charybdis: (WhiteCollar)
[personal profile] charybdis
Title: Don't Tell Mom! (aka deaged!Clint, the creeper-free mix)
Characters: Natasha Romanoff, Steve Rogers, Clint Barton, various Avengers and Avenging auxiliaries.
Summary: Another fic written in a fit of pique. I started because I was tired of seeing creepy!Coulson/deaged!Clint shenanigans, but got distracted by the Natasha+Steve friendship and then ran out of wank before I got to the end. I wasn't quite willing to admit that I was writing this fic, even as I was writing it, which lead to about three very similar files in varying stages of near-completion.


“I can’t believe we have to deal with even one of these, let alone a fucking flock,” declares Iron Man. “And why don't they die?”

“I believe ‘flight’ is the accepted collective noun.” Agent Coulson’s voice is tinny over the comms, one extra junction removed from the mission, watching the feed in SHIELD HQ. Technically, he’s not violating his mandatory medical leave. Technically.

Natasha loses track of the comms chatter as one of the giant winged lizards -- she refuses to call them dragons unless she sees some proof of magic in their guts -- catches her wrist in its acid-dripping jaws. It goes down flailing and jerking when she electrocutes it, fifty-thousand volts of electricity enough to send it reeling, but it doesn’t let go of her fast enough, and its first spasm yanks her whole arm with mindless, brutal strength. 

The sucking wet pop of her shoulder dislocating resonates around her upper body, wrenching pain wrapped around her ribcage and lodged in her throat. Natasha stumbles and nearly falls from the roof she's perched on, but long habit catches her scream in her throat, blunting it to a single surprised exhale. It’s habit too, to shoot the giant lizard properly, make sure of the kill, before she finds a solid section of wall, grits her teeth, and slams the joint back into place. This time the scream makes it all the way to a hiss of pain, gray spots clouding her vision briefly.

When it eases and she can move her arm again, Natasha hears Captain America saying something about magicians -- so they are dragons -- while Iron Man tries to explain the meaning of ‘respawn’ to Thor. Doctor Banner, called back to SHIELD HQ from a research retreat in Anchorage, is keeping a running commentary on both practical options for neutralizing the corrosive spit, and a more theoretical vein about the physiology required for flight for creatures that are larger than a house. She can only hear Hawkeye if she listens closely -- the rhythm of his breath and the scrape of synthetic fletchings against his fingertips. So many targets in the sky, he must be half-hypnotized by now.

It's all familiar Avengers comms chatter, and it is all dwarfed by Agent Coulson suddenly cutting in, too loud, “Hawkeye, stand down!”

Natasha might be the only one who hears Hawkeye breathe, "Fuck you, sir," in response, since she's sure no one else is actually listening for it.

The messy crack of one of Hawkeye’s explosive arrows echoes off the buildings, followed by an explosion of golden light. It starts out as a beam, lightning in slow motion, expanding outwards in waves, in perfect silence, lighting up everything in its path. Every last one of the remaining dragons freezes, and then they simply dissolve into the same golden light that's lighting up the city, leaving behind nothing but destruction and puddles of smoking acid.

"What the fuck?" snaps Natasha, first off the mark, leaping across rubble and over smoking puddles, towards Hawkeye's location while the rest of them try to work out the effects of the golden light.

At first, Natasha doesn't believe what she's seeing when she touches down in the dingy back alley. She doesn't let that stop her from moving to defend Hawkeye.

Three thugs have cornered him against the brick building -- he's putting up a fight, not doing too bad, but he's unarmed, empty-handed, his knife missing from the sheath. At least some of the blood smeared across his cheek is from his own bloody nose, and his bow is lying in the filth against the wall, cracked in two places, useless.

Natasha's shoulder is a throbbing ache, easily ignored, and the thugs had been depending on the dragons for protection. She doesn't even have to draw her knife. 

