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She had been watching the data feed when it happened. Surrounded by snack options both healthy and less-than, she glared at the potential perpetrators even though a not so small part of her knew they were not at fault as she really had barely touched them at all. It was odd considering she had feasted upon damn near anything and everything for the past few days, but the thought of food currently just made her stomach turn, and not in a happy or mild way.

Bruce had told her that her body had been preparing for the inevitable. He warned that the want of food was a sign, especially if it was immediately followed by not wanting anything at all. Her body was shoring up its reserves, hoarding the energy and calories she would need to bring the life that currently dwelled inside her out into the world. She was still technically a week and a half out but, really, who could predict just when a supposedly sterile woman would give birth to the genetically engineered clone of herself?

She needed to pee yet again, so she pushed herself up and out of one of the multitude of extremely comfortable chairs that now littered the Tower as a whole ever since she reluctantly admitted she liked them. It took her two tries to succeed because she refused to hint at the need for assistance even though she knew all she needed to do was call and there would be a multitude of offers. Nearly as soon as she managed it there was a wave of something determinedly more than just the usual pressure on her bladder.

"Shit," she swore, and glanced at the mess that began to trickle down to the floor. At least there were plenty more chairs to replace the one she had so recently claimed for herself. Apparently it had not been simple indigestion after all and she owed Bruce an apology. She also owed him an update per her previous promise, so she keyed the comm she was to keep with her at all times and casually asked, "So, Banner, did you happen to brush up on your baby catching skills recently?"

"Oddly enough, I did," came the reply. She could hear the sounds of his movement in the background before he asked, "Can I assume such skills are needed at this time?"

She did not immediately reply, but that was because she was busy gripping both the desk and the wall as a new and entirely uncomfortable sensation reverberated through her abdomen. "Pretty damn sure," she managed, and hated how breathless she sounded.

There was the pounding of footsteps, the skid of heavy boots across the floor. "For fuck's sake, Nat, really?" But then Clint was there at her side, hand wrapped around her as he supported her rather shaky attempt to walk.

She knew he was tempted to just haul her up into his arms, mess and all, and carry her to the room they had set aside for this very event, so she warned, "Don't even think of it."

He snorted in response and tightened his hold slightly, but otherwise let her be. He waited until they were in the elevator to look up at the ceiling and request, "JARVIS, inform the others and initiate lockdown."

The AI might have said something in response, she honestly was not sure as she was too busy trying to catch her breath. She gripped onto the railing as another wave of not quite contractions but definitely something nauseatingly uncomfortable rolled through her. "Well, this is annoying," she said as glibly as she could manage.

"This is just the prelude, wait 'til you get to the finale," Clint warned. A lesser person would have flipped him off; she just settled for glaring at his reflection in the polished metal.

She refused the wheelchair that was waiting for her when the doors opened and Bruce pushed it off to the side without question. Clint continued to hold her and support her as she managed to get to the well-reinforced room under her own power, but drew the line when she gripped the side of the mattress for support as what she considered to be an actual contraction hit. What she had before was just her body preparing, or so she told herself, as this was a whole new level of very specific discomfort.

"Screw this," Clint muttered, and bodily lifted her up on top of the hospital-style bed. He didn't even have the grace to look ashamed, and simply stepped back out of the way when she tried to smack his arm. He waited until she adjusted herself into a slightly more comfortable position and then stepped forward again to help her remove her ruined clothing and the sad little slip-on shoes she had taken to wearing in the past week.

Bruce offered her a gown for modesty, though the tips of his ears lit red with embarrassment at her current state of undress. Barton had no such qualms as the two of them had seen each other in damn near every situation possible in the past, so he likely just chalked this up to one more.

They both adjusted the drape of the fabric though, and Bruce looked doubtingly over to Clint to ask, "You going to be okay with this?"

Clint rolled his eyes and patted Natasha's hand in a surprisingly non-condescending manner. "First of all, the kid's gotta come out somehow and even Richards doesn't have the teleportation technology for this," he drawled. He then shifted and removed the gear from where he had tucked it behind the bed several days prior. He slid a quiver into place on one side and a holster on the other, bow left tucked at his feet. "Secondly, there is no way I'm not going to have her back."

"I had meant the partial nudity and the amount of blood and other unsundries there is likely to be, but I should have known better by now," Bruce grumbled good-naturedly as he reached for a monitor.

