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Two Times Natasha Sees Behind Peter's Masks

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1.

If Peter is a diamond, he isn't the rarest or shiniest. He's not the most expensive or the main attraction at an auction.

 

He's chipped at the surface, jagged on the edges and seemingly in pieces. He's only found after digging under heavy rocks and useless pieces of debris and tunneling deeper and deeper as the hope for any light seems grim. But it's the journey that it takes Natasha to find him that she values more than anything. Through trial and error, death and despair, endless diggling and exhaustion, and feeling pieces of gravel and dirt wedge its way between her toes and under her nails, it's the glimmer of hope for the reward of a diamond in the rough and to know that the best is yet to come.

 

When Natasha finds Peter, she gets the jackpot even though she's not be richer from the price tag.

 

But he's a diamond in the rough, brilliantly blinding and worth all the world's battles and failures just to see him shine.

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It’s been a little non-stop since Natasha found out that Peter is Spider-Man.

 

To be fair, that’s part of the Avenger’s gig but she hasn’t had the time she’s wanted recently to just relax at the Compound. Clint’s still by her side for missions outside of the call to assemble but she craves something he can’t give her… a domestic sort of comfort.

 

She fakes it most days but she knows that it’s her home. She misses Sam’s five-star breakfasts and Rogers’ old fashioned bickering over movies. She misses Stark’s late-night animated excitement over a new weapon or suit modifications (though she’ll never admit it out loud), meditating with Wanda, and even target practice with Barnes.

 

More than anything, she misses her little spider.

 

It’s become apparent that she’ll never go back to the way things used to be. Clint and her talked in all seriousness about having kids before Peter came along but she’d thought it was something she’d have. It isn’t truly suited towards the lifestyle. They could buy a log cabin in the middle of the woods and set up enough dart boards on mountain trails that Clint would never get bored. It wouldn’t be the same, though. Maybe she thought at one point they could but movie nights remind her of just how lucky she’s been to escape the Red Room and start a real family.

 

“It doesn’t even make sense!” Steve will complain at Back To The Future as Banner shushes him for the umteenth time as he shovels his disgusting spicy curry flavored popcorn. Peter will giggle as Wanda levitates the piece of popcorn out of Bruce’s fingertips and aims dead center at Stark’s forehead. Vision will be observing and hovering nearby as he reads one of Wilson’s psych journals. Clint will mess with Sam on their phones as they shove at each other like children and play some god awful app while Nat will sink her weight back into the sofa and curl a little closer to Peter when she thinks no one else is watching.

 

Peter will gaze at her with something she hasn’t ever seen directed towards her. It’s the look after a mission as a lost child is reunited with their mother. There’s tears and shrieking as the dust begins to settle as the prospect of life and death dissipates and the feeling of some security is brought back similar to a gust of wind. It’s a strong sort look in their eyes of love that contains everything they’ve ever wanted to say to each other as the mother grabs her baby for dear life.

 

He only reserves that look for two other people. Peter looks at May like she is the sun and Stark is the moon. She’s lucky that she’s a comet barreling past or his favorite star. If they’re part of this galaxy, then Peter is an astronaut exploring and making his own journey.

 

She’s grateful to be apart of it nonetheless.

 

Yeah, unspoken or not, this kid is the center of her universe.

 

--------------

 

She’s restless. They’ve come back to the Compound in Albany a few hours ago and it’s nearly 3 A.M on a Saturday. Their human trafficking mission in Colombia was successful and the world is a little safer. She doesn’t have the heart to wake up her ястреб this early as she quietly toes off her covers and begins to stand.

 

“Nat?’ Clint’s mumble is garbled and she can she his eyes squint. He doesn’t have his hearing aids in so she just strokes his hair gently and kisses his cheek. Less than a minute later, she can hear his snores fill the room as she smiles and leaves their bedroom.