When they're all laid out, unconscious, only then does Natasha pause to take a good look at Hawkeye. There’s gray concrete dust in his hair, gravel stuck to his palms. He tracks her every movement, sharp eyes suspicious. Natasha catches herself thinking, Good instincts, because shit, he's a kid. Clint Barton -- agent of SHIELD, an Avenger and a crack shot -- is a tow-headed kid, just old enough to be trouble.

She asks, "You know who I am?" He shakes his head. "You know who you are?"

"Yeeeeah," he draws the word out to three syllables, "I think that's one little bit of information I'm gonna keep to myself."

She gives him an unimpressed look. "If you do not identify yourself as a friendly, I must assume you are a threat." It's a mistake -- she knows it as soon as she says it.

He flinches, and takes a step back. "Well when you put it like that," he says, falling into a defensive crouch. No one in their right mind would identify young Clint Barton, petty thief and all-around punk kid, as a friendly, and no one knows this better than Clint himself.

He's skinny, not thin, a head shorter than she is, his shoulders jutting with whipcord muscle and bone under his too-large field armor. It's a miracle his pants haven't fallen right off. The stubborn set of his jaw is familiar though, and she thinks of the pictures in his file, mugshots taken under harsh florescent light, twelve, fourteen, fifteen, covering up terror with anger, with stubbornness, and then nothing official until SHIELD caught up with him. She recognized the progression -- he got caught, and then he got good.

"I apologize," she says, "I shouldn't have threatened you.

"You are Clinton Francis Barton, born in Iowa, on Something something something. One older brother -- no other close relatives."

He glares at her, and does not let down his guard -- she'd approve if she wasn't starting to get impatient. "And you think that's not a threat?" he snarls, frightened and angry.

Natasha shrugs. Maybe she shouldn't have mentioned his brother. "It's the truth. The current year is two thousand and thirteen, we are in New York, and you were involved in a magical battle. I can only assume that you destroyed the magical device that was the source of the initial attack, and it had some --" she lets him see her assessing stare, "Unexpected effects. The people you work for need you to come in, tell them what you remember."

He stares, eyes narrow and doubtful. She knows that look all too well -- he's trying to decide whether he should trust her. Honesty counts in her favor, no matter how unpleasant the truth. Threats count against her. She should knock him out and just carry him to the debrief -- no one would blame her. If it were Stark, if it were anyone else, she'd do it in an instant.

For Clint, she kneels down, says, "I'm Natasha Romanoff. These days, we're partners." She's surprised that she doesn't stumble over that last word. "It's my job to make sure you're all right." Her posture is conciliatory, but her tone is firm.

She can see the moment he decides to -- not trust her, exactly, it's too mercenary and too desperate to be called trust, but he eases down, gives her a curt nod.

"How old are you?" 

He hesitates, then says, "Thirteen," all brazen confidence.

She raises her eyebrows to let him know that almost-twelve is not the same thing as thirteen, satisfied that he's got the message when the tips of his ears turn pink, but she doesn't mention it. She holds up her K-BAR and says, "You know how to use one of these?"

He gives a low, appreciative whistle, and says, "That's quite a piece of equipment," he smirks, but doesn't reach for it. "You sure you want to hand it over to a shady character like me?"

Natasha gives a pointed glance at the three thugs lying on the ground in varying poses of unconsciousness, and she meets his eyes again. "You're my partner -- I know you're not as stupid as you look," she tells him, ignoring his faint protest. "You'll give it back to me when I ask." As if he hadn't meant are you sure I'm not going to attack you, because they both know he's not going to turn on her, not right after she's saved him, and especially not head-on when she's expecting it. "Besides," she continues, "It's just one knife. I've got dozens more where that came from." Not all of them are as practical as her K-BAR, but well, details. The important thing is that Clint reaches out and takes the knife with a respectful expression that he doesn't attempt to hide, and relief that he doesn't quite manage to.

"You gave him a weapon?" Agent Woo demands when they reach the field base, "Are you fucking crazy?"

