Laynie blinked herself awake and rolled out of her bed, slinking across the room to where she had plugged her phone in the night before.
She fiddled with it for a moment before the alarm finally stopped blaring.
First day of school, she realized.
It was rather close to summer, actually, but it was the first day she would spend in her new school. And the first day she would spend with her father.
Laynie dressed herself slowly, anxiety eating away at her. She wondered what the new school would look like, and how the other kids would treat her. Laynie had always been a little bit of a bully target in her old school, but they never got to her. That, and Carter was their main objective. It might be different without her friend by her side to make her feel more confident.
As she came down the stairs, she heard Walter banging around in the kitchen, and cringed. Upon seeing the kitchen in its pristine state the night before, she hadn't expected her father to be able to cook. And the banging confirmed that not only was he trying, but he was failing.
That false confirmation only made her even more surprised as she entered the kitchen a second time to see a huge breakfast spread across the table.
"Morning Laynie," Walter quipped as he expertly flipped a pancake. "How did you sleep?"
She stood in the doorway for a second, astonished. She hadn't seen a spread like that since before her mom died. Her mom used to make meals like that before school all the time. The Avengers always ate leftover takeout for breakfast.
"Um, well. Yeah. That bed is comfier than it looks." Laynie smiled.
When he smiled back, it was genuine. It was soft, and almost sad, but definitely genuine. He turned the heat off underneath the pancakes and walked across the kitchen to where she stood.
"I'm so sorry about what happened to your mom. And I'm sorry I've been absent your whole life. It wasn't supposed to turn out like it did, but I'm glad I can get to know you now. I know I don't deserve it, but can you forgive me?"
Laynie blinked away threatening tears. "Yeah."
Slowly and carefully, Walter encased Laynie in a hug. She returned it for a moment, and then they were separated.
"Well, I don't know what you like so I made a bit of everything. Scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, and pancakes. With or without chocolate chips?" He walked into the dining room as he spoke, a tray of pancakes in hand.
Laynie sat down at the table and nodded. "I'll eat anything. Especially pancakes."
They both had a very filling breakfast. Not a word was spoken, but it wasn't an awkward silence.
As Walter cleared away the dishes and stores leftovers, he asked if he should drive Laynie to school or if she could walk. Since it was really just around the corner, Laynie decided she'd walk.
It was a nice walk. The air was cool, but not cold, and the breezy neighborhood was a nice change of pace from New York's confusing masses, she had to admit.
The school was much smaller than Midtown High, and she wasn't sure how she liked that. As she climbed the steps to the school's front doors, she felt the eyes of everyone on her back. She felt like she stuck out from everyone else, and she felt alone. She's never realized how crucial Carter was to herself confidence until that moment.
It seemed the entire day was spent finding things. Find the locker, find homeroom, find the history class, find the cafeteria. She was running back and forth and constantly checking her tiny map of the school.
She had a paper bag full of cold pancakes for lunch, which were surprisingly good, but she ate them completely alone. Nobody sat with her, and she wasn't brave enough to approach anybody else.
The day, in a word, was a nightmare. She had never appreciated her friend so much, nor had she ever missed her so much.
When she got home she found her father hadn't returned from work yet, so she dragged herself upstairs and laid her homework out on her bed. She glanced down at her phone every five minutes, hoping Carter would text her. Laynie wasn't sure what her friend's new schedule was like, though, so she kept her end of the line silent.
When she was halfway through her math homework, the phone finally rang.
"Hello?" she answered eagerly.
"Hey Laynie," her father replied.
She let out a sigh, not able to help being disappointed.
"I'm at the store and I wanted to know one, if there's anything you like to have around the house to eat, and two, if there's a movie you'd like me to bring home. I have to work from home a little tonight and I don't want you to die of boredom."
Laynie smiled. "There was that Star Trek movie that came out. Other than that I'm good."
"Okay! I'm just down the road, so I'll be home in a few minutes. Bye!"
Laynie hung up and placed the cellphone on her bed. Unable to focus on her homework after the chat, she fell back into her pillows. It was nice to know he was thinking about her, but she had to wonder if it would last. She had no reason at all to trust him yet, other than the information social services had been feeding her.
Laynie wasn't sure what to think anymore. All she felt was a cold emptiness.
Suddenly, she decided she would do something she hadn't yet had the courage to do. She opened her phone's photos and brought up the picture she and her mother had taken together before she left for that mission. Her last mission.
She ignored the tightness in her chest as she stared at the photo and focused on not crying.
Her mother had been such a beautiful woman, and so young too. She had risen so rapidly through SHIELDs ranks and had a very early and beneficial retirement to their ground offices in grasp. She and Laynie could have had more time to spend together, but her life was cut short.
"Just this last mission for me Rebecca," Carter's mom had said.
The women had kissed their daughters goodbye before leaving, and never fulfilled the promise they made to come home safe.
A small cry came from Laynie as she crushed the phone against her chest, trying to pretend her mother's arms were around her. Trying to imagine the feel of her soft, fluffy hair brushing against her face as she kissed her on the forehead. She breathed in and smelled her mother, felt her touch. The illusion was gone in moments, leaving Laynie breathless.
She closed the phone and left it on the bed. With trembling hands she sought her suitcase and pulled her mom's soft blanket on it. She was always trying to steal the blanket from her because she loved it so much, and now she wished she had let her mother use it more. The scent of her on it was already fading.
She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and padded down the stairs to await her father.
Walter might not be much, but at least he was offering to love her. Laynie wasn't about to let that opportunity pass her by either. She was determined to make it work, no matter what it took. It's what her mom would have wanted.
Laynie actually had quite a bit of fun with her dad that night. He put in Star Trek and made a bag of popcorn for the both of them. He sat with his laptop beside her on the couch and half worked, half watched the movie.
When the credits rolled Laynie felt like crying tears of joy, because of just how good the movie was. She clapped a little instead and turned the television off.
She fiddled around with her phone for a minute, then glanced up at her father's laptop.
"What kind of work do you do?" she asked softly.
"I'm a business consultant. I help family owned businesses keep going."
Laynie smiled. "That sounds like a nice job.
Walter smiled too, and shrugged. "Some of these families get pretty stubborn. It can be hard."
"But it's a good job."
There was a silence, and Walter shut his laptop. "The social workers told me your mom worked for SHIELD."
"She was a level seven agent. She saved lives and died protecting our world."
"That must have been fun to brag about at school," he said with a smile.
Laynie laughed lightly. "Yeah." She didn't include the fact that she never had anyone to brag to.
"If there were one thing about my life I could change, it would be how I treated you girls. You should have been the center of my life but instead she had to work her butt off..." He shook his head. "I'm going to bed. If you need absolutely anything wake me or help yourself. This is your home Laynie."
After a moment's pause, he ruffled his daughter's hair before going to bed.