A whine and a cold nose roused me out of a deep sleep far too quickly. In the dark room, it took me a moment to gather my bearings. The new blackout curtains were doing their job extremely well. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. The air conditioning was going at full blast thanks to the heatwave hitting DC.

The cold nose that had so rudely woken me up nudged me again.

"What's wrong, Lucky?" I asked sleepily. I groped in the darkness until I found his head, giving him a pat.

Coulson's idea of bringing Lucky home had been a good one for Clint. Giving him another living, breathing creature to look after seemed to be helping him.

Our bedroom clock had been turned off in an attempt to make the room as dark as possible to sleep in. It was a new thing Andrew had suggested to help Clint and mine's shitty sleep schedule. Even if it was broad daylight outside, I still wouldn't have a clue what time it was. It could be 3am or 3pm with how well the blackout curtains worked.

Next to me, Clint suddenly thrashed out in his sleep. I barely avoided him in time, getting squished onto my side of the bed.

No wonder Lucky was trying to wake me up. Clint had been good all week with nightmares. Judging by the movement on his side of the bed, this was a bad one.

"Clint." I tried, grasping his forearm. "Hey."

Sometimes it worked. He had been leaving his hearing aids in again. I couldn't remember if he'd taken them out before we went to bed earlier on. It had been a quiet night. Natasha and Jared were still sleeping in the other room with neither of them looking like moving any time soon. Clint had done our favourite stir-fry for dinner. Like the nerds were all secretly were, we were watching Star Wars. It had been an entirely uneventful few weeks since we last saw Coulson. Even Constance had been off our backs.

Clint quickly threw off my grip. As he did, I felt the air whoosh past my face as whatever part of his body he was aiming with barely missed me.

"No…" Clint's hoarse voice trailed off "Can't…"

When Clint spoke in his sleep it was a sign his nightmare was especially bad. I knew how to break him out of them.

Swinging a leg over his thrashing body, I went to put my hands on his face with ice crystals already gathering on them.

Unluckily for me, I was far too slow.

Clint threw me off in an instant. I hit the ground on my back with a loud thump and a loud curse. The blackness of the room was wildly disorientating and I couldn't get my bearings. Before I could react, Clint was on me. He managed to flip me over and there was no stopping him as my face smashed into the ground.

My yelp of pain was only drowned out by Lucky barking. At that moment, I felt Clint's iron grip loosen on me and I lashed out at the first thing I could grab. His forearm. I didn't have to think about it before I pushed my power out enough to coat his arm.

The weight on my back was gone in an instant. All I could think about was the blinding pain spreading across my face. I could barely breathe. My chest was squeezed into a vice not letting any air in or out. My ears were ringing, blocking out the sound of Lucky's frantic barks.

Light suddenly spilled into the room. It was far too bright after being in complete darkness. I could barely see from the pain, let alone the feeling like the sun had dropped into the room. As I was helped against the wall, I could feel blood trickling down my face.

Jared's face came into view after far too much blinking. He was crouched in front of me, both hands cradling my face. His lips were moving but I couldn't hear a damn thing.

"What?"

Even my own voice sounded muffled and far away. It wasn't until Jared shoved a balled up t-shirt under my nose did everything come back into clarity.

"You all right?" Jared repeated.

I nodded, tipping my head back to stem the flow of bleeding. I was going to have two very impressive black eyes tomorrow. Or this morning depending on what time it was. Jared let go of my face and sat back on his haunches. I tried to give him a reassuring smile but it faltered. Even Jared looked lost for words.

Murmured Russian from the other side of the bed got my attention. I could hear Lucky's tail thumping against the floor but I couldn't see him. Or Clint.

"He's over there," Jared said quietly.

My legs felt like jelly as I got up. Staggering across the bedroom, I found Clint in Natasha's arms barely holding himself together. As soon as I got to them, Natasha moved so I could join them on the floor.

"I'm sorry," Clint's voice cracked as I wrapped my arms around him. "I'm so sorry."

My face ached. I wouldn't be surprised if my nose was broken. None of that mattered as Clint buried his face into my shoulder and clung to me like his life depended on it.