Agent Woo shouldn’t even have to ask. He was watching the feed -- he would have seen her launch herself off the top of an apartment complex and take out two of the dragons in the space of ten minutes. He’s standing at the edge of the cordoned-off base area. There’s a deep, smoking crater groove in the concrete where some of the dragons’ acid spit hasn’t been neutralized yet. It smells like ozone.

Natasha gives him her blankest look, and says, "You are welcome to try and confiscate it, Agent." She can see Clint tense up at her words, until she puts her palm against his back and adds, "But I wouldn't have given it to him if I didn't intend for him to keep it."

"This is so against regs, I don't even know where to start," Woo sighs, his expression already turning to resignation. 

"I'll take whatever fault Fury hands out," she tells Agent Woo.

A flash of guilt crosses Clint's face, poorly hidden -- they'll have to work on that, Natasha thinks -- but he clutches the handle of the blade all the same, and does not let go of it until she relents and gives him the sheath and a belt to hang it on.

***

Somewhere between the end of the battle and the briefing, Natasha acquires a second satellite. Steve takes one look at Natasha, at Clint trailing along behind her, and approaches them so quickly that Natasha compulsively confirms that her injury is neither serious nor visible -- Steve is sometimes strange about that -- and nothing is telling in her expression or posture. All her subtle internal checks are normal. She's torn between exasperation and amusement at the implication that she might hurt or kill the kid by accident.

"Widow?" asks Steve, uncertainly, and then, as he recognizes Hawkeye's field uniform, "Hawkeye?"

Clint backs into Natasha and tries to go right through her, cringing away from Steve's outstretched hand, knuckles going white around the handle of the knife at his belt.

To his credit, Steve immediately withdraws, and when he kneels down to Clint's level and introduces himself, he doesn't have the air of making a concession the way Natasha did. Captain America's reassuring smile goes a long way to making amends, if not as far as Natasha's decisive nod of approval.

"You both need to get checked out by Medical," Steve says, climbing to his feet and distractedly brushing gravel from his knees -- it's pretty much a lost cause, considering the amount of grit ground into the fabric from the battle.

Clint tenses up and forcibly checks himself from looking back at Natasha again. He's so high-strung that she can see when he does it -- she catches herself mentally adding it to the list of tells she'll teach him to hide, and sighs.

"Are you hurt?" she asks Clint, instead of answering Steve directly.

"It's no big deal. I'm fine." There are some small cuts and a bouquet of bruises on his knuckles, and someone scored a hit on his jaw, but it's nothing serious. Natasha takes him by the shoulder and runs a hand down his back, brusquely, just to be sure, but in spite of the small, surprised noise he makes, she finds nothing.

"It can wait," she tells Steve. She'll want to get her shoulder strapped up for a day or two, but it's not urgent, and she's more interested in getting through the briefing first. The sooner they get some of SHIELD's resident geniuses to figure out what happened to Clint, the better. (It may yet end in Medical, but this is magic they're dealing with, and sometimes all you need is a hard reset.)

Steve looks from Natasha to Clint, then, with a shrewdness that she's never expected from him, tells Clint, "Medical probably has clothes that will fit you."

The prospect of pants that he won't have to hitch up with every step has Clint giving her the most beseeching look, wide-eyed and hopeful and so fucking young, that Natasha gives in. Medical is room after room of beeping machines and sterile smells and bright lights, but Clint doesn't falter, which is how Natasha knows she's being played -- she'll let him get away with it unless Steve or one of the Med staff catches on. Clint keeps up the puppy-dog eyes through the physical checkup (normal eleven-year-old, slightly banged-up) and a stunning array of blood draws (standard procedure, the nurse says when Steve tries to protest the fifth round), only momentarily trading wide-eyed innocence for a snarl when one of the assistants tries to take his knife off of him.

Natasha can't help the little bit of satisfaction she feels when the assistant drops the knife and slowly backs away.

