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Gone Fishin'

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Gone Fishing





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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.

“Daddy.”

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’.”

Chapter Text

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It hadn’t been easy for Clint to make the decision to move away from Brooklyn and clear across the country. Aside from the army, that borough was the first place that had ever felt like home to him. He’s already been forced to give up the army, thanks to circumstances beyond his control – how was he to predict getting hit by an IED and losing 80% of hearing, then being mustered out with an honorable discharge? Sure, he hadn’t technically lost the camaraderie of his brothers-in-arms, but being a vet wasn’t the same as being active military and having your boots on the ground.

Therefore, it went without saying that he did not make the decision lightly.

Also, there was the Bobbi issue to consider. They hadn’t been married when they adopted the twins, and didn’t really give the idea any serious thought until after they found themselves reluctant witnesses Bucky’s close brush with death in ‘09 and the debacle that was Steve’s attempts at getting health updates for his best guy because he was just a ‘friend’ not family. (Thanks to DADT he couldn’t push for much more beyond the health care proxy form Bucky had once signed and was already considered outdated, as a recognition of his right to know). Watching Steve take on the staff at the army hospital where Bucky was recovering was a little bit like watching David take on Goliath. Both he and Bobbi weren’t really the marrying kind but a domestic partnership suited them better. But with kids in the equation, and given their chosen careers, they both thought it would be a good idea if they could pool their resources – and maybe the fact that neither one of them were willing to fully make that kind of commitment to the other should have been a clue. They’d also updated their wills and named a legal guardian just in case the worst should happen. Buck had told him he was an idiot for not realizing sooner that he needed some sort of safety net in place, but Clint had simply told him to shut it. Forced into having to unravel it all, Clint was furious at the fact that it was taking forever, not that he let on about that around the kids. They didn’t need to be burden with his anger. But it was nearly done now, and he could finally, finally, move on for the sake of his kids. Five months after Bobbi had imploded life as they all knew it.

But at the time, their little family of four became a family of six in quick order, and Clint had thought that they were happy, really, really, happy. But then, how was he to know any better? He wasn’t around enough to see differently.

Then the Howlies went missing on what should have been a routine mission at the same time Tony Stark got himself kidnapped while he was glad-handing and glamping in Afghanistan for whatever reason. And Steve, when he heard Buck was MIA, presumed dead with no plans for a rescue along with the rest of his squad, well, he wasn’t about to let that go. That wouldn’t have sat well with him if the only thing between them was a lifetime of friendship like they pretended for the sake of DADT. As for Clint and the others, they weren’t about let Steve go charging off alone on a one-man suicide mission. Sure, they all could have done the smart thing and sat tight back at base, knowing that they just had a month or so left on their tour before needing to decide if they were going to re-up or not, but that would’ve’d been the coward’s way out. Whatever they were, they weren’t cowards. Unanimously, Clint, Thor, Sharon, and Val decided to follow their fearless (and possibly insane) leader in an attempt to rescue his best buddy slash secret lover and his team from one of the many known, and tolerated, terrorist cells that inhabited the Afghani desert. It was a shock when they managed to pull it off with minor casualties, rescuing nearly all of the Howling Commandos (its a cold hard fact of war that you’re always going to be too late for someone) and a billionaire playboy genius. It had been an even greater shock that instead of being court-martialed, their little unsanctioned maneuver only cost them another reenlistment – effective immediately – and the forced separation of their unit. But then again, General Phillips had always had a soft spot for Rogers, and Steve knew how to work his sense of self-righteous, stubborn-as-a-mule attitude, and big baby blues in a very effective one-two punch that never failed, even on those who’ve been on the receiving end of his wheedling before. Of course, publicly bringing home a bonafide celebrity, along with heroic POW’s who had been missing for three months with no hope of rescue, AND wiping out the cell that had been holding them hostage while they were executing their heroic rescue didn’t exactly hurt their cause.

That right there probably wasn’t the first strain on his and Bobbi’s relationship, to be honest. And with hindsight being twenty-twenty and all, he could admit that now, at the time it certainly didn’t help to relieve any of the pressure they were feeling either.

Then came the unexpected – and possibly foreseeable, or at the very least not as out of left-field as it had felt at the time (he was in an active war zone, after all) – attack on his convoy and Clint’s injury and subsequent medical discharge. And suddenly he was home, just like he had always wanted to be, around all the time like Bobbi had thought she wanted and inescapably underfoot. Which quickly became unsustainable for an up-and-coming young detective who had already mastered the art of single-motherhood to four children under ten. Because instead of coming home every night to a partner like she thought she would be, she found herself coming home to a bruised and battered man that war had chewed up and spat out, leaving her with a fifth ‘child’ to take care of.

It wasn’t the right attitude to have, but it was understandable how she arrived at it. And ultimately, Clint can’t blame her for cutting her losses and running. If he’s honest, he’s not much of a catch, and he was shocked that she had stuck with him as long as she had. Clint never saw himself as the marrying kind, and the domestic partnership was the closest he ever thought he’d get to any kind of officially recognized relationship. Hell, he hadn’t even really believed it was happening when they were signing the paperwork – everyone else, other than Barnes & Rogers (for some godforsaken reason, he can’t shake those Brooklyn knumbskulls) left him high and dry, so it didn’t surprise him that Bobbi decided to do the same. It doesn’t bother him, he expected her to ditch him at some point, and he just can’t blame her for doing so. He does blame her for ditching the kids. For them, he can hold one hell of a grudge. They don’t deserve to be treated like an afterthought by someone who’s supposed to love them, no matter what.

Part of him is willing to concede that it’s the bitterness of having his heart stomped on that’s making him paint Bobbi in a bad light right now. But the rest of him, well, the rest of him just wants to make her out to be the bad guy.

It’s that desire coupled with the way nothing in the old neighborhood seems to fit right anymore (and hasn’t really since he got back two years ago) that convinces him to take up Bucky’s offer and move out to the West Coast. So once he knew he was going to uproot his kids for good, he went back to the law firm that helped him through the process of dissolving their domestic partnership and the initial custody agreement. His thoughts might be a bit more scrambled these days than they used to be, sort of like runny cafeteria eggs, thanks to PTSD – no seriously thanks – and adjusting to his new ‘normal’. Having an IED knock out most of one’s hearing definitely counted as a mother of a game changer, and you’d think he’d become self-aware enough to have seen the writing on the wall when it came to the slow disintegration of his and Bobbi’s relationship. But he hadn’t noticed a damn thing until after it was over. Still, despite feeling like everything had happened all too suddenly in some huge a kaleidoscope of suck, where everyone and everything (including his own mind) was dead set against him, Clint was able to hold himself together long enough to get Bobbi to agree to leave in a clean and legal fashion. You know, like an adult would.

As opposed to the to-go bag she had packed in the back of the bedroom closet like some dirty little secret she thought he, a veteran of special ops, wouldn’t have been able to spot from a mile away. That’s not to say it wasn’t messy, it was always going to be messy, but at least it was written down and in black and white. If it was just his heart and his life on the line he wouldn’t’ve given a damn about messy – hell, he would have reveled in messy, bring it the fuck on! But it wasn’t just about them. There were children involved in all of this too, and he knew a thing or two about the potentially ugly side of foster care and would be damned if any of his children ended up in a situation like that.

He was shocked when she didn’t fight him on custody, instead insisting on him having sole-custody of all four children. Which, it’s not like she could have made a case for Cooper and Lila since Laura’s will had made it clear that Clint was their guardian. But he thought at the very least she would have tried to keep Wanda or Pietro. Instead, she wanted a clean break and a blank slate. The thing is, he sort of got it. Caregiver fatigue was just as real of an issue as battle fatigue, and Bobbi had been the main breadwinner and caregiver for the children for a long time now, with Clint the occasional parental figure that popped in and out of their lives as his deployments allowed. His role as a parent was mostly reduced to that of a paycheck and a random phone call, with the added potential for an even scarier life-altering phone call. She’d gotten both scenarios from him, and now she was done.

Nelson & Murdock were good lawyers, and he’d be forever grateful to Frank at the VA for giving him their information. The visits from child services and the scrutiny from the court about whether or not he’d be fit as a parent, given his recent return to civilian life, had been hell to endure at the time, but he’d managed it. It also helped that Bobbi was firmly in his corner and in favor of him keeping the kids, even though she was hell-bent on leaving.

Clint had already discussed moving with Bobbi, and she was in favor of the decision. He had owned the old brownstone that housed their apartment, and he wasn’t planning on selling it. The money from rent was a good source of income, even if he refused to charge the outrageous prices some other landlords did, and he had things worked out with a fellow vet to act as his superintendent. Frank was good people, even if he did have a bit of temper. So there was more than just what the terms of his custody agreement would allow him that he wanted to discuss with Murdock and Nelson. They were both very good at their jobs, as well as being friends, and were therefore inclined to laugh a little at his paranoia before taking his questions seriously. Once reassured that he was well within his rights as outlined by the agreement and that while Bobbi could come after him she wouldn’t have much of a leg to stand on, Clint returned Bucky’s phone call and got the ball moving on his one-way cross-country road trip.

That had been nearly two months ago. Now here he was, the morning after a nightmare-filled night, standing in the middle of his empty, packed-away apartment, watching as his former CO and good friend bent down to haul one of the remaining piles of boxes out to the moving truck he had rented.

“That the last of it?” Steve asked, before taking his load down to the waiting truck.

“Yup,” he answered deliberately, popping the ‘p’, and refusing to look Steve in the eye. He knew that Cap wanted to ask him something else, but he wasn’t up to fielding any questions just then, and thankfully, the younger man was capable of taking a hint every now and then. Whether or not it would last was yet to be determined. With a nod, Steve saw himself and his armful of boxes out, and Clint took the time for one last moment to himself in his former (his first) family home.

It didn’t last very long, but then again, he hadn’t really expected it to.

“Daaad!” He didn’t bother to hide the smile at the sound of his eleven-year-old calling for him as he pounded up the stairwell; although he could do without the weird distortion and feedback from the hearing aids caused by the echo. That was still something he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of two years out, accurately adjusting the volume on the damn things.

“Cooper,” he shot back in a sing-song voice, intended to annoy, and was rewarded with an overblown, exasperated sigh.

“Time to go,” he informed him, grabbing him by the hand and attempting to drag him towards the open doorway.

“Cab’s here,” Gabe called out from the hallway, “Steve’s already loaded the other kids in and your carry-ons, just waiting on you to head to the airport.”

“Did you three settle on who's driving the truck and who is going to help me hustle four kids on and off of an airplane yet?” He asked, even as he allowed his nephew to propel him towards the street. “Please, please tell me Steve’s not driving.”

“Relax man, do you think anyone’s going to let Steve drive anywhere? We all know what a bad idea that is, the soccer moms of America are not ready for Steve’s ‘tactical’ driving. Morita and I got it,” Gabe reassured him.

“You think that’s reassuring, but it’s really not,” Clint grumbled good-naturedly. Steve in an airplane was slightly less of a disaster than Steve driving a car, but the kids should prove to be a significant enough of a distraction for him. One too many unplanned rough landings kind of took the joy out of flying for the former army captain.

“What I can’t figure out is why the hell would Barnes let him come out here for this. What the hell were you two thinking, agreeing to let him tag along?”

At that, Jones gave him a rather pointed look, like he couldn’t believe he had forgotten how big of a dumbass Clint was.

“Barton, you should know better than anyone – other than Barnes, that is – that there’s no letting Cap not do a darned thing. Besides, he had his hands full trying to do some last minute touches on your new place – so it could be called livable – and Steve was just getting underfoot.”

“Yeah, Dad,” Cooper piped up as they exited the brownstone, his voice carrying to the waiting cab and the two adults lounging against it. “It’s like you always said, ‘Cap’s too dumb to know when to’ – mupfh!”

“Alright then, Mr. Cooper, let’s not go spilling state secrets there,” he jokingly chided the little boy after gently cupping his mouth closed. With a charming little giggle, Cooper cheekily licked Clint’s palm then after squirming free made a mad dash for the relative safety of the cab. There really was no doubting that he inherited half of his genetic code from the Barton side of the family some days.

“Look,” Gabe muttered to him as an aside, “Steve’s been looking at this as a retrieval mission. Not telling you this to put the pressure on or anything, but he’s got it in his head that he has to bring one of his men home and that’s his deal. Between Buck and his therapist, he’ll be straightened out in no time. It’s just, well, it was pretty damn clear to all of us that there was no way in hell he was going to sit this out, especially since it concerned you and the little ones there.”

“I get it, and it’s kind of sweet,” actually, it was really sweet, if not for the fact it symbolized a lingering inability to cope with their civilian status (and wow, get a load of him with the psychobabble), “but how much lifting did he do today? That can’t be good for him at all!” In the very same ambush that had stolen 80% of Clint’s hearing, Steve had managed to take a couple of bullets dragging Clint’s ass to safety; two hits hard enough to necessitate his own medical discharge. A fact for which Clint would be both forever grateful and forever guilty.

“That’s on him, Barton. Cap’s a big boy, for all that we tend to baby him.”

“Alright, alright, see you in Elk Cove?”

“See you in Elk Cove.” Gabe agreed, with one last friendly shoulder pat and a quick side hug. “C’mon Jim,” he continued, in a normal tone of voice, “let’s see if we can beat a plane in a cross-country race!”

“You know that’s a lost cause, right?” Steve shouts after them.

“Can it Rogers! We’re gonna have a head start.”

"Plus we have Lucky!" Jim adds from his spot already in the driver's seat of the u-haul. The dog in questions 'boofs!' good-naturedly as if he agrees with Morita.

It’s not until later, after the whirlwind of clearing airport security, the rush of getting all of their carry-on luggage stowed away, and little butts in their seats safely tucked between an adult body and the haul of the plane that Steve has a chance to ask his questions. Although, it would be more appropriate to say that it isn’t until he’s got Cooper propped up against the window seat, eagerly watching as the ground disappears during take-off with Lila slumped against him in an impromptu mid-afternoon nap, and Clint’s staring rather blankly ahead at her siblings that things start to settle into place. The twins were curved towards each other around their seatbelts in the row in front of him to hold a whispered conference about what film to watch. Still, it’s not until the sliver of Steve’s face and one wary blue eye watching him in return and seeing more than he’s comfortable knowing he’s giving away, that it hits him. This is fucking real. No take backs, do not pass go, don’t collect 200. He did just uproot his entire life, again, because he’s that much of a loser that he couldn't hack it, which is always the case. Nothing new here.

“Breathe.”

Clint hadn’t even been aware of the fact that he had started to hyperventilate until Steve’s rock steady voice calmly reminded him that breathing, well, it is sort of essential to surviving. After a quick glance to make sure that Cooper’s attention was still taken up by the fascination of watching the earth disappear, he lifted up his left hand and carefully spelled out:

“F-U-C-K Y-O-U P-A-L.” Regrettably, his dominant hand was currently pinned beneath the comforting weight of a slumbering six-year-old, and although Clint was ambidextrous, he didn’t often initiate signing with his off-hand. So while his gestures were shaky from a lack of familiarity and the residual crash of a thwarted panic attack, they were assertive enough that he was confident his point had been made.

Steve, the rat bastard, merely smiled hard enough to crinkle the corner of the one eye Clint could see and replied with a smarmy, “Tempting, but pass.”

Seriously, screw him. If anyone should be experiencing panic in the middle of a plane ride here, it should be Mr. Steve ‘I-hate-flying-but-lie-about-it’ Rogers, not him. But Clint had forgotten, in the two years since necessity required that they lived practically in each others back pockets, that Steve was always better when he had someone else to focus on. And here he was, with five someone elses to focus on. No wonder Gabe gave him the heads up that Cap here was viewing this as a retrieval op. God, he hoped Bucky was ready for the crash and burn when they finally got to Oregon.

At least Steve’s issues were good for one thing – he had insisted on shelling out enough money for a trip with no layovers, or at least for as few layovers as they could manage flying clear across the country. Clint had not been looking forward to dragging four increasingly wound up children through strange airports just to catch a connecting flight, dreading it would have been a generous way to describe how he felt about the prospect. Truthfully, his friend’s continued generosity floored him, and he wasn’t sure how to handle it, or the depth of gratitude he felt towards them, so he hid his uncertainty behind sarcasm. Which worked for them, Barnes and Rogers could both understand that particular impulse. Clint really appreciated the fact that they were uncomplicated like that.

Eventually, he knew that they were going to want him to spill his guts, but for now, they were content to let him be. Besides, that was the beauty of a word like ‘eventually’. It implied a date far-off into the future with no deadline. He could work around an expectation like that.

“Why are you all scrunched down in your seat?” He deflected, nudging his knee deliberately into Steve’s back. “You’re gonna end up lookin’ like Quasimodo when we land if you insist on sitting like that the whole time.”

“Didn’t want to draw attention,” was the sheepish response, complete with a tell-tale blush. For a big man, Steve had a habit of making himself small whenever he felt uncomfortable (he was surprisingly good at it too, a legacy from back in the day when he really had been tiny) and for a minute there, Clint had wondered if the stress of his environment had gotten to his old captain, despite his stubborn refusal not to let it. But the blush, the blush gave him away. Yeah, he was feeling uncomfortable about something alright, but it wasn’t anything as concerning as an encroaching panic attack of his own.

“Really? Because I gotta say, if that’s your goal, you’re failing miserably at it.”

“Shaddup,” and there was that familiar Brooklyn drawl he had expected to have heard earlier on. Clint merely held up his one free arm in a universally recognizable shrug, meant to convey ‘forget about it’. Not as effective as when it's done with both arms, but close enough for government work. It was almost enough to make him smile.

“She knew you were heading out today, right?”

And now he was back to glaring at his captain-turned-good-friend and wishing he had both arms free so he could wring his pretty not-so-little neck. How dare he bring that up in earshot of the kids! It had been bad enough managing their disappointment back at the apartment when it became clear that the time to pack up and go was looming ever closer and Bobbi wasn’t going to show, despite a half-assed promise to see them off. God, Steve was lucky he couldn’t get out of his seat right now, otherwise, he would be doing his best to take a chunk out of his hide! And Clint did not give a rat’s ass where he got his pound of flesh from. They could go right ahead and put him on the no-fly list afterward. It would be so worth the aggravation.

But once he got a hold of himself and stopped seeing red, a quick bit of recon proved that the twins were still intertwined with each other, only now they both had a pair of earbuds securely nestled in their ears and were watching the latest most-popular animated horror they’d already seen twenty million times. Lila was still out cold, and Cooper was still attempting to prop up the outer haul of the plane while watching the clouds mosey on by with a book in his hands and his own earbuds in place. A little straining on his part proved that he was listening to his current musical obsession, and thank god he had inherited some taste in music instead of the sheep mentality of his peers. (Although he would admit, under duress, that Taylor Swift wasn’t awful.) It also showed him the stern, stubborn set to Steve’s jaw that shouted louder than any words that he wasn’t going to back down from his current course.

Clint ought to have known better, really. One didn’t get to be an army captain or achieve the type of military accolades Steve had at such a young age without being some sort of tactical genius. Besides all of that, he had served with the man as his commanding officer for the last five years of his military career. He knew first-hand what kind of tactical wunderkind Steve was, for all that he currently lacked all tact.

“Yeah,” he answered, rubbing ruefully at the side of his face. “She knew.”

“But sh -” Steve starts, only to cut himself off in a startled yelp.

“Can I interest you in a drink for yourself and the children?” The flight attendant asks, laying an overly-polite hand on Steve’s bicep and giving it a proprietary squeeze. It’s clear to Clint now that it was the attendant’s attention Steve hadn’t wanted to attract, and now that he’s thinking about it, he remembers her hovering when he was handing off all of the kids’ bags to Steve to tuck away into the overhead luggage rack. He takes the precaution of biting his cheek to keep from laughing, while Steve’s embarrassment is a thing of beauty to him, meant to be treasured and tucked away as fodder to tease him about at a later date. Clint doesn’t want to embarrass the flight attendant for looking and admiring, at least not if he doesn't have to. He’ll save that for when her admiration gets to be a little too much. It wouldn’t be the first time he had had to play the miffed boyfriend to get someone to back off. In the meantime, he’ll just relish in watching Steve blush and stammer his way through accepting a bottle of water with a few courtesy cups. The guy is such a meatball sometimes, it’s hard to remember that he used to strike terror into the heart of the so-called boogeymen. But then again, he’s barely even thirty yet, still has a couple months to go. Hell Clint’s only been in his thirties for a few years now - when the army said be all you could be, they forgot to mention how they’d take all that you could give.

It’s a nice reprieve. One that does not last long at all.

As soon as the flight attendant has moved on with her cart, Steve has turned back around to pick up just where he left off. Like a freakin’ dog with a bone. It amuses Clint to note that he isn’t bothering to slouch as much in his seat as he had been, however. At least he is capable of recognizing some lost causes.

“She knew, but she didn’t come,” he recaps relentlessly, and Clint nods his agreement, figuring at this point it's just better to go along to get along. Steve frowns rather severely at that. He looks furious on Clint’s and the kids’ behalf, and suddenly he remembers that Steve is a man capable of making grown men piss themselves out of fear. Clint finds himself fighting down an unexpected lump in his throat. He did not expect Steve to take the disillusionment of his family just as hard as he’s been, but then again, family has always been a touchy subject for them both - hell, for Barnes too, which might explain why the three of them have remained so close over the years. “Did she tell you she would? Were we supposed to wait for her or somethin’?”

“She never really said one way or the other. I wasn’t going to hold my breath waiting for her either.”

“Huh,” he says after thinking it over for a minute, “that ain’t right.”

Clint looks away from that unflinching stare, letting his eyes roam over his kids for a couple of seconds before meeting Steve’s again. He wasn’t sure what he thought he’d see there, but he knew for sure he couldn’t handle it if Steve was looking at him with pity. Again, he ought to have known better. Instead of the pity he half-expected to see in those big baby blues, he only found that familiar steady sense of trust and ‘I’ll back your play’ that Steve had always given him from day one.

“No, it ain’t.” Clint admitted feeling a bit of the weight that had bogged him down since early November, when the reality of his situation had finally hit him even though the kids had yet to realize what was happening and how he had hated Bobbi for her timing, slip away in the admission. Steve appeared to have read it in his expression or his tone of voice because he simply nodded then gifted him with a crooked little half smile that only somewhat reached his eyes.

~***~**~***~

Director Fury’s office had always been staged with intimidation as the primary goal. With that in mind, it very much resembled a petitioners court. With the heavily drawn masculine furniture and a color scheme that consisted of mainly grayscale and monochrome, a large desk centered on a wall of floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the Potomac and the sprawl of Washington beyond it. It was the central nervous system for the Triskelion and for all of SHIELD, there wasn’t a single shred of information gathered by the organization that did not cross the filter through Fury’s office at some point in time. In some fashion, be it electronic or good old fashioned hard copy. Of course, the monitors were all cleverly hidden within the walls only to appear when triggered by a voice command from Fury and the windows were capable of becoming opaque when privacy protocols were enacted. And his desk wasn’t just for intimidation purposes. All of the technology in the office was designed personally by Tony as a favor for Fury and the cybersecurity was maintained by him personally. It was different from the rest of the security protocols used by SHIELD in general – after he’d gotten back from Afghanistan and they’d realized that his convoy being attacked had to have been an inside job Tony had insisted. Surprisingly, or not so surprising really, the Director hadn’t put up any fuss about having Tony in his system and messing around with them.

In short, the room was made to make visitors feel overwhelmed and often worked its magic on newbie baby agents to the point of senselessness. Natasha might have been inclined to feel impressed by Fury’s careful staging if she didn’t think was just useless pageantry. But then again, while Natasha had utilized artfully planned staging to influence her mark before while on a mission she’s never relied on it. She had been trained by the Red Room, after all, and window dressing was still just window dressing.

Besides she had an unfair advantage – she knew Fury personally. When Howard had adopted her, Natasha had ended up not only gaining a father and a brother but an uncle in Nick Fury and an Aunt in Peggy Carter. Granted they were all, with the exception of Tony (until recently), in the espionage and assassination business but it was certainly one hell of an upgrade when compared to the Red Room. Nick liked to play it like he was some kind of Black King, but the thing was he was a White Knight through and through. Problem was most couldn’t bring themselves to see past the pirate cosplay.

The only one who knew Fury better than her was Tony (well actually, Coulson knew the Director best, after Peggy that is) but that’s because he’s been running circles around his ‘Uncle Nicky’ pretty much since the age of four. There were only a few ways in which Tony did not understand Fury and that mostly boiled down to the layers of lies that could occur within one conversation. Tony could lie with the best of them but sometimes the world of high stakes espionage just wasn’t within his wheelhouse. Natasha didn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing. Howard had let his two obsessions chew him up and spit him out, the death of his wife being an unwelcome wake-up call. While she had been practically tailored-made to become a spy thanks to Russia’s spy programs – they had plucked her out of that orphanage and raised her exactly the way they wanted to, needed to, for her to become the most efficient spy and assassin the world had ever seen. No, she was of the opinion that it was a very good thing that the nuances of being White Knight disguised as a Black King escaped Tony on the majority of the days ending in a ‘y’.

“Took your time getting here,” came the gruff greeting from the imposing figure standing with his back to them as he stared out the window looking over the Potomac. Despite the lack of a breeze in the room, somehow his trenchcoat was billowing. Then, of course, there was his need to be dramatic.

“Someone was worried that their reputation was suffering so they were being difficult on purpose.” Tony replied.

“You do realize that that sentence applies equally to both of you, right? You know the longer I’m around you Starks the more I see the family resemblance,” Sam informed him strolling comfortably into the office after them and settling on the purpopsely uncomfortable couch then kicking his feet up on the coffee table without a care in the world.

It drove Fury crazy how the former Air Force pararescue flatly refused to be intimidated by anything. Without fail it always made both of the Stark siblings smile. Wilson was the kind of confident and even-tempered individual who was so thoroughly grounded as to be nearly unshakable, he often greeted new and surprising developments with a slow blink and an insouciant shrug before just carrying on and doing what needed doing. He worked very well with Natasha. Sam was never taken aback by the occasional need to improvise on the fly or the fact that sometimes she’d have a secondary mission objective not shared with the general class.

“I’m a Romanoff.”

“That’s just a technicality Nat and you know it.”

“Children,” Coulson chided them but not truly meaning it. He’d already given up on reigning them in long ago.

“As fascinating as those semantics might be they aren’t the reason why I’ve called this little gathering,” Fury reminded them all stepping away from the window and taking charge of the room.

Well attempting to, at least. That was never a guarantee giving the mix of personalities currently present. Case in point:

“You found them,” Tony interrupted bouncing on the balls of his feet like a kid on Christmas morning.

“We found some of them, or at least individuals who we believe could be them and enough of them in one spot that we’re willing to risk sending Romanoff and Wilson out and potentially tipping them off.”

“How can you be sure? How did you manage to finally track them down? I’ve had JARVIS trolling through the net like a two-bit hooker for the last five years looking for any trace of them but no bites.”

“Let’s not get caught up in the unimportant details right now Stark,” Fury waved his questions off, “the point is we found them and in short order, we’ll make contact and then you can ask all the questions you want.”

“Here’s your approach,” Coulson told them passing out password protected StarkPads with the relative information already preinstalled on them. Natasha accepted hers with a small grin before perusing the briefing. She’d barely even begun to read the data packet before Tony was already vocally protesting about the information contained therein.

“Oregon! They’ve been in fucking Oregon this whole time! I would’ve thought with the way I couldn’t find them that they would have gone to ground somewhere actually remote like I don’t know outer Mongolia but nooo they’ve been in goddamn Oregon!”

“Clever, hiding in plain sight like that. Although I’m not sure why they felt the need to hide in the first place.” Tony concluded his nose now very firmly buried in his tablet as he went back to scrolling.

“A Spec Ops team doesn’t work well when brought to civilian attention, and while at the time the surviving members of The Howling Commandos may have managed to escape the initial media storm I doubt the paranoia went away overnight.” Coulson answered his voice gentle, “add that to the general trouble with post-traumatic stress that any combat trained vet is going to have it’s really not that difficult to understand why they dropped off the map.”

Tony only grunted at that his attention thoroughly engrossed by the screen before him. Natasha was equally absorbed, but not so much that she didn’t notice the way he flinched at the mention of post-traumatic stress. She knew Tony was having trouble processing things and for the most part, he was managing things with Pepper’s help but he could only go so long denying that there was a problem. She wanted to talk to him about it but did not know how to start that conversation. Now certainly wasn't the time for it. He wouldn’t appreciate being asked in front of everyone for starters and secondly for the first time in five years they had just been presented with the pictures of the men and women who either shared in her brothers three months long captivity or helped to rescue him from that dank Afghanistan cave.

“These are the ones you found?” Sam asked.

“Yes,” again it was Coulson who replied. Fury having elected to take a back seat for a moment and allow his ‘one good-eye’ to run this briefing. “Tony can you confirm - “

“He was there, in the cave with me and Yinsen, the shit they did to his arm it... looked like cafeteria mystery meat when the finished with it..,” he trailed off then his face going pale and a little green around the edges.

Natasha abandoned her own tablet to sit closer to her brother, hooking her chin over his shoulder she looked down to stare at the army service photo of a handsome young man with chestnut hair, slate blue eyes, and a cocky grin.

“Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes; codename Winter.” She read aloud, then reached down to scroll to the next image, this one of a stacked blond man with big baby blue eyes. “Captain Steven Grant Rogers; codename Dorito.”

“Yeah, he was there too, on the rescue team, so was this guy,” Tony confirmed scrolling down to the next image to reveal a sandy blond soldier with piercing blue-green eyes that felt like they were pinning Natasha to her seat through the tablet screen, “Specialist Clinton Francis Barton; codename Hawk.”

He quickly confirmed that the other two men Coulson had tracked down had also been there in Afghanistan with him. From there they went over the particulars of her and Sam’s undercover mission, looked like they would be putting the specious society marriage of theirs to use after all. Not that Nat was paying much attention to the briefing at that point, there was something about those blue-green eyes that she just couldn’t shake. They had thoroughly thrown her off her game.

~***~**~***~

They watched as Stark and their two agents filed out of the mission briefing, Stark fluttering between his adopted sister and ‘brother-in-law’ like a hummingbird talking a mile a minute about their upcoming undercover work. How he planned to fly out to his house in Malibu with Pepper so that he could be on hand to meet the soldiers once Natasha and Sam convinced them to sign SHIELD’s dotted line.

“How did you really track them down?” Coulson asked Fury the slight twinge of amusement in his voice indicating that he did not believe the vague story of an unpaid parking ticket that the Director had fed to everyone else.

“Do you remember how when Sharon was working for the CIA before she decided to join SHIELD and she did some time embedded with a special ops unit?”

“I remember. As I recall the Company required it of their agents, it was meant to encourage interagency cooperation but was really a ruse for the CIA to control how much information they actually shared. Didn’t she work with Clay’s Losers?”

“She did but that was the second team she was assigned to, the first one she was embedded with was the Raiders and they were lead by one Captain Steven G. Rogers. Turns out Sharon knows them all very well, use to have them over for Sunday dinners with Peggy on a weekly basis when their downtime allowed for it. Word is that they still do, on occasion.”

“Well, then the Carter’s knew how to get in touch with them all along. See this is what happens when we don’t share information and instead hoard it like spoiled kids. So how much do you owe Peggy for the information and the assist.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Don’t be surly, I’m sure Peg won’t make you eat crow forever, at least not over this particular incident. Eventually, you’ll do something else the hard way that she’ll find endlessly amusing and you’ll get to have a new batch of humble pie to stew over.”

“You know, you think you’re reassuring but you’re really not.”

“Tell me the truth here Nick, do you honestly expect any of these men to sign up again?”

“Honestly, no. I expect each of them to tell us to go fuck ourselves.”

Coulson nodded along to that as if that was the answer he had expected he’d get. “You do realize that you’re playing with fire here.”

It was more of a statement than a question but Fury chose to look upon it as a question and a rhetorical one at that.

“She will not thank you when this blows up in all of our faces,” Coulson continued never one to be deterred by Fury’s lack of response.

“If everything goes according to plan then she will not need to thank me.”

“You think your some great matchmaker but one of these days, you’re going to be wrong and I’m going to be there to say I told you so.”

“So you keep sayin’ but so far, nothing.”

“That’s because somehow you keep managing to skid by the skin of your teeth.”

“Do I though? That business with Stark and Potts nearly cost me my other eye, not to mention the ulcer all the fireworks and pinning gave me.”

Judging by the eye roll that response hadn’t impressed Coulson, at all. “I thought the ulcer was due to Stane trying to murder your godson right under your nose, repetitively,” he quipped. “So the point of all this is nothing more than a big fishing expedition then. We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

“We’ll borrow one of Stark’s.”

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The call came in early, interrupting what had looked to be a quiet Friday morning. Clint had only been working for Bucky just over a month and a half now and he found himself enjoying the simplicity of working with his hands more than he thought he would’ve. He’d been trying so hard back in Brooklyn for the last two years to fix something that didn’t want fixing that it was a relief to just create. There was a joy in watching things take shape out of nothing. To knowing that he was building practical things meant to last and be useful to and used by others for their own enjoyment. He found that along with the sessions at the veterans center, and weekly one on one sessions with his own counselor, that carpentry went a hell of way further towards making him feel back on track than what he had been doing back east. The kids helped too, but then having the kids had always helped him. It’s just that before, he was hanging all of his progress off of their tiny little shoulders and that wasn’t fair – not by a long shot. To any of them.

Still, Clint had never really pictured himself as much of a carpenter, it was just some knack for fixing things and putting things together that he had picked up along the way and managed to refine. He had learned to like manipulating spare lumber and tools to create something else back in the circus on the few occasions when they needed actual stage props and it was knowledge that came in handy (no pun intended) in the army when his unit was out on patrol and caught without shelter but with a means to MacGyver something together. So it was nice to actually use his talents in a formal setting.

Bucky, by far, was more knowledgeable than Clint. But that’s what you would expect from a guy who had grown up in the business. His mother’s brothers had been in construction and his father was a carpenter, to hear Steve tell it George Barnes could build anything and everything from kitchen cabinets to bedroom furniture. Buck had been generous enough to take Clint on as a sort of apprentice which meant for the last month and a half or so all he’d been doing was cabinetry work; closets, free standing wardrobes, dressers, kitchen cabinets and with the occasional table mixed in to break up the monotony. Just to be sure that he could get the basics down and because in general, those were very difficult things for him to screw up.

Therefore, when they got a call about some well-to-do wanting a closet redone on their yacht Bucky passed the work on to him saying it’d be a good challenge for him. Give him a chance to think creatively and work with limited space as well as cut his teeth on customer service. Oh sure, Clint did just fine dealing with your average Joe Schmo and folks like himself but there was a different way of handling oneself around those individuals who equated quality with pageantry.

Clint couldn’t help but feel like Bucky was feeding him to the wolves here, and the asshole had the termiety to laugh in his face when he voiced his concern.

“The way you go on Barton,” he chortled as he’d helped him load his truck with enough lumber supplies of the various samples that he’d be able to get a decent head start on the project before needed a resupply, “were you or were you not a Ranger? What’s a socialite with a shrimp fork in comparison to an armed insurgent?”

Bucky’s good-natured ribbing proved to be just the kick in the pats Clint needed to motivate him. It never got under his skin, unlike the way Bobbi’s teasing had often felt derisive and dismissive. Mostly because he knew Barnes got it, he’d been there and in a lot of ways was still right there in the thick of it alongside him. Sure Bucky had a head start on his recovery and transition back into civilian life but that didn’t mean he still didn’t get his fair share of bad days. Yet here he was five years out from the worst time in his life wearing a t-shirt, the scarring on his left arm blatantly on display slinging lumber like it was no big deal, when Clint could distinctly remember that first leave after Bucky’s captivity, and subsequent discharge, when he refused to wear anything less than two layers of long sleeves and could barely stand to let anyone touch him; even Steve.

