But Maria Hill had a headache. And not the kind two Advil and a cold compress could fix. It felt like a sharp, twisty screw was inching its way from one side of her skull to the other, taking no prisoners in its path of destruction through her brain.
The mission had been a disaster from the start; some faulty intel resulting in three of their best field agents being captured by the enemy and subsequently tortured for information none of them actually had. While Coulson had originally been in charge of the Op, Maria had been called in to help organize an emergency extraction.
What happened next was two hours and twelve minutes of listening in on comms as her agents, her friends, were beaten and bloodied. Kicked and punched. Hit with objects that sounded suspiciously like metal baseball bats. All for information they didn’t have, but wouldn’t have told even if they did.
Maria sighed as her headache only intensified at the memory, and she leant back in her chair a fraction so she could peer beneath the enormous conference table she and a handful of other senior agents were currently seated around.
Fury was still talking somewhere off to her right, his tone alternating every other sentence between angry, authoritarian overlord and reasonable, concerned human being. Maria had tuned him out within minutes of the start of the debrief. She wasn’t interested in being lectured to about a mission that hadn’t even been hers to begin with.
She scooted a little further down in her chair, craning her neck to the side until a bare leg came into view. It was Barton’s, judging by the size and hairyness of it. Tilting her head even more she could see that the man, no, boy, was curled up around some pillows, his bruised but patched up face looking almost serene as he slept.
As was typical with most high clearance level missions, any field agent who was Little could forgo participating in the debrief if they would be better served mentally by being dropped for a while first. They still needed to attend the meeting, but most conference rooms had makeshift play areas beneath the tables that they could occupy themselves with, or mattresses and blankets so they could nap.
Medical had been reluctant to clear Barton in time for this particular debrief, the archer having sustained more significant injuries than the other two in his misguided attempt to protect his partners. Morse and Romanoff had been livid with him at the time, but were now no doubt cuddled up to him further out of sight beneath the table.
Clint Barton was Little, but he was technically classified as a “big Little”. This meant he aged in at the very top of the spectrum, around twelve or thirteen. His SHIELD psych profile described his Little self as “a big boy who wants to be treated as an adult, but still has the impulse and emotional control of a child.” Maria thought it was unnervingly similar to the profile written about his adult self.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Barton was very, very, very protective of his current strike team partners. So much so that he would deliberately take the brunt of an enemy torturers ire if it meant the other two would be spared.
As adults, Barton, Morse, and Romanoff were friends and partners. Equals in the field, and if scuttlebutt were to be believed, equals in bed. As Littles, he was the overbearing big brother who would do absolutely anything to keep his little sisters happy and safe.
It drove Morse absolutely nuts. Her Little self aged in around eight, so she viewed herself as "fully capable of taking care of myself thank you very much". While the two got on amazingly well as adults, when dropped they always seemed to be squabbling about something or other.
Romanoff was different and was most likely the reason the three of them worked so well together, both in the field and on the proverbial playground. She was a Toddler; somewhere between 18 and 24 months. Mostly non-verbal, able to walk but preferring to crawl or be carried, and still in diapers when the situation allowed it.
She was pretty much the textbook definition of adorable. Cute, and sweet, and more than willing to dole out affection to any caregiver or big sibling in her path. For as much as Barton and Morse quarreled as Littles, Romanoff simply had to bat her eyelashes and stick out her lower lip and the two would forget whatever it was they were fighting about in order to shower their baby sister with all the love and attention she wanted.
It made Maria’s heart ache to watch the three interact as Littles, but she wouldn’t have made it this far in life without developing the ability to push it all down. To repress any desires she had to find something like that for herself. Not to mention she was legally classified as a Big, and no one at SHIELD, not even Fury, knew any different.
Without realizing it her eyelids had begun to droop and she would have most likely nodded off if not for the cartoonishly shrill sound of a ringing telephone suddenly echoing throughout the room. Jolting upright in her chair, she winced as the sudden movement only made her headache worse.
She quickly glanced around the table, nervous that one of the other handlers might have spotted her about to fall asleep, but everyone’s attention was still on Director Fury, who was no longer talking but instead looking down at his lap.
There was that ringing again and Maria watched in morbid fascination as the Director's face shifted from disgruntled at being interrupted to an expression Maria didn’t quite have the vocabulary to be able to describe.
