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Like A Caged Firebird

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PROLOGUE

 

22 September 2018, A Battlefield, Someplace Else

 

“I’m going high, Cap!”. Wilson swooped up dangerously and began shooting recklessly at everything below.

Throwing his shield as hard as he could, so it bounced off three of the creatures, Rogers jumped down and ran in the direction that Wilson had flown. “Buck! Do you see the ship?”

“I see it, but I don’t really believe it yet, Steve. Where did these bastards come from anyway?”

Wilson shouted desperately, “Stop worrying about where they come from, Bucky, and worry about how the h*ll to kill them!”

As he kicked out furiously at one of the enormous creatures, Barnes growled, “What do you think I’m trying to do? They just won’t die! What are they even made of?”

A panicked scream echoed across the valley and they all heard Stark’s voice croak through the comms, “Barton is down.”

Tossing his shield again and again, as Barnes stood at his back and sprayed bullets outwards, Rogers demanded, “Tony, is he…”

“Widow is down. They’re all over Big Green. I’m sorry, Steve, but I’m…”

His arm encircling the head of one of the creatures, Barnes shouted, “Ты умрешь ради Натальи!”

Wilson called out, “Watch out! Steve, on your…” He plummeted towards a group of five of the creatures and detonated his pack.

Barnes roared furiously and called out desperately as he lobbed grenades towards the surging horde, “Ради Клинт! Ради вилсон! Ради Баннер! Ради Старк! Трахни всех вас, отвратительные мешки с дерьмом!”

“Buck!”

“Yeah, I know. I know, Steve.”

“Buck, we gotta! It’s the only way!”

Barnes tossed two more grenades and fished the remote out of his tactical vest. “On three?”

His voice barely audible from where he lay slumped in front of Barnes, Rogers stared into his best friend’s eyes and croaked, “Nah, just do it, Buck. For Brooklyn.”

His fist gripping the remote, Barnes ducked as one of the creatures fired its weapon, which sent a stream of projectiles at him. He fell to his knees, then clicked the switch as he whispered towards Rogers’ now still form, “For Brooklyn.”

 

3 March 2013, Top of the Old Kvalitetan Hotel, Dubrovnik, Croatia

 

Fi-na-lly! It was about time the ugly bastard had gotten tired of hiding out in his mother’s apartment. Clint had been laying on the top of that derelict hotel for so long that he was pretty much a human popsicle at this point. It was probably going to take two gallons of coffee before he even felt his a** again. Which was why all missions before the beginning of May should be in Greece or Italy. Malta was fine. He’d accept the South of France if pushed, sure. But Dubrovnik was a stupid place to spend nine hours waiting on a very fat, very overdressed Albanian gangster. A gangster with bad taste in friends and even worse security. Honestly, his bodyguards hadn’t even tried to scope out the surrounding rooftops. Which was why it didn’t pay to be evil. So, AIM could s*ck it and Clint really didn’t like being sent after one of those weasels yet again. Unless they had a base in Bermuda, in which case he was willing to consider taking another op to put a bullet into another one of these bastards.

Clint slowly backed away from the ledge and slid his rifle case silently towards him. As he rapidly disassembled his weapon, he considered whether it was worth taking a slightly longer route back to the check-in so he could get a cup of sweet, heavenly (hopefully) properly-brewed goodness and maybe a Danish or something. Croatians did coffee just fine, thank you very much, and if the café had a nice slice of Mađarica on offer, then Clint was willing to indulge. Ugh. But, of course, he wasn’t going to dare risk making a quick diversion, since Nat would know. She liked to pretend that she had super senses that could tell just from one sniff where he’d been, but more likely it was just long experience with Clint-wrangling. And she would not appreciate it if he ate some Mađarica and didn’t bring her any.

What the…??? He spun around and flattened himself to the ground. What was that? He turned left and right and then left again, but there was nothing there. He reached up behind his left ear and turned his aid up. Then, he narrowed his eyes as he strained to hear any sign of someone or something else there—despite knowing it was essentially useless as both hearing aids were amplifying the sound of the wind so he couldn’t hear much more detail than he would have without.

Yeah, ok, maybe his mind was playing tricks on him. He was cold, hungry, caffeine deprived, tired, and cold. And he was cold. So, what if he was from Iowa? Just because he was used to the sensation of freezing his a** off, it didn’t mean that he had to like or be cheerful about it. He snapped his case shut and ran to the ledge. As he swung himself down onto the building next door, he raced for the red…what the…that door had been red. He knew that door had been red. A crackled, old, splotchy red that looked like someone had puked over it a few years ago, but still red. But it was black. Old, faded black with scratches all over the bottom, but black. Now he definitely knew that he was losing it.

As soon as he turned the corner, Clint stopped where that run-down bar with the drooping awning should be and looked around wildly. He must have made a wrong turn. Except, he never made wrong turns. He…oh. Ok. It was the same bar. They’d just taken the awning down. And left no traces? Whatever. He was late.

By the time that he reached the old hotel and climbed the back stairs, he knew that Nat was going to be on his case. And he was just going to ride it out like a surfer coasting on a wave, since he was never going to admit to her just how exhausted he must’ve been today to see stuff like that. She had been pushing him to do something about his insomnia for months now, so she’d never let him hear the end of it.

 

1 March 2017, The Turbulent Airspace Above a Very Small Island, Someplace Else

 

“Steve, you know that we cannot keep doing this. It isn’t sustainable.”

Frowning at the controls of the quinjet, Rogers replied gruffly, “Maybe. Not sure what else I am gonna do right now, Sam. Can’t go back home unless I want Tony to arrest me for helping Buck, for everything in Siberia, for the disaster that was Bucharest, for not signing the Sokovia Accords, for betraying him in general, for whatever. You know that until the world realises that the Sokovia Accords were a serious mistake, then we are just going to have to remain fugitives.”

Romanoff, who had seemed to be sleeping soundly on the seat behind them, spoke quietly without opening her eyes, “Don’t forget Berlin.”

Wilson grunted with annoyance. “Not helping, Romanoff.”

Her smile spread and she stretched slightly, but kept her eyes closed and her arms crossed tightly over her chest. “I know.”

Rogers leant back into his seat and looked back at Romanoff. “Clint handling everything fine? Laura and the kids still doing ok?”

Finally deigning to open her eyes, Romanoff responded warmly, “Yeah, they’re all fine. I think Laura’s actually enjoying having Clint on enforced house arrest. They might actually get the floor in the dining room finished before the end of summer.”

Accepting his defeat with a fond, but frustrated glance at Rogers, Wilson asked dourly, “So, what are we doing next? We infiltrating Al Shabab? Taking down the government of a Caribbean island? What nice, safe little field trip have you planned for us, Natasha?”

“Nothing big. Pretty much a repeat of Kinshasa.”

Wilson slumped back and muttered, “Gonna get myself shot again.”

Rogers nudged his friend and added, “But we’ll be in Morocco.”

Raising his eyebrows, Wilson commented drily, “Ok, ok, so you’re tryna bribe me with promises of tagine and mechoui?”

“Maybe.” Rogers laughed and looked over at Romanoff.

She smiled at them briefly, then leant back to take a catnap again. “Don’t wake me up for another hour at least. Not unless you want me to be grumpy.”

“Flight should be at least six hours, Nat.” Rogers lounged into his own seat and gestured to Wilson to hand him the pack of cards. “No reason that you can’t sleep as long as you like.”

“No, an hour’s good enough. By that time, I can play whichever of you wins.”

“It’ll be Steve. Because he’s a cheating cheater who cheats.”

Outraged, Rogers insisted, “I do no such thing, Sam Wilson.”

Wilson laughed as he began expertly shuffling the cards. “Yes, yes, you do.”

“Sam! I really didn’t know that deck had extra cards mixed in and you know it.”

“Such an easy mark, Steve. So righteous all the time, buddy.”

“I’m no such thing, but I do hope that I’m honest.”

“Jeez, Steve, do you really think that I’d tease you about it if I honestly thought you’d cheated? Man, that would be like finding out my mama robbed a bank. You know that I trust you.”

Rogers’ face was still flushed brilliantly as he grabbed his cards up from the surface of the weapons locker and muttered, “You’re a real jerk sometimes, Sam.”

“Yeah well, what else is new, man? I thought you soldier types were manly enough to take a little ribbing.”

“Oh ho! Is that how it is now, Air Force?”

“Yup. That’s how it always is, Army.”

Rogers laughed. “Whatever you say, man.”

Romanoff snorted with amusement, but said firmly, “If you two children don’t let me sleep, then I wouldn’t recommend risking closing your eyes at all tonight.”

Both Wilson and Rogers immediately began quietly playing, as the quinjet continued on autopilot towards their destination.

                                

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

 

20 April 2017, Ste. 4603, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

Eleanor sat as primly as she could, her feet neatly together and legs slightly to the side with her hands folded overtop the slender handbag in her lap. She kept her eyes low and face as neutral yet pleasing as she could manage. She knew what was expected of her and she would not let her family down…even though they had her.

The surprising fact was, she was surrounded by four unbonded, high-level male Alphas, who seemed remarkably unaware of her intense level of discomfort and genuine fear. They might be exceedingly well-known men, but she was not acquainted with them personally. In fact, other than the horrible situation with Mr Allardyce, she had never been in the company of non-familial Alphas with any less than two chaperones. Now, she was expected to talk to them, interact with them, explain her situation to them, and generally not act as if she were so overwhelmed and nervous that she wanted to run and lock herself into a nice comfy closet somewhere.

She hooked her fingers together to keep her hands from shaking, as she posed questions to herself that grew progressively more anxious by the minute. She wasn't supposed to be this embarrassingly, utterly helpless, since she was always meant to have a guardian's support and guidance. So, how was she going to explain her situation to these men without betraying her own family's dirty secrets? Everything about her current circumstances was terrifying or weird (or both)—including these four famous strangers, who were now interfering in her life with no obvious objective other than compassion. Supposedly. Hopefully? She didn't know what adverb to apply there, but it was all bizarre. Yes, that worked: bizarrely. How was she supposed to figure out what she ought to do now, when everything she had been trained to expect had vanished in a matter of hours? She did not know what to think, but—contrary to the common assumptions about guardian-class Omegas—she was hardly unintelligent or incapable of making a plan to protect herself. She just hadn't had the time. Sadly, her half-formed plan had been overcome by events (in the unfortunately-coiffed and badly-dressed personage of her sister-in-law, Lilith).

Eleanor startled violently as a delicate, traditional silver tea glass holder was gently set in front of her. Looking up sharply, she stiffened as a tall, beefy blond man leant slightly nearer to lay a thick cashmere blanket beside her before he moved quietly to sit on a chair across from her. She noticed that the man—whose name she did not yet know as he had entered the room after all the introductions—was purposefully not staring at her. Yet, nevertheless, she had a definite feeling that all of his senses were focused firmly on her. Perplexed for a moment, Eleanor then fell back on familiar knowledge that was more natural to her than anything else that was happening. It was possible that this man—an extremely high-level Alpha if his scent was an accurate indicator—was trying to make an Overture to a Courtship request. However, before she had time to consider this possibility further, the conversation turned back to her, so her attention was pulled away from her thoughts.

Tony Stark cleared his throat and said seriously, "OK, Miss Fontaine, my AI now has your OPS records and I can see that…ah…I did not understand that your loss was so recent. I am very sorry."

Unwilling to dwell on that, Eleanor replied stiffly, "Thank you."

"Your father did not provide for…"

She shook her head firmly. "He trusted my brother, so no. No, Jonathan is my sole trustee."

"Ok, got it. If it is alright with you, then my AI will need to temporarily change your address of record with the OPS."

Eleanor shivered and inched her hand towards the blanket the man had placed beside her. Yet, she immediately reminded herself that she was meant to never show less than perfect poise outside of the home, so she forced her shoulders back into place and folded her hands in her lap once more. She then replied with poorly hidden exhaustion, "I've never had to worry about that, Mr Stark. Do I need to do that already?"

She looked between the two men who were conducting the questioning and unconsciously bit her lip with worry. Honestly, it would be better if they just did whatever needed to be done. Since she was guardian-class, neither was she allowed to manage these things directly, nor did she have any idea what was necessary anyway. If she could take charge of it all, then she would not be in this situation. Obviously.

With only a brief hesitation, Tony continued, "I think that my AI can also begin the application for a temporary guardianship to help you, if you have decided that you do want that. We did not discuss this earlier, but I am assuming that you are a guardian-class Omega, so this would be required if you are to remain here for more than a day, Miss Fontaine?"

Now utterly mortified, as she knew what the inevitable reaction to her reply would be, Eleanor almost whispered, "Yes, that is right. I am AAA ranked." At that, every one of the Alphas lifted or turned their heads and looked at her with varying degrees of surprise and interest. Eleanor peered over at the man who had brought her the tea, and saw that he was rapidly texting with someone and yet…she felt he was still quietly very focused on her, as well. She wasn't sure how she knew it or why he would pay her so much attention whilst attempting to appear as if he was ignoring her. Shouldn't he want her to know he was interested if he was making an Overture? Perhaps she was mistaken in her assessment, therefore.

Finding herself too tired to expend further energy on this line of thought, Eleanor looked away again with a sinking, anxious feeling. Four high-level Alphas in one room was a lot to expect one unbonded Omega to handle. In addition, two of them were scenting too strongly to be considered polite, which worried her about their individual control. In hopes of calming herself, she lifted the ornate tea glass holder to take a sip and was surprised to taste a heavily sweetened, but very strong, almost smoky tea. Either the man or someone he knew very well was very clearly Russian.

Steve Rogers awkwardly shifted on his feet and looked to Tony, as he said, "I think that we have to involve the state directly for guardianship in that case, don't we? Or has that sort of thing changed since my time?"

Tony shrugged, but Sam Wilson sighed and replied, "No, I wish it had, Steve, but no. Since she is under 35, Miss Fontaine will need a temporary guardian that is approved by Omega Protective Services. We do have to report all of this to the authorities immediately, too. Unfortunately, her family is actually guilty of criminal abandonment, so this could get pretty ugly in the near future."

Mortified, Eleanor pleaded, "Oh, please don't report them. I don't want that. Can we not avoid it? Please."

As he scratched his very thick beard in embarrassment, Sam shook his head. "No, I'm sorry, Miss Fontaine. We were actually briefed on this recently at the VAA. Despite numerous attempts recently to relax legislation to help Omegas left in your situation, except in Wyoming, Absaroka, and Hawai’i where there is an option to have a judge grant a guardian-class Omega emancipation into the autonomous-class, the other 52 states and the federal government classify any unbonded A-ranked or higher Omega as legally guardian-class. Since your family expelled you from the home without support or another registered guardian, then they are guilty of abandonment, Miss Fontaine."

"I understand, Sergeant Wilson. I would never challenge my status as guardian-class—I am a AAA, so I appreciate that these laws exist to protect me. And…and I do comprehend that I will need another guardian, so I am deeply grateful for Mr Stark's generous offer. However, I really do not want Jonathan to get into legal trouble either. Despite everything, he is still my brother."

His confusion at her attitude clear from his deep frown, Sam gestured to the deep blue OPS folder that had been laid on the table next to Steve, and continued, "Your family created this situation, Miss Fontaine, when they gave you your papers and so relinquished their guardianship. It is not your fault that they landed themselves in a difficult legal situation. Your New York state Omega support funds won't be available to you unless you register a new guardian. We can at least get the OPS to help you procure those, so you will feel more secure."

Unsure what he meant, Eleanor turned first to Steve and then Tony, who was frowning unhappily. Noticing her questioning look, Tony stated firmly, "It is not really necessary for you to worry about that now, Miss Fontaine. Under New York state law, until you are bondmatched, guardian-class Omegas are eligible for state support if your guardian has a monthly income under some arbitrary amount that is probably less than my weekly entertainment budget. If you eventually find an impecunious permanent guardian elsewhere, then we can help you apply for that then."

She had always wondered what happened to guardian-class Omegas who were born into families without any wealth. As she had been informed just that morning, the cost of Eleanor's clothing alone was five times what Jonathan allowed Lilith. It might be nearly impossible for parents to prepare an unbonded guardian-class girl for bondmatch if they were poor. Seemingly, the state of New York was willing to help bridge some of the gap. Which...honestly, that really didn't match what she had heard about the blatant class prejudice of New York's OPS board of directors. Almost certainly, those funds came with serious restrictions and the requirement that OPS would arrange the bondmatching like they did for guardian-less Omegas. "Oh. I had no idea about any of that."

Tony shrugged. "I doubt North Shore Young Ladies' Prep felt their students needed to know about that kind of thing."

Shocked, as she had not mentioned her educational history at all, Eleanor stared at him for a moment before she remembered that the AI computer had pulled up some file on her, which she now had to assume must be particularly detailed. It was a bit violating to think that all of her information was available to anyone with an advanced computer.

Tony smiled kindlier than before and, with a gesture towards the unusual opal and ruby ring on her right forefinger, said, "My mother was an alumna, Miss Fontaine. She occasionally wore hers to events where that stuff matters."

Embarrassed, Eleanor flushed hotly and stared down at her lap for a few moments. Then, she returned to the topic of her family's abandonment. "I see. But might my family not be charged criminally if you report them to OPS? No matter what they did, I still do not want that to happen. Do we really have to do it?"

Arms crossed tightly over his chest and his expression registering deep concern, Steve interjected firmly, "Your family has failed in their duty to guard and provide for you, Miss Fontaine. This is what has us most concerned and why we have involved ourselves with your situation so we can help you. It is not just our social responsibility as Alphas, but it is simply common decency to make certain that you are safe. I cannot comprehend your family intentionally leaving you so vulnerable and unprotected."

Eleanor looked around all the men in the room, as she sipped another bit of the strong tea and wished that she could allow herself to cuddle under the blanket. She did not really know these men beyond what she had seen in the media (which she had to admit was mostly positive). They had all inserted themselves into her problems out of kindness, yet she was still embarrassed and very uncomfortable. She was strongly aware that all four of them were unbonded, since the varying levels of scent they were all inadvertently producing in reaction to her were impossible for her to ignore. This alone unnerved Eleanor enough to make her question if she should remain. As well-meaning as they might be (hopefully), there was currently no one in the room to act as chaperone for her. Her teachers had explained repeatedly and extensively how difficult it was for high-level Alphas to control their instincts around unbonded, guardian-class Omegas. As long as they were all present, however, she felt it unlikely that any one of them would step out line though.

Naturally, Eleanor could see that she was going to have to accept a bondmatch with someone soon no matter what her private feelings were about it. Her situation simply demanded it for survival. As kind as Mr Stark's offer of temporary guardianship was, she could not leech off his generosity for more than a few weeks at most. It was not right to be beholden to someone who was not family, nor did she think he would be pleased to support a complete stranger for very long.

Nevertheless, Eleanor felt a nasty squelching sensation inside as she considered how she was now meant to find any Alphas that were not OPS-selected candidates. She didn't actually want to be forced into bondmatching already either. Father had always said he would choose wisely for her and now, well, someone else was going to do it—if not OPS then…Mr Stark, perhaps. She could read Mr Stark's scent enough to know that he was not interested in her, but might he not have a friend he wanted to help out? Actually, there were three other unbonded Alphas in that very room. Mr Stark might have a very obvious ulterior motive in extending temporary guardianship to her, in fact. All of the Avengers were prominent men—so, if one of them extended a Claim, would an Mr Stark make it difficult for her to refuse it?

Miserable at the realisation that she was probably going to be trapped into a bondmatch now like she had nearly been in her brother's home or certainly would be under OPS guardianship, Eleanor dragged over the blanket—despite her ruthless school training regarding the importance of keeping appropriate posture and demeanour at all times—and laid it neatly folded across her lap. If she was honest (and why not be at this point), all she wanted to do was to find a small room and lay down to cry. She picked up the delicate, Imperial silver podstakannik to finish the last of the strong, sweet tea as a distraction, while she tried unsuccessfully to keep herself from shivering from the tidal wave of emotions that were overwhelming her.

Tony cast a sad, all too knowing look at Eleanor, then he sighed. "Look, it doesn't matter why her family did what they did, Steve. It just matters that it happened and now Miss Fontaine needs our help." He stared pointedly at Steve, as he continued, "JARVIS has sent all the relevant paperwork to the state now, so that's done. In the meantime, as she waits for OPS to approve everything, Miss Fontaine will stay under Avengers protection."

Eleanor shivered again and decided that she was too miserable to care about proper appearances, so she unfolded the blanket and draped it from her feet all the way up to her hips, as she heard Steve reply forcefully, "Good. Although, I don't know how much they can be trusted to look out for Miss Fontaine's best interests versus whatever is most expedient for their agency."

The tall blond man, who had brought her the tea, stood up and moved to the wall across from her. He scratched absently under one ear, which made her notice for the first time his bright purple hearing aids, then he said curtly, "Both of you should remember that Miss Fontaine is an individual and that Omegas have self-agency. You might want to involve her actively in this discussion, instead of just making decisions first and then explaining them to her afterwards."

Sam sharply looked up from broodily considering the mug of coffee in his hands. He peered at the blond man with increased interest, then quietly stated, "Clint is perfectly correct, Miss Fontaine. Are you comfortable remaining here under Stark’s temporary guardianship? Just because I encountered you in our lobby this afternoon, that doesn't automatically give us a right to interfere if you are uncomfortable. OPS can stand as your guardian until whenever you bondmatch, if you prefer. Our only intention here is to give you a safe place for the time being. We aren't going to force you into anything—most especially not a match."

Eleanor dropped her eyes to the floor, now almost frozen in distress, so she was unable to reply. She might not be entirely comfortable with them interfering since she did not know these men at all, but she also didn't have any other champion or support to whom she could go. At least they seemed to have her interests somewhat at heart. Hopefully. Maybe. The blond man that had been hovering nearby—Clint, apparently, who she thought might be Hawkeye the archer—seemed particularly concerned. In contrast, she had heard enough stories about Omega Protective Services to know how little they would care about her emotional well-being. If she did not make an effort to appear grateful for their support, then the Avengers might just turn her over to OPS after all.

However, at that moment, a slender, red-headed female Alpha burst into the room and briefly regarded Eleanor with an odd, intent expression. Then, she turned and fiercely glared at all the men in the room, as she said forcefully, "What is wrong with all of you? Would it have killed you to ask Miss Potts or another female employee to sit in here as chaperone so Miss Fontaine would be comfortable? Did none of you consider how overwhelming four Alphas looming like this would seem to her? Kretiny." She then turned back to Eleanor and spoke very gently with a soft, crooked smile, "My name is Natalia Romanova, sestrenka." With a slight jerk of her head towards the large blond man, who had pushed himself off the wall and was now standing uncertainly in the middle of the room, the woman explained, "I am Clint Barton's bonded sister. None of these idiots were thinking with their brains; I apologise for them. Why don't you come with me and we will go somewhere much more comfortable until we get notification from OPS about your paperwork?" Within seconds, somehow Eleanor found herself with the blanket draped around her like a shawl and the woman's arm around her shoulders, as she was swiftly escorted out of the room and into the corridor.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 2

 

20 April 2017, Ste. 3901, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

The woman was just as petite as Eleanor, but she radiated strength, confidence, and fierce control in a way that was incredibly intimidating. “We will go down to my rooms, ok? You will be more comfortable there without a pack of male Alphas staring you down. Clint texted me immediately, but I wasn’t nearby. Otherwise, I would have saved you from them earlier.”

Eleanor did not speak, but allowed herself to be swept along by the woman. She wondered if Natasha was just being kind or…or perhaps making her own Overture. Female Alphas were so rare that most Omegas would never meet one, but they occasionally entered into bondmatches with female Omegas. Yet, somehow, Eleanor did not feel that was the woman’s intention, even though she was uncertain if female Alphas produced the same scent markers as those she had been taught to recognise from male Alphas. If she was Clint’s bonded sister, then it was more likely that Clint was the one making an Overture to a Courtship request after all.

As the door to the lift opened, Natasha said kindly, “Come on, sestrenka, they won’t interfere here, I promise. They didn’t mean to overwhelm you or dominate the situation. Their intentions were excellent, but they are male Alphas after all.” She shook her red curls as if disgusted, but smiled conspiratorially at Eleanor. “Clint texted me an outline of your situation, so you don’t have to tell me any more or less than you feel like. I’m not going to force you to discuss anything right now. Ok?”

“Th-thank you, Miss Romanova.”                                                           

Natasha smiled and guided Eleanor firmly with one hand on her lower back. “Natalia, sestrenka. We need not be formal, I think. You can curl up on the sofa in my flat and get comfortable. It will be quiet and safe from male interruption.”

Eleanor lowered her head further and whispered, “Thank you.”

“They weren’t intentionally bulldozing you; you know. Their protective instinct was simply overwhelming their manners. You are a AAA, aren’t you?”

Eleanor didn’t trust herself to do more than nod.

Smiling while she poked the lift button as if it were an annoyance, Natasha commented lightly, “Of course, most Alphas never have the privilege of meeting a guardian-class Omega, but especially not one who is still unbonded unless they are particularly well-connected. Additionally, my colleagues are all high-level Alphas, so they are even more affected than some level-1 or 2 might be, Eleanor. I assure you that on a normal day, my colleagues do not produce scent quite so inappropriately, so I hope you won’t judge them too harshly. I am confident that your family helped you to appreciate how special a AAA ranked Omega like you is.”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Nevertheless, I don’t want you to think that your ranking is the only reason why the Avengers have extended protection to you. Even though we have only just met you, it is clear that you are special, Eleanor. We do not normally take in and extend protection towards young women that we have only just met, you know.”

“Yes, of course not. Thank you. You are very kind.”

Natasha smiled reassuringly as the lift doors opened. Putting her hand on Eleanor’s lower back again to guide her forwards, she said lightly, “Even I feel a powerful drive to be protective towards you, so I can imagine that as males my colleagues are feeling even stronger instincts. It is simply part of our Alpha nature, so I hope that you can be understanding towards them if they were overbearing.”

Her face flushing deep red, Eleanor turned her eyes away and said in a wobbly voice, “I don’t mean to cause a problem. I am sorry.”

They walked into an extremely neat and modern looking flat and Eleanor was directed towards a low, long sofa. Then, after she was firmly seated and tucked up again in the large, soft blanket, Eleanor felt the woman’s petite hand pat her shoulder soothingly and had to keep herself from leaning into it with relief. Even a stranger’s kindness after the events of that morning was unusually welcome.

“You are not a problem, little sister. Your family has committed a grave crime in abandoning you. One that we Avengers will not allow to stand.”

“Thank you,” Eleanor peered nervously over at Natasha and then breathed out slowly. “It was more my sister-in-law than my brother, honestly. She really, really hates me. I’ve never understood why. I’ve always tried to be supportive and nice to her.”

“Mmm. A Beta? And your brother is probably a level-1 Alpha?”

Surprised, Eleanor answered, “Yes.”

“Most likely, your sister-in-law was simply filled with jealousy towards you and insecure about her marriage to an Alpha. It is not uncommon for a low-level Alpha to marry a Beta, since 1s and 2s don’t have the powerful drives that we upper-levels do, which will rarely accept anything other than a bondmatch marriage.”

“Oh, I had never thought of that.”

“No, well, it is the sort of thing that Alphas understand, but there is no reason that you would, as it doesn’t concern you.”

“I suppose not, no.”

Natasha sat perfectly straight-backed on the sofa beside her and said firmly, “I am sorry that your family betrayed you, sestrenka. Alphas and Omegas are remarkable, but Betas are the average and commonplace. Some are unique due to intelligence or very unusual personal history—I have a couple of colleagues like this—however, the vast majority of Betas are simply mediocre in talent and personality. I suspect that your sister-in-law has every reason to be very envious of a woman like you, Eleanor.”

“Oh! Thank you,” Eleanor murmured as she began to fiddle with the edge of her blanket. She knew that Natasha wanted to discuss something and that she was carefully building up to it. Honestly, she rather wished that Natasha would just say whatever was on her mind, since this conversation was getting rather uncomfortable.

“Clint is going to bring in some food in a little while. Before then, however, I would like to talk. He was making an Overture before, of course, which I am sure that you noticed.”

Relieved that, at least in this, her intuition had not failed her, Eleanor smiled slightly as she replied, “Yes, I thought as much.”

“Therefore, as his bonded sister, I am formally delivering Clint’s request for a formal Courtship.”

Quite surprised, as Overtures usually lasted at least a little bit longer, Eleanor exclaimed, “Oh! Already?”

“Yes, but before I say more about that, I want to make something quite clear. I promise that you will be safe from pressure here. In fact, you are under no obligation to even speak to Clint or another member of my team other than to meet with Stark as your temporary guardian regarding any paperwork for the OPS. Outside anything of that sort, you may remain here until the OPS representative comes and then freely leave without any pressure from any of us to accept a bondmatch. I know that there are those who think it is acceptable to force an Omega to acknowledge a Claim. You have my word, Eleanor; that absolutely will not happen here.”

Surprised at Natasha’s directness, Eleanor stammered, “Oh, o-ok.”

Natasha’s eyes narrowed so briefly that Eleanor almost convinced herself that she had imagined it. Then she leant forwards slightly and said with clear concern, “I hope that Clint did not make you uncomfortable like the others clearly did. He recognised your discomfort immediately when he entered the room and did his best to help you. Although Clint can be very perceptive and is extremely capable, unfortunately he simply cannot override Rogers or Stark. They are forces unto themselves.”

Eleanor tried to tuck the blanket closer as she shivered and then attempted to reply coherently to Natasha. “No, h-he was nice. He didn’t talk at me like C-Captain Rogers or just start doing things w-w-without asking like Mr Stark. He t-tried to remind Mr Stark that I do have a voice of m-my own. He…he brought me tea and a blanket, but…but didn’t try to sit close to me or anything inappropriate. And…I guess he got you to come and chaperone, too, right? I’m not…I’ve never had to…you see, my father always took care of things and, when he died, my brother was supposed to, you know, take over. And so…I don’t know what I am supposed to do n-now. If I had time, then…then I could figure everything out. However, I don’t.”

Natasha’s expression was dour as she stated firmly, “Your brother will answer for his dereliction, Eleanor. I am glad that Clint did not make you uncomfortable, however, are you willing to allow him to come in?”

“Oh…I…I think so.”

Natasha smiled gently, but seemed pleased. “He is very eager to begin the Courtship. You might be interested to know that Clint has never been tempted to make an Overture before today. I have never before seen him so determined and I have known Clint for over a decade, Eleanor.”

Surprised, Eleanor lifted her head and regarded Natasha closely, as she asked with obvious interest, “Truly?”

“Yes. Clearly, as my bonded brother, he is very important to me, but Clint really is a special person.” Natasha paused and looked intently at Eleanor before she said, “Not many people could have handled a sibling bond with me and we have been bonded for nine years. A familial male/female bond is already unusual for any Alphas to attempt. We are a special case, honestly, which should tell you how unique Clint really is. He is the only person that I truly trust, Eleanor. He is also exceptional, since he manages to be both a truly good person and yet an absolutely deadly assassin. It will do no good to sugar-coat anything. You need to understand that is both his history and his present.”

Eleanor shrugged placidly and said with a tiny smile, “I am not concerned. I didn’t really imagine that being an Avenger meant that you simply ask the bad guys nicely to stop and they actually comply.” She saw the blank expression that dropped over Natasha’s face and bit her lip nervously. She knew she ought to guard her tongue better. She dropped her eyes and replied cautiously, “I don’t know anything about your brother’s history actually, but I would like to know more. I only know that he is an Avenger, he shoots arrows, and his name is Clint Barton. I will have to learn anything else from you or Mr Barton himself.”

She felt that Natasha was watching carefully and rather coldly appraising her. Eleanor wondered anxiously if perhaps Natasha was the sort of Alpha that did not like a female Omega to be anything but quiet and sweet. Matron Menshikova had always told her that her little streak of sarcasm would offend many Alphas if she did not liberally temper it with natural submissiveness. Eleanor sighed and curled as much in on herself as was possible without actually pulling her legs up onto the sofa.

However, to her surprise, Natasha replied warmly, “I can tell you about our work, but Clint should tell you about anything else. He and I often collaborate, but we do work independently, too. We both are agents for SHIELD, as well as the Avengers. I do more intelligence whilst he does more reconnaissance, but both of us are assassins when the job must be done. Our work with the Avengers is much the same. So, he may be well-known as Hawkeye, but Clint is not just a superhero like Rogers. Many people would be very uncomfortable with the reality of our work, so it is important that you know.”

Emboldened by Natasha’s response, Eleanor risked allowing a touch of her personality to show again. “I doubt Captain Rogers sits around knitting in between alien attacks either. I think I can understand that Alphas who are top-level possess skills that make them incapable of being satisfied with inactivity and boredom, as well as very unlikely to be contented in any job that is not active, risky, or very challenging. This does not concern me.”

To Eleanor’s relief, Natasha laughed. “That is extremely well put and very accurate. Clint is at the far end of that spectrum, in fact. He often takes risks that frustrate me, frankly, but it is part of who he is. I am more cautious than Clint, although I’m not afraid of the risk if it is necessary.”

Eleanor nodded as she asked seriously, “He is a level-5, isn’t he?”

Her eyes sparkling with amusement, Natasha replied, “That is very classified, but of course, he is. I am a level-4. If super soldiers were fairly rated, then Barnes and Rogers would probably be in their own category, but, as it is, they are level-5, too. The rest of the Alphas on the team are level-3.”

“My grandfather, father, and brother were all rated standard level-1 like most Alphas. I don’t have any direct experience with high-rated Alphas at all.”

“Then you are not very different from Clint, who has never even talked to an A ranked Omega, let alone an AAA. You both strongly exhibit the archetypal character traits of your designations, Eleanor.”

Sighing deeply, Eleanor shrugged dejectedly. “I suppose that you are right. The OPS has tracked me as a possible upper guardian-class since I was almost four years old. Matron Menshikova, my mentor at school, seemed to think so, too. Yet the faculty at the school didn’t all agree with my rating, you know. They retested me twice when they felt that I was not quite a proper AAA.”

Surprised, Natasha replied, “That is outrageously offensive. Did they explain why?”

Eleanor interwove her fingers as she stared at the swirling, terrifying gold and red painting of the night sky on the wall across from her—that rather reminded her of something she’d seen before but the signature (a very scraggly R) didn’t obviously correspond to any artist she knew—and worked to gather her thoughts. Then, having decided to admit everything openly, she looked up at Natasha and said clearly, “Yes. The initial time was after my first month at school, when I was nominated to be the class representative. Leadership roles are considered too stressful for AAAs, so school policy forbids it. I really did not want to be the representative, but since my classmates nominated me, I felt honour-bound to try if the school would allow it.   Therefore, the headmistress felt that I might not truly be AAA, since I should be too afraid of taking any leadership position. She required me to be retested before I could return to classes—ostensibly to be certain that I was in the correct track for coursework. The second time, the History of East Asian Etiquette instructress felt that I was cheating because I was able to recite all the texts by memory. They made no attempt to pretend the testing was not punitive, but the intelligence test they also administered backfired a bit when I scored a 165.”

Natasha raised both eyebrows and answered sharply, “What a pack of bigoted a***es. Surely, you are far from the only genius level AAA that school has had, since North Shore is famous for producing clever, cultured graduates. I am very sorry that you had that experience, Eleanor.”

Eleanor sagged with relief; she had judged Natasha correctly. Honestly, it was quite a risk for her to disclose that she had shown unusual personality traits for her designation when at school, as well as admitting the degree of her intelligence. Unfortunately, for every wealthy Alpha in the northeast who wanted a match possessing the famous North Shore wit, there were 10 who preferred one who was only quiet and sweet. This was why Eleanor and her classmates had all been taught both how to cleverly support nearly any point-of-view and how to politely demur when their conscience would not allow them to pretend to agree. One never knew what style of bondmatch one would have, so it was important to be prepared.

With a sincere, grateful smile, Eleanor said softly, “Thank you, but I am used to that sort of attitude by now, so I am not bothered as much anymore. You know, in school they told us that level-5 Alphas could only properly bondmatch to AAAs. They taught us that both truly need the other extreme to fully complement our designations. Yet, we were also told that it was unlikely we would bondmatch anything above a level-2, so one way or the other their claims seemed dubious. I wonder, however, if there is some bit of truth to it.”

Natasha nodded. “I think that being at the far end of one’s designation makes it more challenging to find a balanced match, but certainly not impossible. Designations are only a part of our personality. There is a lot more to you than just being a female Omega, isn’t that so?”

Eleanor nodded, but did not say more, as she felt that she had risked enough.

Smiling slightly, Natasha continued, “Then you won’t be surprised that Clint is not merely a level-5 Alpha. Are you interested in learning more about him? Would you be willing to allow him to proceed into Courtship?”

“I will allow it, yes. You will be my chaperone, won’t you?”

“There is one more thing that I want you to comprehend before I can promise you that. It regards the type of sibling bond that I would keep with Clint if you were to acknowledge his Claim and proceed to bondmatch.”

“Very well, will you tell me?”

Natasha tilted her head and frowned thoughtfully. “Do you know the difference between a lateral bond and a joint bond? More specifically, do you understand what a joint bond would entail for Clint’s bondmatch?”

Surprised, Eleanor answered cautiously, “Yes, of course. Naturally, that was one of the things that was covered at finishing school. In a joint bond, the bonded sibling of my Alpha match would become my own bonded sibling, too. Contrarily, with a lateral bond, the bonded sibling is more like a brother-in-law or sister-in-law.”

Clearly relieved, Natasha replied in a clipped tone, “That is right. The lateral bond is more common and less invasive to the Omega match, since she doesn’t have any familial obligation to the bonded Alpha sibling. However, Clint has always planned for us to pursue a joint bond if he ever bondmatched. I allowed him to believe that this would be acceptable, yet I was never fully comfortable with the idea of a bonded sister.”

Eleanor looked curiously at Natasha. “Would you prefer a lateral bond with me if I were to acknowledge the Claim?”

“No. With Clint it is always all or nothing, Eleanor. He doesn’t understand doing anything halfway. He is completely loyal to family and friends. Either we would do a joint bond or I would break the sibling bond.”

“Oh! No, I cannot be a part of anything that would destroy a successful sibling bond. If you think that a bondmatch between your brother and me would lead you to break the bond, then I will refuse to acknowledge his Claim now.”

Natasha sat very still as she regarded Eleanor for several seconds and then finally said, “I am glad that you feel that way. Not even many Alphas fully understand the special place that a sibling bond holds for those of us who have one. If you respect our bond that much, then I would be comfortable with making a joint bond.”

“Are you certain? It does not seem very fair to you that you would have to adopt me as a bonded sister if your brother bondmatches me.”

Smiling suddenly, Natasha replied, “No, it isn’t fair, which was why I have always assumed that I wouldn’t like it. For as long as we have been siblings, Clint has said that he would rather not bondmatch than lose our family bond. That is how loyal he is to me, which is one of the main reasons our bond has endured. Yet, I like you. More than that, I genuinely want to make you my sister. I will admit that I was as surprised when I realised a few minutes ago that I already like you, as I was that Clint has found someone to whom he is nearly desperate to bondmatch. I rarely like people and almost never women.”

Flushing bright red, Eleanor stammered, “Th-thank you, but are you sure that you would want an Omega bonded sister? I could hardly be more different from you, you know. I might be very frustrating for a very highly skilled and competent Alpha like yourself. Jonathan was always frustrated by me.”

Natasha’s eyes flashed, as she replied, “Your brother is an idiot and has no concept of what it means to be an Alpha to one’s family. Our designations are quite compatible as siblings and it infuriates me that you have clearly been told otherwise. Truthfully, I believe that I would enjoy having you for a little sister, Eleanor.”

Eleanor considered Natasha seriously for a while, before she finally replied merely, “Ok.”

“I will require an honest assessment of how you feel about this, Eleanor, if we are to continue.”

Nodding comprehension, Eleanor bit her lip as she stared at her still intertwined fingers for a few moments. “You know that my relationship with my brother and his wife is very poor. Technically, I also have an older sister. Marianne was the first female Beta that my family had in generations, so she was not treated well. When I was 10, she left home to marry a low-level Alpha who is an Australian diplomat. Since then, she has been very clear that I am not her sister any longer. So, I have never had a sibling who actually wanted me there. Therefore, Natalia, I’d very much like to the possibility of a sister with whom I could have a positive relationship.”

Natasha tilted her head in what seemed to be her signature gesture of interest and replied seriously, “I am sorry that you had to experience that, Eleanor. Your family has repeatedly let you down—a situation that I understand all too well. My life has been such that I have never been able to trust another female. It never seemed possible that would change either, but I am prepared to reconsider this. Shall I get Clint now?”

“Oh, yes, definitely. I hope he isn’t too displeased because we have taken so long talking.”

Natasha shook her head and laid her hand on Eleanor’s. “It is entirely up to you if and when you allow him to court you. If you wanted to wait until tomorrow, then he would wait. Clint will never force you, nor attempt to manipulate you into acknowledging his Claim. However, he is very, very determined to make his case to you if you are willing to listen. Honestly, I am not sure that I’ve seen him so single-minded about anything before.”

Eleanor shrugged and fiddled anxiously with the edge of the blanket as she said, “Although I am flattered, I don’t truly understand his interest. Your brother doesn’t really know me.”

Her expression immediately went blank as Natasha leant forwards to place a hand on Eleanor’s shoulder. “Well no, not like he would after he has been able to court you. However, there are a lot of things that one can tell about another person even at first glance, as you must know. Furthermore, we Alphas have ways of quickly sensing characteristics and qualities in Omegas that you cannot.”

“Oh.”

Natasha’s demeanour became extremely serious, as she continued, “Although designations are not all-important, they do matter immensely when considering bondmatch compatibility. I know that a AAA ranked Omega like you is probably the only type of woman capable of uncovering my deeply buried sisterly instincts. As for Clint…he usually does not trust women, since he has been burned repeatedly. I suspect that your designation would make him more likely to trust you, since AAAs are naturally extremely loyal. Regardless, whatever combination of things he noticed or read from you; Clint is quite desperate to begin Courtship.”

“What if, well, if things don’t go according to plan?”

“If you do not feel that you are compatible once you meet with him?” Natasha shook her head and said forcefully, “You do not have to do anything that you do not want. I will help you either way. Instead of acting as his second, which would be traditional for a bonded sibling, Clint asked me to take on the position of chaperone so I could look out for your interests, not his. I can inform you about the other three unbonded Alphas on our team, as well. I believe that two of them were very interested.”

Her eyes narrowing with annoyance, Eleanor said firmly, “No, thank you, but…no, they saw me just as the pink unicorn, you know? The pretty little AAA Omega that needed protecting. And I am incredibly grateful for their help, you know, but I don’t think that I am really an individual person to them. My designation is their chief interest, honestly.”