It was encouraging to see him now. He knew things weren’t perfect for Bucky, hell they weren’t perfect for Gabe or Jim either, but they were better and that was a gleam of hope (outside of his children’s future) that Clint had sorely been missing. He kept that thought firmly in mind as he drove off towards the marina the scoured the docks in search of a yacht that he could only assume had been named STARKRINAwith the owner’s tongue firmly in cheek. And the little he knew of the owner and her family suggested that that had very much been the case. It was probably a good thing that Barnes had waited until Clint was halfway to the marina to text him the name of the client and their boat with a pointed reminder that he’d already told them to be expecting him. Otherwise, Clint would have found a way to weasel his way out of the whole deal.

“Just a socialite with a shrimp fork my ass,” Clint muttered to himself as fished his battered cell phone out of his toolbox and sent a quick SOS text off to Steve. “Let’s see how you feel now that Cap’s on your case.” Part of him felt bad about siccing Steve on Bucky but the rest of him felt extremely vindicated. The buzzing of his phone drew him out of visions Steve twisting Bucky’s ear and scolding him like an old schoolmarm.

Sarge: cool it pumpkin between me and our Eye in the Skye she’s not gonna have a clue who u are. TS had code names only and we’ve been off grid. don’t care what kinda toys he has

And that would have to do for reassuring. Besides, what did he honestly expect here? Natasha Stark had never once played into the media circus surrounding her brother’s kidnapping in Afghanistan and miraculous rescue three months later other than a politely worded plea for his safe return that ran in the Times, she didn’t even give Barbara Walters or Oprah a face-to-face interview. If Tony Stark was a tabloid darling than Natasha Stark was a ghost as far as the public was concerned. There had been a brief mention of her marriage in the society pages a few years back but other than that she might as well have been a figment of high society's collective imagination.

Recently there had been some sort of write up about the Starks in the papers, something about here being a break in at Stark Tower and a shooting, but Clint had only been tangentially aware of it because of Bobbi’s career as a detective. Otherwise, he’d kept to the typical New Yorker mindset of ‘your business is not my business and I just can’t be bothered to care right now’. Besides, he had enough of his own problems to be worried over what was going on in the life of a 1%-er.

None of that helped him with the dilemma he currently faced. That being the relatively modest (HA) 50m luxury yacht in front of him. Reminding himself that he once stormed armed gunrunners hideouts for a living so marching up the gangplank of a yacht should be nothing of consequence to him. Easy peasy. And in theory, it was. Until, that is he was greeted by a gimlet-eyed redhead in a designer swimsuit and gauzy cover-up, with fancy sunglasses topped off by a big floppy sun hat waiting impatiently for his arrival. Clint wouldn’t even know how to go about describing the ensemble other than to say that it was expensive and that he would be caught dead before he’d feel comfortable seeing either of his baby girls wearing something meant to be so revealing.

“We were told to expect you at 10 this morning. It is now a quarter to 11. Is this how you plan to do business?”

It takes a great deal of effort on Clint’s part to bite his tongue and not say something scathing in return but instead answer her snobbish attitude with an apologetic smile. He choked down a more satisfying reply but it’d hardly earn him the money he needs to pay his bills.

“My apologies ma’am, I’m new in town and still learning my way around. ”

“I was told that I would be taken care of by the very best, I suppose that’s meant to be you? Did your superior not understand the gravity of my request?”

“Yes ma’am he did, and I can only assure you that it won’t happen again.”

She scoffs at that and one elegantly curved eyebrow hikes rather disbelievingly towards her hairline. Its an expression that shouts louder than any words ever could how unimpressed she truly is right now, and well the feeling is completely mutual as far as Clint’s concerned. Bucky can just go stuff himself if he honestly expects Clint to deal with clients like this on any kind of regular basis. He’s barely gotten through five minutes of a half-assed conversation with the woman and already Clint knows that working for her is going to be impossible – if one were to look up the definition of high maintenance in the dictionary they’d find a picture of Natasha Stark judging them in high definition from its glossy pages for their lack of vocabulary skills.

He quickly decides, for his sanity’s sake, if nothing else, to just grit his teeth and bear whatever misery he has to bear to get through this job intact – forget about dignity, there’s no way in hell a woman like Natasha Stark is going to let him keep a scrap of dignity. Clint can already tell that she’s like a shark when there's blood in the water when it comes to men and their ‘dignity’. Nope, the only way he’s going to survive this little project is to treat the yacht like its a drug lord's compound that he has to infiltrate in order to liberate some intel. It’s not a thought that should be as comforting as it is, but for whatever reason, it relaxes Clint and he finds himself on steadier footing despite the slight sway of the vessel in its mornings.

A comfort that comes with a heavy dose of irony since Clint used to do that shit for a living. And had once upon a time, not too long ago, been partially responsible for infiltrating a hostile compound to retrieve her Ladyship's older brother and bring him back to the States more or less all in one piece. Not that she could ever know that, or would ever think to thank him for it if she did.

“Well you’re here now and might as well do the work we are paying you to do,” the Prima Donna in a designer swimsuit and Prada shades finally declares, “follow me and don’t touch anything unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. I just had the main cabin remodeled and I don’t want the finish sullied.”

“Darling, play nice,” an amused voice calls down from the deck above them. It’s the kind of amusement that suggests that not everyone present is in on the joke, but for all that it is meant to be exclusive, it isn’t cutting. For some reason, Clint’s vividly reminded of that one scene in Lion KingTM where Mufasa teaches Simba how to pounce by setting Zazu up to be the literal, punch line or rather pounce line. Clint realizes he could have happily gone the rest of his adult life without knowing what it was like to relate to an animated bird on such a spiritual level. With a mental note to self to stop letting Steve come over for impromptu Disney marathons with the kids he tilts his head back, trusting to his respectable discount sunglasses to protect his eyes from any sun glare, to get a gander at, who he can only assume is, the Husband.

He’s a little taken aback to find an attractive man who’s military history Clint can read in the way he holds himself mildly at attention despite the fact that he’s draped artfully over the railing to smile cheekily down at them with a disarmingly gapped toothed grin. The man is wearing skimpy little swim shorts that are just shy of being called a speedo based on length alone and leave very little to the imagination. Judging from the way they’re hugging his thighs the man’s ass has got to be magnificent. Topped by a flimsy and loosely button short-sleeved linen shirt that contrasts distractingly, and mouthwateringly, with the man's skin. Look, Clint may not fully swing that way but he certainly knows how to appreciate a good looking man when he sees one. For fuck’s sake, he spent all of basic with Bucky Barnes and a good chunk of his military career basically living in the pockets of both Steve Rogers and Thor Odinson – he knows quality eye candy of the male variety when he sees it.

Evidently so does the Husband.

Hey, Clint’s no slouch in the looks department if he does say so himself – he’d kept Bobbi interested for far longer than he should’ve been able too. But in this instance, he’s not referring to himself but rather the little bit of eye candy hovering all so attentively at Hubbie’s elbow. The other man looked like he’d been pulled straight from central casting, standing there in nothing more than suntan oil slicked skin, washboard abs, and almost indecently cut board shorts. And yeah, sure summer was in full swing up here in the North Pacific but it’s not L.A. honey – who the hell were they trying to impress? Jeans and a flannel with a t-shirt was a perfectly acceptable wardrobe choice.

“I am,” she snapped in a manner that heavily implied ‘that’s what I pay people for’.

“Whatever you say, snookums.” The man replied with another lackadaisical smirk indicating that this was an old argument of theirs and one that he had long since given up on winning. Now, now it was just a Tuesday afternoon amusement for him.

With a derisive snort, she dismisses the still unnamed Husband and motions imperiously for Clint to follow her. Figuring that he’s better off keeping his mouth shut and doing as she says Clint goes along hoping to get along.

So far it seems like the safest strategy, if not the wisest. Clint has the strangest sense that he’s walking the plank as he follows Ms. Stark. He has to remind himself that he’s been in tougher spots than some luxury yacht with a spoiled woman who's never known desperation as he has before. Not that that does much to stop the dread from pooling in his stomach, he’s got a bad feeling about this and it only grows when he realizes that even though he knows he’s on a luxury yacht and its built to have more space than your average sailboat he still can’t shake a gnawing sense of claustrophobia. The lighting is dim for all that the haul in the main cabin has actual windows and the hallway is lined with portholes trying to enhance the amount of natural light making the so-call ‘luxury’ interior look less like a cave. When she leads him into the bedroom there’s just a narrow strip of glass across the aft wall and the closet that he’s expected to remodel has one lonely little porthole.

Bucky must have had an inkling about this and that just might be his true motive for sending Clint out on this gig instead of himself or Gabe. Normally Clint’s just fine with confined spaces, as long as he can see the skyline and a clear escape route but neither Gabe and Bucky can handle being shut in anymore. Ever since that shitshow in Afghanistan. Out of the two of them, Bucky’s worse off, but then he had been stuck in the dark longer than just about anyone other than Stark.

He’s pulled back to the present moment by a whirlwind in a gauzy white cover-up and sunhat worthy of the Kentucky Derby as her Highness details all that she expects to have changed during the closet remodel. Immediately Clint has a suggestion that he doesn’t dare offer because he knows it won’t go over well – declutter. It's possible he got spoiled living with Bobbi but he doesn’t see a need for half of the crap the heiress has shoved in her closet – does any women seriously need that many pairs of shoes? Or several drawers of fancy panties? There is such a thing as overkill when it comes to fashion, isn’t there? At least he has the good sense to keep his mouth shut and just take mental notes about what she expects to have happened. He’ll do the best he can but honestly, she already has more than enough space devoted to clothes here. It’s a walk-in closet on a yacht taking up a finite resource for a frivolity. But hey, what did he know? He was just here to do work and get paid not to fathom the withertos or whyfors of those who were so ridiculously rich they made up reasons to spend their money.

“So you see, I just won’t continue to live like this,” she winds down her speech after going on and on about how she can’t be bothered to go in and out of the stack of boxes that house her lingerie and how inadequate it is that her shoes must be lined up across the carpet instead of housed in a shoe rack.

Thankfully Clint’s saved from having to respond to that comment by some lackey dressed up in a suit who must be feeling all sorts of uncomfortable in the summer heat.

“Madam.”

“Well, I almost had to wait,” she scolds the older man who Clint assumes must be a butler or a waiter at the very least, judging from the way he’s presented that tray he’s holding for Stark’s inspection. She picks up the most ridiculous looking little spoon Clint’s ever seen and scoops an unappealing mass of blackish goo out of a silver bowl and into her mouth. He wants to look away but it’s kind of like a trainwreck. Part of him registers that this is most likely what would be called a “delicacy” but the rest of him is channeling his inner Pietro (age four) and just wants to point and scream ‘GOO! She ate GOO!’ Evidently, some part of Stark must agree with him because she makes a disgusted face slams the spoon back down on the tray and picks up a napkin to scrape the taste off of her tongue.

“What is this gelatinous MUCK?” she demands, “Coulson when I tell you to pack staples, must I specify that you are to pack good caviar and not this $1.99 fish bait? Caviar should be round, and hard, and of adequate size, and should burst in your mouth at precisely the right moment.”

Her voice is low and raspy and that description taken out of context could easily apply to an entirely different sort of situation, especially with the half-lidded look of rapture she’s got going on. To Clint, however, it just reads as if she’s forcing the association so he stands there in the closet with his thumbs tucked into his toolbelt, hip slightly cocked, waiting for the punchline. After a moment her eyes widen to track his reaction and when she sees him waiting patiently for her to get to the point she quickly, with a natural smoothness that he finds himself admiring, begrudgingly, drops the act. He has to stomp on the urge to chuckle, obviously, she’s not unaware of the shtupping going on above deck. I’m not playing along with your’s and Hubby’s little game of one-upping each other sweetheart.

“Ah before you go ma’am, I have some samples here of the types of wood we usually redo closets in, if you wouldn’t mind choosing?” Clint asks, reaching into the wooden toolbox he’d set at his feet and drawing out his sample cuts pinned to an old board and a marker for her to circle her choice. He hands the marker to her then holds the board up for her inspection.

She glances at it briefly before circling the number next to the oak sample. Clint frowns at that since he usually prefers to go with cedar for a closet due to its scent and the fact that it repels moths, but he shrugs off his concern. It’s not his closet.

“You have 48 hours, I suggest you get started,” she informs him barely sparing him another look as she leaves him in the master bedroom with the butler.

He can very clearly hear her whisper-yell at the butler to “watch him” but puts that nonsense out of his mind in favor of taking stock of the space he has to work with, sketching out a quick design plan and writing up an estimate in terms of labor and materials. He spends the remainder of the morning being hovered over by the butler doing a fair imitation of a helicopter parent, jerking back and forth to almost peer over his shoulder each time he goes to take a measurement or moves a belonging out of the way, before taking an early lunch, not to eat but to run out and get the lumber off his truck he’ll need for the remodel. As luck would have it, he and Bucky happened to load more oak than anything else this morning so if he’s careful with his measurements he should be able to accomplish quite a bit today. Thankfully Madam’s needs are rather reasonable and boil down to a new set of drawers for her fancy-smancy underoos and a shoe rack. The only hiccup Clint can foresee is the sheer volume of stuff he’s expected to cram in such a small space. He’s got an idea for a rotating shoe rack though that just might be the space savior he’s looking for. Clint’s only other real worry about this job is the time crunch but a quick text conversation with Steve sets his mind at ease, Steve is always happy to watch the kids for Clint and willing to do so in a pinch.

That’s been one of the greatest blessings about moving out to Elk Cove – his support group is astronomical. Clint hadn’t realized it back in Brooklyn when he’d been relying on Bobbi but that had basically been it for him: Bobbi or his VA assigned counselor and it wasn’t enough. Nothing against Xavier, the guy was good and had clearly seen some stuff in his day he was just too academic sometimes in his approach to really connect with Clint. Unlike his new counselor – Logan Howlett ran the group session Clint belonged to with Bucky, in addition to doing one on one sessions, and was the right combination of gruff asshole with a soft touch to call them both on their shit and to coax them into doing better. More importantly, he was a vet himself and had been there every step of the way at one point in time and was still there right in the thick of it with them in some way shape or form – he got it, right in the heart and bone of him. Gabe, Jim, and Steve all attended a different group that met on an opposite night from theirs. Evidently the VA out in Portland believed in separating commanding officers from their men when it came to therapy, which Clint thought was good practice. He knew that Cap was the type to feel twice the guilt over the decisions he made if he heard how they had affected Clint and Clint knew that at the time Steve was doing his best to mitigate bad orders and spare his men harm.

Sometimes he wondered how Bucky and Steve handled talking about their respective recoveries in their household, he knew that he said some shit about Steve’s leadership skills in front of Bucky that he did not want to be repeated not so much because he believed the negative things he said at the time, but because he was frustrated. It bothered him a lot, especially the first month or so he was here until Jim sat him down and explained to him that for Steve and Buck the VA is both Vegas and church. It’s sacred and what happens there stays there. They might not agree with how the place was run sometimes, the system that chewed them up and spat them out or with how veterans were treated by the country, name a vet who did (Clint won’t hold his breath waiting) but the VA was sacrosanct as far as they were concerned for what services they could manage to provide. Every little bit helped.

He should’ve anticipated and known that Steve and Bucky would honor and respect everyone’s privacy as much as possible. It’s something he’s forgotten in the last few years living with an overprotective detective around the clock. In Brooklyn, if he had a job that was going to run late he wouldn’t’ve been able to just call Bobbi and let her know to expect him a little later without giving a full account as to why that was. It was nice that here all he had to do was text Steve and what he got back was a text saying that Bucky and the guys were coming over for a cookout with the kids so if he wanted anything, in particular, he should try to get home as soon as he was able to.

Clint found that instead of dragging his feet anticipating a fight and a modern version of the Spanish Inquisition when he walked through the door, he was eager to get home to hang out with his children and their “uncles”. His afternoon flew by in a flurry of surprising productivity and minor inconveniences and interruptions. At one point he overheard her Highness bidding outrageously for some painting over the phone that she ‘simply must have’ while her Hubby was busy shooting skeet off of the side of the yacht for some godforsaken reason – because, well why not? Annoyed with the overindulgence and excess of it all Clint switched off his hearing aids so that he could work in peace. That and the rhythmic booming of the double barrel shotgun was starting to make his hands start to shake.

It had been a while since Clint exposed himself to live weapons fire and he couldn’t just tune out the noise like he once did. Thankfully, turning off the aids did the trick. And while it may have been a tactfully sound move for his mental health, in the moment, situationally it was not the smartest move. As he discovered when the butler, Coulson, startled the bejesus outta of him when he came to check on his progress for the afternoon and offer him a late afternoon snack. He likes to think he recovered well enough, thanks to his ability to read lips and the butler’s affinity for staring directly at him when speaking, but Clint knows he probably looks like the fumbling idiot he really is. He waits until after the other man leaves him alone to surreptitiously turn his aids back on, he doesn’t want to be caught unawares again.

Turns out to be good planning. Clint’s just barely settled into having his snack of cheese, crackers, and salami the plate balanced across his lap as he lays back on a drop clothed covered chaise for a brief breather. His somewhat sprawled out and stuffing his face, eyes closed as he relaxes for the first time since boarding the cursed boat when in waltzes Ms. Stark sans cover-up and skimpy bikini on full display. Clint kind of can’t blame her for kicking at his leg or peering superiorly down her nose at him as if he’s some sort of lazy worm. He was being paid to do a job here, not lounge about.

“Hi,” he greets her sheepishly with a charming smile. One that he promptly ruins by shoving a tower of cheese, meat, and cracker into his mouth. He debated chewing with his mouth open for a second, just to be obnoxious, but decides not to press his luck when he sees the way her eyes narrow.

“Forks have been used since the 4th century at least, if not earlier, so that man could make a pretense of separating himself from the apes.”

She informed him coolly even as she breezed by him to bend over and rummage around in her bedside drawers after something that was clearly of earth-shattering importance. She’s directly in his line of sight and Clint gets to see just how cheeky the cut was on her bikini bottoms and exactly how little they cover. He looks long enough to notice that she has either a birthmark or a very small, no bigger than a dime, peachy colored tattoo in the shape of an hourglass high up on her left cheek. He’s not proud of it but he’s a guy, so he looked. Then quickly averted his gaze when he realized how creepy and invasive and just generally not cool of him that was.

“Are you almost done for the day? I’d like to know when I can have my boudoir back.”

“Almost, there’s just one more thing I’d like to do before heading out for the day,” Clint answers her honestly, foregoing mentioning that she won’t be able to use her precious bedroom for the night due to the fumes from the stain he’s put on the drawers but he’ll leave that particular honor for the butler.

“Well then, hurry up and get on with it.”

With that particular bit of sage advice, she turns smartly on her heel and saunters out of the room. And no, it’s not really in Clint’s imagination that she puts an extra umph in the swing of hips. He finds himself trying to hunt out her little tattoo – it has to be a tattoo, it’s far too uniform of a design to be a birthmark – as her fine ass disappears around the corner (he noticed that from the start, he’s deaf not blind) and roughly shakes his head to rid himself of any notions he may or may not have percolating. Look, it’s been a while, okay. Even before the split Clint hadn’t really been interested, trauma would do that to you, and Bobbi hadn’t been in much of loving mood. The stars just never really aligned for them there at the end of it.

He’s a little hard up is the thing. But not that desperate. And he really, really, just doesn’t have time to get in between a marital pissing match even though that seems to be this particular couples main source of entertainment.

Maybe….?

It’s probably a really good thing he’s not paid to understand the Rich, capital ‘R’ required, he’s just expected to quietly cater to them take his money and get the hell out of dodge.

~***~**~***~

Anticipation hung thick and palpable about the yacht, like a brewing summer storm, as Natasha waited for a good forty-five minutes after Barton left before seeking out Sam and Coulson for a debrief. She hasn’t been overly impressed by her first contact with one of their quarries and she wanted confirmation of her assessment, confident that both her partner and her handler would feel the same about the man. And since Sam had insisted on bringing his fiancee along she might as well get Riley’s opinion too. Hell, I could just set up a poll while I’m at it.

Barton had a problem with authority – it was obvious in the way he bristled every time she’d directed anything even remotely like a command his way – and if he didn’t feel the need to respect an order, he’d go his own way, damn the consequences. That was clear in the how she’d given him concise directions to ‘fix’ the overcrowding issue in the yacht’s main cabin walk-in closet and he had dawdled over the task unnecessarily. There had been really nothing about him that was impressive other than a pair of biceps that made the sleeves of his flannel shirt weep and a pair of piercing blue-green eyes. Neither of which gave Natasha the impression that he had anything between his ears other than cotton soaked in toxic masculinity. Her first impression of Barton was that he was nothing more than an army grunt who happened to be good at shooting things from a distance, and she didn’t bother to hide her disappointment.

Truth be told, she had thought that they would be making contact with Barnes first and had tailor-made her approach to be facing an (according to reports from his peers in the service) notorious ladies man. Not one as proliferate as her brother had been before he got his act together and admitted his feelings for Pepper to Pepper, but still one with quite the reputation for chasing tail. She had dressed provocatively and decided on playing the part of the ice queen knowing that a man like that would be enthralled by the chase of something he couldn’t easily get. In her mind, it had been a perfectly acceptable assumption to make (if a bit of rookie move) for when Coulson had placed the call for the carpentry work it had been Barnes who answered the phone and assured him that ‘he’d be right out to take a look at things.’

Natasha had been caught completely flat-footed when she found Barton and not Barnes standing there on the main deck of the yacht, a wooden toolbox in hand and weighing down his left side from the weight. She may have relied too heavily on her ‘ice queen’ persona to carry her through the unsettled feeling she got from being pinned beneath that blue-green gaze.

She was sitting on the lounge deck in the aft of the yacht staring off across the water pondering what exactly it was about the man that unsettled her so when Sam and Coulson found her.

“So that’s Barton,” Sam declared sitting in the unoccupied lounge chair next to hers in the aft of the yacht. Riley hadn’t followed him out and was probably taking the chance to search every area Barton had been for listening devices. Not that they honestly expected to find that he had planted any – he didn’t seem to possess the foresight – but he and the rest of them had gotten off grid enough to be near impossible to track for SHIELD’s analysts, they wouldn’t put it past him or one of the others to be paranoid enough to carry bugs. Until they had confirmation that there weren’t any they’d be holding their little conferences out in open air.

“It’s possible that Barnes got spooked when Coulson named dropped Stark and probably assumed the work was for your brother.” He offered after a silent moment or two studying her face.

Natasha’s not sure what her expression gave away to prompt that kind of condolences but she wasn’t going to question it. She’d long ago accepted the fact that Sam just had a way of reading people she wasn’t going to understand. It was more intuitive than studied, unlike her skillset, and he was far more comfortable with making an intuitive leap than she’d ever been.

They knew that they’d be risking potential recognition and spooking their marks by using Natasha’s public persona as their cover. She used her adopted families name to hide in plain sight and it had often proved useful in opening doors faster, practically instantaneously, than any cover SHIELD could cobble together. They figured it was worth the risk of one of their targets balking at the sound of the name ‘Stark’ since it allowed them to get this mission up and running quickly.

“Makes sense, out of the five of them here Barnes would’ve spent the most time in Tony’s company and he’d be more easily recognizable,” Coulson conceded. “It would be a shame to waste all that effort in going unnoticed to have Barnes made the second he came aboard.”

Natasha felt that explanation was a stretch since Tony had clearly recognized all of them from their service photos, but she was willing to accept it, for now.

“That being said, in light of this new development I don’t think your seduction is going to hold up Natasha,” Coulson informs her and it isn’t anything she hasn’t already thought, in fact, it's a rather sensible course of action, but it stings to hear it coming from her handler. Natasha isn’t used to failure.

“It will, I was just probably being too subtle for Barton,” she retorts prompting Coulson to regard her with a flat look.

“I’m not so sure,” Sam cations, “I get the feeling that the man is smarter than his service records imply. In fact, I’m willing to bet that he plays dumb on purpose.”

“Do you have any evidence to back that up?”

“Yeah, look the dude was a sniper, you have to have more than a basic understanding of math to pull off the types of shots he managed,” Sam explains. “There are only two other snipers currently active that match him when it comes to skill – I say match because it’d be had to call who's the best out of the three of ‘em.”

“Barnes and Alvarez,” Coulson supplies nodding along in agreement.

“Then there’s the fact that once he joined the Raiders all of those red flags for insubordination suddenly disappeared. Now that could just be because he finally found a place in the army that encouraged his kind of creative thinking or it could be because he finally found a CO that knew how to work with him properly. Knowing what I do of the Raiders missions from hearsay, I’d say it’s both.”

At that Coulson, well he doesn’t really smile, but there is a gleam in his eye that suggests childlike awe, “Rogers is what many armchair generals would call the worst kind of commanding officer – a good man, not a good soldier. He’s infamous for reworking his orders in a manner that suits his sense of morals while still achieving the objective and minimizing collateral damage where he can. If he wasn’t so successful he would have been kicked out of the army for insubordination himself instead of put on the promotional fast track.”

“Barnes has the same kind of history only it seems like he’s more inclined to play politics than Rogers,” he concludes, adding that last bit like an afterthought.

“Well I can’t change course now,” Natasha informs them both, “if he’s really smarter than he seems that will look incredibly suspicious to him.”

“Oh, he is,” Riley confirms coming out to join them and sharing Sam’s lounge chair. “He noticed that there was more going on between Sam and me then what our covers should have suggested.”

“He only saw us together for five minutes if that!”

“Umhmm, pretty sure he’s convinced that you trying to seduce him is just your way of getting back at your cheating trophy husband.” Riley confided to Nat as if it was some sort of state secret. “And I for one have to commend the man for being smart enough not to fall into that particular honey trap.”

“Well I’ll just have to sweeten it for him then,” she retorted resolute in her determination. She’d nearly had him after comparing caviar to a blow job, so it shouldn’t take much.

Well, that had been her plan. But the next morning, it all went rather spectacularly to shit.

Chapter Text

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Natasha had woken up ready to settle further into her assumed role of ‘aloof but tempting New York socialite looking for a fling with the local handyman’. She’s aware that its basically a plot device taken directly from a badly written porno, but she honestly doesn’t think creative thinking is required here to accomplish her job. Imagination does not really seem to be Barton’s strong suit, no matter what his military record might say. It's possible that she's underestimating him, relying more than she should on her skillset, allowing herself to become overconfident because of that, but she doubts it. There's no possible way for him to outmaneuver her. He's a retired sniper, she's an active spy. Besides, she can’t shake the feeling that something is off. That this whole thing is nothing more than a wild goose chase.

Every once in a while, Nick has these notions that she ought to be coddled because the life of a spy is dangerous and exhausting, so he’ll assign her busywork missions as a way to force her into taking it easy. She doesn’t care for it in the least. There’s a low thrum of irritation that continuously boils through her veins the longer she dwells on it, and it splits her focus.

She ends up coming across as more spoiled than enticingly bratty. Natasha is perfectly aware that some men are turned on by the idea of a bratty partner, but she’s missing the mark entirely. Her game has been thoroughly thrown off, she just can’t account for it. What’s more is that she can tell that her team was beginning to think that was acting out of line. Yet she just can’t stop herself from putting her foot in her mouth. It’s like she’s channeling Tony at his sleep-deprived, science-jagged worse.

“Why don’t you go inside,” Sam finally suggests, sounding for all the world like a doting husband completely smitten by his wife, when Natasha knows he’s actually thoroughly exasperated with her. “Get out of the sun and the sea air for a while.”

Her knee-jerk reaction is to be defensive. “I can’t do that,” she snaps. “That Elk Snout mountain man is still working on my closet, sweating all over the place. I doubt he’s even housebroken.”

“Oh, I think they housebreak each other…” Sam replied, sounding more than a little lost at that like he wasn’t sure if wanted to yell at her for that comment or laugh at it. She shushed him anyway, causing Sam to raise yet another questionable eyebrow at her. She’s been getting them a lot this mission.

“The carpenter’s listening,” Natasha explained. “He’s been hanging on our every word for the last two days.”

Her explanation earned her a pinch from Coulson – who had been painting her toenails – on the bottom of her foot, causing her to jerk her feet back and shoot him a small glare over the top of her sunglasses. She caught his warning and scowled at him. He’d already pointed out Barton’s hearing aids last night and how the previous day he’d caught him turning off his aids when Sam was shooting skeet to cover for Natasha calling in a report. (He’d also caught Barton very obviously in the midst of a minor panic attack due to the shooting and attempting to deal with it without drawing attention to himself).

“Shall I put your jewelry back on for you ma’am?” Coulson asked cheekily, maintaining his role.

“No, I’m still tacky,” she tells him.

Coulson leaves her after that, following Sam and Riley as they go to check after the engine ‘repairs’. Natasha sits in her lounge chair for a moment, pursing her lips in thought before deciding to take Sam’s advice about getting out of the sea air. Although Sam probably meant for her to take a step back and get a breather, Natasha had the opposite in mind.

She made her way into the master bedroom to find the drop cloths packed up and the furniture Barton had moved around to make space for his crafting had been set back to its proper location. If she hadn’t seen what disarray the room had been in just this morning, she never would have known that he had been there. His grasp of spatial awareness was remarkable and she found herself impressed by it, even though she’d rather not be. She found Barton in the master closet putting the last few finishing touches on his work.

Natasha stared in befuddlement at a rather cleverly designed shoe rack that took advantage of the cramped space to give her the best solution. It was surprisingly inventive work from a man whom she had pegged as not being naturally creative. She could already tell, even before she prodded Barton into explaining what he did, how it was meant to double the available space for a shoe collection. Pepper would certainly appreciate that once they returned her yacht (it had taken her a couple of years to accept the ridiculous boat as a gift from Tony, but eventually she’d fallen in love with the idea of sailing, mainly because she could keep Tony out on the ocean with her and guarantee his undivided attention). It was disconcerting having her preconceived notions of the man so blatantly flaunted – and proven wrong – that she spoke sharper than she meant to:

“Enough with your absurdities,” she cut him off mid-explanation. “What is it made from?”

She knew exactly what it was made from, she’d picked out the lumber herself. Feeling off-kilter, she wanted something to yell about and the type of wood seemed like the easiest target.

“Oak,” he answered, his tone making it clear that he knew she knew she was already aware of this fact.

“An oak closet?”

“Yes, just as you requested.”

“And it didn’t occur to you to remind me that closets should be made out of cedar, otherwise, we get moths.”

“Uh no, for three reasons. One, you wanted oak and the customer is always right; two, oak is just as acceptable of a hardwood to use in building a closet as cedar; and three, there’s not a real big moth problem off the Pacific coast.”

“This is a yacht, capable of traveling anywhere in the world. It’s not just the Pacific coast’s moth problems one needs to keep in mind.”

“Alright, fair point,” he concedes after a moment's thought, “if you want it out of cedar then that’s fine. Wish you mentioned it from the beginning but no biggie, I’ll just start all over. Gotta tell ya though that’s gonna more than double my estimate.”

“What do you mean double?”

“Well since I’ve already done this out of oak -”

“I am not about to pay for your mistake!”

“Okay, not my mistake, let’s be clear on that and I’m not just gonna eat it on this deal.”

“You’ve eaten everything else in sight why not this? The entire civilized world knows that any proper closet would be made of cedar! You should’ve accounted for that in your design.

“Well up here in Elk Snout ma’am see, we don’t know ‘bout them closets, nor bathrooms either. Shit woman, you’re lucky I am house broke!”

“You did hear us.”

“Yeah, well, kind of hard to avoid it,” he admitted failing to mention the times he did manage to avoid it by turning off his aids.

“Well, it's a good thing you're fired then.”

“Oh you are a real piece of work lady,” he muttered under his breath waving his arms about in frustration. “Fine, just pay me the money you owe me and I’ll be on my way.”

It was a reasonable request and one she could easily honor, and certainly should, but she wasn’t going to. Instead, she huffed in irritation at his assertion, turned on her heel and stormed out of the cabin back on deck. He followed quickly on her heels ranting about the money he was owed, then making up additional grievances to complain about. He finally cornered her on the rear party deck, pinning her against the back railing and looming over her in his anger. Natasha shrank back from him, pretending to cower, hoping to encourage him to lean in. The closer he got the more leverage she would have to lay him flat on his ass. Instead of invading her personal space further as she half expected him to, he pulled back with a flicker of disgust flashing across his face. Judging by the way his shoulders hunched and how he immediately took two steps away from her, that disgust had been over his own actions. It didn’t stop him from verbally laying into her, however.

“You know what your problem is?” Came the rhetorical question with far more sting to it than she’d wager he meant to give it. “You are so goddamn bored, you have to invent things to bitch about! The closet was fine, you just needed something to fill up your useless, nail-polishing, toe-polishing, rich bitch, sun-tanning days! Some empty excuse to make yourself feel useful as if you’ve actually accomplished something for once in your life.”

“Well newsflash sweetheart, you failed. Now I’m not leaving until you pay me what you owe me,” and with that, he folded his arms akimbo and leaned back against the ship's railing clearly resting his case.

“My life happens to be very accomplished,” she ground out, shoving him in the shoulder and tipping him overboard. He fell into the water with a very satisfying splash.

The tools she tossed over after him didn’t make nearly as much of a satisfying sound.

~***~**~***~

What a god awful day this had turned out to be. He would’ve thought that day two would have gone smoother but instead, it ended with him getting into a completely unnecessary fight with his employer then tossed unceremoniously overboard followed by his tools. Only they weren’t his tools – or rather the old wooden toolbox hadn’t been his. Clint had borrowed it from Steve and it was one of the few remaining possessions of his father’s Cap had bothered to keep. Clint had never known the full story but he knew enough to realize that Steve considered George Barnes more of a father figure than his actual biological dad but couldn’t cut all sentimental ties with the man – hence hanging on to a few of his positions like the wooden toolbox. A toolbox that was now slowly sinking to the bottom of the marina thanks to her highness’ snit fit.

Eventually, Clint managed to fish himself out of the drink, sans tools and squelched his way back to the parking lot. Thankfully he had a couple of towels and a drop cloth in the back of his pickup truck, so he was able to dry off, drape the drop cloth over the front seat and get the hell outta of there. Thanks to his impromptu swimming adventure his cellphone was toast so he didn’t have the satisfaction of calling up Bucky right away to curse him out; he’d have to wait until he saw him in person. Which meant he had plenty of time to stew as he drove away from the marina and back to Elk Cove.

Unfortunately, this meant that his hearing aids had crapped out, even though Bobbi had insisted that they go for the higher end hearing aids that were essentially waterproof. But ‘essentially waterproof’ did nothing to stand up against the brine of an unexpected oceanic dunking, and the faint buzzing of dead batteries was beyond annoying. With an aggravated flick of his wrist, he removed both aids and decided to rely on the remaining twenty percent of his hearing and the situational awareness years spent in the army drilled into him to see him safely home. Fucking good enough for government work, and with that sentiment Clint steamed along down the road like the goddamn little engine that could.

“Where's that assHOLE!” Clint announced his return by pulling up to the office and hopping out of the truck before it fully shut off. There’s a slight chance that with his hearing aids out that he’s speaking louder than he means too but then there’s also the fact that he really really wants to rip Bucky a new one and just feels like yelling right now.

“Hey Clint, where’s the fire,” Gabe asked him, then garbled something else which sounded like one of those Charlie Brown teachers from the cartoon as far as he was concerned. Gabe wasn’t looking directly at him, instead, he had his back to Clint as he reached into the truck to shut it down, so Clint couldn’t even read his lips and therefore only caught the first half of his question.

“Either speak up Gabe or look at me, my ears aren’t working right now,” Clint informed him snappishly.

“Sorry,” Gabe apologized turning towards him so that Clint could read his lips and signing along with his speech. “What happened to you, you’re soaked?”

“Point me in Buck’s direction and you’ll hear all about it, I got a bone or two to pick with that Brooklyn bastard.”

Gabe snorted at that then waved for Clint to follow him around back to the woodshop where the whirring noise of some sort of power tool was clear even to Clint with his shitty ears. Gabe propped opened the door and flicked the light switch to grab Bucky’s attention. They could see Bucky inside working on sanding down a cedar chest. At the sight of the cedar, Clint lost his cool again and found himself – almost like he was having an out of body experience – picking up a piece of discarded scrap wood and chucking it clear across the room. Not the smartest thing to do when there was a man operating a power tool. Luckily he timed it perfectly for when just after Bucky had shut off the sander and turned to face the door.