 

Craving comfort isn't exactly easy. It’s not like she’s seeking something to eat or rushing to clamp down on a negative emotion that’s beginning to spiral. It’s just an impulse. Wilson would laugh and call her it her maternal hormones kicking in but she thinks it’s bigger than that. Sympathy and reassurance were withheld from her for so long as a spy and assassin. Even in this new life after S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers, she doesn’t have the trauma of needing someone. It’s like her mind is telling her to be there for someone so they don’t ever have to feel the way she did.

 

She’s walking from her quarter’s to the elevator and then down to the communal area before she can think about it. She just wants to ease her rushing thoughts and breathe.

 

She’s about to ask F.R.I.D.A.Y. for a debrief on the past week that’s she’s been gone as she rounds a corner to the communal kitchen and finds a certain vigilante still in his suit, sitting on the counter and staring out of an open window.

 

She would normally be thrilled to see him and even scold him for still being awake but something is off. Peter’s shoulders are tense and his mask is on, a whitish sort of light casting a sort of somber glow on his red and blue spandex. His legs are loosely hanging off the edge of the marble surface and his body language isn’t poised for fight-or-flight so he’s not upset. His fists are clenched as she can see his head barely tilt towards her in recognition that he’s not alone.

 

God, she never wants him to feel alone.

 

“Bad night?” She says bluntly, keeping her distance around the marble island as she sifts through a cabinet near her hip for two glasses.

 

He doesn’t reply and it makes her stomach drop. This isn’t the Peter she’s used to coming home to. She’s used to him rambling wildly about Decathlon practice or his newest project at school, spluttering over details of aperture schematics or random Mark Twain trivia. He’ll overdramatically fall to the floor about May’s cooking last Thursday or how a guy in Times Square was dressed up as the Hulk while riding a unicycle. He can’t help his hands flailing from excitement and all the small moments he’s bundled up, waiting for her eye rolls and snorts.

 

Whatever this is, it's not her Peter.

 

“Me too.” She replies nonchalantly, trying to strategize. His chest is moving up and down but his breaths seem shorter and cutoff, almost unsure of themselves. She’s eying him up and down for any obvious signs of injury. He still hasn’t turned to face her; it’s unnerving because she’s so used to his shining brown eyes with the the light of a supernova. Instead, all she sees is the corner of his white eye on his mask frozen.

 

“I’ve been wondering what the hell happens to this kitchen when I’m not around because, honestly, I come back to what looks like hurricane hit everything except the coffee machine.” She’s trying to gauge his focus because he seems out of it. Even when Peter’s angry or depressed, he doesn’t shut down like this.

 

She’s running through everything terrible that could’ve happened within the past few hours if it’s not an injury; a run in with that Flash kid at school again? Was it a fight with Stark? Maybe he saw something on patrol that was too heavy even for his maturity. Or a severe injury with May? But she ran into Wanda after getting off the QuinJet and she knows none of her team would keep a secret about Peter from her. Things have changed since Ultron and Germany.

 

They’re all helicopter parents around the kid. It still bothers him, Natasha knows, that the team underestimates him. They don’t let him near certain missions, be it alien forces or just outside of U.S. soil. She fights with Peter after calls to assemble that he still has to train for recon assignments or facing HYDRA. They don’t want to see him get hurt, Stark will argue with a finality to his tone, before Peter will snap back, frustratedly, “You didn’t seem to care when you took my suit.”

 

She can feel the chill of the spring night’s breeze as she gets closer to window and his feet. The lights aren’t on or anything but she still doesn’t want to startle him. She slowly moves closer towards him when it hits her mid sentence. She doesn’t let it falter her footsteps as she keeps approaching him.

 

It’s the anniversary of his parent’s death. Just because it's been over ten years doesn't stop the pain; 'Tasha knows this all too well.

 

Of course, Tony probably knows, too, but Peter’s stubborn and smart enough to hide information from the team that will make him seem like a helpless, little child. The team doesn’t ask about it because family is a sore spot for everyone. The only person he can’t hide from is Wanda and she doesn’t look into his head without his permission. It’s likely that no one in the Compound knows. Maybe Barnes because he’s almost as good as her with surveillance.