“It’s for me?” Fury asked his lap, pausing a moment before reaching down beneath the table and returning a moment later with a bright yellow and blue plastic cellphone. The toy rang a third time, much louder now without the table in the way, and he quickly placed it to his ear.
“Hello? Yes, this is Fury, Nicholas J. Uh huh. Uh huh. No. No, I definitely didn’t order twelve cheese pizzas,” he answered, pausing every few seconds as if he were listening to someone on the other end. There was a delighted high pitched giggle from beneath the table which all but confirmed that it was Romanoff who was currently playing office secretary.
“Well I don’t care if they’re already paid for, I’m lactose intolerant, so you can take your twelve cheese pizzas and stick them where the sun don’t shine.” Fury made a dramatic but playful show of slamming the cell phone shut before winking at the two year old by his knees, handing the cell phone back down to her.
“Anyway, as I was saying, this entire cluster fuck could have easily been prevented if…”
Maria tuned him out again, her stomach flip flopping unpleasantly as she tried to shake away that feeling she got when her boss showed off his caretaker side.
It was dumb. She never felt that way around Coulson or Hand or any of the other senior agents she worked with. There was just something about a six foot one inch behemoth of a man pausing an important meeting to play pretend with a two year old that just messed with her head.
It wasn’t that she was jealous of Romanoff. She didn’t want that, whatever it was the agent had with the Director. It's just that caretakers weren’t supposed to play favorites at SHIELD. Maria was sure there was an official rule on the books somewhere, but everyone knew little Romanoff had Fury wrapped around her finger. It was the same with Barton and Coulson, or Morse and Hand.
It was all very much against regulations, something Maria hated but could do nothing about. She already had a reputation as an ice queen amongst her fellow handlers and was usually referred to as the evil stepmother by the Littles, a nickname she was certain Barton was responsible for. If she tried putting her foot down about the blatant fraternization going on within the ranks she’d probably be fired.
Or worse yet, exposed.
The sound of shuffling could now be heard from beneath the table, as well as the distinct sound of a plastic diaper rubbing against bare thighs. Maria scooted down in her seat again, not caring this time if she were being obvious. She suspected most of the other agents at the table were doing the same as her.
Little Romanoff was indeed in a diaper as well as a standard grey SHIELD t-shirt that seemed five sizes too big for her. What Maria could see of her exposed arms and legs made her wince. Apparently Barton wasn’t as successful as she’d thought at distracting their torturers. She didn’t appear to be in any pain however, and the worst of her injuries were already stitched up or bandaged.
It should have eased her distress a little but it didn’t. Even though Maria only pretended to be Big, she still had enough caretaker instincts to not want to see any of her fellow agents hurt. Maybe what she was feeling was what Barton felt for his little siblings?
No, no. She couldn’t go there.
Shut it down Maria.
Shut. It. Down.
She breathed in heavily through her nose, closing her eyes for a single count of ten, willing her heart to stop beating so damn heavily in her chest. This was not the time or place to have a freak out.
Luckily a distraction came in the form of the plastic cellphone ringing again. Beneath the table Maria could see Romanoff had paused in her crawling and was now sitting in front of Victoria Hand, the ridiculous looking toy already making it’s way into the senior agents hand before the second round of rings could even start.
“Hello? Oh, hi Isabelle! It’s been ages! How are you?” Unlike with Fury, Victoria Hand’s expression didn’t change all that much as she talked, but her exaggeratingly enunciated words were enough to get Romanoff giggling and clapping her hands in delight.
On her right Fury was still talking, having moved on from what they had done wrong, to what he expected of them all in the future. He wasn’t the least bit bothered that one of his top agents was obviously no longer paying attention.
It was all so normal for them, this thing they all did. That they could have one foot firmly planted in reality while the other foot skipped off to magical imagination land, and no one seemed to even blink at the stark juxtaposition between the two. She understood it was a “Big” thing, and that she herself was supposed to be able to do it too, but fuck if it didn’t weird her out every time she saw it happen.
It was one of the reasons Bigs rarely made good field agents. They couldn’t turn it off the way Littles could. Or compartmentalize, as Fury liked to call it. A Little could go out into the field, shoot half a dozen enemy combatants between the eyes, then fly home with a blanket and a bottle in each hand and be perfectly fine in 24 hours.
