of the matter was, Clint got himself banged up more than he would probably admit to, and Laura knows the handful of times she’s aware of probably aren’t even half of what he’s endured in the field. She tries to forget about it on a daily basis, because she trusts Natasha, and because when he does come home to her safe, broken fingers notwithstanding, every worry that she's had while he was away goes out the window anyway.

“You’re asking yourself how three people can love each other,” Natasha says suddenly, and Laura stiffens a little bit as Natasha raises her head. She puts a hand against Laura’s face.

“Trust. That’s how we all love each other. Take it slow, and the rest will come in time, as long as you’re open to it.” As if to make her point, she kisses Laura gently before pulling away. “When Clint and I started sleeping together, it was only after you had told him you were okay with things, and only after I had allowed myself to become comfortable with you,” she continues. “It felt right. It wouldn’t have before, even though we’ve been close for awhile. So trust your instincts and take it slow, and eventually, we’ll all figure this out.”

Laura nods. “I wish it wasn’t so complicated,” she admits. Natasha shrugs.

“If it was complicated, it wouldn’t be life.” She makes a face. “Sorry. That sounds like it came from one of those motivational ‘speech-a-day’ things that Clint keeps in his room at SHIELD. But it is true. These things aren’t supposed to be easy.”

“I guess not,” says Laura. She swallows and looks at the wall. “You know he’ll never stop wanting to protect you like this, right? Even if you do everything you can to prove to him that you don’t need him, he’ll never back down. It’s the way he’s built. And it’s what makes him a good person.”

“I know,” Natasha says. “And that’s why it’s so frustrating. I love the fact he looks out for me. No one in my life ever has, except for him...and now, you.” She takes Laura’s hand. “But I just wish he would trust me.”

“He does,” Laura says with a nod. “Believe me. I’ve known him for longer than you have, and I can tell when he trusts someone implicitly.”

Natasha sighs. “I guess that’s something,” she says, and Laura smiles.

“It certainly is.” She gets up, pulling at Natasha’s hand. “Come on. Apologize, make up, and then I’ll let you help me with dinner. No boys allowed. We’ll get a bit of girl time in, if that’s okay.”

Natasha matches Laura’s smile. “I’d like that,” she says quietly, accepting Laura’s hand and getting up off the bed.

 

2009

Clint takes Natasha home with him for Cooper’s birthday, because Laura has worked around Clint and Natasha's schedules to push the party until late May in order to make sure both of them could be home. Selfishly, Clint also takes Natasha home because he misses having the three of them together, and also because he figures Laura might appreciate the extra help now that she's pregnant again.

“You’re getting big,” Natasha says with a small smile when they walk in the house, kissing Laura’s cheek before she bends down to kiss her stomach, putting her hands on each side of her middle. Laura smiles.

“I'm barely showing, Nat. But thank you, anyway.”

“Well, you're still bigger than when I last saw you, so it counts,” Natasha says mildly. “Did you decide on a name?”

“Lila, I think,” Laura responds, her voice turning thoughtful as she kisses Clint. “If it's a girl. We always had this thing, with names. We wanted them to reflect us as much as possible. So we made the decision awhile ago to name our kids something that started with the same letter of our own. Cooper was for Clint. Lila would be for me, and it’s also a way to honor my grandmother.”

“We’re big on the compromises,” Clint says and Natasha smiles.

“I like it,” she decides as Cooper wanders into the room, clutching a thin paperback in his right hand.

“Hi, Nat!”

“Hey, kiddo. Happy late birthday.” Natasha hugs him loosely and Cooper hangs on to her waist, staring up at Natasha with a grin.

“Did you bring me a present?”

Cooper,” Laura admonishes and Natasha laughs quietly while Clint puts down a bag, unearthing a stuffed rabbit from inside.

“I think you’ve spoiled him,” Laura says with an over-exasperated sigh as Cooper takes the toy delightedly, and Clint scoops him up in his arms for a bigger hug before turning him loose. “Please don’t tell me you got him an actual gift, too.”

“Of course we did,” Natasha says with an eyebrow raise, handing over a huge package wrapped in blue and white paper. “Besides, what good is it being a part of your family if I can’t spoil kids who might as well be my own?”

Clint catches Laura’s eye as she says the words, and feels something catch in his chest that he knows is reflected in her own reaction. Clint has long since felt like he’d adopted Natasha into his family, but hearing the other girl actually say the words out loud makes him feel warm in a way he hasn’t realized he’d been looking for.

“Cooper thinks of you as a part of the family,” Laura says, taking Natasha’s bag and putting it by the couch. “He asked me the other day why you’re not around all the time.” Clint watches Natasha’s face as she speaks, eyeing her as she ducks her head, hiding behind a curtain of hair.

“It’s not a job that allows for that,” Natasha says finally, and Laura catches Clint’s eye again. Clint can detect something sad in her voice, and he knows immediately that Laura will curb her response in pointing out her husband as the very obvious loophole to Natasha’s answer.

“Definitely spoiled him,” Clint says, breaking the tension as Cooper runs back into the room, waving his new toy. “So, I’d say my status as ‘best dad ever’ is secure.”

“Oh, please,” Laura groans, rolling her eyes. “He loves you because you buy him presents every time you come home. You’re like a walking Santa Claus. He hates me because I make him do homework, clean his room, and dress for school.”

“Well, yeah,” Clint says, waggling his eyebrows and Laura sighs and Natasha punches him lightly in the arm.

“Laura, tell your husband he’s terrible.”

“Clint. You are terrible.”

Clint smiles, kissing Laura full on the lips.

***

Clint broaches the question when Cooper leaves to spend the night at a sleepover with another friend.

He’s been thinking about it for awhile, the idea of taking their relationship -- whatever it was -- to a level slightly beyond stolen kisses and hair playing, though he knows Laura isn’t ready for that level of intimacy. But it didn’t mean they couldn’t get try to explore being intimate in other ways, and Clint’s determined to at least bring the topic up before Laura gives birth.

“I thought it would be a good idea,” Clint says while he chops tomatoes for a sandwich. “Cooper’s out of the house and, I mean, we’re already pretty open with each other.” He hears Laura sigh quietly.

“I don’t know,” she says slowly. “I’m pregnant. Even if no one can see it yet, my body's shifting and changing, and...and I don’t exactly feel very good about myself right now.”

“You’re beautiful,” Clint says instantly. “And I’m not just saying that because you’re carrying my kid. Natasha thinks so, too.” As if on cue, Natasha looks up from where she’s been reading at the table and grins, taking a sip of iced tea.

“You’re the most glowing pregnant woman I’ve ever seen,” she corroborates and Clint watches Laura’s face turn pink, though he notices she still looks unconvinced. The topic is mostly dropped after that, lunch conversation turning to party plans and stories from Clint and Natasha’s most recent missions, but later, when they’re getting settled and Natasha’s heading to her usual bedroom, Laura reaches out and grabs her arm, locking her slim fingers around her wrist.

“Come here,” she says softly as Clint looks up in surprise, and Natasha’s eyes widen a little at the sudden invitation but she nods slowly, a smile appearing over her face.

For as much as Clint had previously developed a staunch way of sleeping while in the military, he’s worked out a comfortable pattern with Natasha, in that they mold themselves together the same way that they work together -- a fused core, heads tucked under each other’s chins, mostly chest-to-chest in protective holds but sometimes back-to-back, depending if someone needs space or is hurt. (And even then, their bodies tend to find a way back to each other, a comfortable connection.) With Laura, Clint sleeps more haphazardly but also more intimately, he wraps himself around her body in a way that’s almost suffocating, a shared habit of sleeping from days when he would stay over her dorm in college and sleep in a small twin bed. He leads the way into the bedroom, stripping himself of his clothes almost as soon as he gets inside and then throws Natasha one of his old t-shirts.

“Here,” he says as Laura starts to undress, going to the bathroom to brush her teeth. “Not worth going back to your room.”

“Ugh.” Natasha heaves an over-dramatic sigh as she stares at the logo on the front, before slipping off her own shirt and bra. “You hate the Yankees.”

“Yeah, but Laura loves them,” he says with a smirk, letting his eyes travel over her breasts, thankful that he no longer has to feel guilty about doing something like that in his wife’s presence. “So you’ll have to learn to love them too.”

Natasha wrinkles her nose. “Baseball is a pastime I’m still not convinced I find at all interesting.”

“Too bad,” Clint says as he pulls the covers down, “cause Cooper’s thinking of trying out for Little League. So if you wanna be in love with us, you gotta come support the games.”

Natasha makes another face as Laura walks back into the room in her pajamas, hair pulled back and freshly scrubbed face radiating bright pink.

“Did I hear you arguing over my son?”

“I thought he was our son,” Natasha says and Clint finds himself suppressing a smile as Laura raises an eyebrow.

“Are you coming to his baseball games?”

“I’ll think about it,” Natasha responds as Laura sits down on one side of the bed, rubbing lotion over her hands and legs before swinging her feet onto the mattress, while Natasha climbs tentatively into the other side and Clint situates himself in the middle.

Immediately, it’s almost comfortable -- Laura curls up on her side, facing Clint, while Natasha takes the other side, face turned into his back, pushing herself into his body, a warm, familiar anchor. Clint can smell the faint mint of her mouthwash and lavender of Laura’s face cream mixed with the hibiscus shampoo that Natasha’s been borrowing for use on her own hair, and Laura snakes one hand around his waist, her fingers stretching towards Natasha’s body, where they linger on her hip.

“If you kick me during the middle of the night, I’ll kill you,” Laura mumbles into the pillow, and Clint hears Natasha grunt.

“He’s the worst at sharing a bed sometimes.”

“I am not,” Clint protests as he burrows down under the covers and Natasha lets out a quiet laugh while Laura presses her face against his, nose-to-nose. He meets her eyes and smiles.

“Love you,” he breathes, realizing after he says the words that he’s not sure whether he’s been talking to Natasha or Laura. It doesn’t matter, because both of them answer at the same time.

“Love you, too.”

***

“You’re not supposed to be working so much,” Clint says when he wakes up the next morning to only Natasha in the bed, her body curled around him like a snake. He finds Laura in the kitchen, already having frosted a dozen cupcakes, and blinks blearily as he reaches for the coffee.

“I’m sitting down, I’m not exactly endangering myself,” Laura says with a sigh. “Good morning, by the way.”

“Mmm.” Clint walks over and leans down to kiss her head, massaging her scalp with his free hand while taking a long drink. “Morning. Sleep okay?”

Laura nods. “Better than okay,” she admits. “How often do you get to sleep with two of your best friends?”

“Hopefully more often now,” Clint says, sitting down at the table and taking a bright blue frosting carton, examining its contents as Natasha walks into the room.

“Coffee’s on the counter, bagels are on the cutting board, cream cheese is in the fridge,” Laura says conversationally without looking up as Natasha pauses in front of her. Laura tips her head up and meets Natasha’s lips gently before Natasha turns to Clint to kiss him, as well.

“You need a shower,” she remarks, putting her lips against the slight stubble crawling over his cheek. “And a shave.”

“Thank you, mom,” he returns sarcastically as Laura continues to smile, her eyes fixated on another cupcake. “For your information, I was planning to do both of those things before my house got overrun with small children.”

“Hey, don’t forget why I was initially assigned to you as your partner,” Natasha reminds him, reaching between Clint and Laura to take the frosting from Clint’s hand. “You needed someone to look out for you, remember?”

“To make sure I didn’t fall in a ditch, not to tell me I need to shower,” Clint mutters as Natasha sticks her pointer finger inside the carton, scooping up a large wad of frosting.

“To be fair, I’ve seen worse.” She puts her finger in her mouth, sucking off the mess of sugar with a smirk, and Clint immediately feels the start of an erection he knows he can’t hide. Natasha raises an eyebrow as she glances down before lowering herself to his lap and Clint wants to scream, because the sensation of Natasha’s body against his own while he’s already turned on is only making matters worse, and he knows she’s entirely aware of that.

“Hey, Laura. I think I’ve found a loophole for Clint’s early morning issues,” Natasha says as she digs her finger in the carton again. When Laura looks up, Natasha swipes her finger across the other girl's cheek, leaving a smear of bright blue against her skin. Laura bites down on a shriek at the unsuspecting attack and Clint shifts against what is slowly becoming a very uncomfortable dick as Natasha gets up again, rubbing a thumb against Laura’s face, wiping away most of the frosting before using her tongue to gently smear the remains.

“Come on, Barton. I’ll help Laura finish getting ready if you go take care of yourself before your kid sees you.”

Clint glares as he gets up, not bothering to care that both women can clearly see how hard he currently is.

“Be nice to me today and maybe we can both help you with your problems later,” Laura adds says with a wink as Natasha takes his empty seat, reaching for an extra knife. Clint sighs, because he wants to be angry, but all he can think about is the fact that he’s not sure how he got so lucky to have the two people he cares about most in his life being in love with him -- and with each other. He rubs a hand across his hair until it sticks straight up and walks out of the kitchen, turning his heel on both of their grins.

“Yes, ma’am.”

***

Cooper’s party is only a little more stressful than Clint expects it to be, with kids running around haphazardly in the big backyard and then congregating around a long picnic table as Laura serves cake and ice cream with her mother’s help. At one point, Clint takes a break from wrangling his own child and looks around for Natasha, finding her cornered by Bob near the back porch. He inwardly cringes, deciding to distract himself by going to the cooler to grab another drink.

“Well, that was certainly an enlightening ten minutes of my life,” Natasha says cynically when she joins Clint a few minutes later, standing a few feet away from the mayhem currently taking place in the middle of the lawn. Clint sighs, handing her his beer.

“Welcome to the hell that is Laura’s dad,” he says with a small nod towards where Bob is now talking to Cooper. “I still don’t think he likes me very much.”