“I do not think that is actually the case, Eleanor, but if you were not comfortable with them, then that is all you need to say.”

“Well…I don’t mean to be insulting. I am sure that they are very nice, good men and that their intentions are all kind.”

Natasha laughed. “They are, yes, but it is your interest that matters here. This is a decision that only the Omega gets to make, no matter how much an Alpha may wish otherwise. You have the power to refuse any or all Claims.”

“Thank you for saying so.” Eleanor unwound her fingers and gripped her knees as she said, “In contrast to the others, it seemed like Clint was thinking of me as an actual human. In fact, he chose to involve you on my behalf, which gives me hope that Clint would be the sort of Alpha who actually cares about a female Omega’s needs and feelings and not just his own. I wish that didn’t seem like a rare quality to me, but it really does. I haven’t met many Alphas who were genuinely interested in what Omegas actually thought or felt.”

Natasha nodded. “It is unfortunate that has been your experience, Eleanor. I do not believe that most Alphas are that uncaring about Omegas, however I admit that as an Alpha I would not see things like you might. Clint is an unusual man and worth your consideration. He would never ignore you as a person. I would say this even if I weren’t his bonded sister.”

Her cheeks reddened as Eleanor tried to explain, “Ok, well, he doesn’t look anything like I would have ever, I mean…”

“You do not find him physically attractive?”

Eleanor flushed even deeper. “That wasn’t what I meant. Clint isn’t unattractive at all…rather the opposite…I just meant…what I was trying to say was that he looks like the sort of Alpha that is, you know, like the stereotype.”

“Ah.”

Fluttering her hands nervously to emphasise her point, Eleanor insisted, “I don’t mean the bad sort of stereotype, you know.”

“Yes, I understand. You mean the textbook topped-out Alpha—like Steve Rogers.”

“Oh, yes, but I don’t mean anything unkind by that! I’m sure Captain Rogers is very nice.”

Natasha laughed lightly, but her eyes were narrowed slightly as she explained, “Rogers is quite nice, yes, but I don’t think he will break any moulds or push any boundaries whenever he chooses some female Omega to bondmatch. Rogers would be very nice to you and treat you like a queen, but within every standard, traditional boundary. If you would be more comfortable with this type of bondmatch, then Clint is the wrong Alpha to choose.”

Startled, Eleanor replied, “But…I’m not asking for someone who doesn’t want me to be traditional though. I couldn’t be comfortable with anything else.”

“No, sestrenka, I understand. Traditional gender roles will be more comfortable for you.” Natasha’s shoulders relaxed slightly and she sat back against the sofa cushion, as she continued, “Although Clint definitely isn’t the stereotype and he is pretty clueless about tradition, he is very strongly Alpha and will require a lot of your attention. He won’t insist on everything done his way, nor will he assume that you have no brain or want you to pretend that you don’t. However, he will very likely be possessive and pretty demanding about your affection and time.”

Eleanor’s back stiffened as she said tightly, “I would never offer my affection outside of my bondmatch.”

“I believe you, Eleanor. I never thought otherwise.” Natasha looked down at the device on her wrist and frowned. “Looks like I have received a few things from Stark. Just a moment.” She strode over to a cabinet, which popped open only after both an optic scan and two fingerprint matches, then pulled out an exceptionally thin tablet. After a few taps on the screen, Natasha brought the tablet over to Eleanor and said, “These are documents intended for you. Swipe up to move between pages. Even though it is passcode locked into the document reader, it will still time out if you wait too long in between screen touches so you need to be careful. While you read those, I’ll go and get Clint.” Natasha waited for a moment as Eleanor began to look over the first document, then she briefly placed her hand on Eleanor’s head. “I should be back in about 10 minutes.” She turned and exited the room, then closed the door behind her very quietly and walked down the corridor to find Clint.

 

20 April 2017, Rm. 208, Itunu Motel, Someplace Else

 

“Hello, Natasha. Done with your call? How’s Clint?”

Romanoff did not say anything for a moment, as she placed the contents of the bag on the table with very controlled movements.

Frowning, Rogers asked with concern, “Is there something wrong with him or his family? Does he need our help?”

“No, Steve.” Romanoff shook her head and added in a tired voice, “Clint is fine. Laura and the children are fine.”

Rogers stepped closer and put one hand on her shoulder tentatively. “Nat?”

Yet, Romanoff turned on her heel and looked up with narrowed eyes at Rogers to ask warily, “What do you need, Steve?”

Immediately, Rogers dropped his hand and stepped back. “I don’t need anything, Natasha. Maybe I should go check on Sam.”

“Wilson will be another few minutes on his call to his family. Don’t disturb him yet, Steve.”

Rogers frowned with annoyance and responded tightly, “I know, Natasha. I was just offering to give you privacy for a while. I really seem to say all the wrong things lately. I’m sorry.”

Turning away from him so she could pick up the paper cup of tea that she had carried in with her, Romanoff closed her eyes and said only, “I am fine, Steve.”

“Ok, if you say so. I don’t like upsetting you, Nat.”

“Steve, this doesn’t have anything to do with you. You don’t have to take everything on board.” She turned back towards him and asked gently, “Are you going to call Barnes?”

Rogers shrugged uncertainly and replied hesitantly, “He only got out of cryo four days ago, Natasha. They asked me to wait before I visit, so I don’t think that they want me calling either.”

Romanoff watched Rogers for a moment and then nodded almost imperceptibly. “It might be a while before we are in another place safe enough to use the sat phone again, Steve. Call him. Barnes will be expecting it.”

Rogers sat down on the edge of the motel bed and ran his hand along his jawline, rubbing his beard absently until he finally replied, “Bucky will also know when I’m lying. He always does. So, when he asks how things are going, then he’s going to feel like he needs to come watch my back out here.”

“Maybe. It isn’t as if you are alone though, Steve.”

Rogers smiled sadly. “I know. Natasha, I am not saying that I need Bucky here. I just worry that he might think that I do. He doesn’t trust you like I do and he doesn’t really know Sam at all.”

Taking a long sip from her cup, Romanoff then responded guardedly, “There’s a reason for that, Steve. If he remembers his time under Soviet control, then he might remember me.”

“So what? You remember him and you aren’t afraid of him.”

“I thought that you’d gotten better at reading me than that, Steve.”

Rogers rapidly lifted his eyes to Romanoff’s face and then said with a dejected sigh, “Oh. Natasha…”

“I know that Barnes is not the Soldat, Steve. However, I remember his face. I haven’t forgotten.”

“Is that…is it a problem? Would you be uncomfortable if he joined us eventually?”

Romanoff shook her head. “It would be strange, but nothing I can’t handle. I know that it is a matter of when he joins us, not if. Frankly, it will be better for us when Barnes is here watching your flank. You’re not very careful about your own safety when you’re protecting someone else, but Barnes will shoot dead anything that breathes in your direction. Also, I know how much Barnes matters to you, so maybe you won’t always have the miserable look on your face that you’ve been sporting these last couple of months. Sam and I worry about you more than we mention, Steve.”

Steve glanced down at the ground and rubbed his hands back and forth along his thighs agitatedly, “Yes, obviously Bucky does matter. He’s my best friend and brother. However, you matter, too, Natasha. If you are uncomfortable because of your past with him, then I won’t invite Buck to join us, no matter what he or I want.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Steve.”

Rogers glanced over at the door and said, “Alright, Natasha. I just want you to know that your opinion matters. From the sound of that laugh, it looks like Sam’s heading back here.”

It was another 10 seconds before the door to the motel opened and Wilson walked through it with a container holding three large coffee cups. “Don’t either of you touch my cup before I get out of the shower. I need every drop of that coffee today.”

Rogers laughed, but Romanoff smiled cheekily at Wilson.

Wilson groaned. “That wasn’t a challenge, Romanoff.”

“Good, since it wouldn’t be one.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

20 April 2017, Ste. 3901, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

Natasha found Clint propped against the wall with a fierce expression on his face and both arms crossed anxiously across his chest. "Do you like her, Nat? What do you think? She is perfect, isn't she?"

Her tone was intentionally soothing, as Natasha replied, "I like her, Clint, definitely."

With a huge sigh of relief, Clint turned to face the wall and leant against it with his hands splayed, as he said only, "Thank f***." He propped himself up that way for nearly a minute. He then turned his head towards Natasha and said with a frown, "You wouldn't believe Sam. I've never seen him lose his temper that way. Nat, he was furious when I told them that you might be supervising a Courtship if Miss Fontaine allowed it."

Natasha placed a hand on his elbow, which caused him to drop his arms and turn so he could slump against the wall. She smirked and said with a shrug of her shoulders, "I'm sure he was. I think he was nearly as taken with Eleanor as you are, Clint."

"Well, it is unlike Sam to get like that, Natasha. For a few seconds, I almost thought he was going to come at me in an actual Alpha confrontation. Honestly, I was even prepared to meet him, Nat, which…honestly, I haven't done anything like that in what, 9 years? Bonding with you pretty much cured me of that s***."

Natasha sighed. "Yes, I remember. So why didn't you pull out your signature opening move and go for his throat, Yastreb?"

Clint grunted with annoyance. "You know that I don't do that s*** now, Nat. F*** you."

She laughed as she replied, "Good. I'm proud of you. I know your instincts are trying to take over, so it can't be easy."

"Are you kidding me? I feel like my skin is on fire and my mind is careening around like a drunk teenager in a street race. I've never felt this combination of crazy instincts pressing at me, Nat. I had no idea that bonding drives were this strong. I always thought other Alphas were exaggerating when they described it."

"No, primitive Alpha instincts are almost impossible to overcome for those of us high-level Alphas. That was the thing that they worked hardest to train out of us in the Red Room."

Clint's expression immediately shifted and he wrapped an arm around Natasha briefly. "Those f***ers are all dead now, sestrenka."

Her voice superlatively even, Natasha replied, "Yep, they are. That picture was the best birthday present I've ever got."

Clint shrugged. "That was a d*** difficult shot, so I quite enjoyed that one. Anyway, you are not what they tried to make you, Nat."

"Maybe not, but now is not the time to talk about that. Tell me what happened with Wilson?"

He leant back against the wall once more and looked up at the ceiling as he thought back. "Oh, well, Cap was there and stepped up to Sam and stood right in his space. Then, it got wild because Cap exuded the strongest Præceptor hormone that I have ever scented. Tony was there, too, and I know he was affected because he suddenly sat down and closed his eyes. Honestly, I had to work hard not to submit and it wasn’t even aimed at me, so I’m actually a little impressed how long Sam held out. So, it was at least a minute of Cap and Sam just face to face and then, finally, Sam just turned and left the room.”

Natasha sighed. “I can’t say that I’m surprised. I’ve scented Steve’s Ferox hormone during combat twice and it was almost terrifying—twice as strong as yours is. So, I would expect his Præceptor to be similarly strong. I am just pleased that he came down on your side, Clint.”

Clint huffed loudly. “Yeah, that’s true. I didn’t even consider that, Nat. He’s pretty close to Sam, so he might have taken Sam’s side. S***. But I did make an Overture, so I have precedence.”

“Some might consider Sam bringing Eleanor up to Stark for protection to be an Overture, you know. Fortunately, Sam did not claim it as such. Steve is old-fashioned enough that the old traditions would take precedence.”

“D*** it. I didn’t think of that either.” Clint dragged his fingers through his beard thoughtfully until its dark blond hairs stuck out in tufts, then finally said, “Well…at least the team has accepted my intent. Cap even wished me luck and Tony gave me the nod. The temporary guardianship paperwork was approved about 20 minutes ago, by the way. As weird as it was to formally get approval from Tony to enter Courtship, I guess I should be grateful he wasn't interested himself."

"Stark doesn't want an Omega match, bratik. He likes Betas."

"Yeah, maybe, or he just might not have found the right Omega. I didn't think I ever would try for a bondmatch, Nat. I mean, yeah, I hoped for it, but I haven't actively thought of that in years."

As she watched him carefully, Natasha replied, "Well, no, but the right girl always seemed like a fantasy you were never going to pursue, Clint. You've dated Betas for as long as I've known you, but all you ever talked about was finding a female Omega to match one day. You've always wanted this, Clint, even though you never thought you'd get it. Surprisingly, she actually seems like the perfect girl for you. The odds of an unbonded, guardian-class Omega—who almost exactly matches all the qualities you've talked about for years—essentially falling into your lap are incalculable. I don't know what else to say, Clint, but I agree that you should make a Claim when the timing is right."

"So, you really do approve?"

"Yes. I am very satisfied."

Clint's face was tight with emotional strain, as he insisted, "I have always said I wouldn't do it if you weren't happy, too. I still won't, Nat."

"Clint, durnya, she is a very good choice to match our family. What do you think I was just saying? If you succeed in bondmatching to her, then I think you could be very, very happy. I think I will be content, too."

"Thank f***, Nat. You're right that it is pretty unbelievable that she just showed up like this. You know that I just don’t get lucky like that. Seriously, Nat, she's so incredibly beautiful and…I don't know, I just think she's perfect. Do we need to talk about it?"

Natasha put her hands on her hips and looked up at Clint with an annoyed huff. "No, not if you mean discussing our sibling bond. I just told you that I support your Claim. I am willing to make a joint bond like we've always talked about. Now, I know that she hasn't acknowledged your Claim yet, but I am confident that she will accept you if you just go in there and be yourself. Don't try to be someone you are not. Just be you. She noticed that you properly kept your distance and stood up for her to Stark. She liked that you provided for her without any prompting—remember AAAs have a very deep-seated need for care. Keep yourself neutral and attuned to her signals, which are all very subtle because of the level of her training, and you will not go wrong."

Clint scrubbed both hands over his face in an attempt to straighten his beard and then combed them through his hair to look more presentable, then he breathed out anxiously. "I know. She went to one of those upper-class finishing schools where they teach girls to expect all the s*** that I never learnt. In fact, Stark mentioned that his mother went to the same one, so you know she probably comes from some old money family. And I’m just trailer trash turned carnie turned assassin. So, yeah, there is no chance that I’m the kind of Alpha she was taught to expect. I'm going to be flying by the seat of my pants here, Nat, so I'm pretty likely to f*** up monumentally."

"I don't think you will, Clint. Remember, if she is truly the one that is right for you, then she will like who you really are and won't be bothered by your quirks. Frankly, I happen to like them, myself. I know you don't think you've got a lot to offer, but you know I've always told you that you're completely mistaken about that."

Clint smiled gratefully at her and then replied anxiously, "Well, I will do whatever I need to do."

Fondly kicking her foot at his, Natasha answered with a smile, "I know you will and I think that you are just what she needs. Eleanor is looking for a protector, Clint. Remember, she is terrified, since her whole world has been upended and her entire support system is gone. That is something that you can offer her ready-made. You have a sister and you have a team of Alphas all of which would protect your match without question. One warning though, Clint. You need to be especially careful not to accidentally physically intimidate her. Steve’s size unnerved her significantly, I noticed. I suspect there is a history there of physical intimidation by her family."

Clint growled. "У ее гребанного брата есть только дерьмо между его ушами и одна влажная лапша где должен быть его член. If I am successful, we will visit her brother, Nat. We will take care of that s***head together."

Natasha had raised her eyebrows in surprise at Clint's choice to switch to Russian, which he usually only did either for privacy or when he needed to admit something uncomfortable neither of which was currently the case. Yet, as she definitely agreed with the sentiment behind the nastiness of Clint's curse, she simply shrugged and said, "I think that if you are successful, it is better for you visit him alone to announce the Claim and the bondmatch, since, as a low-level Alpha, her brother is unlikely to understand the nature of a joint bond. You can lay out all the boundaries of what we will accept from her family going forwards. Then, you can allow me to make good on the threats, so your hands are clean."

Clint bared his teeth and said with fierce disdain, "If he does not understand our sibling bond, then I don't mind clarifying things for him. If she accepts me, we will go together to announce the Claim, Nat. It is tradition—even I know that."

Natasha's expression softened as she looked up at him. "It is ok, Clint. You will look stronger to him if it is you alone who goes. I don't mind it."

"Nat, I'm not ashamed of our family bond and I do not intend to hide it. Are you questioning whether you want to make a joint bond?"

Natasha sighed and glared at Clint as if being forced to admit something distasteful. "No, surprisingly I want to, Clint. I find the instinct to protect her is unexpectedly strong. It is unnerving. I think that I am slightly emotionally compromised."

"Like you were with me or different?"

"Same and different." Natasha shifted her posture so she was leaning well away from him as if bored by their conversation, yet her expression was intense. "You know my history, Clint. For 10 years now, you have been the only family that I have ever had. I never expected to trust someone or to have a friend, so I have valued our bond immensely and I never wanted anything to change between us. Also, I have disliked nearly every other female I have met. Therefore, I do not know how to explain that I not only like her, but I actually want to make her my sister."

Clint laid a hand on Natasha's shoulder and said softly, "You know I love you, Nat. Our bond is unbreakable precisely because we won't let anything get in the way. I will do anything for you, ok? Even pass on this Claim if that is what is right for us. I will never knowingly make a choice that would hurt you in any way."

"I know, Yastreb. You've proven that to me enough times. I want this bondmatch to work for you. It will be good for you and I actually want it for me, too."

Clint closed his eyes and sighed deeply. "You have no idea how glad I am, Nat. I think it was going to break me if you said no and I had to rescind the Courtship request. I have never wanted anything like this. Never, Nat. I feel like I'm going crazy. These bonding hormones are unbelievably strong."

"I know. I can tell. Your texts to me were absolutely panicked. I believe that it's going to be ok, Clint. I promise that you can do this. She is going to like you as long as you are honestly yourself."

"Yeah. Yeah, ok, Nat. Thanks. Can I go in now?"

"Yes, bratik. Get the tray and follow me."

 

20 April 2017, Tony Stark’s Private Garage, Stark Tower, Someplace Else

 

"So, what do you say, Rhodey?"

"Honestly, I think it is the ugliest car that I've ever seen."

Stark grimaced and then looked again at his friend with a smirk. "You want to take it for a drive?"

"It was my legs that were damaged, Tony, not my brain. H*ll yes, I want to drive it. Who retrofits a d*mn Lamborghini with hand controls?"

"Not just hand controls, buddy. It works with the exoskeleton on your legs, so you can use the pedals if you prefer. Once you're ready for that. In the meantime, let's go for a ride, shall we?"

"You're a crazy, crazy man, Tony."

Stark threw his arms wide open and smiled at Rhodes. "Tell me something that I didn't know, Rhodey. Come on, come on, come on. Feed me!"

"Fine. Yes, I went out on the date with Tammy. No, it was not the worst date that I've ever been on. No, I will never go out with her again. Yes, I'd prefer if she lost my number."

"Huh. Ok. How bad?"

Rhodes hesitated and then replied, "Better than Marla."

"That's…that's it? Better than Marla? As in, that is the only date it was better than or…"

"Yep."

His expression clearly incredulous, Stark insisted, "Wow. Ok, I'm firing Pepper from Team 'Romance for Rhodey'. Even I did better than that."

"Not by much, Tony. Not by much. Come on, how long do I have to wait to get behind that wheel?"

"Uh, 30 seconds? Door's unlocked. Push button start. Not sure why we're standing here, really. You shy or what, pal?"

Rhodes snorted with amusement and excitedly opened the door and peered inside. "Ok, yeah, this is probably the best birthday present that I've ever gotten. You win, Tony."

"Probably the best? Come on, you got to tell me what my competition is."

"Fifth grade. My uncle took me to see the Thunderbirds. I've told you about that before."

Grimacing and waving his hand airily, Starks muttered, "Yeah, yeah, the day you knew you wanted to join the Air Force. Whatever."

"You win the prize for biggest birthday surprise though."

"That's something."

Rhodes laughed genuinely. "Well, since my birthday is in October and all."

"Unpredictable is kinda my thing."

"That it is, Tony. Once we get back though, I have to talk to you about Barton."

"S***. What did the idiot do now? Do you know how hard I worked to make sure he could stay out there on his d*** farm with his secret wife and kids?"

Rhodes shook his head. "He didn't do anything as far as I know. They're just planning to pull him in for another interrogation. They are still convinced that he is in regular contact with Romanoff. I'm not sure what they are planning to do this time, but I have a bad feeling, Tony."

"I despise Thaddeus Ross. It isn't even any fun to mess with him anymore. I'm getting a complex. Ok, ok, what else is new? But seriously, Pep has even banned his name from the apartment. Ross is so f***ing incompetent that it is an embarrassment that he even thinks he'd figure out Romanoff's encryption scheme."

"True. My gramma's dog Roscoe was smarter. And Roscoe ate rocks. Doesn't mean that Ross's people won't find something."

"Unlikely. The super-spy twins are too good. And I might have added an extra layer of security to Barton's phones. Possibly."

His tone sharp, Rhodes cautioned him, "Tony."

"Look, Barton is cooperating. He shouldn't go down just because Romanoff might send him a message to which Barton never even responds. And I still can't help but f*** with Ross. Let it go. Why are we just sitting here in this incredible vehicle that I've just gifted you, James?"

Rhodes rolled his eyes and pressed the start button, laughing when the engine screamed to life.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

 

20 April 2017, Ste. 3901, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

Falling into step beside Clint, Natasha stalked down the corridor and then opened the door to her sitting room. Eleanor was still sitting in the same spot on the sofa with Natasha’s tablet in her lap, but it was clear that she was very anxious and uncomfortable. Natasha smiled comfortingly at Eleanor and said, “Sestrenka, Clint has brought us some cake and things. Are you hungry?”

Eleanor’s eyes fluttered nervously in Clint’s direction before she looked back at Natasha. “Yes, a little. Thank you.”

Clint stepped forwards and put the tray down on the long coffee table in front of Eleanor, as he said gravely, “Thank you for permitting my Courtship, Miss Fontaine. I am honoured that you are willing to consider me.”

Uncertain what she was meant to do, as nothing about this Courtship was proceeding according to a single thing that she had been taught, Eleanor turned to look at Natasha, who was seated next to her. Yet, Natasha was almost unreadable, which was…annoying. Quite worrying, actually. How was she meant to proceed if no one gave her a clue about what they were expecting from her? There was a good reason that the Courtship process had so much ritual and tradition surrounding it. Eleanor shoved down her frustration and smiled as sweetly as she could manage, then replied quietly, “I will be glad to get to know you, Mr Barton.”

Surprisingly, she could tell both from his body language and the slight scent he was accidentally exuding that Clint was extremely nervous. Eleanor had never expected such a high-level Alpha to react so uncertainly around her. It was unnerving, yet…perhaps…a bit exhilarating.

He eagerly replied, “Please call me Clint. I’m really not a formal guy.”

Eleanor nodded. “Perhaps you could tell me something about yourself?”

Clint dropped into the chair across from her and gestured awkwardly. “I think you know what I do, so I guess I should tell you about my past? I cannot really tell you a lot about SHIELD and you do know what I do as Hawkeye, right?”

“Yes, I suppose that I know as much as the general public does about the Avengers anyway. I would like to get to know you as much as our time will allow. I’m sure that you are much more than just what the Avengers press releases tell us. Perhaps you could just share with me whatever you think is important for me to know about you, I suppose.”

She saw Clint glance very briefly over at Natasha and then breathe out slowly, as if to calm himself. Next, he replied uneasily, “Yeah, I mean, sure. Honestly, I don’t have much of a life outside my work, so there’s not much to say about my private life. My time is mostly taken up by training and that kind of thing. I guess you need to know about my childhood and that stuff, since my past is pretty abnormal.”

Eleanor tried to smile encouragingly. “Well then, all the more reason to tell me. I would really like to know more about you, Clint.”

Once again, Clint looked over at Natasha, who glared meaningfully at him this time. In response, he clenched both fists briefly and sighed. Not quite looking Eleanor in the eye, Clint frowned, then said forcefully, “Uh, ok, yeah. Might as well get it over, so we don’t have to talk about it again. So, I’m originally from Iowa. Had a cr** father, but Mom was wonderful. They died in an accident when Barney and I were young. Then, we were moved around between nine foster families in five years.”

Clint fiddled with the saucer of his teacup for a moment before he continued, “Most of them were farm families that just wanted someone to work in the field, but Barn didn’t really cooperate with any of them. So, when he aged out of the system and our last family wouldn’t let him stay, Barney joined the circus. That meant that I, uh, dropped out of school at 14 to follow him.” He looked up briefly to grimace apologetically at Eleanor, who was sitting perfectly still as she listened intently. “That all ended about as bad as possible, but the circus is how I learnt to use the bow and arrow. Guess my time there was good for something therefore.”

With a shrug, he set down his teacup, from which he hadn’t drunk at all, and reached for a cookie. He started crumbling it up on his plate, as he said, “After that I took some very wrong turns and became a mercenary. It’s better if you don’t know a lot about that time, except that the accounts I used for several of the contracts from that time are the reason why I can prove financial viability if you would like Stark to investigate that for you.”

Eleanor softly replied, “That is not necessary. Mr Stark sent me an Introduction document for you already, which stated his satisfaction regarding your ability to support a family. I do not need any further financial details, Clint. I am more concerned about the compatibility of our personalities.”

Clint glanced over at Natasha with surprise. She nodded, her expression making it clear that she would explain more later, yet Natasha then stated, “Stark is really taking his responsibility as temporary guardian seriously, Clint. He prepared a full, traditional certificate for you. I intended to mention it to you before, Yastreb.”

Her eyes fixed firmly on the teacup in her lap, Eleanor softly stated, “Mr Stark recommended your Courtship very highly, you know. The recommendation was strongly seconded by Captain Rogers, as well. It is very clear that your team respects you immensely, Clint.”

His face reddened slightly, as Clint replied gruffly, “Well, I got really lucky finding a place here with the Avengers. They’re a good group, right Nat?”

Natasha held out a platter to Eleanor, who took a small pastry and began to nibble on it, as she very carefully watched Clint’s reaction.  Natasha responded, “For the most part, yes. It is rare for this many high-level Alphas to work well together. Or for Betas like Banner or Maximoff to be capable of keeping up with us either. Frankly, I am enjoying it here, since we are able to work at a greater skill level then we can at SHIELD, Clint.”

Clint seemed uncertain what Eleanor’s close observation meant, as he darted his eyes back and forth between her and Natasha. “SHIELD isn’t all that bad, Nat. We do some good stuff there. But yeah, honestly, the team here is pretty awesome. Natasha and I work for both SHIELD and the Avengers group, Miss Fontaine.”

Eleanor asked curiously, “Are they connected?”

“Uh, no, they aren’t. I guess, Fury, the director of SHIELD, was the one who started the Avengers Initiative. But it is an independent, private corporation. Our Avengers jobs take priority over SHIELD, since basically there is no one else who can do the Avengers’ missions. Both Nat and I do accept SHIELD assignments though, when there is no conflict with anything the Avengers have going on.”

“Do you go on missions often?”

Leaning forwards slightly to catch Eleanor’s full attention, Natasha interjected, “That fluctuates frustratingly often. At times we are doing too much for too long and other times we fill our days with an aggressive training regime to keep our skills sharp and boredom at bay. There is no predictable schedule.”

Clint cleared his throat and then said seriously, “My schedule would change if I were bondmatched, however, Miss Fontaine. I don’t know if I would take as few missions as Bucky does, but I think that he has the right idea. The bond is more important than any mission. What that would mean in practice though, I don’t really know.”

Her eyes trained on Eleanor with concern, Natasha replied to Clint in a purposefully light tone, “I think we would work that out between us, Clint. Probably, we would not work as many tandem missions, but would alternate in some way. We don’t need to worry about that now.”

Clint nodded. “I guess. So, I don’t know if that was enough detail on my past, Miss Fontaine, but if you want to know something more specific then please ask me. I will answer any question you have unless the answer is classified. Don’t know if you are worried about my hearing loss or something. Some people are, I guess. It was an accident, so nothing genetic. I can hear enough with the hearing aids to do ok.”

Her voice was both soft and empathetic as Eleanor replied cautiously, “I cannot see why your hearing loss would be an issue for me. I think that you have told me enough for now, as long as you feel that I have been given everything I need to know. It sounds like you had a very difficult past, Clint, and you’ve been through quite a lot. I’m very sorry.”

It was immediately clear to Eleanor that this had been the wrong thing to say. Clint stiffened and replied gruffly, “Yeah, it wasn’t great when it happened, but I got over it. It’s ok. Being deaf sucks sometimes, but it isn’t a big deal mostly. Stuff happens, you know, so I’m fine. You lived with your father until recently?”

Accepting the sudden change of subject, Eleanor replied as emotionlessly as she could. “Yes. My mother died when I was born, so my aunt lived with us. She tried to act like a mother in her way. When she died two years ago, then my brother and his wife moved in. That was when things went sideways, I guess. I’d been really lucky until then though, so I had a really good life. I was home-educated before I went to finishing school.”

“I don’t really know a lot about Omega education. Sorry.”

“Oh, well, just like you Alphas, most Omegas are identified around age five. Those of us who are provisionally marked for a higher level are often home-educated if the families can manage it. There are state grammar schools specifically for Omegas. However, I was lucky enough to have private tutors until I was 16, since that is when guardian-class Omegas have to attend compulsory formal training.”

Clint seemed surprised. “You are required to drop out at 16 for that?”

Eleanor frowned with irritation. “It isn’t dropping out. Our education continues, but it is specifically structured towards the particular needs of our designation. Each state has one or more public boarding schools that have 12-month length programmes, but I attended a private finishing school—those are always two 9-month long school years of study.”

His face blank, Clint commented only, “Ah.”

Assuming that he was expecting more explanation, Eleanor continued, “When I was fourteen, my father transferred our family’s company headquarters from Richmond to Manhattan, so he chose to have me educated here instead of the school where my mother and grandmother attended. That was an interesting adjustment, as Omega culture in New York is very different than in Virginia, you see.”

Clint seemed utterly confused, as he replied, “Is it?”

She nodded seriously, “Definitely. Also, North Shore Ladies’ Prep follows the Byzantine protocol, not Angoumoisine. Virginian schools, like most of the South, all follow Angoumoisine, of course.”

Laughing ruefully, Clint said apologetically, “I don’t actually know what that means. I’m sorry.”

Nonplussed, Eleanor took a deep breath. “Oh.” She tilted her head and thought for a moment before explaining awkwardly, “Well…there are four main etiquette conventions for Omegas that are used in Europe and the Americas: the Byzantine protocol, the Viennese rule, the Angoumoisine school, and the Trastámaran school. Guardian-class Omegas need to have a basic understanding of all four, but each school enforces its selected protocol rather strictly. Of course, there are little tricks that you could use to tell details about a particular Omega and her training. For example, you can tell from the fact that I have a silver brooch on my right shoulder that I am an unmatched guardian-class Omega educated under the Byzantine protocol.”

Natasha nodded sharply. “The Byzantine protocol is the most severe yet most elegant of all four.”

Turning towards Natasha, Clint frowned and asked, “Sounds like it must be Russian, then?”

As Natasha made a sound of pleased confirmation, Eleanor smiled slightly. “Originally, yes. However, the Byzantine protocol is used in schools throughout Europe and America, especially here in New York. Before I attended North Shore Ladies’ Prep, I was unused to it, since my aunt was trained in the Angoumousine.”

He exhaled sharply and then replied with embarrassment, “I should apologise, since you were probably taught to expect a Courtship with an Alpha who had been brought up properly and would understand all of these things. Unfortunately, I don't know any of this stuff.  I just hope that I won’t upset you inadvertently, Miss Fontaine.”

Eleanor shook her head. “Not at all. It is very normal for Alphas to know only the most common protocol for the region in which they were educated. This is one of the reasons that we are taught the basics of all four, so we do not take offence to inadvertent missteps.”

“Well, I gotta admit that I never learnt much at all, but Nat did. She will step in if I make a major mistake. I’d better ask your forgiveness in advance, since I will probably do something stupid at some point. Please believe me that I would never do anything that I thought offensive or hurtful to you.”

Surprised, Eleanor answered, “I do believe that. Thank you. I do not imagine you are the kind of man who would purposefully cause offence. I may have grown up in a particularly formal home, but I do not think that degree of strict interpretation of etiquette is usually necessary.”

“Good to know. It must seem pretty bizarre to you being here in the tower. From the little that I do understand about the lifestyle of a guardian-class Omega, this cannot be what you are used to. I hope that you won’t be too uncomfortable while you are here.”

She flushed brightly and looked back down at her lap. “I am sure that I will be fine. I trust Mr Stark. However, you are right. Before today, I had never been anywhere unchaperoned. Yet, after I was sent away by my brother this afternoon, I drove alone into Manhattan and walked by myself into two other office buildings before Sergeant Wilson overheard me asking the security downstairs for permission to use a phone.  Today has been a surreal experience, honestly.”

Appalled, Clint asked, “No one would allow you to use a phone in the other two buildings?”

Her embarrassment deepening, Eleanor’s voice became nearly a whisper, as she replied, “Not without speaking with the head of their security, who I knew would call OPS. Every Omega would do a lot to avoid having them called on us.”

Natasha frowned angrily. “That will not happen now, Eleanor.”

“Well, OPS was likely well-aware of my situation before I even spoke with Mr Stark. The security cameras from those other two buildings will have recorded me and there is little chance that neither of them reported me to OPS. Of course, I always assumed that the OPS would take me into their custodial protection. I had just hoped to reach my cousin and gain his promise of guardianship before they arrived. This was why I was hurrying from building to building: I needed to make that call before they found me.”

Horrified, Clint stated, “I’d always thought that OPS was there to help Omegas. What the h*ll would happen to you?”

“No, no, you are right.  They are there to help, truly. I do not want you to think that I would refuse to comply with the OPS.”

Natasha refilled Eleanor’s teacup, as she firmly declared, “Clint was not trying to accuse you of anything inappropriate, Eleanor. He simply does not understand the type of help that OPS offers to guardianless Omegas.”

“I see.  Well…OPS will bondmatch me as quickly as possible to someone of their choosing.  Typically within hours.”

“How is that helping? That sounds like enforced marriage.”

“Oh no, well…not really. Any guardian-class Omega without a guardian will be unable to support herself. We cannot have bank accounts in our name nor can we rent or own property. We are not permitted to work, unless it is to help our match. Therefore, the only option for a guardian-less Omega truly is to make a bondmatch as soon as possible.”

“Holy s***.  No wonder you were desperate to contact your cousin." Clint furiously punched his fist into his thigh, as he continued, " I had no idea that kind of s*** still happened to women in America in 2017.”

Natasha darkly commented, “You’d be surprised, Yastreb.”

Eleanor continued in the tone that told both Natasha and Clint that she was repeating from a memorised script, “Well, all ranks of Omegas are too much of a distraction to Alphas for us to work in an office, of course. Additionally, we guardian-class Omegas are considered too fragile to withstand the pressures of a career or anything physically stressful.  That is why we require a guardian to care for us.”

Clint looked to Natasha, who glared at him so fiercely that he gave up any intention he had of replying to Eleanor and just turned back so he could listen, as Eleanor continued, “So, you can see why OPS is so important. If they did not exist, then so many women like me would be destitute or worse. But if there is any way to avoid turning to them, then we do. Not only since they do not allow us to choose our bondmatch, but because when your terminal guardian was the OPS, then you are nearly a social outcast. It is assumed that your family abandoned you for a reason. Since Mr Stark’s mother was a North Shore graduate, he would know these things, too. I am sure that was why he was kind enough to offer me temporary guardianship, as this would salvage my reputation.”

Natasha cut a fresh slice of cake for Eleanor and handed it to her. She then laid a hand on Eleanor’s shoulder, as she declared, “Stark would never let the OPS take over, you know. Despite all his eccentricities, he’s actually a really decent guy. This is a pretty unusual situation for us, as well as for you, but none of us would ever pressure an Omega to acknowledge a Claim. No matter what Clint or I want, you do not have to choose this. If your courtship with Clint is unsuccessful, Stark would happily introduce you to as many good candidates as you need until you find the right one.”

Clint insisted urgently, “Knowing this, then I need to ask if I’ve made you feel pressured by asking for Courtship so quickly? If so, I can withdraw until a more reasonable time.”

Eleanor’s eyes widened in fear and she pulled herself back to the rigidly perfect posture that she had held before their conversation became more personal. “No, no, I am not uncomfortable. Your sister offered to present two other candidates from amongst your colleagues if I preferred. Thank you for being so considerate, Clint.”

As soon as he saw her reaction and noticed the abrupt change in her scent, Clint stated clearly, “My interest and intent are unchanged, Eleanor. However, I would never want you to feel pressured or like you could not talk or state your opinion, Eleanor. You are not a child and I don’t care what OPS thinks.”

Eleanor frowned. “You mean privately.”

His expression clouded, Clint answered uncertainly, “Certainly you can say what you think to me privately.”

Nodding, Eleanor looked away with a tiny frown that Clint missed, but Natasha caught. Yet before Natasha could say something, Eleanor said, “I understand. Please, let us continue. Did I tell you enough about my education? Should I tell you more about my family? Did you want to know their history? I’m a little uncertain what I should say to you, since we are not using a traditional protocol.”

In a low, calming voice, Natasha replied, “Perhaps we can talk more about your family later. I think that it is best if we allow Eleanor to retire before dinner, Clint. We can continue our conversation at that time.”

Clint seemed to recognise immediately that Natasha was acting in her role of chaperone and glanced curiously at her for a moment. Then, he stood up and bowed stiffly to Eleanor. Embarrassed that he did not know the proper etiquette for what to do next, he waited for a cue from either Natasha or Eleanor. When Eleanor held out her hand, he took it awkwardly and bent over it like he remembered seeing in the movies. Digging into his memories for the appropriate words, he stammered, “Th-thank you for your time, Eleanor. I look forwards to seeing you later this evening.”

A quick nod from Natasha told him that he must have done alright, so he turned and left the room in a thoughtful daze.

 

20 April 2017, Main Room of James Barnes’ Cottage, Someplace Else

 

Barnes flopped against his chair back and said exhaustedly, as he waved absently at the holographic image hanging in the air, “Steve, let it go. It is fine.”

“Ok. Sorry, Buck. I’m just worried is all.”

He fumbled with the edge of the scarf draped around his left shoulder, as Barnes replied uncomfortably, “Honestly, the princess isn’t gonna let me go until she’s satisfied. I only refused the first arm because it was still clearly a weapon, but she’s made another with no extra strength or features that she wants me to try soon. I am sure the first one is still there, so when I come out with you, I can wear that.”

“Bucky, I don’t want you to feel like you have to do anything, especially not fight. You’ve had enough of the fight to last a lifetime.”

Looking at his friend’s face (strangely magnified because Rogers didn’t have a clue how to use technology that didn’t interest him) with a sour squint, Barnes grunted with annoyance and then kicked the mattress in front of him. Seriously. This guy. He was supposed to the one with memory problems. Did Steve remember him at all? When was Bucky Barnes ever gonna leave Steve Rogers hanging in a fight? “Aw, says you, pal.”

“Buck.”

“What, you ain’t done enough of that, too? It is who we are, Steve. I got my nose busted for the first time when I was eight, right?”

“Only because you were defending me.”

Good thing Rogers had his special super soldier strength because Barnes didn’t see how his pal could carry the burden of his long-suffering guilt around otherwise. Jeez. “So, what else is new, Steve? They got me on a d*** goat farm here. A. Goat. Farm. Is it peaceful? Yup. Is it the life for me? Whaddaya think, buddy? I’m from Brooklyn.”

Rogers laughed, which made Barnes relax slightly. “OK, ok, Buck. Fine.”

“So, why don’t you tell me something a little more interesting, huh? Besides how you’re all nobly running around Africa like an idiot, so you and your colleagues are at greater risk of getting caught by Ross and his goons, I mean.”

“What do you expect me to do, Bucky? I can’t just retire and live somewhere quietly.”

“No, of course not. Especially since you have Romanova there with you.”

The silence on the other end of the call was absolute until finally Rogers said only, “Please don’t.”

“I’m not going to push you, pal. However, you’re not fooling anyone either.”

“Just don’t, Bucky. I’m very serious.”

Barnes sighed. “No need to be so miserable about it, Steve. Romanova is the type of woman that comes along only once, much like Carter was. You aren’t going to ever choose a regular woman, Steve, since you’re not a normal guy.”

“Maybe. I still feel like a normal guy, you know?”

“Do you? Honestly, Steve. How would life with a nice, normal woman even work for you? You gonna come home for a nice homecooked meal every night? Take the kids to the park on Saturday and fix things around the house?”

“That kind of life was a dream that I knew I couldn’t have back when I was small. I assumed now that I was healthy that I could.”

“But you didn’t just get healthy, Steve. You became a super soldier. That means your life is going to match that.”

The silence this time was different. More miserable and less angry. But this time, Barnes was the one to break. “Listen, Steve, if anyone gets how unfair this is, I do. I’m just glad that you have a chance for something at least. I know how much you have always wanted it.”

Rogers sighed. “So did you, Buck.”

“Yeah, yeah I did. It’s not gonna happen though, Steve. I’m too damaged to ever be capable of a healthy relationship, nor am I comfortable asking any woman to align herself with someone who has done all that I did for HYDRA. I’m also several generations out of date in what I’d expect from a lady. It just isn’t in the cards for me and I’m ok with that. I honestly am. Most days I’m just doing good to keep my timeline straight, remember everything I’m supposed to, and keep my head above water emotionally.”

“You’re a better man than I am, Bucky. You always were.”

Barnes sighed and began slowly shredding the edge of his scarf. “Now you’re just being ridiculous, Steve. I’m not tryna be cruel by pushing you about Romanova. I’m tellin’ ya that you’re being foolish. She doesn’t know it, but I remember her from before. She’s always been extraordinary, Steve.”

“She…Natasha thinks you don’t recognise her.”

After a moment of immobility, Barnes suddenly stood up and lurched across the room to the small stove on which an old kettle was resting. He made a gesture to send Steve’s image to the other side of the room, then grunted angrily as he turned on the kettle and began digging in the narrow cupboard below the stove. “Yeah, I know. I never said anything because I hate what they had me do to train those girls. She was too young to be doing the things they made her do.” Barnes set the tin of tea on the edge of the stove and began spooning it into the bottom of a brown teapot. “I was only there to train them for fighting. My job was to show them how unready they all were for the field. They never let any of them fight me when they were advanced enough to have any chance—although I don’t think even Natalia could beat me still. She was remarkable though. Clever and quick. She naturally read my moves, so I purposefully telegraphed false signals. She picked up on those, too. I never doubted that she would graduate the Red Room.”

Rogers’ voice was breathy with emotion, as he insisted, “One day you should tell her all that, Bucky.”

“Steve, you don’t know what that life was like for her. Let her tell you one day, but I’m not going to.” He angrily slapped a small jar of jam onto the table and moved to get out a spoon from the drawer. “I was kept in a cell just large enough for a straw mattress and I only got fed after I beat one of the girls in the fight. If they felt I let the girl win, then they disciplined me, but the time I gave one girl—Sveta—half my food it was even worse. They punished her instead. I learnt the rules very well there and so did Natalia. It isn’t a shared experience that I want to dwell in, ok?”

