Natasha can't figure out what's more bizarre about this situation. Is it that Barton brought her to this most secret and sacred of safehouses and has allowed her to meet his wife and children? Or that Barton's daughter, a little round-cheeked toddling thing with stubby pigtails, has somehow decided Natasha is her friend?
They are barely a week out from the mission on which Barton was supposed to kill her and didn't; he has said she'll talk to his boss when she's ready. In the meantime, apparently he thinks that a mere scrubbing with soap has made her hands clean enough to touch his child.
"Here, take her," Barton says. They are out on the farmhouse porch together in the twilight after dinner. Barton's wife and older child are still inside at the table, working and coloring respectively. The baby has escalated her fascination with Natasha from waddling after her to leaning precariously out of Barton's arms in her direction. She's making demanding little sounds that are perfectly clear despite not being words.
Natasha humors Barton and takes the child--she can see how, it's not hard to balance the little girl on her hip.
"Well, that's it, we definitely can't let you go if my baby likes you," Barton says, as the child snuggles emphatically into Natasha's body.
Natasha hears and understands the element of teasing in his voice even as she braces against the implication. The child is a warm weight, a burden unbalancing her. The child is rubbing her cheek into Natasha's shoulder and winding one chubby hand into her hair. It hurts, but not enough to distract her.
"Hey, Lou, don't," Barton says, and reaches over to pry the child's--Lou's--fingers open. "Don't pull Nat's hair. You gotta be nice to her or she won't teach you all her secret knife tricks."
All Natasha's questions are answered at once. Understanding snaps perfectly into place along with her own answer: No. She pulls her knife and twists her body to shift Lou away from Barton at the same time she presses the flat to his throat, forcing him back against one of the pillars supporting the porch roof.
"I won't," Natasha growls, already planning her escape. She'll be burdened by the child, but she will not let that stop her. "I will never."
She will not train another child as she was trained. She will not help the Americans build a Red Room for their SHIELD. This child--probably not even Barton's, probably a plant, the first test subject, and the boy and wife mere camouflage--this child will never be a widow. Natasha will never do to another little girl what was done to her.
"Uh," Barton is saying, his gaze darting from Natasha's eyes to the baby to the house's windows--but the woman and boy are in the kitchen, out of sight from the porch. "Yeah, okay, Nat, no problem."
"Don't pretend," Natasha whispers fiercely. "I know what you want now and I will not."
She should kill him immediately--should have killed him as soon as she realized--but his gaze keeps flicking to the baby.
Natasha remembers the way the little girl flung herself at him when they first arrived. She really is his daughter, perhaps, or at least he cares for her. He may be conflicted about sacrificing her to training; perhaps Natasha can suborn Barton right back if she uses the child for leverage.
She searches for words. There must be words, of course she has words for this, but she has already lost her cool, revealed far too much of her position. She just needs a second to work this out and then...
She sees the flash of light on metal a fraction of a second before Laura Barton says, "Natasha, I'm sure this is a misunderstanding, but you're going to need to put down either the knife or my daughter before I straighten things out on my own."
Laura is holding a handgun--a Browning, matte black, in a no-nonsense two-handed grip. The reflection Natasha saw wasn't from the gun but the new bracelet Barton had brought back for her. He had said it was a present to balance out Natasha's unexpected presence.
Laura is standing at the other end of the porch, far enough that she would be able to get a shot off before Natasha could charge her--not that she could, without turning her back on Barton. The same goes for throwing the knife.
Natasha is cornered, but she will not surrender. There is nothing they can do to her that hasn't already been done, or shouldn't already have been done. She will not let them have her or the child. Not for this.
Natasha shifts her grip on Lou, cuddling her closer. "Oh, I understand. But I won't train her. I won't train anyone."
"Joke," Barton says softly, and she can feel the faint vibration of his voice through the blade against his neck. "Bad joke."
Natasha cuts a glance back at him, and then at Laura, who is looking a little exasperated. "Natasha, listen to me. I'm sure you're aware by now that Clint acts on impulse a lot. I married him because his heart is good, and the things he does on impulse are almost always kindly intended. The things he says on impulse can be really, really stupid. So whatever he said--"
"He wants me to train her," Natasha snapped. "It's why I'm alive, it's why the Americans want me. To make more. I won't--shoot me if you're going to shoot me, but I won't do it."