“I don’t think he likes me, either,” Natasha admits as Clint snorts.

“Good thing he doesn’t know you’re in love with his daughter.”

“Good thing,” Natasha agrees with a hint of a smile, taking a sip of his drink before handing it back. “Also, I’ve never lied so much about my job in one conversation before. Not even when I’ve had to do it for work.”

“Yeah,” Clint says carefully, playing with the peeling label of his Corona bottle. “Laura’s dad has...very specific views. On everything. It’s probably better to smile and nod and get the whole thing over with.”

Natasha sighs. “We do a lot for the people we love,” she says, and Clint finds himself laughing quietly.

“Yeah, we do.” He pauses, watching Cooper run across the yard. “I really hope he tires himself out enough to go to sleep early.”

“For your own sake, or for everyone else’s?” Natasha asks teasingly. Clint takes a swig of beer, thinking of their morning at the kitchen table.

“Both,” he confirms as a warm feeling spreads through his bones, his mind remembering how comforted and secure and loved he had felt with both Laura and Natasha in bed with him. Natasha leans into his side casually, squeezing his waist.

“Have you told her yet?” she asks quietly, dropping her voice, and Clint shakes his head with just barely visible movement, because he doesn’t have to ask what she’s talking about.

“No,” he says, his voice just as quiet. “I don’t even know if it’s something I want to do.” Natasha follows his eyes across the yard where Cooper, who is surrounded by a group of friends, is now playing a game of raucous tag.

“You’d be the first actual recruit aside from Stark for the Avengers Initiative,” Natasha reminds him. “I think Laura would be proud.”

“She would be,” Clint says, scuffing his foot against the ground. “But... I dunno, Nat. SHIELD is, well...work. This Avengers thing is responsibility that would put me in more danger than she’d be comfortable with. Stark alone is about as irresponsible as a two-year-old, from what we know.”

“And you always said you wanted to do more,” Natasha reminds him. “Be a hero. Be his hero. And hers,” she says as her eyes move to Laura, who is standing a few yards away, surveying the scene with her hands on her stomach. “You won’t even consider it?”

Clint sighs, feeling his chest tighten. “I told Coulson and Fury I’d think about it,” he says finally. “I want my kid to be born before I decide anything. I want to be home and be with Laura before I make a decision like this.”

Natasha nods slowly. “Okay,” she allows as a child’s yell tears across the yard. “But it doesn’t mean I don’t get to bug you about it. Because if you are going to do this, I’m also not letting you decide without giving her at least six month’s notice.”

“Oh, good. I got a mother and a prison warden,” Clint mutters as Natasha punches him hard in the arm. Clint bites down on an expletive, gritting his teeth as Laura strides across the yard, joining Natasha and Clint on the side of the lawn.

“No one is allowed to cuddle without me, you know,” Laura says lightly, putting her arm around Clint’s waist. “House owner’s rules.” She brushes her fingers against Natasha’s wrist before she pulls them back and puts her head on Clint’s shoulder. Clint sucks in a long breath as he watches Cooper run around the yard, Natasha’s words hovering in the part of his mind that he can’t seem to turn off.

 

2010

Compared to Cooper Barton, Lila is a dream.

Laura thinks at first that maybe it’s because this isn’t her first rodeo -- hers or Clint's, for that matter -- but as much as she doesn’t want to admit it, Lila is simply, in every way, an easier baby. She cries less and sleeps more, and calms down more quickly than Cooper ever did even after he grew out of infancy.

“You know, it’s amazing to me how different they can be,” Laura muses as she rocks back and forth on the porch, watching Cooper attempt to chase fireflies. Natasha emerges behind her carrying two iced coffees. “Cooper was hell on earth for us. Lila’s like an angel sent from heaven. But they’re also both so much like Clint and myself, I can’t even believe they’d come from any other person.”

“Cooper got the Barton genes,” Natasha says, sitting down and closing her lips around a straw. “Which means that he’ll also probably inherit his stubbornness at some point.”

“He tried to talk me into giving him mashed potatoes instead of broccoli for dinner the other night,” Laura says with a small sigh as she shifts Lila in her arms, reaching for her own glass. “And then he made a very convincing argument for how Lila gets to eat whatever she wants because it comes from a can.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Clint,” Natasha says as Laura lets out a laugh. She finds that she laughs more with Natasha, almost as much as she does with Clint, but for different reasons. Clint had his huge heart and his stupid jokes and easygoing demeanor that Laura had always been attracted to, his perpetually messed up hair and klutzy manner that caused him to drop a slice of pizza on the floor or spill coffee on the couch -- all of the things that had made her fall in love with him in the first place. Natasha, for all that she was stoic and rigid and carved out of knives and battle scars, was warm in a way that Laura couldn’t quite describe, as if she was a perfect fit for the missing piece Laura had always been looking for in both a friend and a partner.

“You wanna hold her?” Laura asks, reaching forward as Lila’s face breaks into a bemused smile that makes Laura’s heart grow three sizes. For as much as Cooper now saw Natasha as a mom, the other girl hadn’t been around enough when he was a baby to become ingrained in his life the way Laura suspects Lila is becoming in Natasha's.

“I wish you didn’t have to leave,” she says after a moment, watching Natasha wrap her arms around Lila’s middle.

“I know,” she says, putting her head on Laura’s shoulder. “Believe me, I’m not exactly looking forward to playing personal assistant to one of the biggest billionaire babies the world has ever had the pleasure of meeting. Not to mention one of the most flirtatious. But...it’s the job.”

“It is,” Laura agrees, resting her cheek against Natasha’s hair. The one good thing about Natasha going off the grid for an undetermined amount of time was that Clint at least got to come home, a deserved break from three back-to-back missions that he’s promised Laura have garnered him nothing more than bruises and, “okay, maybe one sprained ankle and a split lip.”

“I’ll stay for a few more days,” Natasha says after a pause, raising her head. “You look like you could use the help. But I have to leave by the end of the week.”

“I know. It’s just...every time you leave, it gets harder,” Laura admits as Lila stares up at her mother with wide, blue eyes that remind her so much of her own. “I feel so stupid.”

“Don’t feel stupid,” Natasha says automatically, bouncing the baby until she gurgles and smiles, arms flailing. “I feel the same way, you know.”

“But you have Clint,” Laura says, swallowing down the lump in her throat. “Even if you don’t work together, you still have him to come home to most of the time, if you want. I don’t…I only have the kids.”

Natasha strokes the small tufts of Lila’s hair. “They love you,” she says. “They love you so much, Laura. You’re their world.”

“So are both of you,” Laura adds quietly, because it’s true, and Lila makes a noise that sounds like a cross between a cry and a burp.

“Diaper change?” Natasha asks as Lila starts to fully wail, and Laura nods.

“Most likely. Want to help?”

It’s a question she doesn’t even have to ask because she already knows the answer, but she likes to ask anyway, because she still enjoys seeing the look on Natasha’s face when she invites her into the smaller, more personal parts of her life. Laura suspects that for as confident as Natasha had been in inserting herself into their family, there was a part of her brain that hadn’t fully grasped the concept of belonging yet. And, well...Laura would be lying if she didn’t admit that the smile that usually followed a question like this made her insides jump around.

“Of course.” Natasha hands the baby over and picks up the two glasses, following Laura inside.

***

There are numerous things that Laura loves about Clint being home, least of which is the fact that he takes on triple dad duty to attempt to make up for all the time he’s spent away. It allows Laura a chance to relax and sleep and return to something resembling a normal state of mind, and do things like take a bubble bath without getting interrupted.

“Lila’s finally down for her nap, Cooper’s working on his homework,” Clint says warily as he enters the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Laura cracks open one eye as she leans her head back against the tub, putting her empty wine glass precariously on the tile floor.

“Good. Heard from Nat today?”

“She checked in about an hour ago,” Clint says, fishing his phone out of his pocket. “Last line of the message was asking me to finish the will she never started, because there was a good chance she was going to murder someone.”

“Sounds like the job is going well,” Laura remarks, stretching out. “Come here.”

Clint raises both eyebrows. “Our daughter is asleep.”

“That’s your excuse for not joining me? We have a baby monitor,” Laura says, motioning to the device resting on the bathroom sink. “So come here, and don’t make me ask you again.”

Clint smiles, taking off his clothes and stepping into the tub. It’s technically too small for both of them to fit properly, water sloshing over the side as they try to get comfortable, but they manage to share well enough without feeling too cramped.

“We need to do this more often,” Laura says as Clint drags one hand across her stomach, fingers circling over her breast, causing her to shiver in the warm water. “I miss you when you’re away.”

“I miss you more,” Clint says, tweaking her nipple sharply, before letting his hand fall between her thighs. Laura moans, fighting to keep her legs from contracting, knowing that there’s really no room to move without one of them getting crushed against the side of the tub.

“Have you thought any more about that offer?” Laura asks as Clint continues to rub lazily at her cunt, using just enough pressure to turn her on and keep her satisfied without getting her riled up.

“The Avengers thing?” He shakes his head. “Nat thinks I should do it, though.”

“Of course she does,” Laura says pointedly. “Especially since you’d probably be doing it together. The question is, do you want to do it?”

“I want to be here with you,” Clint says, increasing his speed suddenly, and Laura flinches.

“That’s not an answer.”

“It’s smarter,” he says. “I’d be home more, I’d work less. I’d only go out when there are specific emergencies that the team would be called for, even if I had to spend a certain amount of time in New York, still.”

“So why wouldn’t you do it?” Laura asks as he continues to finger her absently, though she has a feeling that she already knows the answer. Clint sighs.

“Laura, come on. Nat was practically trained and raised in a killing environment. This Stark guy built his own freakin’ armor. God knows who else they’re going to get for this team, probably a super-human monster of some sort who can fly and people who can shoot laser beams out of their hands.”

“No one can fly,” Laura says, rolling her eyes. “Not even this guy who apparently built his own suit.” She pauses. “You’re worried you won’t be good enough to measure up with everyone else, am I wrong?” She’s not, she knows, but she’ll never be cruel enough to push it out of him without prodding him enough to at least partially admit it first. Clint hesitates and their silence is broken by the harsh sounds of Cooper’s feet pounding against the stairs, followed by Lila’s shrill wail over the baby monitor. Laura curses loudly as Clint removes his hand from between her legs.

“I swear to god, I’m gonna kill him.”

“Not if I don’t do it first,” Clint says, hauling himself out of the tub and grabbing a towel, before reaching for his pants. He quickly shoves his hands under the faucet before striding out of the bathroom and Laura sighs to herself as she settles back into the tub, rubbing a hand across her eyes.

***

It’s five days after their conversation in the bathroom that Clint broaches the topic again, while they’re in the middle of cooking dinner together.

“You’re right,” he confirms, dropping a package of frozen peas on the counter with a loud plop. “I’m worried that I’m not going to be good enough.”

“Oh, we’re admitting what I’ve already known for almost a week?” Laura asks mildly, stirring a pot of stew. Clint huffs out a breath.

“You know, for someone who is supposed to love me unconditionally, you’re not making this any better.”

“Clint.” Laura turns around, placing the ladle on the counter and wiping her hands on a towel. “Listen to yourself.”

“I am listening,” he mutters, walking to the cupboard to retrieve a can of baby food. Laura crosses her arms.

“No, you’re not. You were sought out for this organization out of the blue, and you’ve since become one of their most valuable assets. You and Nat have the highest record for non-extraction that the organization has seen in years. You were technically the first person that they approached about belonging to what might potentially become one of the most specialized, important and elite teams in the world, and you’re worried you’re not good enough for it just because you don’t have a flying suit or some mythical powers?”

“I…” Clint trails off, twisting open the jar of baby food. “Yeah,” he says, closing his eyes and dropping his hands. “So what? What’s wrong with being upset that I’m just human?”

“What’s wrong is that I can’t have you continuing to go through life thinking that you’re not good enough for me and for the world, just because you don’t do anything other than shoot a bow and arrow,” she says gently, rubbing his shoulders. “I love you. Natasha loves you. You have two people that love you and believe in you and want you to be the best person you can be. You have two kids who think you’re a superhero.”

“Cooper thinks I travel for a living having expensive dinners and bringing him home toys, and Lila doesn’t know who I am except that I’m her dad,” Clint argues, and Laura nods.

“Yes. But you’re a dad who loves her more than anything else in the world, which means you’re already her hero. And when she grows up and learns a little about why you’re sometimes not at home, you’ll never want to forget that look.” She traces her hand down the side of his face, moving her fingers against his lips until he parts them, his breath warm on her skin.

“So you want me to be an Avenger,” he says in a low voice and Laura nods, smiling.

You want to be an Avenger, Clint. I’m just making sure you don’t let your brain talk you out of something that you deserve.” She leans in to kiss him. “Maybe you’ll get a cool business card out of this whole deal.”

Clint laughs, the mood considerably lightened by her words. “I dunno, I was kind of hoping for one of those discount cards or something. You know, like free Starbucks.”

“I’m sure SHIELD could work something out,” Laura says with a lazy grin. “You do have another fifty years worth of birthdays to think about.”

Clint sighs. “I was kind of hoping we could go the gift card route at some point,” he grouses and Laura rolls her eyes.

“The day Cooper doesn’t ask for a specific toy or construction set is the day that I officially throw in the towel.”

“Yeah. Maybe I should have Natasha see if Stark has any old tools,” Clint says thoughtfully. “I mean, once she blows her cover on him, of course. Which, if today’s text was any indication, looks like it might happen sooner rather than later.”

“Which also means she can come home sooner,” Laura remarks and Clint’s lips quirk.

“You really want to try out that threesome idea, don’t you?”

Now you’re thinking like an Avenger,” Laura teases, and Clint laughs as he kisses her again.