“D*** it, Buck. The depth of what you’ve been through continues to shock me.”

Barnes grunted and carried the teapot over to the tiny table and sat down. “It hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk for you either, buddy. Anyway, I’m not a captive anymore, Steve. I’m free from HYDRA and I make my own choices. Just do me a favour and take care of yourself, ok? In a couple of months when I’m ready, I’ll be out there with you three and I don’t expect to see you moping around your crush like a teenage boy.”

“Thanks, Bucky. You definitely know how to make a guy feel better.”

“I know, I really do, don’t I? You’re lucky to have a pal like me.”

Rogers laughed, but said seriously, “I am, actually. I guess I better go.”

“Yep, you better get on with it. I have a small herd of goats to feed apparently.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“I’m a regular Old MacDonald, ain’t I?”

His laughter grew deeper, as Rogers replied, “Yeah. Ok, sure thing Buck.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

 

21 April 2017, Fenrísgöng, Jörmungandrfjall, Niflheim

 

The swirling, whistling gusts of wind wrapped viciously around the woman as she carefully picked her footing amongst the craggy surface of the ancient mountain. Despite the bitterness of the extreme cold, the woman did not seem to be affected by her inhospitable surroundings. Her cloak whipped around her legs and the unceasing sleet drove angrily against her chest, but she did not seem to be concerned. As soon as she reached the cave, she stepped inside and then tugged her cloak completely around her while she waited for four armoured draugr to pass. When she finally proceeded again along the sloping path, the woman held one hand aloft and the other in a state of readiness, as if holding any danger at bay. Yet neither her hands nor she did anything as she persisted in her journey forwards.

At last, nearly an hour later and after having avoided detection by dozens of draugr and scores of Nibelungs, the woman stopped and entered a small side-turning. The short dark corridor ended at a strange shimmering wall of roiling, gurgling darkness. She started swirling her hands about—the shifting mandalas almost blurring as they spun and changed—until the surface of the wall began to gleam with a very slight red hue. It was clear that her mission was now complete, as the woman suddenly turned and began to trudge back in the direction from which she had come. It took her nearly twice as long to find the way out and at least three hours to descend the mountain to the point where she could leave. Her exhaustion evident both in her drawn expression and her sagging posture, the woman lifted her left hand on which she wore a two-finger ring and then drew a portal through which she stepped and disappeared.

 

21 April 2017, Ste. 3901, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

"Good morning, sestrenka."

Eleanor sat up quickly and looked around herself before she said softly, "Oh! I forgot where I was for a moment. Good morning, Natalia."

Natasha smiled warmly. "Our car will be here in an hour."

"Oh! Already? I…I should get up!"

Setting down the breakfast tray next to Eleanor, Natasha then perched on the end of the bed. "I am very glad you are continuing the Courtship, Eleanor. Clint is so happy that you are considering him. I've never seen him like this before."

Eleanor flushed brightly, as she replied uncertainly, "Well, I actually really like him. He is different."

"Yes, he is. He can drive me crazy sometimes because he is a dork, but he's fiercely loyal and very passionate about what is important to him. Like I explained yesterday, I do not trust easily, nor do I make friends willingly. Clint is my exception and the sole reason I am still in the United States at all or living in the Avengers Tower. I am not particularly fond of American culture, but ultimately that is irrelevant since Clint won't live anywhere else."

Picking up a pecan bun from the plate, Eleanor asked curiously, "You met him through your work, right? Is he the reason you came to the United States originally?"

"Well, it was because of Clint that I joined SHIELD, which is based in America. My current citizenship status is tricky, but SHIELD did technically naturalise their agent Natasha Romanoff, who is me.” Natasha smiled genuinely at Eleanor, so the dimple in her cheek popped and winked. She then shrugged and continued, “Clint is not the reason that I left Russia, however, if I had not met him, then I would have chosen a different way out. I did a lot of things for my country that it is better you never know about, sestrenka. Russian loyalty to whomever is in power might waiver, but our identity as Russians runs deep. Therefore, I do not think that I would have left my country if I had not met Clint. I trusted him, not SHIELD. Clint will tell you that he took a lot of wrong turns in his past, Eleanor, but I can honestly say that he never lost his moral centre. He is a good person, sestrenka. He would be an extremely devoted match."

Eleanor nodded and smiled in return, as she replied, "I believe that. I can tell how much you care for him, too. I am glad he has a sister like you."

Surprised, Natasha raised her eyebrows and replied, "We are an unusual case. Brother-sister sibling bonds rarely last more than a few years. I don't know of any that survived a bondmatching either."

Laying her hand on Natasha’s arm, Eleanor shook her head and replied very seriously, "I will not be the cause of breaking a sibling bond. I am willing to do a joint bond with the two of you if I do acknowledge Clint's Claim. Your family relationship is too important to break."

Shrugging her shoulders lightly as if she were unconcerned, Natasha said, "You should probably think more about the joint bond and what that would mean for you, Eleanor, before you decide. I'm very opinionated, quite bossy, and will not allow you many secrets. That might not be the kind of sister that you had hoped to have."

Now smiling with genuine amusement, Eleanor replied, "Well, you are a level-4 Alpha. Honestly, that sounds exactly like what I would expect. Yet, I think you would also be very loyal and protective. I believe that I would like to have a sister like you very much."

Natasha did not reply immediately, but after a long pause stated, "You should finish your breakfast, since we are meeting Clint on the common floor in forty minutes."

Dutifully, Eleanor took another large bite of her bun and, after swallowing, commented, "I think Clint is much more competent and skilled than he admits to your colleagues, isn't he?"

Natasha tilted her head and narrowed her eyes, as she passed Eleanor a full cup of tea. "Yes, but he hides it well. It is interesting that you noticed it."

Eleanor nodded as she replied seriously, "I am a AAA Omega, Natalia, so of course I notice that. Reading Alphas is an innate ability for us, but a significant portion of our schooling involves understanding Alpha moods, desires, talents, skills, interests, and social cues. We can even learn to read Betas with experience, but I've hardly interacted any—other than my sister-in-law, so I have never really tried."

"Reading people that well is actually one of my talents, but one that took years to learn. It could be very useful for you to learn to read Betas, since they are the significant majority of the population. Perhaps you would like to train to do so."

After she took a tiny sip of the very strong tea, Eleanor replied firmly, "Unless my match wanted me to learn to help him in some way, then I would rather not, thank you. I am very uncomfortable with people who I do not know—especially Betas because I do not understand them well. Although I learnt at school how to manage if I am required to do so, I don't actually like talking to strangers or having to socialise at parties and things like that."

Eleanor drank a larger mouthful of the smoky, potent tea, as she thought back to the day before and realised that it was the same tea. Apparently, Clint must often make tea for Natasha, which definitely explained the Russian podstakannik in which he had served it. They really were unusually close, which she thought was quite nice. Perhaps bonded siblings were like that, unlike biological siblings. Eleanor sighed and commented, "Your colleagues didn't consider Clint a rival, you know."

Natasha smiled knowingly. "Didn't they?"

Eleanor snorted with annoyance. "No, they didn't, which surprised me because he was clearly more highly attuned to everything that was happening than they were. I didn't like that they saw him that way. All of them were so concerned with their proper Alpha roles and correctly fulfilling them, but only Clint and Sergeant Wilson noticed me and that I was cold and scared.”

Taking an unwisely large gulp of her tea, for a moment Eleanor blinked in discomfort from the hot liquid, but then returned her focus to Natasha as she attempted to explain. “Sergeant Wilson thought about it, but he hadn't decided whether to do something because he was letting Captain Rogers lead the way. However, Clint did something immediately and very quietly so I wouldn't feel threatened, yet in a way that the others would not catch on to what he was doing. That intent of secrecy intrigued me just as much as Clint’s attention to me. Actually, even Sergeant Wilson didn't consider him much of a threat. They all work with Clint every day, so I don’t understand them underestimating him. Don't they know about him?"

Natasha laughed. "You really do read Alphas remarkably well. Yes, Clint is excellent at hiding in plain sight. He has honed the skill, but I think it began naturally from needing to protect himself as a child. Most people assume that Clint's everyday clumsiness and oppositional attitude are representative of his actual ability. In fact, when he is focussed on the job, I don't know anyone who is better at such a wide range of skills. Our colleagues don't actually know that he is level-5, you know."

"Well, they might not have been told that, but they should be able to figure it out on their own. I could."

"You are a AAA Omega, however. You naturally sense things that they either can’t or just don't. Clint is always underestimated, which he plays to his advantage. Of course, Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are stronger than he is, but they are super soldiers. Steve is the only one who matches Clint's strategic capabilities. None of them match his accuracy with weapons, although I will admit that Bucky and I are superior in breadth. Clint reads people very well and has learnt to use that. He is not a team leader, however, since he despises authority and prefers to focus on his own task."

Eleanor shrugged. "No, but you are a team leader, aren't you? Even with Clint."

Slowly nodding her head, Natasha said seriously, "In some ways. He lets me have my way on almost anything non-professional, but mostly because none of that is important enough to him to refuse me. Work is completely different. For our arrangement, Clint has been the one in charge of our planning and strategy, but I do the research and analysing. Final decisions are made jointly. We have worked well this way. Clint's life really is almost entirely focussed on work. He trains incessantly in between missions. A bondmatch will be a significant adjustment for him."

Getting up from the bed to cross the floor towards her suitcase, Eleanor replied with her back towards Natasha, "Yes, I suppose that it will. Should I be concerned about that, do you think?"

"I don't believe so. Clint is highly motivated to make you happy. You will need to communicate your needs to him, however, because he's never going to figure it out on his own."

It was almost a minute before Eleanor responded, as she busied herself with digging through the contents of the larger suitcase to find an outfit. Her sister-in-law had not put any effort into packing the clothing, which was mostly wrinkled and unorganised. When she had finally decided on a grey houndstooth wool dress that still looked wearable, Eleanor turned and answered uneasily, "If he usually spends so much time training, won't reducing that to spend time with his match be an issue? Clint is not Enhanced unlike most of his colleagues."

Natasha nodded as she replied sadly, "You are very right, he is not. That is something that bothers him immensely, Eleanor. It is good that you are aware of it."

Eleanor sighed. She looked away again as she unzipped the smaller suitcase to see if there were any undergarments inside. "I can understand that. However, how many people in this world could bring back the bow and arrow to make it a viable weapon again? Your brother is a unique man, I think, just like you have been trying to convince me."

"He is, yes. Palaeolithic weapons aside, Eleanor, Clint's abilities are remarkable most especially because he is not Enhanced but is still capable of working at the level of those of us who are."

A pair of pointed dark green flats in her hand, Eleanor turned her head so she could see Natasha. "Hm, ok, but he isn't actually a normal human either, Natalia. According to my Alpha-Omega Designation Genetics elective, even though all of us with designation mutations are technically mutants, only Alpha level-3s through 5s are considered significant genetic aberrations. They told us that you actually have to co-register with the Department of Mutant Affairs and the Office for Alpha Support.”

Natasha quietly confirmed this. “Yes.” She then added more grimly, “Whether natural or Enhanced, all upper-level Alphas are co-registered with the DMA and OAS. The DMA places us in a completely different class than those with X gene mutation though. We are not regularly monitored by the DMA like X-mutants would be, therefore, we do not get any support from them either. The OAS is supposed to keep an active eye on us. Of course, they hardly exist except as the agency that regulates Alpha-specific medicine or curbs anti-Alpha legislation.

“I see. So, is it correct that the DMA tracks those with strong expressions of both your Alpha SRD5A4 gene and the X-mutants’ XHR2, but not my PNLR1 gene? I asked my Designation Genetics teacher, who merely told me that was not an appropriate question. However, I know that I have no DMA card.”

As she dispassionately watched Eleanor prepare, Natasha responded cautiously, “I think that a list of guardian-class Omegas is kept at the DMA, but they are not responsible for Omegas in any way. It was difficult enough to get Alphas and X-mutants to comply with the DMA when the two of us were lumped together in one agency. There is too much hatred between our two groups traditionally. Unfortunately, the most extreme X-mutants and most bigoted Alphas would be unwilling to classified with Omegas, so your designation mutation is not officially a DMA matter.”

“It is alright, Natalia, I’m not shocked to learn that. It is what most of us Omegas assume that Alphas think, honestly. I shouldn’t be surprised that X-mutants feel the same.” Eleanor nodded sadly. “Our teacher also told us that natural high-level Alphas like Clint are nearly always a result of spontaneous mutations, so their parents are usually Betas or level-1 Alphas. That is the opposite of guardian-class Omegas, since we nearly always have guardian-class mothers."

Natasha frowned with annoyance. "I do not know my family's designation status, but, as I am Enhanced, that is irrelevant. However, Clint's family were as low-level as you can get."

"So, you are certain that he is not Enhanced, then. What does that really mean for him?"

"It means that as a level-5 Alpha, Clint is stronger than most men, has unbelievably good eyesight, and is the most accomplished marksman in the world. However, he does not have superhuman strength or enhanced healing and his hearing is badly damaged."

"Yet he rushes into situations that are dangerous enough that the other non-Enhanced member of your team, Mr Stark, wears full body armour to protect himself."

As Eleanor struggled to zip up her dress, Natasha stood up and walked over to help her. "Pretty much, yes, Eleanor. Although, Clint is not usually on the front line, but up on a roof. He is a sniper no matter what weapon he uses."

"Thank you. That zipper is always difficult. Anyway, I suppose that I need to think about that. The danger for Clint in his job concerns me, honestly. Another concern is whether I will be allowed to spend much time with any friends or with you if I bondmatch to Clint."

"Yes, of course, you will. Clint would want you to have friends, Eleanor. As for me, I will have missions that take me away often. I am here less than Clint is."

Slipping her feet into both shoes, Eleanor then dug into a third suitcase that was filled with a random mixture of beauty supplies and accessories. "I understand that you both have frequent missions, Natalia. The reason that I was asking is that you said yesterday that Clint would be possessive." She finally found the enormous emerald green silk carré for which she had been searching and began to expertly drape it around her neck. "Would that extend towards me spending time with people other than him?"

Natasha allowed her surprise to show for a moment. Then, she replied firmly, "No, I did not mean that his possessiveness would extend to me or your friends. I meant that he would very likely be uncomfortable with you being around any other men without either him or a trusted female present. Knowing Clint, however, he will also be very embarrassed of those instincts, too, so he may either not tell you of them or pretend that he isn't jealous at all. I cannot tell you how that will work out. But if you want me there, then I would be as long as I was not on a mission."

Eleanor had found a hairbrush that had carelessly been tossed in with her shoes, so she began rigorously pulling it through her very long hair. "I see. It is not that uncommon amongst upper-level Alphas to restrict the socialisation opportunities of their match, you know. I am glad, however, that you do not think that would be the case with Clint. Thank you for explaining that."

“I am aware, but you will find that Clint is not a common Alpha.” Natasha watched Eleanor for a moment and then said with a frown, "Also, I cannot believe that he would interfere with your relationship with me except to resolve a potential problem, Eleanor. Clint and I are not overly involved in each other's daily lives, nor have we ever lived together, yet, we are very closely bonded. I do not know how that will change if he bondmatches with you, but I think that we might adjust our living arrangements so we are both in the Tower. You should have someone else there with you, especially when Clint is on mission. I suppose we would have to consider what to do when we are both on mission."

Pausing her hair brushing for a moment, Eleanor asked uneasily, "Does…does that happen often that you both are away?"

"A few weeks a year. Perhaps that would change. Far from being made uncomfortable by the thought of a joint bond, Eleanor, I find that I am liking the thought of us being sisters very much."

Eleanor smiled shyly. "You are pleased about the possibility of a match? Honestly?"

"Honestly, yes. Very."

Eleanor's eyes lit up and she said more firmly, "I am glad."

"Are you ready to go down? I believe that Clint arranged with the Frick's director for the tour to begin at 9. We should have a full two hours before the museum is open to the general public."

"I am ready, yes. Did you advise Clint about where to take me today?"

"No, actually. He surprised me with this choice."

Her smile quite warm as she picked up her light grey crocodile handbag, Eleanor replied softly, "Well, then…I am impressed."

 

21 April 2017, Ste. 4702, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

As she forced herself to sit listening politely to Stacy White, the OPS social worker that was carefully explaining guardian-class Omega rights and the laws pertaining to their protection, Eleanor had to struggle not to look around herself. She could strongly sense Steve’s deep concern and the antagonism radiating off Tony, as they were both exuding quite intensely. Sam was extremely reserved in a way that Eleanor thought could not be natural for him. The two other people who had joined them, Bruce Banner and Wanda Maximoff, both seemed uncomfortable and disinterested. As Betas, she would be of little interest to them. Certainly, Bruce seemed genuinely confused why their entire team had suddenly taken a marked interest in a woman that they barely knew. She could not blame him for wondering, since their extreme kindness still surprised her, as well.

Eleanor thought that Wanda looked interesting, but wondered if she would actually be allowed to make friends with her. She had not missed how particularly annoyed Natasha was when the social worker asked Wanda to sit on the left side of Eleanor. Apparently, the OPS representative thought a female Beta would be calming or helpful to a distressed Omega. Sighing slightly, Eleanor wondered at what point in history everyone had decided that Omegas were not just fragile and submissive, which was generally true, but also needy and rather stupid, which was not. This OPS social worker clearly had very little empathy or comprehension of what it meant to be a guardian-rated Omega in modern society.

"So, you see, Miss Fontaine, it was correct of the Avengers to submit the paperwork to our office for your protection."

In a low growling tone, Wanda demanded in her thick accent, "I suspect that she understood that the first three times that you explained it, Ms White. Why do you persist in repeating this?"

Privately delighted to have someone else recognise the OPS representative's condescending attitude, Eleanor surreptitiously looked over at Wanda, who was scowling at the social worker.

"Miss…Maximoff, is it? Well, I understand that this is outside of your experience as a Beta, but it is important that Omegas understand their rights. We do not want them to be manipulated or mistreated. These laws are for their protection."

Wanda snorted with disdain. "I understand perfectly well what an Omega is, as I am not an idiot. However, I never remember being told that an Omega has any less intelligence than any other woman. Was I mistaken about this? Can Miss Fontaine not actually comprehend things without having them explained repeatedly as if to a young child?"

Now looking flustered and angry, the social worker turned towards Steve for support, as she replied to Wanda, "Miss Maximoff, no one is saying that Miss Fontaine is unintelligent. You are being very oppositional about a situation that does not truly concern you."

However, Steve said firmly, "I think Miss Maximoff has made the point that Miss Fontaine is quite capable of making her own decisions. It would be better if you spoke directly to Miss Fontaine in the same manner that you would use if you spoke to me or Agent Romanova, Ms White."

Eleanor blinked in pleased surprise at Steve’s attitude, but then turned back to the social worker who was nearly livid.

"Miss Fontaine, do you comprehend your rights as they have been explained?"

"Yes, ma'am, I do."

"Very well. The state can appoint an outside guardian for you if you wish it or you can request a particular guardian if you so prefer."

Eleanor looked directly at the OPS representative and stated uneasily, "I did not know that I would need a permanent guardian now, ma'am. Is that a requirement?"

Apparently quite startled, Ms White leant forwards in her chair and said sharply, "An unmatched AAA Omega such as yourself by law must have a guardian to guide her, Miss Fontaine. This is necessary so you will have help deciding your options and finding qualified candidates for Overture."

"Yes, ma'am, I understand, however as I have a temporary guardian and I have already acknowledged a Claim, then I had thought that a long-term guardian would no longer be necessary. However, of course I will accept one if that is required between now and the time of bondmatch."

The OPS representative's eyes widened with shock and she stammered furiously, "B-b-but you cannot acknowledge a Claim on your own! You must have an officially registered guardian! The temporary guardian was only a stop-gap measure due to your familial abandonment. It is required that you have a registered guardian before you even consider any candidates for bondmatch. Your family might challenge this Claim if they regain guardianship. Also, a better qualified Alpha could extend a Claim request and you would not know how to proceed without your guardian’s protection. This is entirely unacceptable. You had no right to allow this, Stark."

Tony set down his glass on the table beside him and said pointedly, “I think you’ll find that, as Eleanor’s guardian, I am the only person who currently does have the right to permit a Courtship to begin, Ms White. The OPS has no jurisdiction in this matter.”

There was a long moment of silence in which the OPS social worker struggled to find some argument to attack Tony’s logic. Finally realising that neither Tony nor Ms White was going to say more, Eleanor managed to calmly ask, despite her intense private frustration, "Ms White, was I not legally permitted to acknowledge a Claim if my temporary guardian has permitted the Courtship? I understood from my finishing school training that a temporary guardian can fill this role."

"Legally, it is allowed, but it is highly irregular to do so. You should have a permanent registered guardian to analyse the Claim request. Who has taken advantage of your situation and made such an inappropriate Claim?"

Her eyes immediately went to Clint, whose privilege it now was to announce his acknowledged Claim. She had already scented his anger and embarrassment, furthermore she could see from his Alpha colleagues’ expressions that they had scented his Ferox hormone, as well. Steve, in particular, looked particularly concerned, but no one appeared as if they were going to break protocol and talk.

“Well?”

Clint was clearly purposefully waiting to speak, although Eleanor was not exactly certain why. Therefore, the silence deepened as she looked around the room again and noticed that the Avengers seemed universally disgusted with the social worker's bigotry. Eleanor did not miss Natasha's subtle signal to Clint, but he merely shook his head slightly, then he looked at Eleanor and bowed his head deferentially to her.

Next, as he lounged further back into his chair with a bored expression on his face, Clint gestured loosely in the social worker's direction. "I am pretty comfortable describing half the things I do as inappropriate or stupid, Ms White. Yet, I think that—with the approval of Miss Fontaine’s guardian—entering into a formal Courtship with a chaperoned, unmatched, and of age Omega cannot possibly be classified as anything of the kind. Miss Fontaine is entirely capable of making her own choice, which she is legally entitled to do, and she has been under no compulsion or obligation from me or anyone else here. Stark, her guardian, was formally made aware both when I extended my Claim yesterday and when it was acknowledged today. Agent Romanova has taken her role as chaperone extremely seriously and followed every traditional rule of the Byzantine protocol. In fact, each of us have followed every single legal and traditional requirement carefully. I would never show Miss Fontaine any lack of respect by allowing anything less."

Ms White was nearly vibrating with anger, as she exclaimed, "Agent Barton, you had no right to interfere here! You have no particular standing or wealth, which would make you a candidate that the OPS would approve. It is quite evident that Miss Fontaine is an extremely vulnerable AAA Omega, who needed disinterested guardianship. It was clearly a mistake for us to have approved as temporary guardian the infamous Tony Stark, who is hardly known for his appropriate behaviour. Miss Fontaine certainly required a chaperone who was not a registered, bonded sister of yours, Agent Barton, but one who would consider first of Miss Fontaine's needs and not collude to gain for you a AAA Omega match that—as a socially insignificant nobody with minimal financial prospects—you ought not to have won."

Eleanor gripped her hands together tightly and tried very hard not to begin crying. She hated being talked about in that way: like she was a childlike, non-intellectual simpleton who could not make her own decision. It had happened all her life, so she ought to be used to it and, for the most part, she was. However, not much was more sacred to an unmatched Omega than her choice whether to acknowledge a particular Claim. There was no other decision that would define her life more, so Eleanor had never taken preparing for it any less than deadly seriously. In fact, she had been training and preparing for a bondmatch for years. What did this woman think that they did in finishing school, anyway? Sit around and do each other's hair all day?

Clint might not be much like who she had expected to select for her match, but she didn’t really think that was relevant. He was unique, so she could not previously have predicted she would meet an Alpha like him. She was happy about the upcoming bondmatch. Although he was completely untraditional and very different from anything she’d been taught to expect from an Alpha, nevertheless Eleanor actually thought Clint might be able to provide pretty nearly everything she had ever hoped to find. Nor could she pretend that she was not happy that, as a bonus, she would be gaining a sister. This stupid, horrible OPS representative had no right to call any of that into question. No one—especially not this awful woman—was going to change Eleanor's mind about bondmatching to Clint. How dare this woman question Eleanor's honour, as if she had allowed something dirty or sordid to occur during the Courtship? It was her right as an Omega to acknowledge a Claim that she chose. How dare this woman insult both her and Clint in this way?

As she finally looked up from blindly staring down at her lap, Eleanor realized that she must have zoned out for several minutes as she was thinking. Clint was now standing with his arms crossed angrily across his broad chest and glaring down at the social worker furiously. Unsurprisingly after Ms White’s ugly insult, Tony seemed to have gotten actively involved and was now standing next to Clint and explaining bitingly the legal rights of a temporary guardian.

Looking away with growing nervousness as any confrontation always made her feel nauseous, Eleanor then noticed that Steve was regarding her with both alarm and concern, which made her even more uncomfortable. Furthermore, she realised that Natasha had moved directly next to her and was also watching her, but with a mixture of uncertainty and anger. When Eleanor glanced up at her, Natasha relaxed her posture and reached out to wipe a tear off Eleanor's cheek soothingly. Yet, it was very clear that Natasha was quite upset about something that Eleanor had done, which was extremely confusing to her. As far as she could remember, she hadn't done anything other than state her firm intention to bondmatch to Natasha's brother. What was the trouble now? Alphas were so difficult to understand sometimes.

Eleanor took a deep breath, peeked very briefly over at Clint and then looked at Natasha again before turning back to Ms White. Maybe it was time for her to speak? Perhaps they wanted her to stand up and defend their actions to the OPS representative? That didn’t make much sense to her though, since—no matter which protocol one followed—that was an Alpha's job. However, when Eleanor peeked at Natasha again, Natasha nodded in a way that made it clear that Eleanor should speak.

Gathering her wits quickly, Eleanor then stammered breathily, "I-I do not understand why there would be any question about the appropriateness of my intended bondmatch, Ms White. Agent Barton has never acted with anything less than perfect respect and decorum. Agent Romanova was a very careful chaperone and never made me feel under the least pressure to acknowledge the Claim of her brother. Mr Stark was exceedingly kind to have volunteered to be my temporary guardian, since he did not previously know me, yet I feel quite sure that he would never have allowed anything inappropriate to have occurred while I was under his protection. Everyone here has acted with the utmost propriety towards me. Furthermore, I am quite pleased to have received and acknowledged such an excellent Claim from Agent Barton. I cannot understand your reaction, Ms White."

Eleanor looked down at her hands and lowered her voice even more, as she further explained with mortification, "I am not refusing to make a match, which I readily accept is my duty, Ms White. I did not seek out my own candidates, which would have been improper for a Byzantine-trained Omega. I did not go anywhere during the Courtship without a chaperone. Lastly, I acknowledged the Claim of an Alpha who was approved by my temporary guardian and seconded by Captain Rogers. I truly believe that I have followed all the rules, ma'am."

Ms White narrowed her eyes and replied heatedly, "Of course you don’t understand, since guardian-class Omegas are not capable of weighing these choices in the way that a low-ranked Omega or a Beta might. It is not your job to make these types of decisions alone, Miss Fontaine. You are too designed to please and follow guidance to be able to understand when you are being led astray. That is why you should have had a neutral chaperone and a properly registered guardian. It is not a reflection on you, but merely a consequence of your designation. There is a reason we have protections for girls like you."

Recoiling as if she had been slapped, Eleanor felt her face flame bright red with humiliation as she blinked away the tears that were filling her eyes. She sank back into the cushions of the sofa and attempted to shift her body away from not just Ms White, but also from all of the Alphas in the room. Wanda looked over at her with mild sympathy, but did not do anything else other than to move her knees over to allow Eleanor more room.

Meanwhile, Steve aggressively stated, "Ms White, when our team offered protection to Miss Fontaine, we all took this responsibility quite seriously. All of us. Mr Stark agreed to be temporary guardian since Miss Fontaine is a guest here on his property, but both Tech Sergeant Wilson and I supported him in this role. I can personally assure you that Agent Romanova would not lead Miss Fontaine astray or allow her to be abused in any way. I trust Agent Romanova and so should you. Agent Barton is an exceptionally skilled and valued member of our team. I have complete and total confidence in his honour and decency. I will not allow you to denigrate any of my team or to speak so poorly of Miss Fontaine. To put it simply: Agent Barton has extended a Claim request and Miss Fontaine has acknowledged it. All of my team support this Claim, especially Miss Fontaine’s current guardian. Therefore, the matter is settled and the bondmatch will proceed as long as Miss Fontaine desires it."

The social worker stood from her chair with her arms akimbo and chin jutted out furiously. "I cannot approve of how this has been handled. The rarity of an unmatched AAA Omega without a guardian demands that her case be managed carefully and with discretion. Our department has already selected several candidates—all of whom would be far more eligible to care for Miss Fontaine, Captain Rogers. Agent Barton is hardly a wealthy man, nor is he well-connected enough to be able to provide the lifestyle that someone like Miss Fontaine should have. The mayor himself has already been informed and wishes to help guide Miss Fontaine's selection."

Tony laughed out loud. "Oh, I'm sure he does. He has an unmatched Alpha son, doesn't he? This conversation is over, Ms White. Your ignorance is stunning, but worse is your bigotry. I cannot stand people like you. Just because you are not aware of any numbered accounts that Barton owns, that does not mean that they do not exist, Ms White. He is more than capable of 'providing' for Miss Fontaine, if that is even your business to verify. I will point out that this was, in fact, my business as temporary guardian and I was more than satisfied by what I found. F*** it, I didn't believe that people were still this backwards regarding so-called guardian-class Omegas. You people disgust me. I'm going to have to ask you to leave please. Now."

"Mr Stark, I think…"

"No. Now. You may return to your superiors and inform them that Miss Fontaine has been bondmatched to Agent Clint Barton."

As she was backed further towards the lifts, the woman screeched, "She has already been bonded? Why that is outrageous..."

Tony smiled nastily, as he sneered, "She has not, but she will be later today. I said to get out. I promise you that you do not want me to say it a third time, Ms White."

"I will return with the authorities, Mr Stark. I warn you. This is not over. You do not understand just who you have offended and what…"

Steve inclined his head as he asked seriously, "Did you really think that you were going to be allowed to force Miss Fontaine to make a bondmatch with whomever your superiors decided was most politically helpful to them? Or perhaps, it was whichever bondmatch would get you a bonus, was it? Omegas have legally held the right of self-determination since the time I was a child, Ms White."

As she was being crowded nearly into the elevator door, the OPS representative snapped, "You must be joking, Captain. That is for standard Omegas. Guardian-class Omegas do not get to make those choices, as they are too valuable. Their families don't let the opportunity to receive that level of dowry pass by. That can rise into the hundreds of thousands if they are as beautiful as Miss Fontaine here. If the girl is unwilling, then they just leave the candidate alone with them for an hour and then the girl has to accept a bondmatch or be publicly shamed."

Steve growled audibly, as Tony exclaimed, "F***! You would let a girl be assaulted just so you could get a pay out?"

The woman laughed nastily. "Of course not. The possibility of shame is more than enough to force compliance. AAA Omegas like Miss Fontaine know to say yes when they are ordered to do something, since that is what they are born to do, Mr Stark. Why do you care how good bondmatches happen, as long as the proper order is maintained, Mr Stark? How do you think that your father—a rich but socially insignificant level-1—convinced the Carbonell family to allow him to match their beloved guardian-class daughter? As an Alpha, would any of you like to see these guardian-class girls getting the idea that they should do anything more than look pretty and slavishly obey your kind? You need our department to keep the order. Just be grateful and stay out of our business. There will be heavy consequences for all the Avengers for interfering today. For example, Agent Barton's Alpha ranking cannot be very high from the looks of him. It is possible that rank might even have to change if necessary."

Now Bruce, who had hitherto been completely silent, began to laugh with surprise. "You don't understand much about how Alphas are rated, do you, Ms White? Are you not aware that there are standardised exams for personality and genetic tests for the presence of arcanthrogen? Although he isn't Enhanced like Rogers or me, Barton functions at the absolute limit of the scale. He must be at least a level-4, if not five."

"Level-4? Nonsense. Other than his beard, he hardly looks like an Alpha at all." As she looked away from Bruce, Ms White turned her head towards Clint and almost immediately leapt back into the wall with fear. Clint was standing in front of Eleanor with Natasha right beside him. They both were nearly baring their teeth with intense aggression. Additionally, Tony and Steve were in front of Clint, who looked as if he was only barely keeping himself from going for the social worker's throat.

In a deep, growling voice—that by the reactions of Bruce and Tony his colleagues had not thought he could manage—Clint snarled viciously, "You will not touch my intended match, Ms White. You will not interfere in her case any further. I expect you to expedite any paperwork, since you have now been informed that Miss Fontaine and I will be bondmatched this evening. However, if you were ever to make Miss Fontaine cry again, then I will put an arrow through your wall as a warning. If you threaten her again, then I will come after you so forcefully that you would quickly regret that decision. Finally, if you do even one thing to make Miss Fontaine feel unsafe again in any way, then your life belongs to me. I have made my Claim and it was publicly acknowledged, so she is mine alone. I would suggest that you leave this property now while I still allow it."

Ms White stared at Clint for a moment and then made a small sound like a mouse being trampled, before she turned to anxiously press the button for the lift several times.

Tony looked back at Clint with a respect that made Eleanor almost smile with satisfaction to see. Then, he asked, "Are you good, Barton?"

Clint grunted and said, "Fine."

Then, Tony and Steve stepped closer to the social worker, as if in tandem. Steve said carefully and succinctly with an enormous amount of aggression packed into his polite words, "This is now finished, ma'am. Agent Barton will no longer be challenged, am I correct?"

The woman nodded, but did not seem capable of speech. She looked back at Clint and then at Natasha, after which she seemed to pale even further. Eleanor glanced at Natasha to see why and had to stifle a gasp. Natasha, who had pulled a long, narrow knife out of somewhere, was lightly tapping it against her thigh as she dreamily seemed to be pleasantly considering all the ways she would take deep pleasure in slowly torturing someone. Yet, despite her appearance, Eleanor recognised from her scent that Natasha was emotionally distressed, which concerned Eleanor even more than Clint's obvious bitterness.

Hoping to soothe Natasha, like she'd always done for her father, Eleanor exuded calming hormone and then slid her hand onto Natasha's forearm in the traditional way of sisters. This had the immediate effect of bringing Natasha's attention—albeit briefly—wholly onto Eleanor. From Natasha's initial stiffness, Eleanor was afraid that she had made a mistake. Then she saw a wave of relief pass over Natasha's face, who—suddenly without the knife although Eleanor could not imagine how she had hidden it so quickly—then turned back towards the end of the corridor where Steve and Tony were blocking the woman's path from re-entering the living space.

Having likely caught the calming hormone that she had sent out for Natasha's benefit, Clint then looked down sharply at Eleanor. However, despite his initial look of pleased surprise, when he noticed Eleanor's hand on top of Natasha's arm he turned back around with a grimace. The bitterness was now radiating off him enormously, as he turned back to the OPS representative and waited for the woman to leave.

After the doors had shut on the lift to take the social worker down to the lobby, Tony and Steve turned around and walked back to the end of the hall where Clint, Natasha, and Eleanor where standing.

Before either of them could speak, Wanda exclaimed, "Is this normal? Is this how Omegas are all treated here in America? In Sokovia, this would not have been tolerated, I am certain."

Eleanor sighed. She looked up at Clint, who furrowed his brow as he tried to understand why she was staring up at him. Finally, after a look of surprise, he jerked his head to indicate he understood and was giving permission for her to explain. Frowning ruefully, Eleanor said, "Not for C and B grade Omegas and probably most A grades, as well. Yet those of us considered high guardian-class, we have significant restrictions."

Wanda waved her hand dismissively. "This woman implied that you do not get to choose your…how do you call it…matchmate?"

First flicking her eyes over to Clint to be certain that he was still fine with her continuing to explain to Wanda, Eleanor then continued, "Our spouse is called a match and our type of marriage is referred to as a bondmatch. I am supposed to be able to choose, yes, and most certainly I did. Ms White was very mistaken. I definitely freely made my choice to acknowledge this Claim."

Bruce cleared his throat and said seriously, "If none of you mind, I need to go downstairs. That took a lot of energy not to…change. It would be better if I have some calm, solitary space."

Confused, Eleanor returned Bruce's embarrassed smile, then looked over to Clint to see if he would explain what Bruce had meant. However, Clint was busy watching Wanda, so he did not notice. Therefore, Eleanor turned towards Natasha, but she was staring over at Tony as if she was expecting him to do something.

Finally, Tony frowned and muttered, "Yeah, yeah, ok. I'll make a few calls, Romanova."

Wanda also seemed very ready to escape the situation, as she turned and exited fairly hastily without a further word.

Uncertain what she was expected to do now, Eleanor looked back to Clint, who was now ignoring everyone else in the room other than her and appeared not to have even noticed the interaction between Natasha or Tony. Something about Clint's demeanour caused a sudden wave of fear to rush through Eleanor. She had clearly done something wrong. Perhaps she ought not to have been so bold in her response to the social worker? Possibly she should not have said anything to Wanda? Somehow, in between her father's death, her brother's abandonment, being offered temporary sanctuary by Mr Stark, the unexpected Claim request, and the horror show that had been the meeting with Ms White, Eleanor had completely lost her emotional balance. She simply was not able to have the appropriate sweet attitude and merely think only of her upcoming bondmatch at that time. Quite honestly, she just wanted to find a safe space somewhere and hide.

No matter how much she told herself that she was unbelievably lucky to have so quickly gained a temporary guardian and already acknowledged a good Claim, Eleanor found that she could not seem to overcome the onslaught of emotions that were washing over her. Fear was nearly poisoning her heart and she had no idea how she was going to manage to finalise the bond with Clint as she was feeling just then. Everything was happening so fast, but she also felt as if there was some critical underlying motif that she had overlooked.

Clint would be an excellent match and she was very satisfied with having acknowledged his Claim. Maybe it was not completely what she had once thought she wanted, but she felt that she would be content nevertheless. The more that she got to know him, the more interesting and appealing she found him. She was sure that she would come to love Natasha like a sister, too. And even if he was apparently not very pleased with her now, she had felt that Clint was infatuated enough with her that their bondmatch would begin well. Of course, maybe now she had ruined that. Currently, he looked both angry and pensive, as if he were pondering some major decision. Perhaps Clint was reconsidering his Claim. Eleanor took a deep breath and stole a quick look at Natasha, who was also regarding her with a displeased expression.

Her tone clearly implying that no opposition was permitted, Natasha stated, "I think that Eleanor has had enough excitement for a while, especially as we have a lot happening later. I am going to take her back down to my apartment now. Steve, you and Sam need to help Tony."

Steve looked very serious, as he said sincerely, "Of course, we will take care of everything, Natasha; it will be fine. Miss Fontaine, you should know that I meant what I told that woman. We are all very pleased to support Clint in his Claim."

Eleanor turned back to Clint, who was now staring at Steve with an inscrutable expression. Eleanor shivered slightly, as she quietly said, "Thank you, Captain Rogers. You have all been very kind."

Steve gestured to Clint, as he said gravely, "I will let you know when we have everything arranged, Clint. It will probably be several hours."

Yet, instead of responding positively, Clint seemed to be quite aggressively staring down Steve, which Eleanor did not understand at all. Had she already embarrassed Clint sufficiently in front of another Alpha that he felt he had to posture to save face? He didn't seem the type of Alpha to need that type of thing, however. Additionally, she did not understand the extremely potent scent readings she was getting from either Clint or Steve. She was familiar with some of the hormones, but one of them was quite new to her and strong enough to be frightening. Instinctively, she read it as being dangerous and…remarkably belligerent. Had she truly done something terribly wrong to cause this situation that she didn't even know about?

Breaking her out of her reverie, Clint's terse voice nearly echoed in her ears as he growled finally, "Yeah, ok, Cap."

As soon as Steve and Sam had left the room, Natasha turned to her and said quietly, "Come with me, sestrenka. You will feel better after you have a hot cup of tea and a quiet rest."

Eleanor dutifully stood up whilst she risked another look up at Clint again, which she immediately decided was a terrible mistake. He looked completely devastated. Something was clearly wrong although she didn't know what, yet she was sure it had to do with her. Her hand was now shaking when she took Natasha's and mutely followed her to the lift.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

 

21 April 2017, Kakaranthara, Andromeda Galaxy

 

Quill hunched down and looked around in a panic as he whisper-shouted in a harsh voice, “What the actual f*** WAS that?”

“What was what? What are you complaining about now? Can you even go an hour without having a tantrum about something?”

His eyes comically wide as he gestured wildly with his hands, Quill demanded, “What, you didn’t see that?”

Rocket looked up with exasperation and replied, “No. Not unless you’re talking about a vague shadow moving on the edge of my vision and suddenly seeing three trees in front of us instead of four? Because that’s the only strange thing I’ve noticed in the last hour. No reason to overreact.”

His eyes darting around the barren landscape as he attempted to see through the partial darkness, Quill insisted, “You don’t think that it is cause for concern when an ENTIRE TREE just disappears?”

“I am Groot? I am Groot. I……….am Groot.”

“I have told you before about that kind of language, haven’t I? We’ve discussed this. Don’t make me have to take away your privileges, ok? What, you think that I won’t do it?”

“I am Groot.”

“Yeah, that’s right. I thought so. Now put the game away and pay attention so you don’t get yourself killed.”

“I am Groot.”

Quill started looking around anxiously as he asked, “Where?”

“I am Groot.”

Drax boomed with amusement, “A woman in a cloak. This is a most ridiculous description. While I understand your amusement at how pathetic and ridiculous Quill is, as I too feel like this every day, you must put in more effort if you want for us to play along with the foolery, young Groot.”

“I am Groot.”

Rocket shook his head appeasingly, “Alright, alright. A woman in a cloak walked through a circle in the air. I believe you, buddy. Ok.”

Gamora stalked into the room and said firmly, “Time to get moving. We have a job to do, so it doesn’t matter how many trees any of you saw. We aren’t here to appreciate the landscape.”

Rocket smirked as he quipped, “Yes, ma’am.”

Her expression stony as she stared into the distance, Gamora asked coldly, “Do you have a problem with the plan, too, Rocket?”

“No, no. I mean, this is a great plan. It is a sure-fire winner. No holes in it at all. I definitely am not going to get myself killed today.”

“Good. Let’s get moving.”

His eyes completely on Gamora, Quill picked up his weapon and nearly stumbled as he tripped over a rock in front of him.

Drax guffawed uproariously, pointing with both hands as he said, “You are a fool, Peter Quill. A sad, weak Beta who thinks he is a big Alpha dog! You are most preposterous!”