I glanced at Natasha from over the top of Clint's head. As I caught her eye, she lifted her shoulders up in a small shrug. Before I could question her any further she started to detach herself from Clint.

"We'll leave you in peace," Natasha said quietly, still in Russian.

Nodding, I shifted so I could get into a more comfortable position. Clint's grip was vice like and I knew I'd have bruises from him in the morning. On near silent footsteps, Natasha and Jared both left the room, leaving nothing but Clint's ragged breaths.

I didn't know what to say. Bullshit platitudes weren't going to help in this. It never did with Clint. Telling him it wasn't real when a nightmare was so vivid you could still see it in horrific detail. I'd had plenty of those nightmares and nothing helped. Even when you woke up you still felt like you were trapped in it for the longest time.

So I held him. Even when my back started to ache from the angle I was sitting at and my left leg had pins and needles.

It wasn't until Lucky pushed between us, licking a long stripe down the only part of Clint's face that was visible did Clint's grip loosen.

"Gross, buddy," Clint's grumble was barely audible. "I know where that tongue has been."

Lucky whined and pushed himself up under Clint's arm, wriggling until Clint moved enough for him to wedge himself between us. Once he was firmly planted between us, Lucky began to lick Clint's face in earnest.

I knew Lucky had been trained as Clint's service dog. It had never really crossed my mind about it until he'd come back to live with us. He was the best behaved dog I could ever ask for. I thought having him in our apartment was going to be a huge change. But he blended into the family like he'd been there all along. Coulson had been right that it was the best thing for Clint. Not only did he have another responsibility he couldn't ignore, but Lucky was also invaluable for waking Clint up from his nightmares. Or grounding him when Clint started to have a moment of distraction. This was the first time Lucky hadn't been able to wake Clint up though.

"I'm all right," Clint grumbled again. At the awkward angle, Lucky had wedged himself between us, I couldn't really see him. "Stop licking me. You're gross and ate squirrel shit at the park last night."

That made me smile. Though smiling brought about a new flash of pain across my face.

Awkwardly, I freed an arm and probed my face for damage. The pain flared across my nose. I'd been on the receiving end of uncontrolled hits from Clint before. Like the mission with Aldon, I knew this was going to leave a mark.

"Kari?"

Clint's voice cracked on my name. There was so much raw emotion in that tone of his. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him looking at me. He was so pale. If we weren't sitting down I'd be worried he'd faint.

"We can blame this on Natasha," I said quickly, trying to smooth the situation over quickly. "She punched me in the face yesterday."

In Natasha's defence, I had taunted her about being too loud in the bedroom while we were sparring. I thought I'd been winning when she was slower than usual. I had barely seen the punch coming until it landed me on my ass.

I hoped it would at least get a quirk of the lips from Clint. Instead, he stared at me with growing horror.

"It's not your fault," I said quickly. I couldn't deal with the way Clint was looking at me. So I wrapped my arms around him and Lucky, pulling them in for a hug. "I'm okay."

As much as I said I didn't want to say bullshit platitudes, that one I had to say. My face was hurting like a bitch but Clint didn't need to know that.

"Loki had you," Clint said hoarsely, burying his head into my neck. "He had you and I was trying to get you back."

My stomach dropped at Clint's quiet confession. I wanted it to be anything but that. Now I know why he'd reacted so violently in the dream. I knew that horror all too well. Too many times had the memory of Clint pressing his own gun under his chin haunted my dreams. I'd lost count of the amount of times that he'd pulled the trigger in those nightmares.

"You've got me," I reassured Clint. "I'm right here. I'm not going anywhere."

At least that was one reassurance I could give him. Evans was fucking furious at me for going on that mission with Rumlow. No one had told him until I was on my way and with no way of recalling me. I was going to be grounded for the rest of my SHIELD career the way things were going with him. I was lucky to even get to the range in the last week. I hadn't been allowed to do anything else except supply flights with Evans sitting in the back of the Quinjet catching up on paperwork.

Clint didn't say anything. He just held onto me like he was drowning and I was the only thing keeping him alive. His other hand was tangled in Lucky's fur, keeping his loyal companion close to his side.

