The dream always starts the same way. He hates it more and more every time he has it. He’s standing in the middle of the big top, which makes no damn sense. The last time he’d been anywhere near a circus, he’d been still wet behind the ears – for all that he thought he knew everything, seen it all, and done it twice over – a seventeen year old kid, just a day late and a dollar short from realizing he wasn’t the end all be all, and that his life needed some sort of serious overhaul stat. But the logic of dreams doesn’t have to account for the facts of reality. And that’s how this particular dream always begins: with him center ring and decked out in all of the gaudy glory of his old costume. Unlike his very real memories of his performances, he cannot see beyond the circumference of the center ring. Instead of being filled with the two smaller rings for clowns to perform in, or the next big act to wait patiently for their chance front and center and an audience to ‘ooh’ and ‘aww’ at his tricks, the remainder of the space is all grayed out, as if an artist got tired halfway through sketching all the activity they found in a circus tent.
It’s hot. There’s an overwhelming impression of heat, like a phantom weight that steals the moisture from his body before he even has a chance to process its presence. It’s the kind of heat that he knows instinctively that the few stage lights hanging from the catwalk in the depths of the tent’s ‘ceiling’ cannot generate. It’s a lingering sensation from Afghanistan, the oppressive heat of the sun, like a hand pressing between his shoulder blades and physically bending him over, and something he wishes he could forget about desperately. Once he becomes aware of the heat, the feel of his costume changes from the comfortable, if worn, padded spandex of his trapeze outfit to the smothering weight of his body armor and gear he wore while on patrol. Yet instead of desert camo, it was still the gaudy purple of the ‘Amazing Hawkeye’ getup.
Then, dizzily, he finds himself transported from center ring to a raised platform several feet up off the ground, with no safety net below him, the bar held tightly in one hand as he waves enthusiastically to the non-existent audience with the other. He can feel his mouth stretched into a rigor mortis of a stage grin that he does not want to be giving, but can’t seem to stop. He steps off the platform and starts to swing as the sound of cicadas singing hums in the background like an eerie choir. He swings through the air, weightless, effortless, and free. At that moment, he is truly in touch with his body and all of his senses, only to have it shatter into a million pieces as he lets go of the bar and moves into his first aerial trick. There’s a sudden flash, and the searing heat of the IED exploding ripples down his side throwing off his rhythm.
The cicada song grows into a crescendo, then suddenly cuts out with the ringing dissonance of never-ending tinnitus – like a violin cord plucked and unexpectedly cut mid-vibrato to fade off into nothingness. And even as he plummets towards the unforgiving ground, he knows that someone is screaming, he just can’t hear them.
Clint sits bolt upright in bed, a cold sweat picking at his forehead and clinging to his back. His breath heaves rapidly in his chest as he teeters on the verge of a panic attack, and there’s a stabbing pain in his breastbone as his heart constricts in pain. There’s the phantom taste of grit in his mouth and the remembered smell of burnt sand in his nose, and he’s always so damn dehydrated after the heat of the dream and the panic. It’s second nature for him now to lean over the edge of the bed and flail around for the water bottle he’s taken to leaving by the bed, just in case. Pfft, just in case of what? You’re not going to need it, who the fuck are you trying to fool? A vicious voice that doesn’t really belong to him needles at him. He needs the water to get the taste of grime and blood out of his throat and ease its soreness. Clint drains the bottle in one go before setting it back down on the floor and rolling back over onto his back to stare unseeingly at the ceiling of his bedroom.
He’s been back in the States for a couple of years, and he’s been good about going to the VA and seeing his counselor. He thought he’d be over this by now. But as everyone’s so fond of telling him, recovery isn’t linear. Well recovery can go suck a big fat one. God, he’s just so damn tired of it all. It’s exhausting trying to be normal again. Clint’s not sure how long he lays there staring at the ceiling, and he doesn’t really care. Absently, he rubs at his breastbone in an attempt to ease the tightness he woke up with and covers his eyes with his other hand in an effort not to cry – from frustration more than anything else – when a small hand grabs his knee.
Clint jumps. He doesn’t mean to, but the touch had come out of nowhere, and he certainly hadn’t been expecting it. He should’ve been, though. He’s a single parent now, and he should have anticipated being interrupted after waking up in a sweat from yet another thrilling nightmare. No more Bobbi around to act as a buffer between him and the kids. She was done babying him; she couldn’t be his shield anymore and needed her freedom. Her words, not his. Or was it the other way around?
