“Don’t be mad.”
Laura Barton looked up from the bowl of cake batter she was mixing to see her husband standing in front of her, that sheepish expression she knew so well — and mostly loved — written all over his face. He had his Stark phone in his hand, and she only needed one guess to know to whom he had been talking.
She smiled at him and gestured with her spoon at the pile of plates and utensils that had been adorning the kitchen table for the past few hours.
“I already counted on Natasha coming,” she told him. After all, Natasha had been staying with them for Christmas for the past ten years, even if the first couple of those years had not really been by her choice.
“The Red Room doesn’t celebrate holidays,” Clint had whispered to his wife that very first Christmas, after Laura had dropped a gift in Natasha’s arms and the then-twenty-year-old Russian assassin had stared at her like a deer caught in headlights.
“Yes,” Laura had whispered back, well aware Natasha was listening to them, “I figured that part out.”
“Ummm, not just Nat,” Clint said now, that sheepish expression somehow turning even more sheepish.
Laura just laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I know you. I already figured you told Nat to bring Wanda.”
Clint let out a sigh of relief, a whoosh of air so loud Laura had to shake her head and laugh more.
“And Steve,” he added hurriedly.
Okay, she hadn’t planned for that, but it was just like Clint to bring home wayward visitors. It was part of why she loved him. An extra guest at Christmas Eve dinner wasn’t something she couldn’t work around.
“And I’m guessing you’re now about to tell me they’ll be here in five minutes?”
Just as the words left her mouth, the noise of an engine filled the house. She turned to watch as the Quinjet descended seemingly out of nowhere, reminding her once more how she wasn’t really fond of SHIELD’s new invisible technology.
“More like five seconds?” Clint offered, and all Laura could do was laugh some more, going back to her batter.
Natasha helped her with the dishes. Clint, Steve, Cooper and Lila were outside tossing around a football, the ground lit only by the moon and the lights on the porch, but Laura could see their silhouettes as they all tackled each other on top of the fresh piles of snow they had gotten overnight, and she could hear the shrieks of laughter from her children.
Inside, Wanda was in the living room, guarding the baby — the little boy named after her brother — who was asleep in his swing. She had looked wary, but Steve had whispered something in her ear, most likely reassurances that she would be just fine. And she would be. Laura and Natasha would hear the baby cry if he awoke.
It had been almost eight months since Laura had seen any of them. Natasha’s hair was a lot longer than it had been before and a darker red. She seemed slightly thinner, sadder and more tired.
Laura nudged her gently in the side as she handed her a plate to dry, and she was rewarded with a smile that didn’t go anywhere near Natasha’s eyes.
“You okay?” Laura asked her as she grabbed another plate to wash. She made sure to keep her eyes focused on the job at hand, not on the woman next to her. She knew only too well that emotions were still something Natasha struggled with sometimes.
“I’m fine,” Natasha answered, but she didn’t try very hard to make it sound convincing.
“Truth?” Laura said, and Natasha sighed. Laura handed over the just washed plate to Natasha and picked up one of the pans as she waited.
Finally, Natasha spoke. “You ever wonder if you made the right decision?” she asked. “If you really belong where you are?”
Laura nodded. “All the time,” she said.
Laura put the pan down and turned to the woman she had grown to consider her friend. “Everyone does, Natasha,” she said quietly. “It’s normal. I promise.” She paused for a second, wondering if she should continue. Clint had told her some things in confidence — not that Natasha didn’t realize things she told Clint were often passed on to Laura as well. She knew that and was fine with it, but usually Laura let Clint be the one to offer career advice — but Laura wasn’t completely sure he would agree with what she wanted to tell his best friend.
She decided to tell her anyway. She reached out and put a hand on Natasha’s shoulder, waited until Nat looked at her.
“You are amazing at what you do,” Laura told her. “Don’t ever think you don’t belong with them. But Natasha, it’s okay to want other things too. You don’t have to be only an Avenger.”
Natasha was quiet for a few moments, her eyes studying Laura. Finally she looked away, reaching for a plate to dry she had already dried. Laura went back to her pan.
“I’m not sure I know how to be anything else.”
“I know,” Laura said. “And that’s okay. You can learn. And if you need some time, you are always welcome here. You know that.”
Laura finished with the pan and handed it to her, smiling gently. “Good. Because I think the kids — and Clint, too — would cry if you ever stopped visiting so much.”
Wanda was a quiet girl. Tentative. At least around them. Not that Laura blamed her. She had been through a lot, from the bomb that killed her parents when she was young to losing her brother just eight months ago. And Laura knew from Clint’s experience that becoming a part of the Avengers wasn’t always the easiest process either.
Laura waited until after the kids were all in bed, promises of an early morning present opening silencing their protests, and Clint and Steve were engrossed in trying to put together a bike for Cooper — Natasha supervising, of course — before she approached Wanda, asking her for help with the rest of the present wrapping.
They were working on putting ribbons on their third gift each when Laura finally decided to begin the conversation.