Woah, what the hell Clint?!?

“Fucking cedar!” Clint yelled as if that explained it all which to him it did but for Bucky and Gabe, it obviously wasn’t enough.

“Gabe,” Bucky turned to the other man with a pleading look. Gabe merely shrugged in reply, he was just as clueless.

“If she had wanted cedar she should have said so in the first place. It’s not like I didn’t give her the chance to do just that from day fucking one,” Clint continued to rant and pace oblivious to the by-play between his two friends as well as his complete lack of volume control. Usually without his hearing aids in he tended to speak softer and almost mumble his words, unless, that is, he was heated up about something like he was right now. Then he abandoned the whole concept of an indoor vs outdoor voice.

“Okay, okay, Clint!” Bucky finally interjected trying to get him to calm down, “Can you please explain to us what happened?”

“Well little Miss Stark is a chip off of the Wall Street block and an utter pain in the ass.”

“Alright, so she was a bit snobbish and difficult to deal with,” Gabe translated, “not exactly unexpected.”

“You would think, but here’s the thing: she chose oak from the samples and then when the closet was done decided she actually wanted it made out of cedar and that it was my mistake so she’s not going to pay a cent. Then she pushed me overboard and tossed my tools over as well.”

Bucky had been mugging exasperatedly behind Clint’s back at his theatrics, while Gabe fought the urge to indulge in an epic, muscle straining, eye-roll at the both of them for being so ridiculous, until Clint dropped that little tidbit. Learning that he’d been pitched overboard - and knowing Clint, more than likely headfirst - from some unknown height into the bay pinged every protective instinct they both possessed. Gabe, by virtue of the fact that he was closer, managed to get there first and startled Clint into standing still by placing a hand on the closest shoulder and commencing a pat-down searching for injuries.

“Christ! You’re still soping, get him a change of clothes Barnes.”

“I’m sorry Bucky, I don’t know how I screwed this up but I did. And I lost Steve’s toolbox.”

“Hey, man, no don’t worry about all that.” Bucky reassured him, “we can get you some new tools, and that old box was just a bunch of scrap wood really. Stevie’ll be fine, I promise.”

......

It’d been a hell of a day, to put it mildly, so Clint’s not really pleased to come home and find a man dressed in what had been a smart suit pacing his front porch. Even from a distance, Clint could see that the dude had maniac written all over him. He didn’t want to engage and for a brief moment, he wished he could hide behind the comfort of a scope. But Cap would want him to try and talk to the stranger instead of relying on the antisocial (and somewhat aggressive) habits instilled in him thanks to his years as an army trained sniper. Heaving an almighty sigh Clint reluctantly exited the safety of his truck, mumbling additional curses at Barnes for having the audacity to have spare hearing aids for him at the shop. Now he couldn’t just use his hearing loss as an excuse to avoid what looked like to be a doozie of a confrontation - if the way Pacer McPoutFace squared his shoulders and started marching with a stick up his butt towards Clint was any indication. As he drew closer Clint could see how his suit jacket was torn and bunched up around his shoulders and there were patches of dirt on his knees, almost like he had reluctantly been forced to go skidding for home base.

“You look like you just stole second involuntarily. Probably had a day like I did, what happened to you?” Clint asked jovially enough, hoping that by starting off the conversation of a pleasant note it would stay that way. False hope it turned out, but then again today was that kind of day for it.

“Monday is their first day of school and I came here to WELCOME your family!” the guy practically screeched in Clint’s face making him wince at the sound distortion, Bucky might have had spare hearing aids but they weren’t the good ones. Clint would have to call his doc back in New York to get that straighten out, “but WHAT do I get in return? Tossed out of the house like some drunk who started a bar fight. Tell me, Mr. Barton, do you always leave it up to the discretion of your manny” the sneer was audible even to Clint’s faulty ears “to decide who may or may not be around the children?”

“Steve? Steve tossed you out of the house?” He repeated baffled as to why Steve would do such a thing. Steve did not care for pointless aggression and only used force when he felt that it was justifiable. Clearly, this man had done something that in Cap’s mind necessitated him being boldly and immediately removed from the children’s presence.

“Yes, Mr. Rogers, not very neighborly of him,” the man retorted leaning over to brush at the dirt on his pant legs, “I don’t know how a brute like him convinced the school board he’d be safe enough around children to teach, but he’s on thin ice,” he continued to mutter clearly to himself but just loud enough that it was obvious that he meant to be overheard.

“Well that’s unlike Steve but he can be a little overprotective, especially since we came back from serving overseas. I didn’t catch your name?”

“Jasper Sitwell, principal of the Elk Cove School,” he supplied, standing up and pointedly not accepting the hand Clint had offered for him to shake in greeting. “Your children, Mr. Barton, leave a lot to be desired and your taste in friends is frankly concerning,” he continued moving towards the plain sedan parked in the driveway. With his back facing him Clint could clearly see the remains of some silly string and toilet paper clinging to Mr. Sitwell’s jacket.

Obviously, there was more to the story than what he was being told, and he had to wonder as to why he is being deliberately kept in the dark about the kids’ role in whatever happened. The glob of reddish-fuchsia silly string sitting pretty in the middle of a developing bald spot on the back of Sitwell’s head just screamed Wanda to Clint, which is not like her at all.

“My kids are shy, Mr. Sitwell,” Clint’s amazed he can say that without choking on his laughter as he watches silly string flake off of the other man’s jacket and out of his hair, “and Steve could tone it down I’ll grant you that, but don’t you think you should get to know them before you pass judgment?”

“That’s what I was here to do before I was unceremoniously kicked out. Where is Mrs. Barton while all of this is going on?” He demanded rounding on Clint.

“Cooper and Lila’s mother passed away four years ago, and the twins’ birth mother gave them up for adoption when they were infants, so there’s no Mrs. Barton anywhere in the picture. But nice of you to assume there was one.”

“Go ahead and make a joke Mr. Barton, if you want, but those children are lacking in proper parental supervision. Mark my words, being babysat by that degenerate brute is no substitute. If you don’t do something about this, then I will notify the proper authorities.”

“Aww, man, no. Look I’m low on cash right now and Steve’s just helping out since I’m new in town. We just moved here from Brooklyn and he was my captain in the Army, I trust the guy. But I promise if I have the chance I’ll hire a housekeeper.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, good day Mr. Barton!” And with that Sitwell slammed his car door and drove off the dirt from the driveway providing a nice punctuating flounce for his little snit.

“Well good day to you too, snooty,” Clint grumbled before sighing again and turning back towards the house to face whatever disaster awaited him inside.

He reluctantly took the four steps leading up to the front porch in two bounding strides and crossed the weathered boards in less time than he should have for someone who really did not want to know what new calamity was waiting just around the corner. He opened the front door to find a suspiciously quiet house which was always a concerning sign knowing his kids. Sometimes silence meant something as innocent as the kids working on a project together or helping Steve out in the kitchen with making a snack, other times it meant that they were laying in wait to start round 50 or so of their never-ending Nerf battle – and that’s if he got ambushed in the house. If he was ambushed outside it would be round 30 of the endless water balloon war. (Both of which had commenced within their first week of moving out to Oregon and had already taken on legendary proportions in the annals of Barton family history solely based on how that one time they got Uncle Buck and Dad to team up and snipe Uncles Steve, Jim, and Gabe using a slingshot and water balloons).

Feeling a need to proceed with slightly more caution then he felt that moving through his own house should really warrant, Clint made his way through the untidy – one could say chaotic – living room back to the kitchen, hoping to find everyone settled around the table and either eating a late lunch or an early afternoon snack. Turns out that’s exactly where he did find the kids, all sitting around the table busily working on coloring pages or assembling Legos.

“Dad!” Cooper was the first to spot him and as always Clint felt a surreal flush of joy and pride that his nephew insisted on calling him ‘Dad’ even though Cooper’s actual biological father was still out there in the world doing who knew what. But that’s that guy’s loss and my gain, and he can’t bring himself to feel even a small smidgen of guilt over the thought. Laura had entrusted her children to her brother-in-law, not her husband, and Clint was going to do right by them in order to do right by her memory.

“Hey kiddos, how was your day?”

“Not bad, there was some guy here, said he was the principal at our new school,” Cooper told him, trying to play it cool. But from the way Cooper was shifting in his seat and avoiding eye contact, Clint could tell that he was uncomfortable and that there was more to Mr. Sitwell’s visit than just the children’s new principal wanting to meet them.

“Oh yeah, I think I met him in the driveway.”

“I don’t like him,” Pietro declared glaring at Clint as if Sitwell’s visit was his fault. “We should have chased him off like I planned, he wouldn’t’ve seen it coming.”

“Shh!” Wanda hushed her twin sharply and judging from Pietro’s sudden wince and sharp jerk away from the table she’d coupled that with a quick kick to the leg. “We aren’t allowed to attack a principal.”

“I don’t care Wanda! I’m older and I say we should’ve!”

“By 12 minutes! And that doesn’t make you smarter.”

“Okay, okay let’s cool our jets,” Clint raised his voice enough to be heard over the squabbling nine-year-olds. “Pietro, can you tell me why you don’t like Mr. Sitwell?”

“He was mean to Uncle Stevie!” Lila announced before Pietro could answer his question. “He’s a mean man Daddy.”

“He was mean to Uncle Stevie?” Clint repeated wondering, not for the first time, at Steve’s very conspicuous absence. “Well, we can’t have that can we kiddos?”

“No!” They all chorused together.

“Only Uncle Bucky can be mean to Stevie and that’s okay because he’s not really being mean he’s just teasing and Steve knows it and teases him back,” Pietro added with an air of finality as if what he had spoken was law. There was also a great deal of familiarity to his words as if he’d had had them repeated to him often. Which Clint new for a fact had been, it took a bit to get Pietro to understand the difference between friendly teasing and being mean, it had been a hard-won battle but definitely one worth fighting.

“So where is Stevie?” Clint finally asked and in reply, Cooper pointed toward the back door. “Alright, well I’m going to go check on him, you guys okay to hold down the fort?”

“We got it, Dad,” Cooper promised leaning over the table to help Lila with her coloring. Wanda and Pietro simply nodded in agreement.

Taking them at their word Clint crossed the kitchen and made his way out the back door without a second’s hesitation. When he got out there it was to find Steve hunched over on the back steps, arms wrapped around his knees as he leaned one shoulder against the half-finished deck railing. For a minute there he looked defeated but then his back straightened up almost as if he sensed Clint’s gaze. Still dealing with the frustrations of his own day from hell, Clint stomped over towards his friend and gave him a less than friendly shove with his foot.

“Steve, what the hell man!”

“I take it you met Jasper then.”

“You could say that – who the hell is that jerk?”

“Just some small minded bully with enough power that he feels comfortable throwing his weight around. I wouldn’t worry about him, Clint.”

“Don’t worry, whaddya mean, don’t worry? He’s the principal of the kids’ new school! Like hell I’m going to worry about the guy, I don’t want the kids learning in an environment run by an asshole!”

“Of course he’d tell you that,” Steve muttered with a rueful little laugh. “Jasper’s not the principle – that’s Maria Hill – he’s just the interim vice principal.”

“So what gives? Why did you forcefully evict him from my home?”

“He’s had a bug up his butt about me since day one, guess he’s got opinions about people who are different. I really wouldn’t worry about him Clint, none of the teachers take him seriously and I’ll let Maria know he was sniffing around here - she won’t listen to any complaint he may or may not make. But I seriously doubt he’ll actually make one, he’s all bark, no bite.”

“Yeah, okay, but what did he say to you?”

“Nothing you or I want the kids to hear,” Steve admitted, his jaw clenching in a familiarly stubborn way that told Clint he wouldn’t be getting a better answer than that. “And what makes you think I chased him off?”

“Aww kids, no. I mean I had my suspicions, the silly-string dangling from his suit jacket didn’t help. But I was hoping you were going to lay them to rest. I suppose that this is when I go back in there and let them know that their little church choir act didn’t pan out, isn’t it?”

“I mean, probably? That would be good parenting, right?”

“Probably,” Clint agreed scratching at his five o’clock shadow, “and I’m guessing the real reason that they’re sitting quietly at the kitchen table is because you’ve already given them a dressing down, eh Cap?”

“True, but there’s nothing quite like hearing it from Dad to bring the message on home.”

“Alright, I’ll go parent and you can go on home to Bucky. Thanks for watching ‘em.”

“Any time.” With a shrug and a wave, Steve lumbered off the back porch and down the faint trail in the woods that would take him a couple of miles over to his and Bucky’s. Clint watched him for a moment, marveling at how such a large man could move so quietly, before squaring his shoulders and heading back inside. It was time for him to set aside all of the frustrations that came with unreasonable customers and being a responsible adult in general and be a parent.

~***~**~***~

Dumping that man overboard had been one of the most viscerally satisfying things Natasha had ever done in a long career of serving embarrassment to men on a silver platter. But it wasn’t a sensation she got to wallow in for long before reality set in. As good as it had felt to toss Barton ass over teakettle into the harbor, she had done so at the expense of the mission. Nat didn’t need Coulson’s coolly disapproving frown to tell her that. Turns out she didn’t need Sam’s rather vocal objects either, but that didn’t stop him from providing them.

“Are you kidding me, Romanoff? Never in my life would I think to see the day where you’d be the one to botch an op! That’s the kind of prima donna bullshit I’d expect to see from the other Stark. For a minute there I thought Fury had partnered me up with Tony!”

“Yeah, well, maybe he should have!” she rounded on him taking out her frustrations with herself on Sam. “Perhaps then you would have found it easier to act like my husband and pay less attention to Riley.”

“Hey! Don’t get pissy with me just because he rattled you. Let me remind you Natasha,” and by the unnecessary emphasis on the last syllable of her name she knows Sam is well and truly pissed at her but trying to cover it with humor, “that I was against this whole marriage from the start. It’s not my fault that you use your legal identity as a cover. Darlene Wilson did not raise a liar; you owe me a divorce, woman!”

“Let’s not forget the month-long honeymoon as recompense for having SHIELD go behind our backs to officially ‘lose’ our marriage license so that you could shanghai Sam here into your perfect little cover story of the bored socialite with a trophy husband chosen for his calculated ability to ruffle feathers at the country club,” Riley interjected and Natasha had the good grace not to hide her wince at the reminder. Those tempered southern vowels could really bring the point home.

Sometimes she allowed herself to get a little too caught up in the game and forgot that there was more to life than being a successful operative. It was a real problem when she allowed her ambitions to blind her to the fact that those around her were actual people with feelings and not pawns to be used on a chessboard. Thankfully, she had friends who never hesitated to knock some sense into her when needed. There was such a thing as being too wrapped up in a mission for your own good. A lot of agents who got like that tended to burn out.

“Alright, so now that we all know where we went wrong,” Coulson mediated, his voice smooth as glass. It’s why Nat always preferred to have him as her handler: he’d let the operatives work out the kinks of a mission gone wrong for themselves then bring them back on point when needed. “How are we going to fix it?”

The rest of the afternoon was spent in trying to work out the best way to get in touch with Barton. For a while Natasha had tried to argue that since they’d, well, that she’d so thoroughly burned their bridge when it came to Barton that it would be better to try to approach either Barnes or Rogers, hell maybe even Jones or Mortia then to come at Barton sideways after getting an in from another angle. But Coulson refused to budge. He was of the opinion that Clint Barton was their best way in and that if they tried to come at either Rogers or Barnes that they would crash and burn even harder than they already had. Affronted, Natasha tried again to argue the point but Phil only had to remind her that she’d had two days already to crack the easy mark and instead ended up tossing him overboard. To say that she did not appreciate the insinuation that somehow this job was beyond her would have been an understatement. They wasted a lot of time going back and forth because of that.

Finally, when they couldn’t decide on a reasonable approach they went with the ridiculous causing Sam to splutter and demand of Coulson:

“Have you be writing RPF fanfiction again in your off hours?!?”

“Forget about that Sam, it’s irrelevant. I think we can spin it.” Coulson insists, “Natasha?”

“Not a problem,” she answered with a shrug. Completely overlooking the fact that there was no guarantee their little theatre act would draw Barton back in. But she was confident that he would be curious enough at least to come visit her and she could then engineer a way for him to take her home with him. All she needed was for Barton to get himself to the hospital, she’ll take care of the rest.

“Of course you’d say that,” Sam lamented sounding resigned to the absurd plan and leveling her with one raised eyebrow that spoke volumes. He kept his objections to a couple of well-placed stink-eyes, however. Eventually, Sam went along with the plan as she and Coulson prepared to set Natasha adrift in the night cold water of the Bay for the early hours of the morning to set things in motion.

Chapter Text

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Unfortunately, he’d been outvoted and had to go along with the latest hair-brained scheme. Usually, Sam had a never-ending well of patience for Natasha’s propensity to switch plans on him at the absolute last minute possible or to hide objectives on the grounds that he’d object to them morally, but in those cases, he’d still be there right alongside his partner when the shit inevitably hit the fan. But not this time. No this time he was going to be completely out of touch and he didn’t like it, not one bit.

Objectively Sam knew that Natasha was good at what she did. He knew that better than anyone. Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed someone watching her back. She’d had a bit of a rough go of it lately and its started to reflect in her work. There's no way a Natasha Romanoff fully on her game would have made as bad of a rookie mistake like the one he witnessed just the other day.

He’s really starting to resent Fury for this assignment. It was supposed to be a cakewalk.

Therefore its with a sinking feeling that he leaves Natasha behind in the hospital after watching her sink her teeth into the role of a bitchy amnesiac with unmitigated glee (not that anyone but him noticed), trusting that his own turn at community theatre solidified him as a thoroughly hen-pecked husband desperately grasping his first chance at freedom in the eyes of the deputy.

Hopefully, that’s the same impression Barton gets from the news coverage footage the local station captured. He’d feel better about the whole mess if he knew that Natasha would be able to keep in reliable contact with him and Coulson between now and when she’s completed her assessment of Barton and co’s eligibility for Fury’s new little boyband. It’s a feeling that doesn’t improve when he returns to the yacht and is met by Coulson looking for an update.

“How did she settle in?”

“Fine, just fine. She’s got them eating out of her hand. Are you positive that drama classes weren’t part of her training?”

“Hard to say,” is his evasive response. “The reports already ran once on the news, I expect Barton will see it by the end of the day.”

Sam hums noncommittiedly in response to his attempt at reassurance.

“Sam you need to remember that I’m not Hand, I don’t leave my agents without an exit plan. I’ve taken the precaution of planting a burner phone in the hospital where she can get a hold of it. Natasha will be fine, this is an easy op and there's no reason to suspect that anything’s going to go sideways.”

“See now Phil you just jinxed it. This damn thing has already gone sideways on us, we should have pulled the plug the second Nat dumped Barton overboard.”

~***~**~***~

Morita had called the shop and asked for someone to come down to see to a faulty pinsetter and that’s how Clint found himself at the local Bowl-o-Rama with Bucky, messing about with pinsetters and then just plain messing about, trying to see who could score the most strikes in a row. Morita had joined them in their impromptu mid-morning bowling smackdown until he decided to break for lunch. He was generous enough to offer to make them a couple of sandwiches.

As Morita ducked into the kitchen he warned Clint and Bucky both not to go poking behind the bar for anything and to leave the television off. It only took one shared look between Bucky and Clint, as the double doors to the kitchen were still swinging from Jim’s passage, for them to make a break for it. Bucky for the TV and Clint for the bar. He’s not really paying attention to the story playing on the local news as he browses Morita’s well-stocked bar. It’s just background noise that he barely bothers to process. He’s gotten to know Scott - the newscaster and his wife - in the weeks since he moved here and Lang’s voice is very easy to tune out.

Expect for now. “She isn’t very nice but well, here she is.” There’s something about Scott’s resigned tone that makes Clint look up from where he’s rummaging behind the bar for a bag of chips. He’s immediately confronted by an image of a dazed and disheveled looking Natasha Stark, a far cry from the elegantly coiffed and cooly poised woman who threw him and his tools off of her yacht just the day before.

“Buck!”

“What?” came the surly reply. Instead of responding verbally Clint merely gestured widely at the news program trusting that he had enough of the other man’s attention that he would automatically track his frantic limb waving. He turned back to the television in time to see footage of the trophy husband leaving the hospital minus his meal ticket. Here’s hoping the man was smart enough not to have signed a prenup.

“Wait, is he skipping out on her?” Bucky demanded outraged on behalf of a woman he didn’t even know. And whoo-boy if he only knew - who am I kiddin’ Buck would still be outraged for the principle of the thing.

“Of course he’s skipping out on her, it’s his shot at freedom!” Clint honestly felt nothing but sympathy for Samuel. Two days was two too many in Natasha Stark’s company, in his opinion. Clint honestly didn’t know how the guy had managed to be married to her as long as he had without going bonkers. “Besides you didn’t see the cabana boy, Buck. Trust me, with her out of the way he can finally make his move.”

“Maybe you should stop watching the daytime soaps with Steve, Clint. Not everything’s an episode from Days of Our Lives.”

“Ha, ha, funny guy. So says the man who can name them without checking IMDb. Look, I know what I saw, okay?”

“Okay, okay, I’m just sayin’.”

“Yeah well say something else.”

“Alright then maybe you should go down to the hospital and try to get some of your money back?”

“From him? He’s gone already.”

“No not him, her.”

“And you think I’m stupid,” Clint scoffed. “She doesn’t even know who she is, you think she’s gonna know who I am?”

Bucky simply gives him a ‘what are ya gonna do’ shrug at that and Clint glares at him in return. He starts to pace in the small confines of the bowling alley’s bar and only manages a turn or two before he has a literal light bulb moment.

“Bucky, there is a God and they love me.”

“What nonsense are you going on about now?”

“No nonsense here Buck just the truth. I need to talk to my kids.”

“Clint no,” Bucky tries to caution him a sense of dawning horror in his voice.

“And I need to talk to Steve,” Clint presses on blithely unaware of Bucky’s growing concern. “See if he’ll take them shopping at the Goodwill for me.”

“No, Clint, no! For pete’s sake please, keep Steve out of this! He has the bad taste to think that your schemes are good ideas. It has to be Stockholm Syndrome from your time together in the army.”

“Bucky,” Clint probably thought it was consoling when he clamped warm hands on Bucky’s shoulders, looked him in the eye and declared: “It's gonna be fine, trust me.”

It was the most insincere attempt at reassurance Bucky had received since he’d been tortured in a cave by insurgents and a billionaire playboy told him that ‘his thighs of betrayal were a fantastic visual to fuel his spank bank with for his remaining days on earth’.

(He couldn’t really blame Stark for that one, his thighs were enough to make someone want to change their religion, and at the time neither one of them knew if there was any way they were ever leaving that cave alive – although he’s sure Yinsen could have done without the visual).

Bucky can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of dread as he watches Clint rush out of the Bowl-o-Rama leaving him behind with three already made meals and Jim.

“Should I start stockpiling some bail money again, just in case?” Morita asked from his spot behind the bar.

“Wouldn't hurt.”

“More things change, huh?”

“You said it,” Bucky agreed turning around on his bar stool and pulling one of the sandwich platters close. He, at least, was going to have the good sense to enjoy the meal Jim made in lieu of payment for them fixing the pinsetter. Bucky was very happy to discover that he’d managed to snag himself one of Jim’s famous ham and cheese grilled cheeses.

“You want me to box up this one for you? Rogers probably forgot to eat again, and if he didn’t when he was teaching he’ll definitely have by the time Barton gets done with him.”

“Yeah might as well, can’t have the punk wastin’ away.”

Jim grunted in agreement and went to box up the turkey club he had made, setting aside the tuna melt for himself to eat. Bucky gave him a small smile in thanks when he saw that. Steve had outgrown most of his food allergies by now but they could still trip him up every now and then and nobody wanted a repeat of the summer ‘07 incident. They all tactically agreed it was a whole lot scarier to have Steve in the hospital due to a bad reaction to a food allergy than a bullet wound – well at least it had been until that last time. After the last time, Bucky never wanted to see Steve in the hospital, for any reason, ever again. He’s fairly certain nobody wanted that.

~***~**~***~

Steve gets in earlier than Bucky expected he would, given the way Clint tore out of the bowling alley like a bat outta hell. He’s humming some silly little tune that Steve’s made up off the top of his head and munching on an apple when he ambles into the living room. He pauses long enough to buss a kiss to the top of Bucky’s head as he passes him on the couch before moseying on over to the corner of the room set up as his at home studio. Bucky wants to give Steve a chance to explain himself before he launches into the Spanish Inquisition but he can only take pretending to focus on his paperback and covertly watching Steve sort his pens as he preps his drawing table for so long before curiosity gets the better of him.

“You sound rather proud of yourself there, kid,” Bucky tosses out, hoping the off-hand remark will land soft enough to encourage sharing. Steve hums around a mouthful of apple, fiddling with a sketched comic panel that’s ready for inking, before swallowing and giving Bucky a proper response.

“More amused than anything else really.”

Well thanks for nothing there kid…, manfully Bucky fought the urge to roll his eyes and sigh gustily. The direct approach it is then; “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Clint, he’s going to convince her that they’re married, and have her work off what she owes him in household chores.”

That makes Bucky sit up straight, immediately on the offensive.

“There’s no possible way you actually approve of this idea,” Bucky objects, cursing himself internally because he knows he’s the one who put all of this in motion in the first place. He should have kept his mouth shut and not said a goddamned thing to Clint about trying to get his money back.

“Of course not,” Steve replies turning to face him finally and his expression must be something special if it’s making his eyebrows furrow in concern like that. “But you can’t honestly tell me that you think it's just some coincidence that sent Natasha Stark to you looking for a carpenter.”

“No, I can’t. There’s no such thing as coincidence.”

“Exactly,” Steve agreed nodding decisively.

“So that’s what we’re doing here Cap, keeping our friends close and our enemies closer?” He couldn’t keep the edge of skepticism out of his voice if he had wanted too. Bucky may no longer believe in coincidences, but that belief didn’t mean he thought it necessary for them to operate as if they were in hostile territory. And yeah, he knew that saying so was rich coming from him. Out of the two of them, Bucky was infamous for his paranoia. Luckily for him, Steve didn’t feel the need to verbally call him out on his hypocrisy, just quirked a knowing eyebrow in his general direction.

“Don’t know if I’d go so far as to call her an enemy, but she’s definitely an unknown and that alone makes her worth keeping an eye on. Besides, I think she might have an agenda.”

“How could she possibly have an agenda? She’s got amnesia!” Bucky’s outburst earned him yet another eloquently speaking look from Steve, his blue eyes telegraphing ‘think about it dumbass’ louder than words would have.

Bucky finds himself chewing the inside of his cheek to keep himself from going off on an unproductive rant. He tries to look at what they know from a different angle in an effort to come up with whatever it was Steve was seeing. But the harder he looks at it the less he can see. Eventually, he moves on from chewing on his cheek to gnawing at his bottom lip.

“How’d ya figure it, because I just can’t,” he finally asks around his half bitten lip.

“Not surprising, I don’t have any concrete proof just a theory and I only have that because of Carter.”

“Sharon?” he’s genuinely perplexed and can’t help but think that Steve’s gone and sprung a leak somewhere vital.

“Yeah. She seemed to know Stark and what we could expect from him when we went looking for you in Afghanistan. She was pretty keen on keeping out of his direct line of sight, as well as insisting on us using our code names on and off coms until we got back to base and rid of him. Sharon might not have been the first to drop formalities once an op was successfully completed but she normally wasn’t that much of a stickler about it either. Plus there’s the fact that she’s some kind of legacy at SHIELD. The Starks have always seemed to have some sort of connection to the organization that went beyond SI’s weapons program.”

“Not much of a theory there Stevie, have you tried talking to Sharon?”

“No. After the brass broke up the Raiders she finished her army contract with the Losers and then was recruited by SHIELD pretty much immediately. I hear from her occasionally but by unspoken mutual agreement, we don’t talk about anything mission related. I have been reliably informed, however, that Peggy’s been asking when’s the next time we’re gonna come over for a Sunday dinner.”

“More like Pegs is wonder when’s the next time she’ll get to fleece ya at poker.”

“Same difference,” he dismissed Bucky’s teasing with an equitable shrug. Charitably failing to point out that he allows Peg to cheat him. “I hear she’s pretty keen to meet ‘our young Miss Lila’.” He finished with a deliberately exaggerated British accent.

“Peggy might have to come to us this time since we’re no longer on the East Coast.” Bucky pointed out.

“That she might if the Carters were ever to work that out.”

“So why are you, ah I see. You want more intel, and you want me to go dig it up for you.”

“See that’s why I like you, Buck, you’re not just a pretty face.”

“Easy there kid, don’t over do it.” Bucky cautioned him, unfortunately, the effect of it was lost on his partner judging by the way he simply batted those ridiculously long eyelashes at him. Curse Steve and his Bambi eyes. No, not really, but some days….

“Eh, you love me anyways.”

“Debatable.” Steve wrinkled his nose adorably at that blatant denial from Bucky, “Let me make sure I got this straight: you want us to run a game on her while she’s running a game on us just to prove that she is, in fact, running a game on us?”

“That about sums it up, Buck.”

“I swear if I didn’t know better, I would think that Sarah had dropped you on your head a time or two when you were a baby.”

“But you do know better Bucky, you know full well that it wasn’t Ma, it was Da and his heavy hand.”

“Hey, what’ve I told you? Joseph may have been the sperm donor but that didn’t make him any kind of father.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’ve told me,” Steve dismissed the argument just like he had every time Bucky's brought it up.

He’s come a long way since they were kids and could recognize that Joseph Rogers was no longer the same man Sarah had married – his time in the service hadn’t treated him well and instead of getting the right kind of help he’d fallen back on the bottle. Unfortunately, that realization had come too late to save his childhood or his mother. It took a lot to work through the hero worship of a young boy. At least he had been able to learn from experience and recognized the signs of PTSD in Bucky and himself and had insisted on both of them seeking professional help instead of bumbling along on their own.

“Alright smart guy, just so you’re aware: I officially don’t like this plan.”

“Wouldn’t be you if you did.”

~***~**~***~

As he suspected it did not take him long to get Steve to agree to his plan. Although he had to wondered if Cap’s quick capitulation had something to do with him harboring suspicions of his own and wanting to keep a close eye on her himself. Clint had no idea what possible reason Steve might have to be suspicious, but he’s noticed that even though Steve still tends to believe in individuals he’s picked up some of Bucky’s paranoia over the years.

Regardless, it doesn’t take much to get him to agree to take the kids shopping at the local Goodwill for some women’s clothes, then take them back home for lunch. Which leaves Clint with plenty of time to head on down to the hospital and collect the ‘wife’. It wasn’t hard for Clint to talk his way into the hospital. Elk Cove’s a small town, which means everyone knows everyone else’s business, so he was running the risk of being made as an impostor before he’d even gotten halfway through the door. Luckily he’s only really been in town since late May-early June and has kept to himself enough that the officer assigned to Ms. Stark’s case was inclined to believe that he could very well be the woman’s missing husband.

“I had to wonder if a woman like that had a husband,” Drax speculated as he upended a box of personal effects for Clint to look through. “Do you recognize anything?”

The effects in question were a pair of monogrammed panties with the initials ‘N.S.’ in bedazzled script and a matching baby doll top, a bathrobe that would generously fall to only mid-thigh, and a waterlogged cell phone that someone had taken the precaution of putting into a bag of rice in the hopes of saving it.

“These are pretty fancy,” Drax remarked fishing out the panties, “she didn’t recognize the initials, wasn’t sure what they meant.”

“Well, yeah she wouldn’t,” Clint replied with a sarcastic drawl, “cos I bought these at a garage sale.”

“Ah, I once bought my wife a garter at a yard sale,” Drax nodded sagely. “Hovat was very appreciative. It was a thoughtful gift and I saved money.”

“That’s always helpful,” Clint agrees absentmindedly, thumbing through the hospital’s mugshots of Natasha for a minute before reassuring Drax that yes, she is indeed his wife. He feels a little bad about how happily the man smiles at the thought of reuniting two lost loves but not bad enough to abort. He follows Drax, chuckling as he hears him call out to the attending provider:

“Doc! We got a winner!”

~***~**~***~

Natasha did not think he’d actually take the bait and show up at the hospital to claim her as his ‘wife’. But evidently, Barton was either stupider or more wily than she was willing to give him credit for. Given the fact that he had spooked her and seen right through Sam’s happy husband charade pretty much immediately, she could give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, if she was feeling magnanimous.

Still, he showed up at the hospital with some bullshit cockamamie story about how she was his beloved ‘Talia’ and for a moment she was impressed that he had landed on that particular nickname. Didn’t mean she was going to make this easy for him. So she protested asking for some kind of shred of proof that what this strange man was claiming was true, confident that there was no way in hell Barton could pull anything out of his ass to answer that question. There was no possible way he was prepared for that.

Then he mentioned the ‘birthmark’ a small little hourglass-like figure high up on her left butt cheek – in reality, it was a tattoo shaded to look like a birthmark and a parting gift from the Red Room, part of her graduation ceremony. She hadn’t thought he’d seen it when she’d been flaunting about in her swimsuit on the yacht. No one had ever noticed it before unless they were far too close for comfort, and she hardly ever let anyone get that close.

Natasha had stood up in a daze and hide away in the bathroom to pull up her hospital gown and double check the birthmark, even though she knew it hadn’t changed. She staggered her way out of the bathroom and couldn’t help but stare at Barton in slack-jawed disbelief, infuriated that somehow this army grunt managed to outwit her.

For his part, Barton had the gall to smile a wolfish smirk and hold his arms open wide: “Come to daddy!”

Come to daddy, indeed, she couldn’t help but scoff at the idea. We’ll see about that. Barton better be ready for war because there was no way Natasha was going to accept this without a fight. Mission be damned.

With that one comment, Barton thoroughly convinced her that he was nothing more than a neanderthal who happened to have lucked into a commanding officer willing to put up with his bullshit. Well, she wasn’t about to, and neither would Fury. It was now her secondary objective to write her assessment in such a way as to reflect how unfit Barton was for field work despite his exemplary marksmanship scores. There were plenty of good snipers out there, and the ability to shoot a man between the eyes at impossible distances did not excuse douchebaggery.

She spent the majority of the ride to Barton’s place mentally reviewing and editing the wording of her report, so as to make it the most damning and scathing personality assessment she’d ever written while still maintaining a veneer of professionalism on it. As an afterthought, she’d asked him why she’d been out in the bay in the middle of the night and had to bite her cheek at his explanation of oyster diving. Because that’s exactly what any woman in an obviously expensive baby doll lingerie set does in the early hours of the morning, what an absolute load of shit! If she actually did have amnesia then there’s a slight, minuscule, practically microscopic chance, that she might buy the story he’s selling. But his chances are doubtful. Actually, they’re nonexistent. No one, not even someone down to their two last working brain cells, would ever believe an explanation as flimsy as that.

Natasha has a sinking feeling that this is going to be a long few weeks. Her only hope is making contact with Barnes and Rogers, then through them Jones and Morita, as quickly as possible so she can end the whole thing. If everything goes according to plan Barton will be able to facilitate that meeting, and the sooner that’s done the sooner she can ditch him. The less time she has to spend in the company of this buffoon the better. She goes back to entertaining herself with thoughts on how she’ll break the news to the yahoo that he’s not recommended for SHIELD and Fury’s new task force.

That train of thought occupies her until they are pulling into what she assumes to be Barton’s driveway. Natasha clocks the basketball hoop with its scraggly net and the soccer goal post with its own equally shredded netting and their accompanying sports balls lying somewhat dejectedly on either side of the dirt drive, but she doesn't really think much of them or their implications. Other than to consider them as additional proof that Barton’s nothing more than an overgrown frat boy that some recruiter with a quota let into the army. And no, she doesn’t think she’s being too harsh in her judgment of him. In fact, she could be harsher.

“Alrighty, home sweet home,” Barton announces needlessly, forcing Natasha to squash the urge to roll her eyes. “It's not much, but it's ours and that’s what counts.” He makes a sweeping gesture towards the house before exiting the truck.

She’s left with the distinct impression that that last bit was meant to comfort himself, rather than reassure her.