 

The team will wake up soon, Steve and Sam for their morning run and Vision for a perimeter check. Peter’s told her about his parents in complete trust; the plane crash that left too many unanswered questions, the rush for Ben and May to adopt him and their unpreparedness for a son that was never theirs, the loneliness that would shatter into him when kids got picked up by their parents at school and the ache when the holidays came around when their stockings were missing at the fireplace. Peter had told her all this on the roof of the Compound one night in the most vulnerable state she’s seen him and she’s not about to betray that.

 

She was an orphan but she had family even if it wasn’t exactly conventional. She had a roof over her head in the KGB and she learned to stop her emotions.

 

But Peter should never have to do that to himself.

 

“Spidey.” She says, less than a foot away from him. Without warning, Peter jerks his head like a motor tic towards her but he makes no attempt to move. He’s not in control of himself. He’s watching himself experience this, not actually living it with her in real time.

 

He’s disassociating, she knows. She may not have Sam or Banner’s mental health training but she’s no stranger to mental illness.

 

She hovers her hand near the bottom of his mask and his head reels to face her like it’s been burned. She’s quick though, diving under his mask and to his necklace buried underneath his sternum. She rests her hand there watching his breathing become more erratic

 

“Peter,” She says calmly but she’s anything but. She wants to cry at how much pain he’s in. Whether it’s the urge to comfort or maternal instincts, she doesn’t care.

 

“Can you feel my hand? It’s okay, just nod.” There’s a pause as his head bobs quickly. He can hear her at least but she needs to ease him back to reality.

 

Grounding him is going to take more than just his senses. She’s seen it with Clint after Loki’s brainwashing. It was one of those nights that she had to be there until he came back from drinking and a night she knew she would forever be in with love him.

 

“Come with me, Spider-Man.” Her voice is sharp, her tone demanding with a mission in mind. She takes her hand off his chest and walks forward with renewed purpose. Peter is on his feet and following her with steps like he’s on a tightrope, paced and too even for his usual clumsiness.

 

She walks back to the elevator and slams the button to someone's floor; she doesn't look and she doesn't care. They can take it up with her while sparring if they have an issue with it.

 

She places her hand on Peter's shoulders as he shudders. He's pushing himself too far and too fast. He needs to calm down but that's not possible like this.

 

They end up on Steve's and Bucky's floor. Nat walks gracefully to the nearest bathroom, a few yards away and as she glances back at Peter. He's rigid with tension and she hates it.

 

She'll hand it to Stark, he certainly knows how to give lavish a whole new meaning. That being said, he is the one who wears a bright red and gold flying suit. The team's bathrooms are the same size as a normal sized two-bedroom apartment but Bucky and Steve's seem different.

 

It's smaller than she's used to for the Compound but she'll manage. The walls are a dark navy and the tiles are black. It's well lit as she enters, courtesy to F.R.I.D.A.Y., and the shower is the first thing she sees to her right. There's a standalone, antique bathtub and a turntable on a seperate countertop. There are a few cabinets with shaving cream and razors and the sink with a toothbrush as she scans for her play. She directs Peter to sit on the edge of a hamper by the sink.

 

"F.R.I.D.A.Y., fill the bathtub three-quarters with warm water. Can you play some music, as well?" She's already rummaging through the drawers as she hears the taps turn on and some instrumental forties music begin to play.

 

Wordlessly, a cabinet near the mirror in front of her opens to reveal a collection of different colored and shaped dry looking spheres in a clear bowl; bath bombs, she realizes.

 

"Really, Rogers?" She grins to herself with a clean towel, water basin and bright pink fizzer in hand.

 

She lays everything one the counter before turning around. She squats down slight in front of Peter and her hands ghost at the bottom of his mask.

 

"I need to take this off, alright, honey?" She doesn't know where the endearment comes from but she needs to keep him calm. Before Peter can hesitate, the mask slips off.

 

His eyes are glassy, lost and dazed, and red rimmed. There are dried tear stains on his ghostly pale face. His hair is greasy and there's a bit of dirt and grime from the streets of New York collecting on his nose.