Agent Carter donates her spare pair of cargo pants to Clint, which needs a belt and a bit of rolling at the cuffs, but fits better than his uniform pants, and gives Natasha the pleasant image of Agent Carter dressed in boys' cargo pants and a tight tank top. The med staff dig up one of the black undershirts that they seem to have in every size imaginable. The short sleeves fall right about midway over his upper arms, and it's only then that Natasha realizes the bruising there isn't from today -- it's turning colors, fading, at least a few days old. There are marks around his wrists, too -- fingerprints, now that she's looking for them, blurred and overlaid on older marks.

Steve sees it too, if the way his mouth suddenly goes tight and hard is anything to judge by.

When Natasha was nine, she had the same kind of marks on her arms. Somehow she doesn't think Clint got those from being pulled out of a flaming tenement, away from the bodies of his family, or from being dragged away from a snowy battlefield.

Suddenly, Natasha would give a lot to find Barton Sr. and make him suffer.

"You think Stark has a time machine lying around?" she asks Steve, who gives her a surprised look. Still, it's more I didn't think you'd even joke about messing with the past, and less, I didn't think you'd consider it a big deal, so she lets it slide. 

***

The detour to Medical is why Natasha arrives late for the debriefing for the first time ever, leading Clint and Steve, who waved off the doctors, saying, "I'm fine, honest," the traitor.

Her jumpsuit is stripped to the waist, long sleeves tucked into the back of her belt like one of the Helicarrier's off-duty fighter pilots (she's wearing a black undershirt, like Clint, even if it is a v-neck -- she'd hope that this would stop Stark making 'what do you wear under all that Kevlar' jokes, but she's not stupid). Still, she's pretty sure that what everyone is staring at is the pale bandage wound around her shoulder. It makes her feel dangerously exposed, even in a conference room full of supposed allies. The feeling is intensified by the fact that her handler is out of commission and her partner is unexpectedly eleven years old.

Then Clint comes in, and the stares take on a different quality -- except for Coulson, who puts his head in his hands and probably only refrains from sighing because of recent massive chest trauma. Natasha knows she shouldn't have brought a child to the debrief, but she told him she would protect him and she's not going to let go of him unless someone gives her a direct order (maybe not even then).

"That's new," Banner murmurs, muffled by the huge stack of notes he's going through.

"Agent Vong is on stray kids duty today," Stark says, making a shooing motion, "Or are you keeping him for a snack later? You know SHIELD frowns on cannibalism -- wait, does SHIELD frown on cannibalism? Like, do I have to come up with a way to make my flesh inedible and/or repulsive to avoid being eaten? That could be tricky, or no, who am I kidding, I'm thinking nanobots, actually, nanobots are pretty much good for anything once you--"

Natasha tunes him out.

"It is unlike you to be delayed," Thor says.

The thing about Thor is that he has a largely human physiology, so his tells are familiar -- the subtle facial tics that indicate confusion and anxiety, the angle of the eyeline that signals deceit -- but his frame of reference is so alien that she's constantly second-guessing her instincts. Right now, Natasha can tell that he's unsurprised, but she has no idea if it's because he recognizes Clint, or because it is common on Asgard for a woman like the Black Widow to appear with a child in tow. Or both.

"Oh my god, is that Barton?" Tony cries, because he's not actually as inattentive as he likes to pretend.

Banner's snaps up from his notes. "Where are the blood samples?"

For the first time, Natasha can almost see why some people claim that the Avengers are made up of freaks and monsters. Clint has his hand on his knife again, but he's not dumb enough to start a fight with these odds. He looks up at her uncertainly, mouths, What the fuck? Natasha refrains from patting him on the head in reassurance -- where the hell did that urge come from? -- and pulls out a chair for him at the conference table, instead, making sure that he has a clear sightline on the door, and putting herself between him and the rest of the room.

"All right," says Coulson, his tone pitched to carry over the chatter, "To business."

'Business' is fairly routine. They go over the battle, with Coulson filling in most of Hawkeye's movements, based on the video feed and comms.