 

2011

Clint flies out to New Mexico right after Lila’s first birthday, under Coulson’s orders, what he tells Laura is his “first official Avengers business” though he fails to elaborate on what that actually is. Laura lets him go without question, trusting that Natasha will fill her in on anything overly important, and watches with an increasingly heavy heart as Clint spends his last night at home with Lila, sitting in the chair in her room, rocking her back and forth while reading a book. As much as Laura knows letting Clint come and go is the right decision, and as much as she’s okay with it, it’s never been easy to deal with her emotions when she knows he has to leave the children he would stop the world for -- especially in Lila’s case. Clint had the fortune of working slightly less during Cooper’s infant days, mostly because it was their first child and he had just been starting out with SHIELD at the time.

Fortunately, Natasha, now free from her disastrous billionaire babysitting duties and on call waiting for her next assignment that Laura knows could happen in days or weeks, decides to spend her free time at the farm. Laura’s grateful that she at least has someone who understands why she sometimes starts crying when Lila points to Clint’s favorite shirt with inquisitive, wide eyes and a look that silently asks where her father is.

“Hey.” Laura’s washing dishes from dinner when she feels two hands wrap around her waist, Natasha coming up from behind, relaxing as her chin hits Laura’s shoulder. “You okay?”

Laura nods, suddenly realizing she’s been scrubbing the same piece of glassware over and over in what has now become cold, soapy water. Natasha brushes back hair from her neck and kisses her gently.

“It hits sometimes,” she says quietly, not bothering to elaborate on her sentence, and Natasha kisses her again.

“I know,” she says, not moving from her stance and Laura closes her eyes, letting Natasha anchor her body while taking a few deep breaths.

“N-Na! NA!” Lila screams from her high chair and Laura forces out a smile as she wrings out her hands.

“I think she’s trying to say, ‘Nat,’” Laura says as Natasha lets go of her and walks towards the baby, lifting her up and smoothing one hand over her head.

“Could be anything,” Natasha deflects, walking back towards Laura, who leans over and kisses her daughter’s head before giving Natasha a kiss for good measure.

“Could be,” Laura agrees. “But you’ve been with her more than anyone else lately. I wouldn’t be surprised. You wanna take her for a bit?”

Natasha nods, shifting the baby in her arms. “Diaper change and food and sleep. Finish up down here, okay?”

Laura nods back, catching Natasha’s eye, grateful to be alone with her thoughts for more than a few minutes because as much as she wants nothing else than to cling to Natasha and cry about how she feels, she’s also worried that doing so will cause her to become too uncontrollable and too clingy. As it is, she feels pathetic enough being so upset about Clint's absence, when she’s always been internally fine with it.

She finishes the dishes and cleans the kitchen table, taking out the trash and trying to decide if she wants to give Natasha a little more time with Lila before disturbing her. Despite the fact that Natasha softened considerably when taking care of Clint or even Laura, Laura had never imagined her to be maternal. And even though Laura knows Cooper thinks of Natasha as a second mom, he had already been older and shier about things once Natasha had started to spend more time with their family. But Natasha had adapted to Lila in a way that Laura had found admittedly surprising, becoming comfortable with her almost immediately, taking care of her in the same intimate way Clint would and offering her help more than Laura felt like she really needed to.

She straightens a few things on the couch and then checks in on Cooper, who she finds is sitting in his bed with Natasha, helping her read to Lila as the baby snuggles into her arms. It's a sight that makes Laura's insides curl with warmth, and she allows herself to feel sentimental and emotional for a few moments before she returns to her own room quietly.

“She went down about five minutes ago,” Natasha says when she opens the door to the bedroom an hour later. “So we’re probably good for a bit. Want me to make some tea?”

Laura smiles and Natasha smiles back. “I’ll take that as a yes,” she says, closing the bedroom door behind her. Laura shuts her eyes against the feeling of anxiousness, busying herself with her own book until Natasha returns.

“Could you...could you stay? And sleep with me tonight?” Laura asks hesitantly as Natasha puts the mug on the bedside table, unsure of why she feels so strange asking the second part of the question considering they’ve slept in the same bed before. Natasha looks surprised but nods, tilting her head to the side.

“Of course. Lemme just shower quickly, okay? I feel gross.”

Laura gestures towards the master bathroom in response and Natasha leans over and gives her a quick kiss. Laura reaches for her cup and drinks slowly, keeping one ear trained to the baby monitor and one eye trained to the clock on the bedside. They had about half an hour before Cooper’s nighttime ritual and then maybe another few hours after that while Lila slept, if they were lucky. The baby had gotten better at sleeping through the night, though Laura hadn’t held her breath about it being a permanent thing.

Natasha takes her time in the bathroom, enough so that Laura can finish a good portion of her book get Cooper ready for bed (and, Laura thinks, she really needs to tell Clint to lay off telling her son SHIELD stories because all Cooper can talk about is how he wants to dream of being a pilot some day). By the time she’s settled him in for the night and returned to the room, Natasha has changed into looser clothes and is pulling back the covers.

“How much of an old lady am I if I go to bed at eight?” Laura asks, climbing onto the mattress. Natasha shrugs.

“I won’t tell if you won’t. Besides, you’ll probably be up in a few hours.”

“True.” Laura shuts off the bedside lamp which only makes the room slightly dimmer, as it’s still early enough for the evening to cast natural light into the space. Natasha turns over onto her side and Laura scoots forward, their foreheads meeting, and Laura drags her fingers through damp red hair as Natasha closes her eyes.

“Do you want to know about the time I came to your house? When I was upset?” Natasha asks suddenly, opening her eyes, and Laura furrows her brow. She does, but she also doesn’t want Natasha to feel like its information she has to give. On the other hand, she was practically offering, and Laura knew Natasha well enough to know when she wanted to be open.

“If you want,” she allows, continuing to play with her hair. “I’ve always wondered.”

Natasha smiles faintly before the expression drops off. “I know Clint never told you about the Red Room. About where I grew up,” she says quietly. “It’s not worth the story, in any case. I was trained to be an assassin, and I worked for people all over the world who would pay me to kill and spy for them. It was...a living, of sorts.”

Laura nods, her hands still working over Natasha’s scalp. She knew enough to know that Natasha’s early life had been less than normal in that respect, but never the more extensive details.

“When I was in Austria some years ago, I did a job for someone that involved taking out an entire line of government officials,” Natasha says slowly. “It was...efficient. I was efficient, rather. I got it done quickly, and no one ever suspected. I don’t think they ever found all the bodies.” She pauses, half-smiling, as if the memory hits on something fond instead of something terrible. “Anyway, I did my work and then went on with my life, like I’m used to doing. Clint and I got assigned a job doing detail for a hostage situation, a group of mercenaries that had taken a bunch of scientists because they were threatening SHIELD’s secrets. In Austria.”

Laura feels the dread creep into her stomach, seeing the end of the story before her like a premonition, like the headlights of a train that can’t stop its inevitable collision with another object. “What happened?” she finds herself asking anyway.

“We went down there, and we did our job. It was fine. I had memories, but, you know...my triggers, they don’t really do anything for me anymore. I had so many different jobs that every place would be a bad memory, technically. But as we were heading home, we stopped to settle our scores with their offices, because it was easier to do paperwork with them rather than waiting until we flew home to wrap things up. An agent stopped me right before we left...turns out it was the daughter of one of the people I had killed back then.” She stops, her lips continuing to move, though no sound comes out. “She told me she remembered me and that for years, she wanted to kill me, because of what I did. But then she said she understood, being in this business, and that she forgave me...I don’t know why anyone would forgive me for that.” Natasha’s voice breaks and Laura stops stroking her hair, tangling her fingers in the short red strands as she pulls the other girl close.

“Oh, Nat,” she says, kissing her eyes where they’ve become suddenly wet. It feels like she’s talking to Clint, in a way, reminding him that not every bad thing he thought about himself was true. She lets the other girl cling a little tighter to her body. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“I was so messed up,” Natasha says after a long pause. “I did things that no one should ever do. SHIELD took me in...Clint took me in...you took me in. I don’t know why.”

“You’re asking me why my husband took one look at you and decided he wanted you by his side?” Laura asks, cuddling her more securely. “I think you know the answer to that.”

“He fixes things,” Natasha says, her voice a quiet rasp. “He’s got projects, I know that’s what he does.”

“Yes,” Laura agrees. “He does that. But he also loves you, and he thinks you’re worth it. You’re not a project to me, or to him, Natasha. He would do anything for you. And I know it’s not the same, but I would, too.”

She pulls back just enough to see her eyes, still filled with too much water, and kisses Natasha on the lips. Laura lets her mouth linger until Natasha pushes back, her tongue slipping between Laura’s teeth, and Laura tries to suppress the tremor that runs through her body while Natasha’s hand slips down her arm, brushing over one breast.

“You make me feel safe,” Laura breathes when their lips part. “You know that, right?”

“I know,” Natasha says, though she doesn’t sound like she believes the words. “But I still feel like a monster. I’m holding your children, and I’ve killed children.”

“But you’re not that person now,” Laura refutes gently. “You know that as much as I do. I would trust you with my child’s life, Nat. I have.”

“Then you’re obviously not careful enough,” Natasha says and Laura can tell she’s trying to deflect the comment. She tangles their legs together.

“Well, I trust my husband with my kids, and he could drop them at any moment, with his luck.”

Natasha barks out a laugh, a sound Laura can tell is unexpected but it breaks the mood, and she curls into Laura again, kissing the spot just below her neck.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she says as Laura kisses her back. “I’m really glad you’re here.”

“I know,” Laura says, brushing her mouth over her forehead. “I am, too.”

***

Clint’s still in New Mexico when Natasha finds out she has to take a job in Russia, which also requires her to go back to New York and prep for at least a week before shipping out.

“I can’t come home yet,” Clint says apologetically when he calls to give her an update. Laura’s in the middle of reading to Lila while Cooper plays a board game with Natasha in the living room.

“I was kind of hoping that after a month, you’d get a little bit of a break,” Laura says, not bothering to mask her disappointment. Clint sighs.

“It’s not that kind of job. I have to wait for something specific and...it’s boring, I’ll give you that much. But I can’t come home until it’s over. Hopefully that’ll be soon and then after that, I’m good.”

Laura nods. “I understand,” she replies. “It’s just...you’re missing a lot.” She’s not sure why she feels differently about his time away, he had been in and out for Cooper in a similar fashion, but for some reason, it hadn’t felt quite as personal.

“Nat’s there, right?”

“She’s leaving for another thing in a few days, and yes, but it’s not the same,” Laura says, tightening her grip on Lila, who can’t seem to suddenly stop smiling or exploring everything that she finds shiny, including Laura’s wedding ring. “Like I said -- you’re missing a lot.”

“I know,” Clint says, and she can hear the sadness manifesting in his own voice. “Can you...can I see her quickly?”

Laura hits a button on her phone until the screen switches to video, allowing her to see Clint’s face. He seems to be sitting in some sort of strange cell, a pristine holding room that’s equipped with a bed, a sink and a small shelf.

“Hey, baby girl,” Clint says as Laura props the phone up against the table and holds up Lila, who flails excitedly at the screen.

“Dada!” She says happily and Laura swallows down a lump in her throat as Clint smiles.

“Daddy loves you very much, okay? He’s working hard to come home for you.”

“Dada!” Lila repeats with a small giggle, and Clint puffs out his cheeks, which makes Lila laugh again.

“She’s a happier baby than Cooper, isn’t she?”

“Well, she’s definitely more talkative,” Laura says as she bounces Lila slightly. “Among other things. But as you can see, your presence is clearly missed.”

“I know.” He clears his throat. “Hey, Lila baby, I love you, okay? Daddy’s coming home really soon, I promise.”

Laura takes one of Lila’s hands in her own, bobbing it up and down. “Say bye to daddy...can you wave goodbye?” Clint waves back before she reaches over the switches the phone back to audio.

“Call me later? I love you.”

“Love you too. Tell Nat I say hi, and that I owe her big-time for being away for so long.”

“What about me?”

“You already know you’re getting a threesome at some point soon. She doesn’t.”

Laura considers this response, before frowning. “Fair point. Be safe.”

“Always am.” Clint hangs up the phone and Natasha glances up from her spot in the kitchen, bending over to talk to Cooper before getting up.

“I think Auntie Nat needs a friend right now,” says Natasha. “And I think your mom needs a break.” Laura smiles gratefully as Natasha lifts Lila from her arms; they had unofficially adopted the “Auntie Nat” title after Cooper had designated her as such -- “because she’s already my mom, basically, and Lila needs an aunt,” had been the logical reasoning of the seven-year-old. The nickname had stuck, despite the fact Laura was initially worried it was too much pressure on Natasha to be anything more to them than simply “Nat.”

“Oof. You are getting huge,” Natasha says, balancing Lila on her hips and kissing the baby’s head. “You’re going to be out of your baby clothes by the time your dad gets home.” She glances down at Laura. “You want some wine?”

“Day drinking can’t be good, can it?” Laura asks warily, and Natasha shrugs.

“Depends on how you look at it. In Russia, we do this all the time. I mean, we have juice boxes of vodka.”

“This isn’t Russia, this is Iowa,” Laura responds and Natasha raises an eyebrow.

“What’s your point?”

Laura gets up, joining Natasha in the kitchen and taking out a glass as Natasha sits down at the table. Cooper immediately turns his attention to his sister, playing with her hands.

“Will you promise to come back? After you’re done?” Laura asks as she pours wine, and Natasha nods.

“I’ll make sure Clint and I both make a proper, long visit after all this is over. I think we’re owed a little bit of time off.”