The little hand on his knee squeezes again, giving it a small shake, and Clint can feel himself tensing up at the touch. With a deliberate deep breath, he forces himself to relax and takes his hand away from his eyes to look down the bed to see which of the four kids it is. He’s not surprised to discover its Lila. His youngest has always been far too perceptive for his own good sometimes.
It’s a cruel irony that Clint can’t really hear Lila’s voice now. The last time he was home for any length of time and capable of hearing, Lila was still refusing to speak with any of them. Selective mutism the doctors had called it, most likely brought on by the trauma of her mother’s accident. That had been a difficult thing for Clint to cope with. Abstractly, he had known that Laura had named him as the legal guardian for both Cooper and Lila if anything were to happen to her, and only him – choosing to trust her brother-in-law with her children’s future instead of her estranged husband – but that did nothing to prep him for the reality of taking on a grieving six- and two-year-old, while he himself was still in shock. Luckily, he was with Bobbi at the time, and they both already had plenty of practice with being parents, having adopted Pietro and Wanda the same year Lila had been born. And suddenly, he and Bobbi went from being parents of three-year-old twins to parents of four under ten.
(To say that required a rapid adjustment of their worldview would be an understatement of massive proportions. Laura’s death proved to be an unwelcome wake-up call. One that left them scrambling and thinking about what could happen to the kids if the worse were to happen to them. It had quickly been decided that if anything should happen to both him and Bobbi that Steve was getting the kids. He was the only person they could agree on (in fact, that was probably the only time he and Bobbi had ever unanimously decided on anything without at least five rounds of good-natured bickering). Bobbi didn’t care for Bucky, and the feeling was mutual. As for Clint’s brother, well, the less said about Barney, the better. There was a reason Barney didn’t have custody of his own children. And while Bobbi had friends and family of her own, they didn’t care for Clint or his friends (who were all the family he had) and made it clear they wouldn’t be associating with such riff-raff if they weren’t forced into it. So, no, Steve was the best the choice. The only choice, really. Even though it made Bucky howl with laughter at the idea of his reckless punk being responsible for the ‘impressionable youth’ as he put it).
Right now, he only knows that the little girl had called for him because of Lila sitting in a patch of light cast from the nearby streetlight, and the fact that Clint’s years in the service gave him plenty of practice in reading lips.
“Hey sweet pea,” Clint has no idea what his voice sounds like, but judging from how scratchy his throat feels and the way Lila furrows her brow at him, talking is not a good idea right now. He sits up against the headboard and reaches over to turn on the bedside light. He just has to smile at the sight of Lila’s scrunched up face and the way she rubs her eye at the sudden brightness. But it’s a short-lived thing – barely a twitch of his lips, a half-formed idea, if that – before his expression crumbles back into its ever-present resting scowl of resignation. You used to be fun, Barton, what happened to having fun? God, you’re such a miserable bastard now, this nasty little voice rags at him; one that sounds eerily similar to Bobbi’s. Funnily enough, he doesn’t have an answer for imaginary-Bobbi, just like he never had one for the real-Bobbi either. Maybe that’s why she left him. He stopped being fun.
There’s a light touch at his elbow causing Clint to startle again, his eyes darting back towards Lila. He can feel himself blushing with shame, it's embarrassing that he can’t keep it together long enough to stop himself from getting lost inside his head when his little girl clearly needs him.
“Daddy,” Lila signs, her movements slow and subdued, hands held close to her body, and her expression guarded, “bad dream?”
As if Clint didn’t already feel like the biggest shitheel there ever was, now he wants to cry because there’s his baby girl trying to comfort him after he’s gone and had yet another nightmare. He takes a second to tip his head back and will the tears away. He can’t cry in front of Lila, at least, not right now. He can’t add that to the weight his six-year-old niece thinks herself strong enough to bear (even though it wouldn’t be the first time she’s seen her ‘daddy’ lose his shit.)
“Sorry,” he signs, right fist placed on his chest with his thumb pointed up and rubbed in a circle. The motion is stilted, almost choppy since his muscles are still stiff with tension from adrenaline and being snuck up on by Lila. He finds himself repeating it more than once before continuing, “I didn’t mean to worry you, buddy.”
“Monster’s all gone now?” she asks, her hands becoming more expressive in their movements, and she even smiles.