Looking out of our open door, I could see Jared and Natasha busy in the kitchen, Judging by the smell wafting through the door, one of them had the decency to put some coffee on. When Natasha caught my gaze, she lifted up a mug in question.

It looked to be daylight outside. I doubted any of us would get back to sleep now anyway. So I nodded in agreement.

"Coffee?" I asked Clint.

His face was still buried in my shoulder. Lucky was with us, his head against Clint's chest as he looked up at his dad adoringly. It took a long moment before I got a short nod from Clint. With a final sniff in my shoulder, he looked up.

I hated seeing how utterly ragged Clint looked. Not caring about my still bloody face and knowing Natasha and Jared could both see us, I leant forward and kissed him.

Every bit of tension seemed to drain away as he kissed me back. His hand came up to tangle in my hair as he pulled me closer.

It didn't fix anything. This would linger between us for days and probably fester into even more nightmares for both of us. But at this moment in time, it helped make the world feel right again. I knew it wouldn't last. It never did. But those few moments of peace were enough to keep me going.

Untangling ourselves took some effort. Lucky wasn't inclined to move so we had to manoeuvre around him. It wasn't until Clint had to stand up did Lucky get off his lap.

For once I was glad we hadn't been sleeping naked. That would have added a whole new level of embarrassment to what had just happened. When I changed into my pyjamas last night I'd expected Clint to pull them off as soon as we'd gotten into bed. Instead, we'd both fallen asleep nearly straight away after a long day at work.

Unlike our usual morning routine, this morning was very quiet. I washed my face of the blood that had come out of my nose before coming back out. Jared still looked half asleep, gripping his coffee mug like he'd been on a week long drinking bender. Natasha had drained her first mug of coffee and was onto her second before I was halfway through mine. Clint wasn't far behind her either. Except he stood up once he was finished.

"I'm going to take Lucky out really quick," Clint said, standing up. "Then we need to get a move on for today."

Glancing at the clock showed it was 0830. Today we were heading to Sam and Rebecca's new house for their house warming party. They had moved into the same neighbourhood as Evans, buying a nice house only three blocks away from him. It was a huge upgrade from Sam's tiny apartment here in town. Clint and I had promised to go over early to help set up. Clint had also cooked far too much food to take over. For some reason, I swear there was at least five pounds of macaroni salad in the fridge. I had made a considerable dent in the cupcakes he had baked throughout the week.

"Okay." I gave him a quick smile. "Put a shirt on so the paparazzi don't harass you again."

Clint snorted in annoyance at my jab. Someone had taken a photo of Clint while he was taking Lucky for a walk earlier in the week. He had been shirtless because of how hot the weather had been. It had blown up on social media. Constance had actually been quite happy about the attention it generated. When Constance was happy, she stayed off our cases about whatever torture she had concocted for the week. For once, there were no boring interviews to do. The world was slowly starting to move on from their fascintion with us.

"I'll come with," Jared said suddenly, getting to his feet. "We should go out holding hands to fuck with people."

"I am not holding hands with you." The tension in Clint's shoulders started to loosen at the bickering that was coming. "I know where those hands have been."

As the pair of them got up, the bickering kept going. I knew Jared was tormenting Clint to get his mind off what happened. Clint would be silently hating himself over this and it would end up piling onto the mess that was already his brain. I was glad for the silence when the pair of them and Lucky finally got out of the door.

Once their footsteps and voices had faded from hearing, Natasha was at my side. My face was hurting more with every passing second and it had taken all of my self control not to make a fuss about it with Clint there.

"Ouch," I said gingerly as Natasha turned my face to get a good look.

"Ouch all right," Natasha's tone was sympathetic. "That looks broken."

Of course, it did. I'd gone too long without breaking any bones lately.

Probing my very sore nose found it to be still straight, but very swollen and painful to touch. At least it was still in place. Just like the many times I'd busted my ribs, this would just need time and patience to heal.

"How bad does it look?" I asked, dropping my hand away.

Natasha's pursed lips told me more than any words could. Constance was going to have a fit when I walked into work on Monday with two black eyes and a swollen nose.