Rocket kicked Drax, who had doubled over with laughter, and half-whispered, “Could you be any louder? I don’t think that the guards on the other side of the planet heard you.”

After a quick, hurt glance over at Gamora, Quill rounded on Drax and insisted, “I’ve told you, man. I’ve freakin’ told you. I’m half-Celestial, right? I’m an Alpha.”

Whacking Quill in the back with his gun, Rocket started marching after Gamora and replied in a stage-whisper, “Sure, you’re whatever you want to be, Star-Lord. Mr Alpha, sir. If it makes you shut the h*ll up so we don’t get ourselves shot, then you can call yourself whatever you want, ok?”

“I am Groot!”

Quill gestured wildly with his hands. “Thank you. Thank you, Groot. See? The rest of you all suck. All of you. You suck.”

 

21 April 2017, Ste. 3901, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

Nearly two hours after the meeting with the OPS representative, Eleanor was almost numb with panic and insecurity. After she had escorted Eleanor to her apartment, Natasha had hardly talked to Eleanor except to say that she was going to go to help Clint prepare things for both the ritual and the ceremony later that evening. Although Natasha had briefly patted Eleanor's arm soothingly before she left, it had seemed to Eleanor as if Natasha was still quite unhappy with her. There had been no opportunity for Eleanor to talk to her about anything.

Even worse, Eleanor knew she would not be able to see Clint again until after all the arrangements had been made, so she had no idea how he felt about everything after the OPS representative's visit. No one had said anything about cancelling the bondmatch, so it seemed as if the ceremony was still proceeding as planned. Yet, Eleanor had been essentially left abandoned in the meantime, which was the first time that Natasha had not followed the strict Byzantine chaperone's protocol. The security guard posted outside her door was a guarantee to Eleanor's chastity, so she was unconcerned about her honour being challenged. She was simply very afraid that there was some unpleasant reason why Natasha had left her unattended for so long in the last hours before the bondmatch.

In the meantime, after she had bathed, dressed, styled her hair, powdered her face, and put on every lotion or treatment that she had in her bag, Eleanor was still left to her own devices as she sat in Natasha's flat and waited. Therefore, she spent the time analysing and reanalysing multiple scenarios in her mind, as well as sitting in fierce judgement of everything she had said or done since arriving at Stark Tower.

Finally, Eleanor heard the door click open behind her and turned to see both Clint and Natasha entering with matching expressions of concern.

"You are still cold aren't you, soloveyka? The blanket is there beside you if you want it. I will make you another cup of tea while Clint talks to you."

Startled by Natasha's gentle tone, as she had convinced herself that they would both be quite severe with her whenever they returned, Eleanor answered in a nervous whisper, "Thank you."

Clint folded his overlarge frame into the smallish chair across from Eleanor and, after a noticeable hesitation, said seriously, "That should not have happened earlier with the OPS representative. I wish that I could have kept you from having to experience that kind of insult, Eleanor. That woman was a total horror. I am so sorry that I didn't protect you from all that cr**."

Shocked that Clint seemed to blame himself when she had convinced herself that she had probably caused all the problems, Eleanor said earnestly, "Honestly, it was not your fault, Clint. OPS is known for being staffed with people who believe that Omegas should not have rights independent of their guardian or match. I really should have spoken more respectfully to Ms White so she wouldn't take offence, since she might be able to cause trouble for you. I ought to have allowed you to handle all of that anyway. I am sorry."

Eleanor could see that she had surprised him, by the way Clint sat up further in his chair. He replied with surprise, "F***. Yeah, I'm meant to handle that kind of thing, aren't I?"

Eleanor dropped her head immediately and shakily replied, "If you want me to release you from your Claim, then I am willing to do it. I know that you have cause, since I publicly embarrassed you in front of your colleagues and the OPS representative. You deserve much better than that. I am very sorry that I disappointed you already."

Eleanor heard the sound of glass breaking in the kitchen, but did not turn her head to investigate because she also heard Clint's sharp intake of air. She looked up slightly from her position of surrender and realised with fear that he was watching her with an expression of shocked horror, distress, and genuine anxiety. Excellent. Somehow, she'd only made the situation even worse. Yet, offering to release Clint was what protocol demanded when she had caused him insult, so now Eleanor really had no idea what to do.

Clint's voice was low and pained, as he asked, "Eleanor, did you acknowledge my Claim because you felt that you had to? Did you feel like you did not have another choice? Because, I promise you, you could have so many other choices than me and I would never want you to feel pressured."

Eleanor shook her head and tried to focus her eyes on something on the floor, so she would not forget herself and look up at him. Or over at Natasha. How was it even possible that she had messed everything up so quickly? Not even 24 hours. To be released from a publicly announced Claim was a mark of such shame, but it was her fault so she deserved it. It didn't matter that she was actually beginning to think that everything might actually be ok with him. More than ok even. He was just so nice. And kind. And…and thoughtful. And tall.

"You need to answer me here, Eleanor. I can't make assumptions about how you are feeling or what you think."

Eleanor had to work unusually hard to keep her position of surrender as protocol required, since she badly wanted to look up at Clint to gauge his reaction. She just wasn't certain of almost anything. However, the one thing that she was confident in right now was that adhering to protocol was important. That was the way that she might be able to salvage something of her self-respect, at least. "I'm so sorry. No, of course you didn't force me. I didn't feel pressured at all. You and your sister have both been so kind to me."

Huffing with exasperation, Clint insisted, "Well anyone would be kind, Eleanor. You had just been through a really traumatic situation literally hours after burying your father. Only a total sociopath wouldn't try to be kind, ok? However, I had hoped that I was showing you something much more than kindness, Eleanor." He slumped back against the chair cushion and then groaned before he said, "I'm not that good at this kind of thing, you know. Emotions and relationships, I mean. I had never even talked to an unmatched Omega before you, actually. I'm not the kind of guy women like you give the time of day to usually, alright? I've had a really f***ed up life, so I probably did not do whatever you are used to or what you were expecting. But I can work on that. I will work on that."

Surprised, Eleanor sharply lifted her head and looked directly at him, puzzled at his words. Clint looked absolutely miserable. Not angry like she thought, but just disconsolate and unhappy. "I am sorry, but I don't understand. I offended both Ms White and you. I should have let you handle all the conversation with the OPS representative."

Clint slapped his hand to his forehead and wiped it as he made a frustrated groan. "Apparently, but I didn't know that I'm supposed to do that, since I'm pretty much a cultural idiot. Nat is going to have to help me with learning what I'm expected to do for you. I don't know if I'm supposed to trust my instincts because I got 'em and they are f***ing strong, but they're also pretty primitive, so probably not. I doubt I was supposed to threaten that OPS b****."

Silently appearing at Eleanor's side, Natasha set a delicate teacup decorated with cobalt flowers and a thick gold rim in front of her, then briefly laid a light hand on Eleanor's shoulder before sitting down beside her. "Actually, Clint, that is exactly what you were supposed to do. It is ok to tell him, sestrenka. He genuinely wants to know."

Eleanor took a shaky breath and said nervously, "If you still wish to bondmatch, then I do not want to release you. I do want to be bondmatched to you very much. However, it seemed clear that I made you quite angry, so I knew that I had to offer you the option to honourably stepping away from your Claim. That is protocol."

Clint wiped his entire face with his left hand, as his right was still balled into a tight fist by his side. He then said seriously, "Eleanor, whatever I have done to make you think that I am angry with you or would want to rescind my Claim, then I am deeply sorry. Far from feeling that way, instead, I want more than anything to make a bondmatch with you. Literally more than anything."

He rolled his eyes at Natasha's angry kick towards his shins and added, "Ok, yes, Nat is right. I was very angry, but not at all with you. I was furious with myself. It had not even been four hours since you acknowledged my Claim and I had already f***ed it up badly. I let that woman speak that way to you. You cried and I should have prevented that. Since I didn't know the protocol or any of that cr**, I didn't even know why you kept looking at me like I was supposed to be doing something. Because I don't understand why an intelligent, amazing person like you would need my permission anytime you want to talk. You should be able to talk to anyone you want."

Hopeful, but still far too frightened to relax her posture or make any assumptions about anything, Eleanor shook her head. Clint was still scenting too much fear and despair for her to feel at all certain of anything. "Thank you, but, since I have acknowledged your Claim, it is now your right to determine to whom I may speak. Tradition would dictate that you handle all legal and governmental interactions for me with my guardian present as support until the bondmatch. Also, I am definitely not allowed to speak to another non-familial Alpha without your permission."

Clint grunted and punched his thigh with one fist. "Even I'm not that insecure that I'm afraid of you just talking to another Alpha, Eleanor."

Natasha sighed and commented bitingly, "It is the standard, Clint. Eleanor is correct that other Alphas will misunderstand if you don't follow this protocol. They will believe that you cannot control your own Omega, which would cause considerable comment since Eleanor is an AAA. She is right to look to you first."

Clint leant forwards and barked out angrily, "Any other Alpha who takes that attitude can just f*** right off, as far as I'm concerned! I dare any of them to say a word against Eleanor's character, Natasha. Look, yeah, I'm sorry to say that my instincts are really possessive—much more than I'd ever imagined. Even still, I don't see why I would need to involve myself in every detail of her life, Nat."

Devastated, Eleanor looked at Clint and then at Natasha before turning her eyes towards the ground and flushing deeply with mortification.

Natasha placed a hand on Eleanor's arm, as she urgently whispered, "Она вот-вот заплачет." (She's about to cry.)

Unsure what Natasha was saying, Eleanor bit her lips together and struggled to keep her composure. She knew that she was nearly at the limit of her self-control, so she stood up shakily with her handbag clutched in her hands, and asked, "Would you mind very much if I use the bathroom?"

Clint bolted up from his seat and said uneasily, "Are you alright? Do you need something?"

"No, thank you, I am fine. I just need the bathroom, if you don't mind."

"Of course not. We'll wait for you out here."

Eleanor smiled and then hurried down the short corridor towards the bedroom where she had slept the night before. As soon as she shut the door, she ran into the bathroom and dropped to the floor. Then, huddling on the bathroom mat, she tried to calm herself by taking deep breaths, as she shivered with misery.

She had no idea what she was supposed to do now. What she did know was not particularly useful either. She knew that her father ought to have brought her reasonable Alphas for Overtures. She knew that her brother ought to have protected her. She knew that she ought not to have allowed this team of superheroes to waste their time on her. She knew that she ought to have called the OPS instead of trying to find a guardian for herself. Of course, she also knew that she would have had absolutely no further hand in her own destiny if she had turned to OPS.

Wait…no! Had she accidentally trapped Clint into a Claim? She had always been told that unmatched Alphas found it very hard to resist unmatched AAAs, especially level-5s like Clint. Would he regret this in a few days when his hormones were more stabilised and the reality of caring for a needy and hopeless new match became impossible to ignore?

She had only just begun to realise how much she actually liked him. Clint was actually sweet and thoughtful. He was also quirky and weirdly funny, which were qualities she'd not really expected in an Alpha. She had felt that he was actually interested in her and not just her designation. In fact, he seemed like he might be the sort of match for whom she could develop a true emotional attachment, not merely a matching bond. He was rather lovely and kind actually, which did not correlate at all with her expectations for a topped-out Alpha.

Eleanor forced herself to stand up and look into the mirror. Ugh! Her face was splotchy and pale at the same time. Because of course, it was. After spending a couple of minutes powdering her face and brushing her hair, so she looked more appropriate, Eleanor squared her shoulders and told herself that it was time to return. She might be a bit pathetic, but she was not a coward.

She slowly opened the bedroom door and heard Natasha speaking rapidly in a low voice. Whatever they were saying—it sounded like Russian, as before—Natasha seemed to be comforting Clint, who looked very upset. Seeing how distraught he appeared to be made Eleanor's stomach begin to do flips and turns that nearly sent her running back towards the bathroom.

As soon as Eleanor stepped out into the corridor, however, both Natasha and Clint stood up from the sofa and moved towards her. Natasha wrapped an arm around her and went to guide her to sit back down, however Clint took Eleanor's hand and lifted it to his lips, as he said, "I am sorry that we caused you to feel so upset. I think that you and I might have been speaking across each other, Eleanor. Would you please come back and sit down, so we can talk?"

Shortly after, to her great surprise, Eleanor found herself seated on the sofa with the blanket wrapped around her again and Clint across from her again with her hand lightly resting in his. He spoke very quietly and remarkably gently as he asked, "Eleanor, what will help you to feel better? How can I make you more comfortable with me?"

Unable to explain directly, as this went far beyond what she had been taught was acceptable, Eleanor shook her head and said, "I am just nervous. If you are satisfied, then I will be fine, truly."

Clint grunted with frustration, which caused her to look directly at him for a moment. She could see his unhappiness, but she had no idea what to do. He lowered his voice and said seriously, "You are clearly not fine, Eleanor. Honestly, no one would be fine after what happened with your family yesterday. No one would be fine after all the bull that OPS rep threw at you. You cannot feel fine that I did not do a better job of blocking that woman before she got that far. Please, don't feel like you have to pretend to be fine."

She watched him carefully as he spoke and then said quietly, "You are so kind. Thank you, Clint."

He squeezed her hand briefly and replied, "Clearly, I don't know what I'm doing when it comes to relationships, since I'm pretty much just a disaster at life. However, I really want to do this correctly and I am willing to do anything necessary to make things right for you. What I don't know, Eleanor, is whether you are truly 'fine' with my Claim. I meant it when I said that I want this more than anything, but I am not the kind of guy that is ever ok with force, manipulation, or control. I know just how f***ed up that feels, trust me. I will never do that to someone else. You need to be alright with this for me to be willing to proceed."

Although she could see the absolute sincerity on his face, Eleanor had no idea how to reply. She still didn't know what had gone wrong earlier or why she'd so misunderstood all his signals before. Fortunately, it didn't seem as if Clint was feeling trapped in the Claim at all, so that concern could be set aside. It was actually rather devastating to hear how poorly he seemed to think of himself, too. Clint seemed pretty incredible from what she'd seen so far, actually, so it didn't make sense that he would think he was such a disaster. As she thought through how to reply to him, Eleanor kept her eyes on Clint's face and watched the range of emotions that passed over it. No, he was being completely genuine with her. He desperately wanted this bondmatch.

Her mind made up, she took a deep breath and lifted her eyes so she was looking directly at Clint, before she said clearly, "Of course, I am alright with this. I definitely want to go forwards with the bondmatch, Clint. I am sorry that I've been struggling to understand your cues. I apologise for having been so emotional, but I am under control now."

Clint made a grimace of disbelief and asked, "Okay, I'm glad, but you don't have to apologise for your emotions.  Is that what your family taught you?"

Natasha sighed with resignation, which made Eleanor look back at her again. "No, it is the expected standard for guardian-class Omegas. They are never meant to show anything other than contentment at whatever their Alpha match wants."

Clint took a deep breath and then let it out forcefully. "Ok. Well, that is a starting point for us then. I do not want a match who suffers because of me or who bears with whatever I want just to please me when she hates it. I don't like that, ok?"

The confused and hurt look on Clint's face caused Eleanor's heart to lurch awkwardly. She noted the anxiety and fear in his scent and tried to exude waves of calming in reply, despite being uncertain whether she was in a controlled enough emotional state from which she could properly scent anything. She felt a rush of gratitude and hopefulness wash over her, as she replied firmly, "Yes, ok. Thank you."

"Some arrogant jerks may want that because it makes them feel powerful or more Alpha, I guess. I've got a lot of faults, but I don't need that, Eleanor. I know exactly where I fit in with other Alphas—I'm not embarrassed about my history even if I'm not particularly proud of it —but I'm not a society guy. I know you grew up in that world and you deserve that kind of thing, too, since you're all elegance and beauty and class. You need to know that I can't really do that for you though, ok? I'm just a farm boy who became a carnie, then a merc, and now somehow ended up an Avenger."

Eleanor smiled up at him and replied determinedly, "I think that you are more than all of that, you know. Nevertheless, I am not particularly interested in any of the society life. I may have grown up with formal events and frequent parties, but I don't actually need or enjoy that kind of thing."

Clint laughed bitterly. "Yeah, well, since I can't give you any of it, I'm glad you're willing to do without. However, you belong in that world more than anything I will be able to give you here. My job is not very pretty either. Yeah, technically I'm the top recon specialist for SHIELD, but the reason I'm usually requested for any mission is because I'm a sniper. Basically, Eleanor, both as a SHIELD agent and an Avenger, I shoot arrows or bullets into people. I am the best at what I do, but you should know that is really all I am."

"That isn't true. I do not believe that at all, Clint." She could both see and scent his unhappiness, so Eleanor continued insistently, "I do understand what your job is. You are responsible for stopping very bad people, who would otherwise hurt others. I do not know of any reason why I should not be impressed with what you do, as it is difficult, dangerous, and helps keeps us safe."

Natasha patted Eleanor's shoulder, but it was Clint's surprised delight that truly reassured her that she had finally said the right thing. He was clearly trying to hide his pleasure that she was not disgusted but actually impressed by his job, as he responded, "I am glad you feel that way, Eleanor, since I'm not really suitable for anything else. I will be doing this job for as long as I'm physically capable."

Interrupting before Eleanor could say anything, Natasha said with annoyance, "You will find there are quite a lot of options waiting for you, bratik. You have far more ability than you credit yourself for, as I am often telling you." Natasha nudged Clint's foot as she winked her approval at Eleanor.

"Maybe. We got very off topic somehow and what we were discussing was too important to let drop. Eleanor, I need you to understand very clearly that I do not need to control you. That is not how I want things to be at all. I hate that kind of s***."

"Ok. Thank you, Clint.  I am sure that I will be happy."

Clint bent over so he was leaning onto his knees as he watched her. She could see his determination to make her understand, but she was not certain why he was so intent about this. Surely, as an Alpha, he would take control when he decided it was necessary, nor was she going to challenge him on it. That was simply how things were in a bondmatch.

Then, likely noticing her confused expression, Clint further explained, "I never want you to feel like you need to pretend to be happy in order to please me, Eleanor. I also don't want you to think that you have to do something that makes you uncomfortable just because it is something I like. Too many high-level bondmatches work like that, Eleanor, but I've always thought that was utter cr*p."

Then what did he want? Honestly, did he envision a Beta-style marriage? Or did he not actually understand how Alpha-Omega bonds worked? She could not be certain what Clint was expecting. Eleanor sat absolutely still briefly as she decided what to ask, then finally she replied quietly, "Would you please tell me what you do want, Clint?"

Clint's shoulders dropped and he said unhappily, "Well, I know I want to make you happy, Eleanor, but I don't know yet what you need. Do you actually want the kind of bondmatch where you don't get a say in almost anything?"

"No, of course, I don't."

"Good, because I don't get any Alpha wanting that kind of dynamic either. Honestly, Eleanor, I know that I'm not going to be satisfied until I am sure that you've got every single thing you want. As your Alpha, that would be my freaking job to provide that for you, you know? You deserve that and I want to do it. But I'm not going to be able to do that if you cannot be honest and talk with me, you know?"

Eleanor had a sudden thought race through her head that even the Alphas in the sappiest of romance novels didn't say things like this. It didn't even seem real that a topped-out Alpha would be this way. She nodded and replied dazedly, "Yes."

"I guess that I gotta be honest about how I also got a pretty strong drive to protect you and I really kinda want to beat the cr*p out of anyone—like your whole d*** family—who hurts you, but I swear that I'm not ever going to put a finger on you. I grew up with that kind of f***ery and I hate it. I have no idea if what I've said sounds like what you were hoping for or not. If you want something more traditional, then I don't know whether I can do that. Rogers or Wilson are much more typical style Alphas, honestly."

Eleanor heard Natasha take a deep breath as if to speak, but she rushed to speak first because she didn't want Natasha's mediation. It was too important to reply directly to Clint. Everything he had said seemed almost too wonderful to be believed, but if he really meant it…well then..."Just because I have been taught to accept a traditional dynamic in a bondmatch, this doesn't mean that I actually prefer that to what you are describing. Thank you for being so willing to learn what I need. Of course, I am equally happy to learn what you want, too. Captain Rogers and Sergeant Wilson are irrelevant. I am acknowledging your Claim, Clint, and I am so pleased. I am looking forwards to our bondmatch very much."

At first, Clint seemed stunned. Then, a lopsided grin spread across his face, as he unfolded himself from his miserable, hunched position and took Eleanor's hand in his again. "Thank you, Eleanor, I do not know how to express how happy that makes me. If you really want to continue, then that is incredible."

"Absolutely, I do. Of course."

His smile brightened further and he squeezed her fingers again as they sat silently for a while—Natasha's presence temporarily forgotten by both. Yet, after a few moments, Natasha caught Clint's eye, causing him to frown and say, "So…uh, actually, Stark has arranged for the judge to arrive in less than two hours. There really is no choice but to do this today, since we've got to get ahead of any OPS intervention. It would be better if you had some time to grieve your father and get to know me more and stuff, so I really am sorry that I can't let you have that. You've been through h*ll recently and making an immediate bondmatch is a lot to ask."

Eleanor replied calmly with a warm smile, "No, actually, it is ok, Clint. It is normal for a guardian-class Omegas to bondmatch within a day or two of acknowledging a Claim. Therefore, I really am perfectly comfortable with doing this now. May I ask when they are planning to do the ritual? Is the ceremony going to be public?"

Raising one eyebrow, Natasha replied, "The ritual will be in the hotel suite directly after the ceremony, so there can be no question about consent. The ceremony will not be public."

"Does that mean it will be just we three?"

Natasha nodded. "I will be involved in both parts, since we are making a family bond as part of the ceremony. In fact, that is why the ceremony must be so private. You understand this?"

"Oh, I see. Although I agreed to the joint bond, I don't really know how it is completed. I suppose that you do though?"

Smiling tightly, Natasha replied, "Yes. It is a bit like a bi-directional adoption, in a way. The family bonding takes place directly after the bondmatching when both you and Clint are still producing the bonding hormones.”

"That is why we cannot allow anyone else to be exposed to the bonding hormones when we are forming the joint bond then? You will both be producing them strongly, won't you?"

Clint responded, "Nat produces only in response to both me and you. The effect won't be the same as the bondmatching hormone connexion between you and me."

After a brief glance at Clint, Natasha commented wryly, "Do not underestimate the potency of your own hormones, Eleanor. At times, they are almost overwhelmingly strong for any Alpha near you." After a moment, Natasha added, "Also, since joint bonds are rare enough that even most Alphas don't understand the process, it is probably better to keep how it is done private. The idiotic misconception that joint bonds with a sibling's match are polyamorous would only be encouraged by people knowing that they form as a part of the bonding ceremony."

Eleanor replied with shock, "Oh! I had no idea that anyone thought that. Of course, you wouldn't want to encourage that idea. Does that mean that you want me to deny that you participated in the ceremony at all, if I am asked?"

Natasha looked over at Clint, who nodded, then she responded seriously, "Yes. Anyone will simply assume that I was there as your chaperone and attendant."

First turning to Clint in order to ask him what he wanted from her, Eleanor dropped her head down when she saw him nod tightly in a clear command. Surprised that he would choose to assert his authority—before they were even bondmatched—over something she was not even challenging, Eleanor assumed that there was more to the issue than either he or Natasha had explained. Therefore, she held the surrender position carefully for several seconds before she looked up again at Clint and replied in a near whisper, "If that is what you think is best."

Clint's eyes went very wide and his breath caught for a moment. Eleanor could tell that she had successfully transmitted her intention to do his will, but wondered if he was aware that the style of response she had given was usually reserved only for a bonded Alpha match. Before Clint could say anything in reply, however, they were interrupted by JARVIS. As she was still unused to the disembodied voice of the AI, Eleanor gripped his hand convulsively, but then pulled away sharply when she realised what it was.

"Agent Barton, Mr Stark would like you to know that a delivery has arrived for Miss Fontaine and the staff from Clavier will arrive in 20 minutes. Additionally, sir, I am supposed to inform you that the paperwork is ready and your own parcel is waiting for you in your apartment. Lastly, there are also several parcels for Agent Romanova waiting on the common floor."

"Thank you, JARVIS." Clint gripped Eleanor's hand tightly between his and said in a low voice, "I'm sorry that startled you. It is Tony's AI, JARVIS. You will get used to it."

Eleanor smiled uneasily as she replied, "I should have realised that, I'm sorry. It spoke downstairs that one time when Mr Stark was looking my information up, right? Will I need to interact with it often?"

He smiled reassuringly and replied, "Probably. Uh, I will set up permissions under my name for you and talk you through it later. You will get used to JARVIS quickly, I promise."

Looking as if she would really prefer that she never hear the AI again, Eleanor said only, "Thank you."

"Would you like something to eat now? Or would you rather wait?"

Eleanor sighed with relief. She was starving. "Now, please."

Clint looked at Natasha and seemed to have another silent conversation with her. "Ok, Nat wants to take care of that. It is probably time for me to go attend to the paperwork anyway. Are you going to be ok? Is there anything else that you need?"

She shook her head. "No, thank you, Clint. You have taken care of everything."

He smiled and said in a slightly dazed way, "Then I will see you in a few hours, Eleanor."

Uncertain what else she ought to say, Eleanor flushed slightly, as she replied with a quiet smile. "OK, Clint."

He started to walk out of the room and then stopped. His head swivelled around to the left and he stared for a second before he turned back to Natasha.

She frowned at him and asked, "Что не так, Ястреб? (What is wrong, Yastreb?)"

Clint shook his head and muttered, "Я не могу сказать наверняка. Я думал, что видел что-то. Извини, не бери в голову. Я действительно должен быть перегружен. (I'm not sure. I thought I saw something. Sorry, never mind. I'm just tired.)" He stalked out of the room and closed the door firmly behind him.

Immediately, Natasha stood up and started to go over to the kitchen. However, she stopped when Eleanor said, "I am sorry that I made you angry when we were meeting with Ms White. Are you still upset with me?"

Natasha spun around and looked down at her. "Do you truly want to bondmatch with Clint, Eleanor?"

Not hesitating, Eleanor replied honestly, "Yes, of course. Very much."

"You know that he loves you."

Surprised, Eleanor looked up at Natasha with a frown. "He does not know me enough for that yet. That does not make sense."

"It will once you get to know him. Clint is like that." Natasha gestured towards the door where Clint had recently exited the apartment. "He's been mistreated and disrespected his entire life, but he still has a huge, trusting heart that keeps trying again and again. You are exactly what he wanted and yet knew he was never, ever going to have. Do you understand? Trust me, he loves you, sestrenka."

"Does Clint honestly mean everything that he said, truly? Because I didn't think that Alphas ever wanted a bondmatch like that. In books, sometimes, but in real life…not really."

A look of both resignation and determination passed over Natasha's face briefly. "Yes. Clint does not say something unless he means it. He feels so guilty lying to people he cares about that he cannot even convincingly tell white lies, as you will see."

Eleanor lowered her eyes and gripped her hands together, but a small smile grew as she considered everything that had occurred over the past two days. She was beginning to think that she must be one of the luckiest women alive. No one went from being burying one's father and being abandoned in the first half of the day to having a random billionaire offer temporary guardianship in the afternoon. Even more ridiculously lucky was having that billionaire's quite amazing superhero, top-level Alpha colleague extend a Claim by that same evening. "Thank you for telling me then, Natasha."

"If you didn't trust him, then why did you agree?"

"Agree to be bondmatched?"

Natasha inclined her head.

"I do trust him. However, Clint never said that he was in love with me, so why would I assume that?"

"Because everything he did say was such an obvious declaration of his feelings. You had to know he was trying to tell you he is head over heels."

"Perhaps to someone who knows him as well as you, yes." Eleanor sighed with annoyance. "However, I would be inexcusably conceited and foolishly wishful if I assumed that a high-level Alpha that I only just met had fallen in love with me in under 48 hours. Instead, I assumed he was infatuated, so I hoped that this might lead to more in time. He was so kind and he seemed so sweet that I thought I would be safe with him. I trust him and I like him very much."

"You are very safe with Clint. He will make protecting you his life. Why Clint, Eleanor? You know there were others on my team that would have made an Overture if you hadn't responded to Clint."

"I meant what I said. Their interest yesterday, today, or tomorrow is irrelevant."

"Is it? Rogers especially would be prepared to provide you exactly what you have been trained to expect."

Eleanor took a moment to control her reaction, so she could reply calmly, "I do not know why you are asking me this now. I do not have any interest in what anyone else can provide. I want to bondmatch with Clint and no one else. I really do. Please tell me what I did to upset you earlier."

Natasha moved onto the cushion of the sofa beside Eleanor and held both of her hands firmly. "No, there is no need. I did not consider things from your perspective, as the Omega world view is new to me. I will learn more, so I can help you from here on. Truthfully, I am also simply used to putting Clint first. I will need to remember that I am also guiding you now, soloveyka. It will be all right."

"Thank you, Natalia. You don't know how much I would like us to be like actual sisters. We can be, can't we?"

Genuinely smiling at her, Natasha leant forwards and kissed Eleanor's forehead. "We will, sestrenka."

"You will help me with Clint, won't you? Please? Will you tell me what I need to know, so I won't hurt him again?"

"Of course, sestrenka."

"I want you to be happy, as well, and the dynamic will be changing between you and Clint, Natalia. I'll be in the way or taking up the time you would normally have with Clint and I don't want to do it wrong and make things worse for you both."

Natasha shook her head. "I will navigate that dynamic myself. The relationship between Clint and me is nothing you need to worry about, soloveyka. However, I will take the lead with you and me. I will make it clear what I want."

Eleanor sighed with relief. "Good. Ok. Thank you. What do you want me to call you?"

Natasha replied, "You may call me Natasha. That is fine."

"But everyone calls you that, don't they? And there are so many hypocorisms of Natalia, aren't there?"

Quite surprised, Natasha asked, "Do you know much about Russian culture, Eleanor?"

"Some. Not as much as I will know. Of course, I will learn as much as I can now because of you."

"Very few Americans understand that Natasha is simply a diminutive of my birth name."

"Oh. Well, I like reading. My brother always said that I do an ridiculous amount of it. But it was one of the activities my father approved and I love learning."

"There is no reason to feel like you must apologise for either your intelligence or your interest in acquiring new knowledge. You may call me Natashenka."

Eleanor smiled brilliantly and leant forwards to give Natasha a little hug. "Thank you."

"You are quite welcome. Now we should eat. Then we shall get you dressed, as the Clavier staff will be ready by then."

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

 

20 April 2017, Royal Pavilion, Hörfa Konungsins, Vanaheim

 

“My king, we have received an urgent communication from Alfheim.”

Looking up from the book that they had been perusing, both Loki and Thor stared at the young Einherjar soldier with surprise.

“Alfheim. Thor, you know what this means.”

Thor nodded and then commanded, “Tell me the message, Asger.”

“Our forces are nearly overtaken, your majesty. The draugr have been awakened and are now pressing our people back to the point of breaking. General Brunnhilde requests permission to regroup upon Vanaheim to prepare for another strike.”

Thor stood up and replied angrily, “No, we shall not retreat! Inform Eindride that Prince Loki and I will lead his people into Alfheim to support the Valkyrie forces. I want no less than 4 detachments ready to depart within the hour.”

“Yes, your majesty. I will send the messages at once.”

As soon as they were alone, Loki commented dourly, “Force might not win the day this time, Thor.”

“I am aware, brother. Our sister grows stronger as the Allfather continues to sleep. The draugr have not walked for millennia.”

Loki began pacing around the perimeter of the room, as he spoke, “Hela is dangerous enough now, Thor, but once Odin succumbs to age, she will grow beyond anything that you or I can do to stop her. I implore you to reconsider. We must capture her and kill her now whilst we still can.”

“I will not be responsible for the death of our own sister.”

“Not even if it means the destruction of our own people? Both our people, I might add, Thor. In the previous Niflheim war, Jotunheim supported Odin once Muspelheim joined forces with Hela, which she won’t have forgotten. Grundroth might be willing to align with us now, too, if we approach him properly.”

“King Grundroth has not yet forgotten that it was Asgardian hands that slew Laufey. I believe that he would likely prefer to support Hela than to ally with us.”

“Perhaps so, Thor, but we cannot yet be sure. Grundroth is a fool, but not stupid. Hela has never been known to be forgiving. We have Vanaheim and Alfheim with us. Thankfully, Svartalfheim is no more, but Nidavellir has been destroyed. Where else would we turn? Midgard? We would have to be desperate indeed to turn to Muspelhiem—although Surtur can stop Hela—yet Ragnarök would still bring an end to everything we are fighting to save. We have no other realms to which we can turn for further allies other than Jotunheim, Thor.”

“They cannot be trusted.”

“Some would say the same of me, Thor, and yet you allow me to advise you. You permit me to fight at your side, do you not?”

“You are my brother, Loki.”

“Very well, Thor, if you will not bolster our forces by adding allies in our fight to stop Hela, then we must kill her ourselves. Now that the door to Niflheim has been reopened, she is growing stronger daily. The days in which she is imprisoned by Odin’s magic grow steadily smaller.”

Thor furiously demanded, “You would truly have me ally with our enemies in Jotunheim and slaughter our sister?”

His voice becoming silkier and more compelling by the moment, Loki replied seriously, “As you well know, I would much prefer to burn all of Jotunheim. Yet, there I can be patient, as I may yet get my chance. Thanks to you, Laufey is dead, which lessens my hatred sufficiently that I may take my time to consider my options as I wait. In the meantime, the jotuns would be more useful to us as fodder for the draugr and nibelungs. Let Hela’s minions destroy them rather than the Einherjar. As for our beloved sister, Thor, I would happily slip my knife through her eye into her brain and watch her slowly die. I would feel no great sorrow or suffer loss of sleep over my action.”

“No! This I cannot do, brother. It would haunt my thoughts for as long as I draw breath.”

Loki sighed. “Very well. What would you have me do, Thor?”

“Ride at my side, brother. Regardless of your parentage at birth, you are an Odinson and my beloved brother. Fight with me, Loki, for Asgard. In Mother’s name. With you captaining the eastern flank, Brunnhilde leading the western, and me heading the centre, then I know we shall not fail.”

“Our people will not react well to me in a position of leadership, Thor. You know this to be true.”

“You are a prince of Asgard, Loki, and I trust you. They will follow because I order it and I know that you will lead them well. Your innocence was proven: you were under the control of the Mind stone, were you not? I will believe you, if you tell me you will stand at my side.”

“There was never a king so easily swayed by his emotions as you, Thor. Very well. It shall be as you command.”

Thor beamed as he declared, “I knew that I could count on you, Loki. We cannot fail with my might combining with your skill and cleverness. It is well that you will wield the magic that Mother taught you. Revenge will be sweet and our success will be glorious.” However, as he saw the rapid change in his brother’s demeanour, Thor held his fist out for Mjolnir and shouted, “Loki! What is wrong?”

Loki held both hands out, as he slowly turned to inspect each corner of the room. His eyes narrowing as he swept his arms to cast broad spells around himself, Loki responded, “We were not alone. I have not felt that presence in…some time.”

“Is there a spy in the camp? Shall I loose Mjolnir upon them?”

“No. No, she is gone.” He stalked over towards the book, through which they had been looking before the young Einherjar had interrupted them. Loki beckoned to his brother as he began flipping through the pages. Finally, he smiled with glee and pointed to the dark green border on one page with gilt zoomorphic decoration along the edge. “That, dear brother, was blue before. She has left me a message and what an interesting one it is, too.”

 

20 April 2017, The Bonding Suite at the Peninsula Hotel, New York City

 

As she stood perfectly still in front of the elderly judge and waited for him to be ready, Eleanor ran through a rapid litany of prayers for the success of her bondmatch. She had every reason to be optimistic about a good relationship with Clint. She felt positive about having Natasha as a sister, as well. In so many ways, she could see the best possible odds for success. She felt genuine hope for her future, which had seemed absolutely horrifying just the morning before.

Eleanor adjusted her stance slightly, as her traditional, exaggeratedly pointed Omega wedding shoes—actual Clavier slippers in the gold and pink brocade that only ritual-cleared guardian-class Omegas were authorised to wear (part of the complete suite of bonding wear from Clavier that had been a very generous gift from Tony)—were pinching her toes terribly. Yet, she did not want to appear anything less than pleased to be there, so she was determined to keep her body language and facial expression perfectly neutral.

“Miss Fontaine, I have here a document from Mr Anthony Stark, which attests that you have been properly advised both regarding your right to accept or refuse a bondmatch with Mr Clinton Barton and pertaining to the legal changes that would stem from your shift in status upon bondmatch. Do you feel that you have been properly advised, Miss Fontaine?”

“Yes, your honour.”

“You are, I see, planning to submit to a traditional purity ritual upon completion of this ceremony, Miss Fontaine. You are aware that you are not required to undergo this ritual in order for your bondmatch to be valid?”

“I am, your honour; however, I wish to follow tradition.”

“Very well, Miss Fontaine. I understand that you have agreed to a joint bond with Mr Barton’s bonded sister. Have you been instructed regarding the expectations and requirements surrounding a joint bond?”

Eleanor bobbed her head respectfully and replied, “I believe that I have, yes, your honour.”

“Very well. You do know that a lateral bond is the more common choice and that the decision regarding which bond you will make with Miss Natalia Romanova rests solely with you? If you would prefer a lateral bond, then you need only inform me.”

“Not at all, your honour. I believe that a joint bond will be beneficial to me and that it is the best choice for the success of the bondmatch.”

“You are quite right; however, many young Omega ladies are uncomfortable with the close familial relationship that results from a joint bond. Alpha bonded siblings are typically very involved in family life.”

She flushed and stammered a reply, “I-I understand; however, I am happy about the prospect of gaining a true sister in Natalia. I am quite willing to undertake a joint bond, your honour.”

The elderly man smiled, then said quietly, “My brother and his match had a joint bond with his best friend. I believe that they were ultimately much happier than they would have been with a lateral bond.   I hope that you shall be too, young lady. Very well, Miss Fontaine. Let us continue. I will alert Mr Barton and Miss Romanova that they may enter.” The judge slowly walked to the doors of the hotel conference room and knocked twice on one door before turning around and returning to where he had been standing beside Eleanor.

She nervously adjusted her long gold and pink brocade sash—checking that the complicated, beautiful bow that the dresser from Clavier had patiently tied for her was still correct—and smoothing down all of her veils to be sure they were properly draped. When the door opened, Natasha and Clint walked in side by side. Eleanor could see Clint tighten his grip on the two boxes in his hands, as he looked in her direction. Natasha was holding an immense bouquet in one hand and a pair of joined crowns in the other. She was also wearing a very large, jewelled brooch on her dress, which was clearly quite old. Eleanor recognised with surprise that Natasha was following Russian custom and hoped that she remembered enough from her finishing school Eastern Slavic Culture class to not make some terrible mistake in protocol.

Just as Eleanor tried to recall if she was going to be expected to recite a marriage poem or if that was Ukrainian tradition instead, Natasha said in a low, commanding voice, “Clinton Francis Romanov Barton and Natalia Alianovna Barton Romanova request entrance.”

The judge said firmly, “Approach.”

Clint linked arms with Natasha and they walked up to where Eleanor and the judge were waiting. Natasha bowed and presented Eleanor with the bouquet, which she saw was composed of a huge number of pale pink and white roses, but also had a large amount of lilies-of-the-valley interspersed. She understood the message of the bouquet clearly—as any of the girls from her school would have done. They had all suffered through Madame Sheremeteva’s long, dreary floral arrangement classes. The pink and white roses meant constant love towards the recipient. The lilies-of-the-valley symbolised the purity and sweetness of the recipient. Eleanor felt her face flush brightly as she looked at Clint and accepted the bouquet with the appropriate curtsy.

“It is your wish, Mr Barton, to make a bondmatch to Miss Fontaine?”

“Most strongly, yes.”

“As the family representative, Miss Romanova, do you endorse Miss Fontaine joining your family?”

Natasha nodded. “Yes, your honour.”

“Very well. You may present her with your family’s token.”

Natasha removed the sparkling ruby and diamond gold pin from her dress. “You are now a member of the Romanov-Barton clan, Eleanor. I pledge to help my brother to protect and support you at all times.” She pinned the brooch to upper right shoulder Eleanor’s dress and then stepped back.

At that moment, Eleanor was completely overcome by a wave of both euphoria and confusion at the same time that she experienced an unpleasantly intense hot flash. She attempted to focus on the judge as he asked whether she consented to bondmatch. She knew the correct words. She had practiced them hundreds of times at school and even afterwards, since they had been taught that bonding hormones would overwhelm nearly all their senses to the point that they must be able to recite the words as easily as their own names. Yet, she was so completely unprepared for the extent of the sensory overload that she couldn’t be sure she remembered anything correctly at all. She was truly so overwhelmed that she could not think of much beyond the Alpha in front of her, who she could sense more strongly than she could her own heartbeat.

Finally, Eleanor managed to push the words to the forefront of her mind and declared, “I, Eleanor Bridget, bond myself to Clinton Francis for all time and I accept the joining of our lives as we make our life bond. I acknowledge Clinton as my Alpha match and promise him my support and I shall always accept his guidance every day that we share. I pledge my will to him and I shall never turn my loyalty from him.”

She could not understand any of the judge’s words when he began speaking, but she clearly heard Clint as he said firmly, “I, Clinton Francis, bond myself to Eleanor Bridget for all time and I accept the joining of our lives as we make our life bond. I acknowledge Eleanor as my Omega match and promise her my support and my guidance every day that we share. I pledge that she and her progeny shall always be my first responsibility and I shall never turn my loyalty from her.”

They both dipped their heads as Natasha placed the bondmatching crowns on them and afterwards stood again so they were facing each other. Eleanor had to stretch to her fullest height to keep the crown from being pulled off by the string attached to Clint’s due to the immense difference in their heights. She then felt the pressure of her hand being tightly gripped in Clint’s, as he was placing an immense ruby ring on her finger.

When she looked back up at him, she felt yet another enormous wave of euphoric dizziness and confusion wrap around her as her skin seemed to almost burn from the concurrent hot flash. Eleanor realised that Clint’s bonding hormones must be unbelievably strong to produce such a massive physical reaction in her. She just hoped that her own hormones were correspondingly strong enough to bond him properly to her. Perhaps this was why they said a level-5 Alpha most properly needed a guardian-class Omega. Her teachers had definitely been right that it would be incredibly hard for her to think about anything whenever Clint was actively exuding. Her mind was overwhelmed beyond belief.

“Clinton Francis and Eleanor Bridget, you are now bondmatched to each other. No man or law can now render asunder this bond, which is the strongest and most precious of all chosen bonds that we who are either Alpha or Omega can experience. Yet, you are indeed privileged to hold yet another bond, Mr Barton. I understand that it is your intention, Mr Barton, and yours, Miss Romanova, to make a joint bond with Mrs Barton.”

Clint did not turn his eyes from Eleanor, as he said distractedly, “Yeah, uh, yes, it is.”