Looking through the windshield at the exterior of the house Natasha had to agree with the assessment: it wasn’t much at all. In front of her was a relatively dilapidated cabin that had clearly seen better days at least a decade ago, and was obviously currently undergoing some running repairs. Repairs that couldn’t hide how the front porch listed in a worrisome fashion towards one side at a gradual but consistent angle. She could feel her eyes widen as she glanced at the foundation at the right corner of the house and could see cracks big enough for a cat to slip through. All in all, it did not give her very high hopes for the interior.

Not that Natasha was a snob or anything. She’d used abandoned homes as safe houses before, she’s slept rough a few times and even on one memorable occasion spent a week hidden in a sewer. But then there's a world of difference between improvisation and making do because she has no choice, and having been promised a nice cozy mission with the biggest discomfort being the occasionally spotty wifi one encounters when in the boonies. It’s not entirely unreasonable to say it's a disappointment, that’s all.

She takes another moment alone to sit in the truck and school her features into something appropriately blank and without expectation. After all, she is a recent victim of temporary amnesia and therefore should not have any expectations whatsoever about her ‘home’. Although, if she’s going to play it that way she could use it as an excuse to nag Barton into actually fixing up the fixer-upper. Since from what she’s seen so far, he has absolutely no inclination to do so anytime soon. Yes, there are signs of repairs having been started but they’re causal signs at best, it’s not as if he’s serious about the work. Just something for her to keep in mind she figures. With one last fortifying breath and keeping as much of her doubts to herself as she can, Nat reluctantly exits the vehicle.

Barton’s eyes flick back towards her at the sound of the door slamming shut and he flinches. “Aww, Talia, no,” he whines, “don’t be like that. She’s an old girl but she’s got good bones.”

Natasha sniffs in reply. She’s not sure what it is her expression gave away for him to read in such a quick glance but she is sure she doesn’t care for it. The Black Widow is inscrutable. No one is meant to know what she is thinking unless she allows them to believe they know what she’s thinking when in reality they still have no clue. It’s an uncomfortable reminder to her that she does actually need to be on top of her game even though Barton makes her feel like she can slack off.

They’ve barely gotten a few paces away from the front grill of the truck when there’s a friendly ‘boof’ coming from the side of the house and announcing the arrival of a streak of burnished gold. The steak resolves itself into a golden retriever that eagerly bounces himself off of Barton’s legs, collecting a driveby pet on the way, before turning his attention on Natasha. Reflectively she backs up away from the dog and towards the dubious shelter of the truck, one hand sneaking out a gun that’s not going to be strapped to her hip. She has too many memories of infiltrating an enemies compound only to come face to face with unexpected guard dogs to view the sudden rush of a family pet as anything but an attack. There are older, partially buried memories, of hands-on training against guard dogs – dogs that were left deliberately starved so as to be more vicious towards their pint-sized opponents.

“We have a dog?” She asked her voice strained despite her best efforts to sound neutral.

“No.”

She glared at him for that answer gesturing empathetically at the dog now sitting calmly in front of her, tail thumping enticingly in the dirt. Barton shrugged and the dog continued to stare up at her tilting his head to one side with a whine. Looking back down at him she noticed that he was missing an eye.

“Who is he?”

“That’s Pizza Dog.”

“Uh, and if he’s not ours then why does he have a collar with tags?”

“Dunno, ask him.” Again, Barton’s tendency to provide her with less than stellar answers left her glaring at him and again he merely shrugged as a clear ‘what-are-you-gonna-do’ statement.

“His name isn’t really Pizza Dog,” she objected and the dog barked as if he was answering her before she could even finish her protest.

“Sure it is, it’s a nickname. C’mon Talia, all he wants is a pat ‘ello then he’ll be on his way.” The dog whined again at that his one good eye going wide and becoming watery. Feeling as if she was being played, Natasha cautiously reached her hand out and gave the animal a swift little pat on the head. He turned his head enough to give her a small lick on her wrist as she withdrew her hand before getting up and lumbering back behind the house from where he had come.

“See, not so hard now was it?” Barton asked over his shoulder as he made his way up the questionable porch steps and into the front door, clearly expecting her to follow him. Suppressing yet another grimace she followed him.

She walked through the front door and immediately found herself in an open floor plan living room that put her on edge simply because of its wide-open sightlines and lack of cover. There was only one real dividing wall that she could see that bisected the room, and it was a measly little half wall that allowed one to peek into the kitchen. To the left of the front door there was a staircase leading to the loft, and in the right back corner, tucked between the kitchen and smaller room which must be a bathroom there was another room which she assumes to be either a bedroom or a study. What really captures her attention, however, is the sheer clutter all over the place and the minimal effort put into restraining it. One man cannot possibly make this much of a mess all on his own, and from what she’s seen so far Barton lives very much on his own.

Although the discarded Legos scattered all over the floor and the Barbie™ dollhouse tucked underneath the picture window between a pair of overstuffed bookcases didn’t really mesh with that conclusion. A quick sweep of the room proved that there were additional signs of children living here, and Natasha's left staring at the toys her brow furrowed as she tries to puzzle out why he’d have such obvious signs of children in his house, and how SHIELD could have possibly missed that when they were doing their recon. While she’s trying to puzzle that out Barton slowly ushers her further into the house via a hovering hand at the small of her back.

“This whole place slants down and to the right,” she commented just to have something to say still trying to work out why he would have toys. Did he run a daycare out of his house in addition to his work at Barnes’ carpentry business?

“Yeah, well you’ll barely notice it after a while,” was the less than reassuring reply, “only took a few weeks for us to all stop noticing it when we first moved here. Anyway, sweetheart, the Doc said best thing for you was to get back to old routines, to try and jog your memory. So I’m hoping these little buggers will help you with that,” he explains then before she can question that comment he’s shouting “Kids! C’mon down and say hi to mom! She’s home!”

Kids?!?!

Chapter Text

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A thunderous noise came from just above their heads in the loft, resolving itself into the distinct pattern of four separate pairs of feet rushing towards the staircase, the owner of each pair racing to be the first one down. Natasha turned a wide-eyed stare on a grinning Barton, not needing to fake the sudden panic she was feeling. (In fact, she’s pretty sure the whites of her eyes had gone beyond showing, they’d taken over entirely). Given the fact that her intelligence brief had failed to mention kids at all, she did not find it difficult to fake her disbelief that Clint Barton was a parent. That some poor woman actually consented to bearing this man’s children? So far, from what she’s seen, the man was incapable of shouldering such a responsibility. Tony would be a more capable parent than Barton. And Tony’s someone who regularly forgets about eating, not to mention pants.

Children?” She demanded her voice going sharp, “I can’t possibly have children.”

Something dark and angry filters across Barton’s face at her denial but is quickly shuttered as a small body came hurtling around the corner intent on taking her out at the knees. It took a surprising amount of control on Natasha’s part not to give into the instinctive reaction of breaking the small person’s hold on her legs by breaking their arms with a counter attack. Barton, who was watching her like the hawk his codename implied, reached out to gently disentangle the thin, but surprisingly, strong limbs from around her thighs and swung the small body they were attached to up onto his hip in a well-practiced move.

“Hey now little imp,” he admonished her small attacker who had resolved into a rather adorably dimpled little girl with strawberry blonde hair and dancing brown eyes, “what was it I’d just told you before I went to pick up mom?”

“That momma might be a little confused, just like you are sometimes after a bad dream,” the little girl answers dutifully. Natasha is impressed that she seems to be able to grasp the concept of amnesia, as young as she is. She has to wonder if it was really Barton who explained things for her. That little tidbit about confusion after bad dreams is something she is careful to make a note of, it’ll come in handy for her report later. That might be a little underhanded on her part but then again, she makes her living as a spy, so what’s a little underhanded among friends?

“Yeah, and what else did I tell you Lila-bean?”

“You said that mom’s confusion might last a couple of days or longer unlike the few hours you or the uncles lose when you guys forget things,” a different child answered him. A boy of about ten, from the looks of him, with light brown hair and brown eyes, “and that the best thing to do is to go about our normal daily routine to help her remember, just like how we help you to remember.”

“And you do an excellent job at that Cooper, so I have no doubt that all four of you will be great at helping mom remember too.”

Natasha looks past the brown haired boy to see a girl with reddish-brown hair and blue-green eyes with her arm looped around that of another little boy with light blond hair and blue eyes. They look to be the same age, she’d guess no older than nine.

“So whaddya say, mom?” Barton turns back to her, little girl still on his hip and the other arm held open in welcome. “Happy to be home?”

“This isn’t my home,” she argues instinctively, “and these aren’t my children.” Natasha isn’t sure why she pushes it but she does. It could be because she realizes that it is a sore point for Barton and she wants to push his buttons. For whatever reason, she just wants to see how far she can push him before she gets him to lose his cool.

“Oookay, kiddos, as you can see mommy’s still not sure what’s what,” he drawls and for the benefit of the children, he keeps his voice falsely cheerful. “Coop, why don’t you go take Lila-bean here and go get her washed up for dinner,” he says, handing the youngest off to the older boy who takes her off to what Natasha assumes is the downstairs bathroom before turning towards the two still linked arm in arm. “Wanda, Pietro, can you go into the kitchen and get the ingredients for homemade pizza I know Uncle Steve helped you pick out all set up? Mom and I will be in right behind you guys to help put it together in a second.”

Once the kids are all suitably occupied he reverts his attention back to Natasha, who doesn’t hesitate to cross her arms over her chest and stare him down. Daring him to say something about her attitude. It doesn’t bother her that she’s standing there in hospital scrubs and his worn flannel shirt, she can still intimidate the fuck out of him. He smiles grimly at her posturing, completely unfazed by it. Then, moving faster than she expects him too, he grabs her elbow in an iron grip and steers her pass the half-shut bathroom door, where they can hear Cooper softly muttering reassurances to Lila over the sound of running water, and ushers her into what turns out to be a downstairs bedroom. From the looks of things, she’d guess it’s the master bedroom and Barton’s personal domain. He takes pains to quietly, but firmly, shut the door behind them.

“Look,” he starts, letting go of her to run his fingers through his hair in obvious frustration, “I get it that you’ve just gone through a big ordeal and there’s a lot that you have to process right now but you cannot talk like that in front of the kids. Question me all you like, shit, yell at me if you have to. But don’t do it where they can hear you. Can you promise me that?”

Stunned by his sudden seriousness Natasha can only nod her head in silent agreement. She hadn’t expected him to be stern with her, especially since he had been so laissez-faire about her sticking her nose into his business back on the yacht. That is until she’d pushed too far. Seems like she’d once again found the line and crossed it.

“Thank you, I appreciate that,” he told her honestly, then continuing in a half murmur that was obviously intended for his ears only but he’d clearly misjudged how loudly he was speaking. “I’ve worked too hard to give those kids back a sense of stability to have that jeopardized now.”

“What do you mean?” Like anyone in intelligence Natasha zeros in on her subject’s perceived weakness, like a shark sensing blood in the water. Blue-green eyes narrowed sharply at her question and Natasha got the distinct impression that she was too eager.

She’ll have to be careful and curb that impulse in the future, else it gives her away. Clearly, Sam was right and the man was smarter than he liked to let people think.

“Alright, I understand you’ve forgotten a few things thanks to your midnight swim there, Talia, so I’ll remind you. My brother Barney is a bastard, and that’s putting it mildly, who doesn’t deserve to be a dad which is why after Laura passed away we ended up with custody of Cooper and Lila insteada them going to him. Pietro and Wanda have always thought of them more as siblings than cousins so it was a relatively easy adjustment, and that’s how we’ve been raising them the last few years, as siblings.” He pauses there to rub rather sheepishly at the back of his neck, “For some reason, they’ve taken to calling me dad and you mom and we haven’t really been discouraging that. Which is why it’s important that if you feel the need to question whether or not you’re a parent you don’t do it in front of the kids.”

“Okay.” This time she gives him a verbal agreement, feeling humbled by his explanation. “I can do that.”

“Thanks, Talia. I know I’m asking a lot, especially when you still don’t remember much.” He quirks a grin her way at that and she can’t help but feel that he knows that there's more than just memory loss going on with her.

“So, uhm, I’m gonna go help the kids with dinner, if you want to freshen up from the hospital, before joining us?” he points vaguely to the standing wardrobe centered on the left hand wall of the room then leaves her alone with her thoughts.

Natasha took the sudden reprieve as an unlooked for opportunity to compose herself. To say she was shocked would be putting it mildly. Learning that one of their potential recruits was a single father of four and that that it had never pinged on SHIELD’s radar was more than a shock, it was, well, it was a revelation. As an adopted child herself she could appreciate, maybe even respect, someone willing to take on the responsibility of raising someone else’s children. Still taking under one’s wing their own flesh and blood is not quite the same as adopting a stranger’s child. There’s a sense of obligation to care for family after all and not for some stranger on the street. So, ultimately, this particular revelation only earns him partial credit as far as Natasha’s concerned.

Partial credit or not she still needs to report it.

Coulson had promised her a means of contacting them back on the yacht and she knew him well enough to know that it would be the obvious option. The obvious option that everyone would be made to think was out of commission. Luckily Barton had brought the bag with her ‘personal’ effects from the hospital into the bedroom with them and had at some point tossed it onto the bed. She wasted no time in ripping it open and rifling through the contents until she found what she needed. A bag of rice with a waterlogged cell phone inside. At least, that’s what the good folks at Elk Grove Community Hospital were meant to believe. She retrieved the cell phone, one of her brother’s designs, and quickly shoots off a short text updating them of her situation. She doesn’t wait around for a response, and instead returns the cell phone to its rice bag and makes sure it’s properly re-sealed before dumping the rest of her personal effects on top of it so that it appears like she just randomly riffled through her things before giving up on them.

She leaves ‘her’ stuff lying there on the bed discarded like the afterthoughts of someone else’s life. From an outside perspective, it should look like as if she’d tried to jog her memory by looking at what she’d had on her when she’d had her accident.

There’s a pile of clothing neatly folded and waiting for her on the end of the bed, and it’s clear to her that she’s meant to choose from them for something to wear. She looks through it briefly and while none of the options are particularly hideous, it’s all far less form fitting than what she’d normally wear and the patterns aren't as flashy as what she’s become accustomed too. For a moment she’s reminded of those years spent in an orphanage and then the Red Room, two specters that are quickly banished by how soft the fabric is.

On principle, she doesn’t really object to anything she sees, and she’s willing to bet that’s because Barton didn’t have anything to do with selecting the clothing. It’s fairly obvious from the hasty way the room had been “cleaned”, books stacked on the floor, shoes piled up in a corner of the room, laundry hamper overflowing, and in general just enough done to keep the floor clear, that he’s a single father with too much on his plate already. Seeing some of the obvious signs of strain the man was under Natasha felt a little bit guilty about all the rigamarole she’d put him through the last two days. But not guilty enough to regret it. (To be honest, a part of her had enjoyed acting like a rejected cast member of the Real Housewives of wherever).

And in the spirit of winding him up further, Natasha decides to pilfer through Barton’s dresser for a wardrobe change. She pulls out a pair of gray sweatpants and a robin’s egg blue t-shirt with a picture of a purplish black crow on it and the phrase “Caw You Not” in cursive. She chuckled at the pun then quickly schooled her features into something more solemn. She’s presentable enough and far better off than she was before in just scrubs. It’ll have to do.

Natasha slips into the sweatpants and she has to pull the waistband up past her last rib then roll it over (at least!) four times to get them to sit comfortably somewhere between her belly button and the tops of her hip bones, just outside of the danger zone of falling off of her. Even then they still manage to pool around her ankles. Oh, the joys of borrowing sweats from someone six inches taller than herself. It’s in moments like this when she can’t decide if she hates or enjoys being short because she cannot make up her mind to either embrace or shove aside the weird dichotomy of feeling both safely enveloped and fragilely vulnerable that wearing a man’s clothing inspires in her. Feeling as though she’s only managed to unsettle herself, Natasha squares her shoulder and prepares herself to enter the lion’s den, metaphorically speaking.

~***~**~***~

Clint’s in the kitchen helping Pietro to spread sauce onto the dough and keeping an eye on where Wanda and Cooper are cleaning up and setting the table for dinner. Lila is sitting at the counter ‘supervising’ the pizza assembly line and attempting to sneak slices of pepperoni. He lets her get away with every third attempt, growling playfully at her to discourage Lila from spoiling her dinner by filling up on greasy pepperoni. Her giggles go a long way towards improving his overall mood.

Clint was like, 65% sure that this idea was a good one, but there was still a chance this whole thing would hold about as much water as a leaky sieve. Which actually described most of his life, come to think of it.

He was trying to focus on his kids and not on the fact that Natasha Stark was alone in his bedroom right now doing lord knows what. That really wasn’t something he could devote much time to, right now, or ever. Not if he wanted this little farce to work.

They moved on from spreading sauce to sprinkling mozzarella, a task Pietro quickly tired off. Soon he was accepting pepperoni slices from Lila to alternately place on the pizza and munch on as he saw fit. Clint took over adding the cheese and took special pains of covering each slice Pietro managed to add.

“Daaad! Don’t cover the toppings with cheese,” Pietro whined reprimanding him.

“Oh, sorry! That’s not how the cheese is supposed to go on?”

“No it’s not!” came Pietro’s adamant reply, but the smile he was trying to fight kind of ruined the stern glare he was trying to pull off.

“Can it be fixed?” Lila asked concerned.

“Don’t worry Lila-bean,” Cooper told her coming over to peer at the pizza. “It’s still good that way. Pietro’s just pulling Dad’s leg.”

“Oh.”

It’s the same old familiar routine that they go through every time they make homemade pizza and, by now, it’s a well-worn exchange. Clint finds it comforting, nonetheless, and he has a feeling that the kids do too. Otherwise, why persist in it? Only tonight it’s interrupted by the sound of a sixth pair of bare feet shuffling across the hardwood floor coming from the front room. Clint looks up from his dinner prep to see Natasha, or rather Talia as she’s going to be known as from now on, looking rather delightfully rumpled in a pair of his oversized sweatpants and one of his many t-shirts that features a pun, bird related or otherwise. It's times like these that he wished he had friends (*cough*Bucky*cough*) with better senses of humor (no he doesn’t).

“Are we having a pajama party for dinner?” Wanda squeals excitedly after getting a good look at what Nat – Talia is wearing. The idea thrills her so much that the normally reserved little girl actually jumps up and down and claps her hands under her chin.

“Sure thing sweetpea, if that’s what you want to do,” Clint agrees without even thinking twice about telling her no. It’s rare for her, or any of the kids really, to ask for something with such unfettered enthusiasm lately that he just doesn’t have it in him to disappoint any of them.

“Please, Dad!” That’s from Lila picking up on her sister’s excitement.

“Yeah Dad, please?” Cooper chimes in.

“Can we, can we watch a movie too?” Pietro asks tugging on his arm and leaving traces of sauce and pepperoni grease behind.

“Yeah bud, we can watch a movie too. Go wash your hands Pietro and pick one out. All of you go get your pajamas on and I’ll put this here bad boy in the oven to cook, okay?”

With a chorus of various exclamations of excitement the children flea from the kitchen in a virtual stampede that nearly takes Talia out. Clint nearly bites through his cheek to keep himself from laughing but once he’s fairly certain they’re safely out of earshot he starts chuckling. He gets the pizza in the waiting oven and sets the timer then goes to the table and puts away the ceramic dishes and flatware in exchange for paper products – less risk of someone getting too excited when they move this party up to the loft where he’s installed the television and accidentally break something. Since he’s already in the cupboard he gets the pizza stone out so that's ready to go when he needs to transport the pie upstairs.

“Is there anything I can do?” Talia asks after it’s clear that Clint’s got everything well in hand. Still, he appreciates the thought. After all, she doesn’t know that he’s starting to realize she’s playing him and is using that knowledge to play her in return. Still, the slight hesitation she instilled in her question helped add a certain level of believability to her act – if Clint didn’t already know better, of course.

“Mind keeping an eye on the oven while I go get into my own PJs?” He asks her, noticing how her eyes widen a little at the mention of his sleepwear. It makes him pause for a second before he shakes his head and brushes it off. What the hell? Does she think I’m gonna parade around in my boxers in front of the kids, or something?

Good grief, save him from the assumptions of others.

~***~**~***~

Natasha’s first evening spent in the dubious company of one Clinton Francis Barton as his ‘amnesic wife’ (air quotes absolutely required) did not go at all how she’d thought it would.

She had assumed that he would act like any typical red-blooded American man left alone with an attractive woman. But then she hadn’t known that it wasn’t going to be just her and Barton, that she was making predictions without first having all of the facts. She was going to have words with whichever knumbskull analyst dropped the ball on this one. The poor idiot would be wishing she’d just shot them instead by the time she got done chewing them out.

The children were adorable. Even Natasha could appreciate that much, and children were a foreign concept to her. Hell, she’d barely been a child herself.

Their enthusiasm for a pajama party for dinner was catching. And at first, she had found herself puzzled as to how they were meant to watch a movie as they ate when there was no obvious television in the living room. The evident lack of television didn’t seem to phase the children or Barton who returned from his room wearing gray sweats and a purple t-shirt with a faded image of a dove on it and the words “that’s coo” underneath. She bit her lip to hide the smile it inspired. He’d timed things well the youngest girl, Lila, was just coming back down the stairs to tell him that they had selected a movie and she was busy chatting away to him about her day when the oven timer went off signaling that dinner was done. Barton shooed the girl upstairs ahead of them, foisted the paperware and a pitcher of water off onto Natasha, then transferred the pie from the oven onto the pizza stone and sticking a tea towel wrapped pizza cutter into one of the hip pockets of his sweats headed up to the loft after Lila. Seeing no alternative, Natasha followed.

At least, in the loft, the floor plan should produce less of a sensation of creepy crawlies, as there was no way it’d be as open of a floor plan as the first floor. Natasha reaches the top of the stairs and is met with even more chaos than she expected. There’s only one real room up here and that’s a second bathroom. The rest is mostly open space. There's a chair railing stretching from the top of the staircase to the far wall where the bathroom door stands slightly ajar. Directly across from her is a freestanding wall that only crosses half of the width of the space, and had a relatively recent model flat screen standing on a home entertainment center. Surrounding it was some comfortable looking, well lived-in leather furniture draped in multiple throw blankets.

“You pipsqueaks picked a movie yet?” Clint asked setting dinner on a broken down looking coffee table and motioning for her to deposit her own offerings there as well. He then started taking the throw blankets off of the back of the couch and nearby recliner and shaking them out then stretching them over the furniture and pinning them to clothing lines that she’d just noticed stretched down from and across the ceiling. By the time the kids come around from the corner of the partial wall Barton’s turned the sitting area into clothed covered lean-to.

“Yup!” Pietro chirped bounding over to the television to fiddle with the DVD player.

The rest of the night passed with them quietly eating pepperoni pizza and watching The Incredibles as slowly each of the kids started to drift off. But not before she had gotten an earful from each of them about their favorite animated superhero. Uncertain of how to best respond, Natasha had simply nodded and made noncommittal grunts when the flow of conversation seemed to call for a response from her while Barton sits on the floor with the children in a puppy pile of discard pillows and extra blankets and she sits curled up in the furthest corner of the couch she could get from everyone. By the time the movie had ended the only one of the kids still awake was Cooper, who helped Barton put the other three to bed. Natasha took the chance to peek around the dividing wall and saw that the space behind it was divided up by yet another free-standing wall, perpendicular to the first. She watched with a mild curiosity as Cooper carried Lila to a small trundle bed and tucked her in while Barton led the twins both of them half awake and groggily tucked up one under each arm, to a set of bunk beds. After tucking his sister in Cooper, tumbled into his own bed. Clint then went from child to child, adjusting their blankets and placing a kiss on their foreheads before wishing them a goodnight and sweet dreams.

He spotted her lurking when he got done going through the bedtime routine with Cooper and quirked an eyebrow at her, daring her to say her own goodnights. Involuntarily, Natasha took a step back then turned away from the cobbled together bedroom. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor (or some such nonsense like that) she focused on the leftover mess from dinner and cleaning that up. It’s probably a good thing that she did turn away. If Natasha had seen Barton’s derisive smirk at her scalded cat routine at the implication that she’d perform a common parental task...well, then they’d both would have been dealing with even more unnecessary complications.

After helping her to finish cleaning up, Barton left her to settle into bed alone in the master bedroom. She laid there in his bed, uncomfortably aware the fact that she was alone in his bed, listening as he called Lucky, aka Pizza Dog, in from outside. She then listened to him prowl the parameter of the downstairs, checking all of the exits before going back upstairs. She doesn’t know how long she lays there listening to him move about, hyper-aware of every little sound the house and Barton makes before she drifts off into an uneasy slumber.

The pizza had been good, but Natasha’s not sure what to make of the company just yet.

Chapter Text

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Bucky really doesn’t like this plan.

He doesn’t trust it not to blow up in their faces in the worst way possible and if he’s being honest, he only has himself to blame for it. He’s the one who sent Clint to the Stark job in the first place. He thought it would be a learning opportunity and that backfired big time. Really he could just kick himself for that. But that’s hindsight for you, and there's just no accounting for it. The best he can do now is plan for the worst, a skill he’s well versed in thanks to growing up with Steve and years spent as an army sergeant.

He’s prepared to do as Steve asked of him and gather intel, but not without first checking to make sure that their own failsafes are still in place. Especially since Steve’s so convinced that the woman might be running a game of her own on them with the help of SHIELD - a hyper-secretive anti-terrorist organization that makes the CIA look like it's run by a bunch of preschoolers. If he’s going to go poking at that bear, then he’s going to make damn sure that there’s no way anything can be traced back to them. Call it paranoia, hell, call it whatever you’d like, but Bucky spent most of his adult life working as a grunt for covert ops then three months captured and tortured in a cave - he’s learned the value of being overly cautious.

More importantly, however, is the fact that he doesn’t want their cover blown. He’s promised himself that once he was out that that would be it. Done. Finito. The End. Buck’s well aware that agencies like the CIA (not to mention mercenary outfits) have a habit of picking up recently the recently retired and still adrenaline addicted veterans. And while the army had told him that the nerve damage and loss of muscle mass in his left arm he’d sustained thanks to his captivity were enough to end his career as a sniper, there were still plenty of shady organizations out there doing questionable things that would be willing to overlook any perceived weakness to acquire an operative with his skillset. Unfortunately for them, Bucky would rather stay a civilian. Steve feels the same, so does Clint, as well as Gabe and Jim.

It'd been a lucky thing then that Buck had spent all of his downtime between missions pursuing a computer science degree with an emphasis on security systems and minimizing one’s digital footprint. And an even luckier thing that he went the extra mile and put in the effort to get in touch with Steve’s cousin, who had a scary if somewhat annoying knack for all things technological, to give him an extra edge that one wouldn’t normally find in the standard coursework. JJ helped him to lock down their digital footprints and make it so they’ve disappeared from Big Brother’s radar, and only using cash for transactions helped with that. Unfortunately, there were some aspects of their lives that couldn’t be taken entirely off the grid, especially not with the kids. Yet Bucky was able to bury the lead so far underground that it would have taken some seriously dedicated man hours to find them. He’d doubted that anyone would be willing to dedicate the time it would take to locate a handful of honorably discharged vets past their prime.

Just to make it more complicated, however, for anyone who thought to try - he and JJ had rerouted their mailing addresses through so many PO boxes that it essentially resembled a spy movie gimmick at this point instead of a practical decision. And Barton’s brownstone in Bed-Stuy was owned by a shell company which was a few subsidiaries of a corporation they made up. With any dedicated probing, it would all fall apart on them like a house of cards, but it was meant to be more of an early warning system than solid protection anyways.

Now there’s a good chance that he’s just being uncharitable and everything could, maybe even would, work out for the best. And if it does he’ll gladly eat several doses of humble pie, but he’s not about to start holding his breath. Still, he can wait to reserve judgment until he actually meets the woman. (And if that isn’t a case of famous last words then there’s no finer example out there).

Clint’s had the last few days off – on the surface it's so he can help the kids settle into the routine of a new school year, at a new school, in a new town and a new district, with new teachers, or to quote Clint at his most exasperated (and therefore his most eloquent) “it’s been just a fuckton of new 24/7 lately and they need something old to use as a touchstone”. But he’d only asked for two days off to begin with and ‘negotiated’ for the third. Shamelessly using his drowned appearance as a bartering chip that Bucky was helpless against, despite his surly facade. Bucky likes to blame Steve and his history of sickness growing up, the way it made him nothing more than an unruly kitten – all vinegar, no spit – for that particular weakness. The fact that Clint’s bonus day off gives him extra time to help his poor wife acclimate to and cope with her current, temporary, memory loss (the whole tale has been at the top of the highlight reel when it comes to local gossip, ever since Drax spilled the beans about Clint’s visit to the hospital and “Talia’s” insistence that he tell her “something only my husband could know” – Bucky’s familiar enough with Drax and his particular brand of hopeless romanticism to smell the embellishments but everyone else has been eating his story up with a spoon. Privacy was kind of more than a foreign concept and just a matter of degree when it came to living in a small town like Elk Cove) is simply a coincidence.

No, really, this time that’s all it is (and if eye rolling was an Olympic sport Bucky would take the gold). Who could have honestly predicted that in the wee hours of the morning of the very same night she’d tossed Clint into the harbor that Natasha Stark would be found washed up on the local beach, like a whale in fancy dress? The more he thought about it, the less like a coincidence it looks like to him.

Given that, he didn’t blame Steve for being suspicious right off the bat. People always assumed that Bucky was the one with trust issues, the one more likely to spot a lie when in reality it was Steve who had always had a sixth sense for knowing when he was being conned.

Steve managed to pass along his concerns to Clint during a conversation about supplies for his art class that the twins and Lila were both in, and while inquiring if Cooper would be available to volunteer to help him out two days a week after school with an art club he wanted to start up for younger students. Clint had taken the news in his stride, according to Steve, but then again Clint tended to take most things in his stride. He’d even shared collaborating evidence of his own that he had gleaned from a few days worth of observation that appeared to support Steve’s theory.

Bucky’s own research hasn’t been as fruitful as their simple observations. But then he’s had to proceed with more caution than them - he’s attempting to hack SHIELD, after all, and he doesn’t want to go poking that bear too much. He didn’t want to encourage it to take a swipe at him after all. The point was to remain under the radar even though, from what little he’s managed to find, it looks like their luck has dried up. Oh well, it's been a good run.

He was anxious to get a good look at the younger Stark. The paparazzi’s lens never told the whole story and Bucky found he was always better at judging a person’s character in person.

Therefore, when the morning of the fourth day after the yacht job dawned Buck was ready long before he needed to be. His plan was to swing by Clint’s place to offer him a ride into work, and get a peek at the heiress turned temporary housewife. Steve, who actually had to be up at that ungodly hour because he had to go mould young minds or something like that, talked him out of it. The little shit used logic and reason, somehow, to convince him that since tonight was a VA night for him and Clint, then Bucky should just wait until after work to go butting in. It would make more sense then anyways since Bucky always drove them to the VA and never to work. Bucky might have reluctantly admitted that Steve had a point.

So Bucky ended up heading into the office early and taking care of some purchasing orders and other miscellaneous paperwork instead of swinging by Clint’s. When Clint came into the office he was tempted to grill him for details, but for some reason, Gabe was running interference. Bucky spent the rest of the day wondering if Jonesy was doing it on purpose for shits and giggles, or just happened to actually need him every time he made up his mind to corner Clint and quiz him about his new houseguest. By the end of the day, he was tempted to text Steve and demand if he’d arranged things with Gabe to keep him from bugging Clint. He really wouldn’t put it past the overgrown punk.

There’s a good chance that by the time he finally made it to Clint’s place that night, Bucky may have been in a bit of a mood. Which was probably not conducive towards making a good first impression, but too late to change things now.

He parks his truck and goes stomping up the rickety porch steps and right on through the front door; do not pass go, do not collect $200. Clint’s living room is only slightly less chaotic than what he’s become accustomed to seeing it; the twin’s legos are all picked up and put away in their assigned bins, Cooper’s growing collection of art supplies has been arraigned and reorganized and the same with Lila’s Barbies. There's the smell of dinner on the stove and he can hear the kids upstairs in the loft talking amongst themselves. Without thinking things through, or how it’ll seem, he opens his big mouth and announces his presence:

“What’s cookin’ good lookin’?”

There’s a clatter in the kitchen from behind the edge of where the half wall switches back into a full wall and blocks one's view of the stove from the front of the house. He doesn’t pay the noise much thought though since Clint has always been somewhat clumsy, partially due to natural klutziness and the rest is an act that he deliberately plays up. If they were ever to remake the 3 Stooges it’d be a toss-up which role Clint would be best suited for, although he could just as easily play all three. But enough about Clint's klutziness, Bucky's got better things to do, like pet Lucky who's right there waiting patiently for him to acknowledge him.

“Excuse you?” An incredulous voice inquires and Bucky looks up from petting Lucky to discover a red-headed woman glaring at him with one hand on her hip and the other brandishing a spatula that has a bit of what looks to be hamburger stuck to the tip of it. Her hair’s a little frizzed out, either from a lack of product or from the lingering August heat. Clint had never bothered to get an AC unit in the cabin, not while the place is still (nominally) under construction and he has plans to expand it. That and the fact that living in the woods cut down on how much heat one ended up feeling. Besides, this was nothing compared to the lingering summer heat in a Brooklyn brownstone.

She’s not as put together as Bucky imagined a Stark being, but then again, she has spent four days living as a Barton. He loves Clint dearly but disorganized is the name of the game when it comes to his friend. She’s wearing a white blouse with small owls dotted all over it with a dark blue cami underneath it and high waisted ‘mom’ jeans. Bucky can tell just from a cursory glance that Steve picked out the clothes’ they have just enough of a form fitting cut to be considered fashionable, if somewhat outdated, and are charmingly rustic in a way that would appeal to his sense of humor.

“No excuse for me doll,” he replies on autopilot, throwing in a wink for good measure. If Bucky takes a second to pause and review what he’s just said to wince at his own stupidity, well that’s just for himself to know.

“Do I know you?” She asks her eyes narrowing dangerously and her voice going up an octave or two. “Why are you in my house?”

“Whoa, hey take it easy Talia, it’s just Bucky being a numbskull as per usual,” Clint interrupts, appearing from the main bedroom just in the nick of time to stop Bucky from truly putting his foot in his mouth. The man may be disorganized but he had impeccable timing when you really needed him. ”Shit, Buck, if Steve heard you, you’d be in for a world a hurt right about now.”

“Ah, c’mon now Clint, you know Stevie doesn’t mind a little harmless flirting,” Bucky tried to deflect, throwing them both a charming smile.

“He might mind it more if he knew you were flirting with my wife - your old girlfriend,” Clint lobs back. Bucky can read the shit-stirring joy in the crinkles around his eyes but from the sudden widening then narrowing of ‘Talia’s’ and how the rest of her face blanks at that bit of backstory filler, he can tell that she’s just about as thrilled by the sudden curveball as Bucky is.

“You’d be surprised Clint, don’t let Steve’s boy scout routine fool ya.”

Talia’s eyes narrow further, if possible, then suddenly relax as she smiles flirtatiously at him. “James,” she purrs. This time Bucky doesn’t bother to hide his wince.

“Forgot that you insisted on calling me that, please don’t.”

“But I thought you were trying to rekindle something here, what with the flirting?”

“Ha ha, guess I asked for that one. Let’s go, Clint, we’re gonna be late.”

“Late? Where the hell are you going? I’ve almost got dinner ready here and need help putting the kids to bed.”

“Well honey, you’re gonna be flying solo tonight because Clint and I have plans.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” She demands of no one in particular with an eye roll heavenward. “I might be having a hard time remembering things lately but shoddy parenting skills seems to be the one thing of yours I haven’t forgotten.”

“And the hits keep coming,” Clint sighs, “ya know when Doc said pick up your routine he didn’t mean for you to try your hand at stand up, especially with such poor material.” With that, he grabs Bucky by the elbow and deftly, miraculously, maneuvering around a still slightly sleepy Lucky drags him back out the front door.