“You chased them away.” Clint reassures her, returning her smile with one of his own. Lila’s grin is almost blinding at that, it’s so radiant.
“Want me to stay and keep them away for you?” she asks, her little chest puffed out with pride at the idea, her hands practically flying with her enthusiasm. Clint almost has the urge to duck out of the way to avoid being hit Lila’s signing with such grand movements. The moment he’s sure she’s done talking, Clint gently grabs a hold of her wrists, pulling Lila’s hands down to his lap in an effort to settle her. He takes a second to rub a comforting thumb along the inside of Lila’s wrist, the gesture equally grounding for both father and child. He’s about to let go of Lila’s wrist to ask her if she wants to go back to her own bed or stay when the girl suddenly twists around to look over her shoulder back towards the bedroom door.
Clint looks up to find the small sliver of light from the hallway that was left from Lila sneaking into his room had widened, only to be partially blocked by a figure standing in the doorway with their little hands braced on their hips and another figure leaning around the door jamb to stare into the room. Unfortunately, where they were standing was too far away for the bedside light or the ambient streetlight to reach them. And the way that they were hovering in the doorway, their bodies were backlit by the hallway light, making it impossible for Clint to see their expressions, let alone read their lips. Process of elimination tells him that it's the twins since there were only two figures darkening his doorway, and Pietro rarely went anywhere without Wanda and vice versa – plus, Cooper was currently at a sleepover; otherwise, the threshold to his bedroom would be full to bursting. And frankly he's surprised he doesn't see Lucky lurking nearby, but then again, Pizza Dog could already be in the room and Clint just hasn't noticed him yet.
From the looks of it, Lila is in the middle of a rather involved and heated conversation with her older siblings, going by from what Clint can see of her expression: half of a little brow furrowed in frustration, a high flush of color on her cheeks, and her jaw clenched out of a stubborn refusal to back down. The kids didn’t often fight, but when they did, things could get nasty quickly. One of the twins must have said something upsetting, because suddenly, Lila has jerked herself free of Clint’s hold. She then rises up on her knees to point an accusatory finger at both of her siblings. Instinctively, Clint puts a restraining and reassuring hand on one of her little shoulders as he reaches for his hearing aids with the other. He’s already speaking before he even gets the devices settled into place, which causes a slight dissonance that Clint forces himself to ignore. He catches the tail end of Pietro saying something mocking and ignores it in favor of speaking over all of them.
“Okay, that’s enough kiddos! Let’s play the quiet game for a second while Daddy powers up his ears.” It's remarkable how quickly the mood in the room shifts from squabbling siblings to stifled giggles. Clint takes a second to clear his throat. He didn’t need the confirmation to know that his voice was as rough as he thought it would be. He always thought he lucked out when it came to fatherhood and how well behaved his kids usually are, but Bobbi was fond of reminding him that he was never home for the mid-morning meltdowns, pre-nap tantrums, and all-nighters spent puking. Still, when he came home, injured both physically and emotionally, the kids had adapted better to the change in him than Bobbi had.
It certainly helped that they were used to making adjustments. Cooper had to adjust to being Lila’s big brother and from being Clint’s nephew to Pietro and Wanda’s cousin, to suddenly Clint’s ‘son’ and the twins’ ‘brother’. Clint would be damned if he wasn’t going to raise the kids as a family as his children, that he loved equally. Laura’s death had been hard on all of them, and he wasn’t going to downplay the situation, but he wasn’t going to let that put a wedge between them either. They had all proved to be remarkably resilient when it came to becoming a new shape of family in the wake of Laura’s accident, so it didn’t surprise him that they proved to be equally up to the challenge when it came to dealing with the various pitfalls of Clint’s own recovery.
The quiet game was one of the many tools used to help the kids adjust. Sometimes things just got to be too much for Clint – be it dealing with the loss of his hearing, or the general stress of reacclimating to civilian life after years of living in an active war zone as a sniper. A simple game, of seeing who could stay quiet the longest. Each kid was allowed to try to get one of the others to break their silence first, with whoever staying quiet the longest getting to decide what the next family outing would be. Once someone cracked, they had free reign to try and get the rest too. The kids had perfected their silly faces since the start of the game.
“Anybody feel like telling their poor old man what the brouhaha is all about?” Clint asks, after finally getting his aids sitting comfortably and motioning for the twins to step fully into the room. He pulls Lila back into his lap, even as Wanda and Pietro launch themselves into the room and up onto the bed.