"You should punch me in the face and say we did it while sparring yesterday," Natasha said nonchalantly as she sat back.

It was ridiculous that we had to think like this now. I'd never had to explain away black eyes or any other injuries before. Not that Clint had ever intentionally hit me hard enough to bruise while we sparred. He always pulled his punches.

I grunted a non committal answer as I iced over one of my hands. Placing it gingerly over my aching face brought some relief. I wanted to go back to sleep and forget all about the sudden awakening of this morning. But I knew I couldn't. This wasn't going to be forgotten in a hurry.

"Go have a shower and get out of your bloody clothes." Natasha gave me a firm shove. "Be dressed and ready to leave for Sam's when they get back. You'll need to keep Clint busy today."

Why was Natasha always right? It was maddening sometimes that she always had the right plan for shit going wrong. If I kept Clint moving and busy today he wouldn't have time to wallow in what had happened.

"You're meant to be coming with us," I reminded Natasha as I got to my feet.

Sam and Rebecca had invited Natasha and Jared as well. Earlier in the week Sam had pulled me aside and asked me to make sure Natasha knew she was welcome and it wasn't a bullshit invitation done for the sake of being polite. Rebecca was aware of their previous relationship and wasn't concerned.

Natasha on the other hand had been acting odd about the whole thing. I'd noticed she had been changing the subject of the housewarming party every time it came up.

"I'm coming," Natasha said smoothly.

I raised an eyebrow at that. Since the invitation, Natasha had been skirting around the subject of coming. As had Jared. Despite everything, I knew Natasha had a lot more feelings for Sam that she would have ever admitted to anyone. That caused jealously for Jared, even though he would never admit it.

I was in too much pain to argue . Instead, my feet headed towards the bathroom and into the shower. It didn't help my aching face but I did feel slightly more human by the time I was done and dressed for the day. Sam's new place had a pool and I was planning on enjoying it immensely in the humid weather that had been plaguing the city. As I came out of the bedroom, Clint and Jared walked in the front door.

Lucky was panting and went straight for his water bowl. Both Jared and Clint were drenched in sweat. It looked like taking Lucky to the bathroom had resulted in them going for a run instead. Jared's fair skin was a wicked shade of red and Clint wasn't looking much better.

"You know it's illegal to fuck in public?"

The words fell out of my mouth before I could stop them. But it earned me a grin from both of them. Clint's still looked strained but he wasn't holding the tension as he had before.

"We thought to give the paparazzi something to really talk about," Clint shot back through his heavy breathing. He lifted his shirt to wipe his face.

One good thing about being back at work was Clint was really getting into shape again. He always had nice abs but they were starting to look fitness model worthy right now.

"You can both hurry up and get dressed," Natasha said in a snarky tone. "Since you two are fucking in public you may as well have a shower together."

Despite Natasha's tone, the pair of them wore identical grins. They stopped for a moment as suddenly they realised there was about to be a fight for the shower. The entire room went so silent you could hear a pin drop.

Clint moved first, shoving Jared to the floor. Jared's yelp of indigence was loud enough that I was sure the neighbours would complain about us being noisy. No one wanted to hear Jared and Clint wrestling at 0900 on a Saturday morning.

It was only three steps before Jared managed to get Clint to the ground. From there, the pair of them shoved and tackled each other until it was Clint who barely made it to the bathroom door first.

"HA!" Clint's triumphant sound was quickly cut off by him slamming the door shut in Jared's face.

Jared teleported into the bathroom before the door properly clicked shut. This time Clint's yell was much louder and a lot less happy than a second ago.

"We live with a pair of five year olds," Natasha said in mock disgust.

"I think five year olds have more maturity than those two." I couldn't keep the smile off my face. "We really need to think about moving into a bigger apartment."

I didn't mean to say it out loud but the thought was crossing my mind on a daily basis now. Natasha and Jared had shown no signs of moving back to either of their apartments. While I didn't mind the company, the apartment was starting to feel crowded. Especially with one bathroom between the four of us.

"We should move into Barton's old house," Natasha said far too quickly to be a coincidence.