Bucky waits until they’re safely in locked up in the cab of his truck before he turns to Clint and asks him everything he doesn’t want to give voice to with one eloquent look. Clint snorts before replying;

“Four days, Buck, four days. I’ve never looked forward to a VA meeting more in my life.”

Bucky chuckles at that but he can’t really disagree. He’s only spent barely five minutes in her company but Natasha aka ‘Talia’ is shifty as hell as far as he’s concerned. Having her around the kids is pinging all of his protective instincts and he knows the only reason Steve’s really okay with her being around the kids is because he hasn’t actually met her yet. That’s not going to be a fun introduction. Bucky can pretty much guarantee Steve’s going to go full blown mama bear if the woman twitches so much as one finger in the wrong direction around his godchildren.

Yeah, Bucky’s not a fan of this plan at all. Well, fuck a duck.

~***~**~***~

Natasha goes back to stirring the browned ground beef with a bit more aggression than it actually requires. So far, she’s batting a solid two for two when comes to being disappointed by these men. She’s just not seeing what is about them that made Tony rave about them nonstop for weeks on end when he came back from Afghanistan. Especially Barnes. Although it looks like she hadn’t been far off in her initial assessment of the man, he is a shameless flirt.

Huffing in irritation she upends a jar of store-bought tomato sauce into the pan of browned hamburger and gives the mixture a perfunctory stir before she goes to check on the pot of boiling noodles. They’re basically done, or done enough, she doubts the kids are going to complain. So far they haven’t said much of anything about her cooking or cleaning, aside from a random remark made by the oldest about how one of the girls doesn’t like the crust on her sandwiches. The spaghetti sauce is hot enough it should help to finish cooking the noodles and she figures it’s better to have slightly undercooked ones than overcooked anyways. Besides, it’s not like she’s cooking actual spaghetti noodles. Barton had said it was Pietro’s turn to pick what kind of pasta noodles they got to eat while it was Cooper’s choice what kind of sauce they made; hence, red sauce with hamburger in it and ruote pasta noodles because they look like wheels. If that was the height of their culinary discretion then her ability to effectively boil a noodle didn’t really matter. It’ll be fine.

“Dinner!” She calls the kids down and listens to what has become a familiar refrain of feet pounding down the stairs. “Clean hands please and then put your little butts in your seats,” she instructs as they materialize in her kitchen like the four hungry horsemen of the apocalypse.

She will say this for Barton as a parent, he has insisted on good manners and the kids have taken the lessons to heart. Natasha does feel a little bit guilty about her dig at him for his parenting skills in front of Barnes earlier, but not guilty enough to retract it. There’s a chance that she might have said it because she was taken aback by Barnes’ sudden appearance, the man had just barged into the house as if he owned it spouting nonsense, but that’s nothing more than an excuse. Natasha will readily admit that she’s been taking potshots at him every chance she’s had for the last four days. To say she’s a little resentful of her current predicament wouldn’t be wrong, and she only really has herself to blame.

(Although to be honest, Natasha's not sure what she resents more, the fact that she suddenly finds herself the mother of four or the fact that after four days she finds herself already growing oddly fond of Barton and his spawn.)

“No Dad? I thought he still had enough time to eat dinner,” Pietro comments from his spot at the table effectively breaking Natasha out of her musings and bringing her attention back to the task at hand.

“Apparently not,” she answers him, gathering up two of the four bowls of spaghetti she’s dished up and depositing them in front of a couple of the kids at random. She swings back to the stove to grab the remaining three bowls and distributes them before taking her own seat at the table and keeping the last dish for herself. She sits calmly, hoping the kids will be able to tell her why Barton and Barnes had to practically run out the door. If it was just for a guys’ night out she’ll take back every last shred of guilty feeling she ever felt and make sure Barton knows intimately just how ticked off she is at him for running out on her.

“Why not?” The littlest one asks red sauce already smeared all over her chin.

“It’s Thursday Lila,” Wanda answers her, her tone gentle. “Dad and Uncle Buck go to the VA on Thursday’s remember.”

“Oh yeah, they go talk to other soldiers to help each other feel better.”

“That’s right Lila-bean,” Cooper tells her, reaching over to tweak her nose.

“Shoot, we missed Uncle Bucky?” Pietro pouts before turning to Natasha and asking; “Could we stay up and wait for them to come home? I want to say hi to Buck!”

“Nope. It’s a school night and you’ve got homework to finish first,” it surprises her how bad she actually feels telling them they can’t wait up for Barton and Barnes.

The rest of dinner passes by uneventfully after that and once it's done the twins volunteer to help her clean up from it while Cooper takes Lila upstairs and helps her get ready for bed. It won’t be her actual bedtime for another hour or so but Natasha has learned that it’s more efficient to get the little girl in her pajamas and with her teeth brushed as early in the night as she can. It’s almost like it tricks Lila into starting to feel sleepy so instead of fighting it when Natasha goes to put her to bed, the six-year-old is more inclined to calmly fall asleep after a couple of stories. Natasha sits upstairs in the loft reading those stories to Lila as the older three polish off the rest of their homework. They’ve only had two days of school and the kids have had, in her opinion, an obscene amount of homework. By the time they’ve finished up Lila is drowsing, draped across Natasha’s lap like a kitten, and it's simply a matter of directing them through their own bedtime routines as she tucks Lila into bed. The rest file in with minimal complaints.

So far this whole being a mother thing hasn’t been so hard. Although Natasha is aware she’s only been at it for four days so it’s not like she gotten a real taste for it yet. She fully expects that any day now the children could turn on her and not be so accommodating. She does have to wonder what Clint told them to have them go along with this charade, but then maybe regular children like games of make-believe and that’s all this is to Barton’s little ones.

After she gets them all safely tucked away into bed, Natasha waits a good twenty minutes to be certain that they’re actually asleep before she starts to thoroughly search the place. It’s the first time in four days that she’s had unfettered access to the house and Barton’s papers, and she’s going to take advantage of the kids being asleep and Barton being at the VA (especially since Elk Cove is too small of a town to sport their own veterans affairs office, which must mean he’s gone off to Portland). SHIELD missed the fact that he has kids; at this point only digging through his personal papers is going to reveal what other relative information SHIELD missed.

She heads straight for the master bedroom, by-passing the obvious places like the desk with its beat up looking laptop and batted drawers, and the matching file cabinet. Those are clear decoys meant to ensnare the unaware and naive. Barton, or someone in his life, is clever enough to make use of the obvious as a means of tripping up anyone trying to snoop. Natasha had finally learned not to assume that Clint was as shallow as first appearances have led her to believe, but the jury was still out on whether or not he’s entirely redeemable or even worthy of consideration for Fury’s new strike team. She’s still going to write a scathing personnel review, only perhaps now it won’t be quite so damning.

No, Clint may be clever enough to use the office set up as an obvious decoy - one so clear a toddler could spot it - but he’s not so smart as to avoid the next obvious hiding spot. And that’s a hidden stash somewhere in his bedroom. Natasha would wager on finding a cache of important papers shoved either in the dresser, the wardrobe, a nightstand or underneath the bed. Technically she’s not wrong, she does manage to find things hidden in all four locations, but it’s not until she’s stretched out halfway underneath the bed that her searching fingers hit the jackpot.

She pulls out a locked file box and places it on top of the rumpled half of the duvet - decidedly ignoring how only the side of the bed she’s been sleeping on is rumpled. Barton has religiously taken either the couch in the den or the one in the loft each night since she’s shown up, and that’s after pacing the perimeter for a good two hours with Lucky by his side. She can’t tell if this is a common pattern for him or if her presence in his life kicked up a new episode of PTSD, but that doesn’t matter now. Picking this lock matters now. It’s a matter of moments for her to crack it. Even without the fancy lock picks Tony had built into her custom phone case it wouldn’t have been a challenge for her. Still, they come in handy every now and then, and she makes a point of thanking her brother for his thoughtfulness in including them.

Peering into the file box, Natasha finds a surprisingly methodically organized system and a literal goldmine of personal information. Each tab is meticulously labeled and she finds such interesting reads as mortgage papers & property deeds, domestic partnership; filed ‘09 - dissolvement ‘13-’14, legal guardianships, and adoption papers; both of these tabs have four subfolders each, one with each of the kids name on it, C. Barton, P. Maximoff, W. Maximoff, & L. Barton. Her fingers hitch at the adoption and legal guardianship tabs and she pulls them out. A few minutes speed reading and she’s left with the realization that not only has Clint taken in his own niece and nephew after their mother’s death but he adopted the twins when they were toddlers.

Uncovering the fact that Wanda and Pietro were adopted blindsided Natasha. It had never been on her radar, what with twins looking enough like Barton (any minor differences in appearances easily explained away as a genetic contribution from their mother) she’d just assumed they were his biological children. He treated all four of the kids exactly the same, both his blood-relatives and his adopted children. It spoke volumes for the kind of man Barton actually was, and Natasha almost felt bad about what she’d said about his parenting skills earlier that night. Almost.

Under the folders is a stack of pictures. Natasha spends a few minutes pouring over their family memories, wondering why these are locked away. She doesn’t have pictures of herself from a time when she was younger than fourteen, because as far as the Red Room was concerned she had never been a child. It wasn’t until SHIELD spoiled her op and Howard adopted her that she was given a chance to experience a childhood. The Stark men had both done their best to make up for lost time but there was only so much one could cram into the gray years between fourteen and sixteen before she felt too old to indulge in childish fantasy. Particularly since she’s had any leanings toward frivolity rigorously trained out of her.

It’s Lucky, ultimately, who warns her that her time has run out. The dog is unusually quiet and hardly ever barks, and she’s grateful that he decides to break that streak now. Natasha has just enough time to refile everything and replace the box and straighten up the other hidey holes Clint has in his room - ignoring their contents and lamenting the fact that she got too caught up in pictures to explore his other secrets (this time). She ends up barging out of the bedroom catching Barton as he’s halfway across the front room. Natasha blows past him and goes to the file cabinet by the desk, yanks the first drawer open and blatantly riffles through it right in front of him. No better way to throw someone off your trial than to tell them what you’re doing and then point them down the wrong path, she recites from memory, hearing the instruction in the garbled voice of her old tutor. If she lets Clint think that she’s only just started her search out here, then he’ll never look to see if she’s tampered with anything else.

“Uh, whatcha doin’ honey?”

“Looking for memorabilia,” she answers without bothering to turn around.

“Memora-whatsit?”

“Scrapbooks, photographs, something that will spark a memory. We have something like that, don’t we?” At that, she does turn around to catch Barton gaping at her like a stunned fish. “Wait, does that fish in a barrel look mean that there’s no photographic evidence of our life together...anywhere in existence?”

“Well, I don’t know…,” he hedges, “there should be, but we still haven’t unpacked everything from the move and I’m not sure where they are right now. But if it’ll make you feel better I can go down to the storage facility in the morning and take a look.”

“Yes, do that.” She demands slamming the drawer shut then flouncing back into the bedroom feeling unexpectedly raw all of sudden.

~***~**~***~

The past few days have been a whirlwind, to put it mildly, and the last fifteen minutes have held true to form. Fortunately, Clint felt like he’d regained some sense of equilibrium after tonight’s session at the VA. Granted Howlett hadn’t hesitated to ruthlessly point out that Clint was the root cause for his current source of misery, and boy if the old vet only knew. Clint would be lucky to get away with just a smack upside the head for his idiocy.

Now he needs to produce a pretend marriages worth of memories for his fake wife overnight. The real kicker was all of the pictures he could use to help doctor up this alibi were now trapped in the bedroom with Talia.

“Aww, pictures, no.” Lucky whines in sympathy.

Clint knows where he can get a hold of other copies of those exact same photos, and conveniently enough, it’s the same place he’d have to go to get them photoshopped anyways. It’s just that Bucky’s not going to be thrilled to see him again so soon and Clint’s not really looking forward to giving his friend another shot at interrogating him. Still, if he wants photos he needs to go see Steve because while Buck may have used his downtime between missions to study computer sciences and information technology, and Clint used his own to refine his knowledge of carpentry and woodworking, Steve earned himself a dual masters in education and fine arts. Rogers has always been a bit of an overachiever.

But that was going to be working in his favor now.

“C’mon Pizza Dog, let’s go visit the Rogers - Barnes household,” he signals to the golden retriever and moving as silently as he’s learned how to over the years (it's amazing how quiet one can be when one stops acting like a putz) he slips out the back and down the ‘garden’ path. He’s not really sure why he’s giving in to this particular ridiculous demand but there had been something vulnerable in the slant of Talia’s shoulders as she’d rummaged through his file cabinet. He’s not even sure she was aware of the tell in her body language, and it had tugged at his heart to see it. He’d learned over the last few days that the icy reserve and harsh demands of the heiress was more a persona than the truth than he had initially thought it to be. Clint’s dedicated some time as he paces through the house before falling asleep at night towards wondering what it would be like to get a genuine reaction out of the woman. He can’t help but think that these doctored family photos might do the trick.

Chapter Text

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They fall into a rhythm after that first week. Talia gets up early to fix everyone’s lunches and oversee breakfast while Clint hustles the kids out of bed and ready for the day. She’s now surrounded by mementos of a borrowed family life, rusticly framed photographs of past events that now feature her instead of the tall brunette Natasha knows for a fact occupies the same space her body does in the original prints. She has no idea how Barton managed to pull it off, all she knows is that he’d come home from the work the following day claiming to have stopped off at their storage facility during his lunch hour and dugout several framed photos as well as a couple of scrapbooks. And there she was, smiling up at herself out of photographs that she knew she’d never posed for in the first place at events she’s never attended. He’d hung a couple of the bigger family group photos on the main floor, set up a few others on random surfaces throughout the cabin and left it to her discretion where to place the scrapbooks. Whoever he got to mock them up for him has done excellent work – Natasha had to liberate the original prints from their hiding place and do a quick comparison just to verify (for her own peace of mind) that she hadn’t been there all along – Clint's even gotten the mysterious editor to mock up some wedding photos. It’s ingenious really, how the photoshopper used old candids by the paparazzi mixed in with official pictures she’s sanctioned as ‘Natasha Stark’ to perfectly blend her in with the Barton family’s humble memories. It’s such a good job that she’s occasionally caught Clint staring at them in bafflement, trying to spot the lie.

The kids didn’t even twitch at the sudden appearance of a redheaded woman where once there had been a brunette in their midst, if they even pay attention to the photos at all. Natasha’s not so sure. She’s caught Pietro studying a couple of the family group shots with a wistful expression a time or two and it’s caused an alarm bell deep within her underneath her mission focus to chime. Natasha knows what it’s like to long for a real family, mother, father the whole shebang, and she can’t help but think she’s causing more harm than good with this little game. Can’t be helped now, she’s in too deep. Guilt eats at her (especially after she reads how Barton’s long-time girlfriend ditches them in the papers she found from Nelson & Murdock Attorneys at Law) but she’s a professional and she sets it aside.

And so the days pass them by in a hazy daze of patchwork domesticity as summer lingers like a dappled sun-kissed scent heavy in the breeze. It’s temptation incarnate and Natasha allows herself to drink it in, to forget for a little while, to find comfort in the repetition of packed lunches and homework, dinner and laundry, laughter and kindness.

Elk Cove is nothing like what she thought it would be – granted Natasha had barely skimmed the information pamphlet on the little hamlet. She figured seen on struggling middle to lower class small town seen them all the world over, what else was there for her to know? Evidently, a lot.

For starters, she never realized just how close-knit a ‘close-knit’ community truly could be. They took the phrase ‘living out of each other's pockets’ to whole new levels that she had never known about. Natasha had never been expected to be so open with anyone about herself so quickly before and to say that threw her off her rhythm would have been a massive understatement. The training she received in her childhood strongly discouraged sharing and caring, and that was putting it lightly, and while Howard may have turned a new leaf by the time he adopted her he was still known to claim that Starks were made of iron and self-sufficient. Then, of course, the influence of ‘Uncle’ Nicky had to be taken into consideration – Nick who wore fortitude like it was his favorite trenchcoat and would never go out of style. All of that is to say that emoting in a manner that seems normal and easy – not Natasha’s strong suit.

She hadn’t needed it to be, not when her job required her to be able to blend in long enough to go unnoticed while still maintaining a careful distance so that she did not develop unnecessary attachments. Attachments that could prove disastrous. For years now Natasha has prided herself on her professionalism and her ability to minimize attachments. Relationships slowed her down, made her vulnerable and an easy target.

As much as she would like to forget the training of the Red Room – and for all the hard work she has done with a deprogrammer and a child therapist – Natasha can still recall with perfect clarity the surgical precision in which the instructions fostered friendship between their young cadets only to rip it away from them as a lesson on how love made them week. Cruel lessons that forced the two cadets to fight each other until one could no longer stand with the ‘winner’ be allowed to live. They were brainwashed into believing that love was for children and only children clung to another looking for safety. She learned quickly to protect herself by viewing everyone as an enemy first and a potential asset second, but never as a person. A bleak outlook for a fourteen-year-old but as one of the only – and most promising – graduates of the Red Room it made her a formidable agent.

Her former instructors would be appalled if they knew what had become of her; if they realized that she had regained her sense of self – that she’d reclaimed her humanity from the machine they’d tried to make of her. Natasha had been designed to operate alone, self-sufficient and as remorseless as winter in Russia when it came to achieving her objective. She was also meant to be conniving and mercurial – the perfect double, triple, whatever agent the situation called for as long as it served her handlers interests. The fact that she was now using her skills to question her orders and sought to pursue her own self-interests would have gotten her terminated due to malfunction if she was still under their control.

They’d be furious to see her relying on a partner in the field. Livid to know that she managed to build herself a family and find herself loved by them and loving in return. Granted her family was small and certainly odd, there weren’t many who could boast that their officially adopted brother was a billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist, and their unofficially adopted brother was a former pararescue and the rest of their mismatch found family were all BAMF spies of a caliber that would make James Bond wet his pants from envy. So yes small, and mismatch, more than a little odd but they were her family and she cherished each of them. Mostly, however, she appreciated the fact that they were all (with the exception of Pepper and Riley) in the same line of work as her so that they all understood her occasional bouts of aloofness and emotional constipation. (Bruce got it because he was a scientist with his own troubled past, Pepper and Riley understood because, well they were Pepper and Riley). So yes, relationships slowed her down, that was one way to look at them. But she’s learned the value of perspective over the years and what’s more, she’s learned to take a great deal of pleasure out of subverting and flaunting everything the Red Room taught her was wrong.

Still, that being said, it didn’t mean she now went out of her way to form new attachments, just for the hell of it. Natasha couldn’t afford to lose all of her finely honed efficiency just because some bleeding hearts took her in and taught her how to be a real girl.

(That’s not really the reason – that’s just the reason she likes to tell herself. The problem with being raised to be a consummate liar is you’re very good at lying to everyone especially yourself. The real reason is – there’s only so much of herself Natasha’s willing to risk).

Therefore, no one was more surprised than her when she realized that she was beginning to feel at home in Elk Cove. And that the blame for that feeling could be squarely placed right at the Barton children’s feet.

They had been a shock. In none of the intel, SHIELD had gathered had there been even a whiff, some small little hint, that Barton might have one child, let alone four of them. Somehow that was a discovery that completely slipped by one of the largest intelligence gathering organizations currently operating in the world, and it was not a comforting thing to be confronted with Coulson’s flat-footed nonplussed poker face when she relayed the information. Lately, SHIELD’s been caught off guard more often than not and it’s not exactly a glowing endorsement of their skills.

Coulson and Sam had shared her shock when she reported in. And as Sam rightfully pointed out it changed the whole ball game when it came to recruiting Barton – a father of four rightfully had second, even third, thoughts about getting back into bed with a paramilitary intelligence force. For a while, there Natasha resents the children and Barton for having them. She’s never not successfully completed a mission – not since that first one where the Red Room put her, a still untested fourteen years old (for all of her previous miraculous successes) up against an experienced SHIELD field agent several decades her senior and Coulson caught her – and she’s not looking forward to having a black mark on her record. Such a thing is anathema as far as Natasha is concerned.

Not everything is idyllic. Barnes is around more often than not now that he’s taken it upon himself to introduce himself, like some dark storm cloud that reeks of judgemental suspicion. His constant presence and hypervigilance makes it near impossible for her to maintain her cover let alone stop herself from losing the plot, but she manages it. It’s an exercise in patience but she manages it. The longer she’s on this op the more her patience is tested. Oddly enough, or perhaps not, it’s the grown men who prove to be the bigger test to her endurance than the children.

Barnes was just so damn broody that she found herself grateful she didn’t have to try and lure him in with a honey trap. Literally the only time she saw him in a remotely pleasant mood was around the children or when he’d received a text from Rogers. Rogers, who along with Jones and Morita she has yet to meet, makes Barnes light up like the sun coming out on a cloudy day. She’s reluctantly impressed by the fact that they’d managed to sustain a relationship while in the army and under the ruling of DADT without anyone but their closest friends, their teammates, realizing the truth. What given the fact that just thinking about his guy Rogers made Barnes turn into a giddy little boy with a crush.

Barton was the opposite. Relentlessly optimistic, almost naively so, and all over the place as to seem constantly discombobulated about his daily life. It was a wonder sometimes that he managed to get himself to work let alone handle parenting the children. But Natasha had observed him long enough to realize that was nothing more than a front and she was able to spot the cracks along its edges now. And those edges were starting to show more frequently.

She’s grown accustomed to hearing Clint pacing at night before he finally settles down on one couch or the other for a short night of relatively restful sleep, well as restful as anyone could manage sacked out on a sofa. As Talia, she had made it clear that he was more than welcome to share the bed with her. Yes, Natasha had been a little leery of that prospect the first few nights but it hadn’t taken her long to figure out that Clint wasn’t the sort of man to take advantage of her or anyone. Learning about the ins and outs of how his domestic partnership fell apart and his fight to keep his full custody of all his children was the final proof she needed that he was a good man. (Although it was a poor reflection on herself that it took her spying behind his back and reading through his papers when he wasn’t at home and a separate confirmation from Coulson that what she found could be verified in the records of a Brooklyn family court – now that they knew to look there – before she actually believed in him).

She’s used to random noises in the night but waking up to muffled screaming is something entirely new. Natasha startles so badly that she jerks awake, lifting a few inches off the mattress, and failing gracelessly in her attempt to simultaneously kick herself free from the blankets and climb out of bed that she nearly face plants on the floor. When she finally manages to safely untangle herself she makes a beeline for the bedroom door and nearly yanks it off its hinges getting it open.

She barges into to the living room to find Clint out on the couch convulsing in his sleep, his muscles tensing to the point he’s practically bent in half backward there’s such a pronounced arch to his spine. Reacting instinctively she moves to comfort him, reaching out to soothe him out of his nightmare with touch. Natasha doesn’t realize she’s not alone until a small hand grabs her wrist and another little body blocks her path to the couch.

“Don’t wake him!” Cooper chastises her, his voice a sharp whisper-yell, he pulls harshly on his handhold to emphasize his point. It takes a great deal of concentration on Natasha’s part not to react with the automatic muscle memory of breaking his hold then breaking his arm for daring to touch her like that. He’s just a child! Wanda is standing in front of the couch, attempting to block her view of Clint with her slight form, her arms folded across her chest and her face set in a stern glare.

“I can’t leave him like that,” Natasha spits back gesturing sharply at the figure on the couch. The mans now slouched in the embrace of the cushions whimpering like a wounded creature.

“We haveta,” the boy insists his jaw firming up in a stubborn echo of a similar expression she’s seen Clint wear. It's not hard to see that they’re related. “Wake him up now and he’ll think he’s back there, he’s gotta wake up on his own.”

Natasha opens her mouth to protest further, is all set to read him the riot act in fact, how dare this child tell her what to do, when she’s interrupted by Wanda pushing her back a step.

“If you wake him up,” Wanda tells her, slamming a hard little fist into Natasha’s lower stomach as if she could physically drill her point home, “he’ll think the bad men have him again and he’ll fight you. Then you’ll call the police and, and they’ll take him away!”

The girl is genuinely terrified of the idea, her big eyes are watery with unshed tears clumping at her lashes, her breath coming in short fast little hitches. This isn’t the fear of some unknown shade, but the dread of a memory becoming reality again. Clearly, they missed a whole lot more in their background packet then what Natasha’s already discovered and the glaring holes and misinformation are beyond the point of pissing her off – she’s livid over it. But looking at the little girl clinging to her waist and the young boy hanging off her arm and seeing the thin veneer of calm that’s barely holding them both together it takes very little effort on her part to set that anger aside. She doesn’t have time for it, not when she’s so sorely needed.

Without hesitating Natasha falls to her knees, never minding how they bruise upon impact, and wraps Wanda up in a one-armed hug tucking her head into her neck and running a soothing hand down her back. Wanda stiffens at first, still trying to put a brave face on things, then suddenly yields melting into Natasha’s hold, her little shoulders shaking in near silence as those threatened tears soak into Natasha’s t-shirt. Natasha rests her chin on top of Wanda’s hair and turns to Cooper, finally twisting her wrist free from his grasp and pulling him into a hug alongside his sister. He comes willingly, far easier than she ever thought he would and unlike Wanda he makes no pretense at fighting his own tears. It's obvious to her that this sort of release was long overdue for both of them.

There’s a small stifled cry from the direction of the stairway and Talia peeks out from between the valley of where Cooper’s and Wanda’s shoulders touch to find Pietro sitting on the bottom-most step with Lila curled up in his lap and Lucky sitting protectively across the floor in front of them. She’s not sure exactly how long they’ve been there, but she’s willing to put good money down on them having witnessed everything that’s transpired since she left the bedroom. In fact, considering that Cooper and Wanda both were so quick to intercede before she could make the mistake of waking Clint from his nightmare - which appears to have subsided for now - she’s willing to bet that all four kids were aware of their father’s distress long before she had been. (She has to wonder how often she’s shrugged off noises in the night as something that’s commonplace for a cabin in the woods when in reality they were Clint suffering through a flashback. Natasha stomps down on the guilt that thought brings, she doesn’t have the time to deal with it right now). Tightening her grip around Wanda she staggers her way to her feet, feeling off-kilter with a child in her arms. It’s not the first time Natasha has had to carry someone else, but usually it's a grown man worth of deadweight. There’s something decidedly different about knowing a child is relying on you for a sense of safety. She tucks Cooper into her side and steers the three of them over to the stairs. Might as well wait for Clint to wake up all together. That way they can try to comfort each other since, apparently, they can’t really do anything for him right now.

As soon as she settles Cooper, Wanda, and herself alongside Pietro and Lila on the stairs Lucky shifts himself from his spot on the floor to shuffle over to the couch. She makes an abortive motion to stop the dog but with her arms and lap suddenly overfilled with children she doesn’t get very far. He plops himself down next to the couch and rests his head on Barton’s stomach, working it into the crook of his arm so that the man is half hugging the dog. Rolling his head to the side he proceeds to lick at Clint’s fingers until he gets a favorable response.

“Aww, Lucky,” Barton croaks, a odd tonal quality to his voice that Natasha couldn’t immediately place, it wasn’t until he spoke again that she realized his pitch was off due to Clint’s own inability to hear himself. He must’ve removed his hearing aids before falling asleep. The man makes so little fuss about his disability that it was easy for her to overlook it. But the reality of having to adjust to the sudden loss of one of his five senses had to have taken its toll on him, and on his family by extension. She remembers how Tony’s emergency heart surgery with its highly experimental prosthetic impacted all of them – continues to impact all of them, in ways none of them anticipated (least of all Tony, who certainly hadn’t volunteered to have experimental surgery in a cave in Afghanistan).

“Did I wake you buddy?” He starts scratching behind the dog's ear then leans over and plants a kiss on the bridge of his nose.

Wanda takes that as her cue to wriggle her way out of Natasha’s embrace and approached her father with renewed purpose. Cooper, Natasha noted with some envy (and how silly of her to be envious of a child), did not try to stop Wanda. Wanda came to a stop just next to Lucky and right outside of Clint’s reach, bracing herself with a hand buried in Lucky’s ruff. It took Clint a moment before he noticed her presence beside him and when he did, it was by acknowledging it with a weary gusty sigh.

“Oh, my twitchy witchy girl,” and this time there's a warbly off-key quality to his voice as he uses the nickname he’s taken to calling her, inspired by her favorite book turned film. (Natasha’s become very familiar with that particular author’s work the last few weeks). Wanda waits for him to reach out for her and the moment he does she throws herself at him, climbing into his lap and burying her head in his neck.

At that the other kids quickly abandon her to the stairs.

“Aw, I woke everybody up? Well that wasn’t fair of me huh kiddos?”

Instead of replying verbally, Pietro fired back a response in ALS, his hand signs shaky with his agitation. Watching him power through signing as his limbs shook Natasha was forcefully reminded of just how young they all were. So far they’ve handled witnessing Clint’s nightmare with a remarkable aplomb – which spoke volumes to this not being the first time – but they were still children and he was their father. He was supposed to make them feel safe, not scare them awake in the middle of the night.

She’s not at the right angle to catch exactly what Pietro was saying and forget about knowing Clint’s replies, the man had sunk back into the couch cousins under Wanda’s weight and from where she’s sitting she only has a quarter view of just Pietro’s hands the rest of him blocked by Cooper and Lila’s bodies. She does stand up and moves closer just in time to catch him finish signing;

“We’ll help keep the dreams away.”

“That’s a good idea,” she agrees with the suggestion joining the gathering around the couch and startling Barton who immediately attempts to stifle that reaction. The kids don’t react, since they’d known she had been there all around, but Clint scrambled to reach behind him for the hearing aids he had left on the end table. Natasha gives him a moment of privacy to put them taking her cue from the children who did him the courtesy of not watching him fiddle with the aids.

“Talia,” and this time he pauses taking pains to clear his voice of its post nightmare gruffness, “I’m sorry for keeping you and the kids up.”

She waves his apology aside, after all it’s not as if he planned on having a flashback. “Let’s see what we can be done about falling back asleep, instead, alright?”

“Don’t worry about me, y’all should just -”

“Dad, don’t be silly, sleepover in the big bed with everyone.” Pietro demanded with enough force behind his words that it was obvious to Natasha this wasn’t the first time he made that demand tonight.

“I don’t know buddy,” Clint continues to try to deflect, waffling when he shouldn’t be. “That might not be the best idea this time.”

“Well I think it’s just what the doctor ordered,” Natasha chimed in, her choice in phrasing deliberate. It’s her not so subtle way of dishing back the same trite advice he’s been doling out to her for the last two and a half weeks. Not so fun being on the receiving end of it, isn’t it bucko. She’s willing to concede that their situations might be slightly different, she’s been faking her amnesia whereas his post-traumatic stress disorder is very much real, and in light of that it’s not strictly speaking fair of her to compare the two. But she has the sense that Clint would respond better to some gentle razing than outright concern and in that regard, she’s not wrong.

That and she knows how hard he tries to set a good example for the kids. She’s heard him use ‘doctor’s orders’ to get the children to follow his instructions before, and has absolutely no qualms in using his words against him. If it gets him into bed with her – even with the kids there as buffers – she’ll take it.

“Well you are the Cobra Commander of this Starship baby, but I’m going to have to pass. We’ll all overheat curled up in that bed together.” Natasha blatantly ignored the garbled pop culture reference she knows she’s isn’t understanding. Her more pressing concern is Clint’s insistence on distancing himself when he shouldn't be.

“C’mon, stop making excuses Barton, you owe us cuddles,” she outright orders him and when he again tries to wave her off its with a tiny hint of mischief in his eyes. This teasing glint of ‘make me, I dare ya’ is enough of one that she feels perfectly confident in grabbing him by the elbow and dragging him, and Wanda along with him, right up off the couch.

She ushers everyone ahead of her, keeping a well-placed hand on the small of Clint’s back and feeling very much like a momma duck with a whole flock of unruly ducklings. Only it’s not the kids who give her trouble. Cooper leads the way, having paused long enough for Lila to hop up on his back and to grab ahold of Clint’s wrist, practically dragging the man along behind him. Pietro’s on the other side of their father, one hand buried in Lucky’s fur the other stretched up and back so that he can hold Wanda’s hand. Wanda, who is still cradled in Clint’s arm and shamelessly taking advantage of being carried. Natasha is bringing up the rear as they’ve essentially boxed Clint in. For a moment she worries that it will make him edgy, not having some sense of space or an obvious escape route, but instead, it seems to have had the opposite effect and grounded him.

She’s used to Tony, who after Afghanistan needed all of the open spaces he could possibly find and was only comfortable with being shut in when it was on his own terms. So basically, his workshop and only his workshop. That was the closet Natasha had ever seen Pepper come to hair pulling levels of despair, even when he had been missing presumed dead Pep had kept things together, until Rhodey had been able to take some time off from the Air Force to help her manage Tony and the bureaucratic red tape of bringing a man back from the dead. It had been an unpleasant surprise, discovering that Obadiah had gone behind their backs and pushed the board towards legally declaring Tony dead as far as running the company was concerned. Although in light of everything else they eventually learned….not much of one.

Like Monty Python’s Ministry of Funny Walks, they shuffled their way on into the bedroom Natasha's come to think of her’s and Clint’s, with the boys letting go of their father long enough to scramble up onto the queen sized mattress. Pietro immediately thumps the mattress invitingly with the flat of his hand for Lucky to jump on up. She doesn’t bother to correct him even though she’d already established the rule ‘no dogs on the bed’. Tonight they get a freebie. Instead, she focuses on push guiding Clint and Wanda onto the bed even as Cooper tumbles Lila off of his back.

By the time everyone is situated and dozing back to dreamland, Natasha is curled up in the upper left most corner of the mattress with a pillow between her back and the carved wooden headboard. Clint’s got his head resting in the well of her hip and Cooper is tucked under her left arm, pinning her in place by the majority of his body on her stomach and curled around Clint’s head and one shoulder. The rest of Clint is pinned down by strategically placed mini generals, one at either hip and the third hugging an outflung arm. Lucky’s at his feet staring approvingly up at Natasha for thinking of this, or at least, doing a good impression of doing so. Slowly she fishes her ‘busted’ StarkPhone out of the hidden pocket she’d sewn into her new sleep pants during her first few hours alone in the house and carefully types up her latest round of discoveries and all the questions she now has because of them.

Love is for children. But now she’s seen how children love, how trusting they are, but more importantly, she’s learned how unshakable their belief in their father’s love for them is. She feels a fierce sort of protectiveness towards this little family spread out on the mattress before her and a keen desire to shelter them from any harm that might seek them out. Even if that might mean that ultimately she would have to leave to do so. Natasha comforts herself, by saying all of that was because of the children and absolutely none of it had anything to do with Barton himself. She has a feeling though that Sam will call her on her bull soon enough.

~***~**~***~

The latest update from Natasha comes in around eleven am on the fifteenth day of her embedded surveillance. Sam finds himself staring at the text for a long moment before he can bring himself to do anything about it and in the end it's actually Riley who gets him moving.

“What new bombshell has Nat dropped in our laps now?” Riley asks, all easy amusement and Southern charm as he drapes himself across Sam’s back to read over his shoulder. And it’s thanks to having Riley’s face right there, hovering in Sam’s peripheral vision, that he sees the moment Riley’s good humor dries out and is resurrected as immolated fury. It’s at about the same time it had happened to Sam when after reading through Nat’s impartial report of another veteran’s PTSD filled nightmare. She ends her text with the seemingly innocuous question: Is it confirmed that only Barnes, Jones, and Morita were ever held captive?

As former pararescuemen, both Sam and Riley know the kind of situations special op teams often ended up in, because it was their job to go in and pull them out – usually by the skin of their teeth and with the men half alive. Moreover, he’s fully aware of the fact that half of the time an operation sanctioned by the Company ends up scrubbed from a units record, depending on the reasons behind the op in the first place. Sam’s well aware of both the Commandos’ and the Raiders’ reputations to know that the CIA would have been chomping at the bit to get them to run as many clandestine and barely sanctioned missions as they could talk the army brass into allowing.

He’s not even aware of moving to hunt down Coulson until he’s cornered their handler just outside of the mini-office Tony had installed for Pepper on every single one of his yachts.

“There’s no fuckin’ way in hell we have complete records for any of them Phil.”