If a Big went out into the field and was forced to kill an enemy Little, well, Melinda May was the perfect example of why they tried not to let that happen anymore. For most Bigs, the distinction between friend and foe was a lot harder to recognize when their first instinct was to pick up and cuddle the crying soldier they'd just shot multiple times in the chest.
It’s not that Bigs couldn’t work in the field, and when push came to shove many of them still did, but SHIELD, as a progressively minded organization, tried to minimize that particular psychological trauma amongst its employees whenever it could be helped.
“Sure thing hon, I’ll talk to you soon!” Hand eventually finished her conversation, hanging up the phone and handing it back down to Romanoff. Maria watched under the table as the woman drew her palm gently across the girl's cheek, cupping her face and smiling at her as if the Toddler were the most precious thing in the whole wide world.
The pained noise that unexpectedly erupted from Maria’s throat caused both caretaker and Little to turn and look at her, Hand’s concerned gaze boring into her from above the table, while Romanoff’s confused one did the same from below. Straightening up in her seat, Maria closed her eyes and silently prayed that they would both just let it go.
Ring Ring Ring Ring
Ring Ring Ring Ring
Maria slowly opened her eyes and peered down at her lap, every alarm bell in her repertoire going off when a pair of crystal blue eyes stared back up at her from between her knees.
Little Romanoff had a pacifier between her lips, the light blue plastic of the soother heartbreakingly stained with drying blood from her otherwise hidden split lip. There was a cut above her left eye that appeared to be held together with butterfly sutures and the entire right side of her face looked swollen and red.
Maria was infinitely glad that the extraction team had made sure to terminate anyone who’d laid a hand on one of their operatives.
Ring Ring Ring Ring
Ring Ring Ring Ring
Little Romanoff was holding up her toy phone now, her expression a mix between cautious and hopeful as she waited for Maria to take it.
Only Maria couldn’t take it from her. She couldn’t. What would she do with it? What would she say? She couldn’t fake it like the others could. Couldn’t pretend to chat to her long lost cousin from Bora Bora, or pretend she were ordering a cake for her nieces sixth birthday. That was something Bigs did, and she wasn’t a Big. She wasn’t-
“Answer the damn phone Hill,” Fury’s voice bellowed from across the table and all eyes in the room turned to look at her.
She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t. She shook her head frantically, staring wide eyed at her boss and then each of her fellow handlers in turn. Hand looked concerned. Sitwell looked smug. Coulson looked like he was about to reach across the table and scoop her into a hug.
“I- I-“ she stammered, looking down at Romanoff as the phone rang for a third time. She was still her Little self, but something in her eyes had changed, as if there were some of her adult self peeking through. Most likely judging her, analyzing her reaction.
She was going to be found out if she didn’t get out of there.
Knock Knock Knock
All heads swiveled to look at the door as a flustered and out of breath level three agent appeared. “I’m so sorry to interrupt Sir, but there’s a situation down in the canteen. The strike team have taken the kitchen staff hostage and have barricaded all the doors. No one can get in or out.”
All eyes in the room shifted now to Fury, who looked deeply pensive for a moment. “Have they made any demands yet?” he asked, barely seeming concerned for the welfare of his employees.
“Yes sir, they want cookie dough ice cream and Oreos. Except it’s Tuesday, Sir, so we only have chips ahoy and mint chocolate chip ice cream on the menu.”
Fury narrowed his eyes at this. “And so you thought to run your scraggly ass all the way up here and interrupt a level six classified debrief instead of, I don’t know, walking two blocks down the street to the store to get them what they want?”
The agent paled at that. “But Sir, SHIELD protocol states that we don’t negotiate with terrorists.”
Fury barked out a laugh at that. “Terrorists? No. Cranky Toddlers? We’ll make an exception for. Now do this agency a favor and get your ass to the store and buy those hungry Littles what they want!”
The door slammed shut as the agent fled in fear, and Maria wondered if she’d have to speak to HR about him in the future. THe kid was obviously a Big, just not a very astute one. Even the baby agents knew that whatever the strike team wanted, the strike team got. This wasn’t the first time Rumlow and his team had taken over an area of the building whilst Little and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
“Alright, we’re done here for now," Fury spoke up. "I want everyones reports on Coulson's desk by next week, and that includes the three bears hiding under the table. Dismissed.”