“Good,” Laura says, moving closer to the table and taking a long drink. She knows she can’t exactly say more with Cooper in the room but the way Natasha smiles seems to indicate that she’s more than aware of where Laura’s mind is. Laura takes a breath and finishes the wine before turning her attention to her children, who are too busy with each other to notice the way Natasha’s hand brushes against Laura’s thigh and then over her backside.

“So,” Laura continues, trying not to obviously react to Natasha’s touch, “who in this house thinks they’re big enough to help me make dinner tonight?”

Cooper’s hand immediately shoots up, and Natasha grins as she digs her fingers deeper into Laura’s skin.

 

2012

When Laura gets the call from Fury, her first instinct is to get on a plane and fly straight to New York.

She gets about as far as opening a suitcase before she remembers that she has two children sleeping in her house, and in lieu of not knowing what else to do, picks up the phone and calls both of Natasha’s emergency cell numbers. Both ring for far too long with no answer, and to keep herself from doing something stupid like throwing the phone across the room, she marches downstairs, opens a bottle of wine, and starts drinking. It’s two hours and half a bottle later that Natasha finally shows up, letting herself into the house on her own, and by that time Laura has progressed to the couch, trying to keep herself from fully crying.

“Laura,” Natasha says quietly, eyeing the stairs before walking over. The moment Natasha puts her hand on Laura’s arm, she feels herself crack.

“They can’t find him,” Laura says, even though she knows she’s telling Natasha information she’s already aware of. “They can’t...they don’t know where he is. He could be hurt, he could be --” She breaks down before she can finish and Natasha immediately moves, taking her in her arms.

“Laura...oh, Laura,” she murmurs, stroking her hair and kissing her forehead. “We’re going to find him, okay? I swear on my life, I will find him and I will bring him home.”

“But you don’t know if you can,” Laura says brokenly, her chest aching with the strain of trying to keep from all-out sobbing, grabbing onto Natasha as if her life depends on it. “No one knows if they can. What if you can’t get him back? The last time I saw him, Lila could barely speak. I forgot to tell him I loved him and that...that was the last time I saw him.”

Natasha pulls her forward again, running her hands through her hair. “I know,” she whispers. “I know, okay? I know you’re scared. I know.” She takes the wine bottle from where it’s been propped up against the couch pillow. “You’re going to see him again, I promise.”

Laura doesn’t know what’s worse -- the fact that for the first time, she feels that Natasha is promising something that she might not be able to follow through on, or the fact that she’s never felt so helpless, not even when Natasha had brought Clint into her home bleeding and half-dead.

“I promise,” Natasha repeats. “Listen to me, Laura. Believe me, I will make it my mission to save him. You know that. But I can’t go save him if you're like this. So I need you to pull yourself together, like you did before, because I know you can -- remember?”

Laura nods, staring at the floor, where she can almost see a phantom image of Clint’s broken body. Natasha kisses her gently.

“I need you to be here for your kids, okay? Stay by the phone, and I’ll send you as many updates as I can. But you need to do your part and take care of your family to get through this, so I can do my part and bring him home. Can you do that?”

Laura nods again, taking a shaky breath. “This isn’t the first time this is going to happen, is it?”

Natasha looks sad, and she shakes her head. “There will be things like this always, in our line of work,” she says softly. “But they also won’t always end badly.” She squeezes Laura’s hand encouragingly. “Bring me upstairs so I can say hi to the kids quickly, and I’ll make sure you’re okay before I leave, alright?” She brushes hair out of Laura’s face where it’s matted to wet cheeks, kissing her again.

“Thank you,” Laura says, trying to smile even though she still feels like she’s going to pass out, or throw up, or possibly do both at the same time. Natasha brings her in for another hug.

“You’re family. He’s my partner. And I love you.” She pauses. “Always remember that.”

***

When Clint finally returns home after the Battle of New York, it becomes the biggest test of Laura’s life.

It’s been almost three months in total since the kids have seen their dad, which is cause enough for Clint to feel overwhelmed. But mind control and other things that Laura only half knows the extent of add a new layer of emotion to Clint’s already fragile mental state, which, in Natasha’s absence, causes Laura to do a lot of explaining to the kids about why their father doesn’t want to play as many games as usual.

“Are you sure you don’t need to see someone?” Laura asks for what feels like the hundredth time, trying to keep her voice gentle and not accusatory. “Nat thinks it might help.”

“Who the hell am I gonna see?” Clint asks sarcastically. “Besides, I’m an Avenger now, remember? Fighting with Gods and people who had fucked up childhoods and who were frozen for seventy years...everyone has issues, and my problem is that I was told to kill a bunch of people and I can’t cope with it?”

“Clint, that’s…” Laura sighs, tempering her anger. “That’s not what I implied.”

“Sounds like it,” Clint says tonelessly, throwing his shirt into the hamper. He’s not chucking it hard enough, however, and the shot misses uncharacteristically, falling lazily to the floor. Laura watches from the bed as Clint’s face changes, his expression becoming dark, before he picks up the wicker box already heavy with clothes and slams it down hard onto the floor.

“Clint!” Laura says in alarm, shooting forward and catching his arm as he crashes it down a second time, with even more force. “Clint, stop it. You’re going to scare the kids.”

That seems to register, the words hitting in a way that seems to make his brain realize how he’s acting, and Clint’s body jerks once before he looks up, meeting Laura’s eyes.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, and she can almost see the rage leaving as quickly as it’s appeared. “Sorry...I’m sorry.”

Laura takes a long breath. “It’s okay,” she says on exhale, even though it’s really not. She steps forward cautiously. “You know where you are?”

“The farm,” Clint says quietly as Laura puts a hand on his face. She nods.

“Good.” She can’t count how many times she’s done this ritual since he’s come home, the amount of times they’ve both had to stop so she can physically remind him of where he is, who he is, and what he’s living for. Laura thinks it’ll get easier, though Natasha has warned her that it won’t, and every day that passes just proves that his partner is absolutely, terrifyingly right.

“You know who I am?”

Clint hesitates a little, as if he’s scared of saying the wrong answer. “Laura. My wife.”

“Good,” Laura repeats gently, her fingers running down his face, a gentle and soothing motion. “You know who Natasha is?”

“My partner,” Clint says, his breathing evening out.

“And do you know who you are?”

“Clint,” he says in a low voice, sinking to the floor in an undignified and sagging heap. Laura bends down and takes him into her arms, holding him tightly as he cries.

***

Laura calls Natasha, but Natasha chooses to stay away from the house, mostly out of her own volition.

“It’s not going to help me to be there,” she tells Laura. “He needs time away from me, and from everyone that was involved in this.”

“He’s scared of being with me,” Laura says. “Of being near the kids. I can tell.”

“He’s scared of me, too,” Natasha tells her. “But he’ll be okay.” Laura had, at that point, wondered just what Natasha’s definition of okay was, and it certainly didn’t help that Lila couldn’t stop asking about Auntie Nat, so much so that Laura had to eventually make up a song and dance about a long vacation to tide her over.

“Look, Laura. I want to be there. I do. But he’ll just hate that I have to see him this way around his family, when I’ve already seen him at his worst. If it gets really bad, call me, and I’ll come. But otherwise, plan on me being there in a few weeks, once he’s had some time to level out.” She pauses before continuing. “And tell Lila I’ll see her soon. I miss her.”

“You read my mind,” Laura says, before hanging up the phone and closing her eyes. Clint’s recovery has taken a lot out of her; she’s more exhausted than she’s been in a long time and Clint himself isn’t doing that much better. It’s a relief, at least, to know that he’s got an unprecedented amount of time off in the wake of everything that’s happened, no one hounding him or forcing him to go back to work before he was cleared both physically and mentally by Laura, Natasha and several doctors of varying specialties. Laura cracks open one eye and finds him already passed out in the bed, then forces herself to at least get changed, pulling the blankets over his body before crawling in next to him and slinging an arm around his waist. It’s hit or miss lately whether Clint will want the affection or not but the past few nights have found him cuddling more than usual, and Laura’s not about to knock that change.

She wakes up a few hours later to sounds from the bathroom that unnerve her, and blinks a few times in confusion before sitting up and noticing the space next to her is both empty and cold. Laura frowns against the anxiety she feels taking up residence in her stomach and swings off the covers, not bothering to knock before she opens the door. Clint’s bent over the toilet bowl, fingers white around the rim as he throws up.

“Clint,” Laura says sharply, dropping to her knees and putting her hands on his head, carding her fingers through his hair. “Hey, hey...Clint…I’m here. It’s okay.”

It’s not okay, and Laura knows it -- his body is shaking too much for this to simply be a spell of food poisoning or sickness -- but she also knows the more she can try to soothe him, the better chance he has of calming down.

“I can’t….I can’t get him out,” Clint gasps into the toilet, his chest heaving and Laura moves closer, putting her hand gently under his ribcage, fingers pressing through the thin t-shirt and over jagged surgical scars.

“Come on,” she soothes, placing her head against his back, continuing to rub his head. “You’re safe, I promise. I’m right here.”

It’s a thinly veiled attempt at comfort, Laura knows, but she’s not sure what else she can do, or how long it’ll take him to come out of his stupor. He leans over to throw up once more before she feels him start to breathe easier, his chest no longer seizing in panic, though his body's still trembling too heavily.

“Don’t call Natasha,” he says, first quietly, then more frantically. “Don’t call Natasha.”

“Okay,” Laura says softly, continuing to stroke his hair. “I won’t call Natasha. I promise. Okay?”

He nods, and for the first time, Laura notices his eyes are rimmed with red. It’s an image that hurts her heart and she wants nothing more than to take him into her arms, to try to shield him from the monsters of his mind the best way she knows how, but she knows that before she does anything else, she has to clean him up.

Laura helps him off the floor and lets him wash his mouth out before walking him back across the hall, where he sits back down on the bed. She removes his shirt, soaked with sweat and stray flecks of vomit, throwing it onto the floor before getting up to grab another from the dresser.

“Mommy?”

Laura curses under her breath at the tiny voice that trickles through the door, getting up and opening it slowly enough so that Clint can still be hidden behind her body.

“Hey, baby.” Lila’s standing in front of her holding Cooper’s stuffed rabbit, long messy hair trailing down her shoulders in rumpled waves. “What are you doing up?”

“Had a bad dream,” Lila says slowly, her lower lip trembling as it shoves itself into a pout. “I wan' Auntie Nat.”

Laura lets out a slow breath, bending down. “Auntie Nat doesn’t live here, remember?” She strokes Lila’s hair and her daughter hugs the stuffed animal more tightly.

“Can I have daddy?”

Best laid plans, Laura thinks grimly. “Daddy had a bad dream, too. But he’s okay. Go back to bed, honey.”

Lila looks sad, her face dropping at her mother’s words. “Can I hug daddy?”

Laura hesitates. She wants to say yes, because Clint’s been noticeably drawn back when it’s come to the children and while Cooper hadn’t paid too much attention, busy with baseball and school and friends, Lila had taken more notice of that fact. On the other hand, Laura’s also not about to let her two-year-old see her father in his current state.

“Go back to bed and daddy will come kiss you goodnight,” she decides after a moment, ushering Lila out of the room and back across the hall to the room she shares with Cooper. Miraculously, her brother’s still asleep, and Laura manages to tuck Lila back into bed with little issue.

“Sorry,” she apologizes when she returns to the bedroom. “Kid duty.” Clint doesn’t answer, but looks up at Laura before she sits down on the bed, taking his hand. “You feel any better?”

“Not really,” Clint says hoarsely, as if he’s lost his voice entirely, and Laura feels her throat tighten.

“It was a nightmare,” she says. “But you’re okay, now. Do you remember where you are?”

“The farm,” Clint says raggedly. “I know where I am, Laura.”

Laura resists the urge to respond with something equally as blunt, choosing to run her thumb over the back of his palm, fighting the tremors that emerge every time she brushes over the braised skin from his IV, the short hospital stay that SHIELD had forced him to undergo before he came home.

“I told Lila that you’d come kiss her goodnight,” Laura says quietly. “Can you do that?” She watches his face, unsure of whether he’s going to reject her completely or make up another excuse to get out of touching his own kids, but after another moment of silence he nods, standing up slowly.

Laura waits until he’s left the room before she follows, giving him a chance to trust that she’s not going to track his every move out of worry that he’ll fall apart. After five minutes, she walks across the hall and stops just short of Lila and Cooper’s bedroom, peering inside.

Clint’s sitting on Lila’s bed, hunched over and talking quietly, moving his hand every so often across her face. After roughly a minute, two small arms shoot up and grab Clint around the neck, pulling him down. When Clint finally emerges from the room, closing the door quietly behind him, Laura can tell he’s trying to keep his emotions under control.

“I love you,” Laura says as she steers him back to their bed, because she needs him to know that it’s true, that she has loved him and will continue to love him, despite the monsters and the nightmares. “Natasha loves you. Lila loves you. Cooper loves you.”

Clint puts his head on her shoulder and Laura puts an arm around his waist. They stay in that position, locked into each other and holding each other’s bodies, until dawn starts to break, shining a gentle, new day onto their skin.

***

Laura’s in the front yard, pulling up weeds with her bare hands while Clint reads with Cooper and Lila on the front porch, when Lila suddenly lets out a loud yell, dashing down the front steps and across the front lawn.

“Auntie Nat!”

Laura looks up in surprise, shielding her eyes against the heavy sun as Natasha comes into view, her slow gait becoming even more sluggish as Lila more or less attaches herself to her leg. Casting a glance to Clint who hasn’t yet moved from his spot on the porch, Laura gets up and meets Natasha halfway towards the house.