“Are you positive about that?” And that’s just another reason for him to appreciate Phil Coulson right there. No questioning how he could possibly know that, or what makes him think so, no asking for irrefutable proof of what basically amounts to a hunch – just asks for confirmation that that's the play you want to make and runs with it.

“Think about it Phil, you were in the army during the first Gulf War. The CIA always pulls shady shit when there's a conveniently active warzone available to mask their movements and these men were members of two of the top three spec ops teams running in the last twenty years.”

“If SHIELD was given access to records that hadn’t first been scrubbed clean by the CIA with a fine tooth comb then color me surprised,” Riley cuts in with a charmingly off-kilter, yet oddly poignant, Southern colloquialism that gets the point across. “This isn’t my first rodeo, not when it comes to those ass clowns masquerading as government officials, I doubt even the original paper record tells the true story.”

“If that ain’t the truth.”

“I’ll have to look into it, but can’t just now,” Coulson informs them, pushing them off. Sam’s all set to get up in his face again (a rare occurrence, but this, this is important) when he continues, “Someone’s been trying to hack into our system and actually managed, I have to bring Tony in to trace the hack and figure out what they were after.”

“You better hope this is worth putting on hold, Phil. Natasha can’t do her job without having all the facts.”

“I’m positive that figuring this out will help Natasha.”

~***~**~***~

As time stretched on and she got to know Barton, and Barnes by extension, a little better, Natasha often found herself wondering if she shouldn’t cut her losses and run. Sure, she had yet to meet Jones, Morita, or Rogers to assess them for their potential suitability as SHIELD agents, and yeah, she knew that Tony would be disappointed that he’d missed out on yet another opportunity to thank his rescuers in person. – Or rather in pure Tony fashion; pile everyone with extravagant, and unnecessary gifts until peek awkward turtle-dom could be reached. – But at some point, rationally speaking, she just had to call it quits. Barnes was paranoid with a capital ‘P’ and overprotective of basically anyone he decides falls within his particular circle of influence to a level that would put most Park Avenue helicopter parents to shame.

Which could very well explain why she hasn’t encountered Jones, Morita, or Rogers yet. It was probably eating at him that she’s already spent roughly one hundred and forty-four hours unsupervised around Clint and the kids. Every weekend since the start of the school year has been meticulously catalogued until eventually even Clint gets tired of having Barnes around.

Her weekends are starting to feel like supervised jail visits. And like winter in Russia, Barnes can be about as welcoming as a zero below wind chill.

The kids don’t see it though. All they know is that their Uncle Bucky watches out for them, but they don’t notice how hostile he is towards her. If by some chance they do pick up on it, they seem to brush it off as Bucky just being his usual grouchy self. After Clint’s nightmare, she notices a distinctive thawing in Barnes attitude towards her but that hardly lasts a day before he doubles down on the glaring and sniping in her general direction, as if he suddenly remembered that she was not to be trusted and had to remind her of that.

She was kind of hoping that she had earned enough goodwill for a longer ceasefire than what he’d given her.

Putting all of that aside, Natasha focused her energy on wrangling an introduction to one of, or all three of, the other men out of Clint. It was high time she stopped allowing the comforting rhythm of the routine she’d fallen into lure her into a false sense of security. (That’s one thing Clint’s flashback had certainly reminded her of, she couldn’t become settled here). Turns out, however, that she didn’t have to rely on Clint for the next introduction. Much like she hadn’t had to rely on him to introduce her to Barnes.

A full week has passed since what she’s taken to framing as That Night in her head (capitalization required) when a stranger comes to the house. At least this one has the good sense and manners to knock on the screen door then wait to be invited in, instead of barging in like they owned the joint. It’s a Sunday afternoon and Clint’s taken the kids, along with Barnes, into town for a rare outing to go bowling and maybe catch a movie. Natasha would suspect them of intentionally leaving her behind when they did these little trips, and she wasn’t wrong, but she didn’t care enough to make a stink about it. It gave her a break to remember who she was and why she was there as well as to check in with Coulson and Sam without the worry of being overheard.

“Hiya Talia,” an attractive man with warm eyes greets her from his spot on the other side of the door. And just why are all of these men so damnable attractive? It wasn’t a pressing concern but one that did occupy more of her time than she was willing to admit. “Don’t know if Clint told ya I was coming by or not –”

“No Gabe,” she interrupted him sharply, annoyed that her time to herself was being disturbed. “Clint failed to mention that.”

“Hey, look at that! You are starting to remember,” he said with sincere enthusiasm for what looked to be an outward sign of ‘Talia’s’ recovery. And if she truly had suffered any memory loss the fact that she’d managed to recognize him on sight would be something to celebrate. But, instead she just wants to kick herself in the ass for such a rookie slip up.

She’s not supposed to know him.

Natasha’s seen the dust voids on the walls that indicated that frames had once hung there, and she’s more than willing to bet that they were pictures of Clint or the kids with his army buddies. In fact, she knows this. Because she’s found the pictures hidden behind the wardrobe in his bedroom. Natasha is willing to bet that Rogers removed the photos when Clint went to collect her from the hospital and she can’t decide if he did that to limit her access to precious family memories or if it was deliberate move meant to trip her up. She knows it had to have been Steve, because the kids have told her about their afternoon spent with him, how much fun they had despite their worry about her being hurt. Just like she knows it wasn’t Clint’s idea. She’s caught him glancing at the dust voids and shaking his head smiling wryly to himself and muttering something about overly paranoid bastards, and what a match made in heaven they are.

Thinking it over, it’s rather brilliant really. Clint could have used the photos as a memory aid for her and with them gone they now have a subtle, but obscure, way of discovering just how much homework she may or may not have done on them. If they suspected her of being a plant, which it’s looking more and more likely that they do, then it’s a good way of tripping her up. This could also explain why her introductions are being managed and it’s happening slowly with each of them appearing one by one staggered out and with Clint not immediately present.

Natasha’s been forced to fend for herself when it comes to meeting them all in the hopes of catching her off guard like Gabe just had.

And here she was thinking that she could come out here and run circles around all of them, only to be tripped up at every turn. Now she understands why Sam spoke of them with such awe and how Rogers managed to rise through the ranks as quickly as he did, not to mention how everyone else achieved all accolades throughout their careers that they did. They all looked like such well-fed country idiots, utterly naive about espionage when compared to her years of experience. So then how the fuck were they currently beating her at her own game?

“Just a little Gabe, not much I’m afraid,” she tries to cover, fully aware that too much time has passed for it to be convincing. “Is there a reason you stopped by why Clint was out with the kids?”

“Ah yes, well the twin’s birthday is the 27th. Clint figured you’d want to try and plan everything while he’s got them out of the house and you won't have to worry about little ears trying to listen in on things that are meant to be a surprise. I’m here to help you get everything squared away.”

Chapter Text

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They’re hosting the twins party at a local beach. Gabe tells her that they’ve mostly only invited family, seeing as how they are new in town. He handled sending out the invites and assigning who was bringing what dish to share. The longer their little planning session went on, the clearer it became to Natasha that she had been included just so she would feel, well, included. Which was kind of sweet but at the same time it was a lot patronizing. It really brought the message home: Natasha was the interloper here, not Gabe or Bucky - or Morita and Rogers - but her.

Natasha’s role basically boiled down to making sure Clint and the children arrived on time with Lucky in tow. She was also asked to bring a tossed salad and some fresh kaiser rolls from the local bakery, as well as a canvas tote that Clint had packed with what he considered to be the essentials for an afternoon spent at the beach in late September.

She was actually impressed with everything he’d managed to cram in there. Last time she checked he had shoved a change of jeans and hooded sweaters for everyone for when the heat of the day eventually faded and the breeze off the Pacific Ocean go to be too cool. Sunscreen, a frisbee to toss back and forth, a water dish for Lucky with his own supply of bottled water and some kibble, the fixings for smores, and what looked to be an entire store’s worth of silly string canisters. Natasha had raised her eyebrow at the last addition but Clint had only grinned mischievously back in reply. She wasn’t sure she was going to like whatever use he decided to put those towards.

Gabe had reassured her that he would be bringing the meat to grill, Jim would bring a delicious quinoa salad that the kids adored as well as a surprised guest that they were all guaranteed to go gaga over. Barnes, meanwhile, was going to make this broccoli salad that apparently the kids also loved - evidently the bacon in it was the major selling point - and Rogers was making the cake. At that Gabe had reassured her repeatedly that Steve would make an age-appropriate cake and not the one he apparently was known for making when he thought Bucky had been ignoring him. Evidently, it mentioned the promise of a blowjob, among other things, in neon-green homemade icing and white frosting and had never failed to get Barnes’ undivided attention.

It’s a bit of a production to get everyone up and moving out of the house that morning, more so than it is on a school day for the simple fact that the kids want to sleep in but she manages it. Mostly by ignoring their whining and just hustling them along. She suddenly very grateful that Clint had the forethought to pack his canvas bag of supplies several nights before. Natasha wouldn’t have credited him with that much planning skills if she hadn’t watched him do it herself. For a moment she wonders if they’ll all be able to squeeze into the truck but they manage it, Lila tucked in-between Natasha and Clint in the front bench seat along with the bag of supplies, salad balanced on Nat’s lap and kaiser rolls on Lila’s with the other three and Lucky crammed onto the back bench seat, cheerfully puppy-piled in the narrow space.

When they finally get to the beach it’s to find everyone there waiting for them, the grill already fired up. It’s easy for her to spot the men, even Morita and Rogers who she still has to be formally introduced to, which makes the two unfamiliar female figures amidst the four men stand out all the more. For a moment there Natasha feels an irrational spike of jealousy, before she quickly squashes it. She has no idea where that came from and doesn’t really have chance to examine the emotion not with the way the older three kids are suddenly squirming in unrestrained excitement in the back seat.

“Alright, parking lot rules still apply,” Clint cautions them. “Pick a crossing buddy and someone grab Lucky’s leash until we get to the picnic table.”

The kids manage to rein everything in until they hit the beach and the picnic bench Barnes and the boys have commandeered. But once they hit the beach, all bets were off. There was so much squealing, from all four of the kids and the two young women. Even Lucky joins in the capchaonpy with a few yips and howls. Natasha watches out of the corner of her eye as Clint surreptitiously turns off one of his hearing aids to spare himself the headache, and for a moment she wishes she had the ability to do the same.

“Hey Jim, how was it hosting the lovebirds for a week?” Clint asked reaching out for a handshake from the man and getting pulled into a rough hug. He takes the manhandling gracefully and returns it with interest.

“I love my cousin, I do, but now know more about her private life than I ever wanted to,” Morita answers keeping a straight face and making it impossible to tell if he’s being deadly serious or his sense of humor is just that dry.

“So when are you going to insist on them finding their own place?” That question came from an almost offensively tall blond who noticed immediately how Natasha stiffened uncomfortably in his presence and made an effort to make himself appear smaller.

“Well I’m not putting up with it as long as you did Cap, that’s for sure.”

“What? I think its cute!”

“Yeah well, Steve your opinions a little warped, let’s be real here.”

“Oh, thanks Gabe, your vote of confidence is as always overwhelming.”

“I believe in you doll,” Barnes reassures him. At that everyone, even Steve, groans.

“Don’t know why you’re having so much trouble Jim, you’ve had years of practice ignoring idiots in love thanks to these two numbskulls,” Clint argues shamelessly pointing at Bucky and Steve.

“That's true,” he agrees easily enough around said idiots complaints.

By now the kids and twenty-somethings squealing has died down and Gabe has deftly whisked the salad out of Natasha’s hands to deposit in a cooler along with everything else that needs to be kept on ice until they’re ready to eat. Which doesn’t look to be long now, if Jim’s now pointed interest in the grill is any indication.

“Katie-Kate!” Was Clint’s enthusiastic greeting for the young woman that Natasha assumed was Morita’s cousin. The most noticeable thing about her was an obvious affection for the color purple; from the purple heart shaped sunglasses that sat smugly on the top of her head, to the white t-shirt with purple embroidery, to the purple Chucks she wore on her feet.

“Hawkguy,” she returned his greeting with an aloof, but clearly fond, smirk of her own.

“Hey! That’s Hawkeye to you.”

“NoPe. I’m Hawkeye now. I don’t make the rules, that’s just how it is.”

Clint looks all set to object further but is interrupted before he can even get started by the other young woman, she of the ripped jeans and unironically faded stars & stripes t-shirt from Old Navy. (Natasha’s developed more than the passing familiarity her past undercover ops had required with that particular store in the last ten days alone - shopping for birthday gifts for growing kids involved buying lots of clothes and Uncle Bucky, for some reason, had an Old Navy store card with lots of awards dollars built up for such an occasion.)

“My girl’s right there Hot Guy - you left her in charge of the range and that makes her Hawkeye, them’s the rules.”

Natasha can practically feel her ears perking up at that. “Range? You hate guns,” she doesn’t bother to hide the accusatory tone in her voice. Clint’s reaction to Sam shooting on the yacht had been that of a man who could no longer tolerate being around firearms, what the ever living hell had he been doing working at a gun range?

“Archery,” Clint and Kate correct her in unison. And they're off to the races yapping back and forth about the tensile strength of bowstring and exactly just how strong does one need to be to have a good draw. Comparing and criticizing complicated trickshots with such thoroughness that it makes Natasha dizzy trying to follow the conversation.

“Well, that’s them sorted for the next however long,” the raspy voice captured her attention. “Good to see you again Talia, Jim mentioned you had an accident? How are things?”

Caught off guard and feeling more than just the twenty-something college student’s eyes on her waiting for an answer Natasha somehow managed to gracefully maneuver her way the minefield such a simple question like that represented. She then faked her way through mind numbing small talk where she learned useful little gold nuggets like the fact that Kate and her girlfriend America, were recent college graduates and had only just moved out to Portland. Evidently they’d delayed their move to help sell off Clint’s portion of an archery business that had catered to the more affluent residents of Manhattan (and therefore those with money to burn) and that Kate’s parents had the dubious honor of belonging to. Evidently there was a plan to open a new business out here around Elk Cove that Kate and Clint would be partners in.

It doesn’t sound like a sound business strategy to Natasha, but then what did she know? As she’s learned repetitively this mission, not that much.

She keeps an eye on the kids throughout the conversation and watches with some amusement as the twins get a shared piggyback ride out of Rogers who’s walking along the shoreline after Lila led Barnes in search of seashells. Cooper is off playing a game of frisbee with Kate, Clint, and Gabe; while Jim has busied himself at the grill flipping burgers.

“C’mon Talia,” America suggests with a jerk of her chin towards the collection of coolers, setting the collection of stars dangling from her ears twinkling. “Let’s pull out those salads and get the table prepped. Once Jim’s done with the grill I have a feeling that everyone’s gonna swarm at once.”

And her words proved to be damn near prophetic. In short order Jim had the meat off the grill and in an aluminum tray ready to be served, just as they finished getting everything out of the cooler. Nat manages to sneak a peek at the cake while removing the salads and confirms, for her own peace of mind if nothing else, that it is indeed age appropriate for a pair of twins turning ten. Then with one call to arms from America – that was the only way Natasha could think to describe the other woman’s yell for dinner, and it made her chuckle to think of it as such – the party gathers around the picnic table and dives in.

The air filled with the noise of joyous chaos and Natasha thought she wouldn’t be able to stand it but it reminded her so much of the cobbled together family dinners Tony would throw – inviting the Carters, Nick, Coulson, Sam, Riley, Pepper and Rhodey – that she felt perfectly at home grabbing a place on the bench in-between Morita and Rogers, throwing an elbow to gain more room when they jostled her too much and mildly threatening Barnes with a fork if he didn’t pass her the broccoli salad in a timely fashion. Even Lila crawling into Natasha’s lap halfway through the meal with a half-eaten hamburger in hand was familiar and comforting.

When everyone had eaten their fill Kate and America set themselves the task of preparing a small campfire for later further along the beach and took a blanket to cuddle on to help in that endeavour. Clint, had dug out his canisters of silly string distributed them amongst the kids and the ‘Kids’ then told them to divide themselves up into two teams and have at it. Now somewhere along the beach the boys plus Jim and Bucky were trying to outwit the girls (plus Gabe and Steve) in a silly string fight. Lucky was tucked up under the bench with his water and his kibble, enjoying his own dinner peacefully while Clint and Natasha took care of packing up the meagre leftovers.

It’s not long before she’s left feeling like she’s metaphorically, okay, literally twirling her thumbs and hard pressed to think of something else to do. Which was new. Natasha hasn’t been at a loss for things to do in Clint’s presence since those first few days. But the break in their routine and the sudden influx of outside observers has made her, well, nervous even though she doesn’t quite want to admit it to herself.

“Dad!” Wanda squealed, rushing out of nowhere and taking a running leap at Clint’s chest. (And, blessedly, taking the pressure off of Nat – the beauty of having children around, they could always be relied upon to break up a moment).

He catches her mid-air hardly batting an eye only to twirl her up over his head then bring her down to hang like a limpet off of his shoulders; her knees squeezing his waist, one arm looped around his throat. The twirly blackish-blue skirt she’d insisted on is hitched up to mid-thigh showing off her still summer tanned calfs and the black starry three quarter length leggings Natasha had to bargain her into agreeing to wearing underneath her skirt. Wanda’s bare feet are encrusted in wet sand from running in and out of the surf all afternoon and Natasha cringes at the sight of all that gunk rubbing off on Clint’s clothes. He pays it no attention however, focusing instead on securing Wanda’s perch.

He’s only just gotten her settled when Lila comes speeding, giggling uncontrollably, from the same direction to climb Barton like he’s the jungle gym at the playground. She scales his side as if it’s nothing more challenging than a rope ladder and he helps her to settle onto his left hip. Somehow the girls manage to shift their legs to share the cramped real estate of Clint’s hipbone, Lila’s leg hitched up over Wanda’s bent knee and hugging her father from the side, and Lila’s right arm lays across Clint’s left shoulder and joins the arm Wanda has looped around his neck - the end result being a complex gorgons knot of limbs that doesn’t look either comfortable or stable but somehow they manage to anchor themselves to their father like barnacles to a ship's hull.

“What’s the situation girls?”

“Taking heavy fire from the front. Uncle Gabe is covering us while we set up a fortified position,” Wanda breathlessly informs him speaking directly by his ear. Clint nods sagely at her plans, hitching her leg up higher over his right hip to help settle her better.

“Solid plan squirts. Where do we stand in rescuing the fair damsel?” He asks and off in the distance Natasha can hear a protesting squawk.

“No go,” Wanda answers with a frown.

“Stevie’s on their side now,” Lila elaborates her eyes going wide at the betrayal. Natasha knows it's just play acting, and she knows that Clint knows it too but he still reacts with selfrighetous afront on the girls’ behalf.

“That traitor! How dare he?!

“I don’t know, but that’s what Gabe said.”

“No, Gabe said he’s playin’ Trojan horse,” Wanda clarifies.

“Oh, well that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish then.”

“What’s that got to do with fish, Dad?” Lila asks with a charming little tilt to her head in her confusion.

“Not a whole lot Lila-bean.”

Feeling as if she’s encroaching on a family moment where she really doesn’t belong and uncomfortable with it, Natasha tries to ease away from the small family unit. It’s a feeling that's been growing exponentially the more Natasha realizes how easily it would be for her to just let go of her Black Widow persona and settle in here for good. She’s shaken from her thoughts by a small hand clutching at the strap of her sundress. It’s Wanda keeping her in place.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Clint asks his lips quirking up into a smirk before he can smooth them out into a more serious expression. “We’re down a man and need someone to watch our six, especially since our promised reinforcement is still sleeping on the job,” he continues pointing with his chin up the beach to the picnic blanket where Morita’s niece Kate and her girlfriend America are curled up around each other like kittens, dead asleep and oblivious to the world. “That leaves you, sugarplum.”

“But I’m unarmed,” she objects rather lamely.

Clint snorts at that and lets go of where he’s bracing Wanda’s leg long enough to root around in his back pocket to pull out two more canisters of silly string and pass them over; “Here. You’re all set.”

With an elaborate show of reluctance (only because she thinks that’s what's expected of her) Natasha takes the cans. The girls squeal in delight and Clint tries to hide his pain filled wince at the close proximity of sudden supersonic registers to his hearing aids but he doesn’t quite manage it. She smiles softly in sympathy.

“What’s the game plan?” She asks the girls trying to ignore the look Clint levels at her. Natasha can’t spare the time it’ll take her to analyze that particular bit of gooey goofiness, not if she wanted to help Wanda and Lila take down their brothers.

“Mobile fortress,” Wanda replies with a level of cheekiness that makes Natasha grin wolfishly and sets both girls off into fits of giggles.

“Well, I know my marching orders.” Clint accepts his fate easily enough, comfortably resigned to his role as a pack mule.

They set off down the beach in the opposite direction from where the girls materialized from, moving slightly inland to set up an ambush. They don’t get very far before Gabe catches up with them and now the teams consist (technically) of three adults and two kids each. At least that’s how they’ll stand until Steve makes his move and reveals himself to be a triple agent. Gabe gravely reports on his failed attempt to rescue Steve and how Bucky convinced him to join the other team. The exaggerated wink he gives the girls while trying to maintain a mournfully betrayed expression sets them off into another round of uncontrollable giggles even as they try to coordinate their parents and uncle into staging an ambush for their brothers’ team.

It’s their giggling that eventually gives them away.

What was once meant to be a trap for Cooper, Pietro, and the remaining uncles gets sprung on them instead. Even with Rogers revealing himself to be a mole, the boys still have an upper hand. It’s not long before Steve and Gabe both have played out dramatic death scenes demanding that they be avenged and Clint, in his role as roaming fortress, is firmly under siege. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, and realizing that in their focus to ‘storm the castle’ both Barnes and Morita have utterly ignored her, Natasha does the only sensible thing left to do and that’s to go rogue.

She has to admit that this was a rather strange family tradition, a silly string war to celebrate turning another year older, but familiar to her nonetheless. Natasha thought she was an expert on all projectile weapons already, but in the time she’s spent with the Barton children she quickly becomes proficient in the mastery of silly string. But not quickly enough. Evidently years of spy work and training as a master assassin are no match against four children.

Natasha nails Jim, Bucky, and Clint in the side of the head, back of the head, and middle of the forehead, respectively, with her red and black silly string failing across them like spider's silk. All three of them squawk in indignation while Gabe and Steve resurrect themselves long enough to have a hearty laugh at their friends’ outraged expressions.

The girls are already scrambling to try and abandon ship even as Clint falls into a controlled crumble, knees hitting the ground first hard enough to bruise but not jostle his passengers before he face plants into the sand in a dramatic slow-motion death knell. It was all very theatrical, but Natasha wasn’t given much time to appreciate his performance as four little warriors were barreling towards her at a dead run, weapons drawn. With an involuntary squeal of delight (that she’d vehemently deny should anyone other than the kids ever mention it) Natasha spun about on her heel and took off, the kids nipping at her ankles. The men’s laughter trailed after them in a haunting echo even as she lead the children on a merry little chase. Natasha lets them ‘hunt’ her just long enough for Lila to start to seriously lag behind everyone else before she takes a pratfall into a patch of leafy shrubbery allowing her pursuers to gain up on her. Soon she was covered nearly head to toe in multiple colors of silly string, and when their canisters ran dry she found herself at the bottom of a dog pile; the kids having resorted to tickling her to exact their revenge. Natasha hasn’t laughed so much or so freely in years.

By the time she finally calls for mercy she has tear tracks running down her cheeks from all the laughing she’s been doing. The kids do as well for the Black Widow always gives as good as she gets when it comes to tickle wars. Natasha helps each of them stand and brush off the worst of the leaves and twigs that had found their way into the kids’ hair then corrals them into helping her collect the discarded silly string, doubting the label’s claims of being environmentally friendly. She creates a little pouch out of her shirt and lets them deposit what they gather there and naturally that means she picks up some more interesting finds such as bits of bark, or seashells, or a feather, but for the most part it’s dried out silly string that helps them all retrace their steps back to the picnic table like a new-aged twist on Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs. Natasha hadn’t realized it at the time but their little war had spread up and down the length and breadth of the beach and honestly, they were lucky it was practically deserted for how they’d managed to treat it like their own reenactment of the storming of Normandy.

“Hey Talia! You’ve brought the rugrats back just in time for cake,” Rogers greats them as soon as they get within easy talking distance. The kids cheer wildly at that announcement taking up each other's hands and dancing about her in a mad caper chanting;

“Cake, cake, cake!”

“Not so sure the kiddos really need any sugar,” Clint comments mock sternly, eyes twinkling wickedly at the children’s cry of dismay, before sighing resignedly. “But I suppose since it is traditional…”

The rest of what he says is drowned out by cheering. After a rousing and slightly off key chorus of Happy Birthday Steve serves everyone up a generous slice of homemade chocolate cake with buttercream frosting and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, for those who want it, and Nat is relieved to see that it is decorated age appropriately as promised. In fact, she’s impressed by Steve’s ability to recreate a credible rendition of the Milky Way. She does, however, have half a mind to ask him to make her one of his more inappropriately decorated cakes just so she could see Clint’s reaction. (It’s only for curiosity's sake and nothing more).

She finds it hilarious to know that this highly decorated and respected army captain is known for recapturing his partner's attention through the medium of suggestive messages in frosting. Especially since she now knew that his post-army career was primarily that of a grade school art teacher and part time art professor at a community college in Portland. Although if Barnes was to be believed Steve had always been more than a little shit, so cheekily decorated cakes really weren’t out of the realm of possibility for him.

The day winds down in front of the campfire America and Kate had built, everyone passing the s'mores supplies back and forth as the kids merrily toast marshmallows just to watch them roast half the time. Natasha eats more roasted marshmallows that night than she’s ever seen in her lifetime. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it to have a sleepy Wanda curled up at her hip and Pietro tucked up under her arm while Clint has Lila passed out in his lap and Cooper is wedge in-between his Uncle Steve and Bucky chatty away about some project at school. It’s worth it look across the firelight and see Jim, Gabe, America and Kate deep into a discussion about who would win in a battle royal – the Justice League or the X-Men. In the end, it’s all worth it.

Eventually she catches Clint’s eye and he nods slightly in silent agreement to her unspoken question. He clears his throat loudly enough to catch Steve’s attention as Natasha gently nudges Wanda and Pietro into standing up. When she next looks back over at Barton he’s made it to standing without dislodging Lila, and that’s a real talent right there, one that she’s oddly enough envious of. Steve has helped Cooper pack up their canvas bag and settle it on his shoulder and while Cooper makes the rounds saying good night and goodbye to his uncles, Kate, and America, Steve walks over to Natasha.

“Would you like help getting the sleepy birthday people back to the truck?”

Her first inclination is to deny any need for help whatsoever but then Wanda shuffles forward out from underneath one of her arms towards Steve and faceplants into his abdomen. He chuckles softly at that and without hesitating reaches down picks her up then settles her comfortably in his arms.

“She just turned ten you know, and between you and her father she’s going to forget how to walk,” Natasha points out wryly.

“Oh take it easy Talia,” he chides her good-naturedly an easy grin on his clean shaven face. “She’s tired and she’s allowed to be carried every once in a while if she wants to be while she’s still a kid. There’s nothing wrong about her seeking that kind of reassurance.”

Natasha actually finds herself blinking at that explanation. She’s still not used to adults who understand the concept of allowing children to be children. “I suppose you may have a point,” she concedes, noticing how Wanda snuggles into his shoulder and that Pietro has tucked himself further into her own side seeking comfort.

“Oh, I might have more than that, but I appreciate your willingness to consider it Talia.” He retorted with a cheeky smile. Slightly flustered by that, Natasha turned away from him and steered Pietro towards the truck. Steve followed closely on her heels and she could hear Clint bringing up the rear with Lila and Cooper, Lucky trotting alongside them.

“Thanks Cap,” said Clint after Steve helped them to load the kids in their various stages of sleepiness into the truck for the ride home. Steve clasped Clints shoulder in response before sending a swift salute in Natasha’s direction then heading back towards the rest of the partygoers. It’s oddly peaceful what with all four sleepy kids in the back, so much so that she decides not to argue with Clint’s offer of a hand up into the truck. Once she settles in on the front bench seat with the canvas bag next to her, instead of Lila, Lucky hops in to sit by her feet and Clint shuts the door behind him.

The ride back home is quite and easy, Natasha settles into it. Resting her forehead against the passenger side window, eyes half closed as she watches the night muffled scenery pass by, listening to the soft shuffling of the kids in the back.

She had watched over them all day, observed in great detail how they interacted with each of the men she’d been sent out to Oregon to evaluate and she could see as plain as the nose on her face how much they were loved by those old soldiers and how they loved them in return. Love is for children, but these men clearly had never received that particular memo. In fact, they’d seemed to have been to be doing their damndest (each in their own different ways) throughout the day to show her the very opposite – that love was there, watching, waiting, for anyone bold enough to reach out and embrace it.

It became crystal clear to her as the day long beach party progressed that not only would Barton never voluntarily re-up again, but neither would Barnes, Jones, Morita, or Rogers. None of them may have chosen the moment or manner in which they left active duty – having all been medically discharged, for one reason or another – but they were all unanimously happy to be out now. They’ve made a life and home for themselves and it would take a life event of catastrophic magnitude to spur anyone of the five back into anything that resembles a soldier's life. Partway through the day Natasha had actually started to feel sick at the thought of any of these men having to give up the peace they’d found. She knew that if she continued with her assignment that she’d be the ruin of their peaceful, love-filled lives, and she did not want to be.

She needed to pull the plug on this mission ASAP. It was a failure, and it had gone on long enough.

It’s these thoughts that occupy her mind as Clint pulls into their driveway and reaches over and gives her a knee a gentle squeeze to wake her up, clearly assuming she’d had fallen asleep. Taking her cue from his assumption she feigns waking up from a light doze, blinking the beginnings of sleep out of her eyes. He smiles almost fondly at her before looking over the back of the seat at the puppy pile of children. Reaching back there he manages to gently shake Cooper awake enough that he’d be able to get into the house and up the stairs under his own steam. Natasha helps a half asleep Pietro and Wanda out of the truck, allowing them to prop themselves up against her as they head into the house like wobbly six-legged racers trying to cross the finish line. Clint brings up the rear carrying a fully passed out Lila with Lucky once again trotting at his heels.

She can’t help but think it’s nice that Clint’s confident enough in the isolation of his cabin to leave it unattended and unlocked. It would be aggravating, to say the least, to have to scramble around for a key right now. Instead, Cooper’s able to just pull the door open and thoughtfully hold it open for everyone else then follow them all up the stairs to get himself ready for bed. Natasha doesn’t worry about chidding the twins into brushing their teeth, skipping one night (even with all the sugar they had today) wasn’t going to hurt them that much in the long run. Instead she focuses on getting them changed into their pjs and settled into bed. Clint’s already deposited Lila in her own bed, the sand washed off her beforehand, and has said goodnight to Cooper while she’s only gotten Wanda changed, cleared of sand and up into the top bunk. She’s still working Pietro into his pajamas when Clint gives Wanda a good night kiss on the forehead then says a drive by goodnight to the newly minted ten-year-old boy before heading back downstairs with Lucky. Natasha has poured Pietro into the only remaining bed and is in the process of tucking the covers up under his chin when a small hand darts out to wrap around her wrist:

“Are you gonna leave?” He asks of her, his voice surprisingly strong for all that it’s soften by his recent slumbering.

“No, I’m your mom, I’m not going anywhere,” she answers automatically, taken off guard by the suddenness of his question and finding herself giving the wrong answer. Natasha hides the urge to wince or show in anyway that he could see what she’s thinking right now. Fuck’s sake she could kick herself sometimes.

“Sometimes moms leave,” he insisted, a slight wobble shading his voice. She reaches out smoothing his hair back from his forehead to try and comfort him.

“Well, I guess maybe they do,” she acknowledges his point, thinking of the unnamed brunette woman in their family photos that she’s replaced (both literally and figuratively). Pietro tears up a little at that and his obvious distress over the thought of her leaving pushes her into promising something she knows she can’t give him: “But I’m not gonna to.”

He gives her a tremulous smile at that and she leans in to give him a goodnight kiss.

Clint’s on the couch when she finally makes it down the stairs, Lucky laying down next to him with his head resting in his owner’s lap. And here’s the thing. Natasha’s been watching him with the children for weeks now with their blatant love and affection for each other on constant display and she wants some of it for herself. She had been taught that love was for children because only children would be selfish enough to demand it unconditionally, to believe it to come without expectations or obligations because children (animals) were creatures incable of basic reasoning, according to the Red Room. Well, tonight Natasha would be selfish.

She reaches for Clint as she passes the couch and instinctively he grabs her hand. Not pausing in her forward momentum, because pausing would mean losing her nerve, she pulls him up off of the couch, upsetting Lucky who doesn’t appear all that bothered and tugs the man after her in her wake. She leads him into the master bedroom, kicking the door shut behind them with her foot as she maneuvers Clint in front of her towards the bed. And while the expression in his eyes ask her if she’s knows what she’s doing and if she’s positive that this is what she wants to be doing, he’s smart enough not to open up his mouth and ruin the moment. Instead he just goes with it as she shoves him onto his back on the bed and straddles his lap.

The only time he says anything is when he murmurs her name in a soft exhalation right before she kisses him. It is permission and acceptance, desire and comfort, all at once. She can worry about figuring out how to leave later, for now she has this. And if she can only have it as ‘Talia’, then so be it. Natasha is not above taking whatever he is willing to give.

~***~**~***~

He wakes up the next morning with a warm weight at his side, legs intertwined with his, and the sensation of someone else breathing in a soothing counterpoint to his own. Instinctively Clint knows that whoever it is next to him isn’t one of his kids just like he knows this isn't one of those needlessly cruel and painfully lucid dreams that he sometimes has where Bobbi’s back and they’ve never left Bed-Stuy. Reluctantly, he cracks one eye open to find a riot of red curls amassed at his shoulder and spread out over not just the lower half of his face but his pillow as well. Clint tries to subtly spit hair out of his half-open mouth without waking up Talia. He can’t deny that other than the night of his nightmare when Talia insisted on everyone sharing the big bed, that last night was the best night’s sleep he’d gotten in months.

And that simple fact scares the shit out of him.

Moving slowly, as to not wake her, and touched by how every time he moves away she snuggles closer, Clint inches his way out from underneath Talia’s sleeping form and the blankets then off of the bed. He’s naked aside from a pair of boxers he vaguely remembers grumbling about putting back on, in case one of the kids decides to come wandering in (a quick look back at the bed proves that Talia’s wearing a t-shirt at least), and it doesn’t take him long to throw on a discarded pair of sweatpants and another shirt. Marginally presentable Clint shuffles out into the kitchen to toss together a pot of coffee and something resembling Sunday morning breakfast. He’s hoping that somehow, with coffee and food to sustain him, he can make sense of what happened last night.

Clint’s doesn't know what caused Talia’s sudden change in attitude about affection but he did know that he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth, or, erm, rather a gift heiress in the lap. He had worried that she would find the twins request for a beach party that ended with star gazing - both Pietro and Wanda being equally obsessed with space right now - as too simplistic of a gift. Particularly when compared to the lavish birthday parties she must be accustomed to throwing for herself or her real friends and family. But she had been just as enamored with the idea as the kids. And while she may have scoffed at and seemed skeptical of his preparations, particularly those for s’mores and the inevitable silly string war, Clint could tell that her skepticism was more performative than real. Either he was getting better at reading her, or she was starting to slip up in her act. Honestly, it was a toss up.

What he hadn’t expected was her to like the idea so much that she would fall into bed with him.

Sunday passes in quite domesticity with Talia being more openly physically affection with all of them. He keeps expecting her to revert to the careful dance between playing her role and keeping her distance that she’s maintained since he brought her into the kids’ life, but so far Talia appears to have done away with that filmsly wall entirely. When he settles in for bed on the couch that night he figures that surely that’s it, that’s the line she won’t continue to cross. That the other night after the kids’ party had just been a fluke. But, she pulls him off of it and into the bedroom once more and again he doesn’t fight her decision. After all, in this game of chicken they're playing she’s the one holding all the cards.

Clint just goes along with it, figuring that bumbling along with the flow has served him well enough so far, what’s a little longer going to hurt?