Agent Hill shows up with a memo, and hands it to Coulson, She stands at the front of the conference room and tells them, “Agent Clinton Francis Barton will be remanded to SHIELD custody until such a time as this issue can be resolved.”

She's as flat as if she's reading a script directly out of the official Operations Manual, a sure sign that she’s thinking about quitting SHIELD.

There’s a long, drawn out moment of silence. Then the rest of them protest all at once.

Stark looks like he’d stand on the table to make a point if it wouldn’t collapse under the weight of his armor, which is pretty much what Natasha predicted. The Captain turns a frantic red, almost as if Clint was his own child.

And less than a year ago he’d have followed SHIELD’s orders unquestioning, to the letter. Natasha sits back in her chair and lets them play it out. Across the table, Coulson meets her eyes tiredly. She could step in and menace everyone back into their seats, but maybe she’s still a little upset over the way he’d let them think he was dead for so many months.

She’s definitely still upset that she was the one that had to break the news to Barton, after the Chitauri invasion.

(They’d been alone. She still remembers the way his whole body had frozen up, just stopped, how she’d waited, three breaths, four, to make sure he came back. They were standing in the ruined mess of what had once been a garment store, surrounded by torn sweaters and glass and crushed hats, and she’d touched her forehead to his in lieu of a kiss, rested her fingers against the pulse at his neck, his wrist, sharing air, sharing grief, and she hadn’t given a shit who saw — for a moment, all that mattered was what was between them.)

Natasha does catch Clint’s wrist before he can escape. He gives her a piercing, betrayed glare — she doesn’t let it affect her grip.

“You’ll be fine,” she tells him, quietly. “I trust SHIELD with my life.” When she presses him back into his seat, he goes, though he doesn’t stop glaring.

Coulson arches an eyebrow at her across the table; it’s approval, but she still feels a pressing urge to flip him off. I didn’t do it for you.

“Avengers!” Agent Hill’s voice is sharp and carrying. “I’ve seen what you can do to a potted plant,” she snaps. (A perfectly valid criticism, since Thor has never quite grasped the concept of overwatering, and the rest of them tend to destroy pots at an untenable rate.) “I shudder to think what you’d do to a child. Take it up with Director Fury if you disagree.”

And with that, she herds Clint out of the conference room, resolutely ignoring their protests.

***

She finds Coulson after. "I don't like the Director taking him away from us."

"I'll keep an eye on him," Coulson assures her, but he doesn't sound as confident as he might.

Natasha scowls, and she lets him see it, just a little, in the corners of her mouth, her eyes. "I don't like SHIELD taking him away from us," she clarifies, though she knows it's unnecessary.

Phil makes a soft sound that hovers between agreement and acknowledgement, and doesn't quite meet her eyes.

***

Clint drops out of the ceiling -- not on purpose -- and lands on the floor, executing a reasonably effective -- if ungraceful -- roll. He comes to a halt at her feet. Natasha looks at him, waits for him to brush the worst of the atomized ceiling tile out of his eyes, and stagger to his feet.

He stands in front of her, covered in dust from the vents and grime that looks like it came from the lower flight decks. He gives her a pleading look. He is missing the knife she gave him.

"That Coulson guy keeps hanging around," Clint tells her. "I see him everywhere."

"Agent Coulson is looking out for you."

"You said that you were my partner!"

Steve is asking questions, but they aren’t important -- not compared to the serious precision of Clint’s stare. Clint's eyes are clearer than ever, untempered by caution and the rock-hard cynicism he'd picked up after Trickshot. She looks him in the eye and she... doesn't lie.

"I don't like this either," she tells him, continuing before he can get a word in, "but I trust Agent Coulson with my life, and I trust him with yours."

Clint subsides, still scowling mutinously, so she puts her hands on his shoulders, ignores the way he crosses his arms in anger.