“I’m really glad Clint asked you to come,” Laura started, a little tentatively.
Wanda looked up, her hands on the ribbon stilling. “It was nice of you to offer.”
“Anyone who is a friend of my husband’s is a friend of mine,” Laura said.
Wanda frowned a little at that. “I do not think we are friends,” she said. “I tried to help Ultron kill all his teammates.”
“Now your teammates,” Laura corrected. “And I heard my husband attached an electric arrow to you head.”
“And that later you fought with the Avengers.”
“And now you are one.”
Laura smiled. “So that counts,” she said. “Plus Steve trusts you.”
Wanda nodded. “He is a very good teacher. And leader.” She paused. “I do not think Agent Romanoff likes me very much.” She dropped her voice at that, like she was afraid Natasha was listening in.
“Natasha is just … she’s hard to get to know,” Laura said. “You shouldn’t take it personally. If she didn’t like you — or trust you — you wouldn’t be here.”
Wanda nodded. “You are sure?”
“Very.” Laura lowered her voice now, too. “You know, the first time Clint brought Natasha here for Christmas, she was younger than you are now. And she’d never had a Christmas before. She didn’t trust either of us, and I’m not sure we really trusted her, but we gave her a chance and she gave us a chance, and we’re all better for it.” Laura laid down the gift she was wrapping and reached across the table for Wanda’s hand. “You are welcome here anytime you want, Wanda. I know it is not the same as with your brother, but if you want it, we can be any sort of family that you might like.”
Under Laura’s hand, Wanda turned her own hand over and squeezed Laura’s fingers. “I think I might like that,” she said softly, her accent making every word even more pronounced.
“Good,” Laura said, holding on to Wanda’s hand a few moments longer before finally letting go and going back to her wrapping.
Laura found Steve at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee in his hands, an hour before the sun was even set to come up, which was also two hours before the kids would be allowed to make a mad dash for the Christmas tree.
“You didn’t sleep?” she asked, as she poured herself a cup of coffee and took a seat next to him.
“Couldn’t,” he said. “You?”
“I just like to get things ready before the kids get up. When it’s chaos-free,” she added, with a small laugh.
“Let me help you,” Steve offered.
“How good are you at making cinnamon rolls?”
“My mother once told me I could be a baker.”
“Perfect,” she said, standing up. “Then follow me.”
They worked in silence for a bit, Steve working on the dough for the cinnamon rolls, Laura peeling the potatoes for later that evening.
“Thank you,” Steve said, awhile later, breaking the silence, “for letting me tag along.”
Laura looked up. “You don’t have to ask.”
“I do,” he said. “I know I’m intruding.”
“I just couldn’t do it this year. Be alone. Sam offered to stay at the base with me, cook up a meal, but I just.” He stopped, ran his hands though his hair. “I had to get away.”
“I get that,” Laura said. She paused a few moments to finish her potato, making sure it looked perfect before speaking again. “You have to people to help you. Like Nat. You don’t have to do it all alone.”
“I know,” Steve said. “But she’s … she’s had a rough time lately.”
“So have you. It’s okay to lean on each other.” Laura put the potato peeler down. “Or us. You don’t ever have to ask.”
“That’s really nice of you to say …”
“I’m not just saying.”
“Even if you were, it’s still nice.”
“I’m still not just saying,” Laura said, earning her a soft laugh from Captain America himself.
“Okay,” Steve said. “Thanks.”
“Still not just saying.”
“Yeah. I know.”
The house was quiet. Calm. Content.
Laura smiled to herself from her spot in the corner, watching everyone. She turned her head as Clint came up behind her, slipping an arm around her waist. He looked thoughtful, slightly worried. She knew exactly what he was thinking, but it took him a few minutes to voice it.
“They’re going to be okay, right?” he finally said. “I made the right choice? Leaving them?”
“You made the right choice,” Laura affirmed. She lifted a hand and placed it against his chest. “They’re going to be okay. Look at them.”
She followed Clint’s gaze as he took in what she meant: Over in the corner, Cooper was fiddling with the telescope he had gotten for Christmas from Steve, explaining everything to Wanda as she helped him get it set up just right. Next to them, curled up in one of the big chairs, Lila was absorbed in the world of Harry Potter. And on the couch, baby Nathaniel was asleep in Natasha’s arms, cradled against her chest, even as she was asleep with her head on Steve’s chest, Steve’s arm draped over her and the baby.
Laura wasn’t naïve, or blind. She knew this moment would be over soon, that the three would leave to get back to work, to get back to a place where the insecurities and the doubts and the fears were so fast to come creeping in, but for now, everyone was okay. Safe. Maybe even happy.
“If they need you,” Laura whispered to Clint now, “you’ll know.”
“Yeah,” he said. He lifted his free hand to cover hers against his chest, then turned and pressed his lips to hers.
“Merry Christmas,” he whispered. “I love you.”
“I know,” she replied back, in the same hushed tone, not wanting to disturb anyone else. “I love you too.”