That way of thinking takes him all the way through most of Monday and right up to a stern phone call from the kid’s school requesting his presence in meeting with Vice Principal Sitwell to resolve a disciplinary problem involving his unruly kids. He’d just gotten off that phone call when Bucky stopped him to say Steve called to let Clint know he’d had taken Lila out of his art class and to the nurse’s office because she was covered from head to toe in poison oak. Apparently Steve had tried reaching Talia at home but no one was answering, and he told Buck that if he wasn’t able to get a hold of Clint at the shop or Talia through her mobile then Steve was just going to take Lila home himself as soon as he could get away from work. Feeling torn but knowing that Lila was in good hands, Clint shoots off a quick text to Steve confirming that he’d spoken to Bucky and knew about her poison oak and hoped he’d be able to catch Steve before he left the school with her then headed in that direction to meet with Mr. Sitwell. He has to assume that they called the house as well and got ahold of Talia, which was why she didn’t answer Steve when he tried to get in touch with her.

Clint gets lost on his way to the meeting simply because Sitwell isn’t in his office with Cooper, Pietro, Wanda, and Talia like he expects them to be. Instead they’re off in some classroom that a very bored secretary gives Clint vague directions to. By the time he finally arrives at the supposedly correct classroom he can overhear Sitwell lecturing Talia.

“These tests are very valuable in measuring intelligence and potential and your children consider themselves above taking them. They are a discipline problem! And playing sick – not very convincingly may I add – is just further proof of that.” Sitwell paused there for a breath and Clint frozen in place in the hallway manfully resisted the urge to find the nearest window to jump out of, he could take a wild guess what was coming next. “Now it is my belief that their problems exist because of not only deficient parental guidance but also exposure to men who engage in a questionable lifestyle. The children are incorrigible smart alecks, being reared by a father who clearly isn’t concerned about their welfare, or capable of taking care of them, but is himself just a large child! It’s utterly shameful that an adoption service allowed him to have guardianship over one let alone four children.”

Clint doesn’t know how to react to that. Part of him wants to storm into the classroom and hug the kids while reassuring them that he loves them no matter what. Another part of wants to go rushing in there and give Sitwell, the little weasel, a lesson on exactly why one doesn’t go around pissing off a ex-special forces army sniper that grew up in a circus. However, the majority of him wants to find a hole so deep he’d have to have sunshine expressed in, to hide from the shame he’s suddenly swamped in. He’s so preoccupied with the shame that he doesn’t notice the same secretary that gave him the crappy directions pass him to enter the room and deliver a message to the vice principal.

He does wonder where Talia is in all of this. He’s known her long enough to know it’s not like her to take a lecture like that lying down. Especially one that’s so damnable wrong in so many ways.

“Mr. Sitwell, has it escaped your attention that these children have head to toe poison oak?” Talia’s voice stings like a spider bite and he can just picture her glaring daggers at Sitwell.

“I beg your pardon, no….well yes, but…”

“But WHAT? My children are in need of medical assistance! Yet you sit here and smugly lecture me on the importance of tests? Tests which exist to pigeonhole children’s potential, a thing that cannot possibly be measured, least of all by anal compulsive HUNS! And my husband may be a ‘large child’ but that’s none of your business. As for my children, what right do you have to call them rotten? Just because they’re adopted? What a preposterous reason and a spurious one at that! They are still MINE. And I know that they are bright, and sensitive, so I have no doubts whatsoever about their intelligence. I do however have serious doubts about YOURS!

By the end of her speech Sitwell has been reduced to sitting behind the teacher’s desk and sputtering. Clint only knows this because he’s only just gathered up enough courage to peek around the door frame and look in.

“Come along kids, we’ve got to pick up Lila from Uncle Steve’s art class.”

And that’s Clint’s cue to stop loitering in the hallway. He didn’t care what Bucky said about her being untrustworthy – that right there, going to bat for his kids, made her aces in his book. He couldn’t discredit someone who willingly stepped up to the plate without prompting. Clint only ever had a handful of people that he could count on unconditionally to be there for him and his kids. He didn’t see the harm in adding one more to that list, even though he knew she wouldn’t be staying forever.

And that’s the kicker, Talia won’t be staying. He has no idea how to break that news to the kids. They’ve gotten so attached to her in such a short amount of time that watching her go was going to break their little hearts. That’s the one unforeseen pitfall of this little plan he did not anticipate, which in hindsight he probably should have.

He really should have. They’ve done so well after Bobbi leaving and having “Talia” walk out on them is going to be devastating. With a pained sigh, Clint pulls out his cell phone and dials his number one contact. He knows he’s about to eat a huge slice of humble pie.

“Buck, I’ve made a terrible mistake...help me fix it?”

~***~**~***~

Jasper didn’t really believe the Barton brats when they told him they had a new mother at home, but then he was rarely inclined to believe them to begin with. Still, he called the house and when a woman with a husky voice answered the landline he politely requested her presence. He could only hope that she would be more reasonable than the children’s father or Rogers. Apparently Rogers had already been taken in by the youngest Barton faking sick and had pulled her out of her afternoon classes. The man had even brought his concerns to Principal Hill.

Regretfully, Jasper would have to settle for busting only three out of four, which was better than none. He was looking forward to steamrolling over this mysterious new ‘mother’ and was enjoying watching the older three Barton children squirm in their seats as they waited for her to show.

“Hello, I’m Talia Barton,” the same voice from the earlier phone call greeted him from the doorway. “What have the children done now?”

Jasper looked up from where he was taking great pleasure pinning the squirming children to their seats with power of his gaze alone to find himself face to face with a rusticated Natasha Romanova. The Red Room’s greatest graduate all grown up and wasting away in rural Oregon. A find like this could not go unreported and could very well be Jasper’s ticket back into Pierce's good graces. So caught up in his daydreams about being able to rejoin the ranks of HYDRA and finally gain the prestige that he’s always deserved, Sitwell doesn’t really pay much attention to what he’s saying or what Natasha Romanova says in reply. He just wants her and those damn kids out of the way – he needs to report in.

~***~**~***~

“Oh shit. This is not good.”

“Tony we need a bit more than that.”

“Well, here’s what I can give you Agent. Someone hacked us, and they were actually very nice about it, it was a gentle, small, little targeted hack and they went right for Nat’s files, got what they wanted and left lickety-split. Closed everything up, erased their tracks and were very considerate really. You never would have caught it. That is, if someONE else hadn’t managed to piggyback rather hamfistedly on that hack and thereby leaving a hole in your system big enough for a woolly mammoth to do a cartwheel through.”

“Okay, so what does that mean for us?”

“What it means Sam is that Agent should pull my sister out of whatever mission you have her running ASAP. If the data JARVIS is feeding me is correct, somebody called Lukin has already been told that his star pupil has been rediscovered. Remember the nightmares she had when she was younger? They heavily featured a creep named Lukin . Now that I think about it you might not recall them Agent but I do, and I really don’t want to fucking repeat history here.”

Chapter Text

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She needs to get out. But more importantly, she needs a reason to leave and one that amounts to something more than her inability to handle them. She doesn’t want the kids to think she left because of them. Especially now, after that crap that went down at their school with that dick of a vice principal. Natasha can’t quite put her finger on it, but he gives her the creeps. The point being she cannot have them thinking that her disappearing on them was their fault, when it is entirely her own.

Natasha’s picked up enough, thanks to what was and wasn’t said during the twin’s party when adult beverages started to loosen tongues, to know that the woman’s whose place she’s oh so thoroughly taken had left a sour note behind in her absence. One that each child, as well as Clint, all individually took the blame for. It was a huge thorny tangle, a gorgon’s knot of ever replicating self-doubt really, and evidently, one that Steve had despaired of seeing his friend and family ever climbing out from; that is until Talia had “come around”. And Rogers’ phrasing had been deliberate, Natasha doesn’t doubt that a red flag planted in the sand and meant to act as a single fire that he, at the very least, was on to her. In fact, the more she thought over that particular exchange, the more she came to believe that she was lead to think that Rogers had slipped up under the influence of alcohol. (He might look like an alter boy and incapable of holding up undercover, but she was getting an expertly run practicum that appearances are deceiving in what amounted to just half a day’s worth of interaction. It made her rethink everything she thought she knew about Barton. Particularly in light of the often amused glances the man would send their way every time he caught her and Rogers talking - as if he was in on the joke and just waiting for her to catch on).

Natasha spends the rest of the week wrestling with the idea. Wrecking her brain - between dealing with the kid's onslaught of poison oak, and, to her chagrin, her own - trying to come up with a viable exit strategy. Her preoccupation with the logistics of trying to break away without breaking anyone’s hearts coupled with the desire, but the inability to itch, makes her snippy and impatient.

Thankfully, she has enough presence of mind not to take out her bad temper on the kids. Or around them in any way that they would pick up on it. She has red in her ledger, and being mean to children isn’t going to help it go away.

Oh, they’re aware she’s not entirely happy right now; children are perceptive. She understood that much about children, at least, even before her stint of unexpected motherhood. But they don’t need to know why she’s unhappy and they don’t need to think it’s because of them. It helps that they spend most of the day at school. And it helps even more that the mandate of keeping her isolated appears to have been lifted and she’s free to go into town. It’s amazing how much being able to haggle and hackle with some small town stranger over grocery prices actually improves her mood - something Natasha never expected to discover about herself. Who knew that sometimes it’s helpful to just harmlessly complain about silly things?

Still, that doesn’t mean it stops her from venting some of her spleen on Clint, however. And he seems to accept it as not only his due but a welcome return to the status quo. She’s quite frankly appalled that he would think himself deserving of so little consideration when she’s come to see him as being worthy of anything he could possibly want, and then some. He’s a good man (they all are, really) and the fact that he’s capable of some not so nice things doesn’t negate that fact. (She refuses to apply this logic to herself, no matter what Sam might like her to think.) It’s with that in mind that she does not allow him to return to sleeping on the couch at night - and it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she’s become accustomed to curling up around someone else and drifting off to the sound of his breathing, the steady rhythm of his heartbeat under her ear. At least, that’s what Natasha tells herself.

Feeling a sense of desperation that’s wholly unbecoming for a child of the Red Room, Natasha eventually latches on to the only viable plan she can come up with; the panties. The ones she had been wearing when she took her ill-advised 3am swim and how they were embroidered with her initials; N.S.

(It’s dirty pool but it would be the quickest way to start an argument. Furthermore, one that should lead to enough of a blowout that it would excuse her leaving.)

She finds them tucked into the back corner of a dresser drawer, having been lost in the shuffle of their daily lives. Which, ultimately, plays into her hand perfectly. For they’re balled up and wrinkled shoved in the back corner of Clint’s t-shirt drawer, of all places, as if they were some sort of dirty little secret he was (poorly) attempting to keep from her. Natasha found them on a Tuesday afternoon – just over a week after she decided to leave them – and she leaves them there for her to rediscover later when she’s putting laundry away.

There’s a part of her that feels just a little bit bad about deliberately setting Clint up for getting his bell rung but not enough to not go through with it. It helps that she tells herself that it has become a necessary evil. (Not really, but that’s what she tells herself anyway).

In the process of hunting down the embroidered panties she’s stumbled across a trucker stop hat of a sensible navy with garishly purple lettering that proclaims “Woman Want Me Fish Fear Me” tossed on the top shelf of the standing wardrobe. Believing it to be a useful prop to add fuel to the impending fire she intends to light, Natasha plops it on her head at a jaunty angle. It should get the conversation started in the right direction, that’s for sure.

Besides, the kids are staying after school more often with Steve bringing them home once they're finished. She’ll have at least an hour alone with Clint to hash this out before the kids come home. If Natasha plays her cards right she can be gone without having to put them through watching her leave. She tells herself it’ll be better this way.

Natasha has become accustomed to listening for the sound of the truck crunching gravel as it pulls into the driveway to announce Clint’s return from work and watching for Lucky streaking around towards the front of the house from wherever he was to greet his owner since she cannot rely on Pizza Dog to bark a greeting like any other dog would. She uses that as her cue to start putting away the laundry that she’d already done and sorted – and how pleased had she been to discover that the shuttered barn doors under the stairs open up to reveal a fully functional washer and dryer within her first week of living in Barton’s cabin? Far more excited than Natasha thought she had any right to be, particularly for someone who’s become accustomed to living as a Stark where there’s a service for that – Natasha’s in perfectly situated in the master bedroom when Clint waltzes into the house all whistle-ly and unsuspecting.

“Talia! Was thinking we could leave the kids with Stevie and Buck for the night then go out for dinner. I know it’s a Monday but that just means the restaurant shouldn’t be crowded, whaddya say?” He finishes standing in the bedroom doorway, a goofy, crooked grin on his face and a hopeful light in those piercing blue-green eyes.

Feeling an intense surge of irritation at him for his expression, at his attempt at a mediocre romantic gesture and, more importantly, at herself for more than a handful of nights spent curled up with him in the same bed that led to him believing that such a gesture would be appreciated, perhaps even reciprocated, Natasha abandons her carefully crafted opening line and hurls the panties at his head instead.

Clint doesn’t even have the decency to allow them to hit them in his face to satisfy her anger but instead catches them mid-air inches from his nose, lazily ducking his neck to one side to avoid getting hit. “What are these?”

“Shouldn’t I be asking you that? Who’s N.S. Clint? And why do you have their panties?” She demands hands on her hips, the perfect picture of an affronted housewife. A myriad of emotions chase themselves across his features at her questions, chief among them is amusement and she could’ve told him that that was the wrong track to take but she wants to fight with him right now. That’s the whole point of this pointless exercise.

“Calm down, honey, you’re making a big deal out of a little thing.” He attempts to placate her and again that’s the wrong move. If she had been really mad at him that would have only infuriated her further; there’s nothing more provoking than being told to calm down when you’re genuinely angry and the person you’re upset with is refusing to hear you out.

“Don’t tell me to ‘calm down’. There’s nothing ‘little’ about this! It’s the number one cause of divorce.”

“Divorce? What divorce? What exactly are you saying Talia?”

“I’m saying what I’m saying,” as comebacks go it wasn’t very strong and was rather nonsensical; but then again, nonsense sometimes seemed to be the best way to get through to Clint.

“You’re saying what you’re saying! And that’s that you want a divorce?” He reiterated for her and Natasha nodded her agreement. Clint then drew breath to say something more and Natasha fearing that he would object further or say something else to derail their argument rushed to continue speaking before he could.

“I can get a divorce if I want to, you know. I don’t need your permission. In fact, I don’t even have to tell you, just file the paperwork and have you served – end of story. Was she worth this? Do you love her? Do you? Tell me.”

“Honestly? Yes and no.”

And that answer leaves her feeling so off-kilter that she involuntarily takes a step back to try and distance herself from both the argument and Clint, blinking rapidly to recover her sense of equilibrium. To say she didn’t expect that would be an understatement. Truthfully, she’s not sure what prompted her to ask that particular question and going by the slightly dazed look hovering around the corner of Clint’s eyes he hadn’t expected to answer like that either. But his expression quickly firms into one of resolve and his jaw tightens with determination and before Natasha has fully recovered her own bearings Clint’s speaking again.

“And, of course, you can have a divorce, Talia. You’ve always been free to leave whenever you wanted to – ideally this was meant to last until death do us part but I’m not going to keep you here against your will. Just...before you go there’s something you should know,” he pauses there to rub rather sheepishly at his neck, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Actually, I’m glad this happened, I’ve been tryin’ to figure out a way to tell you this since the twins’ birthday. N.S. is you. These belong to you and we’re not really married.”

He’s giving her exactly what she wants, a way out of this, on a silver platter by calling an audible and putting an end to this entire charade but Natasha’s brain is screaming at her abort, abort, ABORT!! And all she can think to do is to dig her heels in and double down. Therefore she completely, willfully, ignores his confession.

“What’s her name? Natalie? Nora?”

“Honey, I’m not your husband, you’re not my wife, and these aren’t your kids!” He practically shouts and that’s how Natasha knows she’s pushed Clint right up to the line of what he can tolerate and maybe directly over it. She’s come too far now to back off, even though common decency tells her that now's the time to pull back. Clint’s always been adamant about not denying the children a sense of security, yet here he is insisting that she acknowledge that she has no parental rights when it comes to the kids.

It’s possible the situation could be salvaged if she took his offer of the truth, but she’s become so accustomed to dealing in falsehoods over the years that she no longer believes in the power of the truth to set her free.

There’s a small gasp from somewhere over Clint’s shoulder and he whips around to come face to face with a crowd of shocked little faces. Behind them, standing uncertainty in a few feet inside the front door, Steve is chewing on his bottom lip out of embarrassment. ‘Sorry,’ he mouths over the heads of the children then motions towards the kitchen holding up bags of takeout.

Dad!?!” Cooper exclaims scandalized.

“Why would you say that?” Pietro follows up with the girls nodding furiously in unison.

“Because it’s the truth,” Clint snaps back harshly. It’s the first time she’s seen him actively lose his temper with the kids, usually, he’s painstakingly patient with them even in the face of situations that would make any reasonable person want to rip their hair out by the roots. Natasha knows it's a hard-won patience, she’s witnessed Clint venting his frustrations where the kids can’t see him – there’s a very good reason why there’s a dartboard on the back porch, and it’s not just for when Barnes comes over.

“Don’t speak to my children that way!” Natasha chastises him, referring more to his tone of voice than what he’s saying. She sweeps pass him then taking the offending item of clothing out of his unresisting hands and ushers Lila and Wanda ahead of her out of the doorway. As she passes the boys she catches them signing rapidly to their father out of the corner of her eye;

“We won’t let you ruin everything” and “We’re keeping her” in quick succession. Natasha doesn’t turn around to see what Clint signs in response but the noises of general frustration she hears coming from all three of the Barton men tells her that nothing is resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. It also tells her that she’s really gone and fucked it all up and as shitty as it would have been, she might have just been better off slipping away in the middle of the night. With that pleasant thought weighing on her mind, she sends the girls upstairs to drop off their book bags and get washed up for dinner. Natasha then makes her way into the kitchen hoping she can make use of Rogers as a sympathetic ear, having had him be an unexpected witness to their fight. There’s no way he and the children overhead everything, but they overheard enough and that’s all Natasha needs.

“Talia, I’m so sorry. I did send a text to say we were on our way home with dinner, but I guess you guys didn’t get it,” Steve immediately apologizes, rising up from where he was sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by Chinese takeout boxes. And for a man over six feet tall, he looked like a small child himself just then. “If I’d known it wasn’t a good time, I would have taken the kids to my place. I know you and Clint don’t like them witnessing you fighting.”

That wasn’t a detail Natasha had been aware of, but it made sense knowing Clint. She waved her hand in a vague dismissing gesture pushing his apology aside. “I appreciate that Steve, truly, but right now I’m more interested in knowing who owns these,” she finishes holding out the panties for his inspection.

“Where’d you find those?” He asks and she’s impressed that he manages to do so with a straight face and minimal stumbling over his words. He does, however, blush furiously. She had learned pretty damn quick after officially meeting him that while Steve could be surgical in planning and following through a strategy, he couldn’t lie his way out of a wet paper bag. Which makes what occurs next pretty damn shocking.

“Shoved in his drawer like a dirty secret, but that’s not important. Who is N.S. and what does she mean to Clint?”

“Talia…”

“Tell me everything, be honest.”

“Talia, uh…. That’s my underwear, I mean N.S. is me. It’s a nickname Buck has for me.” Steve’s face is so red Natasha wagers she could fry an egg on it, but that’s nothing compared to the shock and secondhand embarrassment she’s feeling herself. Calmly Steve reaches out and takes the panties from her unresisting hands and pockets them. “I suppose you still don’t remember, but our washer and dryer broke down a while back and Buck borrowed yours to do some laundry. Guess he forgot something,” he explains, offering a shy little smile that morphs into a cheeky grin, offering her a chance to join in on the joke. “Thanks for finding these. Been lookin’ for ‘em.”

“Too far Rogers,” she admonishes him still shocked that he managed to spin that particular tall tale without batting an eye. She then does a double take realizing that she probably just learned more than she had ever wanted to know about Barnes’ and Rogers’ sex life. Natasha cannot believe that this little shit just spoon fed her that story and therefore her next remark comes out as more of an accusation than she wants to admit.

“You’re not really a boy scout, are you?”

“Talia, I’m from Brooklyn.” And it's only then that he sounds like a scandalized granny.

And with that, her plan to start a fight and engineer a break-up with Clint is utterly dead in the water. Natasha isn’t really sure how to feel about it, truth be told. The conversation over dinner is focused upon damage control and reassuring the kids that everything is fine. That sometimes moms and dads fight but that doesn’t mean that they stop loving each other or stop being a family.

It’s a short-lived reprieve.

They’ve barely finished cleaning up from dinner and Steve’s only just left when there’s a knock on the door. Clint goes to answer it and Natasha can hear raised voices from where she’s taking the kids through the bedtime routine upstairs.

“You can’t just barge in here,” Clint’s snarl floats up to them perfectly clear and whomever he’s speaking with reply is drowned out by a harsh mocking laugh and Clint’s snide comment; “Yeah, well you left her and now you care? How convenient for you.”

Two guesses who’s at the door and I’ll only need one; Natasha snarks to herself. She urges the kids to stay upstairs and continue getting ready for bed, but she knows it’s a lost cause before she even begun. They’re each just as curious as their father and the second her back is turned they’ll be scheming up a way to sneak down after her. Nat makes it to the bottom the stairs without being noticed by either Clint or Sam, both of them being too busy glaring at each other to bother paying attention to their surroundings. Knowing that she’s about to shatter the little idyllic life Barton’s built for himself and his children, Natasha takes a deep breath, squares her shoulders and greets her partner. She’s hyper aware of the four little bodies hovering behind her on the staircase and can’t bring herself to hold Clint’s gaze after one brief look proves that he already knows this is the end.

“Hello Sam.”

......

She leaves.

She doesn’t want to leave. But she doesn’t think she can stay. She’s not sure if she could stay and continue with this charade without breaking her own heart in the end. And that is something Natasha will not allow. There’s no doubt in her mind that she’d survive it. Natasha can survive a lot and already has in her life, but that does not mean she has to be the instrument of her own heartbreak.

But who is she kidding? After everything she’s pulled tonight alone the best option for everyone, at this point, is leaving.

So she goes with Sam, knowing that it’s past time for her ‘cake-walk’ mission to come to an end, even as she’s regretting it’s ending. Which is ridiculous really, for fuck’s sake, she just tried to get Barton to end this farce, there’s absolutely no logical reason for her to be so upset. Yet here she is, staring morosely out of the back window of the limo at the fading image of the Barton homestead like some lovestruck teenage girl.

“I would have left you with them if I could,” Fury tells her from his spot in the back of the limo. And really, bringing a limo to pick her up? Did they really have to continue using the trappings of their cover story when an SUV would have been more practical?

“It was time for me to leave,” she deflects, still preoccupied with the way Pietro had stormed off back into the house after yelling at Clint. She hadn’t heard what he said, Tony’s soundproofing was too good, but from the look on Clint’s face the ten-year-old did not hold anything back and went right for the throat. Part of her desperately wanted to be able to follow Pietro into the house and try to fix whatever had upset him or to stay with Clint and reassure him that despite whatever vitriol his son had just spat out at him he wasn’t a bad father. The rest of her understood that that was exactly what she couldn't do, not if the codeword Sam had given her was based on any accurate intel.

Natasha had known that leaving the kids could hurt them but she hadn’t wanted to think about what that would actually mean.

“I’ve overstayed my welcome,” she continued, finding it hard to believe that it had really been just six weeks ago that Clint was lecturing her for daring to claim the kids weren’t hers. She wants to believe that that’s true, but she knows that there will always be a part of her that belongs there in that cabin with Clint Barton and his children. But love is for children.

“Natasha,” Sam tries to console her, but knows better than to reach out to her. She cuts a look to him where he sits next to her. He takes the hint but it does nothing to dampen the concern clearly showing on his face.

“Were you happy?” Fury asks, and her gaze cuts over to him, letting him know just what she thinks of such a stupid question. Nick does not have the good grace to wince.

“Does it matter? Love is for children.”

The rest of the limo ride back to the marina is silent. When they arrive she knows that Fury will expect a full debrief and Natasha heads him off at the pass by mulishly, childishly even, stealing herself away in her cabin and refusing to leave it until she feels as though she has her emotions under control.

She doesn’t emerge for another day and a half.

~***~**~***~

Clint and Bucky were away at group when it went down, that’s the real kicker. They’re already all bent out of shape thanks to Talia - Natasha - deciding to up and leave without any consideration for the kind of devastation she’s left in her wake. And okay, Clint’s not innocent here. He knows he’s more than partially at fault. He created the situation after all, and while he had explained to the kids that it was meant to be nothing more than an elaborate game of make-believe, he hadn’t accounted for them developing genuine feelings for their pretend mother. Which really, was stupid on his part. Then when he realized the danger - too late - he hadn’t acted fast enough to spare their little hearts from being stomped on. It’s Bobbi all over again and he’s only got himself to blame.

Pietro is rightfully furious with him. While Wanda appears to be reserving judgment while obstinately taking her twin’s side. Lila, sweet, sweet Lila, is just confused and trying to put on a brave face about it. And Cooper, Cooper who remembers all too well how disappointing fathers can be - that was about the only kind of example Barney ever managed to set - and how easy it is for mothers to leave appears to be just resigned to his lot in life. No mother and a couple of disappointments for fathers. Not for the first time since he’s come home, but for the first time since he’s moved everyone to the West Coast, Clint gives serious thought to wondering if he should have given the kids up. They need stability in their lives and a better role model than what he’s currently able to provide. He spends a good chunk of group giving voice to his fears and concerns about his ability to be a suitable parent and the rest of his time in his individual session with Howlett hashing things out until he once again feels like he’s up for the job.

It’s a good thing he’s regained his equilibrium and decided that yes he is their father by the time they leave Portland and head back towards Elk Cove because once he gets home it all shatters. Clint quickly finds himself living a parent’s worst nightmare.

Buck pulls up to the house in his truck and parks it in the driveway next to Clint’s, just like always. They take Bucky’s truck into Portland since Clint doesn’t like to drive on highways after that IED. He does okay driving around Elk Cove and within the immediate five-mile radius outside of town, but anything beyond that is too far outside of his comfort zone. Which is actually considerable progress, all things considered, since just a few months ago he’d been in Brooklyn and swearing that public transportation was the only means of transportation he’d willingly use for the rest of his natural born days.

So far everything is copacetic with their two trucks in the driveway and Buck giving him a tired but encouraging smile before exiting the cab. With a huff, Clint does the same. Except he trips on the way out over his own two feet and nothing but air. And really, isn’t that just typical?

“Whatcha doing Clint? Inspecting the quality of your gravel?” Bucky drawls, his words heavy with amusement.

“Hardy har, har, Buck, you’re a regular comedian,” Clint snaps back raising himself up on to his hands and knees but pausing there when he notices another set of tread marks in the gravel of his driveway, and a few telltale signs of a struggle: drag marks and shuffled footprints.

“Seriously Hawkeye,” Bucky mocks still not seeing what Clint’s seeing, “what’s so fascinating down there?”

Barnes,” he growls, somehow managing to keep the panic out of his voice. “Howl.”

The change in Bucky is instantaneous. He snaps to attention like he’s back in Afghanistan on the lookout for enemy combatants, eyes narrowing and scanning their surroundings for any sign of danger. Once he’s visually secured the perimeter he reaches down and hauls Clint up by the collar of his shirt, getting him up on his feet before reaching into the bed of his truck to open the locked gun safe there that masquerades as a metal toolbox. Bucky flicks the safety off and nods to Clint, indicating that he should stay behind him. Together, moving in a formation practiced from years of orchestrating raids, they approach the front door from the side and using as much cover as they could find, being sure to duck below the sightline of the cabin’s windows. They both instinctively avoid the squeaky boards as they step up onto the front porch, and it's obvious once they get closer that the front door had been kicked in.

Clint may no longer feel comfortable handling a gun but that doesn’t mean he’s about to go into this unarmed. Feeling a cold fury, unlike anything he’s known before he reaches up to the small of his back and pulls out his hidden butterfly knife. If anything has happened to his children, Clint will have no issues with closing the distance needed for the up close and personal attack a knife requires. His children are supposed to be safe. The ugliness of the world was never supposed to touch them. That was the promise he had made himself in the middle of the night, long before he had been discharged home when he needed a reason to keep going; this would never touch his children. But now someone dared to bring this particular brand of nasty into his house, where his children were supposed to be safe from harm.

Clint would not allow it.

Bucky entered the cabin first, clearing the main room then moving to clear the kitchen, downstairs bath, and master bedroom before heading up the stairs to the loft. In order to get up there, however, they have to step over the wreckage of what had once been the heavy walnut coffee table Gabe had made Clint as a housewarming gift. Clint stayed on Bucky’s heels, guarding his friend’s six, but that did not stop him from noticing all the signs of struggle: broken and overturned furniture, and smears of blood. It was the blood smeared across the wall halfway up the stairs that captured Clint’s attention and froze him in his tracks.

“No one’s here,” Bucky announced, stomping back halfway down the stairs before gently taking Clint by the elbow and guiding him down them the rest of the way. Together they stood in the middle of the utter destruction that had once been Clint’s cozy, yet chaotic, family room.

Clint didn’t bother to answer him. Bucky had a knack for stating the obvious and Clint could honestly do without it.

“Clint -”

The sound of another vehicle pulling into the gravel drive cuts Bucky off before he could make the mistake of voicing some sort of empty platitude. He doesn’t want to hear it, he just wants his kids back.

Without needing to discuss it, they take up positions on either side of the front door, Bucky with his gun raised and Clint with his knife, both waiting to jump whoever it is that walks through the door. Luckily they hear the new ‘intruder’ long before they make the mistake of jumping first and asking questions later. At the sound of Lila’s delighted laughter, Clint feels the tightness in his chest that had taken over when he was still nose first in the gravel loosen. His baby girl wouldn’t laugh like that if she didn’t feel safe.

“Put it away,” he hisses at Buck, suiting action to words and putting away his own weapon before he’s barreling out and down the front steps. Bucky follows him a second or two behind, tucking his gun into the back waistband of his jeans and pulling the front door shut behind him. Unlike Clint, he stays up on the porch deliberately blocking access to the house. The kids don’t need to see that mess.

“Hey, why we all out here?” Gabe demands standing in the driveway, one arm draped over Cooper’s shoulder and Lila dangling off of the other one. Jim is just a step or two behind them studying both Clint and Bucky suspiciously.

“You only have Cooper and Lila with you? Where’s Pietro and Wanda?” Clint demands.

“Where’s Steve?” Bucky adds.

When they had left for Portland they’d left Steve watching the kids and harping on about half-formed plans to call up Gabe and have him take them down to Morita’s joint for some bowling. The kids had been thrilled at the idea of bowling on a school night like they were getting away with something major.

“Pietro wasn’t feeling well, said he just wanted to stay home and watch a movie but these two were hyped up for bowling and Steve said that they didn’t have to stay just because Pietro wanted to. And you know Wanda, she won’t leave Pietro’s side without a crowbar pulling them apart,” Gabe explains, keeping his tone even. “So Cap called me up, asked if I wouldn’t mind taking the big guy here and little miss down to the bowling alley while he stayed behind with the twins. Figured I’m always up for some bowling so I came and got ‘em and off we went.”

“And that’s the last you saw them?”

“Yeah, but Steve was texting us until just a little while ago and everything was a-okay,” Jim replied.

“Well, they sure as shit ain’t now,” Buck growls, stomping back inside Clint’s cabin.

Clint sighs heavily and somehow resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Okay,” he addresses Jim and Gabe. “Who would like to continue watching Cooper and Lila until everything gets sorted – preferably somewhere else – and who would like to help me deal with papa Bucky Bear in there having a meltdown? Any takers? Don’t everybody raise their hands all at once.”

“I’ll take the kiddos,” Jim volunteers. “Kate and America are still staying with me and back on the other side of town should be far enough away from whatever is happening here.”

“Coop, Lila-bean, whaddya say? Sleepover with Katie-Kate and Ameri-bear at Uncle Jimbo’s?” Clint asks and he doesn’t need to look at either Gabe’s raised eyebrow or Jim’s crooked frown to know he laid it on thick with the nicknames there.

He’s fucking stressing the fuck out right now. It's all he can do not to pull a Barnes and throw a hissy fit, what with his mind running a mile a minute and spinning every single possible worst case scenario he can think of. In fact, asking them about a sleepover is the first time he’s been able to bring himself to look at Cooper and Lila with enough confidence to know he won’t break down into hysterics and potentially traumatize them further.

None of them were stupid, they’re all ex-special ops for fuck’s sake, and they had read those SHIELD files the second Bucky got ahold of them. They were keenly aware of exactly who it was they’d let into their lives. Moreover, what kind of risk they were running by allowing Natasha Stark aka Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow to stick around. It’s not a choice that Clint’s about to second guess or regret.

He doubts any of them are, really. After all, they understand better than most that one's actions and life choices are not always a clear indication of the kind of person an individual is – there are always extenuating circumstances and second chances are a very real thing. It’s when someone continues to spit in your face after you’ve given them a chance to do better that you have the right to turn your back on them – case in point, Barney, but as always Barney’s a different matter.

“Sure, Dad,” Cooper agrees easily, doing an amazing job of keeping a brave face and not seeming worried. Clint gives him a swift, but hard, hug for that. Lila nods her agreement and Clint gives her a hug of her own. He’s just turned back around to head back inside when Cooper asks a question that makes him freeze.

“Dad, what about Lucky?”

“Oh, buddy, don’t you go worrying about ol’ Pizza Dog, he’ll turn up just fine. That’s why we gave him the best name there is, remember?” Clint tells him rustling up a reassuring smile from somewhere. Cooper gives him a tumultuous smile in return and Clint hugs both him and Lila once more.

“C’mon kiddos, I texted Kate,” Jim says as he coaxes them back towards his car. “She and America already have a movie picked out for you to watch and the popcorn going. We just have to stop at the store for some candy.”

Clint waits until the car has pulled out of the driveway and he can only feel Gabe at his back before speaking again. “If the bastards who’ve taken my kids and my Captain also killed my dog, Gabe, I’m gonna gut them like the spineless fish they are. Got it?”

“Got it,” Gabe agreed, his voice just as hard as Clint’s. “I’ll hold Barnes back so that you can have first crack at ‘em. Deal?”

“Deal.”

~***~**~***~

Natasha would like to say she’s surprised to find Tony waiting for her when she finally deems humanity worthy of her company, but then that would imply a fundamental misunderstanding of her brother, his separation anxiety, and latent abandonment issues. It’s a misunderstanding that she hasn’t personally entertained in years, and she’s expecting to be overwhelmed by the whirlwind of his personality from the moment she sees him, but she’s not expecting the hug. In retrospect, she should have.

“I see you’ve survived your sojourn in the back of the beyond,” he quips trying to be blasé in the face of his worry. “How’d you like roughing it?”

“No different from any other mission.”

“Sure.” His tone is heavy with disbelief and his gaze over the rim of his ever-present sunglasses is judgmental, to say the least. “And how many of those missions come equipped with cute little rugrats guaranteed to pull at your heartstrings, proving once and for all that the big bad Widow does have feelings?”

“Statistically speaking,” Sam pipes up, “not many.”

“Shut up Sam.”

“No Sam, please do continue,” Tony encourages her soon to be ex-partner, whipping out his cell phone and pulling up photos of the Barton children. Again, it's another thing that she shouldn’t be taken off guard by but is, even though she knows Tony and she knows that he’s incapable of keeping his nose out of anyone else’s business. “I’d really like your opinion on these little munchkins because if scuttlebutt is to be believed there’s a good chance they might become my future nieces and nephews.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself Tony,” Natasha cautions him through gritted teeth. It ends up sounding more like a threat than a friendly warning. She’s very much not in the mood for this particular aspect of Tony’s teasing.

“Oh, no Tony,” he quips back, “do get ahead of yourself.”

“Would you two like some privacy?” Riley attempts to offer. An offer which both of the Stark siblings shoot down with a resounding ‘NO!’ before resuming their argument and causing Riley to put his hands up in surrender. Not that they really seem to notice him much after that; not that they notice much of anything really once they really get going with an argument.