 

The boy in front of her breaks her heart. She presses the palms of her hands to his cheeks and moves them towards his ears softly, pulling his dark hair away from his face.

 

"Take off the suit, Peter." She's back to being stern and no-nonsense. She could take it off but he seems to be responding well to orders and she doesn't want to invade his personal space.

 

She turns her back to put in the bath bomb as she hears the taps cut off. A loud splash sound is made as the soap hits the water; it begins to bubble and the solid soap starts to dissolve a little into different shades of pink. It will take a while for the contrast of the pink against white to fully come through.

 

Natasha would usually consider this childish but she hope this is enough to bring her spider back. She turns around to find the suit discarded and Peter in a pair of boxers. She does a quick once over. He's physically uninjured but that doesn't mean he's okay.

 

She would joke at him like the days Peter runs late for school and is in his whites running past the communal kitchen to grab his forgotten sweatshirt or stray textbook. The team would holler and laugh as he eventually would come down, face flushed red for breakfast. She can't bring herself to right now

 

He's shaking slightly, probably from the cold and the whole thermoregulation thing, and his teeth are chattering a little. He's still off kilter and not completely here in the present.

 

"You can get in now, Peter." He's still stoic as he climbs toward the tub and methodically gets into the water.

 

As soon as half of his body submerges into the bright pink water, Peter jolts haphazardly before his shoulder relax. His eyes are still hazy and he fights to keep then open for a minute before he sharply inhales and closes his eyes.

 

Nat sets the hamper at one end of the tub, behind Peter's head. She places a hand on his neck as he sinks further down. She begins to slowly work some warm water from the basin through his curls and gently over his face.

 

The water begin to swirl from baby pink to a deep magenta with speckles of silver sparkles. The whole tub is colored brightly and Peter looks peaceful with his eyes closed. The bubbles float around him as he shifts his fingers and toes intermittently.

 

Natasha smiles and lets go of the breath she didn't know she was holding.

 

No child should ever have to grow up so soon. She wonders if it's become a morbid sort of normal, picturing a younger spiderling being seven years old and leaving flowers at a grave, square-shouldered and emotionless. She sees him at a church, ten years old and listening to the bell chime, a pastor sermonizing that everything happens for a reason. His grimace at thirteen watching kids with brand new sneakers talk about winter break with both parents and extended families at the lodge as he ducks his head into a thrift store jacket with holes, too thin for January's blues, and walks back to a less than mediocre apartment in Queens, hating the fucking world for fucking him over like this

 

But he not like that. He's not angry and bitter at the world for robbing him of a normal childhood.

 

He shouldn't have to carry the world on his shoulders like him and, yet, Peter does it voluntarily. He's selfless and it reminds Natasha of why she switched sides from the KGB.

 

She knew could never be half as inherently good as people like Peter and nothing will ever erase the red in her ledger completely.

 

But she knew then as much as she knows now that it's bigger than good and evil. It's about becoming something more than a 'remarkable' person; it's about being there to fight the battles that the world never could.

 

She gets up after about ten minutes and is almost out the door out of his line of sight when a shaky voice interrupts her.

 

"Natasha?" He sounds strained but his eyes are searching in front of him wildly. She's quickly in front of him again, shushing him.

 

"Hey, honey." He's somewhat back to normal but she's not going to rush him in this state. "I'm just grabbing you some clothes."

 

Peter settles his gaze on her face, eyebrow furrowed before he lets out a small, "Kay."

 

She's one footstep into the hallway, remembering where Steve keeps his spare clothes for post-training, when she feels a hand grab at her throat and shove her against the wall.

 

She's about to flip her assailant their own feet over when she sees who in front of her and they quickly push off of her.

 

"Barnes, what the fuck?" She bites out, rolling her shoulder and baring her teeth.

 

The Подонок isn't even apologetic, his hair is tied up in a bun and he's sporting a white tank top and sweatpants.