Laura shakes her head. "Natasha, look around. Why do you think we live out here? It's so the kids can be kids, so they won't get sucked into Clint's career. The last thing we want is for them to feel like they have to follow in our footsteps."
Natasha catches that our, although Laura's confidence holding a gun already betrayed some of it. She looks back to Barton.
"Honest to God, Nat," he says quietly. "Just want her to be able to stab boys who get handsy by the time she goes to high school. Nothing else."
Natasha looks back and forth between them. They seem truthful, even to her trained observations, as they have seemed all along. Barton's actions support the theory that he was working counter to his orders when he spared her--but there are orders and orders, goals and goals.
In the waiting silence--Natasha has to weigh also the limited ruthlessness demonstrated by a woman who has not pulled the trigger yet, a man who has not struggled at all against her blade--she hears a tiny urgent sound coming from Lou. Natasha hoists her higher against her hip, bouncing her a little as she's seen Barton and Laura do, but Lou flings herself hard against Natasha's grip. Reaching for her father.
Reaching for the shiny blade of the knife at her father's throat.
It's only a baby's fascination with an unfamiliar object, she thinks, but she also sees the real truth behind her first arrogant misapprehension. She has not been brought here by evil people for her unique ability to perpetuate evil against this child. She has been brought here by a kind man who can't understand what she really is, and the mere fact of her nature will spill its legacy onto this child if she stays. The Red Room is in her too deep; she cannot be near a child and not train her, in some small way. Even now, she is teaching Lou what she herself was taught.
Natasha spins, lashing out with both hands at once. She shoves Lou into her father's chest, throws the knife hilt-first to knock the gun from Laura's hands before she runs into the gathering dark.
She cannot stay here. With SHIELD, perhaps, and in America if she can contrive it, but she will not be the serpent in this garden. Barton was wrong to bring her here; it's up to her to rectify his error.
She takes cover on the far side of the barn and pauses to regroup. She can survive in wilderness conditions, of course, but it's not her specialty, and evading people familiar with the terrain will be even more challenging. Worse, she has no idea what lies beyond the woods that bound this farm. There could be a SHIELD facility just over the hill.
Why did she trust Barton? Why did she trust herself with Barton? His coaxing about becoming one of the good guys was more seductive than any other lie she ever believed. She can still use her talents for good ends--she only has to remember what she is. A weapon. Not to be left out for children to play with.
She tilts her head back against the weathered boards, breathing deeply and steadily. The sky is a very deep, clear blue, and there are no stars yet. When there are stars she will be able to use them to navigate.
She listens for sounds from the house and hears, very faint and muffled, Barton's voice shouting Callum's name. Not in any particular anxiety, but as if he is far away from the child, raising his voice to be heard. Laura must have sent her son to hide somewhere before she came to confront Natasha.
She strains for some sound of Laura's voice, or Lou's, but she hears nothing of either of them until a sudden happy shriek from Lou, less than ten yards away on the other side of the barn.
"Almost got that one," Laura says, her tone encouraging. "Go on, doodlebug."
Laura has brought her child nearly to Natasha's hiding place. It's the only cover short of the tree line, so it will have been obvious where she went. Natasha closes her eyes. She cannot let herself be lured back. She knows what she is. The possibility that she could stay safely in a home like this, with a family...
"Okay, baby, you hunt fireflies," Laura says. From the sound of her voice she's sitting down, her back to the side of the barn.
"Mama's going to tell you the story about the time she spent a whole night holding Callum in one hand and a shotgun in the other because Daddy was off on his first SHIELD mission. Mama dozed off and woke up to find Cal had cuddled right up to the barrel of the gun in his sleep. And there I was with my finger still on the trigger guard."
Natasha scowls at the sky. She won't argue. There is no point in arguing.
She hears herself say, "It's not the same."
"No?" Laura says, giving up any pretense of speaking to Lou instead of Natasha. From the sound of her voice she has turned her head in Natasha's direction. "You think you're the only person within a stone's throw who might teach a kid lessons she'd rather not have learned? Clint and I, both of us, we're the children of violent men. He ran away from his father when he was twelve, but I had to wait until the Army would take me. Clint and I were pretty much agreed that we should never have kids because neither of us knew a damn thing about how not to be the worst kind of parent, and then I got pregnant with Cal, and neither of us could bear to give up without giving it a shot. And still, every time I yell at the kids, I hear my father's voice coming out of my mouth. When Cal was a toddler Clint almost refused to ever be alone with him, he was so scared he would spontaneously recreate his first memories of his father. We're all our parents' children."