“Remember baby, what’ve I told you, it’s like trying to get in-between the T-Rex and Spinosaurus during the boss battle at the end of Jurassic Park III when these two disagree – you just don’t do it. Let’m duke it out on their own,” Sam cautions his (actual) husband in a stage whisper that was meant to be overheard. Natasha catches him smirking wide enough to split his face out of the corner of her eye but doesn’t bother to turn to scold him for it. All of her considerable attention is focused on Tony. If anyone out of the five of them present is going to give her the information she wants and quickly, it will be her brother.

“But who’s the T-Rex?” Riley asks with faux innocence as if they haven't run some variation of this particular act a thousand times before. Coulson and Fury have sensibly gone and gotten themselves coffee and settled into comfortable chairs to wait for the children to tire themselves out with their own nonsense.

Tony, distracted by their side conversation, looks away from Natasha just long enough to interject – no doubt to comment, once again, on how unrealistic it was to portray the existence of Spinosaurus at the same time as a Tyrannosaurus Rex, he doesn’t care if it was a Hollywood summer blockbuster – when Natasha grabs him by the jaw and yanks his head back around.

“The one who’s winning, of course,” Sam answers Riley at the same time Natasha demands:

“Why did you really pull me out of there?”

And predictably, at least, when it comes to her asking, Tony cracks like a cheap pinata.

“We were hacked. By Barnes. They know who you are,” he answers in quick socato bursts of information.

“I should think so,” and really, her lack of concern shouldn’t have been surprising to everyone else but for some reason it is. “I introduced myself to Barton as Natasha Stark. If they couldn’t put two and two together and come up with you then how the ever living hell did they ever manage to rescue you in the first place?”

It’s a valid question, and not exactly the one they need to be concerned with right now. But it's the one she wants them focused on. Regrettably, it’s a tactic that no one seems willing to play along with.

“No, Nat. What Tony meant was that they know about you being a SHIELD agent,” Sam clarifies and she merely shrugs at that.

“They’ve known I was up to something from the very beginning.”

“Alright, well you might be all zen about this, Tasha,” Tony snaps patience obviously at its limit and it's then that she starts to take things seriously. “But Barnes’ hack – and once I find out how he did it, by the way, we’ll be having words, lots and lots of words – paved the way for someone else to get into our system. He didn’t exactly leave the back door wide open but he definitely left it vulnerable.”

“Who got in?”

“HYDRA,” Fury answers her. “What’s more you were made about eight days ago. Stark was able to track the communication to confirm it. We just don’t know who in town blew your cover and decided to bring you in rather than risk anything else.”

Eight days ago… That would have been when she had to go into school and collect the kids from Sitwell who accused them of faking having poison oak.

“I know who,” she snarls. At that moment, Natasha can’t decide what she’s more upset about: the fact that Sitwell ratted her out to HYDRA or that a Neo-Nazi sympathizer was around her children. She had been overly generous when she referred to him as a Hun.

“How do you know? I’m still untangling the encryption on their communications – and by I, I mean JARVIS.”

She’s about to answer him when the phone in the main cabin rings. Everyone turns as one to stare at it, flabbergasted by the sound. They all then stare at each other as if daring the other to be the one to answer the phone. No one seems willing to take up the challenge. The vintage rotary dial brass and wooden phone had never once rung the entire time it’s been installed in the yacht. That doesn’t mean that Tony hadn’t prepared for an eventuality like this, however, and as it continued to ring without answering it was soon picked up by JARVIS.

“Romanoff.”

A voice growls through the phone connection and although she has yet to hear that particular register from him, it’s very obviously the voice of Bucky Barnes – she can’t quite mistake that gruff annoyance for anyone else. With one word everything goes rather spectacularly to shit. Well….. more than it has already.

Chapter Text

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Steve comes to slowly. The taste of blood in his mouth and a soreness to his muscles reminiscent of a full beat down that suggests he either (a) took one hell of a beating, (b) was tazed or (c) both of them happened. Judging from the amount of blood he’s just swallowed to clear his windpipe he’s going to go with option C. Groaning, Steve holds his sore head in his hands and tries not to feel too sorry for himself. He’s not really sure what’s going on right now but he does know one thing - if any harm came to his niece and nephew there’s going to be hell to pay. But first, he has to figure out exactly where the kids are, and how they’re being held, before he can rain down hellfire on whoever it was that took them.

He remembers making it off of the roof and onto the ground, seeing Lucky passed out (he hopes) on the back porch and sneaking off into the woods, seeing the flicker of the security light above his garage through the trees, then feeling like he got hit in the head with a ton of bricks. He doesn’t remember much after that.

The muffled sound of someone trying not be heard crying captures Steve’s attention and he whips his head around - too fast ow - to try and track down the source of the sound. Would their captors really be that stupid? And the answer is yes, yes they would be. In the back corner of the cell huddled together are Pietro and Wanda, clinging tight to each other for comfort and Steve could just about crow with glee. Throwing them all together in the same cell is only going to make his job about 1000 times easier. His focus now is getting the kids the fuck out of wherever the hell they are. Retribution can wait.

“Hey kiddos,” he greets them with a closed mouth grin. The only reason he’s not smiling full on is that he knows it’d be a bloody one and he doesn’t need to frighten the kids any more than they already have been tonight.

Stevie!” They exclaim in unison unwinding themselves to tackle him in a bear hug. He opens his arms wide for them and allows them to jump all over him not showing how much it hurts because he knows just how badly they need the reassurance right now.

“Those bad men brought us here and took you away somewhere,” Pietro explained.

“You were barely awake, and we couldn’t tell where they took you, but we could hear yelling,” Wanda picked up the thread of his explanation.

“Then they brought you back and we couldn’t wake you up! And they kept laughing,” Pietro concluded.

“Well I’m awake now. Whaddya say we get outta here?”

~***~**~***~

Luckily for them, whoever the fuck they were, they did not kill Lucky.

Clint and Gabe came across the dog passed out cold on the back porch when they walked the outside perimeter of the cabin. There was a pile of half-eaten ground hamburger next to him with a familiar looking crushed pink pill in it and judging by the way Lucky was snoring heavily they concluded that the mysterious attackers had crushed up Benadryl into the cooked hamburger and left it for Lucky to find.

“Aww, Lucky, no,” Clint can’t help but murmur even as he squats down and gets Gabe to help him maneuver the drugged dog into his arms so that they can bring him into the cabin. Poor guy couldn’t’ve resisted a treat like that. Still, Clint would much rather have him stuck sleeping off spiked hamburger than find him dead. He follows Gabe into the kitchen and the main room to settle Lucky on the couch. He’s about to yell for Bucky – whose disappeared who knows where and should be done with his little tantrum by now, even if said tantrum seemingly involved righting some of the furniture – only to turn around and find him staring at a note pinned to the desk by a quivering knife. After exchanging a quick look of concern with Gabe, they both move towards the desk to hover one over each of Bucky’s shoulders.

IF YOU WANT YOUR FRIEND AND HIS CHILDREN BRING US THE WIDOW

Underneath that politely worded and informative request there are directions to an old, mostly abandoned, logging camp halfway between Elk Cove and Portland. Clint’s familiar with it, they pass it everytime they take the trip into Portland for either VA meetings or more elaborate family outings, like a trip to the zoo.

“Oh, because that’s not foreboding at all,” Gabe mutters sarcastically borrowing one of JJ’s favorite sayings because unlike any other scenario JJ’s liable to use it in, this time it actually fits.

“We’re gonna need reinforcements,” Bucky grunts out, his voice one hundred percent that of Sgt. James Barnes.

“Oh, is that why you’re standing around here like a living statue?” Clint jokes poking him in the side. He’s on his last nerve trying to stave off panic of his own, so he jokes, sue him. “Make the goddamn call Winter, if they haven’t already figured out the game was up from the word ‘go’ then they ain’t worth the paycheck.”

“Seriously, man,” Gabe nods his agreement pulling out his own phone. “Call ’em in.”

“What are you doing?” Bucky asks watching Gabe as he starts to dial even as he moves back towards the couch and its four-legged occupant.

“Calling the emergency vet, FitzSimmons owes me a solid. I betcha I can have them out here to keep an eye on Lucky’s vitals before you can convince big bad SHIELD to give us the time of day.”

Clint leaves them to their bickering, trusting them to do what needs doing despite the childish back and forth. If he’s about to go storming the castle to rescue his children and his friend – and make no mistakes about it, that’s exactly what he’s going to do – then he’s going to need a weapon and a gun just won’t cut it. He heads straight for the back left panel of the wardrobe and hits the hidden catch to release the compartment and retrieve his bow and quiver. By the time he gets back out to the main room Bucky is already hanging up the phone and scowling at it like he wishes he could reach through it to strangle whoever he was talking to on the other end.

“What’s the verdict?” Clint asks dumping his quiver on the kitchen table to check over his equipment.

“They’re sending a team out,” Gabe tells him from as Bucky goes stomping out of the back door, grumbling to himself.

“Off to get his guns.” It was more of a statement than a question and Gabe merely nodded in reply. It didn’t take long for Bucky to return looking loaded for bear and with extra besides to equip Gabe. By the time SHIELD shows up ready to try and take over, like they are liable to do, Bucky had already discovered old blueprints for the abandoned logging camp and had them spread out over the kitchen table for the three of them to pour over and organize an infiltration plan. The SHIELD team that shows up consists of Talia - or rather Natasha, since that is her real name, the husband and the pool boy, the butler from the yacht (which well done there SHIELD, Clint never once seriously suspected him as a plant for a government agency), and last but not least, Tony Stark.

Clint had known that he’d been in over his head basically since day one, and the reality of that had only been brought home to him the day Bucky finally cracked SHIELD’s firewall and they discovered the truth of ‘Talia’ aka Natasha Stark aka Natasha Romanov. He knew that he was on the clock and dancing to someone else’s timetable. The only thing he hadn’t know, couldn’t anticipate, was that he’d actually, truly, start to fall for her in the scant six weeks he’d known her. But that’s kind of always been Clint’s problem. He gets attached, despite how many times he’s only ended up disappointed. So far, the only ones who haven’t disappointed him have been the Raiders, the Howlies, and his kids. It's not much, but its family.

Part of him can’t help but search Natasha’s expression for any signs of more than professionalism when she briefly glances his way. But her face is nothing more than a polite mask of concern, the type that any well-meaning adult might feel for a couple of missing children, hey - they might as well be perfect strangers as far as she’s concerned. And that’s how he knows how much of an ass he’s truly made of himself. This whole damn thing had fiasco written all over it from start to finish.

~***~**~***~

“So they took Captain Wonder Bread and two of the mini-Bartons?” Tony announces his presence by barging in and summing things up in a succinct but obnoxious way. Natasha fights the urge to roll her eyes but does note how neither Barnes, Barton, or Jones seem even remotely phased by him. Which speaks volumes about just how familiar they’d gotten with Tony and how he operates during their days of captivity and the subsequent rescue operation.

“Thanks for giving us the heads up fellas, we’ll take it from here,” he subsequently dismisses them nose already buried in his phone preoccupied with using JARVIS to no doubt try and track any vehicles that have come and gone from the property via traffic cameras and satellite feed if he can get a hold of it. Nat knows he's coming from a good place, that in reality, Tony wants to solve the problem for them so that he can return the favor they did him all those years ago, but it comes off as condescending, at best, and infantilizing, at worst.

“Appreciate the offer, Stark, but we can handle it.” Barnes grounds out fists flexing.

“No trouble, no trouble, seriously guys you’ve been out of the game for a while. Best just leave it to the professionals,” Tony attempts to reassure him looking up from his phone long enough to favor them all with a cheshire grin and a wink over the rim of his rose-colored glasses.

Natasha isn’t even aware of Barton’s hand moving, not until after there’s a knife quivering in the wall just to the right of Tony’s nose. She whips around to glare at him and he merely shrugs nonchalantly under the weight of it. “He had a fly hovering by his nose,” Barton says by way of explanation, “don’t believe me, check.”

“I think we’re professional enough,” Jones remarks coolly, “and we already have an infiltration plan in place. So if we’re done with the metaphorical dick measuring contest and you children have decided that you can share, c’mon over here and we’ll discuss it. See, because we happen to be nice like that.”

Natasha waits until everyone else has gone to hover around the kitchen table before pulling the knife out of the wall. Sure enough there on the tip of the blade, slightly smeared now thanks to its collision with the wall, is a dead fly. Son-of-a-bitch, just when she thought she’d gotten the measure of the man Barton pulls yet another trick out of thin air to send her reeling.

“Besides,” Barnes feels like adding as she just as she joins them, “even if you could manage to keep us out of things there’s still the B-team.”

“That’s true,” Barton agrees, “and to keep us away they’d have to lock us up. But that’s no guarantee we’d stay locked up for long. Since you know between the three of us, ex-carnie,” he explains pointing to himself, then indicating Barnes, “Brooklyn street bum, and Jonesy here who just likes to tinker; we’d be out of any cell in a matter of minutes once we pooled our resources. So y’all might as well just give in to the inevitable.”

Natasha is still one exchange behind trying to parse the meaning behind Barnes throwaway comment about a ‘B-team’ when it dawns on her; Morita’s missing. Not just him but there’s no sign of Cooper or Lila either.

“Where’s Morita?” She demands almost reaching out to grab Clint by the elbow then thinking better about it, she doesn’t have the right to touch anymore. If she ever really did.

“Good ol’ Jimbo?” Barnes taunts her not bothering to hide his sneer, “Our communications officer is listening in and in prime position to call reinforcements if needed.”

“Reinforcements? Who? You, Jones, and Morita are the only surviving members of the Commandos and the remaining members of the Raiders can’t be found if they’re even still alive.”

“Yeah? And who tells you that, Big Brother?”

Just then there’s a knock on the door and Natasha, already on a hair trigger, whips around pulling one (of many) guns. She only gets it halfway out of her holster when the motion is blocked by a hand on her wrist and she finds herself once again glaring daggers at an unaffected Clint Barton.

“It’s the vet tech, he’s here for Lucky,” he explains briefly before leaving the kitchen.

“Hiya Petey.”

“Hi Mr. Barton.”

“Here let me help you get Lucky loaded up in your van…” She watches him shoulder the slumbering animal, which she’s ashamed to admit she hadn’t noticed until just now, then follow the scrawny college kid back out the door.

“You oughta learn how to relax Widow.” Barnes suggests favoring her with a wolfish grin and a look in his eye that suggest he sees more than she’ll ever be comfortable with, but then again, hasn’t that always been the case. Between his constant security and Barton’s ability to see right to the heart of the matter, Natasha wondered if she actually had any secrets left anymore.

“I’m not in the habit of taking advice from some goddamn retiree, Winter,” she snaps back and instead of getting upset he lets out a bark of rueful laughter.

“Oh Natasha, that’s hilarious. We might not be facing off against fifty guys with AKs every other week but we’re far from retired.”

“Let’s just get back to work.”

“Sure,” he agrees with an equitable shrug just as Barton comes stomping back into the house. He ignores both Natasha and Barnes and goes right up to the kitchen table where Coulson, Jones, Riley, Sam, and Tony have been huddled this whole time going over the ex-servicemen’s so-called infiltration plan while she’s been trying to - and failed to - find her sense of professionalism. Judging by the slight smirk Tony sends her way and the brief glance of concern Sam shoots her it's been noticed. Barton pauses long enough to swing a quiver of arrows over across his back followed by a compact bow and this causes Tony to snort dismissively at the other man's choice of weapon.

“How’s your beak there Stark? Bleeding any?” He asks casually even as he draws an arrow to check the sharpness of its tip. That makes Tony give him a quick double take and obviously rethink his current stance on antique weapons. From her place behind Clint, Natasha bites her lip to keep herself from chuckling.

“Fifty bucks says my baby doll’s already got them out of where they’re being held captive,” Barnes pipes up. “C’mon, any takers?” He presses when no one looks like they’re willing to take him up on the bet. Natasha can’t tell if he’s doing this in an ill-advised attempt to try and lighten the mood or if he truly believes what he’s saying. But she does notice how both Jones and Barton are refusing to take his bet and are instead smiling ruefully and shaking their heads. In fact, in Jones’ case, it almost looks like he’s trying really hard not to laugh. This is all in very poor taste, Natasha hopes this is just Barnes misguided way of trying to make his friend feel better and not panic about his missing children. She would’ve thought, however, that the man would be more concerned about getting his partner back than making a buck.

“Hundred says he doesn’t even get them out of the building,” Tony eventually rises to the challenge.

“You should know better, Stark,” Barnes reminds him shaking his hand and sealing the bet.

They settle down then and Coulson runs through the plan again with everyone’s focus on him. Natasha’s impressed to see that they had planned a three point entry, one from the east, west, and south of the logging camp HYDRA had so helpfully told them to find them at. And that bothered her, it was too sloppy to be Lukin. He wouldn’t give up his location and leverage all at once like that. Particularly when there was no guarantee that he’d get her in exchange. Oh, sure, the yacht’s servers had been hacked, twice. Once by Barnes and once by HYDRA and her files compromised but that’s no guarantee that her location was called into Lukin directly. The only reason Nick wasn’t here with them now was that he’d gone to talk to their little whistleblower with a USB preloaded with JARVIS, just to be sure. That was one of the many things Tony was keeping track of via his phone right now. She gives her brother a pointed look. Fury should have checked in by now it, he had a head start on them, since they wasted some time debate who would help go help rescue Rogers and the twins, and it honestly wouldn’t take him long to break a wormy guy like Sitwell. Tony nods in reply before typing furiously away at his phone again.

“Little Nicky just checked in,” he announces after a few moments of the sound of rapid-fire keyboard clicks, “not the big baddie we feared, apparently, but still not people to be trifled with. He’s going to get on the horn with HQ and try and track down the final boss so we’ll only have to worry about these bozos.”

“How considerate,” Barton drawls, sounding utterly bored. “Let’s get to ‘trifling’ then.”

In the end, they settle on a course of action that involves minimal adaptation to Barnes, Barton, and Jones’ original plan. Thanks to Tony, and his uncanny ability to acquire satellite access when needed, they were able to narrow down exactly which building in the abandoned logging camp would be the most likely candidate to house kidnappers and their kidnappees. Heat signatures went a long way towards convincing everyone that that was the place to focus their attention. It was agreed that Sam and Riley will hold back to act as both reserves and medics - similar to what they’ve done in the past as pararescue - while Jones and Coulson would infiltrate the camp form the west, Natasha and Barnes from the east, and Barton would make his way towards the building where Rogers and the twins were being held by rooftop. Tony was to monitor the team's communications while simultaneously jamming any communication devices the kidnappers might have there on the ground. Which, unfortunately, includes Rogers’ cell. That is if he still even has it. With everyone more or less knowing their expected roles in this particular farce they headed out and while Natasha didn’t exactly avoid interacting with the former army men who, until a few days ago had been as close to her as family, she didn’t go out of her way to be near them either.

As it is, the seven of them pile into one dark SUV (courtesy of SHIELD) and she places herself in the back wedge in-between the window and Sam. For some reason, this earns her a glare from Barnes, a calculating look from Jones, and most disturbing of all there's this quiet air of defeat wafting off of Barton. Who after a moment seems to shake himself like a dog with a bone then turns his focus inwardly on the task at hand. Sam not so subtly jabs her in the side with a pointy elbow and raises a judging eyebrow. She quirks her nose at him in silent agreement then gives him a slow blink. Natasha knows she’s in for the lecture of the decade right now, but she’s hoping she just bought herself some time before he decides to lay into her. His barely audible huff of affront tells her that although Sam doesn’t like it he’ll hold off on lecturing her, for now. Feeling as if some of the tension she’s been carrying since she was made to leave the Barton’s family home has finally left her, Natasha sags back into her seat. But she does so carefully, she can’t let on just yet how much that means to her.

~***~**~***~

It takes a bit but eventually, Steve manages to reassure the twins enough that they settle down. They’re not 100% reassured and how could they be? They’re not safe at home, tucked in bed with Cooper and Lila asleep in the beds next to them and, most importantly, Clint, their father, downstairs ready to spring into action in a moment’s notice be it for a nightmare, stubbed toe, childish argument or home invasion, no matter what he’s always there to comfort them and make them feel as if nothing in the world could ever or would ever hurt them. Steve’s a poor substitute and he knows it, but he’s the best they got right now, so he does the best he can.

For himself, Steve can’t decide if he should be encouraged or worried by how long their erstwhile kidnappers have left them unattended. Particularly in light of the fact that they did not hesitate to gloat while he was knocked out and the twins were entirely at their mercy without a protector. Still, he was grateful for the time it gave him to study their holding cell without interruption.

It looks like at one point in time the room had been an overseer's office in an abandoned sawmill. Standing in the middle of the sawmill floor so that the manager would have been able to observe the factory floor without having to leave the comfort of their desk chair. Whoever had taken them had removed three out of the four walls and replaced them with bars, and what looked to be shoddily installed ones at that, and leaving the fourth wooden wall intact, simply boarding up the windows that must have been the main feature of the room’s construction. All of this had the air of very hasty, last minute, build that wasn’t intended to hold anyone, let alone three someones, for very long. An experimental rattle of the bars proved that if he gave them a good enough of a shove, with the right amount of leverage behind it, he could probably unhinge one section and push it wide enough for them to escape through. But there was no way that would go unnoticed and what he needed was a way of getting out of this slapdash cell without drawing attention to their escape. Poking at the boarded windows proved that while they were better secured than the metal bars had been, it wouldn’t be impossible for him to pry one loose. Steve would still be looking trying to cope with the sound of breaking glass potentially giving them away, not to mention the hazard climbing over said broken glass posed. He kicks the wood in frustration causing it to rattle alarmingly and then buckle slightly from the impact and that's how Steve discovers their way out. And also, incidentally, why their jailors went through the trouble of dismantling three-fourths of what should have been a perfectible usable room. The boards are starting to rot out, alarmingly so. If they left this wall standing than that must mean the rest were exponentially worse. He could work with that, in fact, there was a lot that he could do with rotting boards.

Once they were out, however, they were still in the middle of the logging room floor. The equipment was still in place and intact, more or less, and Steve figured he could guide Pietro, Wanda and himself out if he had a significant enough of a distraction. Because, although, their kidnappers have seemed negligent enough to leave them unattended so far. Steve doubted their good luck would hold forever and he wanted some insurance to make sure that once they were out of the dubious safety of their rickety cage everyone's attention was focused on something far more eye-catching than a few figures slipping away in the shadows. Shrugging out of his torn flannel shirt and leaving himself just in his t-shirt and jeans, Steve motions for the twins to join him hunched over by the back wall. He might not be a boy scout like Natasha claimed, but he did learn a trick or two about always being prepared.

“Hey, you two want to help me with a little science experiment?” An unexplained fire in the middle of an abandoned building would be the perfect distraction for helping them escape - plus, bonus smoke signal. Literally. The key will be setting it up to slowly feed itself so that he and the kids will have enough time to find a backdoor to slip out of. Because once this sucker takes off…. well, no one inside would be able to get out its way quick enough then.

~***~**~***~

Natasha had to admit she was amazed by how smoothly things were proceeding. She kept expecting something to blow up in their faces. But between the conflicting personalities that refused to conflict and the minimal resistance they encountered at the actual camp, everything was running basically like clockwork. There had only been one hiccup so far and Natasha was kicking herself for not considering it in the first place, and that had been Clint’s refusal to accept a comm from Tony. For the simple reason that he couldn’t fit both a comm-link and his hearing aid in his ear at the same time and there was no time for them to retrofit either the comm or Clint’s aid for them to be compatible despite whatever Tony may think. (They’d wasted enough time already bickering over logistics aka the ethics of having the targets of one’s former undercover mission join the retrieval op that’s only necessary because of said undercover mission). The three of them were frighteningly competent. And she couldn’t decide what was more shocking, their competency or the fact that that Natasha hadn’t noticed it earlier. But, then again, she had been rather thoroughly distracted by their modern day interpretation of a Norman Rockwell painting to pain enough attention.

She would have assumed that Barnes would have wanted to take the sniper's position instead of working his way through the camp alongside Natasha but he had easily conceded the role of sniper to Barton, preferring to instead take a more active role down on the ground. Natasha found herself oddly grateful for that since Barnes was as much of a heavy hitter as he was a stealth fighter and while they weren’t chasing the ‘final boss’ as Tony had put it, there were still plenty run-of-the-mill thugs to go around. Actually, it seemed like overkill for one school teacher and two ten-year-old children to be kidnapped and guarded by so many, but then again, she had seen how destroyed Barton’s family room was so clearly Rogers had put up one hell of a fight. Still, she’d rather have had Barton fighting alongside her rather than Barnes. Natasha would have still been getting the cold shoulder then, but at least it would be a few degrees warmer than this.

So preoccupied was she with her thoughts that she did not clock the goon approaching over her right shoulder as she was attempting to quietly subdue the man she currently had locked in a choke hold. Natasha didn’t clock goon #2 until she felt, more than heard, the whoosh from the fletching of Clint’s arrow as it parted her hair just above her ear on its way to embedding itself into #2’s thoracic cavity. A straight bullseye to the heart, dead on impact. It was in that moment that Natasha developed a newfound appreciation for Barton and his choice in a prehistoric weapon. Even a sniper rifle from a distance with a silencer on it would have still been risking too much noise since she was right by an entrance to the building they wanted and now more than ever they could not risk alerting these HYDRA wannabe schmucks to their presence.

Barnes dragged the dead guy off into a secluded nook then came back to move the couple of guys they both left unconscious while Natasha took advantage of the unexpected breather to try and search out Barton in his perch. Her eye eventually caught on a figure rappelling down an unsteadily secured drainpipe. The next time she spots him is when Barton comes barrelling towards them from between a couple of buildings. And he shows no signs of slowing down and no interest in maintaining a stealth approach. Without thinking, Natasha reaches out to stop him.

She’s amazed when a hand to his chest causes him to pause momentarily, although he continues to vibrate fit to burst.

“It’s on fire,” he manages to ground out by way of explanation. It's more than enough of a reason for her to let him go and as one the three of them (Barnes, Barton, and Natasha) turn as one and rush into the building. Thankfully, Clint’s announcement occurred close enough to Natasha’s own earpiece for everyone else to pick up on it and she could hear Coulson and Jones as they hurried their own approach as well as Sam and Riley as they called emergency services then prepped themselves to treat potential burn victims. The hardened edge of Bucky’s jawline and ghostly pallor made her grateful that Clint wasn’t on comms.

They ’d barely cleared a few corridors into the building when they were met with a wall of smoke and shortly behind it there was one of fire. Coulson and Jones quickly reported the same on the other side of the building. Natasha was just beginning to wonder if she was going to have to knock out then drag out both Bucky and Clint of the building or watch them both attempt to wade through the burning inferno when Sam’s voice echo through the comms like an angel on high;

“I found them, I found them.”

......

It turns out that Steve had set the fire as a distraction while he guided Pietro and Wanda out of the sawmill. If they had been just a few minutes earlier they would have been in time to pull off the big rescue, but unfortunately, they had wasted that time arguing amongst themselves.

“Some big damn heroes we turned out to be,” Tony mutters out of the corner of his mouth coming to join Natasha where she’s sitting on the back hatch of an open ambulance. She, Clint and Bucky each had to be checked out for smoke inhalation since they’d spent the longest inside the sawmill. It had gone up like a bunch of kindling once the little fire had burned through the delay (and was hot enough to counteract the sodden rot) Rogers had set up to try and buy himself and the kids enough time to get out.

“We showed up, I supposed that’s what counts,” she tries to reassure him although her heart’s not really in it. Truth is, none of this would have happened if SHIELD had just left them alone in their retirement. Natasha’s too busy watching Clint as he begrudgingly allows the EMTs under Riley’s watchful eye to work on him and instead focuses on damn near squeezing the life out of Pietro and Wanda he’s holding on to them so tightly. Barnes and Rogers have commandeered a third ambulance and are being monitored by Sam, while Coulson has taken it upon himself to round up any of the still living thugs and overseeing their treatment, if needed, before escorting them to a police van for transportation to jail.

“Tasha,” it’s the way Tony says her name that captures her attention more so than the fact that he’s said anything at all. She’s only heard him sound so serious on a handful of occasions and every time it's been when he’s delivering life-changing news. “Don’t let yourself drive away from them again.”

“Tony - ”

“Natasha.”

She signs, knowing better than to argue with him. Her brother is a genius and is very rarely wrong in general, but he’s also very rarely right when it comes to interpersonal relationships and in this instance, Natasha knows he’s right. Tony knows it too, judging by his smug little smirk.

“Buck up kiddo, if the way he’s been not so covertly flickering looks your way over the flashing emergency lights is any indication then I’d say the feeling’s mutual.” Tony continued and Natasha bit her lip to keep herself from smiling but she didn’t refrain from rolling her eyes at him. He chuckled and squeezed her shoulder in encouragement. Still, even with Tony’s explicit approval, not as though she needed it, Natasha hesitated to approach Clint. She has truly done enough damage as it is, there’s no need for her to do anymore.

Natasha sits there, on the edge of the ambulance, wrestling with her conscious and her heart gnawing at her lip weighing the pros and cons of giving in to her heart’s desire instead of making the smart play and disappearing like the master spy she is. Once again she gets lost in her thoughts and that right there should have been the tip-off that her head was well and truly out of the game.

“If you’re wondering what the strategic play is here, it’s to go over there and apologize to him then tell him you’d like to start over and for real this time.” A deep voice informs her and Natasha looks up while hiding the reflexive urge to jump, to find a pair of deeply amused baby blue eyes peering down at her over a small shit-eating grin.

“Lost your mind in there, Cap?” She drawls, falling back on sarcasm to save face.

“That implies I had one to being with,” he retorts leaning against the open bay door unfairly easy-going for a man that was just kidnapped and beat to shit before escaping a warehouse fire. “So Talia - Natasha - whatever name you prefer, are you going to go talk to him or not?”

“More than likely not,” she answers honestly. There’s something about Rogers that compels honesty from her and perhaps it’s the fact that she knows he still trusted her with Clint and Clint’s children even though Rogers was aware of the red in her ledger. In fact, Natasha is willing to bet that even if Steve was the first to be suspicious of her and her motives in Elk Cove, he was also her most stalwart supporter.

“Wrong answer, if you’d like my opinion.”

“Whatever gave you the impression I did?”

“Call it a hunch,” he replies still annoyingly unperturbed by her attitude.

“Christ Stevie,” Barnes barges in on their limping conversation one hand holding a phone to his ear, “for once in your life could you go two seconds without being a human shield? I mean I love you for it but, fuck’s sake my heart can’t take it anymore. And what the fuckin’ hell are you doing off the stretcher?” He grabs a hold of Steve by the elbow and starts to yank him back towards the other ambulance, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, kid!”

Barnes continues to pull an unprotesting Steve away scolding him the entire time while talking to whoever on the phone than almost as an afterthought calls back over his shoulder at Natasha. “Whatever the fuck he just told you to do, just do it!”

Regrettably this commotion manages to draw Clint’s attention away from the twins and towards Barnes and Rogers than herself. Uncharacteristically, Natasha finds herself ducking Clint’s gaze, uncomfortably aware of the weight of his eyes on her from across the way. She knows she has to face up to what is going on between them, what had happened between them, and what she might want to have existed between them but Natasha doesn’t know if she’s ready to do so just yet.

The identity of whoever Barnes had been speaking with on the phone is shortly revealed when a car pulls up and the back door flies open allowing Cooper and Lila to shoot out of the back seat like a couple of bullets. Morita follows them out of the car at a far more sedate pace. They head straight for their father and siblings, shouting and crying, effectively diverting Clint’s attention away from Natasha and back towards his children. She breathes a little bit easier knowing that those hawk-like eyes are no longer focused on her.

“You should probably seriously consider taking your brother and Stevie’s advice,” Barnes informs her and Natasha whips her head around to glare at him.

“Why would you advocate for this? You hate me,” she snaps at him.

“Natasha, you really haven’t been paying attention if you think any of us hate you.”

She narrows his eyes at him then, noticing that he’s no longer on the phone, that in fact Steve now has his phone with Gabe and Jim standing around him the three of them clearly talking on speakerphone. “If you were calling Jim earlier than who is Steve talking to now?”

“Firstly, I never called Jim, that was Gabe. Secondly, Stevie’s talking to the B-team, letting them know that they can stand down.”

“The B-team, you mean the other members of Rogers’ Raiders, right?”

“Them, and Stevie’s tech genius cousin and his badass partner,” Bucky answers with an easy grin, “seems like the blond’s in Steve’s family have a type. Consider yourself lucky we didn’t need to call them in, JJ’s something else.”

Natasha snorted at that finding it rather hard to believe but willing to take Bucky at his word. He seems content to let them sit in silence for a while then watching the teary-eyed family reunion with a backdrop of a half burnt out sawmill and fire trucks trying to keep it from spreading to the surrounding woodlands. A covert glance at Barnes proves that he looks genuinely touched by it all. She can’t deny that it isn’t moving to see Pietro and Wanda safely returned.

Next thing she knows, Natasha has been pulled up off of her seat and shoved, gently but insistently, towards the Barton family. Somehow she maintains her balance and when looking back over her shoulder to glare at Barnes only reveals him glaring unimpressed at her arms akimbo, she decides to square her shoulders and continue making her way towards the Bartons.

Natasha is only about five paces out when Wanda spots her, and she can’t quite hide the wince when the little girl hops down off the ambulance at her approach. Clint grabs a hold of her before Wanda can rush off but that only means he now watches her approach and she feels very much like a rabbit caught like a hawk. It’s not a comfortable feeling, Natasha has never once been anything anyone would ever consider prey like in her life.

“Natasha,” he greets her once she’s near. That just manages to draw everyone's focus to her and before Clint can say or do anything more Pietro launches himself at her.

“Mom!” He hiccups still obviously frightened but trying to put a brave face on it. He goes in for a hug and Natasha cannot turn him away even though she’s stunned that he would still call her ‘mom’. Clint lets go of Wanda and she’s quick to join her twin brother in demanding a hug from Natasha and, not to be outdone by their siblings, Cooper and Lila are right behind her. He watches his children swarm her with an unbearably fond grin on his face that makes Natasha want to either laugh or cry, she can’t decide which and therefore does neither. Clint’s face melts into something vulnerable and sweet as he watches her struggle with that choice. Eventually, he clears his throat and asks her;

“Whaddya say, Talia? They could still use one and you’re great at it. I know it’s probably not what you are used to, and it’d be a real step down in circumstances for you,” Clint starts to ramble and Natasha wades her way through the kids to fall into him and silence him with a kiss.

A chorus of wolf-whistles and howls sound off behind her and the children are openly cheering for them both. Natasha blatantly ignores the noise, too busy staking a claim that Clint cannot mistake for anything else but a resounding YES! She knows that they have a lot to work through - their relationship had started from a lie and they’ll have to start over to undo that damage - but she’s hopeful for the future and that is what she focuses on as she continues to melt into Clint’s embrace.

“Hey Tony! You still owe me a hundred,” Bucky eventually shouts above the din.

“Funny, he owes me three for betting against Fury’s plan in the first place,” Coulson’s measured tones answer him.

“Huh, I tackle him, you get his wallet?”

“Could always just taze him and let him drool into the turf so we don’t have to listen to his whining ruining this wonderful hallmark moment.”

“I like the way you think.” She can hear them move away from the gathered ambulances then off in the distance Tony’s outraged yelp.

Clint breaks off the kiss too, presumably, yell at Barnes to behave but Natasha stops him with a finger to his lips; “Let the grown-up children work it out for themselves,” she advises him. The slow, wicked, smile he gives her in reply tells Natasha that Clint’s 100% on board with that plan.

”I guess I could just watch the kids for the rest of the night,” Steve offers from somewhere behind them.

“Nah, Cap, I’ll take ‘em all back to mine,” Jim counters sounding affectionately resigned. “America and Kate promised Cooper and Lila here that they wouldn’t finish watchin’ Brave without ‘em. Wanna join us?” Their voices fade off into the distance as they herded the kids away from Natasha and Clint openly necking in the back of the ambulance.