“Very well. I consent to being your witness.”

Turning his attention with obvious effort, Clint faced Natasha and said succinctly, “Natalia Alianova, I still honour our sibling bond and desire for it to continue for as many days as I shall have. I present to you my match, Eleanor Bridget, and ask that you consent to a joint bond.”

Eleanor knew that she was supposed to say something, but her thoughts were still so consumed with the sensations being caused by their combined bonding hormones that she was utterly incapable of thinking clearly. Yet, suddenly, she noticed a new scent that roused her attention and she worked to focus her attention on the source: Natasha.

Her finishing school had never discussed how different the sibling bond would feel from a bondmatch, but Eleanor could sense quite powerfully the strong, familial tone of the new bond and knew instinctually that her own hormones had shifted to draw in Natasha as her sister. Unused to the primitive, animalistic nature of her designation being so laid open and bare, Eleanor felt a flash of uncertainty and nervousness. She hoped that she was doing everything correctly and not embarrassing herself or either Clint or Natasha, since she had barely any ability to think beyond experiencing the strange, intoxicating mixture of all the bonding hormones.

“Do you consent to a joint bond, Mrs Barton?”

She could do this…the words…the words…ah yes. “Yes, I do. I wish to have you as my sister, Natalia. Will you consent to making a bond between us through your bond to Clinton?”

Natasha smiled in such a way that Eleanor knew that she was aware just how uneasy and anxious Eleanor was feeling. “I return your desire to bond and I offer you this token.”

Surprised, Eleanor took a box from Natasha and then looked up at Clint for guidance. She had never been told that she was meant to give a token. Was that Russian tradition? What did she do now? Yet, Clint held out a small box and smiled at her. Afterwards, another strong wave of confusion and euphoria hit her and she struggled through her reaction to another burst of Clint’s bonding hormones to present the small box to Natasha. She then heard Natasha speaking to Clint and Clint replying, but their words seemed to fade to the background, as all her senses unexpectedly screamed out in deprivation.

Somehow, she was bereft, as Clint released whatever hormones were focussed towards his sibling bond with Natasha and temporarily left Eleanor with nothing being directed towards her. Shocked, Eleanor forced herself to keep from making any sound or action that would embarrass her later, but in the midst of her temporary misery, she could hardly believe how physically influenced she was by the bonding. She also wondered how many other things about this had not been fully explained to her in school—hopefully there was nothing else that would be quite this dramatic. Surely, she would not feel this wildly affected by her match going forwards. She could not be expected to function normally if Clint could suddenly overpower her with his scent whenever he chose. Was she having a similar effect on him? Rather crossly, Eleanor considered how unfair it was for her to be thrown into this without really knowing what was coming and hoped that at least Clint was similarly overwhelmed.

Realising that no one was now talking, Eleanor stood perfectly still, as she waited to be shown what would happen next. Did she do everything correctly so far? She hardly knew. Honestly, she was stumbling through it all using a combination of her vague memories of what she learnt at school and, essentially, some sort of Omega primitive instinct. Eleanor tried to surreptitiously redistribute her weight to the foot that was less squeezed by the toes of her shoes, then remembered that she could not move more than a couple of inches because of the golden rope that linked her crown to Clint’s.

The elderly judge stated rather loudly, “Very well, I bear witness to this new joint bond between the siblings Clinton Francis and Natalia Alianovna and Clinton’s match, Eleanor Bridget. You may now perform the ceremony of veils, Mr Barton, as I wait with Miss Romanova in the adjoining room. The physician should be prepared in the joining room to perform the ritual for Mrs Barton when you are both ready.”

As soon as the door closed behind Natasha and the judge, Clint breathed out with obvious relief. “That was the most intense, incredible thing that I have ever experienced in my life, Eleanor. That was amazing. Still is amazing, actually. Holy cr**.”

Comforted that Clint was also so strongly emotionally affected by the bonding experience, Eleanor nodded and replied in a small voice, “It really was overwhelming, wasn’t it? I had no idea that it would be like that.”

Clint beamed. “Yeah? You, too? Thank you for agreeing to be my match, Eleanor. I know that I don’t deserve you, but I will do everything in my power to make you happy.”

“I am very sure I will be happy, Clint. I hope the same for you.”

Radiating satisfaction and hopefulness, Clint lifted his hand to her face briefly. “Thank you, Eleanor. I truly hope so. I swear to you that I will do anything you need. Anything, ok?” He waited for Eleanor to acknowledge what he said with a nod and then asked breathlessly, “Are you ready to begin?”

“Yes.”

He raised his hand to her crown at the same time as she hopped up on her toes so she could touch his. They each lifted the crowns off simultaneously, as Clint said, “Я принадлежу возлюбленному моему, а возлюбленный мой—мне.”

Eleanor blinked up at him in consternation. She had no idea what she was supposed to say to that! She vaguely remembered learning about Russian traditions in school, but they hadn’t memorised them. It had seemed exceedingly unlikely that she would bondmatch anyone who followed them, so she had not spent any additional time on them either. Eleanor stared up at Clint uncertainly, as she was afraid to admit that she had not realised that he would expect her to know this.

As he gathered the pair of crowns and then set them on the nearby table next to the empty boxes, Clint smiled apologetically. “Sorry, I only have the bondmatching book in Russian. Those words are from the Song of Solomon in the Bible. It basically means: ‘I belong to my beloved and my beloved is mine.’”

Relieved, Eleanor smiled in return. That was different from what she had learnt, but she knew that line of scripture well. Therefore, she confidently repeated, “I belong to my beloved and my beloved is mine.”

“I want us to be like that, Eleanor. We will belong to each other, I hope. I know that you have not had time to develop any feelings for me yet and that is ok. But I already have and I want you to know that I love you, ok? I need you.”

Eleanor’s eyes widened and she flushed brilliantly as she stared up at Clint. “Thank you for telling me that. I am very happy that you chose me. I want us to be like that, too.”

His smile dimmed slightly, but Clint nodded and then said a little gruffly, “I’ll translate what I learned into English, ok? You can just say whatever you were taught.” He placed one hand on the sheer golden top veil and lifted it to the side, as he said, “I promise you protection, Eleanor.” Clint then pulled away the deep pink second veil. “I promise you that with all my possessions, I shall provide you a home to the best of my ability.” He then leant closer and said in a deep, growling voice, “I promise you all my love for as long as I live.”

That…was not a part of the ceremonial words that she’d learnt. It was possible that it was part of the Russian custom, but…she thought not, since what he had translated from the Russian was essentially word for word exactly what she had learnt in English. That meant that Clint was making that promise just for her.

Eleanor stared up at him, still half inebriated by the milder waves of bonding hormones he was producing, and tried to figure out what she was meant to say in response. She decided to simply continue with what they had taught her in school and hope he wouldn’t be unhappy that she could not yet make any emotional promises like his. “I promise loyalty and obedience to your will.”

“I will never demand blind submission, Eleanor.” He removed the final, opaque white veil and said with intensity, “I love you.”

He was definitely off script, so perhaps Clint actually would want for her to just say what she was thinking. “I truly hope that I will be able to make you very happy, Clint.”

She knew that she had not said what he had hoped to hear when she saw the way in which his eyes darted away from her and he took several deep breaths, as if to calm himself. Clint did not reply for several moments, but, finally, he simply gave the traditional statement for the final veil, “I also promise complete loyalty.”

“I am yours for all my days.”

“And I will be yours for all of mine. Eleanor, I mean that.”

Again…he had veered a little off script. She probably should not have expected any different, as they were working with two different traditions and he was hardly a typical Alpha. And that last part was precisely what had made her most hopeful about their match. She ought to tell him that. “I meant everything that I said, too. I do want very much to make you happy. You deserve that.”

Clint frowned slightly, but then looked at her in confusion just at the moment that she had a sudden thought that she really liked him. In fact, he was actually pretty amazing and quite good looking, too. Eleanor noticed his expression relax and mouth go slack as he watched her closely. Finally, she realised that she must also still be producing her bonding hormones, too, and that he was very affected by them. Therefore, Eleanor focussed her whole attention on keeping every one of her positive feelings about Clint in her mind and watched with thrilled surprise as his eyes nearly crossed while he continued to stare at her as if enthralled.

Next, a powerful wave returned to her in reply, as Clint cleared his throat then stood up straighter, while he said, “I did not expect our bonding to be quite this intense, Eleanor, but I hope once the hormones settle and we can no longer affect each other so strongly chemically, that you will remember what I said to you today. I truly mean every word of I spoke—it is not just the bonding affecting my thoughts. You will always be first in my mind. Are you content enough, Eleanor? I know that I am not what you expected your match to be.”

“I am more than content; I am happy. Anyway, whatever I imagined before I met you is irrelevant, Clint. I like you.”

Clint’s eyes lit up and he smiled before he replied, “Thank you. It is time for me to escort you in to the ritual. Listen, I know that it is an ancient tradition and all that, but you do not have to do this to please me, ok? It just sounds really unpleasant for you.”

Eleanor looked away for a moment and answered uncomfortably, “I need to do it or I will lose the respect of everyone who learns that I chose not to follow through. I am doing this for me as much as for you. Although, if I didn’t do it, other Alphas would question your decision to bond with a AAA Omega who they would assume wasn’t pure. I think that perhaps you don’t understand how important these old prejudices are.”

Clint replied gruffly, “No, this one I know about. I’ve heard other Alphas talk plenty of times. I just don’t want you to have to do something that makes you uncomfortable.”

She turned her eyes back towards him and watched his expression for a moment. Then Eleanor replied, “Thank you. However, I think that a few minutes of discomfort is worth a lifetime of respect. I am ready.”

“Ok then. Let’s go ahead.”

She took his proffered hand and then hesitated before saying seriously, “Thank you for offering me the choice.”

His expression was unreadable, but his whole body stiffened as Clint replied, “Of course, Eleanor. Legally, I may possess you, but I do not own you. I don’t want you to ever feel forced into anything. Not ever.”

Her most primitive Omega senses read the sudden change in Clint’s scent and flashed an enormous danger sign across her brain. Immediately Eleanor felt a rush of affection for him that caused her to say fervently, “I choose all of this, Clint. I really am happy and hopeful about our future together.”

The smile that lit Clint’s eyes as he looked tenderly down at her told Eleanor that she had made the right choice to be more open. When he started to walk forwards, she smiled up at him and then gritted her teeth in preparation, as they exited towards the room where the ritual would soon occur.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

 

May 12, 2017, Penthouse, Stark Tower, Someplace Else

 

“Yeah, ok, ok, you may have a point. Maybe.”

“Tony, I have an excellent, really well thought out point backed by decades of data. How many times do you think that you’ve told me you couldn’t remember doing something?”

Stark made a face at Rhodes’ holographic image and then replied very maturely, “About as many times as I didn’t remember doing someone, probably. But I haven’t been drinking. I haven’t had a drink in months, Jim.”

The pause on the other side of the phone line was poignant, but finally Rhodes replied, “Ok. Ok, so if you haven’t been drinking or overindulging in any inadvisable substances, then have you perhaps been awake for greater than 48 hours straight?”

“No. Slept a whole 3.5 hours last night. It was great. I am in my right mind—as much as I ever am—and I’m sober and not hallucinating from lack of sleep. I just came down to the workshop and there were three sketches there. In my handwriting, too.”

“Oooookay then. And what were the sketches?”

His smoothie forgotten on the table beside him, Stark lounged back on the sofa and stared up at the ceiling as he explained, “Actually, it is something that I have thought about, but haven’t gotten around to doing yet. And the specs even look doable. Ish. But I didn’t write them. I asked FRIDAY and she confirmed that I did not go back down to the workshop after 10.30 last night until this morning at 11.”

Rhodes’ reply was both hesitant and sarcastic as he said, “So, what you are saying is that someone managed to get past both FRIDAY’s surveillance and your ridiculous security to enter your private workshop. Then, they gifted you three sketches of something you’ve actually been considering doing. And they managed to make the sketches appear like you’d written them yourself. And now you want me to come and double check security with you when you can do that yourself faster and better than I could.”

Stark groaned. “Yes. That is a superb summary there, buddy. I especially appreciate how you pointed out just how very crazy I sound right now, but that is exactly what I’m saying happened.”

“Well…ok, Tony. It’s Friday, so maybe I can come up there tonight. I’m due for some upgrades or something, aren’t I?”

Stark sat up and scrubbed his hands over his face as he tried to keep himself calm. “Uh, yeah, I’ve always got something in the works for you. So, you’ll come up then?”

“Yeah, I will. But I’m going to need some convincing to believe that something weird has really happened. Honestly, the world has gotten pretty crazy these days, but do we really believe that aliens would bother with your workshop, Tony?”

“Hey, let me remind you that there are some incredible things that have happened down there, James Rupert Rhodes. Every d*** day you wear a spangly, nauseatingly patriotic version of one of those brilliant ideas—the balance of which you ruined with a ridiculous, superfluous cannon, I might add.”

“We’ve had conversations about that name, Tony. Entire, explicit conversations in which you repeatedly made promises.”

“But you know that I’m going to keep saying it because it annoys you.”

Rhodes sighed. “Yeah, I do. But seriously, Tony, aliens?”

“I never said it was aliens, Rhodey. I have no clue what happened here. Hey, is time travel possible yet?”

“Yeah, on that note, I’ll try to be down by dinnertime at least. Don’t do anything any crazier than usual before I get there, ok?”

“Whatever. Crazy is fun and I’m a little bored. If you take too long, then I might just be reduced to entertaining myself with some crazy.”

 

May 12, 2017, Ste. 3801, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

Putting down his mug of coffee, Clint frowned and said seriously, “You do not need to see any of your family again if you don’t want to, Ellie. I am confident that the message behind my visit to your brother was fully understood.”

Shaking her head, Eleanor smiled apologetically and replied, “Oh, I’m sure it was, Clint. I don’t feel like I have to see my sister-in-law again. In fact, I really don’t even want to see her. Except…I just thought that it would be very satisfying to watch as she tries and fails to manipulate you for whatever benefit she thinks she is going to get. If you think it is a bad idea or if it would make you look bad in any way, however, never mind.”

Clint leant back against the table and looked at her for a moment and then relaxed his shoulders and snorted with amusement. “F*** it, ok, sure. Sounds like a good time making the horrible b*tch squirm as she embarrasses herself. Not sure I am going to ever forgive her for what happened to you at her hands, baby.”

Eleanor bit her lip shyly and peered up at him. Then, since she was overwhelmed by Clint’s admiring expression as he regarded her, she quickly looked back down at her lap. “Lilith will be so intimidated by you if you choose for her to be.”

Surprised, Clint suddenly barked with laughter and replied, “I appreciate the vote of confidence, Ellie. We do have a few interesting legal developments to drop on her, so it could actually be fairly satisfying. Too bad Nat isn’t here. We make a terrifying team when she is in full form.”

Eleanor nodded. “I believe that. She is scary, isn’t she?”

Aiming a crooked smile at her, Clint replied, “Not sure I have ever heard anyone say that so affectionately before. Usually, people say it with a look of terror on their face.”

“Yeah, but they are different, since Natalia would actually hurt them if she had a reason. They should be afraid.”

Clint tilted his head and said seriously, as he watched her reaction closely, “Yes, she would and without hesitation or guilt and as nastily as she thought necessary.”

Eleanor shrugged, “Obviously. She is the deadliest person I know and I know you, so that means a lot.”

“Yeah, well, you’ve never seen Cap and Barnes in the field, baby.”

Eleanor frowned and earnestly explained, “I don’t need to. Natalia has told me how skilled you are and she should know.” Noticing his tense expression, Eleanor asked uncertainly, “Do you not want me to say things like that? I am sorry.”

Clint didn’t reply for a moment as he took a long drink of coffee—eyes on her guardedly as he did so—and then set the cup down carefully in front of him. Next, he propped himself on his hands against the edge of the table and said, “Depends on why you’re saying it, honestly. I know that I was basically built to do this, which...whatever. When G-d was handing out talents, these are the only ones he gave me, so I guess that’s my purpose or something. Doesn’t mean that I don’t know it makes me little more than a killer. Maybe I do it for the ‘right’ reasons, but it is still just handing out death, Ellie. I guess I’m ok with it now, so it doesn’t matter. Nat didn’t choose it like I did though. They began training her when she was very young.   She has a greater range of abilities than I do, but emotionally they truly f***ed around with her, right? She can’t do anything else but this, really—even though I think she’d do whatever it took if she actually could find another life.”

“Clint…”     

He screwed his eyes shut and sharply interjected, “Nah, don’t. I don’t want you to say anything else about it, ok? I am pretty honest with myself and everyone else about who and what I am, Ellie. But as for Nat, well, it takes a while to understand her, ok? You’ll get to know her differently than me, of course, but I can tell you some things now anyway. Don’t ask questions about Nat’s past. That is the most important. Let her tell you. And second, understand that she is a little soft when it comes to me, alright? I don’t mean she doesn’t ruthlessly analyse my performance in the field, but Nat is too generous about it when talking to anyone other than me. She’d put one of her knives in my gut for saying this, but it is a fact.”

Eleanor did not reply other than to nod almost imperceptibly and then look back down at the table as a hot flush of embarrassment spread over her cheeks.

Clint huffed with annoyance and pushed away from the table. He stood awkwardly with his hands in his back pockets as he watched Eleanor for a moment, before he said, “Nat doesn’t trust Bucky at all—and there’s history there that I’m not getting into, but she has a reason why. She likes Cap, but, well, he’s Cap and I’m an assassin. Of course, she’s going to say I’m deadlier, right? Anyway, Nat doesn’t trust almost anyone and she has very few people in her inner circle. I’m the one she truly trusts, so that’s how it is.”

This was something that Eleanor felt she could answer, so she looked directly at Clint and said, “I know she trusts you completely, Clint. She would do absolutely anything for you.”

He stared up at the ceiling and replied tonelessly, “She has. Things she shouldn’t have had to do even.” Clint shook his head as if to clear his mind, then continued, “Look, a sibling bond requires extreme trust, Ellie. Trust like that is very rare, especially between a male/female Alpha pair. It is even less likely with people who have been burned and betrayed as many times as she and I have been. For a long time, we were the only positive things that each other had in the midst of truly s***ty lives. Unlike Nat, I actually have a sibling, Ellie. I did trust Barney once, until he left me for dead. In fact, I might have actually borrowed on that experience when I visited Jonathan a few weeks ago.”

Knowing that he would not want her to comment on his brother, Eleanor changed the subject. “I know you said you won’t tell me what happened, Clint, but may I at least know if you feel Jonathan has any idea exactly what he did to me?”

Clint had just picked up his mug, but he immediately set it down again, as he groaned. “Honestly, Ellie, no. He doesn’t. I am sorry. He’s just an absolute piece of s***, baby.”

She nodded, but she didn’t think she was successful at hiding her disappointment from him. “Ok. I didn’t really expect he would, but I guess I hoped he might feel a bit of remorse or…or something. I don’t believe that Lilith is even capable of that though. I think that is why I want a tiny sliver of satisfaction in seeing her look like the fool for once. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, ok, Ellie. Let’s go do it then. They are holding her for me in the lobby. I will have her sent to a conference room on the 11th. I don’t want her on any of the private floors.”

Eleanor’s eyes widened and she shook her head vigorously. “Goodness, no. She would count that as a triumph.”

Clint had pulled his phone out of his pocket, but looked over out of the side of his eye at Eleanor and said apologetically, “Hold on, lemme text Nat a sec.”

First checking her teacup and discovering that its contents were now ice cold, Eleanor then resignedly leant her head on her hand and watched as Clint texted back and forth for a few minutes. She started to zone out after a while, but, when he dropped his phone onto the table, she refocussed and sat up straight.

“So, Nat says to go downstairs and look in her closet. She wants you to get the long blue garment bag labelled ‘Г11H3Б’ and put on everything inside.”

Looking down at the new, pale lavender silk dress that she was wearing, Eleanor flushed deep red and said quietly, “Oh. OK.” She was, apparently, not dressed appropriately to meet with Lilith, which was mortifying as she had put in a particular effort that morning in hopes of pleasing Clint, who had looked dispirited lately. Accordingly, Eleanor got up quickly and hurried out of the kitchen, so she could hide her face from him until she could better mask her mortification from him. She found her handbag on the table near the front door and pulled out a thin grey key card, by which time Clint had caught up with her.

“Baby, I did not mean that you do not look perfect as you are.”

Except that he had apparently told Natasha how she looked and it had not passed muster. Eleanor sighed, but did not respond other than to say, “OK,” as she turned and walked over to the front door.

Clint dashed forwards so he could get the door for her and then followed her out into the corridor. “Seriously, Ellie, it isn’t about that.” He whacked the button for the lift as he stared intently down at Eleanor.

She tried valiantly not to let her expression show her feelings, as she looked up at him and said, “It is alright, Clint. I understand.”

The lift doors opened and they both stepped inside. Clint said sharply, “Agent Romanova’s floor, JARVIS.”

“Very good, Agent Barton.”

“No, it isn’t alright, baby, since your feelings were hurt. I think that you look incredible in that purple dress. Nat just thinks you need a different outfit, that’s all.”

She shook her head and attempted to reply nonchalantly, “Thank you. However, if Natashenka thinks that I should change, then I am sure that I should, since she must have a reason. It is not important, Clint, really.”

The doors to the lift opened and Clint followed Eleanor out as he replied, “Well, you know that I don’t know s*** about fashion. I just know what beauty looks like and, of course you know that you always look gorgeous, but you look particularly great today. Nat just thinks that you need to wear something different than what your family might have already seen and that it needs to be something special and extraordinary.”

Eleanor managed a tiny smile as Clint entered the code for Natasha’s door. “That makes perfect sense, Clint. I will change quickly, so you won’t have to wait long.”

As soon as they’d entered the flat, Clint used both hands to turn her around and said seriously, “Baby, this is strategy, not a comment on your appearance. It isn’t an order or a requirement. You do not need to change at all. You would look perfect as you are now. Natasha uses every situation to actively build an advantage, but that isn’t always necessary. Do you want to just go downstairs now?”

Gazing warmly up at Clint as she heard his genuine concern, Eleanor shook her head and quietly replied, “Thank you, Clint, but I don’t mind really, since Natalia is usually right. Isn’t she? I’m glad that you like this dress, as I chose it particularly for you. Anyway, I won’t take long to change.”

Clint’s expression was deeply concerned and clearly uncertain, but he nodded acquiescence and walked back down the corridor to Natasha’s sitting room to wait. Eleanor tapped the key card to the lock on the heavy metal doors to Natasha’s bedroom and turned the lock when it opened. She crossed the room rapidly, her movements almost completely silent due to the unusually thick carpeting, and reached the closet. When she opened the doors to the closet, she saw the rows of evenly spaced garment bags—each with a coded label—and sighed with relief.

The incredible degree of Natasha’s intense personal organisation had been evident the moment that Eleanor had walked into her apartment the day she’d first come to Avengers Tower. Yet, when Eleanor had needed to change before her bondmatching, Natasha had allowed her enormous closet to become the staging area for the dressers from Clavier. The rows of perfectly uncreased dress bags had been hurriedly removed and draped across Natasha’s bed to clear space for the team of women who had immediately begun expertly pinning, draping, and tucking all the various layers and folds of the stiff bondmatching undergarments and the thick golden jacquard fabric of the dress. The brocade sash alone had taken nearly 20 minutes to fold and tie properly. When they placed her in the ceremonial seat to be carried down to the car for transport, Eleanor had felt a vague sense of concern that Natasha would be very unhappy about the state of her bedroom. Perhaps the Clavier staff had rearranged everything, however, because it seemed like every item had been put back in exactly the state it had originally been. Hopefully, Natasha had not needed to do so herself. Yet, Eleanor had a strong feeling that Natasha did not accept disorder on any level in her life. Now…if Eleanor could just remember the order of the Cyrillic alphabet sufficiently to quickly find the bag labelled ‘Г11H3Б’…

Once she found it, she unzipped the bag and saw immediately why Natasha had wanted her to wear that particular outfit. Eleanor had grown up with considerable wealth, but clothing like this could only be afforded by the very rich, which would certainly impress Lilith. Yet, the main reason why Natasha wanted her in that particular dress was clearly that its style and decoration referenced a traditional sarafan—through the lens of haute couture. The dress was mid-calf and made from a stiff, pale blue silk with a complicated woven pattern that was bordered by a gilt band sewn all over with heavy gold needlework. The front had the same thick gold embroidery on either side of a row of gilt and pearl buttons that just barely exposed the white underdress. It was an opulent, beautiful outfit, but so distinctly Russian that Eleanor had to smile as she understood Natasha’s message.

She hurried to get into the complicated dress, but as she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, Eleanor felt a slight thrill at the exquisite beauty of it. She then pulled on the matching sable-edged long coat and slid her feet into the shoes that had been on the bottom of the bag. Eleanor did not know what to do with the pearl and gold tiara-like hairband with the long silk ribbons, but decided that it would appear too costume-like to wear anyway. She hoped that Natasha would not mind, yet Eleanor felt that she had done enough of what she had been asked that she thought that Natasha would be appeased.

Unfortunately, Eleanor did not think that she had solidified her relationship very much with Natasha in the 6 weeks since she and Clint had been matched. She was deeply troubled about the state of the joint bond, but had no real idea what she ought to do about it. She didn’t dare ask Clint, as she knew that their own bond was dangerously precarious already. It would only be further damaged by putting him in the position of having to take sides or intervene.

Forcing herself to turn her thoughts away from Clint, who was probably impatiently waiting by the front door, Eleanor moved over to Natasha’s slender, mahogany dressing table and sat down quickly. She hurriedly touched up her hair and makeup before she hopped up nervously to leave the room. Several moments later, when she slipped out the double doors of Natasha’s bedroom and rushed to find Clint in the sitting room, Eleanor noticed with surprise how rapidly Clint stood up and gripped the back of the chair next to him. “That was fast. You look…wow, baby, you look incredible.”

Pleased, Eleanor blushed and replied quietly, “Thank you.” She did not comment on his appearance, but she thought to herself that if he had actually planned an outfit that was more designed to upset Lilith, then it could not be more effective than what he had on. Lilith believed that men should always look tailored and put together, but Clint was wearing black tactical pants and a tight grey shirt that barely fit around his beefy arms. His longish blond hair was, as usual, messy in the way that looked as if he styled it via towel after a shower. Because he had. He clearly had not trimmed his beard in a couple of days, probably since the team hadn’t had a mission or any meetings. He had a cut on his cheek that was only partly healed. The delicate diamond bondring in his upper left ear (that matched the bondring that Natasha wore on a tiny chain) was incongruous with his roughness and yet also seemed like a virtual middle finger to anyone’s expectations. Finally, he was wearing the hearing aids with the purple ear moulds, which he usually only put in when he wasn’t going out in public. Whilst Clint looked messy, intense, and far too casual to match Eleanor, he definitely appeared dangerous and very intimidating. As he smiled down encouragingly at her, Eleanor had a fleeting thought how surprisingly attractive such an informal look could be.

Clint guided her to the lift and then remained quiet during the ride down, while he kept his hand firmly on her lower back. As they approached the conference room, Clint leant down and spoke softly, yet authoritatively, into her ear, “She will not get away with a thing. There are already legal solutions in place regarding your family, Ellie, so they cannot harm you. Let me do the talking. Probably better if you wait for me to nod before you answer any questions, even though you know I hate that s***. Appearances matter right now, baby.”

Knowing that he needed the confidence boost and how strongly he would react, Eleanor lowered her eyes and bobbed her head in the traditional way, as she whispered, “Yes, Alpha.”

In reaction, Clint’s hand gripped her hip tightly, then he kissed the top of her head twice and opened the door. They walked across the room towards Lilith, who was seated on the conference room sofa.

After an unimpressed glance at Clint, Lilith smirked at Eleanor and demanded, “Well, Eleanor, aren’t you going to introduce me to your Alpha?”

Clint stalked to one of the chairs in front of Lilith, then he carefully seated Eleanor and kissed her hand in the most formal Russian-styled Byzantine protocol. As he waited for her to adjust herself comfortably and then handed her a large Orenburg shawl that she hadn’t noticed he was carrying. Clint smiled down at her, but his voice was hard as he spoke without facing Lilith, “Only an Omega has the right to call her match “Alpha”. To you, Mrs Fontaine, I am simply her husband or match. I am Clinton Barton, a current SHIELD Agent and active Avenger. You are Lilith Smith Fontaine, formerly an account manager with Brockington and Roth but currently working as a personal assistant to your husband.” Clint turned around and said coldly, “The introductions have now been made. What is your business here, Mrs Fontaine?”

“I didn’t come here to argue anything with you, Mr Barton. I just wanted to check on Eleanor and make sure she has settled in well here.”

He still had not seated himself, but took up a position beside Eleanor’s chair that she felt could be read as protective…or aggressive depending on one’s perspective. Clint sneered disdainfully, “Touching concern, Mrs Fontaine.”

Lilith waved her hand dismissively and said in an unconvincingly conciliatory tone, “Mr Barton, I might have had my differences with Eleanor in the past, but we are family. Her rapid marriage might be a little unusual and unexpected, but we do want to know that she is in a stable relationship.”

Clint crossed his arms over his chest in a way that Eleanor thought made him look impossibly muscular and very threatening, before he replied in a warning tone, “Do you want for me to infer that you do not approve of my Claim and bondmatch, Mrs Fontaine?”

As if surprised by his assessment, Lilith responded in an almost alarmed tone, “Why no, of course not.”

Clint replied emotionlessly, “Because it sounds like you don’t approve of my Claim.”

“Truthfully, I don’t have any opinion about it, Mr Barton.”

He scoffed, then demanded viciously, “No? That is interesting. I’m curious, did you have an opinion about your husband’s decision to abandon his sister the same day that their father was buried?”

“Oh, that was just a disagreement. I’m sure Jonathan explained, didn’t he?” Lilith looked over at Eleanor briefly as if she was amazed that Eleanor was even there, then she shook her head and laughed brittlely. “You see, she just took it so seriously, which, I’m sure you know by now, is how Omegas often are. They can blow everything out of proportion so easily, poor dears. Unfortunately, since she is a AAA, Eleanor doesn’t understand any of these matters, which has always concerned Jonathan. But I don’t need to explain all this to you, do I, Mr Barton? You must know now how Omegas like my sister-in-law are. So sweetly childlike and fragile, which is part of their charm, isn’t it?”

Yet again, Lilith laughed, but this time it was clearly directed at Eleanor. The cold smile Lilith directed first at Eleanor was then turned towards Clint, before she continued to explain as if she were talking to a child, “Eleanor was very upset about my father-in-law’s unexpected death, you see. She began acting so irrationally that Jonathan and I were both very concerned. It was obvious that she needed a bondmatch soon to help stabilise her. We also felt that Eleanor needs an older, wiser Alpha to guide her.”

Lilith narrowed her eyes and gave Clint an appraising look before she continued condescendingly, “That is why we were hoping to provide a secure, stable match with Mr Allardyce, since she was so distraught over losing my father-in-law that she was beginning to act out. Mr Allardyce has known her through my father-in-law for years, so he wasn’t put off by Eleanor’s suddenly irrational, out-of-character behaviour. Yet, she refused to consider any bondmatch and embarrassed the family enormously. Then, Eleanor compounded all of that by leaving our home unchaperoned and without permission. Sadly, she simply misunderstood my husband’s intention that day after the funeral.”

Lilith gestured vaguely at Eleanor, then smiled almost conspiratorially at Clint, as she said with dramatic emphasis, “It is such a pity that Eleanor decided to run away, since of course she didn’t have any way to support herself. Of course, it turned out for the best, didn’t it? She obviously has that Alpha now who can guide her and…whatever else it is that Omegas…need.”

While Lilith had spoken, Clint did not react or move in any way, as he remained standing above Eleanor’s chair. He continued to stare at Lilith, letting the silence grow. Finally, Lilith continued, “Well, so, the family is still concerned, of course. Obviously, we don’t question your Claim. Apparently, Omegas have the legal right to decide that sort of thing, yet our family wasn’t consulted. We weren’t given the opportunity to meet you as a candidate. You didn’t conduct any negotiations. You were married and bonded without any family present. The whole situation was highly irregular and, frankly, a tiny bit shameful. This scandal will affect not only Eleanor’s social standing, but the reputation of our entire family.”

“Negotiations.”

Eleanor lifted her eyes from her lap to glance at Clint as she heard the force with which he spoke the word. She then turned back to watch Lilith. Clearly, Lilith had no idea of how to speak with a topped-out Alpha about his recent bondmatch. She could not understand the effect of what she was saying and if she was hoping to gain Clint’s cooperation…no chance. As ugly as her sister-in-law’s words were—and they were…they hurt—Eleanor felt sure that Lilith was not going to come out on top of this exchange.

Lilith nodded. “Yes, of course. You must know that an Omega with Eleanor’s ranking needs special guidance on that sort of thing: a guardian to select the candidate and a chaperone to guard her honour and guide her through the process. Guardian-class Omegas cannot do that for themselves, Mr Barton, or else they are too-easily led into foolish decisions. Our family has cared for her all this time, watched over her, and paid for her special wardrobe, the exorbitant Omega-only salon bills, a multitude private lessons, and the formal schooling at the premier finishing school. We are pleased to be able to say that Eleanor was extensively prepared by our family for her eventual bondmatching, as is appropriate for a AAA Omega. She is a very beautiful girl, so neither my husband nor I fail to understand why you rushed to secure her before another Alpha could. Yet, as a guardian-class Omega, Eleanor truly needed her family at that time. We know her best.”

Clint sharply retorted, “You want your pay-out.”

Lilith winced and said cautiously, “Oh, Mr Barton, no, no. We are merely asking for a traditional arrangement and a reconciliation with our sister. There is no need to make our concern sound like something sordid.”

“Was it your concern that caused the family to formally abandon my match on the day of your father-in-law’s funeral, Mrs Fontaine?”

“I don’t know what my sister-in-law has told you, but she really did just misunderstand and overreact, Mr Barton. Naturally, we didn’t want Eleanor to leave. We simply expected her to consider more carefully the candidate that we had worked very hard to arrange, since he would be a appropriate, excellent match for her.”

Clint stiffened beside Eleanor, but before he could reply, a flurry of fierce sounding footsteps moved behind them.

Lilith nearly jumped back in her chair and then demanded unpleasantly, “Who are you?”

Natasha’s hand very firmly gripped Eleanor’s shoulder, as she said in an icy voice, “I am Natalia Alianova Romanova.”

Eleanor wondered how long Natasha had been there, but she guessed that, somehow, Natasha had heard everything that had been said so far.

“I do not see what business it is of yours to be here, Natalie. This is a family meeting.”

Natasha laughed unpleasantly. “Is it? Then why are you here?”

Lilith’s cheeks flushed slightly, but she determinedly replied, “I am Eleanor’s sister-in-law. I am here on behalf of my husband.”

“Hm, if this is a meeting with Eleanor’s sisters-in-law than it appears that I am in the correct room, doesn’t it, Clint?”

Clint smirked down at Natasha and said only, “Yep.”

“Are you two related?”

Clint answered tonelessly, “Natasha is my bonded sister.”

“Oh. Oh. Ok. So, then I suppose you understand my concern for Eleanor then, was it…Natalia?”

Natasha bitingly replied, “Agent Romanova. No, I do not understand your concern. You attempted to force Eleanor into a match that was repugnant to her. She did not wish to go along with your plan, so your family then formally abandoned her. I suppose you thought that would be enough to terrify Eleanor sufficiently to return and comply?”

Lilith’s smile was blatantly false and her voice taut as she replied, “No, not at all. It was merely a disagreement, Miss Romanov.”

“Romanova. In fact, as you well know, your husband formally disowned her, Mrs Fontaine, when he gave Eleanor all her papers. Subsequently, you withheld all belongings not legally required to remain with her.”

“As it was our right to do. Eleanor needed to be disciplined. She was not accepting our guidance. If she had done what she was told, then she would be comfortably…”

Lilith stopped talking when Clint took a step towards her. He bared his teeth in a threatening facsimile of a grin, as he drawled, “It would be advisable if you did not continue that thought, don’t you think? Your family relationship was severed when you formally abandoned my wife with no protections and no support. Therefore, there is no legal or moral obligation on the part of myself or my sister to make any arrangements with your family, Mrs Fontaine. Following the approved procedure for the Byzantine protocol, in which my match was trained, my Claim was made in the presence of a chaperone with the prior approval of a temporary guardian. That approval was also seconded by my superior, as is recommended. Subsequently, my Claim was then formally acknowledged by Eleanor and publicly registered with the OPS. Finally, our bondmatch marriage was conducted by a federal judge.”

Natasha seamlessly joined in, “Any further attempt by your family to delegitimise Clint’s bondmatch to Eleanor will be met with extreme legal prejudice on the part of our family. You will not succeed. Your husband’s callous abandonment of your sister-in-law on the very day that her guardianship formally passed to him will be publicly noted. Allardyce’s intention to force an acknowledgment of his Claim will be officially registered with the authorities. Additionally, your personal fortunes will not remain untouched.”

Eleanor could see from Lilith’s face that she understood the unsubtle implication that Lilith herself would not remain untouched. Eleanor had to keep herself from smiling with pride at Natasha’s defence of her. Yet, when she then looked up at Clint to see his reaction, she was surprised that he was regarding her seriously. Eleanor bit her lip and tried very hard not to smile, which made him smirk delightedly at her. The reaction was brief enough that no one else would have seen, but it left Eleanor almost breathless.

Lilith gave in to her fury and waved her arms in Eleanor’s general direction, as she spat angrily, “Do you honestly want me to believe that you did not do precisely the same thing to get the stupid girl to agree to a match with him? Barton might be a high and mighty Avenger now, but I have read his history, Miss Romanov. He’s just low-class trash who got really good at killing and keeps his place with your team by doing just that.” She glared at Natasha and sarcastically explained, “Little Eleanor here didn’t want to be put into her proper place; she wanted to sit in my home and spend my family’s money as she was coddled by my husband and every other male around her. She needed to learn humility. It was time that she be taught her role in this world. Fortunately, Allardyce was very willing to pay us for the privilege of obtaining her, which would have served the family's purposes quite well. So, you see, the little b*** cost me a small fortune when she escaped Allardyce, but it looks like she got caught and bound pretty thoroughly now with two Alphas controlling her, so the last laugh is on her. Eleanor couldn’t exactly escape a bondmatch when her chaperone was an Alpha sister of the intended candidate, could she? I don’t blame you keeping it private and sneaking that judge in so quickly. Just little one thing I have to ask though. Did you really think that we wouldn’t know what you had done?”

Reaching out to put his hand on Natasha’s shoulder so she would not reply, Clint spoke in a dead, cold voice. “The paperwork, which includes a ritual verification certificate, is public record. You are welcome to request a copy from the state registrar.”

Obviously surprised, Lilith replied uncomfortably, “Ritual?”

Finally, Clint settled himself in the chair next to Eleanor and leant back into its cushions, as he asked, “Do you not know what the ritual requires, Mrs Fontaine?”

Lilith did not reply.

“The ritual cannot proceed without a physician’s examination.”

Lilith frowned angrily. “I see.”

“Neither is a ritual required for an official bondmatch.” Clint crossed his legs with precise casualness and continued, “I arranged to have the ritual after the bonding ceremony. You see, I did not like the idea that anyone might question my match’s consent.”

“Ah.”

Clint cracked his neck from side to side, as he drawled, “Unlike Allardyce, I don’t need force or manipulation to win an acknowledgement of my Claim, Mrs Fontaine.”

Natasha moved around to perch on the broad arm of the enormous, overstuffed club chair where Eleanor was seated. She spoke in a haughty tone, “Nor would an unwilling match be a welcome addition to our family.”

Baring her teeth with fury at having been outmanoeuvred, Lilith sneered, “Well, Eleanor, what do you have to say for yourself? Is this what you wanted? This?”

Eleanor peeked at Clint, who nodded his head. She then looked directly at Lilith and said fiercely, “Yes.”

Lilith laughed nastily. “Looks like you got what you deserved then, Eleanor. Two Alphas to keep you in line. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sister controls him just as much as she does you.”

Clint breathed out slowly before he stood up at the same time as Natasha. “Eleanor has one Alpha for her match, but two of us to protect her, yes. You would be well advised to remember that, Mrs Fontaine.”

“What are you going to do to me in the middle of Stark Tower? There must be cameras in the corridors that recorded me coming in.”

Natasha snorted. “There are cameras in this room, Mrs Fontaine. They have been recording since you entered.”

Lilith’s lips pressed together in fury as she snatched up her handbag from the floor. Then she waved her hand angrily and bitterly stated, “Fine. Fine, you’re welcome to the hassle. Honestly, I look forwards to a peaceful future, where I am not continually inundated with issues that I have to manage for my Omega sister-in-law. You are more than welcome to having to find enough money to care for her, too, as guardian-class girls won’t even consider something if it isn’t the most expensive option available. Keep the girl. The family won’t contest the match.”

Natasha leant forwards with a look so dangerous that Lilith gripped her purse and held it in front of herself protectively. Natasha then replied silkily, “Well, of course, you won’t. You would be hurting yourself if you did, since you would look particularly foolish. My brother has been quite careful to act with strict propriety at every stage of his relationship with Eleanor. There have been unassailable witnesses to every significant development. So, frankly, I wouldn’t advise any further threats, Mrs Fontaine.”

Natasha put her hand affectionately on Eleanor’s shoulder, as she contemptuously explained, “Naturally, as a successful upper-level Alpha, Clint is perfectly capable of purchasing anything that Eleanor would ever require. Thus, your husband need not concern himself regarding whether our family can properly provide for his sister. At some point this week, all of the items that Eleanor had when she lived in your husband’s home will be collected from your family home. Your husband may have had a legal right to keep her hairbrushes, books, and other frequently used items, but it is neither tradition nor reasonable. These things are of no use to you, but they are of value to my sister. Therefore, I expect them to be ready when our representative arrives.”

“Her legal property went with her when she left our house.”

Natasha’s lip curled as she stated, “Yes, it did. My assistant will come for the remaining items nevertheless.”

“Fine. Come and get all that junk if it is so important to you. I don’t need any of it. Yet, I suggest that your assistant clear everything that you want her to have out of her rooms, since she is never darkening our door again.”

Clint replied with a sneer, “You are quite correct. I have forbidden my match to have any ongoing relationship with your family and I have full confidence that she will obey me. You will be served with the restraining orders later today, but out of politeness I should warn you that any member of your family will no longer be allowed within two blocks of Avengers Tower, any Avengers property, Stark properties, my own or Natasha’s properties, or within 1000 feet of Eleanor herself.”

“My husband’s company is one block away from this tower!”