“I wish I got that kind of welcome when I came home,” Laura says, unable to curb the smile she feels spreading across her face. Natasha smiles back, stepping forward as much as she can so that she can hug Laura, wrapping her arms around her waist. Laura breathes in deeply as Natasha dips her head over Laura’s shoulder; she smells like sweat and travel and day-old cold medicine but underneath all of that, she still smells unmistakably like Natasha, and it makes Laura’s heart thrum steadily.

“Should I take it you missed me?” Natasha asks slyly as Laura pulls away.

“It’s been awhile,” she agrees, staring at the other girl’s face. In truth, it’s only been about two months since Clint had started to advance in his recovery, but Natasha had been away for at least a month longer. And while she doesn’t necessarily look older (because Laura thinks she could never look a day over thirty, despite her true age), there’s a distinct weariness to her posture and her face that projects a sensation of being tired at what the world has put on her shoulders. Her hair has grown, and it’s the longest Laura has ever seen it, almost to her shoulders, as if she’s neglected to cut it for one reason or another.

Natasha puts her bag on the ground and then leans over, picking up Lila from where she’s still holding onto her leg, and the little girl lets out a delighted shriek.

“You know who I missed the most? You, princess.” Natasha gives her a kiss and Lila throws her hands around her neck as they start to walk to the house. When they get close enough, Clint gets up, putting his book down and patting Cooper’s knee.

“Hi,” Natasha says carefully, eyeing Cooper before looking at Clint. Laura watches both of them talk without really talking at all, trading eyebrow raises and expressions that seem to say more than what Laura figures is already being discussed.

“Hey, Lila, Cooper...you want to help me bring Auntie Nat’s stuff inside?”

Lila immediately nods as Natasha puts her down, Cooper following his sister inside. Laura lingers for a moment longer, watching both her husband and his partner before walking inside and joining her kids. When she comes back roughly twenty minutes later, having settled both children with cookies and television in a rare display of relenting to their requests, Natasha and Clint are sitting side by side in silence, their hands interlocked tightly between them, Natasha’s head sliding comfortably onto his shoulder.

Laura pauses at the doorway before joining, settling herself into Clint’s side, pulling up her dress and pressing her bare legs against his jeans. “Are you okay?” Laura asks, almost scared to hear the response. Clint’s episodes have been abating, but Laura knows that he’ll probably never entirely heal, and that the full road to recovery is longer than either of them are probably aware of.

“Yeah,” Clint says after a moment, reaching for Laura with his other hand. He looks at her, then back at Natasha, and then back at Laura again. “I think so. For now.”

“It’s good to be back,” Natasha adds and Laura doesn’t have to ask what she means. Clint’s never really left, but she’s missed him being him -- the guy who laughed at his own stupid jokes as well as her own, who complained about his coffee being too cold, who threatened his children with eating vegetables forever if they didn’t do their chores. Laura knows not to ask more and so she doesn’t, instead leaning back as Clint blows air out of his body, as if he’s releasing all the built-up tension from the past few months in one exhale. His face looks brighter and his eyes look less clouded, a slow and steady emergence of a return to his own self as the weight that he carries becomes a little lighter with every passing day. Natasha was the last piece of that equation, Laura knew, now that Clint had gotten through the worst of his healing, and the relief at knowing they can all start to move forward together is a realization that makes Laura want to cry.

“I’m definitely sleeping with you two tonight,” Natasha says after a moment and Clint bows his head forward, chuckling under his breath.

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

“Me, too,” Laura says. The breeze picks up slightly, sending a rush of wind across the tall grass, and Laura closes her eyes against the scene -- her children playing inside, Clint and Natasha next to her, and the farm singing its lonesome, solitary tune of home.

 

2013

Spring comes to the farm in a year that Laura feels is already moving too fast, though in reality, she’s wanted winter to end for months. The weather has been worse than usual, and while it’s made for picturesque memories of days in the snow with Clint helping Lila build snowmen -- and on Laura’s end, couch cuddles and hot tea when she could manage it with both him and Natasha -- she’s admittedly glad when the calendar in the kitchen finally flips to April.

“You know, it can still snow in April,” Natasha says. She’s lazily dragging a blue crayon across a piece of paper while Lila colors her own picture in the next room.

“I don’t care,” Laura says firmly. “I’m ready to be outside without ten layers of clothing.”

Natasha shrugs, coloring in a lopsided star. “You’d hate Siberia, then. Clint hates it, but you’d hate it more. The temperatures barely get above negative twenty-five in the winter.”

“Ugh.” Laura makes a face, picking up an apple. “You’re right. I would hate it. Do me a favor, and if you ever invite me to meet you at one of your exotic SHIELD-issued locations, make it a beach in Mexico or somewhere that has eighty-degree heat and margaritas.”

“Margaritas, huh?” Natasha’s face breaks into a grin. “Feeling the lack of alcohol already?”

“Only a little bit,” Laura admits, matching her smile. It had been two months since Laura had found out she was pregnant again, though this time, the decision hadn’t actually been planned. And while Laura wasn’t sure if she was ready for another child with Lila still considerably young, she wasn’t going to feel bad about the fact that Clint’s recovery from New York meant that they could start re-exploring their sex life.

“You know, thanks to aliens and Gods and monsters, we never got that threesome your husband promised,” Natasha says casually, her smile turning into a full smirk. “We should get on that one of these days.”

“We should,” Laura echoes and Natasha moves her shoulders in a way that makes Laura’s stomach flip back and forth. She lets her eyes linger, suddenly lost in imagining the other girl's muscles contracting under her shirt, the way she might look when arching into her husband as they made love. She shakes herself out of her thoughts, reminding herself that her daughter is still very much in earshot of their conversation.

“Laura,” Natasha says in a slight singsong, catching her eye. If you’re thinking of me naked right now, I’ll do you one better. Laura takes a breath, settling her stomach.

“Later,” is all she says, and Natasha smiles again as she goes back to her drawing, though Laura notices she presses down a little harder on the crayon when she tugs it across the page, allowing it to leave dark blue smears in its wake.

***

In the wake of New York, there isn’t much for Clint to do as an Avenger, which affords both him and Natasha more time at home than usual. He’s still needed every so often in New York, mostly for routine missions that take a few days of his time, but Natasha often chooses to stay at the house since, in her words, “it’s not really a job for Strike Team Delta,” which Laura learns is what SHIELD has taken to calling their best team.

It’s late May when Laura’s life goes to hell; she’s just finished going over Cooper’s homework, having sent him upstairs, when she feels the first bout of pain sear her insides, as if someone has taken a knife to her uterus.

The feeling takes her by surprise and she nearly doubles over as the stabbing sensation continues, grabbing the kitchen table to keep from passing out while she breathes through pain worse than she’s felt in a long time.

“Mommy?”

Laura manages to turn her head in the direction of her daughter’s voice, gritting her teeth against another wave of discomfort that vibrates through her body.

“Hey, baby…” She attempts to keep her voice as light as possible, though she’s aware of how she probably looks, and knows that it can’t be a good sight. “I need you to do me a favor. Can you do me a favor?”

Lila nods, moving to stand in front of Laura, holding out small hands.

“Good.” Laura swallows down nausea. “Auntie Nat is in the shower. I need you to go upstairs and knock on the door and tell her that mommy needs her help right now. Can you do that for me?”

Lila nods again and backs away, taking off towards the stairs, and Laura closes her eyes against the agony that threatens to overwhelm her. She knows what’s happening, though she also knows she’s going to refuse to believe it until she actually has confirmation and right now, all she can focus on is the blinding pain.

“Laura….Laura!” Natasha’s voice sounds far away and then all of a sudden closer, and although her eyes are still closed, Laura can feel two hands gently patting her stomach. Something warm runs down her leg and she hears Natasha curse under her breath, has a fleeting moment of fear when she realizes that Lila’s probably somewhere close by when another wave of pain hits, this one bad enough that she feels her vision start to darken.

Natasha curses again, this time a little more loudly, and Laura distinctly hears the sound of crying in the background. She has half a moment to wonder how the hell she’s going to explain this whole situation to a three-year-old before another successive wave of pain rolls through her insides, and her entire world goes dark without warning.

***

Laura wakes up slowly, her head heavy and her back propped up uncomfortably in what she instantly knows is not her bed, but the more she blinks herself awake the more she realizes that there’s also no pain that she’s instantly aware of, something that she’s immediately thankful for.

“Laura?”

The voice is hesitant, soft, slightly cracked and different than the tone she had last heard in the kitchen. She allows the room to come into focus, Clint’s head aligned with her own, his hand squeezing hers gently, and Laura suddenly feels confused and vulnerable all at once.

“When did you get here?”

“About an hour ago,” Clint says, pushing hair away from her forehead. “How are you feeling?”

Laura swallows down the bitter taste of bile against a mouth that feels like it’s full of cotton. “Like someone beat me up and then tried to stab me multiple times,” she manages, trying to turn over. Clint instantly moves his hand, steadying her.

“Do you know what happened?”

Laura nods, trying to keep her emotions from spilling over. “Yes. But I want to hear it.” She watches Clint’s face as he takes in her words, the lines on his forehead becoming deeper and deeper with every passing second.

“You had a miscarriage,” he says slowly and even though Laura knows -- she’s known from the moment she felt the first stab of pain back at the house -- she finds that she can’t help the tears that slip down her cheeks. Clint sits on the bed and leans over, kissing her gently.

“It wasn’t anything you did. Or anything that we did. The doctor said it was just something that happens sometimes...it can happen to anyone, no matter how many successful pregnancies someone has had.” He pauses, and Laura thinks that maybe she should try to fill the silence with some of her own words, but she can’t quite figure out how to talk.

“Your parents are outside.”

Laura shakes her head. “I don’t want them,” she says, finally finding her voice and pushing it into firmness despite the fact she can practically feel herself falling apart. “I want you. I want Nat.”

“Nat’s with the kids,” Clint says gently. “And we can go home to her as soon as you get checked out...they want to keep you for a few hours, for observation.”

“Then tell my parents to go home,” Laura says miserably, half-wondering why she feels so upset. They hadn’t even talked about what they would name the child that had come out of one drunken night in the dead of winter. Clint sighs.

“You gotta see them,” he says quietly. “Just for a second. They’ll kill me if they think I’m trying to keep you away. I mean, your father will literally take me outside and shoot me in the parking lot with the gun that he keeps in his truck.”

Laura tries to smile, despite the fact she knows that the words are pretty much true, but finds she can’t do more than lift part of her mouth half-heartedly. Clint strokes back her hair again.

“Just see them for a minute. I’ll stand in the corner. I’ll be right here, I promise. And then I’ll stay with you, okay? I’m not going to leave.”

She nods, suddenly too tired to keep arguing. What she really wants to do is sleep for possibly a dozen years and pretend that this whole thing is some sort of too-real nightmare, but that’s the problem -- it’s all too real for comfort, and she knows it’s not going to fade like most dreams do when you wake up.

Clint kisses her softly and then gets up, opening the door. Four seconds later, Laura’s parents are bending over her bed, practically smothering her with affection and words, and she tries to tune them out as much as possible, focusing on Clint who’s moved so that he’s standing just within her vision, near the window that seems to allow too much light into the room.

***

In the weeks that follow Laura’s miscarriage, Clint starts to wonder if this is what his wife felt when she had to deal with him after New York.

Granted, the situation is slightly different. Whereas Clint knows his recovery had been rooted in volatile and depressive behavior similar to the post traumatic stress he had first suffered when he returned from the military, Laura’s aftermath is simply rooted in depression and a languid, listless demeanor that causes her to spend too much time in bed. It also causes her to break down at various moments for no reason -- all of which allows Clint to witness her crying more in the span of two months than he has in the entire time that he’s known her.

“Hey, you want something to eat?” he asks when he walks outside where she’s been curled up on the porch, mostly because Clint has mandated if she’s going to sit around and do nothing, she should at least do it someplace other than their musty bedroom. Laura shakes her head and Clint frowns.

“Seriously? Nat’s making her famous meatloaf.”

“I’m not hungry,” Laura responds, bringing her chin up to her knees and Clint sighs, joining her on the front steps.

“You gotta try to eat something,” he encourages, putting his hand on her leg. “You haven’t eaten real food in almost a week.” Laura doesn’t answer, and he puts his arm around her shoulder, curling his hand around her skin.

“You wanna talk about it?”

Clint knows that she doesn’t, and hasn’t wanted to since she came home from the hospital. But he’s not going to stop asking, figuring at this point the worst that can happen is that she snaps and tells him to get the hell out of his own house.

“No,” Laura says, her voice a flat monotone. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She puts her chin back down on her knees and Clint closes his eyes, getting up and walking back into the house.

“How is she?” Natasha asks as she reaches for a mixing bowl. Clint sags against the table.

“Same as always. Won’t eat, won’t even act interested in doing anything but mope around.” He runs a hand through his hair. “At least I was vocal about my feelings when I went through shit, even if there was nothing she could do about it...I don’t know what else to do for her.”

Natasha continues measuring out a spoonful of salt, quiet for what Clint thinks is far too long before she turns around, leaning back against the counter.

“Maybe we should have that threesome we keep talking about.”

Clint rocks to his feet. “Are you serious?” he exclaims in a voice that he knows is leagues different from how he probably would have sounded a few months ago. Natasha shrugs, turning back to her cooking.

“Why not?”

Clint glares. “She just lost a baby, you think she wants to have sex right now? Do you know how that’s going to feel, doing something intimate that reminds her of what she lost?”

“Look, it was just a suggestion,” Natasha says, her voice becoming hard. “She’s lonely and scared, and there’s nothing either of us can do to make it okay. I felt the same way when I first came out of my conditioning, and I realized that it helped to feel intimate again. It broke down that barrier nothing else could touch.”

“So sex is the answer to feeling like emotional shit?” Clint challenges. “Is this some sort of screwed up Red Room fix?”