Entirely without intending to, Natasha thinks about being nine years old -- the version that actually happened. She remembers being cold all the time, cold down to her bones, until it became a baseline. Natasha grew up a few years in the care of soldiers, rough men, but not one of them was cruel. She thinks about the way Clint had nodded, looked relieved, when she’d said, “it’s my job to make sure you're all right.”

She thinks about her parents’ bodies, burned not-quite-beyond-recognition, and if the men who took her in weren’t cruel, she’d learned early that the world was, just like it was cold, unrelenting, unending. 

"We have a briefing to attend," she tells him. He stands there and looks up at her. His hands are clenched at his sides, and she suspects that if they weren't balled into fists, they'd be shaking. She thinks of the cold settling into her bones, and she says, "You might as well come with us."

Coulson looks askance at her and Steve when Clint trails in after them, late for the second time in as many days. This conference room is one of the small ones, and there are only three seats left, poorly situated, directly across from the door, backs to the window. It's Coulson's subtle way of warning her, she knows -- don't get complacent.

"The good news is, it'll wear off on its own," says Stark. "Bad news is, it could take as long as a month, and there's no way to speed the process up."

Banner has an actual explanation, though it only makes about as much sense as magic ever does -- which is to say, none at all. Apparently, the magic 'reset' Clint to childhood, but grown-up Clint is still in there, just suppressed, and he'll be back once the magic cycles out of his system. There are methods that could speed up the process, Banner concedes, but, like mixing drugs, even if they are very careful, there's no telling what the side effects might be, and the risks are not worth a few weeks of waiting. 

"Yet you are not responsible for young Clinton's care for these next few weeks," Thor says, when he hears Bruce's conclusion, frowning slightly.

"Yes?" says Bruce, looking askance at him.

"Options have been presented. Should the final decision not rest with those who are responsible for his care?" Natasha had assumed that SHIELD would continue take care of Clint but that was before he dropped out of the ceiling at her feet, defiant and clearly unhappy. Thor's words make her realize that she hasn't exactly made her position on this clear. She's still not sure what her position is.

"Whoa, hang on there, big guy." Stark waves his hands as if he can ward off Thor's words. "You can't seriously be suggesting that we leave the childcare decisions to Eats-Her-Mate and Officer Spangles."

Every single person turns to Natasha and Steve, with expressions ranging from expectance (Thor) to concerned disbelief (Stark) -- all except for Clint himself, sitting between them, who demands, "Don't I get a say?"

"No," say Natasha and Coulson, at the same time. 

"You're eleven," Natasha tells him. "Your judgement is compromised."

"It's my life," Clint points out, scowling. "And I say I don't want to be useless for a whole month. Whatever the cure is, hit me with it."

Coulson gives her a despairing look across the table. She opens her mouth to threaten him into silence, or to remind the rest of them that even at his most reasonable, Clint would take unacceptable risks if he thought it'd keep him on the team.

Steve, of all people, beats her to it. "We wouldn't let you walk through a minefield if we could prevent it. You're eleven and under our charge; we can prevent it." He spreads his hands in front of him -- sorry, kid -- to make it clear that there is no other choice, with a wry little smile that says far too much about how concerned he is for Clint's welfare.

Which is the moment that Director Fury chooses to burst through the conference room door, dark eye gleaming and leather coat swirling.

Natasha doesn't have to glance around to know that Clint has already disappeared from his seat.

"Now which one of you sorry shits wants to tell me where my baby asset's run off to?" the Director barks.

"Last I heard," says Tony Stark, over the rest of the Avengers' sullen silence, "He ran off to join the circus."

***

It's the middle of the night, and she knows when Clint crawls up into the air ducts and down a couple of floors -- she can hear his faint shuffling progress echoing through her vent, the clever acoustics one of the few subtle features of Stark's that she actually appreciates.

There are only a few places he could be going, and he can't cause too much trouble in any of them. Natasha weighs the likelihood of her ability to help Clint through whatever is keeping him up at night against the value of simply being there for him. She considers going back to sleep. It's a compromise to murmur, "JARVIS, where is Clint?" into the dark of her room.