Natasha carelessly shrugged her shoulders. “Attempting rape to force acknowledgement of a Claim is a felony. Any accomplice of the perpetrator is feloniously complicit. You have admitted that your family was guilty of this. Are you willing to risk exposure, Mrs Fontaine?”

“This is ridiculous. Do you honestly expect this order to hold up in court?”

“Would you like the video of your admission, as well as the recording of my conversation with William Allardyce to be made public?”

Lilith made a small screech of fury, as she stood up. “That is blackmail.”

Clint said nastily, “Is it? I think you will find that it is not. We are not asking for any recompense from you. We are merely protecting my match, Mrs Fontaine.”

“You already have the little b***. What more do you want from us? What the h*** is so special about some little Omega anyway that everyone makes such a fuss about them? You all act like a AAA is made of solid gold. Eleanor may be a very pretty doll, but she’s also just a weak, emotional little girl who needs guidance just to get dressed in the morning. Tell me how this somehow actually appeals to either of you.”

Natasha’s disgust was completely unconcealed, as she replied, “That is hardly your concern. You need only know that Eleanor is extremely precious to Clint and to me, so we will not hesitate to take further legal action if required. Naturally, a midrange Beta like yourself could never comprehend the depth of even a joint sibling bond between an Alpha and an Omega, let alone the uniqueness of a bondmatch. I am sorry that you will never experience anything half as special.”

Lilith looked at Eleanor and suddenly lurched forwards to slap Eleanor’s face. Yet before she managed it, Lilith’s arm was trapped in the vice grip of Clint’s hand. His voice rumbled harshly, as he snarled, “You will not harm my match. She is not yours to touch nor yours in any way. If you do not withdraw from this room now, then you will be arrested and all materials released to the press today. Your decision, Mrs Fontaine.”

Wrenching her arm free, Lilith turned and then flounced furiously from the room.

Breathing heavily as he struggled to control both his scent and his emotions, Clint stared down at Eleanor with horrified eyes. After at least a minute of watching her—whilst she desperately tried to exude enough appeasement to help—Clint touched a button on his watch and growled, “Mrs Fontaine is to be escorted from the property with prejudice.”

The answer came immediately. “Understood, Agent Barton.”

Natasha’s arm was wrapped around Eleanor’s shoulders as they leant into each other, yet Natasha continued to watch Clint warily.

Clint grunted and asked aggressively, “Nat?”

Immediately acquiescing, which was unusual, Natasha replied gently, “Alright.” She then kissed the top of Eleanor’s head and slipped from the room.

Finally, Clint stood awkwardly in front of Eleanor and asked in a rough voice, “Are you ok, Ellie?”

“Yes, of course. You took care of everything, Clint, so I am not concerned. However, it wasn’t as satisfying dealing with her as I hoped, was it? More soul-destroying than anything, I think.”

He asked seriously, “She has said those kinds of things to you before?”

Eleanor pressed her cheek into Clint’s hand as he caressed her face. “Unfortunately, yes, but never before with witnesses. She was always careful to be sure that my brother or the housekeeper were never there.”

Agitated and clearly still quite upset, Clint demanded, “Do you believe it was she or your brother who orchestrated the arrangement with Allardyce, Eleanor?”

“I-I didn’t actually know it was an arrangement until just now. I thought he just…I thought it was his idea. I am not sure Jonathan knew, if I think about it now. Mr Allardyce waited until Jonathan left for his golf game.”

Clint put both arms around her and said contritely, “Oh baby, I’m sorry. I thought you’d understood. D***. This really went to s*** fast.”

“It was probably obvious that they’d planned it to anyone else, but I just don’t see things like that.” Eleanor sighed and looked down at his chest, so she didn’t have to see the disappointment in his eyes. “I’m sorry. I suppose I should have seen it though, since I know Lilith. I am stupid that way sometimes.”

“No, no you aren’t. You are a very special woman, Ellie. Natasha spoke the truth; you are precious to both of us. You know that I love you, baby, right?”

Eleanor lifted her eyes and then nodded, while she watched him cautiously.

“We both love you, albeit in very different ways.” Clint rubbed his hand back and forth across her back comfortingly, despite the anguish he clearly felt himself. Eleanor was certain that he was not only upset with her family, but she knew that he would not admit to being dissatisfied with her. Strangely enough for a topped-out Alpha, Clint seemed afraid to make any statement towards her that might be deemed as critical, which meant that Eleanor was often left quite unsure what he wanted or needed from her. For a guardian-class Omega, the current state of affairs was enough to make her desperately miserable, since she was sure that she was not properly fulfilling her role in the bondmatch.

Unaware of Eleanor’s unhappy thoughts, Clint tried to explain to her, “Nat loves you a lot like she loves me. I know that you and she are still building your relationship and finding out how to interact with each other. However, you need to know how important the prospect of having you for a true sister is to Nat. Ellie, you do understand?”

Eleanor flushed slightly and replied, “I…yes?”

“D***, you really don’t, do you? I know you have been told how we Alphas are: not complete until we have an Omega bonded to us. That was so true for me, but I had no idea until I met you just how much was missing. Primitive s*** is hard to understand, but I don’t deny it is real.”

“Oh.” Eleanor felt her stomach churn, as she worried whether whatever primitive things he was referencing were something she could truly ever fulfil for him.

Clint nodded. “Yeah, well, things are much harder for female Alphas, Ellie. Even if she could manage to find an actual male Omega, Natasha would not want to bondmatch one, since they don’t attract her at all. She also isn’t going make an Alpha life-pair, which leaves only relationships with Betas and, so far, none of them can keep up with her. Nat’s bond to me helped fulfil some of the human connexion that was missing, but we both knew that was never going to be enough. Yet, she has found that being your bonded sister has actually begun helping to start satisfying some of those unmet Alpha instincts, too. In short, she needs the sibling bond with you, baby. Frankly, I believe that Nat would kill to keep our family intact. I may be your Alpha and match, but Nat really needs to be your bonded sister, too. Do you understand?”

Surprised, Eleanor replied anxiously, “Yes, I think I understand.”

“I want you to be that for her as much as you can, ok? I’m not going to get jealous if you look to her first sometimes when you want help or guidance. It is important for Nat to be needed like that.”

“Ok. I understand, Clint. It has only been a few weeks, but Natalia has been wonderful to me already, you know. I am glad to have her for my sister.” She paused and looked up at him, then continued, “However, it is much more important to me that I don’t ever make a mistake with you.”

“You did understand that I said you are precious to both of us.”

“Yes, I heard you, Clint. Thank you.”

Clint shook his head and made a sound of frustration, as he attempted to explain. “No, you don’t understand. Eleanor, I meant that I don’t just want to be with you. That is not everything that the bond is to me. All that primitive Alpha s*** that I’ve never known how to handle suddenly makes sense. It has a purpose now that I have you. I would be nothing without our bondmatch. I need you.”

“Clint! You are so much more than that. You literally save the world as your job.”

As he suddenly began forcefully guiding her towards the door, Clint declared in a low, serious voice, “No. That’s not how it is, baby. You are the world, Eleanor.”

 

1 July 2017, The Barnes Home, Holbrook Estates, Stamford, CT

 

Bucky crossed both his arms tightly over his chest and glared at Steve. “Not sure why we both have to go.”

“Come on, Buck. Don’t make this harder than it is.”

“You know how I feel about these events. You know it, but you still told Stark that I’d be there.”

“Right. Yes, the Winter Soldier doesn’t do parties. You are allergic to fun these days. I remember. Well, toughen up, Soldier. You’re going anyway.”

Bucky growled as he shoved his good arm into the jacket that Steve had just handed him. “An event for Stark is hardly my idea of a jolly time, Steve. They never have any songs worth dancing to in this century anyway.”

“Not like you’d dance if they did, Buck.”

“Well, obviously not, since Emilie has to stay at home. If she were feeling better, then I would feel very differently, Steve.”

“I understand that, but she isn’t up to it right now. She’s down six pounds and it has been three weeks since she left the house. I know the doctor is concerned, but you staying home won’t fix that.”

His eyes narrowing, Bucky asked with suspicion, “How do you know that, Steven?”

“You told me, idiot. Remember? Now, put your shoes on. The car is already outside waiting.”

“I don’t give a s***, Steve. They can keep waiting. I need to be sure that Bernadette has all the instructions. Emilie will eat soft things like custards. She may manage some buttered toast tonight.”

Steve’s sympathy was evident as he sighed and replied, “Your list was pretty comprehensive, Bucky. Bernadette has stayed with Emilie enough by now that I think she knows what to do.”

“Yeah, probably, but I want to be sure.”

Steve nodded. “Fix your tie first. Brush your hair. She’ll like seeing you like this.”

“Maybe. Honestly, pal, I don’t know what Emilie likes anymore. Just give me a moment and I’ll be ready.”

“Of course. I’ll wait out here.”

Bucky walked down the corridor towards the bedroom suite where his match was probably sleeping. He’d hated this house from the moment he and Emilie had moved in. He couldn’t believe that he’d settled in some preposterously formal house with too many rooms and a ridiculously fussy garden out in Connecticut. He had hoped that it would please Emilie because she had family nearby, but she didn’t seem any happier there than she had in his old brownstone in Brooklyn.

Steve…he’d been unfair to Steve yet again…well, maybe Steve was right. Living in the Avengers Tower would keep Emilie closer to him, since they trained in that building often. She’d be as safe as possible, too. No one would f*** with her there, that was for sure. And Steve had told him that there was another guardian-class Omega living there now—Clint Barton’s match, who was an AAA, which seemed pretty improbable to anyone who actually knew Clint. Bucky liked Hawkeye, but there was no way that a traditional, upper-crust AAA would choose Clint Barton if she had other options. Those girls could pick any Alpha they chose and make them dance on command. And apparently, the girl had picked Clint when she actually could have chosen Steve. In fact, that alone made Bucky question how smart the girl was or whether she was truly an AAA, but the socialisation might help Emilie nevertheless. Honestly, it would be hard to do much worse than they were now.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

 

15 July 2017, Ste. 3801, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

Eleanor lay on her side, trying utterly unsuccessfully to control the shivering and force herself to fall back asleep. She knew that Clint was awake—his Alpha instincts seemed to make him remarkably attuned to anything she did even when he was asleep—but he had not yet said anything. The night before, he had been very quiet and unlike his usual self. Natasha had warned her before leaving that he might react poorly to being benched for this particular mission. It was the third one on which he would typically have been paired with Natasha and yet had now been left behind. Eleanor knew that Clint had pulled himself from fieldwork for anything where his skills were not expressly needed, but he was clearly miserable at being left out.

Apparently, Clint and Natasha had decided between themselves that one of them should remain with Eleanor and that it always should be him if possible. Although it was very traditional not to leave a guardian-class Omega alone unless it was with a parent or a sibling, their decision had still surprised her. The tower was extraordinarily secure. There were usually several Avengers living in the tower who were not assigned to a mission and the security staff was enormous. There were numerous personnel responsible for meeting the needs of Tower residents—many of whom could be made available to Eleanor. So, if left alone, she could be perfectly safe and need not ever leave the apartment until Clint or Natasha returned. There was even the option of hiring an Omega-attendant, so Clint and Natasha would be free at any time for missions.

Although she knew that it was not her place to try to change Clint’s decision, nevertheless, Eleanor wished that he would consult with her. As much as she disliked being parted from Clint (she had almost gotten used to the idea that Natasha was gone so often that having her home was more like a treat than anything common), Eleanor could see that being removed from fieldwork was making him miserable. However, she didn’t know how to convince Clint that she would be fine if he went on mission. Mostly this was because he would likely misunderstand her intention, as he was all too quick to assume that she did not want to be with him. Also, it was actually true that she would likely struggle once he finally accepted a mission and Clint knew that as well.

In fact, no Omega thrived apart from her match, but AAAs like her were supposed to be the least capable of managing on their own—it was an integral part of their designation. She had always been told that an Omega was meant to be a constant, devoted support to her match. Unfortunately, Eleanor was very aware that she was holding Clint back and causing him pain and suffering. She had to find a way to get him back on a mission or he was going to slowly fold in on himself with misery. No matter how untrue it was, Clint believed that his only worth was as a SHIELD agent or an Avenger.

Startled, Eleanor gripped the covers close to her chest as she heard Clint sigh and mutter, “I’ll go get you a cup of tea, Ellie. It’ll warm you up.”

Mortified that she had not only wakened him, but made him worry, Eleanor whispered, “I am sorry that I woke you.”

His voice slurred with sleep, Clint mumbled, “Doesn’t matter. Wasn’t sleeping well anyway.” He sat up and swung his legs around to rest on the side of the bed. Eleanor could see his shaggy hair and broad back in the low light, as well as how distressed he was by the way his wide shoulders rose and fell too rapidly.

She reached out and lightly touched his back with her left hand, as she asked quietly, “What can I do to make it better for you, Clint?”

“Nothing you need to do. I’m fine, Ellie.”

Unable to ignore the misery in his voice, Eleanor replied uneasily, “I…I don’t think you really are though.”

He stood up and stalked towards the door, muttering, “Don’t want to talk about it.”

She did not try to stop him, but she did sit up and turn on the bedside light. Eleanor slid her legs out of the bed and walked over to her dressing table where she knew her pill bottle was. She quickly grabbed it and hurried back to the bed. As she pulled the covers up around her with an involuntary shiver, Eleanor heard her cell phone vibrate on the table next to her.

Skipping any sort of greeting, Natasha’s low voice was gruff as she asked seriously, “Things not going well?”

Eleanor sighed and tried to keep her tone even as she answered, “Yeah, it is not very good, Natashenka. How did you know?”

Natasha’s voice was extremely gentle, as she explained, “He sent me a kitten video, Lenochka.”

“But-but he likes those.”

“It means he is awake at 3.11 am, sestrenka. And he watches animal videos when he’s sad.”

“Oh! Oh, I see. I think he woke up because of me, you know.”

“Clint is an extremely light sleeper. It is just his extreme Alpha instincts, so it isn’t your fault. He can go from deep sleep to on his feet with a weapon in his hand in seconds, ok? Don’t worry about that.”

“I cannot help but worry, Natashenka. I want so much to make him happy, but I haven’t been able to do so. I’m so sorry. I won’t stop trying though, really. He’s so miserable at being left behind. He thinks he isn’t worth anything if he is not out there, Natashenka. He should go out on mission again.”

Eleanor heard Natasha breathe out forcefully and then say roughly, “He needs to be there for you. You will always come first for him. He is your bonded match, Eleanor. I don’t think that you understand how deep that need to protect you is for him.”

“No, I think that I do understand and I trust Clint to always do that. I don’t doubt him. However, it is hurting me far more seeing him so unhappy and doubting himself, than it would if he was away for just a few days doing what he needs to do. Please, Natashenka, please do what you can to convince him to go back on active duty. Then, he would be happier, which is all I want.”

“I’m not really sure he would be, but I’ll see about it. In the meantime, let it go, Eleanor.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve said the wrong thing again, haven’t I? I just want to see him happier. I won’t say anything more.”

“Take your pill and then go back to sleep, sestrenka. Good night.”

“Good night.”

Eleanor tucked her phone under the pillow and wondered how likely it was that Clint had not heard her talking to Natasha. She had spoken quietly, so she didn’t think he would have heard what she said. Yet, he likely knew she had been on the phone. It was probably best for her to tell him, so he didn’t think she was calling anyone else. His jealousy was rare, but quite intense on those occasions when it reared its head.

When he came in the room several minutes later carrying a teacup for her and a tall travel mug of coffee for himself, Clint’s eyes flicked towards her only briefly before he set the cup down on her table.

“I was talking to Natashenka just now.”

He stopped at the foot of the bed and turned slowly towards her. His voice dropped and took on a frightening tone that he had never directed towards her before. “You disturbed her on a mission?”

Unable to help her reaction, Eleanor felt the tears beginning, as she replied softly, “No, no of course not. She called me.”

“Natasha just suddenly called you at this time of night?”

“No, of course not. She knew we were awake, since you sent her a video or something.”

Clint’s shoulders relaxed and the suspicion cleared from his face. “Yeah, I did. She ok?”

Eleanor wiped the tears off her cheek. “She didn’t say, but she is Natalia Romanova. Is she likely not to be?”

He stood at the edge of the bed looking down with a stern look. “Well, she wouldn’t mention if she was bleeding out from a knife in the arm. Or a bullet in the leg. Or if she’d been gassed. Or had a severe concussion and broken wrist. You never know with Nat. She’s got Cap with her though, so…yeah she’s fine, Eleanor.”

As Clint never used her full name anymore, she knew that he was still displeased. Eleanor felt the need to defend herself, so she said with a nervous tremor in her voice, “She told me to take my pill, so I’m going to, ok?”

Clint frowned. She knew he hated her using sedatives, but, since Natasha had insisted that she take it, he wasn’t going to question it like usual. “Fine. Then drink your tea and try to go back to sleep. I’m going to head down to the gym.”

“Oh. I’m really sorry for waking you up, Clint.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll try to get back to sleep after I work off some energy in the gym. I hope you will be asleep before I return.”

Eleanor nodded. “I will try.”

“Make your best effort.”

Surprised, Eleanor blinked up at him nervously and, in hopes of pleasing him, she said softly, “Yes, Alpha.”

Clint’s lips pressed together angrily and he turned on his heel to march out of the room.

 

15 July 2017, The Main Room of James Barnes’ Cottage, Someplace Else

 

As Rogers ducked into the room and saw Barnes, he smiled brightly and said, “Hey Buck.”

Barnes lounged against the wall of his cottage and stared back at Rogers, as he drawled, “Hey yourself. Do you wanna explain why you look as if you’ve gone a few rounds with Joe Lewis?”

Rogers flushed slightly and gripped his rucksack more tightly. “Not really.”

“Do I have to drag poor Wilson in here to explain it to me? I know he’s faithfully waiting outside somewhere and we both know that he’ll cave and tell me the truth.”

“Leave Sam out of it, Buck. Jeez. You’re worse than my mother ever was. I got distracted.”

Barnes shook his head and stalked over to his stove where he snatched up a tea kettle, gesturing vaguely at Rogers to sit down. “You got distracted and they smashed in your face with what, a piano?”

“No. It was a car.”

“A car.” Barnes closed his eyes and took two breaths to calm himself before he said angrily, “Okay. So, basically, f*** you, Steve. Where is the Widow? Her and I need a chat, pronto. I’d have thought she would be looking after you a bit better considering.”

Rogers growled, “Bucky, let it be. Don’t pull Nat into this. It was my fault, ok?”

“Oh yeah?” Dropping the kettle onto the hob to heat, Barnes marched over to the corner of the room and started dragging things out of a large wooden crate and tossing them onto the low bed. “Says you, punk. I cannot leave you by yourself, let alone in the company of two other f***in’ superheroes who should be able to back you up properly. But no. No, freakin’ lemme-at-‘em Rogers has to go out and get hit in the face by a f***in’ car.” He threw a grenade launcher onto the bed next to the sniper rifle, crossbow, and four combat knives and then went back to digging in the box. “I swear, Steve, that a whole d*** army wouldn’t be enough to keep you from doin’ somethin’ stupid when I’m not there to reel you back in.”

“I have been doing just fine, Bucky.” When he saw Barnes’ expression in reaction to his statement, Rogers amended hastily, “I know you weren’t ready to be out there fighting, yet. Natasha’s already talked to me plenty about that day. I’m fine, ok? It was just a moment. One moment that I got distracted.”

“Yep and, in that moment, they brained you with a car. I knew that I was gonna hafta come out with you soon, Steve.”

Rogers shoved whatever was in his hands into Barnes’ rucksack and said, “Buck, you don’t…”

Barnes interrupted with a smirk, as he laid his hand on Rogers’ shoulder to soothe him. “I just thought I could take a d*** month to luxuriate in this beautiful freakin’ goat farm that the princess thought I should tend. Not that I know what I’m doin’ as I’m from Brooklyn, d*mmit. But no one shoots at me here and, so far, the animals haven’t starved, so it ain’t that bad actually.”

Rogers laughed and said with a smile. “Ok, so you hate it here.”

“Yes, but I do like not getting shot at. It’s been a nice vacation.”

Nudging his friend with his shoulder, Rogers said with a smile, “I’m sure they would let you go back to the Golden City.”

“Nope. I am not going to laze around Wakanda when you’re out there getting distracted.”

Rogers laughed, his cheeks red from embarrassment, and murmured, “Jerk.”

“Whatever. You like me plenty, so shuddup. Besides, I know why you got distracted.”

Surprised, Rogers leant against the bedpost and looked around the cottage. “Uh…do you want any help finding anything?”

“Nope. And you really need to remember that Romanova can handle herself and she isn’t likely to appreciate you getting hurt just because you were worrying about her.”

Barnes slammed the lid of his box shut and grumbled, “D*** it. I know that I had my RPG-29 in here. Shuri must have snuck it out on her last visit. She always takes away my toys to ‘improve’ and she especially hates Soviet-made stuff. She took my SVD weeks ago and I bet when I get it back it, old Comrade Dragunov wouldn’t recognise it. It’s not my Barrett, but I still liked it. It was familiar, ya know?”

Rolling his eyes unsympathetically, Rogers drawled, “Poor you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Hand me that green bag, would ya? Not sure if I should bring the PG-29Vs or not. She might have an entirely different warhead for me now.”

Quickly pushing a roll of clothing deep inside, Rogers dropped the rucksack onto the bed and reached for the dark green duffel bag on the floor. “Bring ‘em. You’ll feel better.”

Barnes absently responded, “Yeah, true. Ok. Lemme pack a second pair of pants. Do you see my coat?”

“It’s in the bag.”

“Thanks.”

“Along with three pairs of pants, all your socks, and five shirts. More clothes mean less smell, Buck.”

Barnes shrugged. “Soap, Steve.”

“Jeez, we have space, Bucky. It isn’t like we’re packing in and out of everywhere. I don’t wanna have to keep doing laundry every other day.”

Barnes hummed his ambivalence and then demanded, “So, how did it go yesterday?”

“Very, very badly.”

“Better tell me now or I’ll just ask Romanova. She’ll be honest with me.”

“We didn’t contact Tony directly. We went through Clint.”

“That was actually pretty smart, Steve.”

Rogers shrugged. “If he knows where we are officially, then Tony would have to report it. I don’t want him to be put in that position, Bucky.”

“So, Stark told Barton to got to h*ll, so to speak?”

“Tony told Clint that he should be happy that he’s got a sweet deal where he just sits in his house all day long and not behind bars in a floating prison. Also, Tony said that as far as he was concerned Natasha is a traitor.”

Barnes snorted. “Ah. So, Stark went for polite then.”

“Yep. All in all, not a resounding success. Clint only asked about Natasha, but Tony knows we are all together.”

“Right. Well, I guess we will just be a rag tag bunch of vigilantes then. Sounds like fun.”

Reaching over to take the kettle off, as it was whistling loudly, Rogers sighed. “Sounds familiar.”

“Well, they always approved our missions after the fact, so, technically, the Howlies were just rag tag commandos, Steven.”

With a laugh as he punched Barnes’ upper arm, Rogers replied, “Commando was just a word for crazy bastards who got s** done without asking for permission. The only difference now is that there isn’t a war. Just lots of little battles.”

“Yep. As I said, sounds like fun.” Barnes looked back and gestured towards the table next to Rogers. “Hey, there should be another handgun in that jar there.”

“Already found that one, Buck.” Barnes glared at Rogers, who just laughed and commented, “You and Natasha are too similar sometimes. I’m pretty good at finding where she stashes things by now.”

 

4 August 2017, Ste. 4603, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

“Well, if it isn’t my little ward. How have you been, Ellie?”

Looking over at Natasha before she spoke, Eleanor then smiled genuinely and replied, “Very good, thank you, Tony. Did you take the trip to Japan yet?”

“Yes. Boring. Complete waste of my time, but there’s no pleasing certain people. Apparently, I had to go.”

Natasha had already turned her attention back to the Russian magazine that she had been perusing, but commented drily, as she flipped a page, “Frankly, your assistant is too easily pleased, since she continues to allow you to get away with outrageous behaviour. I’ve told Pepper that she should quit and find a boss who is much less self-involved and more likely to recognise her value. She is far too competent to be a mere PA, which you should know. But that’s not the only thing you haven’t noticed. You are an idiot, Stark.”

Theatrically holding his hand over his heart, Tony replied, “I am wounded by your attempts to deprive me of the best assistant that I’ve ever had. What have I done to you lately, Romanova?”

“Plenty, but my concern has been solely for your assistant. She is a very nice woman.”

“Obviously, or I wouldn’t have hired her.”

Natasha sighed, but did not reply.

Finally, Tony turned his attention back to Eleanor. “How did you like the present?”

Eleanor’s breath caught, as she felt her face redden. Had she received another present from Tony for which she had not written a thank you note? “I have loved everything that you have given us, Tony. You’ve been incredibly generous. I am sorry if I did not properly thank you.”

Her voice tight, Natasha rapped her magazine onto the table and explained, “He means the new apartment, Lenochka.”

“Oh! Oh, yes, it is absolutely lovely. Thank you so much.”

Preening slightly at the enthusiasm behind Eleanor’s reply, Tony asked, “Did the organisers get the closet done right? Romanova insisted that was the top priority.”

“Yes, it is beautiful, Tony. There is a ridiculous amount of space compared to before, so I have now two large cabinets just for shoes.”

“Good. I hired the same people who did Romanova’s apartment. Barton didn’t seem to have an opinion other than the size of the tv and wanting a place for his bows, so I figured Romanova’s tastes would do.”

Before Eleanor could say anything, Natasha replied with an annoyed sigh, “Yes, you did a good job, Stark. Clint likes the home theatre and the wall of weapons lockers. The dressing room for Eleanor is a perfect use of that third bedroom they weren’t going to use. She’s excited about the butler’s pantry, too, since all her porcelain can be displayed clearly. I don’t know who Pepper consulted, but she deserves a serious bonus.”

“Don’t know anything about the butler’s pantry, but Pepper’s guy seems to have understood what was needed. I’m glad you like it, Ellie.”

“Of course, I do. I wanted to display all of the Flora Danica that you gave me, Tony.”

Shrugging, Tony tried unsuccessfully to look as if he wasn’t incredibly pleased. He replied in a forced, casual tone, “The house on Long Island is filled with that stuff, Ellie. I ought to let you go out and pick out some of the silver and that sort of thing. I will never use it. That set was my favourite great-aunt’s. She was very like you, actually, so she’d love to think it was being enjoyed. I gave the ugly crap my mother had to Barnes’ match, so you definitely lucked out, princess.”

Natasha snorted. “Herend’s Rothschild Bird is a highly sought-after pattern and you gave Barnes’ wife over 100 pieces of it. Don’t downplay that, Stark. Also, your great-aunt must have entertained on a massive scale, as Eleanor now has 20 place settings and enough serving pieces for a small hotel. You know perfectly well that you’ve been outrageously generous even for you, Stark, and both Clint and I appreciate it.”

“Glad to hear it, Romanova, but I’m not just trying to please you or Barton.”

Eleanor smiled at him, but then lowered her eyes as she said, “You’ve been extremely kind. Thank you.”

Tony flopped down on the sofa and picked up the remote with his free hand as he set his glass of scotch on the table in front of him. “Why don’t you take Ellie out to the house this week, Romanova? There are cabinets full of family silver that I don’t want to see again.”

Eleanor looked at Natasha with alarm. Natasha, however, laughed. “I think we will, thank you, Stark. That will annoy Clint immensely. He actually prefers paper plates. It will be fun.”

“I don’t like gold and flowers splashed all over everything, but I draw the line at paper plates for every meal. Seriously, take what you want, Ellie. That ridiculous, ugly silver urn needs other things that match it.”

Her eyes narrowed dangerously, Natasha snarled, “У американцев нет культуры.”

Eleanor made a sad face and looked at Tony reproachfully, “Tony, that is a very special Imperial era Russian samovar. It is important to Natalia. Please don’t be unkind.”

Tony cast an apologetic look at Eleanor, but then he smirked at Natasha as he said, “I am very kulturny. I’ve watched the movie.”

Natasha said bitingly, “That actress was Italian. There was nothing Russian about that movie.”

“I would have though you would like the character. Her name was…”

“I know her name. Ты чертовски мудак.”

Eleanor interjected angrily, “Tony! Please!”

His amused expression turning immediately remorseful, Tony made a sound like a small sigh and then said, “I didn’t know that would be such a hot button, Romanova. Sorry.”

“Come on, Lenochka, we are going back to our rooms.”

Eleanor dutifully stood up, but looked back at Tony with such disappointment that he said, “Romanova, seriously, I was just being an a******.”

“I noticed.”

As they approached the lifts, Eleanor asked, “Are you really unhappy with him?”

“Stark is not my favourite person, Lenochka, but I don’t really mind him. I just know how he works. He needs you to make very, very clear where your lines are and that you will not accept him crossing them. If I remind him, as I just did, then he respects my boundaries. He just likes you quite a lot and is excited to have ‘family’, so he got carried away teasing me.”

“You don’t think he minds being my terminal guardian? He doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would like family responsibility.”

“Well, he originally accepted the position because he felt it was the right thing to do. He’s a narcissistic a** in many ways, but not entirely. He is terrible at understanding people and worse at showing he cares, but he does, oddly enough. He doesn’t actually have any family, Lenochka. His bonded brother died years ago. I have Clint and now you. Rogers has Barnes. Stark doesn’t have to recognise any family responsibility, since it was a temporary guardianship. Yet you like him and not many people really do. I think you can expect him to continue treating you like a favourite younger cousin.”

“He’s just lonely, Natashenka.”

First waiting until she had opened the door of her apartment and guided Eleanor inside, Natasha then replied, “That is a product of his choices. I’m not particularly sympathetic. Clint is even less so. You need to be cautious.”

Eleanor looked uneasily over at Natasha and asked, “Do I need to distance myself from Tony? I do not want to do anything that might hurt Clint. He has been so unhappy.”

“Yes, he has. I have talked to you about the reasons.”

“I know and I am really trying. I promise that I am. Some things I cannot force, you know?”

Natasha started filling the electric tea kettle and then put it on the boil. She then took down the teapot for her most formal tea set and began measuring out the tea leaves. “I know that you cannot make yourself feel one way or the other just because you want to. Yet, you cannot expect Clint to be having an easy time right now.”

“I really wish I could make things go right. I hope that they will improve soon. If allowing Tony to act like family is a problem, then I will ask him to stop. I don’t want Clint to have any reason to think that I would turn to someone else before him.”

“No, Clint isn’t jealous of Stark. It is Rogers that you need to avoid at all costs. Clint has already made an issue of it with Rogers twice now. If you were to actually talk to Rogers when Clint was not there, then I think Clint would lose it altogether.”

“Then I will avoid Captain Rogers completely. Maybe I should not go with you to the common floor again.”

Natasha did not turn around to reply, but continued arranging plates and teacups on a large silver tea tray. Her voice was as dismissive as her body language, when she said, “I checked whether Rogers was absent before we even went down. It was perfectly safe. You cannot stay in my apartment from now until Clint returns in five days.”

“I can if it keeps Clint from having trouble with your team leader. Did I do something wrong that made him feel jealous?”

“No, this is Clint’s problem.”

“Ok, but why? What happened between Clint and Captain Rogers?”

“Nothing specifically happened.” Natasha poured the hot water over the tea leaves and then started distributing tea cakes onto the plates. She replied in a tight, sharp voice, “Rogers is still unmatched and one of the few men alive who is a stronger Alpha than Clint. Rogers is popular, a strong leader, very famous, well-liked, and quite good looking. Clint, however, has labelled himself ‘carnie trash’, rarely gets recognised as Hawkeye, uses an archaic weapon that he is often teased about, is very uncomfortable about being a high-school dropout, and feels that he is the least attractive of all the Avengers. Rogers seems like everything people would like, while Clint feels invisible.”

Shocked, Eleanor questioned, “Does he really see himself that way? Truly? I can’t imagine Clint not having any idea how amazing he really is. I don’t understand that.”

“You should know that his self-esteem is low, Eleanor. He doesn’t have a clue that you would use the word amazing to describe anything about him.”

Still extremely upset, Eleanor answered, “Well, as I’ve said that directly to him, he should. I know that he doubts himself a lot and he believes that his past makes him lesser than the other Avengers. I have tried to convince Clint that I’m not the only one who thinks that he is special. He doesn’t like to even talk about it.”

“Of course, he doesn’t, Eleanor. He doesn’t think that you could possibly think highly of him, since you don’t have any romantic feelings for him despite his desperate love for you. Unrequited love is terrible and it can eat at a person until they have no self-esteem and very little hope.”

Her face wet with tears, Eleanor spoke as calmly as she could manage. “It isn’t fair of you to be so angry with me, Natashenka. I have only been bondmatched four months. It is normal for Omegas of my ranking to be bonded to an Alpha that we do not love, since we usually only meet our match mere days before the bonding. My feelings do not yet match his, however you are mistaken that I do not have any romantic feelings for Clint.”

Her only reply was to glance at Eleanor with clear disbelief, then Natasha picked up the tea tray and walked away towards the sitting room.

Eleanor hurried afterwards, asking as she did so, “Does Clint think that I would prefer to have bonded with Captain Rogers? Is that why he feels jealous?”

“I think that Clint feels that anyone would prefer Rogers over him.”

Eleanor sat cautiously on the sofa beside the well-laden tea tray that Natasha had placed on the table. “Well I certainly wouldn’t. I have absolutely no interest in anyone else but Clint. Especially not Captain Rogers.” Her voice shaking, she balled her fists up in her lap and continued, “I cannot understand how he could believe that I would prefer someone else. I have told him every day that I am very happy that we bondmatched. I don’t really know what to do to improve things. I feel like all the things that I learnt are wrong. He doesn’t seem to want whatever I try to do.”

“He knows that you are loyal, sestrenka. He doesn’t think that you would be unfaithful, ok? I think that he needs everything that you already do, but that he is hoping for more than that, too.”

Shoving away the plate that Natasha held out to her, Eleanor stood up and walked away to the window. As she stared out into the grey, rainy afternoon, she asked in a monotone, “May we not talk about this anymore?”

Still holding Eleanor’s plate in her lap, Natasha was intently watching Eleanor. After a moment, she replied, “Very well. Are you certain that you don’t want tea? I ordered your favourite treat from Stolle.”

Eleanor turned around and asked, “The plum pie? Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

 

10 August 2017, Small moon behind Kakaranthara, Andromeda Galaxy

 

While she stalked through the campsite, nimbly avoiding crates and piles of debris as she walked away from the downed space craft, the woman scanned the horizon as if looking for something quite specific. When she found nothing, she paused and then waved with one hand to move the large rock behind which Gamora was standing with a large weapon aimed at her.

“I am impressed. None of you have noticed me before now, let alone been able to raise a weapon in time.”

“Who are you and what are you doing here?”

The woman allowed the hood of her cloak to drop and smiled coldly. “I am helping you. Do not worry. It isn’t time for you to act on what will come yet. However, when it does, you will now have a chance.”

“A chance for what?”

“A chance to succeed. To live. To destroy what is coming.”

Gamora retrained her gun on the woman’s head and responded tightly, “That isn’t very helpful. Think you could give me a few more specifics?”

“Not now. Perhaps later if it proves necessary. I only came to make one important change today.”

“And what was that?”

“Oh, it wouldn’t seem that important to you if I explained. But small changes here and there will bring about the chance I spoke of. In all the possible outcomes in all the universes, this is the only one that worked.”

Her eyes narrowing as she glared at the woman, Gamora demanded, “And you have some way of knowing this, do you?”

“Of course. Your universe is the one in which I preside. I cannot work alone, however. My counterpart…someplace else, shall we say…is doing a similar job there. In time, our paths will cross. Unfortunately, it is now time for me to leave. All of this will make sense eventually.”

Gamora slowly lowered her weapon as she stared at the place where the woman had disappeared into a green circle. Apparently, Groot really had seen something.

 

 

 

14 October 2017, Suffolk Theatre, Riverhead, New York

 

“I need you to stay in here until I return. Understand?”

Eleanor smoothed the satin of her long skirt and said quietly, “Yes, I understand, Natashenka. I will be fine.”

“Hm, maybe. The private room will have other Omegas and maybe a Beta. However, these Omegas won’t be like those you are used to from your time at finishing school. They will be likely be autonomous-class Omegas—probably mostly C-ranked—which means they have led very different lives and are probably only bonded to level-1 Alphas. However, I need to keep you safe and out of the way, while I find my subject. As male Alphas may not enter the room, you should be protected and sufficiently comfortable there, Lenochka.”

“Very well, I understand. Please don’t worry.”

Natasha frowned. “I will return as soon as I have finished what I need to do. Then we will continue to Stark’s party, sestrenka.”

Eleanor nodded, but Natasha was marching her back to the private room with such aggression that Eleanor felt both sorry for whoever the person was that Natasha had come there to find and uneasy that she herself might have done something to really annoy her. She knew that Natasha had only brought her along because Clint insisted. Natasha did not approve of Eleanor attending any formal social events without Clint present. Yet even Natasha had to admit that, since Tony had publicly acknowledged that he was Eleanor’s terminal guardian, it would be expected for Eleanor to attend his charity auction. Therefore, when Clint argued that he and Natasha needed Tony’s goodwill after damaging more Avengers equipment whilst in the field than usual, Natasha had very reluctantly agreed.

Natasha gave her a little kiss on the cheek and said, “I will be back soon, sestrenka.”

Eleanor smiled in return as bravely as she could, then turned to look at the other occupants of the room, who were curiously gazing at her.

A short woman with vibrantly fake red hair greeted her warmly, “Hello, honey.”

Supremely uncomfortable, as she had hoped to merely find a chair and wait for Natasha in solitude, Eleanor murmured, “Um, hello.”

A second woman with exceedingly heavy eye makeup, who was wearing a black dress sprinkled with rhinestones, said encouragingly, “Come and sit down, dear. You look terrified. None of us are going to bite.”

Nervously smiling at them both, Eleanor stepped over to the sofa where the first woman was sitting and perched on the far end.

The woman smoothed her stiffly sprayed, red curls, which made her dark roots even more noticeable, and asked curiously, “Have you ever been out to an event like this, honey? It doesn’t really look like your usual scene. Were you recently bondmatched?”

Eleanor gripped her hands together and replied uneasily, “Yes. Just six months ago.”

A third woman joined the conversation, as she took a drink from her own glass and passed a full one to the second woman. “Condolences. What did you do before that?”

Confused, Eleanor replied. “I don’t understand.”

The third woman dropped onto an armchair and laughed before she took another large drink and nudged the second woman, whose expression suddenly shifted to genuine surprise. “Ohhhh…you’re from a legacy family, aren’t you? Poor baby. I’m glad I never had to deal with that sort of snobbery. Did they have you in one of those state boarding schools or just shut away at home?”

Eleanor cautiously replied, “I was educated at home before my compulsory education, which I completed at a finishing school here on Long Island. Afterwards, I returned home until my father died.”

The third woman snorted. “Holy cr*p, finishing school? Didn’t you have to do that Karen?”

The first woman, Karen, nodded her head and replied, “Just for the summer course. It was miserable, but that was the trade-off my parents insisted on if I wanted to go to college.”

The second woman asked with a wave of her glass in Eleanor’s direction, “How long a sentence did you have then?”

Quite perplexed, Eleanor frowned and asked, “Do you mean school? I was there the full two years, of course. The law requires us to complete a full programme, doesn’t it?”

The third woman kicked off both of her bright blue, sparkly heels and exclaimed, “Holy s***. Two years? I didn’t think anyone but the little guardian-class princesses had to do that. Compulsory was just one summer course when I was your age. What about you, Becky?”

Becky shrugged in reply, as Eleanor whispered, “Well, I suppose that may be correct, I don’t know.”

All three women stopped moving and Becky set down her drink. “Poor baby, I’m sorry. We didn’t realise. You guardian-class girls have it rough. You’re beautiful enough that I’m going to guess you’re the mythical pink unicorn?”

Eleanor sighed. “Yes, I am an AAA, though the way I look doesn’t have anything to do with it. We are not stupid, so please do not talk to me like I am.”

The third woman exclaimed, after she took another large sip, “Feisty! I like it. I didn’t know you girls could be like that.”

Eleanor tilted her head, as she asked with biting sweetness, “But have you met many girls like me?”

The woman laughed. “Not even one. You see, we three are all C-rated. I don’t think that any autonomous-class Omega would covet your life, darling. Each of you girls are more well-trained, well-bred, and controlled than a circus poodle.”

Karen asked curiously, “Was it that fierce-looking Amazon that made a bondmatch with you? That’s pretty unusual.”

Pushing her annoyance deep down, Eleanor replied quietly, “No, Natalia is my match’s sister. My match is travelling, so I am staying with her.”

The third woman shook her head and said a little too loudly, “Well that ruins all your fun, doesn’t it? When my husband travels, that’s when I get to eat what I want and stay out with friends as late as I want without some Alpha trying to demonstrate his superiority by controlling me.”

Karen cast a warning look at the third woman and said in a friendlier tone, “My match has a sister, too, but she doesn’t boss me like that. I would think that is very difficult for you.”

Eleanor shook her head and explained stiffly, “Not really. She is an Alpha, so it is to be expected.”

“Yeah, that was fairly obvious, but she was acting more like your match, dear. It does happen, you know. I’ve heard that some female Alphas make a bondmatch with female Omegas.”

With a shrug of indifference, Eleanor replied, “Yes, of course, they do. Female Alphas are rare, but there are only a handful of male Omegas in the world, so who are they meant to bondmatch if not one of us? However, Natalia is the bonded sister of my match. That is why our relationship is different.”

Becky asked, “The what? What is a bonded sister?”

Sighing deeply, Karen replied, “It’s a high-level Alpha thing, Becky. A warrior bond between soldiers, but I don’t think it ever happens below a level-3. It’s usually between two males though. I remember that they told us about it at school. I didn’t know male Alphas ever did that with female Alphas.”

Turning her purse over in her lap several times, as she tried to control her emotions, Eleanor replied, “They don’t usually, but my match is very strong-willed and Natalia is an unusual woman.”

Karen said seriously, “She must be. She looked as if she could kill a person with a limp bit of pasta though, so I’m not going to question it. I’m sorry, we didn’t introduce ourselves. I’m Karen Linderhoff. My match is Erik Linderhoff.”

The third woman gestured towards herself with the hand holding a nearly empty glass. “Allison Walbridge.”

“Becky Saxon. My match is Clive Saxon.”

Eleanor politely nodded in turn to each of them. “Eleanor Barton. My match is Clint Barton.”

Becky asked curiously, “So, what does your match do, Eleanor?”

She froze for a moment, as she tried to remember Natasha’s instructions. Then she carefully answered, “Um, well, he’s an Avenger, actually.”