“It’s a life fix,” Natasha snaps. “Just because my experiences were different doesn’t mean that they were all bad. Look at her, Clint. She hasn’t improved her mood for weeks. You’re not going to at least give this a try and risk her continuing to mope around, while her kids worry?”

Clint grinds his teeth together, because Natasha has a point -- several points, technically -- and Clint can’t find one valid reason to refute them.

“Fine,” he says, throwing up his hands. “But it’s your idea, so you’re bringing it up. And you better pick a time to do it when the kids won’t wake up.”

“Clint, your kids sleep like bricks,” Natasha says, rolling her eyes. “Well, Cooper does, at least. Jury’s still out on Lila. Either way, they definitely got the Barton talent of being able to sleep through a hurricane.”

“Glad that’s my one defining memory of our time together in Puerto Rico,” Clint says and Natasha snorts.

“It was a goddamn hurricane, the door came off on the safe house we were staying at, and you didn’t even wake up.”

He swats at her face as she goes back to her cooking, but there’s a smile she can’t seem to hide, and Clint thinks if he can get at least one of the women in his life to show some sort of happiness, he can consider the day a win.

***

Two nights later, as they’re getting ready for bed, Laura approaches Clint in the bathroom, clearing her throat quietly.

“What’s up?” Clint asks, spitting a mouthful of toothpaste into the sink. It kills him how much Laura’s miscarriage had rattled almost everything about her, including the fact that she seemed more timid than usual when it came to asking for help or asking for anything intimate.

“Natasha told me about the threesome,” she says softly, and Clint lets out a long breath, reaching for a hand towel.

“Okay,” he says carefully, running the cloth over his mouth before straightening up. He stares at her, scrutinizing her face.

“I want to do it.”

Clint continues to stare, nodding slowly. “You sure?”

Laura looks slightly hesitant, but nods firmly. “Yes,” she says, with more conviction than Clint has heard her convey in weeks. “It’s my decision, and I want to do it. Tonight.”

Clint opens his mouth and closes it, steadying his breathing. “Okay,” he allows, because as much as he’s still unsure if this is the right thing to do, if Laura is the one coming to the decision of her own accord, he’s not going to say no. “But we’re waiting until the kids are totally asleep. As in, they go to bed, and we wait at least three hours.”

Laura nods, smiling tightly, and then closes the door to the bathroom before grabbing her own toothbrush. Some hours later, while they’re both reading in bed, Natasha opens the door to their room, flooding light from the hallway onto their floor. Clint moves to turn on the lamp as she closes the door again, but Natasha shakes her head.

“We can do this in the dark,” she says, stripping methodically -- she’s out of her clothes before Clint has even gotten out of bed. “Just get undressed.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Clint sheds his pajamas, leaving them in a heap on the floor, and Natasha nods curtly.

“Back in the bed,” she instructs, pointing to where Laura has vacated her usual side, following suit with her own clothing. Clint suddenly realizes for all his one night stands and fantasies of what a threesome with his wife and partner would look like, he has no idea how to actually go about having one successfully. Fortunately, he has a feeling that Natasha is completely schooled in the art of having sex with more than one person, no matter the gender.

Laura gets back into bed while Clint situates himself in his usual middle spot, and Natasha surveys both of them with a smile that seems to grow until it can’t get any bigger. Clint feels himself start to grow impatient.

“Are you gonna stand there all day like a cat who just ate the canary, or are we going to do this before the next century?” Clint asks moodily, and at his words Natasha finally moves, getting into bed and pulling the covers over them. Out of instinct, Clint turns to Natasha’s side, when she puts a hand on his chest.

He’s about to ask what the hell she’s doing when all the words fly out of his mouth, his lips closing in the shape of an “o” as Natasha reaches down with her other hand and starts pulling at his dick. It only takes a few practiced movements to coax him into hardness, and he’s about to ask what Laura’s doing when he realizes that there are two hands jerking him off, one at the lower juncture of his cock that moves in rough up-and-down strokes, and one massaging its head. And Natasha’s other hand is still where he can see it, palm flat against his chest.

He’s got no idea if Laura knows what she’s doing or if she’s just taking the hint and getting in on the action because she can, but he finds that he doesn’t care, arching into the covers as both women continue their hand job. Clint sinks into the pillow, biting down on a moan, suddenly anxious to get his own hands inside Laura and Natasha’s bodies.

He reaches out blindly, fingers meeting Natasha’s breasts, and he hears her gasp in what he recognizes is both surprise and pleasure before he slides a hand down further, fingering her clit. Foreplay be damned, he’s too impatient to make this anything but hasty -- it’s been too long for all of them, and this particular moment has had too much build-up for Clint to justify them taking their time -- but he also realizes that he’s out of practice when it comes to letting his brain get ahead of his body.

“Stop,” he gasps out quietly as Laura’s lips find his ear, and the hands on his cock still. “Shit,” he curses, then. “I mean, don’t stop, I just...don’t wanna come before you both do.”

“Oh.” Natasha sounds a little thoughtful, as if she hasn’t realized he wants to be that respectful. “Okay, then.” She nudges him until he turns over and is lying on his back, and then Laura scoots closer, licking a spot on his neck that Clint knows is the most sensitive.

“Make me come, Clint,” she breathes in a voice that’s somewhere between desperate and fearful, tinged with an exhilaration that Clint hasn’t heard in far too long. The emotion of her voice drives him to roll over again, this time in her direction, giving him better leverage to rub his fingers against her folds while Natasha starts to kiss down his back, trailing a path down his spine with her tongue, a sensation that makes Clint want to orgasm right then and there.

Clint cranes his head to the side and Natasha meets his lips, kissing him deep and rough and hard, their movements every bit as confident and practiced as they’re used to when they’re on their own. He rubs harder at Laura’s cunt while feeling his orgasm, which had been simmering, start to grow again.

He hears Laura gasp and can’t quite tell if she’s come or not but soon realizes it doesn’t matter, because he’s too close to his own orgasm to care. Natasha has broken the kiss, her hands having moved back to his dick, and then Laura’s hand is resting on top of Natasha’s fingers, sliding over his cock, both of them working together to bring him off. He comes easily, quietly, stilling his movements as he feels himself ejaculate over both of their hands and also the covers, in such a way that he instantly knows there's definitely going to be a trip to the dry cleaners in the morning.

Clint falls back onto the mattress, breathing hard, trying to suck oxygen back into his starved lungs when he realizes that he’s nowhere close to done -- he may have satisfied himself but Laura and Natasha are still working on each other, reaching over him while pressing themselves to the sides of his body. Laura arches into him again while Natasha’s body goes rigid and Clint lets them sandwich him as they ride out each other’s orgasm, three bodies fusing together, each one trying to find their piece of home in a place that they already know.

***

Clint wakes up with the sun streaming brightly through the open window, feeling warm and comforted in a way that makes his whole body feel like it’s on fire, a way that he only knows comes from when he’s had sex with either Natasha or Laura. He rolls over groggily, the sticky bed sheets sending a stark reminder of the activities from the previous night through his brain like he’s been electrocuted, and he smiles to himself before remembering the reason why they had actually done this.

The bed is entirely empty and the house is mostly quiet, and when Clint sits up more fully he realizes it’s almost ten, and that both Laura and Natasha have likely been up for hours. He groans as he pulls himself out of bed, allowing a quick shower to clean himself up before slipping on jeans and a flannel shirt, making his way downstairs.

Laura’s sitting at the kitchen table while Natasha eats a piece of toast, one hand resting on the other girl's leg. Clint can vaguely hear the sounds of Lila yelling through the open window, as good an indication as any that the kids are playing outside, and when Laura looks up and meets his eyes, she smiles slowly.

It’s the first time Clint thinks he’s seen her genuinely smile in weeks.

“I think the last time you slept this late was when we came back from Kuwait and you got dosed with that sleeping drug,” Natasha remarks as Clint walks over to Laura, kissing her gently.

“Coffee,” he says wearily, sinking into the kitchen chair. “Hi, Nat.”

“Good morning to you, too,” Natasha says, getting up and kissing him. “Sleep well?”

“Define ‘well’,” Clint mutters, and Natasha smiles as she heads to the counter.

“Do I need to?”

“Maybe the sex was bad,” Laura says, feigning a disappointed look, and Natasha nods while putting a coffee cup on the table.

“Definitely bad,” she agrees. “Apparently, I’m only good when we’re trapped in a bomb shelter in Kosovo.”

“You came three times last night!” Clint says indignantly, gesturing at Natasha, before turning to Laura. “And you came at least twice!”

“He’s so defensive without caffeine,” Natasha says, raising an eyebrow as Laura leans over to kiss his hand. Clint groans and puts his head down on the table.

“I hate you both.”

“You love us,” Natasha says, kissing the back of his neck. “Especially after last night.”

Clint sits up again and catches Laura’s eyes, realizing with a start that he could have threesomes for the rest of his life if it meant that he got to see his wife this happy after months of depression.

“Do I at least get breakfast?” he asks, pushing back his chair. Laura lets out a laugh, getting up with him.

“Clint, you can have whatever you want.” She takes him in her arms and kisses him deeply, her eyes filled with gratitude and love.

 

2014

The start of the year brings a different kind of shift to Natasha and Clint’s work relationship, as Natasha spends most of the first few months in Washington partnering up with Steve Rogers due to work that, Fury tells him, are things “more suited to a spy than a soldier.”

The prospect of not working with Natasha on a regular basis throws him at first, enough so that he becomes moody and so that Laura eventually has to smack him out of it, but eventually, he becomes settled with the situation, especially when he becomes aware of just how much time it allows him at home.

“I think I want to try again,” Laura says one day while they’re folding laundry. It takes Clint a moment to realize what she’s talking about, and when he does, he puts down the underwear he’s been clutching.

“Really?”

Laura nods slowly, swallowing hard. “Yes,” she says quietly, and Clint chews on his bottom lip while Laura falls silent. It’s technically been less than a year since her miscarriage but it hadn’t stopped either of them from mutually knowing that they needed and wanted to have another child, despite the fact that Clint knew the prospect had to freak her out more than she would admit to.

“Look, I mean, I’m not gonna say no, you know that,” he says finally, picking up his underwear again. “But, I mean...are you sure you’re okay?”

Laura shakes her head. “I’m never going to be okay,” she says and Clint knows instantly that it’s true. Like Loki, like New York, Laura’s miscarriage was a part of her that she would always carry, a memory that would always rear its ugly head even when she was technically fine. “But the doctor said there’s no reason why we can’t try again, and also no reason why we can’t be successful. Lots of women have successful pregnancies after things like this happen.”

Clint nods. “Yeah, I know,” he says. “I read the stuff. I just…” He looks down, taking a breath, realizing how long it’s taken for both of them to settle back into a place where they’re both finally content. “Just be sure.”

“I am,” Laura says quietly. “If you are.” She reaches for his hand, and he smiles.

***

The day SHIELD falls, Clint is sitting on the couch eating a slice of leftover pizza and trying not to drop it all over the couch or himself while Cooper and Lila read together. Laura is shopping for food and Clint sees his phone light up from across the room but elects not to answer it; when he ignores it and the house phone starts to ring incessantly instead, he finally gives up and hauls himself off the couch, biting off a chunk of pepperoni and not bothering to fully swallow.

“‘Lo.”

“Clint.” Natasha’s voice sounds strained, like she’s out of breath, and the uncharacteristic tone immediately causes his guard to go up. 

“Nat?” He turns away so that he’s not facing the kids, and lowers his head, the pizza slipping to the ground and falling onto the floor. “Fuck -- no, I mean, that’s the pizza -- what’s wrong? Why --”

“SHIELD is gone,” she says and Clint thinks for a moment that he’s maybe passed out and not realized it, because her words don’t exactly make sense.

What?”

“I told you. SHIELD’s gone. It’s all Hydra. Fury’s dead, but not really...I’ll explain the whole thing when I get to the farm. I’ll call you when I can.”

“Nat --” The line goes dead before he can finish, the dial tone whining in his ear like an overpowering drone, and he hangs up the phone in a daze while trying to reconcile her words.

“Daddy, was that Auntie Nat?”

Lila’s looking up at her father with expectant eyes and Clint shakes his head, forcing himself out of his stupor.

“Yep, it was,” he says, trying to make his voice sound overly cheerful. “Guess what? She just got done with work and she’s coming to visit soon.”

Lila’s face lights up as if someone has given her a gift. She hugs Clint around the waist before returning to her book, snuggling up against her brother, who, judging by the look he gives her, Clint knows has reached the patented phase of sibling love that included “I’ll pretend I don’t want you around but secretly I love you.” Clint cleans up his fallen pizza and returns to his own book but finds he can barely concentrate, staring out the window while his mind fixates on the things Natasha had said that seemed to make no sense. SHIELD, gone. Fury dead, but not really. Hydra -- well, the only thing Clint knew about Hydra was that they were the guys Captain America fought in World War II. He’s so lost in thought he barely hears Laura return.

“Hey,” she says, sitting down next to him after kissing both kids. “That book’s really good, right?”

Clint turns to her, focusing on the way her eyebrow raises, and he knows he can’t hide his thoughts, not that he was planning to. Still, there were things his kids did and didn’t need to know about his outside life.

“I’ll help you unpack the food,” he says with a small nod as he walks into the kitchen and Laura follows, bringing two large bags to the table, taking out the contents.

“Nat called,” Clint says, keeping his voice low. “Something’s wrong.”

“Something -- what do you mean?” Laura asks, her face paling, and Clint reaches for her arm.

“She’s fine. I mean, she’s okay. I think. But...I don’t know, I need the full story. Something about how SHIELD fell, Fury…” He doesn’t want to tell Laura that part, because he’s still not sure what “dead, but not really” means in Natasha’s terminology. Laura makes a noise in the back of her throat.