“You were yelling in your sleep again, Dad,” Wanda told him, crawling up the bed to scoot underneath his arm and tucking into his right side. Pietro settles in by his left hip and grabs ahold of Lila’s ankle.
“Woke everybody up again, didn’t I?”
“We were worried,” Wanda admitted.
“Told Lila to leave you alone,” Pietro muttered, picking at a couple of loose threads on the comforter and avoiding eye contact.
“And I told you to make me,” Lila sniped back. Clint gives her a squeeze to settle her down again. He bites back a smile at her outburst. Who would think that his quiet little girl would turn into such a little warrior – but then with Wanda as a role model, he really shouldn’t expect anything less. After a moment, Lila settles down with a little affronted huff that Clint absolutely did not find adorable.
“No fighting,” he cautions them. “I’m sorry for waking you up and scaring you again.”
“You didn’t scare us,” Wanda corrected him, “we were worried.”
“Oops, my bad, I didn’t mean to worry you,” he humored her, hugging her close and letting go of Lila long enough to beckon Pietro to move further up the bed so that everybody was huddled up by the headboard. “How do we fix that?”
“Don’t know,” Lila piped up, snuggling further into Clint’s chest. Apparently, she’d accomplished everything she’d set out to do and was ready to get back to catching some Z’s. It’s a sweet gesture, and it provides Clint with the perfect bit of inspiration.
“Well, I think I know! How does a sleepover in my room sound?” He got a round of sleepy smiles in response to that, and he took that as an enthusiastic yes, or at least the best response he was going to get, all things considered. “Sounds good to everybody? Because I gotta tell ya’ kiddos, it definitely sounds good to me. Pietro, bring those blankets up here, will you?”
The eight-year-old reaches down to grab the bunched up blankets that Clint must have kicked towards the end of the bed during his nightmare, and does his best to straighten them out before pulling them up over everybody. Clint keeps Wanda tucked into his right side and pulls Pietro in to lay along his left. He’s just about to pull his hearing aids out again when Wanda reaches up to tap his arm.
“Dad, is it going to be like this when we move to live with Uncle Buck and Uncle Stevie?”
“I don’t know kiddo, I hope not.”
The minute she’d finagled her way out of medical, she had commandeered the punching bags – well actually, basically all of Gym 3. To say that she had some demons to exorcise would have been an understatement, and since the demon she so keenly wanted to cast out had already managed to find himself a pinewood box, a punching bag would have to do. If the gym was her church and this was honesty hour, then the real reason she was mad wasn’t because of the ghost of Obadiah Stane and the ink-blot stain of his betrayal, but her complete inability to see it until it had been too late. She had prided herself on her skills as a spy, and along there had been this fungus rotting away in the heart of her family and she had been too blind to see it.
Perhaps if it had just been the one incident of unexpected betrayal, her professional pride would have only ended up feeling mildly bruised, instead of scattered across the Beltway for not seeing it. But it hadn’t been just one incident, it had been several – all of them directly targeting her family, and each one of them separately feeling like a punch to the gut, so that cumulatively, she felt as if she’d been run over by a mack truck. Not a single one of them could ever be classified as a ‘minor’ betrayal. It’d be like comparing a paper cut to a missing limb, ludicrous in the attempt.
Maria’s accident, Howard’s heart attack, Tony’s kidnapping, the attacks at the Grand Prix, then the Stark Expo by Vanko, and then the attempted coup at SI Headquarters in New York in early May that Natasha is only now recovering from. (Only because she ignored the injuries she sustained from fighting off the jackbooted mercenary thugs with outdated, rip-off Stark Tech storming Stark Tower to hunt down the man who hired them so that she could string him up herself. She may be feeling more than a little vindictive on Tony’s behalf.)