Clint cocked a hip to rest up against the side of the bed, hand instantly there when another wave passed over her to give her something to squeeze. He didn't even wince or flinch from the force of it. Instead, in a remarkably even voice, he offered, "Unsundries are part and parcel in this line of work, doc." There was a pause and a blink and then, "Though I may eventually have to ask you to help me reset some fingers if this keeps up."

Bruce snorted and Natasha made an attempt to loosen her hold even while Clint tightened his. The pain and pressure had passed for now, and she flopped back against the pillows with a huff of her own. "This is going to suck, isn't it?" she asked warily.

"Pretty much," Bruce agreed. He began to prep an IV for fluids only as she already had stated drugs were out of the picture given their likely need for defense during or after the birth and she wanted to be relatively clear-headed for that. He held the needle in one hand, possibly in a sort of defense of his own, when he added, "Just think, most women only have to go through it for four to thirty-six hours though."

She narrowed her eyes at him and tried not to think of all the ways she could incapacitate him, Hulk or no, with what he held. "Why do we always think you're the nice one?" she asked with a quirk of her lips.

"I really have no idea," he admitted dryly before swabbing her hand.

She knew he was joking, even as she knew he was telling the truth. Twelve hours was considered average for a first birth, sometimes edging upwards from there. She had done her research, even though she doubted her personal status was anywhere near average. Her first and likely only experience would involve far too many extraneous variables for that. Then again, she did have to admit to at least herself that she hoped those variables would help her become one of the outliers, preferably with a preference towards the shorter end of the spectrum and not the horror tales of days of cyclical pain and lack of progress until the child was finally ready to enter the world.

What followed was seventeen hours and thirty-six minutes of extreme discomfort.

Clint stayed at her side throughout the ordeal, occasionally pushed into a chair in the corner to rest while one of her plethora of teammates took over handholding duties. He never left though, and while she might have caught him dozing once or twice, she knew she only had to whisper his name for him to be upright and on full alert.

Food was brought and taken away more than once, the smell alone making her nauseous even though she knew she should probably eat. Clint managed that as well, eating quickly so the scent wouldn't linger and usually snagging an item or two off of her own relatively untouched plate. Thor was the only one successful in getting her to consume the sum total of what he brought. She didn't know if his presence somehow calmed her further, or it was the fact his offerings were just odd and exactly what she wanted, but it worked and she was grateful.

Not that those hours were solely food and contractions. There were at least six separate calls to assemble that she knew of, and she was fairly certain the others were keeping things from her just as they had been for the past several days before the big event. Four of those were false reports rerouted via SHIELD's servers and tracked down with great prejudice by certain protective agents. One report involved helicopters and a very irate Thor with possibly the assistance of Orono. The final report was a direct attack on the Tower itself, Steve and Tony taking to arms while Thor took to the sky. JARVIS kept her updated on all of them and she knew the game was as good as over when SUVs with a certain winged decal surrounded the building to assist, this time with direct confirmation that it really was who it seemed.

If her suspicions were correct, someone out there knew an approximate timeline of her pregnancy and was hoping to capitalize on it before she herself was back in the picture to protect her child. If her suspicions were correct, those who had made their move would not be capable of trying again any time soon.

In the end, SHIELD had agents on a protective detail around the Tower as a whole and the Avengers themselves had looked over every single tile that had been knocked out of place during the attack to verify that there were no lingering threats. For her part, she was busy holding a tiny squabbling and squirming infant with the faintest threads of red hair and a solid set of lungs.

Bruce cleaned up the mess left behind by the birth and afterbirth and had advised her to rest while she could even though they both knew she wouldn't. She had changed into something a little less flimsy and assured him that no, she did not need to know nor follow various practices regarding the placenta, but instead for him to make certain all traces of it were destroyed so no one could use it to try to recreate the experiment.

Later, after her daughter finally drifted to sleep and had been placed in the tiny painted cradle at her side, she almost began to doze. Bruce had fallen asleep in a second chair that had been brought in around hour six of the ordeal, and Clint snored softly from where he was curled up in the first. Proximity sensors were at full strength and her door sealed with biometric locks. She managed an entire hour and forty-six minutes of rest before she heard the soft rustling and not quite whimpers.

The building as a whole was still on lockdown, and she figured it was time she did something more than lie back and let others handle the difficult jobs. She managed to get up out of the bed with minimal fuss though her body still ached from its recent exertions. She tied her robe around her waist and slid her feet into the soft little slippers Pepper had left her and reached for her daughter before she could wail and give the game away.