“I didn’t see anything on the news,” she says hoarsely, and Clint shakes his head.

“Global catastrophe notwithstanding, this wouldn’t be on the news,” Clint says. “Also, she said she’s coming home. I guess we’ll find out everything when she gets here.”

Laura nods, taking out a box of cereal. “Clint,” she says quietly. “If SHIELD really did fall…”

“I know,” Clint interrupts, not wanting to think about what seems impossible. “Look, we can’t do anything. We know she’s safe, and hopefully everyone else is, too. And we’ll know more soon.”

Laura nods, her fingers massaging a packet of string cheese. “At least there’s that,” she says quietly, but Clint can tell she’s still shaken by the thought of Natasha possibly not being okay. He snakes an arm around his shoulder.

“Hey,” he says, nodding towards her middle. “Don’t think about that. Think about things that make you happy.”

Laura places her hand over her stomach, taking a deep breath. Clint manages a smile, because now that they had actually talked about it and laid the cards out on the table, committing themselves to the idea, the prospect of trying for another baby was something he hadn't realized he was actually excited for.

“I am.”

“Good.” He kisses her cheek, putting one palm over hers. “He’s gonna be an archer, you know.”

“He.” Laura raises an eyebrow. “What, are you psychic now?”

“Nope, just a feeling,” he says lightly. “Why, you think we're going to have a girl?”

“I absolutely think we're going to have a girl,” Laura says, staring into the living room. “And you’re going to owe me about ten backrubs when you’re wrong.”

Clint smirks. “We’ll see,” he says, kissing her again, attempting to keep his brain off the very real fact that the world as he knows it might have changed more than he’s ready for.

***

Natasha arrives at the house five days after her phone call, coming in at three in the morning, and the only reason Clint even hears her is because he’s suspected she’ll arrive at an off hour and has been more than vigilant than usual. 

“Jesus Christ,” Natasha hisses when he meets her at the bottom of the stairs, rumpled hair and shirt open and five o’clock stubble prominent over his chin. “Will you go back to bed? You’re going to wake up Laura.”

“Too late,” Laura says with a yawn, making her way down the stairs behind Clint. “She’s already up.” She walks over and hugs Natasha tightly and even in the dark, Clint can see the tension draining out of her, the worry she’s been carrying around. “See what you do to us when you’re not here?”

Natasha shakes her head, a tight smile appearing over her face. “I wish that wasn’t the case,” she says, putting her overnight bag on the floor and then eyeing the couch. “I have too much to fill you in on.”

“Great,” Clint mutters. “I’ll make the coffee, then.” He hits the button on the machine and fumbles around in the kitchen while Laura and Natasha talk quietly under the guise of the darkened room.

“What’s this about SHIELD falling?” Clint asks when he walks back into the living room, handing Natasha a mug. She rubs her thumb against the side, looking forlorn.

“You know Hydra?”

“I know about Hydra,” Clint says. “But I don’t really know Hydra.” Natasha sighs.

“Well, apparently, Hydra’s still around. Their group was never really destroyed when Steve took down Red Skull back in the 40’s. They’ve been infiltrating SHIELD for the past fifty years, using a cryogenic assassin, among other things, and thanks to those insight carriers that Fury was supposed to launch, everything finally went to hell.” She pauses. “They tried to kill Fury. They did kill Fury, but Hill figured out a plan to help fake his death.”

Clint stares at her, his head spinning. “What the hell,” he mutters, clutching his coffee tighter, while Laura looks confused.

“I don’t understand what any of this means,” she says when she finally speaks up. Natasha shakes her head, taking a drink.

“It means that there are very few people right now who we can trust. There are very few people I trust right now, except for both of you,” she says. “Also, I guess we don’t really have jobs anymore. Well, we’re still Avengers. But there’s no more SHIELD as it exists as an organization. There’s only the few people that stand for its ideals and right now, they’re scattered everywhere. Everyone else…STRIKE team, personnel, World Security Council...” She waves her hand around. “Hydra.”

“Fuck,” Clint mutters. “Jesus, fuck, this is insane.” Laura shoots him a look, which he chooses to ignore.

“I came back here as soon as I could, and I plan to lie low for a bit while things shake themselves out,” she says, her voice careful, as if she’s trying to hide something. Clint can tell that she is, but he knows it’s not the right time to ask. “How are the kids?”

“Fine,” Clint says tiredly, drinking his coffee. “They’ll be ecstatic when they wake up and find you here. They thought you weren’t coming until next month.”

“I like to be the element of surprise,” Natasha says with a small smirk, getting up off the couch and putting her cup on the coffee table. She stretches her arms, wincing as she does so, and Clint narrows his eyes.

“What happened?”

“Nothing,” Natasha replies resolutely, casting her eyes downward. “I swear.”

“Bullshit,” Clint says as Laura puts her hands on Natasha’s chest, pulling back her loose tee-shirt to reveal a mass of scarred flesh on her shoulder from what Clint can tell is a very recent and very serious bullet wound.

“Natasha, what the fuck?”

It’s probably one of the only times in Clint’s life that he’s heard Laura swear but he doesn’t blame her, because he’s just as angry that she’s apparently kept this from him when she knew they were both already worried about her well-being.

“I’m fine,” she says, pulling her shirt back up. “I swear. Some initial blood loss but I’m okay, I got patched up by a real doctor and everything.”

“I don’t care if you’re fine,” Laura says, suddenly looking like she wants to faint. “I want to know what happened.”

Natasha sucks in a breath. “Remember when I told you about that cryogenic assassin? Apparently, he has really good aim for someone with a metal arm. Cap saved me.”

“You were hurt,” Laura says, as if it’s something she can’t believe even though Clint knows they’re both aware it happens all the time, and Natasha takes another drink of coffee in response.

“I told you, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” She meets Clint’s gaze with what he notices are exhausted eyes. “Anyway, in more important news, is there room in your bed for one more tonight?”

Laura looks over at Clint and nods slowly, and Clint puts his arm around her waist before downing the rest of his caffeine in one long gulp.

“Always.”

***

Clint’s predictions are correct -- Lila practically screams in joy when she wakes up and finds Natasha sitting at the kitchen table, and Clint hides a smile when he realizes Cooper, who has also reached the stage of “I pretend I hate affection from adults but I really love it,” is hugging her a little too tightly.

“Taking a walk,” he calls to Laura after breakfast, picking up Lila and giving her a kiss. “Lila, get ready for the day so you and Auntie Nat can go play together when we come back.” Lila bounces off towards her bedroom excitedly, allowing Clint and Natasha to slip away without looking too suspicious.

“So, what really happened that you’re not telling me?” he asks in a low voice as soon as they’re far enough away from the house. Natasha stops, crossing her arms.

“In order to help expose Hydra, I had to dump stuff onto the Internet,” she says slowly. “Their files. SHIELD’s files.” She pauses. “Everything.”

Clint furrows his brow, his brain snapping into place when he realizes what she means.

“Everything?”

Natasha sighs, looking pained. “Yes.”

“Budapest?”

“Yes.”

“São Paulo?”

“And Latvia, and Amsterdam, and Austria,” she adds, closing her eyes. “And New York.”

Fuck. Clint feels his mouth go dry. “So everything about you...about us…”

“Nothing about the farm,” Natasha says immediately, taking his hand. “Fury was so careful to keep that off of everyone’s files that there aren’t even records of his records. You’re all safe, Clint. You and Laura and the kids. Don’t worry. I made sure of that.”

Clint lets out a shaky breath, because he is worried but he trusts Natasha and her knowledge, and he feels his anxiety calm slightly at her words.

“The rest of it, though?”

“Yeah. It’s all out there,” Natasha answers sullenly. “Where exactly, I don’t know -- welcome to the goddamn world wide web, right? But it’s in the world, every last bit of it.”

Clint runs a hand through his hair over and over again until he’s sure it’s sticking straight up in every single direction, then drops his arms, staring out at the farm.

“So what does this mean?”

Natasha puts her lips together. “I don’t know,” she says in a voice that Clint knows means she really doesn’t. “Fury wants us to stay under wraps until he figures out what to do, and I have no intention of coming back before I’m ready. We have to figure out how we’re going to go about this...as a team. There are probably Hydra things that we need to take care of, but...we can figure that out.”

Clint reaches for her, being careful of her injury, and Natasha curls up against her chest, breathing deeply.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” he says quietly into her hair. She shrugs in his grasp.

“It’s better that you weren’t. Fury was right -- this whole operation was more suited to my territory than yours. And anyway, when shit started to go down...it’s just better,” she finishes, pressing into him again. “I just wanted and needed to make sure you guys were okay.”

“Okay? Hell, we had no idea what was even happening,” Clint returns a little bitterly and Natasha pulls back, narrowing her eyes.

“Don’t give me that bullshit, Clint. You were happy to stay at home. And you know the rules -- when you stay at home, you stay out of that part of your life, and you live your life like a normal person unless I call you about an emergency. Like this.”

“I know,” Clint says. “I know, it’s just...Laura and I are talking about having another kid. About her getting pregnant again.”

“What?” Natasha searches his face, her own brightening. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Clint says with a small smile. “Really.” He hadn’t meant for it to come out so bluntly, and he feels slightly guilty about the fact that Laura isn't going to be the one to tell her the news after all, but her expression is so full of happiness that he finds he can’t feel bad about not being able to control his brain-to-mouth issues. “We decided a few weeks ago. We're not sure how fast it'll happen, I think she wants to take it slow...but I think we're both in a good place right now. Well, as good a place as we can be, anyway.” He looks down at the ground, and suddenly Natasha's in his space, leaning into him.

“Oh, Clint.” Natasha hugs him tightly, and he rests his cheek against her scalp.

“See why you need to keep coming home? By the way, your hair’s way too long,” he adds, changing the subject because he can’t help it. “I like it better short.”

“Laura told me the same thing when she was checking my shoulder earlier,” Natasha says with a sigh. “Don't worry. I’ll cut it, eventually. Besides, I don't even know if I want the long hair anymore. It feels too strange, now.”

“I don’t know,” Clint muses, turning her around by the shoulders so that he can examine it more fully. “Lila might be able to practice her future beauty skills on you.”

“Hey, don’t joke about that,” Natasha says seriously as they start walking back towards the house. “That girl can braid hair better than I ever could. I swear to god, there’s nothing she’s not a natural at.”

“Takes after her aunt,” Clint says. Natasha shakes her head.

“Or her mother.”

“Definitely not her father, though.”

“Well.” Natasha turns and raises an eyebrow, leaning in to kiss him on the lips. “Nobody’s perfect.”

***

The problem with having Natasha at the farm when she hasn't been back for awhile is that Clint gets too used to feeling like this is normal.

Natasha does chores with them and eats with them and runs errands with them, she showers with Clint and Laura and they all sleep together in the same bed, and it goes on for long enough that Clint starts to forget he has any kind of job or real world responsibilities outside of the farm, or that Natasha technically isn’t a second mother.

“You know, we were talking about baby names the other day,” Laura says during lunch one afternoon. Natasha nods and takes a bite of her sandwich.

“What are the choices?” She finds Laura’s eyes, and Clint reaches over and shoves a piece of paper across the table, which Natasha picks up slowly.

“Natasha,” she reads, and then her face freezes in surprise as she drops the paper, looking up at both Clint and Laura. “You want to name this kid after me?”

“Yes,” Laura says, nodding. “We do.” Clint watches Natasha cycle through at least ten different emotions in under one minute, before she returns to a look that’s rooted in thorough confusion.

Why?”

Laura looks a little taken aback. “Well, for one, you’re a part of the family. You’ve been with us through everything, Nat...birthdays and holidays and...and even the things that we don’t want to remember.” She pauses, offering a smile. “And because each of us has picked a name for our kids that resembles our own, we thought the best way to find a name that started with the letter ‘n’ was to just use yours. That is, if you want.”

“If I want,” Natasha repeats, swallowing. “Of course I want. You know that I want. I love you, I just...I still don’t understand why.”

“Because we love you,” Clint interjects, finding her eyes. “We love you and we care about you, and this is just one way we can show you that.”

Natasha’s silent for a long time, looking down at the table. “The only thing that’s ever been named after me is a killing move,” she says finally, and Clint shrugs.

“Well, that won’t do. I mean, we could always name the baby something else and name a sex move after you instead, if you wanted.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “You’re an ass, Barton.”

“What?” Clint looks genuinely hurt. “I actually thought that was a really good compromise.”

“Do me a favor, then, and please don’t try to help your kids when they have to make actual decisions in their life.”

Laura reaches over and takes Natasha’s hand in her own, effectively breaking up the playful squabble. “Natasha, the reason this child even exists is because of you. If you hadn’t helped Clint, after New York...if you hadn’t helped me, after my miscarriage…” Clint sticks his foot out underneath the table, rubbing her ankle gently, because he knows the memory is something that Laura’s still not comfortable talking about openly. “Just know that we want this. We wouldn’t ask you if we weren’t sure.”

Natasha plays with her hands and then sighs quietly.

“Natasha Barton.”

“It has a nice ring to it, I think.” Clint reaches for a handful of chips, raising an eyebrow. “I could get used to it.” He leans over to kiss Natasha and Laura gets up and does the same, putting her lips on the other side of Natasha’s cheek, before heading over to the fridge. Natasha smiles, taking Clint’s hand and swinging it back and forth.

“I think I could, too.”

 

2015

Laura’s just finished washing out the teapot, Lila and Cooper having relocated to the couch to read, when she hears the front door open and then the telltale sign of soft footsteps padding across the floor.

He looks physically fine -- he’s limping slightly and his face and hands are full of scratches and he looks utterly exhausted -- but otherwise, he seems to be in one solid piece. He also looks like he’s been to hell and back, and Laura has to stop and remind herself that as far as she knows, he has. When that thought hits her, she thinks she’s going to cry.