"Young Mr. Barton appears to have made his way to Captain Roger's kitchen," JARVIS informs her, in equally muted tones. It's an unexpected answer that has her taking to the air ducts herself, following Clint's path, bypassing the vent outside of Steve's apartment door, (she pauses to indulge a momentary pride when she sees that Clint has replaced the vent without fastening it, in case he needs a quick escape) and heading for the crawlspace over the kitchen.

The area around the fume hood is warm, and she can hear Steve's voice through the vents, gentle and soothing, not overly solicitous.

"-- not wrong," he's saying. "But between the Sisters of Mercy and the war, I know how important it is to hold on to the people you've got."

"The Sisters of -- you mean an orphanage?" Clint's voice comes floating through the vent, along with the scent of hot milk and chocolate.

Natasha sticks around long enough to hear Steve start telling a story about a childhood spent on the streets of Prohibition-era Brooklyn, involving more mischief than she'd have given him credit for, before she backs out of the kitchen air ducts and makes her way back to her own bed.

She didn't get far enough into Steve's apartment to take a look out of the vents, but she thinks about it when she settles back into bed, about the warm golden light that Steve favors for his living area, about the rich, comforting smell of hot cocoa. She didn't get close enough for visual, but she can picture it perfectly, the two of them sitting at one end of Steve's long oval dining table, marshmallows swimming in their respective mugs of hot chocolate, while Steve leans back in his chair now smiling the sideways smile that he saves for his rare devious moment, and now turning solemn with regrets and remembrances, and Clint is perched on his chair with his feet on the crossbar and both hands clutching the steaming mug, listening avidly to Captain America's stories of youthful mischief and grown-up loss.

In the morning, she finds Clint asleep on Steve's couch. 

To his credit, Steve doesn’t flinch or make a fuss when he comes out of the shower and sees her sitting in his living room, with Clint’s head cradled in her lap.

Warm sunlight comes in through the big windows, glowing softly on the empty mugs on the coffee table, giving an artistic light to the sleek skin of Steve’s bare chest. He flushes and drapes the towel over his shoulders when he notices her looking. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him that what she was looking at was more a display of weaponry than an object of desire.

He settles on the edge of an armchair next to her. He smells like soap and shaving cream, and as far as Natasha’s concerned that means he’s close enough that she’ll have to employ some diversion if he makes a move against her.

"You're really -- you're really good with him." There's a question in his words, that he's too polite to ask outright. Most people wouldn't even think to ask.

"Thank you," she says. Then, "It was the only thing they took from me that I ever missed." Not because Steve deserves some answers -- Natasha is not a big believer in deserves -- but she wants someone to know.

She doesn’t tell him that they clawed it out of her, screaming and bloody, that it was stolen from her just as she’d started to hope. That it was the one thing that she’d have given anything to get back -- the one loyalty she would have died for rather than sold or cast aside.

Steve -- who is surprising her with his shrewdness, his perception -- gives her one narrow look, and nods, like he can guess at all of it. At least, Natasha is willing to concede, he knows loss on the same scale. He might not understand the particulars, but he understands the parts that matter.

***

Who would dare mention that when she says ‘Love is for children’, she isn’t speaking about romance?

***

“Agent Romanoff,” JARVIS’ voice interrupts her in the shower. “It may interest you to know that Clint Barton is currently making his way through the vents to the weapons range. He is unaccompanied.”

Natasha swears and rinses the shampoo out of her hair as quickly as she can. Stupid child. She finds herself saying, “Alert Captain Rogers,” and she doesn’t think too hard about why, “Have him meet me there.”

Jeans and a t-shirt will have to do, she thinks, yanking clothes on as she heads out the door. She knows exactly what Clint is doing. “How the fuck did he find out about Barney?” she mutters.

“Ah,” says Rogers, right behind her. Then, after she’s put the knife away, “I think that might be my fault?”