At least I wasn't the only one thinking about it. That had always been the first idea that popped into my head. It made sense rather than buying another house. I could easily rent this apartment out to any of the STRIKE guys. There'd probably be a fight to the death for it considering how close it was the work. Moving further out meant I couldn't sneak in those extra five minutes, but the extra space was really needed now.

"It's my house now," I pointed out. "And only if me and Clint get the main bedroom."

The main bedroom has an ensuite and a very nice bathtub. It had been one thing Laura had insisted on.

"I was going to say I'll fight you for it," Natasha's tone was light. "But if you don't charge me rent or begrudge me spending the occasional night in my own apartment, I'll agree to it."

Despite the light tone, there was something off in Natasha's voice. She managed to hide it well but there was a hint of an emotion I couldn't place in it.

"Sure." I didn't want to push. This morning had been an emotional clusterfuck as it was. "That's a deal I can get behind."

"Another coffee?"

And just like that, the subject was dropped. I handed my empty mug to Natasha with a grateful nod.

Clint and Jared were both out of the shower in record time. So quickly that it wouldn't surprise me if they did actually shower together. Like Natasha and I, those two were extremely comfortable with each other. Natasha's shower was even quicker and to my surprise, she was dressed and ready to go. While Clint wasn't looking I shot her a grateful look. Today could get messy after how it started. I really hoped it didn't.

Squishing into Clint's Camaro made me think of buying a much more sensible car for moments like these. Then again, I was looking for any excuse to spend more money. I'd only skimmed over my emails from Stark Industries about my vests, but the money that had dropped into my bank account last week was starting to border on ridiculous. The international market was taking off. Maybe I could buy a sensible car so I wouldn't always get squished into the backseat. Especially now we had Lucky.

"Did you message Steve?" Natasha asked as we buckled in.

I'd started speaking with Steve on a more regular basis over the last few weeks. I'd suggested to Sam that inviting him would be good for Steve to start making some friends. Sam initially had a fangirl moment and agreed eagerly. Steve had taken some persuading but had eventually given into me pestering him about it. He was even bringing the girl along that I'd briefly met in the coffee shop before New York happened.

"Yep, he said he'll be there about noon."

To prove my point, I showed Natasha the message from Steve. He'd taken to texting far easier than I anticipated. Natasha nodded and went back to whatever she was doing on her own phone.

The drive to Sam's was quiet. Except for our Starbucks order, none of us spoke. Jared and Natasha were both on their phones. Clint was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel along to the music playing on the radio. I was content to let my mind wander while I sipped on my coffee.

Pulling up to Sam's new house still felt odd. I'd been here a few times to help unpack over the last week. The typical suburban house complete with the white picket fence was a far cry from his small inner city apartment. Despite having the engagement ring, he still hadn't proposed to Rebecca. Even Andy had finally managed to propose to his girlfriend, who of course had said yes.

We were the first ones there, as promised. It was only Sam who greeted us.

"Rebecca is in the kitchen," Sam explained as he helped us get the ridiculous amount of food out of the car. "Thanks so much for coming early. Damn, that is a shit ton of food."

Sam looked frazzled. He hadn't noticed my face and two black eyes that were standing out. It wasn't like him at all. It's not like having a STRIKE Team Bravo get together was anything new. While they were mostly at Evans' place, no one ever stressed about it. Everyone brought a plate of food and chipped in to help cook and clean up. Unlike keg parties these kind of things were very tame.

"We have about ten pounds of macaroni salad," I said dryly, handing the large bowl to Sam. "And about forty dozen cupcakes."

"Thirty, because you ate a dozen to yourself," Clint shot back. "I'm not baking anymore until you learn to control yourself."

Me sticking my tongue out at Clint earned me a genuine smile. I couldn't help but smile back. Considering how our morning had started it was good to see any kind of a smile from him. A genuine one was the best thing I could ask for.

Sam ushered us inside, rattling off everything he needed to get done. As we walked into the kitchen, we were greeted by an equally frazzled and very pale looking Rebecca. The kitchen looked like a disaster and I remembered that Rebecca wasn't the best cook. Neither was Sam. No wonder they both looked ready to have a meltdown from stress.