It was amazing how just a few shuffling steps seemed to calm them both. She nuzzled the soft little down of the hair atop an otherwise relatively bald little head and held the impossibly small body close. The quilt Bruce had gifted her with was wrapped just the way the diagram she had found online had suggested, and it seemed to hold in any flailing arms or legs for the most part.

She walked further now, just past the door with its highly specialized lock and into the main hallway. The lights were dimmed in deference to the late hour but there was still enough to see by, still enough to trace the flow of shadows by.

One of those shadows moved and she said, in as soft tone as she could muster so as not to wake the sleeping child, "Her name is Anya. You'll have to go through me to get her."

The gun that had been tucked into her robe was already in hand by the time Illiana stepped fully into the light. She looked the same as she had all those long years before in the Red Room, exuding confidence and strength. The hair that was still pulled back tightly was tinged with gray now, and the wrinkles around her frown betrayed hints of her true age. When she spoke, it was condescending and cool, as though Natasha was nothing more than a bother of a waif to be pushed to the side while the true matters at hand were tended to.

"After that ridiculous midwife that couldn't save your last one?" Illiana sneered. The sneer turned to an overdramatic sigh. It was a game, a play at emotions she would never understand but could try to replicate if needed. "I had hoped you would return to us, Natalia. Now that it has been proven we can duplicate-"

Her words were cut short as she gasped for breath, red blooming dark against the weave of her fine silk blouse. She looked down seemingly in confusion at the double wounds that stood side by side, one from a bullet and one from an arrow whose shaft still protruded awkward and visible. She collapsed slowly, first to her knees and then to her death, eyes still wide as though contemplating what had happened to the very end.

"I already got Igor One and Igor Two in the stairwell," Clint informed her, now at her side. He had another arrow primed and ready in direct contrast to his assurance of, "I think that should be it. We only had three unaccounted for."

Bruce appeared at her other side and offered his hand to take the gun as she sure as hell was not about to release the baby. He had a slight tint of green to him, but his voice was relatively steady when he asked, "Did she really just sleep through all of that?"

Natasha shrugged, she and her daughter moving as one with the motion. "I used a silencer," she said defensively, which only earned her a quiet snort.

Later, after a full sweep of the building confirmed only one other intruder who was summarily taken care of practically before she could blink, Natasha sat curled up atop the soft cushions of the couch in her own rooms, daughter once again almost asleep in her arms. Her favorite tea and her favorite treats were laid out before her, but she was happy to let the others make their way through them as something else entirely currently held her attention.

"Are we just going to keep calling her 'her' or 'it' or 'the baby' or 'Natasha 2.0' or are you going to eventually name the thing?" Tony asked around a mouthful of cookie.

"Kid's name is Anya," Clint said, fingers hovering above the soft hair. "Like JARVIS didn't tell you about the birth announcement," he added with a scoff.

"Anya Frances Romanova," Natasha corrected. She made certain to look up in time to see Clint's reaction, and did not regret it. Wide eyes, mouth slightly open, hand still hanging in mid-air - he looked ridiculous, and she loved every moment of it.

"W-Huh?" Clint stuttered when he finally found something that approximated words.

"Because you held my hair back while I threw up," she told him with a small grin, one that was returned with interest.

Steve nodded as if he had expected no less. "It's not like Clint is really that common of a girl's name," he agreed.

"Even if he fights like one?" Tony asked with a grin. She kicked him in the shin and Steve swatted him across the back of his head. Bruce simply rolled his eyes and Thor seemed to wait to see if she were truly offended before he did anything. "What? It was meant as a compliment!" Stark said defensively. He rubbed his shin and added a muttered, "Kind of."

"Your Shield Brother should be honored to be compared to your fighting prowess," Thor said, finally jumping into the fray. "And your daughter should be proud to aspire to such talents."

Natasha looked down at the now sleeping child, the way one tiny fist thrust up into the air away from her quilt and towards Clint's nose. She thought of everything she had gone through to reach this point in her life, the sacrifices and hardships and body count. She knew Thor meant well, but she also knew she would never wish such a life upon another, least of all someone who was still so innocent and untainted. "I really hope not," she admitted.

He took no offense though, and simply nodded. "A fair wish," he told her.

She knew she would do everything in her power to make that wish come true, even if it seemed like the odds were well and truly stacked against them both. She looked around at the others, at the room full of heroes and godparents and protectors that hung on her child's every breath and sighed happily every time the tiny fingers so much as twitched, and she couldn't help but to think that maybe, just maybe, they stood a chance after all.

 

End.