"I'm not the child of anyone," Natasha argues, coming around the corner to actually look at Laura. She's arrested by the sight of Lou stumbling after the green glowing sparks of fireflies, and instead of what she meant to say she says, "And I can never have children, either. No little miracles for people like me."
No chance at redemption, not the kind ordinary people with ordinary fucked up childhoods can have by raising happy children like a black market crop on their isolated farm.
"Well, I don't know," Laura says, stretching out her legs where she sits. Lou makes a grab at a firefly and overbalances, smacks face-first into the grass. Natasha has no intention of moving but she's there before Lou even makes a sound. Natasha picks her up, checking for injuries by touch as much as sight, and Lou lunges into her arms. When the baby does cry out, it's a happy squeal at finding herself in Natasha's possession again.
Natasha can't push her away. She carries her to Laura, instead, but Laura only pats the ground beside her instead of taking Lou. Natasha sits, hoping Lou will get bored and reach for her mother, or a firefly.
"The funny thing about kids is they keep on being miracles even after they're born," Laura says, as though nothing happened since she last spoke.
"Every time they wake up--and definitely every damn time they finally go to sleep. Lou's got enough miracles in her for at least three people."
Natasha shakes her head, but it only incites Lou to grab hold of her hair again.
"I don't know if you noticed," Laura goes on, "but Clint and I are pretty short on family except for each other and these two. We've gone way the hell out of our way to make sure they don't have grandparents, and there are no aunts or uncles we'd trust as far as we could throw 'em."
"You can't trust me," Natasha says fiercely, even as she plucks at Lou's hand with gentle fingers, trying to detach the baby from her hair.
"You just pulled a knife on the guy who saved your life to protect my daughter," Laura said. "Not to mention doing the ten-yard mama dash just now. I'm pretty used to judging people by their impulses, Natasha. Clint's are good. So are yours."
"I'm not," Natasha says, but she wants to believe it. Even more from this woman than from Barton, she wants to believe that this is possible. Her voice is already wavering as she says, "I can't..."
"Family isn't only blood," Laura says, reaching out to join her hand to Natasha's in the effort to pry Lou's fingers out of her hair. Her palm curls warmly around Natasha's knuckles.
"Family is choices, too. Clint and I chose each other after we'd both walked away from every other family we'd ever had. Cal was just an accident until we chose to keep him, and once we were settled here we chose to try for Lou. Clint chose to keep you alive and to bring you here, and I chose to trust his judgment. The next choice is up to you; you can be somebody who stayed over or a while--in which case we'll trust you to spend the rest of your life not giving this location away--or you can stay. Be Aunt Natasha, if you like the sound of that. See what you learn, trying to teach a kid the opposite of what you were taught."
"Aunt Natasha," Natasha repeats dubiously. It doesn't sound quite right in her mouth, but she doesn't know what little children call their aunts. She never was one, nor had one.
Lou squeals happily, as though she has taken the words for some kind of promise, and Natasha thinks perhaps they were. The Red Room never wanted her to have a child so that nothing could distract her from a mission, but she can choose her own priorities now. She can't reshape her own body, but she can choose this.
"If any high school boy is ever handsy with you," Natasha says solemnly to the child doing her best to eat Natasha's hair, "I will come back here and stab him for you. You'll never need to know how."
Never is a promise, just as much as always. She cannot be truly sure of keeping it. She can only choose to try.
Laura stands and offers her hand, and Natasha shifts the awkward weight of the toddler in her arms and accepts the help up. Halfway back to the bright beacon of the house, Laura offers her her knife back, and as Natasha puts it away she catches a glimpse of the Browning tucked into the back of Laura's jeans. It occurs to her that Laura will probably see to handsy high school boys before Natasha has a chance, but they can work out a suitable division of labor should it come to that.
"Is the SHIELD agent the least armed adult on this farm?" Natasha asked, shifting her grip on Lou to get the knife back into its sheath.
"He's responsible for everything outside of a hundred yards," Laura said. "That's why we picked this place, he likes the sightlines, as long as we keep the grass short. Close in, that's my job. And yours, maybe. If you're staying."
"I could stay," Natasha says, as they walk up the porch steps. The words are careful, noncommittal, but she knows Laura knows what she means.
There is enough light from inside to show her Laura Barton's smile. "Good. Welcome to the family, Auntie Nat."