"You three help Sam," Clint ordered, taking the food from my hands. "I'll help in here. Lucky, go with them."

Considering the three of us were no help in the kitchen, I wasn't going to argue. Neither did Jared or Natasha. Rebecca looked ready to cry in relief as Clint stepped into the kitchen asking what she needed done.

It took about five minutes of us helping to set up tables in the backyard before I was regretting my life choices about not knowing how to cook. It was hotter than the gates of hell already. I was drenched in sweat and the pool was looking very inviting. Lucky had found a shady patch under a tree and was watching our every move.

Sam's new place was really nice. The backyard was big enough that there was still enough room with the pool. It was built for a family in mind. Thinking about that brought a pang of sorrow that squeezed my chest, making it hard to breathe for a moment.

Everyone's life was moving on. People were getting married and starting families. I knew if Riley was still alive, the whole family conversation would have happened already. Some days, I knew that by now I'd probably be on board for the actively trying part of starting a family.

"Kari."

Sam's voice snapped me out of my musings. He was looking at me with an odd expression on his face.

"Sorry," I apologised quickly, letting go of the table I'd just been helping him move.

The back door opened up with a loud bang and my name being squealed at decibels nearly above human hearing saved me from any interrogation. A second later, Alexi flung herself around my legs.

Picking her up, it wasn't hard to laugh at her over enthusiastic greeting. I hadn't seen her for over a week and no doubt she was dying for her 'Kari time' as she called it. Alexi hugged me hard, talking at a million miles a minute. William streaked past me in a blur, heading straight towards Lucky.

"Hi, William," Sam said dryly as we were both ignored in favour of Lucky. "Hi, Alexi."

"Hi," Alexi barely looked at Sam before she launched back into her tale of what had happened in the last week. She was speaking so fast I was only catching every second or so words.

"Alexi, slow down," Evans exasperated voice came from the doorway. "No one can understand you when you speak that fast."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Evans do a double take as he got a look at my face. Not wanting a lecture, I quickly turned away and focused back on Alexi who was rattling on in her usual dramatic fashion. From what I could piece together, something had happened at daycare and someone wasn't her friend any longer. Knowing Alexi it could have been anything from someone using her favourite crayons to her simply deciding she didn't like someone that day.

Even with Alexi attached to my hip and refusing to be put down, much to Evans admonishment, we managed to get everything set up in time for people to start trickling in. Clint had been back and forth, bringing out food. Somewhere along the line, someone had found him a pink apron. I had money on it was Abby who had done it. No one else knew him well enough to joke with him like that.

Steve arrived not long after Evans with his girl, Ellie in tow. I felt bad for him because Natasha and Jared immediately cornered them both. After that, it only took Bravo team about three minutes before they all joined in the conversation. Or interrogation. They were not so discreetly steering me away from them so I couldn't interupt.

"So," Andy turned to me after Clint had gone back inside again. "Since you and Barton are fucking, does this mean that Barton hangs with the wives or us?"

"Why don't you ask him?" I said with a snort of amusement. I knew the teasing was going to come eventually. They'd all be very well restrained at work to not say anything.

"Because you're less likely to punch me in the face," Andy said smartly. "Speaking of?"

Andy gestured towards my face. Everyone had looked at me oddly when they first arrived but no one has said anything until now.

"Natasha smacked my face into the floor yesterday," I lied with a mock scowl.

"You shouldn't have said I was getting fat and slow," Natasha called out from where she and Jared were standing.

Thankfully everyone brought the lie easily. A ripple of laughter went around the crowd and the subject changed.

As the day wore on, I ate way too much food and played with Alexi in the pool. Along with most of the other younger kids, she was currently passed out in front of the air conditioning with Toy Story playing in the background. I was about to head back outside for a drink before I ran into Sam.

"We're out of ice, can you come to the gas station with me? Barton's car is the only one not parked in."

I really didn't want to. I was seriously considering passing out on the couch with Alexi after I got a drink. I knew Clint wouldn't trust anyone else to drive his car but me. Last I saw of Clint he was actually being sociable. Something that I didn't want to drag him away from. He needed the escape of today more than anyone else.