Allison fell off the edge of the chair slightly, as she exclaimed, “S***!! Barton…do you mean Hawkeye?” As she resettled herself in her seat and picked her glass back up, Allison continued, “D***, girl. Really? No wait…wait, was that woman the Black Widow?”

Eleanor primly and dismissively answered, “She is Natalia Romanova. She works with SHIELD.”

Karen smiled. “That explains her fierce attitude then. So, does that mean you’ve met all the other Avengers?”

“Well, I mean, some of them live at Avengers Tower like we do. I’ve met all except the Winter Soldier, I think. I don’t know them that well, since many of them frequently are not there.”

Becky sighed dreamily. “Thor? Tell me you’ve met him at least. He is gorgeous.”

“Well, I met him once. He is not there often, as I said.”

Allison asked, “Captain America then? It must be hard being around prime beefcake like that.”

Flushing brightly, Eleanor wondered if Clint would be upset if he could hear the women’s questions. She knew that she was supposed to keep her ties to the Avengers quiet when possible, but she had also been specifically told not to lie.

Eleanor tightened her hands into fists, whilst she felt a nasty pit developing in her stomach. She realised that she was going to have to tell Natasha about this conversation. Natasha gave her very little latitude—far less than Clint—and would probably feel that Eleanor should have handled things very differently. “I know Captain Rogers, yes. I don’t think it is right to speak about him like that, though. It isn’t very appropriate and Captain Rogers is very nice.”

Laughing derisively, Allison sneered, “Are you even real? You live in a tower with a half dozen prime upper-level Alpha specimens and you don’t think it is nice to think of them like that? That’s pretty much all Alphas are good for, honey. Especially the higher-level ones, who have more archandrogen than sense. I know you guardian-class girls are loyal and sweet, but your Alpha must really be something if you don’t even care that Captain America lives in the building with you.”

Eleanor looked at the other two women, who both seemed to be waiting for her reply instead of looking reproachfully at Allison, as she had expected. Shocked, she insisted fervently, “He is. Clint is wonderful.”

Smiling encouragingly, Karen replied, “So, tell us about him.”

“Oh, I…I don’t think I want to…I’m not really comfortable.”

Karen made a dismissive face, as she answered, “Well, you don’t want details about Erik. He’s 60, balding, and sleeps down the hall from me now—thank heavens. I come with him to these things just for appearances, since he is a North Hempstead council member and has to look properly Alpha. That’s why I am hiding in here with these girls, so I don’t have to listen to all the political nonsense.”

After a glance over at Allison, Becky said, “Well, Clive is an engineer with the NASA Mars Lander programme. That’s the best description I have. He’s nice and he does genuinely care about me in his own way. Yet, I long ago accepted that a machine on Mars is more important to him than anything or anyone here on Earth. He means well though.”

Allison was pouring herself another drink as she said, “Well, my ‘match’, who has never acted like he was bonded to me in any way but name, lives with his most recent Beta girlfriend. Yet, you cannot take the girlfriend to meet all the chamber of commerce contacts that you want to impress. I believe that once upon a time, they had a private room like this for fragile sweeties like you to escape from the noise and stress of being surrounded by so many Alphas. But I don’t think that a guardian-class princess like you has graced a Nassau Council of Chambers event in years. Only government and NGO-type events still have these rooms anymore anyway. Too last century. So, instead of what they all think is happening in here, it’s just an occasional bored Beta and we unhappy C- or B-ranked Omegas in here escaping for a night from our matches. I’m glad you seem to be happy with yours at least, since I’ve heard horror stories about what you high-rated girlies go through.”

Uncertain how to reply to such bitterness, Eleanor said quietly, “Oh. Yes, I am very happy with my match, but I’m so sorry.”

Glancing angrily at Allison, Karen then interjected kindly, “Don’t be, dear. It is nice to see someone happy. You are young, so enjoy it. Tell us about your Avenger. Is he often away? I understand that separation is especially hard for you guardian-class girls.”

First glancing wistfully at the door and blatantly hoping that Natasha would return soon, Eleanor then replied haltingly, “Well...Clint has been on several longer missions lately, which has been difficult. He and Natalia do try to keep him home as much as they can. However, there sometimes isn’t really anyone to replace him, which has been the case recently.”

Becky waved her phone in the air with a giggle and interrupted in a slurred voice, “Oh girls, lookit! I got a pic.   Oh yeah, I can definitely see why you don’t spend much time looking at Captain America instead of your man. Those arms look like they could tear a tree right out of the ground and his thighs…like weapons. Danggit, girl.”

Deeply mortified, Eleanor could not think of any way to respond other than to say, “Clint works very hard at fitness.”

Allison snorted. “Princess Understatement over here, I think your Avenger is a bit more than that. Bet he is pretty special where it counts, too.”

At last, Eleanor felt like this was something that she knew how to answer. “Yes, he is. He always does the sweetest things and remembers what I like even if I’ve just said it once. If I shiver just a bit, he brings me tea or a sweater. He sometimes leaves a little box of Teuscher hidden around for me to find, since their champagne truffles are heavenly. He is so generous and kind. He is pretty perfect, I think.”

Karen leant forwards and said in a gossipy tone but obviously with kind intent, “Wow. You know he must be in love with you, dear. I didn’t think that Alphas were ever like that with their matches, no matter nonsense what all those silly romance novels try to sell us. Usually, if you want romance, then you have to find a Beta.”

Allison shook her head in agreement. “Well, I’ve never heard of an Alpha who romances his match. They all seem to think they only need to provide a house and a basic living, land you with a couple of children, then not interfere too much in your life and they are doing you some kind of favour. Ugh. And I could do without the Alpha special.”

Eleanor asked, half-curious and half-alarmed, “What is that?”

Becky began laughing hysterically. “Oh honey. You are sheltered. She is talking about what they get up to in bed, ok?”

Eleanor turned her face away. “Oh. Oh, my goodness!”

Allison commented with an unpleasant smile, “Well, with a specimen like you got, at least you don’t have to worry about back hair and a gut, right? He sounds like he has a bit of romance to him, too. Maybe you high-rated girlies get more of that than we do, but I always thought it was the opposite. I heard that some of the high-rated Alphas can be very aggressive.”

Almost desperately staring towards the door, Eleanor said stiffly, “I really don’t feel comfortable talking about it. Please.”

Karen patted Eleanor’s hand and looked at Allison warningly. “I think we are shocking her, girls. Let’s talk about something safer. Was yours a love match, honey?”

Eleanor took a deep breath and looked around at all three of the women. Had they not been told never to discuss these things? Was what she had been taught unique to guardian-class Omegas? She’d never realised how small and strange her world really must be if the autonomous-class Omegas (the overwhelming majority of her designation) didn’t even have a clue what was expected of her. Choosing the most appropriate answer, Eleanor said flatly, “He met me the same day he extended the Claim. We were bonded the next day.”

Exclaiming sadly, Karen asked, “Oh, honey, they didn’t…what I mean is, did you get to choose?”

Alarmed that she had given the wrong impression, Eleanor replied insistently, “Oh yes, I chose him. I definitely chose him. Clint would never, ever do that.”

Becky nodded with relief, as Karen continued to pat her hand. After a moment, Becky said, “I’m glad. I’m told that is far too common for you girls.”

Eleanor shivered slightly and then replied, “Well…I think if it ever happens at all, then that is too common. However, I suppose that is unrealistic to wish for that. In fact, I almost had that experience, but the candidate was very drunk, so I was able to lock myself away before it could happen. Afterwards, I was able to make clear to my family that I would refuse the candidate no matter what occurred, so they shouldn’t bother trying again.”

Allison gasped, “Holy s***. I wouldn’t want to be a guardian-class for anything. You girls still can’t hold jobs or anything, right?”

Confused, as the answer seemed obvious to her, Eleanor replied, “Of course not. Omegas are meant to be a support to their match. Why would I want to pursue a career that would take time away from him?”

Allison snorted. “Gee. So, you get to spend all day just organising your closets, cooking dinner, and curling your hair? Wow. Lucky you. Thank goodness, I was able to go to beauty school. I would be bored stiff if I sat at home all day. Sorry, kiddo.”

“Thank you, but there is no reason to be sorry. I am very happy as things are. Clint is wonderful, so I believe that I am very lucky.”

Karen smiled. “It really is a love match, isn’t it? You love him.”

Eleanor looked down at her hands and nodded.

Allison demanded, “Well, why are you afraid to talk about it?”

Unhappily considering to herself that Natasha had been very correct that she would feel out of place with these women, Eleanor replied sternly, “It isn’t considered appropriate to speak of our bondmatch to outsiders.”

Karen shook her head. “No, it is ok to talk about him to other Omegas, dear. Besides, it would be nicer to hear about that than to talk about our own sad bondmatches. Your Avenger sounds very thoughtful.”

“He is. He is the kindest and sweetest man that I’ve ever known.”

Becky put down her glass and said, “Yeah, and he’s a hunk, so he can’t be too bad to have hanging around.”

Eleanor shrugged, as she blushed.

As if she hadn’t noticed Eleanor’s gesture, Allison added, “But he looks like the kind of Alpha who could be pretty demanding. He’s obviously very high-rated, right?”

“Please, I don’t like to talk about it.”

Her firm tone sending a clear message to both Becky and Allison, Karen said, “She’s shy, girls. Leave it alone.”

Becky waved her hand towards Karen. “Oh, let us live vicariously, girl. How often do we get details from the match of a famous, high-rated Alpha? Is it true that the high-rated ones can produce bonding hormones even after the bondmatch ceremony? I wouldn’t mind experiencing that again.”

Eleanor hid her face in her hands and exclaimed, “Oh my goodness! I don’t want to talk about it. My match is perfect, ok? Please just stop asking.”

Allison laughed. “Perfect, huh? Glad you think so. My idea of perfect is a Beta. All the romance and none of the Alpha nonsense.”

Becky replied, “Yeah, but a Beta? Alphas are annoying, but at least they are men. Annoying, frustrating men, but men at least.”

Eleanor looked over at Karen and whispered, “Is that normal?”

“Being annoyed by the Alpha personality? Yes, for some of us. If you aren’t in love with the man, then the same characteristics that can make the Alpha designation so appealing can also make it almost unbearable to live with. On the negative side, Alphas are loud, dominating, bossy, conceited, and aggressive. Yet on the positive side, they are protective, passionate, competent, great providers, and physically stronger.”

“Oh.”

Allison flopped back into her chair and winked at Eleanor. “Was that what you wanted to ask, kiddo?”

She shook her head. “Not really, actually.”

Becky suddenly asked, “So, why did you say he is perfect? I’m gonna need some details here.”

Eleanor shook her head and tried to hide the tears that were filling her eyes.

Allison loudly exclaimed, “Ok, fine, so tell us about him then. Details, girlie. Come on, you can tell us.”

Her cheeks flamed hotly, so she turned away—blinking the tears into the handkerchief she was rapidly blotting under her eyes.

Karen angrily insisted, “I mean it, girls, leave her alone. She’s embarrassed. I don’t think she’s had any other physical relationships and she is only used to the extremely restricted, traditional culture.”

Stunned, Eleanor looked back at her. “Of course, I didn’t! How could I have passed the ritual if I had?”

Allison made a small shrieking sound. “S***, they still do that barbaric cr**? Are you serious? Is that a guardian-class thing?”

Karen explained, “Yes, unfortunately, it is still common for some As and nearly all AAs or AAAs.”

“All Omegas aren’t expected to do that?” Eleanor looked around at the other three women, both shocked and horrified that everything that seemed utterly normal to her was so strange to them.

“Awww.” Becky shook her head pityingly. “Oh, sweetie, no, we aren’t. Our lives are much freer than yours. Although we can’t own property or vote yet either, autonomous class Omegas can travel without chaperones, eat in a restaurant without needing a private room, shop without an Alpha guarantor, and even get a job. In fact, I’m a third-grade teacher. I don’t actually have to stay in the private room here like you do just because your match or chaperone is elsewhere. I didn’t have to do the whole candidate thing, even though my family tried to start that when I was 17 so I’d already be bonded when I went to college. I dated two Alphas before I met my match. The traditional ways are long gone for Omegas of my rating, honey.”

Eleanor breathed out, “Wow. I can’t imagine that.”

Karen said, “It is ok, dear. Guardian-class Omegas are just different, right? There is a reason for the ratings, isn’t there? If you are happier with your match the way things are, then that means it works for you. I’m very glad that you are happy.”

Her expression showing clear disbelief, Allison asked, “Well, that is, if you are truly happy.”

“Yes, of course I am! I wouldn’t change anything. I love Clint so much. He is wonderful.”

Again, Karen smiled. “Then perhaps that is why you girls have such different rules. They make sense for you and the fewer restrictions we have would make you uncomfortable.”

Eleanor shivered. “Living that way sounds terrifying, actually.”

The other women looked up when the door opened, which caused Eleanor to turn around. Immediately, she stood up and asked Natasha with obvious relief, “Is it time to leave?”

Natasha looked at the other women and then back at Eleanor. “It is. Are you ready?”

Eleanor smiled back nervously at her. “Yes.” Then she turned to the other women and politely (and quite mendaciously) stated, “It was a pleasure to meet all of you.”

Karen smiled genuinely. “I hope we will see you again at another event, honey.”

Allison didn’t look up from her empty glass, as she said, “Bye, girlie.”

Natasha narrowed her eyes, whilst she slipped Eleanor’s arm through hers. “Come on, sestrenka.”

As soon as they left the lounge, Natasha asked seriously, “What were they talking to you about?”

Eleanor breathed out nervously and then replied, “It was so embarrassing. They kept asking questions about uncomfortable, invasive topics. I hated it in there.”

“Questions about you? Me?”

“Only a little about you. They asked if you were the Black Widow, but I said you were Natalia Romanova and you worked with SHIELD—just like you told me to do. The questions were mostly about Clint actually.”

“D*** it, Eleanor. What did you tell them?”

“I said his name and that he was an Avenger when they asked me what he did. You told me specifically not to lie. They then asked all these personal things about our bondmatch.”

Natasha’s grip on Eleanor’s arm became so firm that she squirmed in pain. “What did you tell them?”

“Well, they asked if it was a love match. One of them looked up a picture and then asked me if he was as special as he looked. Therefore, I said yes and I told them about the sweet things Clint does.”

“Oh, you are kidding me, Eleanor.”

“But Natalia, it wasn’t anything bad. I didn’t say a single negative thing, I promise. They kept saying all these sad, unkind things about their own matches. One of them seemed to think that being with a Beta would be much better, too. I-I don’t know how to deal with that thought.”

Natasha had firmly led them both out of the building and thrust her ticket at the valet, who ran off quickly to get her car. “Occasionally, bitter, lower-rated Omegas will talk like that. Some of them have bad matches. Some of them just aren’t nice women. But you don’t have to worry about it. You’re not a C-rated Omega like those women and you are bonded to an Alpha who would stop at nothing to please you.”

“Yes, I know and I even told these women how wonderful Clint is to me. I just don’t know what to think about the things they told me. They had jobs and went to college just like Beta women. None of them had the ritual and they seemed horrified that I had. At least one of them didn’t even have candidates. She actually dated—just like Betas do—and her match was previously one of her Alpha boyfriends. Also, I think they might have had other physical relationships before their Alphas.”

First, Natasha made certain that Eleanor was belted into her seat and then shut the door, walked around the car, and got into her own seat. She did not reply for several minutes. Finally, she asked dully, “Do you wish that you’d had any of that, Eleanor?”

“No.”

Natasha repeated more intensely, “Do you?”

“No. I really don’t. I promise, Natashenka. I don’t want anything they were talking about. I think it is horrifying to have any kind of a relationship before you find your match. Everything is all meant for our Alpha match, so we have a strong bond. I wish that I’d never heard any of what they said, honestly. I am not designed to be with a Beta, so why would I ever want that? Anyway, a Beta wouldn’t even be able to bondmatch. I could never be happy without that or without Clint, honestly. Also, I don’t want to know what any other Alpha is like either. They discussed such private things, too. It is highly improper to talk about those things outside of the bond, but they just didn’t care.”

“Mm. And now you wonder how Clint matches up with others? That is dangerous territory, Eleanor.”

Eleanor gasped. “Oh gosh, no. Why would I ever need to know that? Clint is perfect as he is. They seemed surprised by that actually.”

“Surprised that you think he is perfect?”

“Yes. And no. I did tell them that after they pushed me by telling me that Clint is obviously in love with me and then asking such intimate questions about him and our bond. No, mostly they were surprised that he is good to me and so kind. I don’t understand it. It was just so sad and horrible.”

Natasha growled furiously. “I should not have brought you with me. Next time, if I cannot take you directly to an event, then you will stay in the Tower—no matter what Clint wants. I am going to take you home. Stark can handle you not being at his event tonight.”

“Oh. OK.”

“I never imagined a group of слабовольный Omegas would interrogate you like that. You are going to have to tell me precisely what they know about Clint now. I have to contain the problem.”

“Nothing dangerous or bad, Natalia. Really, at most they should just think that he is romantic and very attentive, which won’t hurt his image.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Clint is going to be furious that you discussed your bondmatch with strangers. You know how private he is—even with the team. He is worse with outsiders.”

Eleanor began crying quietly. “No, Natalia, are you sure? I hope not. I don’t want him to be unhappy. Do we even have to tell him anything? I didn’t give a lot of detail about him and it was all good. I really tried to keep from telling them anything specific. I don’t think I’ve ever been so uncomfortable in my life.”

“I don’t keep secrets from Clint, Eleanor. It will be better coming from you, however. He won’t be as angry if you confess than if I inform him.”

“Natashenka, I promise that I tried to avoid talking. However, they overwhelmed me and I just didn’t know how to handle it. Are you sure he would really be angry? I promise, I didn’t give out much private information at all. I’m not sure what I would be confessing.”

Natasha pulled the car over with a squeal of the tyres and turned in her seat. “So, you are saying that you think that Clint won’t be angry that you accidentally told these women what Clint gets up to in the bedroom?”

“I didn’t mean that sort of private information, Natalia. Oh, my goodness! I haven’t even told you that kind of thing, so why would I tell people that I don’t know?”

Natasha snarled, “Eleanor, I need to know exactly what information some idiot, fool Omega can now go and sell to a tabloid about an Avenger.”

Reacting as if she’d been struck, Eleanor gasped and then quietly asked, “I would never be so disloyal to Clint. I had enough self-control that I didn’t blurt everything out. They can make things up, but I didn’t say anything important or newsworthy.”

“Somehow, Eleanor, I highly doubt that. I am disappointed in your discretion. I expected better from you.”

Her cheeks blazed with mortification, as Eleanor insisted, “That isn’t fair, Natalia. I couldn’t get away from them in that little room, since I’m not allowed back out without a chaperone. What should I have done? I tried not answering. I tried saying I didn’t want to talk. I did try my best. And now you are furious with me and Clint is going to be hurt.””

Natasha looked angrier than Eleanor had ever seen, which made Eleanor feel nauseous enough to not even want to move. Natasha’s reply was cold and cruel. “Next time, you will remember what I have taught you and you will get up, walk over to a chair away from them, and ignore them.”

Her eyes wide with anxiety, Eleanor begged, “Please, may I just not go again? May I stay home next time? It would cause less trouble that way.”

“Yes, that would be my preference. If my brother wants you to attend Stark events, then he may d*mn well take you himself. I do not wish to talk for the rest of the drive.”

Eleanor nodded silently and then turned her face towards the window. Although she knew that Natasha would be aware that she was crying, she did not want to actually let her see it.

 

14 October 2017, The Barton Family Farm, Someplace Else

 

“Dad! Hey, Dad!”

Barton looked up and smiled at his son, who was running towards him with his new recurve and lazily drawled, “What’s up, buddy?”

Cooper frowned. “Come on, Dad. You said we would get in some practice today.”

“Huh. I did? Shooting arrows and that kind of thing? Why?”

“Dad. Come on!”

“Eh, why would you wanna futz around with a bow and arrow anyway?”

Rolling his eyes at his father, Cooper sarcastically responded, “Maybe because they are awesome.”

“Oh, yeah! That’s why! I knew you were a smart kid. Come on, buddy. Wait until you see the course that I set up for us.”

“You made a new course? Cool!”

Barton laughed. “Well, you freakin’ aced the last one, so I kinda had to. Can’t waste the kind of skills you’re developing, buddy. We need to keep you on your toes.”

“Do you think I’m getting better? I’ve been practicing all week.”

“Yeah, Mom told me. She also said that twice she had to remind you that you are supposed to do the chores before you played with the archaic death instruments.”

“I hate driving the tractor, Dad. Come on. Lila never has to do s*** like that.”

Barton’s eyes flashed. “What was that?”

Cooper stepped back and stammered, “Aw, Dad, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say a swear.”

“Do you hear your Mom ever using words like that, Cooper Francis?”

“No, sir.”

“D*** right, you don’t. I’m the one you hear using words like that and I’m a screw up, so you don’t wanna copy me. Learn from my mistakes here, Cooper. Your mother is the one you wanna be like, you got that?”

“But you’re an Avenger, Dad. You’re like an international hero.”

“A hero doesn’t kill people for a living. A hero protects his family and those he loves. That’s why you got the bow. If you are confused on its purpose, then I can take it back for a while until you work it out.”

“No, Dad. Seriously, I’m sorry.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

 

15 October 2017, Ste. 3800 A, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

The silence was painful as Eleanor waited for Clint’s reply. She sat as still as was possible on the tiny vanity chair into which Natasha had pushed her when she had handed Eleanor the tablet.

“And that is all that you said?”

“I think so. I don’t remember every word, but I really think so, Clint. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right. You don’t need to apologise, baby. It was a very stressful situation for you, which is what bothers me most. We can’t change what was said, so there is no point worrying about it. I just wish the other women had not upset you so much.”

“What if it happens again? I don’t know how to avoid it. I might mess up and say something really stupid next time, you know?”

“I don’t think so, Eleanor. You are too intelligent for that. Maybe I’m being intolerant to suggest this, but I think it would be better if you don’t socialize with autonomous-class Omegas like that in the future. You had very little in common and they did not treat you well. I don’t like how upset they made you. We’ll try to help you meet some other guardian-class Omegas, right Nat?”

Natasha looked coldly at the screen of the tablet, but said, “Sure.”

“Nat, it is really our fault that this happened. I insisted that she go to Stark’s event, so you chose to take her along on your interrogation beforehand. She was obviously out of her depth and overwhelmed. We never prepared her. This is on us—largely on me.”

“Она должна научиться вести себя достойно, так как она oмега-женщина, которая замужем за альфа-мужчиной высочайшего уровня, Клинтом.” (She must learn to behave with dignity, as she is an Omega who is married to the highest-level Alpha, Clint.)

“Она тройная альфа, Нат. Вы несправедливо судили ее. Пожалуйста, Нат, прошу помочь ей." (She is an AAA, Nat. You are judging her unfairly. I am begging you to help her, please.)

Я не люблю людей, которые делают тебе больно. Она причиняет тебе столько страданий. (I don’t like people who hurt you. She causes you so much heartache.)

“Она хочет делать все правильно, и это важно. Я люблю ее, Ната. Пожалуйста, помоги ей.” (She wants to do everything right and that matters. I love her, Nat. Please, help her.)

“Я буду, но я не доволен ею.” (I will, but I’m not happy with her.)

“Она тоже принадлежит тебе, Ната. Она боится, что разочаровала тебя. Меня там нет, поэтому я не могу ее утешить. Я не могу показать ей сейчас, как я не злюсь, что она была обманута группой сплетников. Ты ее молочный сестра, дерьмо, делай свою работу.” (She belongs to you, too, Nat. She's afraid of you being disappointed. I'm not there to console her or show her that I'm not angry that she got tricked by a few gossips. You're her bonded sister, s***, do your part.)

With a deep sigh, Clint switched back to English, clearly speaking in the gentlest tone he could manage. “Eleanor, baby, look. It’s ok. Nat and I have been talking about it and we’re going to work on some things. I know that it is hard that I am away right now. I wish that I could come back sooner, but it still looks like a few weeks more. You’ve got Nat there with you though and you know that she’ll take care of you. Ok?”

Eleanor, who had gone almost into a trance during Clint and Natasha’s conversation in Russian, almost dropped the tablet when she realised that Clint was now addressing her again. Not completely sure what she might have missed, but determined that he should know she would go along with whatever he wanted, she said only, “Yes, Alpha.”

“Aw f***, baby, that’s not how things are right now. You don’t gotta submit to me or something. I’m not angry, ok? This is not your fault.”

She nodded. “Thank you. I really am sorry. Next time, I will just turn away and refuse to talk to them like Natalia said. I should have done that this time.”

“You don’t gotta sit like a kid in the corner, Ellie. S***. We will practice with you how to handle people trying to get information out of you. We should have expected that because of my profession, honestly. I have to go now. I might be able to call out tomorrow, ok? If I can, then I will, baby.”

Eleanor did not trust herself to speak, but just nodded with her lips pressed together.

Natasha said firmly, “Будь в безопасности, маленький ястреб.”

“Always.”

 

20 October 2017, Penthouse Suite, Stark Tower, Someplace Else

 

Rhodes’ voice was sharp and unusually harsh as he demanded, “What do you mean you build it? Are you crazy, Tony?”

“Uh, I mean, jury’s out, but I think I’d probably get a split decision on that issue, your honour.”

“Tony, did we or did we not both look over those plans and decide that it was far too dangerous to proceed?”

Stark stripped off his jacket and looked around the bedroom absently as he talked, “That depends on what you mean by decide. Because I think that what happened was you decided and I agreed that you were probably right. However, I haven’t let that stop me in the past, have I?”

“Tony, this isn’t something that you should be joking about. Did you at least work with Banner?”

As Stark shoved a pair of nutrition bars into his left pocket, he answered distantly, “Yes?”

“D*** it, Tony. You are so full of s***. So, what went wrong?”

“It didn’t work, actually.” The silence on the call continued long enough that Stark finally said, “Not what I expected either. I predicted either an explosion large enough to level Manhattan or sweet, sweet success.”

The long, frustrated sigh that Rhodes gave before he spoke made Stark frown with embarrassment, as he knew that his friend was genuinely disappointed. “Tony, listen, you can’t do that. You cannot build something that has even a chance of snuffing out Manhattan. I know you’re brilliant and an engineer without equal. But even you’ve had your share of failures, so you can’t just say ‘trust the engineering’ and go forwards when other people’s lives could be at risk.”

“There was shielding, Jim. I’m not that reckless.”

“Shielding? I trained as an engineer, too, Tony. I know the power levels that an arc-reactor would put out when flooding into that device. Honestly, regardless of how much shielding you had, the fall-out could have reached Paramus.”

Stark scratched his neck as he tried to keep himself calm. “So, no great loss then.”

“Tony. Why did you do it?”

“I don’t know, Jim. I really don’t. Somehow, I just felt that there must be a reason that those d*** plans showed up in my workshop. I decided that I was meant to give it a shot. It felt too important to let go.”

“That is…no, seriously, Tony, that is a bulls*** answer.”

“Maybe. But that is the actual truth.”

“You scare me, Tony. I mean it, you are seriously worrying me right now.”

Dropping onto his knees, Stark began digging through the drawer of his bedside table, until he pulled out a brown prescription bottle. “Yeah, well, I’m worrying Pepper, too, apparently. She threatened to leave me.”

“Real or hyperbole?”

“Real. She is just getting tired of all my s***, Rhodey, and I can’t even blame her. Not really. I’m a lot. And I’m always busy or distracted. I jump into danger whenever I get a chance. I’m still bitter and angry about how the Accords and the bulls*** with Cap went down. It can’t be easy for her.”

“Tony, you two broke up once before, but you made it through.”

Stark swallowed the remaining three pills in the bottle, then said roughly, “No, I didn’t really make it through, did I, Jim?”

Rhodes didn’t reply for a moment. Finally, he said sympathetically, “Was there a specific issue this time?”

“Same as you. Building the device was reckless, selfish, etc.”

“She’s not wrong. You know that.”

“Of course, I do. I just had to do it.”

Although Stark knew Rhodes didn’t really have to ask, he wasn’t surprised when his friend questioned, “And now that it didn’t work?”

“Obviously I have to know why.”

“Do you?”

Stark sharply answered, “Yes.”

“Then you need to realise that might be too much for Pepper.”

“So she said.”

“But you won’t stop?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Look, I gotta go, Rhodey. I’m sorry.” Stark hung up and stalked over to the wall of windows that looked out over his Ironman landing platform. He ignored FRIDAY’s announcement of a call back from Rhodes and felt for both of his wrists to be certain the bracelets were tight. Then, he snatched up a hard silver briefcase from the chair and walked outside.

He looked over the edge of the platform for quite some time before jumping off with the case in his left hand. As the suit came together around him, Stark felt both the usual rush of exhilaration, in addition to an unfamiliar wave of disappointment. He held off on firing his repulsors until the last moment, so he could allow himself the sensation of falling for as long as possible. Then, when he had no other choice, he pulled up and headed for the facility in Sciota. He’d leave Pepper a message, so she wouldn’t worry. He could face the music later. It would be better this way. Safer anyway.

 

20 October 2017, Ste. 3800 A, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

“What is this?”

Eleanor looked up and saw her little bag of alcohol wipes and the packet of long embroidery needles resting on Natasha’s palm. She looked away and asked evasively, “What do you want me to tell you?”

“I want you to tell me why these were in the pocket of your coat.”

“Because I forgot to put them back in my handbag.”

“And what were you doing with them, Eleanor?”

“I use the wipes to sanitise the needles. I use the needles on myself.”

“Why? What are they for?”

Eleanor spoke in a flat, emotionless tone. “Well, I use them on me, obviously.”

Finally accepting what she had clearly known, Natasha dropped down onto the chair beside her and said, “You are self-harming.”

“The physicians at school called it autolavoma.”

Natasha shook her head and, as she laid her hand on Eleanor’s shoulder, she murmured, “Милая сестренка, как мне исправить твоё заблуждение??” Natasha then spoke clearly and gently, as she demanded seriously, “Show me?”

Eleanor looked away, but lifted the hem of her taffeta skirt so Natasha could see the outside of her thigh that was covered in small scratches.

“Дерьмо. Блядь. Mаленький cоловушка.” Natasha pulled the skirt back down for Eleanor and asked, “Is that the only place?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you been doing this? Is this a long-standing problem?”

“Not since my first year at finishing school, no. Just in the last few days recently.”

“So, after the party?”

Eleanor sighed. “No. After the video call to Clint the next day.”

Natasha took her hand. “I should not have made you do that. I realised that almost as soon as I saw you talking to him.”

“No, you were right. He had to know. I am the one who messed up, so I should be the one to tell him.”

“I do not do well at admitting when I make a mistake or apologising, solovushka. I should have done both after that call. Clint knew immediately what I had trouble admitting. You were not at fault. It was an impossible situation for you.”

“Almost anyone else would have handled it better than I did, Natalia. As an AAA, I am very aware the talents we possess and, really, it isn’t much that is useful. We can do little without supervision.”

Natasha shook her head. “You are hardly a child, Lenochka. As a consequence of your designation, you do need support in a few areas, but no one is universally skilled. You are extremely intelligent and very capable, sestrenka. If you cannot believe me, then you must at least know how Clint feels.”

Eleanor looked away again and gripped her hands into fists.

“You were not to blame that night, Lenochka. I might have actually pulled the footage from the lounge, in fact, to investigate.”

Shocked enough to turn back towards Natasha, Eleanor stammered, “Footage? We were being recorded?”

“Of course. That is one of the security features meant to protect any women who are in the private room, since there are no Alphas present.”

Eleanor turned her face away again. “Oh. Well, then you know how badly I handled things.”

“You really didn’t, Lenochka. I told Clint what they asked and how you replied. However, he said that he didn’t really need to know. He was not concerned about anything other than how you felt.”

Eleanor sighed wistfully. “He is very forgiving. I’m so lucky to have him as my match.”

“Lenochka, there was nothing to forgive. I overreacted. You should also be aware that I heard your declaration, but I did not tell him about that.”

Closing her eyes and leaning back into her seat cushion wearily, Eleanor asked, “My declaration?”

“When Bimbo #2 asked if you are happy and you replied that you love Clint.”

Her reply was too flat to be normal, as Eleanor nodded her head slowly, “Oh. I had actually forgotten that I told them that.”

Natasha reached her hand out to put it on Eleanor’s, but only briefly rested it there when she felt Eleanor flinch. “That isn’t something I can tell him for you. That would need to come from you.”

“I would have discussed my feelings already, but Clint doesn’t want me to talk about emotions. He said that it was better if I didn’t. So…I don’t.”

First making a sound of exasperation, Natasha then replied, “That sounds like the sort of stupid thing Clint would say, but only because he assumes that you would just tell him whatever he wants to hear. He is killing himself over his unrequited feelings for you, Lenochka. He would do anything for you, no matter how much it hurt him.”

Eleanor lifted her shoulders slightly as if shrugging, but then froze as she caught Natasha’s expression. She answered stiffly, “I cannot disobey his order, Natalia. I’ve tried to show him with my actions, which is actually what we are taught is the most appropriate thing for an Omega to do anyway. I don’t understand how he doesn’t realise by now. You really didn’t know either?”

“I have hoped that you might have some feelings for him, yes. However, you aren’t very happy, sestrenka. The typical markers that I would use to know if a woman loves a man are not very useful with an Omega of your rating. All I have to do is tell you that Clint prefers something and you go right along with it. However, you would do that no matter how you felt, since you are pretty much the perfect AAA Omega.”

Eleanor flushed with mortification as she replied, “Oh. I’m sorry.”

Natasha grimaced and she said exhaustedly, “You do not need to be sorry. I am going to have to tell Clint about the self-harming, you know.”

“I know. I am sorry. Truly. You do not need to spend yet more energy taking care of me. You still have an assignment for SHIELD that I know you need to complete. I’ve just managed to disappoint you and Clint again.”

“I will not have any difficulty in finishing my assignment, so that isn’t something that you should feel any concern about. Lenochka, I am disappointed in your choice, but I am not angry. I’m just worried. I do not like the thought of you ever being in pain. Clint is going to be terrified. Sestrenka, you cannot do this again.”

Eleanor did not lift her eyes, as she tightened the grasp on her clenched hands. “I don’t want to lie to you. Please don’t make me promise.”

Natasha stiffened and then stated baldly, “You are going to do this again.”

“I don’t want to, you know. I never did want to. I just got to the point that I hated everything about myself so much that I would find myself doing it. Then I am able to handle things for a little while longer.”

Blinking with shock down at Eleanor for a moment, Natasha asked in an impossibly quiet voice, “You hate yourself? Is this because of what happened at that party?”

“No, not really. Please don’t be so hurt. I don’t want you to feel that way. I just know that I’m a pretty hefty burden on you and it seems like I am still messing things up with Clint.”

Natasha grabbed Eleanor’s hands. “You are not a burden, Lenochka, you are my sister. I made a promise during the bonding to help Clint to take care of you, remember? I like having you for my sister. That evening at the party happened because I made a tactical error, which does not happen with me unless I am emotionally compromised.”

Eleanor heard the clear message behind Natasha’s words and forced herself to look up. “Thank you, but I am the one who made the mistake. You simply reacted to it. Do you think that we are going to be able to build a solid bond between us? I am nothing like you and I have hurt your brother too much.”

“Yes, it is difficult to see Clint in pain, but I don’t like seeing you hurting either. This is new very for me, Lenochka. It was years before I got used to having a brother. It may be a little while before I am fully used to having a sister. Yet, I am very happy to have you.”

“I chose both of you, you know. That was part of my reason for the acknowledgement. I had just been abandoned after being orphaned, Natashenka. As much as I dreamt of finding a good match one day, I never even considered that I would have a second chance at family. I love Clint, which surprised me since I didn’t expect to love an Alpha after everything with Mr Allardyce. But I do, just like I’d always hoped. However, I also care about you more than my brother. That seems wrong, but maybe it is because of the joint bond? I don’t know.”

Natasha nodded slowly. “I don’t know, sestrenka, perhaps. I only know one other bonded sibling pair and they aren’t relevant. Although Bucky and Steve have the same kind of bond that Clint and I do, they decided on a lateral bond with Bucky’s match. Steve is just a brother-in-law of sorts to her.”

“Why would Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes make that choice? Doesn’t that harm their bond?”

Natasha nodded and further explained, “Yes, it does, but Bucky is an exceedingly possessive Alpha. He and Steve knew that Bucky could not handle Steve being fraternally close to his match. Honestly, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen such a possessive Alpha before. If he didn’t have Steve bonded to him to help balance him, then I think Bucky would be dangerously unstable with his match.”

“Oh my! Poor girl. Possessiveness and jealousy are things that they teach us are fairly common with level-4s or -5s.”

Shrugging to acknowledge the truth of Eleanor’s statement, Natasha said, “Bucky’s match is actually the reason I came to find you today. Steve has just convinced Bucky to move back to the tower, since Emilie has been really struggling. I didn’t know that you were having almost as hard a time, sestrenka. Now I’m wondering if it is a mistake to have promised, since this might place too much burden on you. However, I told Bucky that you and his match could socialise in the hopes that you might be a support to her.”

“But I would love that! Has Clint approved this?”

Natasha nodded. “Yes, it was his idea.”

Eleanor sat up slightly more and replied, “Yeah?”

“He thought you could help Bucky’s match and I agree. Emilie Barnes is an AA and she’s a lot like you in many ways.”

“Oh, my goodness, is it Emilie Arsenault? Please say that it is!”

“I do not know her maiden name, Eleanor. It is possible. Can you describe your friend?”

“Well…Emilie is from Sagaponak. She is a year older than me. She is barely 5’, since she is shorter than me by almost two inches. When I knew her, her hair was black, straight, and thigh length when let down, but she usually wore it in one of the old, traditional updos. Um, what else…she has very blue eyes and an almost baby-like high pitched voice. She’s seriously the sweetest girl.”

Natasha nodded. “That is Bucky’s wife, yes. Do you know her from your school?”

“Yes, that’s right. I would be so happy to see her again. How long have they been matched?”

“Four years and things have not gone smoothly.”

Eleanor’s eyes went wide. “May I make a guess? No children yet?”

“You understand then.”

“Yes. Yes, I do. Oh my, that must have been almost right after she left school.”

“Two weeks after, yes. There was a lot of unpleasantness at the time because of it. Her family was extremely unhappy that he extended a Claim, but, since she publicly acknowledged it right there at some party, then there was little they could do. It took a fair amount of politics to smooth things over. Steve and Tony both had to do a lot of work. I even helped out a little with some useful information gathering.”

“At least she chose him though. That makes a world of difference.”

Natasha raised her eyebrows and made a noncommittal noise.

“I chose Clint, Natasha. I did not choose Mr Allardyce. That is what I mean.”

Her eyes telegraphing murder at the mention of William Allardyce, Natasha replied, “I understand. I do not pretend to like Bucky Barnes very much, but he isn’t the kind of man to force anything on someone. He lived that for decades and wouldn’t impose it on anyone else. He simply saw a beautiful Omega and charmed her into acknowledging his Claim on the same night they met. Steve somehow got the ceremony and ritual approved for a week later. Yet, despite his match having defied her entire family to bondmatch with him, Bucky seems to be certain that any unmatched Alpha that gets within view of his match will steal her away. Frankly, if Steve doesn’t find a match soon, Bucky is probably going to grow paranoid enough to fracture their bond.”

“Oh, my goodness! Sergeant Barnes shouldn’t treat his match’s bond promises so lightly. That would destroy Emilie to be so mistrusted all the time, since there would be no way to please him or prove herself.”

Natasha nodded thoughtfully. “It might be good for Bucky to hear that you already know Emilie. He’s still a little on the fence about the move. His mental history is difficult, Eleanor. You know the story of his past. Finding something almost impossibly good after decades of sheer h*ll would be difficult for him to integrate into his world view.”

“I can see that; however, if he truly loves her, then he should put her well-being above himself, shouldn’t he? You said that she is struggling?”

“Yes.”

Eleanor asked awkwardly, “Is it ok to tell me how?”

“Sometimes she doesn’t eat.”

“Oh. Ok.”

Sestrenka, that is very similar to what you are doing. She is either doing it to self-harm or to try to erase her own existence. Either way, she is desperately unhappy.”

Eleanor did not reply, but dropped her eyes to the floor. “That isn’t usually the reason. Most of the girls like Emilie were usually just trying to find something that they—not their families or the school—controlled.”

“Most of the girls? Was that a common problem at your school?”

Her eyes wide, as if she only just realised how much she had said, Eleanor said, “Well…they screened us all for maladaptive behaviours when we entered, so I think it must be a common issue amongst all guardian-class Omegas. Of the 12 girls in my year, one other was like me, two were like Emilie, and one plucked out her hair. Quite a few of them also bit their fingernails, suffered from insomnia, or had other less severe anxiety-based conduct.”

Natasha seemed extremely shocked. “That is an outrageously high percentage of students to have such serious psychiatric issues!”

“Perhaps it is, but I don’t know if it is guardian-class Omegas in general or just guardian-class girls from my background. I suppose one would have to compare my school to the state boarding schools to find out.”

“If five out of 12 male Alphas exhibited extreme psychological distress at that age—especially ones of your social class background—then it would be a heavily reported scandal. I am not sure if I should ask how they handled the issue, but I suppose I need to know.”

“Well, major behaviours are dealt with aggressively and immediately during our first year. If you screen as having a problem, you must come six weeks early for the intensive programme. I had extensive therapies throughout the first year and was placed on both of the medications that I take now. They will not graduate a girl who has not successfully finished treatment and remained stable for both years. When I came home, my father made it very clear that I would not relapse or else I would lose all my spending money and privileges. My aunt checked me daily for the first year and quite often even after that. The family honour for many of us depends on guardian-class girls conforming to the correct behaviours and expectations.”

“Блядь. We probably should find you therapy now, Lenochka. You have every reason to feel psychological strain after what your family did to you.”

“Please, no, I do not want therapy. Please, Natashenka. I will be fine.” After a few moments of silence, Eleanor added, “May I meet with Sergeant Barnes? Would that be allowed? I mean, before I see Emilie?”

Natasha looked suspiciously at Eleanor. “Why?”

“I think that Sergeant Barnes might like being respectfully approached with a formal request by another Alpha’s match for permission to socialise with Emilie. It would put the power in his hands. It sounds like he is being managed by the team and I don’t think a high-rated, strongly possessive Alpha who has been abused and controlled for decades would feel good about that.”

Surprised, Natasha replied, “No, no he wouldn’t. Hold on. JARVIS, is Sergeant Barnes still in the building?”

“Yes, Agent Romanova, he is in the common area with Captain Rogers and Mr Stark.”

“Would you please send a message to Sergeant Barnes from Agent Romanova, stating that her sister, Eleanor Barton, would like a formal introduction to him before he leaves the premises today?”

JARVIS’s reply was immediate. “Yes, Agent Romanova, the message has now been transmitted.”