And it does come out as a question, in the face of her glare.
Steve is old-fashioned in strange ways -- the best ways, some would say. He’s unflinchingly genuine in everything he does, never one to slack off or turn a blind eye when help is needed.

He has his values, his morals, his old-fashioned little ways (the man uses a straight razor, what the hell?), but he’s surprisingly progressive -- at least in all the ways the politicos can count.

There’s no reason for Natasha to dislike him. He respects her, as a person, as a soldier, as a spy, too, though he doesn’t always like her methods. But she dislikes this.

“He should know!” Steve tells her. He's hopelessly transparent. If it weren't too late, I would want to know, he means. If everyone I knew wasn't dead, I would want to know. He's an idiot. “Barney is his brother -- hell, he’s practically all the family Clint has, at this point. He should know where he is now!”

Natasha rounds on him with thoughtless fury, halting him in his tracks. “Like fuck he does,” she snarls, “He’s nine years old. He needs to know that the people he trusts” -- his family, she means, god help her -- “aren’t going anywhere.”

She can’t think where she put her last half-dozen throwing knives, and she digs through her dresser until she realizes she’s hung them, still on the slim bandolier, over the corner of her mirror. She reaches for them, slinging the belt over her shoulder, and catches sight of Steve’s reflection, framed by her bedroom doorway, his mouth open in shock.

“I didn’t --” he says, softly, “I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

She doesn’t waste her breath berating him further. She cinches her jacket closed over her uniform and weaponry, and swings herself up into the vent, leaving Steve behind, still standing in her bedroom doorway, gaping.

They burst into the armory in time to catch Clint reaching for the iconic recurved bow.

"Where do you think you're going?" Natasha snaps.

"You wouldn't understand. I hear you killed your family."

If I had it would have been a better fate than being burned alive. "You can't believe everything you hear."

"Barney is my blood. I won't leave him behind for anything."

"I know you don't remember," says Natasha, "So I will tell you the truth about your good-for-nothing brother.

"He ran and never looked back."

"I'm sure he had his reasons. He would have come back. You don't understand. We're blood. That's all that matters."


***

Dinner with the avengers is fraught that night, and Steve tries and fails miserably to make conversation, tries to ask Clint about maybe going to school or something. But he gets no words out of Clint, who eats mechanically, looking neither left nor right, then immediately escuses himself when he's done. He gets up from the table, places his dishes near the sink with unnecessary precision, then disappears into the shadows of the living room, slinking into the dark, his shoulders hunched dejectedly. Steve frowns, clearly worried, but Natasha is the one who gets up from her seat, motions for the rest of them to continue with their meals, and goes to find Clint.

"You were right."

"Are you actually admitting that I wasn't completely ass-backward when I said something?"

"Don't let it go to your head," Natasha says, levely. "Blood matters -- you were right."

"How would you know? You said you didn't even have a family."

"Not the way you meant," Natasha says, "Parents, siblings, all the relatives I've never known -- dead for longer than you'd believe."

She sits down next to him then, lightly and distant enough that the mattress doesn't dip under him and force him to lean towards her.

"Those people," she tilts her head in the direction of the dining room, "They're not just my team. I've bled with them, fought for them." Blood matters, she's telling him, who you were born to makes no difference

"You've killed for them," Clint says, as if this is the part that matters most. "I mean, like -- to protect them."

"Yes." Natasha nods, conceding the point. "And these days, I don't kill for just anyone." It's an important distinction to make. The people you share blood with, who bleed with you, who will bleed for you -- these people matter. "I've done it for you," she tells him. 

"I know I should be scared, but." He spreads his hands and his teeth gleam a little in the low light when he smirks, the set of his shoulders a little more confident than before. She knows it's not healthy for a kid to feel reassured by death threats, even if they are made against purely hypothetical enemies, but if healthy was going to work, Steve would have this all wrapped up. 

***

The next day, she teaches Clint about the air ducts. Then takes him to shoot.





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charybdis

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