"I'll go get the keys."

Trudging back outside, I found Clint talking to Abby, Rebecca and Copeland's wife. He'd lost the apron after lunch had been served and was standing in just his board shorts. William was draped over his shoulder, fast asleep. Instead of interrupting their conversation, I went straight to Clint's pocket and fished out his keys.

Sam was already waiting for me in Clint's car. Over the last few hours he'd finally relaxed and by the looks of him, had a few drinks as well.

"Do not let me forget ginger ale for Bec," Sam said as we climbed into the car.

I made a nose of acknowledgement as I started the car, cranking up the air conditioning as high as it would go. The gas station was only a few minutes down the road but I wasn't spending it sweating my ass off. Especially with Clint's leather seats. I only had a bikini top and shorts on but I was still boiling hot.

"So what really happened to your face?"

I'd barely made it out of the driveway before Sam asked the question.

For a moment I considered lying to him. The easy lie of Natasha hitting me in the face was much easier than what actually happened. But Sam had been standing close by when I'd told the lie earlier. Part of me wasn't surprised that he hadn't brought it. I had a feeling he was in the gym with us yesterday while Natasha and I were sparring. He was one of the regular early birds in the gym, claiming he liked to get it out of the way for the day.

"Barton had a nightmare and I tried to wake him up," I said, suppressing my tired sigh. "He freaked out when I touched him and slammed me into the ground. He thought I was Loki."

Sam's expression was instantly sympathetic at my explanation.

"Been there," Sam's quiet words made me glance over to him. "Not the slamming someone into the ground, but feeling like the nightmare is that real. I don't know how many times I've had the nightmare that Khalil pulled the trigger on me and not Gibson."

It was my turn to give Sam a sympathetic look. Reaching over, I took his hand and gave it a comforting squeeze.

"Or you didn't make it in time," Sam's voice grew hoarse as he swallowed hard. His grip on my hand was crushing instead of comforting.

"I've had that one too."

My throat closed up for a brief moment. I'd seen that one countless time in my nightmare from that mission.

"Please don't tell anyone the truth about my face," I said, clearing my throat quickly. "Clint already does the self flagellation thing far too well. Without Coulson around, he doesn't need anyone to give him any shit to pile on the mess he's already feeling."

"I won't say a thing," Sam said quickly. "But…"

His phone dinged, interrupting whatever he was about to say. It only took him a few seconds to read the message.

"And saltines," Sam added, his tone almost normal again. "I'm not allowed to forget saltines."

It was an odd combination. One I'd seen Abby consume countless times while she was pregnant with William and struggling with morning sickness.

"Anyone would think Rebecca is pregnant with that combination," I joked, flicking on the indicator to turn onto the main road. I was glad for the abrupt change of subject, even though I was curious with was Sam was going to say.

Sam choking on his own spit turned my attention back from the road.

"What….I…" Sam stuttered. "No?"

His reaction was far from normal. I nearly slammed the brakes on as I realised what was happening. That was the worst lie I had ever heard.

"Are you serious?" My voice came out far too high pitched.

Sam was turning bright red. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he managed to get anything vaguely intelligent to come out.

"You are not allowed to breath a word of this to anyone," Sam's tone was a few octaves above normal as well. "We literally did a test this morning and it's very, very early."

No wonder they both looked so frazzled when we had arrived. That pang from earlier closed up my throat yet again. I quickly pushed it away and clung to the happiness that was coming with the news.

"You better hurry up and propose now," I said with a grin starting to spread across my face. "It's going to be a shotgun wedding."

"I'm doing it when I get back," Sam said with a slight grumble. "We don't really need ice, I just needed an excuse to go upstairs and stash the ring in my pants. Then Bec wanted stuff."

I couldn't help but laugh. It really was adorable, despite the earlier feeling of grief.

"Have you been procrastinating out of fear with this proposal?" I couldn't help but tease him.

"Of course I have," Sam said in exasperation. "I don't know how she puts up with me and you've seen the divorce rate of STRIKE."

The numbers weren't in his favour, I'd give him that. But I'd never seen anyone more in that than those two.