 

"I thought there was an intruder, Natka" He says in a controlled voice, quiet but firm. She knows he's eyeing her up and down despite his piercing eyes never leaving hers. His eyes shift to slightly confused. "Why are you in my quarters?"

 

Natasha hesitates for a split second. She could keep it a secret but chances are that Barnes would kill her later if he finds out secondhand. She's also aware that Peter trusts Barnes almost as much as her.

 

"It's Peter." Bucky's menacing expression drops as his eyes narrow in concern. "He's dissociating. I thought a bath would help."

 

Barnes blinks and considers her words. She knows that if everyone in the compound, James is bound to know how fucking hard it can be to be stuck in his own mind. With the horrors of HYDRA or just the war, he's not the only one with emotional baggage weighing him down.

 

He straightens his back moments later and glances at the door behind her. "I'll get him something to eat." He's turned around and already down the hallway before she can blink.

 

"Wait." She sees him pause. "You collect bath bombs?"

 

"Not a word about this, Romanoff." As Natasha chuckles, she see a metal hand flip her off before disappearing.

 

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Later that night (or early that morning, depending on who she asks), Peter is in a Captain America sized sweater hanging loosely off his wrists with sweatpants. His hair is stuck up in odd twists from the water.

 

Bucky and Steve are in their kitchen making something for Peter to eat as Natasha sits with his head in her lap, stroking his hair.

 

Barnes has made a makeshift blanket fort with sleeping bags, pillows and a projection of a documentary about oil painting near their sofa.

 

(If anyone asks Natasha, Barnes is not a helicopter parent so much as a mama grizzly bear.)

 

"Tasha?" Peter asks after about an hour of silence. Bucky had helped lead Peter from the bathroom to the fort as Natasha called May and let her know what was happening.

 

Steve had bumbled into the kitchen at 5 A.M., took one look at Peter and began to worry.

 

"What happened?" He whisper-screamed.

 

"Be quiet, you big idiot." Bucky glared as he tossed a wet towel at Steve. "Do something useful and go get me some milk." Steve merely squawked as he began to bustle around the kitchen.

 

There are blankets over their heads, sleeping bags bundling them like caterpillars, and pillows strewn across the floor allowing Peter to have some privacy. There's still two steaming cups of hot cocoa that both of them have had at.

"Tasha?"He sounds mostly back to himself just tired from not sleeping as she raises her eyebrow at his upside down face.

Her attention dives to his face illuminated by the screen in a blue light. He's gazing up at her with something unsure. She presses her fingertip to his nose in reply as he scrunches his face and bats her hand away.

"Yes, Peter?"

"Thanks for- I mean you can go now, I'm okay, sorry if I kept you up, I-" Natasha's eyebrow is still raised as her face goes unimpressed.

 

After a beat, Peter sighs. "It's just hard… to constantly be okay. I've had to be strong, I guess, for years and Ben or May and just deal with it." His voice goes quiet. "I think I just wasn't prepared for how much it still hurts."

 

She pulls her face close to her spider's and presses her forehead against his.

 

"паук," She says, surprisingly softly and not scolding. "No kid should ever have to be prepared for the shit you've been through. You've lost family; that never really stops hurting." Peter's face falls but Natasha isn't finished.

 

"But you have to remember, you may have lost some family but you gained more."

 

As Natasha leans back to watch the screen, she doesn't miss the happy tear that makes its way down Peter's face and his lovable smile. Bucky and Steve finally come into the fort with plates of food as Steve smiled apologetically at some burnt bacon as Bucky smacks the back of his head with an eye roll.

 

In the morning of a Saturday at the Avengers' Compound, Peter Parker is drinking hot chocolate and eating several servings of omelettes and bacon with three Avengers. He's smiling and belly laughing at Steve's blush from Bucky's story about the two of them at Coney Island in the thirties.

 

By the time several other Avengers stop at the super soldiers' floor and settle into their fort, Natasha concedes that this will do just fine.

 

He's a diamond, alright; found near rock bottom and truly one of a kind because of the journey.

 

Beyond that, Peter is absolutely priceless.