Maria closed her eyes and slumped forward, rested her forehead on the table as the other senior agents either got up and left or began coaxing the Littles from beneath the table. She could hear Barton groaning as he protested being woken up, and Morse sniffling as she no doubt did the same. They were obviously both still tired and Maria absently wondered if Coulson would take them back to his office or drop them off at the daycare.
Knowing Coulson it was probably the former. There was a reason his office was twice as big as everyone else's. She could barely fit her desk and a couple of filing cabinets in hers, let alone a travel crib and collapsable playpen.
Which was probably for the best, considering how she felt in that moment. Couldn’t give in to the temptation if there was no room to take a nap.
The room had grown quiet now and she breathed a sigh of relief at finally being alone. Or so she thought. A slight tugging on her pant leg nearly had her jumping out of her chair, but she managed to collect herself before she did something stupid like pulling a gun on a two year old.
Romanoff was still beneath the table and she was pulling on Maria’s pant leg like she had something important she needed her attention for. Maria steeled herself as she sat up, hoping it wasn’t the damn telephone again because she wasn’t sure how she would react if it was, and anyone who made the Black Widow cry deserved to be fired.
“Yes, what is it?” she asked the girl, pushing her chair back a few inches so she could more easily see beneath the table. The telephone was on the floor to the girls left, seemingly forgotten about in the kerfuffle of the last few minutes.
Little Romanoff was looking at her with the same expression she’d had earlier, like she was seeing through Maria’s carefully honed and mostly perfected mask. It made her want to get up and run out of the room but the girl’s iron grip on her pant leg kept her firmly rooted to the spot.
“Do you need something Natasha? Can you use your big girl words for me?” Maria asked, hoping her voice sounded more confident than she felt. The little girl just continued to stare at her, her lips and tongue working occasionally at the pacifier still in her mouth. “Do you want me to get someone else? I could get Coulson or maybe Fury-“
Romanoff shook her head quickly, looking behind her at the now vacated bedding, then back up at Maria questioningly. Maria tried not to look at the bed, her headache suddenly throbbing again as she tried to suppress how badly she wanted a nap.
She was seriously considering taking the rest of the day off, but first she had to figure out what Romanoff wanted. As awful a caretaker as she was, she’d never leave a Little alone. Especially not after the mission the agent had just endured.
“Honey I don’t know what you want,” Maria all but whined after Romanoff tugged on her pant leg again. This only served to frustrate the Toddler, causing her to tug harder as she pulled the pacifier out of her mouth with her other hand.
“S’eep,” Romanoff insisted, her L’s all but nonexistent when she was Little. She pointed behind her at the bed and then up Maria. “Ria s’eep!” She yanked on Maria’s pant leg even harder this time.
Maria was too exhausted to fight the girl and she begrudgingly pushed her chair back and climbed beneath the table with her. “Honey, if you need a nap you should go to Coulson's office," she practically pleaded, watching now as the girl crawled onto the mattress and flopped down against the pillows and blankets. “I can’t leave you in here by yourself.” She tried to reason but it was clear Romanoff wasn’t going to be swayed.
“Ria s’eep now,” the girl insisted one last time, placing her pacifier back in her mouth. The cut on her lip must have opened again because a small trickle of blood began to drip down her cheek towards the pillow. Maria sighed, crawling onto the mattress next to her and gently wiping the blood away with the corner of a blanket.
The girl stayed quiet as she did this, her eyes tracking every movement Maria made. Even now, deep in her Little headspace, she was still just as observant as usual. And probably just as deadly. Maria tried not to think of that as she stared down at the finally content girl. “You happy now? You wanted me down here with you?”
Romanoff nodded her head, sucking on her pacifier despite the pain it must be causing her. “Ria s’eep,” she insisted again, her words muffled now behind the soother. She patted the mattress next to her and Maria could no longer pretend she didn’t understand what the girl wanted.
“Alright, Maria will sleep too, but only until big Natasha comes back,” she conceded, laying herself down next to the girl. If anyone should come in and catch them she could easily explain it away as her not wanting to leave Romanoff alone, and the girl not willing to leave the room.
No one would have to know that the moment her head hit the Mickey Mouse shaped pillow she was out like a light.