The more they learned about the extent of Stane’s double-dealing, the angrier they all had become. He had ridden around in everyone’s blind spot for years, decades in some cases, and that was the crux of the matter. They had all been completely unaware. Intellectually, Natasha knows she’s not the only one dealing with the awful rotgut feeling of realizing that they’ve all been played. She knows it. (Surely, former Director Carter must be devastated. She knew both Howard and Maria personally - they were peers, both friends, and colleagues. Fury must be feeling equally as bad - he had a strong working relationship with Howard throughout his entire career at SHIELD. Not to mention Coulson, who won’t ever admit he’s fond of the Starks, yet it's obvious to those who know how to look for it.) But she can’t help but wonder if she’s the one taking it the hardest. She had sworn to herself after her brother’s miraculous return from Afghanistan, impossibly alive and barely whole, that she would never allow anything like that to happen to him ever again. But here they were, a mere five years later, once more pulling themselves out of the ashes of yet another life-altering devastation. And to top it off, it’s not even like this is the first time after Afghanistan he’s faced death, then there was Vanko and the palladium poisoning – both problems he solved for himself while trying to keep her in the dark as much as he could. Which wasn’t a lot, she is a spy after all. Although, obviously, she’s a better spy than a bodyguard.
It’s repetitive failures like that when it matters the most to her that make her wonder if she should just get out of the game. What’s use is all of her skill set if she can’t keep those she cares about safe?
“Nattie!,” a familiar, and at this particular point in time, unwelcomed, voice rang out across the main training room. With a massive internal sigh, Natasha resisted the urge to roll her eyes and instead turned away from the punching bag she had been working at to level her adopted brother with a grim stare, known to make grown men wish for the protection of their mother’s skirts.
Unfortunately, it only made Tony pause long enough to grimace briefly before barreling forward. Whatever had him so excited must have been something special to make him risk her wrath. Normally, he had more respect for the ‘you don’t know me, I don’t know you’ rule they usually operated under when they were both at the Triskelion.
It might seem cold to some, but Natasha knew her brother. Loved him dearly, in fact, and his brand of affection could easily be misconstrued as overly familiar, if not outright inappropriate. There were already plenty of preconceived notions about Tony Stark running amuck out there in the world, most of them wrong; she didn’t need to add any fuel to the fire. Especially since her adoption hadn’t been one of those things the Stark’s had broadcasted. And why would they? The circumstances of her adoption had been unique, to say the very least. It’s not every day that one decides to take in a fourteen-year-old Russian spy. Particularly one who had been sent to infiltrate a summer camp for teens interested in STEM programs, that just so happened to be set up on an old family estate, in order to steal Stark Industries weapons blueprints – who would want that story bandied about in the newspapers?
Besides that, as the Black Widow, Natasha has a reputation to maintain, and she would be damned if the cutesy nickname Tony had given his new baby sister brought all of that tumbling down around her. He was twenty-one when Howard adopted her, and the summer camp had been his idea, one of his first as he began taking on the role of acting CEO in the company. The nickname was totally given out of revenge (and a little bit of jealousy, which quickly died down when he realized that she shared his affinity for explosions.) After a few months of establishing that he was very much the obnoxious - and needlessly overprotective – older brother, they had settled into a very comfortable sibling relationship, despite the age gap. There was no language barrier since Tony had learned Russian so that he could send secret encoded messages to Peggy at the family dinner table on holidays when he was mad at his parents. Howard had been thrilled that they got along so well, but then he always said he was just happy that they included him in their adventures. She’d gathered that at one point in time Howard hadn’t always been the most...attentive of fathers.
At least they can all take consolation in the fact that Stane had to continuously plot against them because he was so fundamentally awful at it – yes, what damage he managed to wreck was traumatic, but instead of pulling them apart and making them easier prey on, he’d pulled them together with his constant attacks.
“Stark.” The ‘what the fuck did you call me’ was clear in her tone.
“Romanov,” he paused, slipping the ever-present sunglasses down over his eyes. Anyone who didn’t know him would read his body language as a smug asshole playing ‘too cool for school,’ but they wouldn’t’ve been more wrong. The beauty – actually, the tragedy – of growing up under the microscope of public opinion as Tony had is that he learned to manipulate his body language and everyone’s interpretation of it years ago.
She waits him out, and true to form, Tony cracks first. People would assume it's because he’s afraid of her, but really, it’s because he’s excited. The synapses in his brain often travel at warp speed, so he’d rather not wait around for lesser life forms to catch up. Natasha had long ago learned the trick of leaping before looking when it came to following Tony, so she was rarely left behind.
“Fury wants us. Apparently, Cobra Bubbles wants to review the definition of ohana again.” He delivers the line with the expected amount of flippancy, though Natasha can hear the genuine excitement underneath, “So whaddya say, Lilo?”
“I thought I was Stitch?”
“Well, you do have an unholy love of mayhem and destruction, almost more than myself. I’ll take it under advisement that you might have a point there. Keyword there is ‘might’.”