"She knows exactly what she's getting into," I said gently instead of teasing him. "And you love each other. I've told you before that she's going to say yes. And now you're going to have a baby."

Instead of the look of mild horror, a goofy grin started to grow on Sam's face.

"We're having a baby," Sam repeated after me. "I'm going to be a dad."

"And a husband," I added, laughing softly at his expression. "Come on, let's get this ice we don't need and get you back to propose."

Sam still looked a little shell shocked, despite his happy grin. I'd never been so quick to get things at the gas station and we were speeding back in no time. Pulling back into the driveway, I took the ginger ale and saltines out of Sam's lap.

"Where's the ring?" I asked.

Sam wordlessly pulled it out of his pocket. The brilliant emerald and diamonds glittered in the hot August sun.

"I'm going to be a dad," Sam repeated again, looking down at the ring in compelte awe. "Holy shit this is happening."

"Yes, now get out of my car and propose to your beautiful girlfriend." I gave Sam a hard shove.

The passenger door was ajar. My shove nearly pushed Sam out of the door completely. It didn't stop him though. He simply readjusted his balance and kept moving. I had to hurry to catch up with him because I wasn't missing this for the world.

Everyone was still out the back. Rebecca was still standing with Abby, Copeland's wife and Clint. To my surprise, Steve's new girlfriend, Ellie was also with them. For a second, I felt a flash of guilt. I'd barely said two words to the pair, despite it being my invitation for them to come.

I didn't have time to mull over it. Sam wasn't wasting any time. As he got to Rebecca, he took her hand, gently pulling her away from the group.

"The moment I saw you, I was a tongue tied idiot and thought you'd never speak to me again after the way I acted," Sam started, raising his voice for everyone to hear.

Everyone stopped in their tracks. It was well known it was Sam's time to propose. If anyone decided to interrupt him, I'd kill them myself.

"But then you gave me a second chance," Sam continued with a soft smile. "And a third. Then a fourth. Through all of the shit that I was going through, you were right there and never faltered. You have been my rock, my guiding light and all that other rom com bullshit I could spew."

There was a blush starting to creep up Rebecca's neck. Sam's words drew some quiet laughter from the group.

"Now in this beautiful house we're creating a new chapter in our lives," Sam's voice started to choke up.

As did mine. I could feel myself starting to get a little misty eyed at Sam's words. Especially now I knew the greater meaning behind them.

Sam took in a deep breath and went down on one knee. From his fist, he produced the ring he'd been holding onto and shifted it to present to Rebecca. Her own free hand went to her mouth to stifle a gasp.

"Marry me?"

The whole backyard went so silent you could hear a pin drop. It felt like everyone was holding their breath.

"About time you big idiot," Rebecca choked out through the tears starting to slip down her face. "Yes."

The cheer was loud enough that you would have heard it at the Evans residence. Sam stood up, hugging Rebecca hard.

I wasn't the only one with misty eyes in the crowd. While I was thrilled for them, that horrible tight feeling came back into my chest. Grief combined with a flash of jealously squeezed everything together making it hard to breathe.

This was never going to be me. I hated myself for even thinking it. It was an ugly truth and one I had to shove back down as fast as it came up.

Clint caught my eye and the smile he gave me made my chest tighten for an entirely different reason. Like the fucking idiot I was, I couldn't help but to return it.

Authors Note.

Slightly late but Merry Christma/Happy Holidayss everyone!

The most frustrating thing in the world is knowing exactly where the next chapter is going but not having much time to write it! Seeing Spider-Man No Way Home and the Hawkeye series has breathed life into my writing again.

This chapter also reminds me I need to write Steve's story that ties in with Crystallize. But time has just been lacking. I really bit off way more than I can chew when I decided to write my Mandalorian story, while trying to keep this one going too.

I'm on summer break so hopefully I'll be able to get the next few chapters out. There'll be some crossover with Agents of SHIELD as well because I loved the first four seasons of it.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for everyones continued support with this story. I know I've been very slow with writing and I can't promise fast updates, but know there will always be an update out eventually. I love this story too much to ever abanden it.

Until next time.