She does start to cry, unable to stop her tears, and then she’s grabbing him by the neck, burying her face in the fabric of his flannel shirt, breathing in his scent like it’s oxygen she needs to live.

“Where’s Nat?” she asks quietly, wiping her eyes, after Clint’s finished hugging Lila and Cooper. Clint rubs his own eyes, which she notices are also wet.

“In New York.” He sighs. “Banner left.”

Laura stops in her tracks halfway up the stairs. “What do you mean, Banner left?”

Clint shrugs, continuing to walk past her. “Exactly what I said -- he left. Took off, got on one of those jets and ignored all communication. Hasn’t been seen since.” He opens the door to their bedroom, discarding his shirt and letting it fall to the floor. “Nat took it pretty hard.”

“I’m sure she did.” Laura feels her face twist itself into a sad frown as she follows him inside. “She knows she’s welcome here, right? When she wants to come back? And that we’ll take care of her?”

Clint nods. “Yeah, I told her all of that. I think…” He pauses, looking down at Laura’s stomach. “I don’t know if she even knows where she wants to be right now.”

“Oh,” Laura says quietly, running her hands over the bulge in her middle. If she's being honest with herself, she knows all she cares about at this point is the fact that Clint is alive and Clint's going to be home to see his son. But with Nathaniel’s due date so close, she can’t lie about the fact that she was hoping to also have Natasha there. She suddenly realizes she hasn't even considered the possibility of any other option, and feels herself deflate a little at his words.

“She’ll come back soon,” Clint says, as if understanding why she’s suddenly become sad. He reaches out and pulls her close. “She just needs time.”

“We can give her time,” Laura says, gesturing around them. “Here. At the farm. In a place that she loves and is comfortable with, with people she can trust.”

“Laura, it’s not that easy,” Clint says a little too methodically. “You saw how she was when we came back here. All the stuff that happened with Ultron, with those punks…” Laura watches as he swallows down something that looks like it wants to escape from his throat. “There are so many things she’s trying to deal with right now.”

Laura closes her eyes, nodding slowly. “So no threesome fixes?” she asks quietly and Clint shakes his head.

“Probably not this time. But I’m going to Skype with her later this week, if that helps.”

Laura nods. “As long as Nathaniel doesn’t make his appearance first.”

“Little guy held off long enough so I could come home, right?” Clint grins. “If I can survive an attack from killer robots, he can definitely get comfy in that womb for a few more days.”

Laura tries to smile back, but she can’t make her expression or her emotions feel genuine, and she grips him more securely.

“Laura?”

“I know I’m a mess,” she says, blinking back more tears. “I just...I don’t want to think about how close I came to losing you.”

Clint rests his chin on her head. “Hey, I’m sorry…look, I’m sorry.” He kisses her twice in quick succession, rubbing her back. “I’m home now, like I promised. No more projects, remember?”

Laura nods shakily. “No more projects.”

“Only this little guy,” Clint continues, putting his hand on her stomach. “This little guy, and you, and Nat, when she comes home. Okay?”

Laura bites down on her lip, closing her eyes as she leans into him further.

“Okay.”

***

Nathaniel Barton is born in May, and Clint’s on the phone with Natasha before the umbilical cord is even cut. Although it’s certainly not Clint’s first time holding a baby, it is his first time being around both of his children while they marvel at a newborn -- and something about the way he watches his son and daughter hold their newest sibling while Bob snaps a picture on his phone makes Laura want to cry.

“I was kind of wondering if we could add a middle name,” Clint asserts tentatively when they’ve returned home from the hospital, Laura lying in bed with Nathaniel latched comfortably onto her breast.

Laura looks in his direction, trying to distract herself from her son's meal, and the way his tiny teeth pull at the sensitive skin of her nipple. None of their kids had middle names, mostly because it just wasn’t something that they thought was ever necessary. “We could,” she says carefully. “I’m certainly not opposed to it. What did you have in mind?”

Clint hesitates. “Pietro.”

“Pietro? Ultron...that thing’s punk?” Laura asks skeptically, and Clint sits down on the bed.

“That punk saved my life,” he says quietly, and Laura reaches for his hand.

“Clint.”

“I almost died,” he says shortly. “And there was nothing that I could do about it. I was going to die and save this one kid I had gone back for, and then…” He sighs. “And then, I didn’t. Because of him.” Laura stays silent, rubbing her hand over Nathaniel’s back.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot, since I came home,” he continues. “What this job means. What everything I’ve done in my life means.”

“Stop talking about your life as if you’re dying tomorrow,” Laura says, her voice filled with fear. “I really don’t want to hear it.”

“I’m not talking about my life like that,” Clint says a little too sharply. “I’m talking about everything my life has been since I joined SHIELD. You...Natasha…the people I’ve met that would do things for me without even thinking about it, like this kid did...” He trails off and when Laura speaks again, her voice is soft.

“You really did almost die?”

Clint nods slowly, and Laura notices that he shakes a little at the memory. “Yeah,” he says. “I did.” He leans back until he’s lying next to her and Laura finds his hand again, squeezing it so hard he thinks his bones might break.

“Pietro.”

“Nathaniel Pietro.”

Laura shakes her head, managing a laugh. “What a mouthful. At least we can call him ‘Nate’ for short.”

“Try growing up with a name like ‘Clinton,’” Clint says with a sigh. “That reminds me, I told Nat I’d send her a photo.”

Laura groans. “I'm breast-feeding!"

"All the more reason for me to take a photo. Natasha loves seeing you topless."

"I am not --" She stops talking as Clint holds up the camera and then narrows her eyes.

"Also, I look like crap lying here with no make-up.”

“Relax, I'm focusing on the baby, not you,” Clint says, reaching for his phone. “Besides, I guarantee no matter how you look, she’ll still think you’re hot.”

Nathaniel picks that moment to pull his head away from Laura's breast and Laura sighs, hoisting him up. Clint waves the phone in front of the baby’s face, and Nathaniel follows the movement with big, expressive eyes as Clint snaps a few more pictures.

“He may not totally be her namesake, but he’s pretty cute,” Laura says, examining her son and letting him back down to her chest. “I guess we can keep him.”

Clint laughs, reaching for his phone again. “I’m adding that you think Nat is as cute as a seven-day-old.”

“Hey,” Laura says as shoots him a look. “It’s true.” She stops, her voice turning sad. “And if it gets her to come home faster, I don’t even care if she yells at me.”

***

Three weeks later, Laura wakes feeling both warm and cozy, pressed up against a familiar body with a distinct scent trailing from hair that brushes against her face. She lazily reaches out with one arm, fingers wrapping around a slim body, startling and coming fully awake when her hands brush over two curved, heavy breasts.

“Natasha?” Laura sits up, forcing her eyes open as the other girl shifts under the covers, making a small noise in the back of her throat.

“I forgot how comfortable you were,” Natasha mutters as she turns around, pulling Laura close again, snuggling closer as she fits her head underneath her chin.

“When did you get here?”

“Early this morning,” Natasha says quietly, brushing a hand over Laura’s arm. “I almost slept on the couch because I didn’t want to wake you, but Clint insisted I come upstairs.”

“I’m glad he did,” Laura says as Natasha tips her head up to kiss her. Laura kisses back, letting her lips reacquaint themselves with how Natasha’s skin feels, how her breath comes in heated, steady, intervals, sending chills through her body.

“Saw Nate,” Natasha says when she pulls away. “You’re right, he is cute. Still a little fat, but he’ll probably grow out of it.”

“I should be mad at you for insulting my son, but I’m just glad you’re finally here,” Laura responds, sitting up. “Where’s Nathaniel now?”

“Sleeping and eating. Or eating and sleeping, I can’t figure out which one,” Clint answers, stepping into the room and walking around the bed to kiss Laura. “Good morning.”

“It is a good morning,” Laura says with a smile. “I’ve got both of you back here.” She glances over at Natasha, who smiles, and then turns back to Clint. “Dare I ask where my other kids are?”

“Relax. Cooper’s doing homework in the living room, Lila’s playing outside,” Clint says, sitting on the bed. “We’ve got you covered.”

“He’s got you covered,” Natasha points out. “I got to sleep in.” She kisses Laura again, and Laura raises an eyebrow.

“Well, in that case…” Laura lies back while tugging at the hem of Natasha’s loose-fitting travel pants. “What the hell are you both doing up?”

Natasha lets Laura pull her down onto the bed and Clint kicks off his shoes, climbing in next to them, burrowing down and slinging his arms over both of their bodies.

***

Natasha spends almost a week acclimating herself back into the Barton household, though Laura thinks there’s not really that much for her to worry about readjusting to -- the kids are acting as if she’s never left, and while there are a few things that have changed around the house, she falls in as easily as she always has every time she’s left and came back throughout the years. The only difference is that this time, she seems a little more hesitant about things and, Laura thinks, a little more despondent. It’s late in the afternoon and Laura’s rocking Nathaniel on one of the porch chairs that Clint’s recently fixed when Natasha joins her, rubbing a hand over her shoulder to announce her presence.

“Hey, you.” Laura trades a smile. “How are you feeling?”

Natasha shrugs, it’s a listless movement that Laura can tell she’s trying to make look more casual than it probably is. “Okay, I guess. A little sore, still.” She sits down, dragging her legs up until she’s sitting Indian style. “Can I hold him?”

Laura blinks. “Of course,” she says, handing Nathaniel over. The baby gurgles quietly but otherwise stays docile, and Natasha shifts so that she can hold him more firmly in her arms.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” she says when she speaks again, her voice softer than Laura think she’s ever heard it. Laura shakes her head.

“You had a lot going on. I missed you...we missed you, but I understood.”

Natasha sighs quietly. “I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea,” she continues and Laura feels confused.

“If what was a good idea?”

Natasha swallows, and it looks like she’s trying to hold back her emotions. “Being normal. Becoming...involved with someone that’s not you and that’s not Clint.” She stares out at the landscape, rocking Nathaniel gently. “I always had this dream that I’d be the little girl who got to have a crush, somehow. Who got to know how it felt to fall for someone that she saw a connection with, and not just because someone else loved them first.” She tries to laugh. “I’m so stupid. I never should have started anything.”

“Is this about Banner?” Laura asks and Natasha doesn’t answer, but she also doesn’t reject the question.

“You and Clint were always the only people I trusted...the only people I knew who wouldn’t hurt me, no matter what happened,” she continues tightly. “When we left the farm the first time, he told me that I should go with what I felt, and I should’ve listened to myself instead of making a fool out of what was a leap of faith...and now he’s gone, and he doesn’t even want to be around me. It’s all so stupid.”

“Nat.” Laura feels the pain as it spreads through her chest, settling in her heart, and she reaches over and puts her hand on her arm. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You were looking for something that you thought you wanted.”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Natasha looks at Laura and smiles sadly. “I think, deep down, I just wanted a home. A chance at a real family...something I could call my own.”

“You’re already part of a family,” Laura says, squeezing Natasha’s arm. “You, me, Clint...Cooper and Lila and Nathaniel -- you’ve always been a part of our family. You’re Cooper’s mom. You’re Auntie Nat for a reason. Nathaniel is technically named for you.” She shakes her head. “I consider you my wife, Natasha, even if we don't have a ring to prove it. Clint loves you more than he'd ever express. You don’t need a home because you’re already home...you’ve been home for years. We love you.”

Natasha continues to rock Nathaniel back and forth, her movements slow and steady while Laura scoots closer and plays with her hair.

“Clint always says he doesn’t deserve you,” Natasha replies and Laura huffs out a laugh.

“Well, he’s been saying that since the first day we met.”

“Yeah.” Natasha lets out a sigh. “I know. I think I finally understand what he means.”

***

Laura manages to wrangle the kids for a dinner that doesn’t end with Cooper and Lila arguing or Nathaniel spitting up all over his outfit or Clint dropping food on his own clothes by accident, all of which makes her feel like she can consider the latter half of the night a success.

“I’m surprised Lila let you leave her side for more than five minutes,” Clint says as Natasha helps them clean up the kitchen. He steals a glance towards where his daughter is sitting on the living room floor, and Natasha shrugs.

“I promised I’d put her to bed later with her favorite book. That’s how you compromise with your children, by the way,” she adds with a wink while Clint glares.

“I do have parenting skills, you know.”

“Sometimes, I’m not so sure.” Natasha walks over to the sink where he’s washing dishes and kisses him. “But I love you, anyway.”

“Ugh,” Clint groans, taking out his hands and rubbing the back of his palm lazily across his forehead. “Love you, too.” He flicks a soapy wrist in her direction and she flinches, retaliating by sticking her own hands in the sink and flinging a large amount of water back, catching him in the eye and nose.

Children,” Laura says as she looks up from where she’s been marking the calendar for the week, but she knows she can’t hide the happiness that’s emanating from her body, the feeling that oozes out of her in waves and settles itself into her expression and her bones. She gets up, putting the marker down on the counter, and after a quick check to make sure the children are occupied enough, she joins Clint and Natasha by the sink.

“You’re going to stay, aren’t you?” Laura asks as she wraps her arms around Natasha’s middle, kissing her gently, simply because she can. Natasha turns her head around to kiss back, and nods.

“I am,” she says, looking up at Clint and then back at Laura, rocking into her hold. “I’m home.”

Home, Laura thinks as she lets go of Natasha and watches her walk away to pick up Lila, watches Cooper read on the floor, watches Nathaniel bounce happily in his baby carrier. Clint takes her hand and kisses her as she reaches for the coffee that’s now slightly warm, the cool wind from the open window curling around her like a cleansing aura of something new, something fresh, something exciting.

Home.