Natasha snorted. “I bet that has Steve concerned, but Stark probably just laughed.”

The AI’s voice spoke loudly enough to make Eleanor startle. “Agent Romanova, Sergeant Barnes has informed me that he will meet you and Mrs Barton in the second conference room on the common floor in fifteen minutes, if that is convenient to you.”

“Oh gosh, I’m not even dressed for it! Oh, my goodness, what should I wear, Natashenka?”

Natasha smiled fondly. “You already look perfect. Just brush your hair and put on the necklace that Clint brought you from Myanmar, then you will be ready.”

“You think so? I don’t need a different dress? Not the new purple one?”

Natasha shook her head. “Save that for when Clint is back. He hasn’t seen it yet and you know you like to wear things for him first. Come on.”

Nearly twenty minutes later, Natasha opened the door to the conference room and saw a clearly unhappy Bucky Barnes talking in a low voice to a deeply frustrated Steve Rogers. Barely supressing her annoyance, Natasha placed her hand on Eleanor’s back and guided her to a chair in which she carefully settled. Eleanor looked up at Natasha with wide, nervous eyes, but nodded as she saw Natasha’s smile of reassurance.

Steve bowed his head politely to Eleanor. “Mrs Barton, it is a pleasure to see you again. Natasha, good to see you as well.”

Eleanor looked at Natasha first, who nodded permission. “Good afternoon, Captain Rogers.”

“I will leave you all to your meeting. I apologise for apparently getting in your way again, Buck. I’ll see you later tonight at the range.”

Bucky barely acknowledged Steve’s words with a nod. Steve left the room and quietly closed the door behind him.

“Eleanor, sestrenka, I would like to introduce to you Master Sergeant James Barnes, a colleague of both Clint’s and mine with the Avengers.”

Eleanor smiled at Natasha and then turned to Bucky to whom she held out her hand. As he took Eleanor’s hand and kissed it formally, Natasha continued speaking, “Barnes, I would like to introduce my sister, Clint’s match, Eleanor Fontaine Barton. She attended finishing school with your match.”

At this, Bucky’s fierce expression lightened slightly. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs Barton.”

“I am happy to have met you, Sergeant Barnes. I was so excited when Natalia told me that your match was my old schoolmate, Emilie. I have not talked with her since she left school, but I would very much like a chance to see her again.”

As he roughly ran one hand through his shaggy, dark hair, Bucky peered down at the distinctive ring on Eleanor’s right hand, then asked dourly, “You attended the North Shore Young Ladies’ Preparatory, Mrs Barton?”

“I did, yes. Emilie was the year above me, so we only had one year together. I initially got to know her well when we were both in the infirmary at the same time for several weeks. We each played the harp, so we began practising together after that. Additionally, I stayed with Emilie’s family for the second Short Break that year. If you would allow it, then I would very much like to meet with her again.”

Bucky looked over to Natasha with a dark expression and then back to Eleanor. “I will speak to my wife about it. She has not been well lately.”

Eleanor frowned and replied seriously, “I hope that she will feel better soon. Perhaps Natalia could bring me to your home to visit her if she is not up to coming here. I know how awful it is to be ill and unable to do one’s normal things.”

With a look that was equal parts suspicious and exasperated, Bucky replied, “Mm, it might be very good for her. I will let your sister know if Emilie feels up to a visit, Mrs Barton.”

“I am so glad, thank you. It is a pleasure to meet you, Sergeant Barnes.”

“The pleasure is entirely mine, Mrs Barton. Thank you. Let me get the door for you.”

 

20 October 2017, Penthouse Suite, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

“Did you have a chance to look at what I sent?”

Bruce leant back into the chair and said uneasily, “Yeah, I did. I don’t know what I think yet. It looks like an enormous Gamma radiation risk, Tony.”

“That was what I was concerned about.”

“I know. Nevertheless, there is huge potential there. We need to map out the parameters of the equations we’ll need. I am concerned about where the energy will be coming from most of all.”

“That is outside my area of interest or expertise, honestly. ‘Other dimensions’ are enough of an explanation for me, Bruce. As long as we don’t blow up Manhattan, then I’m satisfied.”

“I think I’ll hope for no explosions at all, frankly. Yet, Tony, shouldn’t we try to understand how those dimensions relate to ours? There is a minute, but not zero chance that we could collapse the fabric of space-time onto itself. As great as it would be to have both unlimited storage for waste and boundless energy potential, it wouldn’t be a benefit to the environment if we destroy all life as we know it.”

Tony poured both he and Bruce a glass of the 30-year Macallan and said sourly, “Way to be a Debbie Downer here, buddy.”

“Sorry. I didn’t think that you invited me up here just to lie, did you?”

“Nope. Obviously not. I trust you to tell me the truth, but I don’t have to enjoy it. Are you going to come with us on this one, Bruce?”

After a long, satisfying gulp of his drink, Bruce responded, “It doesn’t sound like a situation that calls for large and green. Sounds more like Cap wants to try for subtlety here.”

Tony laughed. “As much as three topped-out Alphas and their two fearless flying pals can manage to be subtle, sure.”

Bruce shrugged with a grudging smile. “Yeah, well, there’s that. I’ll come if I’m requested, but Cap didn’t ask for Wanda or Vision either. This is an Alpha operation and I’m fine with that. Whatever his strategy is, I am sure that it is well planned out, so I’m not going to question it.”

“Maybe. Or perhaps Steve doesn’t want to involve you, since he knows that you always prefer to be back-up.”

As he spread some of a particularly fragrant chèvre cheese over a cracker, Bruce replied calmly, “Well, I do. I am perfectly happy spending my days and too many of my nights downstairs in my lab, Tony. I’m a research scientist. The other side of me is more of an accident than a calling. Unlike me, you Alphas were literally born for this, however.”

“Eh, that is up for debate, in my opinion. Have you seen some of the self-important idiots out there sporting huge Alpha-beards and wearing their schola rings prominently, but with no sense of duty or interest in protecting anyone but themselves? You’re worth ten of them, Bruce.”

Smiling shyly, Bruce said quietly, “Thank you. However, that wasn’t just the ghost of my father talking there, Tony. Biology quite literally designed Alphas, especially you upper-levels, to do the crazy and dangerous or the bold and edgy. Even after the Big Guy took up residence, I still test at zero ng/dL of arcanthrogen. Your last lab test was 650.”

Shocked, Tony breathed out and then stated, “That…sounds higher than I expected.”

“You’re a level-3, so it ought to be high, Tony. Nevertheless, you should see Barton’s numbers. They are simply staggering for a non-Enhanced. His genetics are truly fascinating.”

Reverting to sarcasm in a transparent attempt to hide his discomfort, Tony replied, “Yeah, I bet. Clint is hard to peg sometimes. Despite his size, he can disappear in plain sight literally unlike any other Alpha I’ve known. However, in a fight he’s a f***ing boss.”

“Well, Barton regularly tests between 940 to 990 ng/dL. He is a boss.”

“S***. Those levels sound Enhanced.”

“Not quite. Barnes and Rogers are each well over 1100 on every sample that I’ve taken. I admit that I hadn’t realised how strong an Alpha phenotype Barton has before that meeting with the OPS rep the day he bondmatched. I had not understood how much he keeps a lid on that side of himself until I watched him reacting to Mrs Barton and saw him fighting with himself not to put an arrow in that OPS woman’s eye.”

Tony popped another cracker in his mouth and then replied, “Ohhhh s***, that was crazy. Literally crazy. I didn’t even know that female Alphas scented before that day. I thought Natasha was going to come out of her skin if that woman had stayed five minutes more. I seriously feared a murder might occur in my tower that day.”

“I haven’t studied the biology of female Alphas, so I don’t know what their capabilities are compared to you. Yet, Natasha tests around 300 ng/dL of arcanthrogen, which is unbelievably high for a female body. I don’t know what that such enormous levels of a male hormone would mean for her despite being Enhanced. Certainly, it wouldn’t be survivable otherwise.”

“Huh. Wow.” Tony kicked his feet up on the table and continued, “I don’t think that I’d considered that before either. Maybe that is why she is able to maintain the sibling bond with Clint. I’ve seen Natasha calm him all the way down from Murder & Mayhem to just Royally Pissed seemingly only with a look and her hand on his arm. Actually, it is a lot like watching Barnes wrangling Cap when he’s on a reckless rampage. Maybe Nat can actually scent with him.”

“Probably.”

“You’re lucky that as a Beta you missed out on the riot of scenting that was going on at that meeting, Bruce. I barely contained myself that day. Cap was letting loose towards that OPS b****, Wilson was still pissed at Clint, Natasha was on full blast, Clint was producing at least five different scents on max volume, and then my pretty little ward was sending out waves of just about every Omega hormone there is. I literally got sick afterwards and I know that I haven’t had a headache like that in years.”

First finishing his glass, Bruce awkwardly stretched his neck and replied uncomfortably, “We don’t read the hormones like you do, Tony, but even Betas can pick up on an atmosphere like that. I don’t want to expose the Big Guy to a similar situation again, to be honest.”

“Here’s hoping that you won’t need to. I don’t like how things are going there, to be honest. Fortunately, it isn’t my business to intervene. If Natasha Romanova cannot manipulate that situation into where it needs to be, then there isn’t any chance that I could help.”

Bruce nodded sagely. “I wouldn’t value anyone’s life at a dollar if they dared to get in the midst of a topped-out Alpha and his match, Tony. Clint is a nice guy, but he’d terminate anyone who talked to Mrs Barton out of turn.”

“And now I’ve agreed to allow another crazy, topped-out Alpha bring his match into the tower. I think that I need my head examined. Again. Whatever.”

“Barnes is a risk; I’ll grant you that. However, his sibling bond to Cap should be enough of a guarantee that Barnes won’t lose full control here in the tower.”

“Wow, that’s quite the resounding recommendation for Barnes. I’m sure he’d be proud.”

Bruce shook his head. “I don’t think he’d care either way. I’m not even on his radar. He only worries about HYDRA and other Alphas getting near his match. I’m neither.”

“Cool. Definitely going to add some additional security before they move in.”

“Probably a wise plan, Tony.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

 

21 October 2017, Royal Pavilion, Hörfa Konungsins, Vanaheim

 

“My lord.”

“What is it, Asger?”

“Prince Loki sends word from Jotunheim.”

Thor stood up from his desk and demanded, “And what says my brother?”

“The alliance holds. For now. As long as he wields the casket, the jotuns will follow him. However, if the casket is not turned over to Grundroth after the draugr are defeated, then Prince Loki fears that the next war with Jotunheim will begin immediately.”

“Yes, he has warned me repeatedly of this. What else does he say, Asger?”

“He says that the other task was completed. He does not believe that he was detected, but the object was relegated precisely as discussed.”

“Very well. That, at least, is good news. I am glad.”

“General Brunnhilde has sent word that the forces are holding on Alfheim. So far, the elves have not needed to do more than support, as the Valkyrie battalion is keeping the front by itself.”

“Good. That is good. The Valkyries are our fiercest warriors, truly. We just have to hope that they can all hold out until it is time for the final battle.”

 

21 October 2017, Prince Thor’s Pavilion, Someplace Else

 

“Prince Loki sends word from Jotunheim, my lord.”

Thor stood up from his desk and demanded, “Yes? So, what says my brother, Eindride?”

“The alliance is holding for now, my lord. As long as Prince Loki wields the casket, the jotuns will follow him.”

“Good. As much as I loathe admitting it, without the jotuns, we will lose this war. What else does Loki say, Eindride?”

“He says that his journey into Muspelheim was undetected. He destroyed the object as the prophecy commanded.”

Sighing weightily, Thor replied, “Very well. That, at least, is good news. I am glad.”

“General Brunnhilde sent word via Asger that her forces are barely holding the line on Alfheim. She is not happy about the large number of Vanir that you sent in the last detachment, your highness.”

“She will have to made do, Eindride. I hardly have sufficient Einherjar to protect Vanaheim. The days when we had a legion of Valkyrie to defend Asgard and the nine realms are gone.”

 

21 October 2017, The Barnes Home, Holbrook Estates, Stamford, CT

 

Smoothing down the satin edge of the blanket that was stretched across her waist, Emilie said quietly, “Bucky worries a lot, Ellie. That’s all.”

“Well, it is his job to worry, dear. It can be overwhelming sometimes though, I know. I have both Natalia and Clint watching over me. They are wonderful, but it is a lot at times. Good, but a lot. If that makes sense.”

Emilie smiled a bit, as she replied, “Yes, it does. Oh, my goodness, you don’t know how wonderful it is to see you! I haven’t had a friend in four years. I see my cousin, Camille, at times, since she and her match live in Greenwich. Aaron doesn’t mind her driving over to see me, as long as she brings her Briard with her. I know that they are the most traditional guard dog for Omegas, but that dog truly mistrusts everyone but her and he’s unusually large. I’m terrified of him. Levya—that is Bucky’s Alpha-companion dog—cannot stand him either, which annoys Bucky so much that I don’t invite Camille quite as much as I’d like.”

“I’m sorry, Emilie. That isn’t very normal behaviour for a Briard, is it? They are usually affectionate with all Omegas, I thought. Natalia has suggested to Clint several times that I should have a Briard. I want one of those little sweet little spaniels with the super silky fur that sit in your lap and just love you. I think Clint hasn’t fully made up his mind yet, since he agrees with Natalia yet he doesn’t want to disappoint me.”

When Eleanor handed the pastry box to her again, Emilie took a small cookie and set it uneaten onto her plate. “A Cavalier King Charles spaniel? My grandmother has one. They are great little dogs.”

Eleanor frowned. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if Natalia simply brings home a Briard for me one day just to ensure the decision goes her way. She can be ludicrously overprotective at times. On the other hand, owning a Briard would mean that I could go to church or a doctor’s appointment without a chaperone or one of Tony’s hired henchmen needing to escort me from the car.”

Emilie stopped adjusting the cushions behind her and asked nervously, “Hired henchmen?”

“Oh, that’s what I call the security personnel that Tony has me use on those rare occasions that I go anywhere without Natalia or Clint. I suppose you don’t know, but Tony Stark is my terminal guardian and, in some ways, he can be weird about my security, too. He thinks that being connected to three Avengers puts me at risk. As if Natalia and Clint are not enough invested in my protection that I need another Alpha getting involved.”

“Bucky would never accept another Alpha’s involvement regarding me. Not even Steve.”

Eleanor nodded in agreement. “Clint definitely doesn’t like it and I think that they’ve had pretty serious words about it more than once. Tony is simply unconcerned what Clint thinks and only just afraid enough of Natalia that he finally agreed not to give me the gun he felt I needed—you know, one of those tiny little pistols that are legal only for Omegas? His Great-aunt Edie had a ridiculous gilt, mother-of-pearl handled one with a diamond studded initial on the side, which Tony felt was perfect for me. I am so relieved that I don’t have to carry that thing. Yet, he was not too afraid of Natalia to cancel the commissioning of a gold-plated Omega-legal stun gun that was partially encrusted with my birthstone.”

Giggling wildly, Emilie gasped, “A gold-plated stun gun?”

“Gold-plated with rubies. Don’t leave that out, dear, since it triples the flashiness factor. Only Tony would decide that I needed something that over-the-top. Natalia laughed just as much as you are now when she saw it. It is odd, isn’t it, that we Omegas are allowed to carry our special weapons even where no one else may carry any and that we can take a dog anywhere, as long as it is a traditional Omega-guardian dog like a Briard or Puli? It might be the only way in which we have more freedom than everyone else instead of less.”

Her expression changed quickly into a frown, as Emilie said seriously, “There are other privileges we have, Eleanor.”

“Yes, I know. I remember how they taught us in school that we are the most privileged women in America. I still believe that, Emilie, but now I see the imperfections in the system, too. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am so grateful that I was born guardian-class and not another rating or worse…a Beta. I simply realise now that our privilege is limited to how closely our family or match chooses to follow the ideal. I escaped Mr Allardyce’s attempt at a forcing, but not all girls like us do.”

It was several moments before Emilie replied nervously, “You never used to be so militant, Ellie. It was Teresa who always complained about the restrictions and you who insisted that it was all meant for our protection.”

Shocked, Eleanor insisted, “I’m not a militant! How can you even say that? I am so happy being bondmatched to Clint. Please don’t put me in same the category as those people who demand a change in Omega rights, Emilie, that’s not fair. I have no interest in having a career, buying property, or voting in an election. Those are my Alpha match’s rights and I would never challenge that.”

“Then what are you saying, Ellie?”

“I am just worried about security, Emilie. I’ve been so fearful of it that—in case anything happens—Clint has settled me with guardianship appointments three Alphas deep. What about girls who do not have such an understanding match?”

Emilie shrugged and seemed to be unable to find a comfortable position for a moment. Finally, she shifted one last cushion and then said stiffly, “I don’t know. Steve is my designated guardian in case something happens to Bucky, of course. I know Bucky has a Settlement arranged, so I will be safe financially. What else can I ask for, Eleanor?”

Eleanor could not keep her voice from shaking as she replied honestly, “Nothing more. I had a terrifying experience when my family abandoned me and it has left me very concerned about contingencies.”

Emilie lifted her head and looked at her friend contritely. She then sat up and turned so she was perched on the edge of her bed. She took Eleanor’s hand and said kindly, “Well, Bucky says that Clint is deeply in love with you and you have said he takes very good care of you. According to Bucky, Natalia is very fond to you, so she wouldn’t leave you without protection. Mr Stark has been an extremely attentive terminal guardian, so it seems unlikely that he would leave you to fend for yourself either. Your brother has always been a skunk. What happened to you is the exception to the rule, Ellie. Being fearful of it happening again would be like refusing to eat apples because you had a mouldy one once.”

“I suppose that is true, Emilie.”

Emilie glanced nervously over at the door, but it was still closed, so she continued, “In the end, the system actually did work as it should. An Alpha recognised your distress and brought you to a place of safety. That led to his colleague falling in love with you and bondmatching with you. OPS might be awful, but even if you had needed to rely on them, they would have bonded you to someone who could have provided well for you. We do have extraordinary privilege, Eleanor. Consider this: a Beta would have been left to fend for herself and would not have had any government services available at a single call to come get her, shelter her, and then find her a husband.”

Eleanor lowered her gaze towards her lap and sighed. “You are right, Emilie. I am sorry. I’m letting the fear from having been abandoned colour everything.”

First giving her friend a small hug, Emilie then quietly added, “I know and I understand more than you think. I wasn’t abandoned like you, Ellie, but my family did cut off all contact when I bondmatched with Bucky. Then our first year was really, well…it was very difficult, so I didn’t know what to do. The isolation has been the hardest part. I am so glad that we are moving to the Tower.”

“Oh dear, Emilie, I’m so sorry. Does any of your family other than Camille keep in touch with you?”

She reached for her quilted satin bed jacket and pulled it overtop her very traditional, white smocked nightdress. Then Emilie replied hesitantly, “Somewhat, yes. My brothers have called me on Christmas and Easter. My mother is not allowed to call, but she still sends me birthday and Christmas presents. Camille has brought her youngest unmatched sister, Clémence, a few times. Bucky doesn’t seem to have any trouble getting along with Camille or Clémence, thankfully.”

Eleanor stretched her hand out. “Perhaps your family can reconcile one day. I hope so.”

After hunting on the floor for a few moments, Emilie found her second pale blue slipper and slid her foot into it. “Papa does not like Bucky and Bucky despises him. I think it is unlikely, but I would welcome it very much.”

“I’m so glad to be able to renew our friendship. I have not had anyone with whom I could talk about Omega concerns since I was at school. I know that I’m so lucky that I have a sister now—Natalia is wonderful. Nevertheless, her first loyalty is to Clint—as it should be of course—so I cannot talk about certain things. Not criticism, but just talking things out. Like friends do. I hope that we can do that with each other.”

Emilie nodded and smiled genuinely. “Yes. I know exactly what you mean. Talking with someone who understands would be such a relief.”

Eleanor put her hand on Emilie’s and said seriously, “Bucky obviously is wildly in love with you, you know. Even Natalia says so.”

“I do know and I’m so grateful. He’s just so jealous and possessive that it can be very difficult sometimes. I would never, ever think of betraying him. That is what Bucky doesn’t seem to see. Of course, no man on this planet is stupid enough to look at Bucky and think that he would not hunt them down and torture them to death if they even tried to flirt with me. Even poor Steve gets such harsh treatment from Bucky if he does much more than say hello to me.”

Eleanor stood next to where Emilie was propped against the edge of the bed and slid one arm around her. “There just is no reason to mistrust you though. You are such a loyal, honest person, Emilie. Even if Bucky somehow thinks you don’t love him, then he ought to know that he can trust you.”

“Sometimes he allows himself to believe it, I think. He doesn’t think that I am lying to him, but he doesn’t feel that he is actually lovable. HYDRA tortured him, forced him to do horrifying things, wiped his mind repeatedly, and dragged him decades into the future. I’m the first good thing since the war that he got, or so he says, and he is ready to blow up the world to keep me.”

In a halting voice, Eleanor asked, “Emilie, how did you come to enter into a Courtship with him? He wasn’t always so aggressive, was he?”

“I was at one of my cousin Sebastien’s engagement party. He married a very sweet girl—she’s a Beta but she is Acadian, so the family approved the marriage. Anyway, Steve was invited and he came with Bucky, since they are bonded brothers. So, Bucky simply walked up—dragging Steve with him—and asked my mother if he could make an Overture. His boldness and confidence impressed me, so I was interested. Therefore, my mother allowed him to extend the Claim because he was Captain America’s friend, but she didn’t understand at all who Bucky is. I thought he was so handsome and charming that I just melted and didn’t really care that he was the Winter Soldier. My father was horrified when he heard that I had acknowledged Bucky’s Claim, so he tried to make serious trouble for Bucky. It got really ugly.”

“Wow. I always thought your father was very kind and understanding. I am surprised that he cannot accept your choice, since it has been four years now.

Emilie sighed. “I am surprised, too. I don’t know what Papa wants me to do. Bondmatches cannot be undone.”

“Lilith—oh, you remember Jonathan’s wife, right?”

“Oh yes. She’s a poisonous woman.”

“She came to Stark tower and tried to extort Clint and Natalia for a dowry. She threatened to make trouble, but it would only have made her and Jonathan look bad.”

“Are you serious?”

“Sadly, yes.”

“Are you happy with Clint, honey?”

Eleanor nodded and offered her arm to Emilie, who stood up unsteadily. “We are still working things out. I make dumb mistakes. I’m kind of useless at so many things and Clint is different than most Alphas. It is a challenge sometimes to balance the bond between Clint and Natasha.”

Surprised, Emilie exclaimed, “You love him.”

“Oh my gosh, yes. You will understand when you meet him, since you know me. He is so like what I wanted in so many ways, which is funny because I didn’t see that at first. Bucky is pretty close to what you always said you wanted, remember?”

Emilie snorted derisively. “Yes, of course. Tall, very strong, handsome, very high rating, and extremely attentive to me.”

In a teasing voice, Eleanor added, “I remember you liked dark hair a lot. And full beards.”

“Yeah, you aren’t wrong. He has a wonderful thick beard, too. But you always said dark hair and the businessman type. You wanted clean-cut look.”

Eleanor shrugged. “Yeah, well, I hadn’t met Clint then. I had no idea what I wanted. Apparently, I like 6’2” men with longish, eternally messy blond hair, huge arms, and a massive chest. It seems I prefer an Alpha who is more masculine than handsome, has no clue about tradition at all, and is quite stupidly good with an ancient weapon.”

This made Emilie laugh out loud. “Well, I didn’t think I would go for a sniper with a metal arm, but somehow it was the only thing I wanted.”

Smiling at her friend, Eleanor answered, “Mine’s a sniper, too. Crazy. So, so far from our daydreams.”

“Eh, well, daydreams aren’t real. Bucky and Clint are. You know what really is crazy?”

“What?”

“I still love him even though he makes my life so hard sometimes.”

Eleanor hugged her friend and then, as she began wrapping herself up in a thick heavily-embroidered purple wrap, said, “We are going to work on this, Emilie. You won’t be isolated anymore, which is good. And he is going to take more missions, apparently, since you will be in a secure location. That will give him another focus, right?”

“Maybe. Or it might make him worse when he is home. I don’t know.”

Suddenly pausing in the act of pulling on her deep violet gloves, Eleanor asked, “What about Captain Rogers?”

“Well, I can barely say hello to him without Bucky growling.”

“Yes, but what if Captain Rogers found a match? Would that change the dynamic?”

“Uh, maybe? Bucky would trust him around me. That would mean they could socialise more normally. Do you know something that I don’t?”

“No, not really, but you said that your cousin visits sometimes?”

“You aren’t serious. Clémence is protected better than Ft Duffield. Neither Marc-Pierre nor Sebastien will let Captain Rogers get within a mile of her. My uncle is holding out for a dowry.”

“Oh no! Not some rich old widower or a slimy arriviste looking to use your family’s status.”

Emilie quickly explained, “No, no, it’s ok. I just mean that they aren’t accepting candidates without a dowry. A normal, successful Alpha is fine.”

“Captain Rogers could probably manage one, you know. It wouldn’t be a bad connexion for your uncle to have either, right?”

“Well, you have probably interacted with Steve a bit more than me, right? I’ve barely been able to say hello. Is he the super, ultra-traditional sort? If he is more like Bucky, then it won’t work. However, if he is practically a Victorian then it might. Clémence is so nervous about being judged for her choices that she gets panicked when reading a menu.”

Eleanor tilted her head and seemed to think for a moment before she said, “Natalia said that is exactly what Captain Rogers is like. Of course, she was trying to convince me to acknowledge the Claim from Clint then, so I’m not sure if she was being totally honest. However, I think she is right. He is really formal and a bit caught up with following proper procedure and all that. He might be just what Clémence would like.”

Emilie took a deep breath and then said seriously, “I had never even considered that idea. Bucky would probably be completely on board with getting Clémence to visit if it was for the purpose of allowing her to meet Steve. I think he’d enjoy doing it without Steve having a clue it was coming, honestly. If he thought he brought the match about, then he would feel more secure about it, too. Yeah, it is a very good idea. Clémence is getting very frustrated that my uncle keeps bringing around businessman in their 40s.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

 

21 October 2017, Rogue Avengers’ Quinjet, Someplace Else

 

“Why the f*** does every one of these little excursions that Nat takes us on have to be in the pro-ballplayer post-game level stinking armpit of the world? Honestly, Steve. Lemme know. Why?”

Barnes growled, “Aw, shuddup, Wilson. This one’s easy. I’ve gotten more s*** done in Qatar than anywhere else in the Middle East except Yemen. Abu Samra is a barely more than a village, so we’re pretty safe here. Besides, it’s a village into which I may or may not have lobbed a few RPGs in the past, so it has a minimal amount of infrastructure. So, this job ain’t somethin’ that even needs our calibre of skills. H*ll, even the Marines could probably get it done, since brains ain’t really needed here.”

Rogers snorted with poorly concealed amusement, but he kicked Barnes’ boot firmly.

However, Barnes returned to absently polishing his Wakandan-modified SVD rifle, as he muttered, “But no d*mn way Air Force could do s***.”

Genuinely angry, Wilson threw his bag down on the seat and replied, “Right, well maybe you two supersoldier Army types should go do it yourself then. Romanoff and I will just take a f***in’ nap in the quinjet. I could use a day off.”

Rogers looked at Wilson with surprise and quietly asked, “Do you want to take a break, Sam? Seriously?”

“Honestly, I’m tired of being shot at. I’m tired of eating the weird MREs that Barnes refuses and Natasha won’t touch. I’m tired of saving the day and getting a kick in the a** from the people we help. I’m tired of being an outlaw. I’m tired of Stark sitting in his d*** tower back home and judging all of us. What the h*ll is he doing? Nothing. All this stuff out here that, once upon a time, SHIELD or the Avengers would have managed is now suddenly left to the four of us. That’s grade-A prime-cut bull, Steve. When are they going to wake up and realise that the world is no longer safe? The Sokovia Accords failed.”

Rogers walked across the floor of the quinjet and laid his hand on Wilson’s shoulder. “I know. It’s not fair. None of this is right. However, if we go back now, then we get thrown in jail and all these people will have no one to turn to for justice. What else can we do?” He looked over at Natasha, who was very carefully watching them, and asked, “Nat?”

Romanoff sighed. “Maybe it is time for you to make the call, Steve. We tried starting the process with Clint and that failed. Maria tried and was rebuffed. I’m not sure how else we get a dialogue started. Stark isn’t going to call you. He’s too bitter.”

Barnes snarled angrily, “If he wants my head on a platter, then he can have it, Romanova. However, in no universe does Stark get to lock Steve up just because Stark doesn’t like the consequences of what happens when he acts on emotions and not logic.”

“Buck.”

“No, Steve. Listen. I may not have had any say in what my body did when they controlled me, but it was these hands that choked the life out of Stark’s mother. If he honestly thinks that killing me or locking me up in that Superhero Supermax thing that Ross has out in the ocean will make it all better, then fine. He can have me. But he doesn’t get you.”

“Not going to agree to that, Bucky.”

Barnes shrugged and glared at Rogers without malice. “Tough s***, buddy. If that’s what needs to happen, then it does. But seriously, if Stark is that much of a s*** that he cannot admit that his attempted murder of me is a larger crime than your self-defence assault against him, then you need to reconsider trusting him. In many ways, he’s even more unstable than I am.”

Romanoff nodded. “He is, actually. Stark has been dangerously unstable for years. However, he is also the key to us being able to return to New York or, at least, no longer being a fugitive. You know that I’m willing to stay out here indefinitely with you, but I think we all know that this isn’t a life that we can live for long.”

Rogers sighed. “I’m amazed we have all survived so far without serious injury.”

Wilson dropped into his chair and asked, “So, what are we going to do, Steve? I told you that I’d follow you and I will. However, it sounds like we all know where this is heading.”

Nodding miserably, Rogers replied, “Wanda says that Tony just isn’t ready. I think we really only have one shot at this. If I call too early, then we all lose.”

Surprised, Wilson asked, “You are talking to Maximoff again?”

“Of course. Actually, I never stopped. She is keeping track of Stark through Vision.”

Barnes gently placed his weapon beside himself, as he demanded, “You don’t think that Vision knows everything about us through Maximova?”

Rogers shrugged and raked his hand though his hair, before he responded, “I think that Vision does know, yes. However, he is waiting to do anything about it, since Wanda asked him not to talk to Tony about it. Yet, if any of you think that Tony doesn’t already know where we are and what we are doing, then you need to reconsider immediately. Nevertheless, as long as neither of them are put in the position of having to openly lie, then we should be safe. That doesn’t give us forever.”

Barnes knocked his shoulder against Rogers.

Interpreting his best friend’s message correctly, Rogers then looked over at Wilson, who nodded. Then, he turned his eyes on Natasha with an intense look that both Sam and Bucky had gotten all too used to seeing recently.

Romanoff just sighed and said exhaustedly, “Ok, Steve. I’ll put some things into play. I don’t know when it will happen, but I will keep you all informed.”

 

21 October 2017, Safe House Outside of Abu Samra, Qatar

 

“Thank f***, seriously.”

Clint laughed. “Tell me what you really think, Stark.”

Stark snorted. “I think that I’m tired of Cap internalising all his misery, as he forces himself to soldier on and then he passes the joy and fun onto us in training. Seriously, that man needed a girl.”

“Making your bondmatch is a lot more than that, Stark.”

Leaning his camp chair as far back as the tent wall, Stark laughed and waved his hand airily. “Yeah, I know. That’s why I only date Betas. I’ve never wanted to bondmatch. I know that I cannot do what you do, Clint.”

Clint frowned, but shrugged good naturedly. “Nah. Anyway, I think Cap will put me to shame with Clémence. He’s the traditional sort of Alpha. Me—I’m winging it and flying by the seat of my pants every moment of the day. Nat saves my bacon at least once a week about some Alpha s*** that I’m too ignorant to know about. One of those weird rules or traditions, usually, but since Eleanor was raised to expect all that s*** then I’m going to make sure she gets it. I just got to work at it, right? There’s a reason that carnie f***-ups who didn’t even finish high school don’t usually get to match anything better than C-ranked Omegas.”

Tony frowned and carefully regarded Clint with his head tilted to one side. “Do you seriously believe that, Clint? Because that’s bull-f***ing-s***. You put to shame pretty much every other Alpha I know with the devoted way you treat Ellie. She is your queen. I remember what Ellie was like the day she came into my building. She was terrified to even ask to use the phone to call that piece of s*** cousin of hers. Now, Ellie is helping Barnes’ poor hostage—oops, I mean his match—actually get a life and she even managed to find Cap a girl. What the f***, man? You’re the one that is giving her that confidence, Clint. You think you need anyone’s help with how to be the perfect Alpha to your AAA princess?”

Clint stared with shock at Tony before he said only, “Thanks, but trust me, before they sent me out on this s***hole mission, it wasn’t like that behind closed doors. I literally f***ed up every day. She’s been doing all that cr*p after I left, Stark. Nat is the one with her right now. If Ellie feels confident, then it is because she feels safe with Natasha and she isn’t having to deal with my bulls*** every day.”

Stark shrugged and pulled a device out of his pocket and began fiddling idly. “If you say so, buddy, but Eleanor is so crazy about you that even Barnes has commented on it. And usually that man doesn’t notice s*** about any woman but his own. I don’t think that Romanova has much to do with it. She feels safe with you, pal. When I did my guardian interview her before your bondmatching—which is a truly s*** tradition, let me tell you—it was clear that Eleanor was desperate for security. You provided that, Barton.”

Heavily setting his Stark-modified Hoyt Buffalo on the table in front of him, Clint said fiercely, “Yeah, we’re gonna need to stop this conversation now, Stark. Thanks, but no.”

Stark shrugged acquiescence. “Not going to fight you on it, Barton. Your match, your rules.”

“D*** f***ing right.”

After a long pause, Stark looked up at Clint and said with obviously false bonhomie, “So, change of subject then. How long before Cap decides to grow his family?”

Clint kicked a chair closer to the table and then sat down on it forcefully. As he spread a pile of arrows on the surface next to his bow, he said with studied calmness, “Oh, there’s going to be a baby before their first anniversary. No doubt.”

“Yeah? Because Barnes seems to think otherwise. I quote, “Steve is so shocked to have a girl givin’ him any kinda notice that he ain’t gonna wanna give that one-on-one attention up for a while.” So, take that under advisement when you place your bet.”

Peering at the fletching on one of his trick arrows, Clint shrugged. “Nope. Gonna go with a year max.”

Stark asked, “How much?”

“Uh, 500.”

“Ok, I’ll take that and I say two years.”

Stopping as he walked out of the motel bathroom, Wilson rolled his eyes. “Man, every time I walk into a room, you two fools are up to something. You’ll bet over any-d*mn-thing.”

Clint muttered, “Bored.” However, Stark loudly asked, “Well, Wilson, you in?”

“D*** straight, I’m in. I say 18 months max.”

“Confidence. I like it. But I’m going to trust Cap’s bro and stick with two years max.”

 

22 October 2017, Ste. 4102, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

“Bucky? Are you in here?”

Bucky looked up from his magazine—Превосходные запасы и оружие для проницательной Альфы (Superior Supplies and Weaponry for the Discerning Alpha)—which Emilie immediately recognised as his favourite to peruse when he was having a day with bad flashbacks. “You ok, beautiful?”

“Yes, I am fine. Actually, I was wondering if we could take a walk together down to that good cake place tonight.”

Dropping the magazine on the table, Bucky stood up and replied, “Of course, we can. I’d like that.”

“Lev would be happy to have both of us together, too.”

Bucky looked down at his dog and said calmly, “Levya is happiest when he’s pleasing me, baby, and he knows nothing pleases me more than taking care of you.”

“But he is an Alpha-companion, not an Omega guard dog.”

“Levya is one the smartest dogs that I’ve ever known, Emilie. He may not have been trained to be an Omega guard dog, but he knows what he needs to do for you and I didn’t even have to teach him.”

She looked up at him with a sparkle in her eye, as she said, “That’s true. However, I do think he is happiest when he is at your side. He and I have that in common.”

Bucky laughed. “You are full of surprises tonight, my beautiful.”

“Well, you’re going to be away for several weeks and I want to make sure that we have some nice time together before you go. It is going to be miserable when you’re gone.”

“Yeah? Sometimes I wonder, Emilie. I know that I’m not easy to live with.”

Emilie shook her head and admitted, “No, you aren’t. I won’t lie to you. However, I would always, always rather live with you than without you. I love you. I am so glad that I met you at Sebastien’s engagement party.”

“Are you? Honestly? If it were not for me, then you would probably be matched to a wealthy young businessman who would treat you like a queen and would never make you cry.”

Emilie tucked her hand into his and fervently replied, “I don’t want someone else, Bucky. I’ve never wanted someone else. You do treat me like a queen, despite the possessiveness. I will always belong to you. Completely. I don’t understand how you can think that I could even consider someone else after I met you.”

“Because I’m f***ed up, baby. My brains are like rotten scrambled eggs. I’m a bitter, angry, screwed up mess. How is that something you could truly want? You were mere weeks out of school when I met you. You’d never had the chance to meet other Alphas.”

“So? Why would I want to meet them? I’d already met you.”

Bucky groaned. “I wanna be better about this, baby. I don’t want to f*** around with our bondmatch like this anymore. I gotta do something to make you happier.”

“You did. We are here at the tower now, so I’m close to two other guardian-class girls: my cousin and my school friend. You don’t realise how rare it is for guardian-class Omegas to have friends after we are matched. This is beyond wonderful, Bucky. I know that you didn’t want to come here, but the fact that you did it for me means everything.”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “I did it for Steve, too. Our sibling bond is breaking and it scares me. I haven’t put the time in at all. I’ve been treating him like s***. Despite the fact that I know—absolutely know—that Steve would pull his fingernails out before he did anything to hurt me, I’ve doubted and questioned whether I could trust him around you. As honourable as Steve is, he would never damage someone else’s bondmatch, yet I have acted as if I expected him to place his hands on what is mine.”

Emilie asked cautiously, “Yes, I believe that. Even before he met Clémence, he wasn’t going to try to do something inappropriate. And you know that I’m more securely wrapped up in you than all the gold in the depository at Ft Duffield, Bucky.”

“I know. I swear that I do trust you even though I have trusted no one else. You would never accept another Alpha acting inappropriately towards you. I do know this, baby. I have no idea why my brain leaks out my ears and I start acting like a chump whenever another unmatched Alpha is around you. Or even matched Alphas if they’re upper-level like Steve or Barton. I am the one who has been wrong about all this, not you.”

“Bucky?”

“Yeah, baby?”

“I love you. You only.”

He frowned with embarrassment and said, “I know, darlin’. I love you.”

Emilie tilted her head and then hopped up to kiss his cheek. “Do you know? Truly? Because I want to be sure that you really understand. I know that things haven’t gone according to plan. I know that we haven’t had a baby yet and we’ve had some rocky times. But even if we never have a child, then I won’t love you less. I need you to help me through all of this, no matter what happens.”

Bucky wrapped her up tightly with his metal hand behind her head and the other on her lower back. “You will always have me.”

“Good. Nothing is going to take me away, you know.”

Bucky kissed the top of her head and then rested his cheek on her hair as he said, “My life has never really gone that way though. I have had plenty of luck, baby, but it’s all the s*** kind. So, when I get something good, I know it won’t last.”

Emilie wrapped her arms around his waist and said seriously, “But Bucky, we’ve talked about this so many times. You know that everything has changed now. HYDRA was a horrible, horrible thing. And the war was awful. But even though you got dragged into the future away from everything you knew, through a terrible journey on the way, your bonded brother was here waiting for you on the other side. That is incredible luck. And you also have me. I don’t know about other Alphas’ matches, but yours is completely and totally in love with you. So, you have what you want. You do.”

“Yeah, baby, I do.”

Emilie nodded. “So, let’s go enjoy our evening together. Is that ok?”

“Very ok.”

“You don’t mind giving up reading your magazine?”

Bucky smiled genuinely down at her and then kissed her forehead. “You know perfectly well that I’ve memorised the entire thing. Particularly the special section.”

“Bucky?”

“Yeah, beautiful?”

“How many representatives of that special section would I find in our apartment if I knew where to look?”

He looked down at her in shock for a moment and then burst out into sincere, loud laugher. “Not as much as I would like, but just enough that I get a pleasant thrill as I count each of those items when I do my daily weapons check.”

“Ok, so, when are you going take me downstairs to learn how to fire my new weapon?”

“Wow, Emilie. You’re hitting all the highpoints on my great date checklist: guns, cake, night time walk, and you. Feels like my birthday or somethin’.”

Emilie laughed merrily. “No, but seriously, can we go down there later? I want to try it out. It looks so much more exciting than that pretty little enamelled one I’m allowed to take out into public.”

Bucky snorted with sudden amusement before he commented, “That is because it isn’t an American Omega weapon, baby. It is Russian. That means it is meant to kill, not wound. It’s got a great little punch to it. You’re going to like it.”

“I believe you.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

 

23 October 2017, Unnamed Dwarf Planet, Xandar System, Andromeda Galaxy

 

“We are not going to Tarnax II. Nope.”

Quill rocked back on his heels and said urgently, “We don’t have a choice, Rocket. It is where the gig is.”

“Not interested, pal. You know my history with Tarnax II.”

“Yeah, but you’ll be sticking it to them. It is like payback or some s***.”

As he returned to reassembling a long, strange weapon on the floor in front of him, Rocket said angrily, “It won’t be payback if I land in one of their prisons, Quill. Forget about it. Not happening. Groot put that weapon down unless you are unusually interested in having acid spray over yourself.”

“I am Groot.”

Rocket gestured towards the bulkhead and said tartly, “I know that I told you to go look in the weapons locker for your game, but that doesn’t mean that I gave you permission to start handling weapons that you know nothing about.”

“I am Groot.”

“When your trunk is as thick as I am tall, then you can talk to me about getting your own acid-grenade launcher.”

“Hey, Rocket, can you focus back here?”

“Look, you know that we have a bigger mission. Right? And how is that going to go if we go larking off into what is clearly a trap? Hmm?”

“It isn’t a trap.”

Drax lifted his head and opined loudly, “It is most clearly a deception planned for foolish men like yourself. We should not fall into their snare, Peter Quill.”

“Fine. Okay. So, you tell me how we are going to be able to power ourselves long enough to reach the portal?”

Rocket mumbled something inaudibly. However, Gamora had just entered the room. “Peter.”

“Huh? Oh! Hi, Gamora. We were just, um, talking about the gig I got us.”

Gamora kept walking as she said merely, “No.”

“Look, we have to find a way to get through the portal. And from what crazy bald lady told us, it is going to take a f*** tonne of fuel to get there. We don’t have the funds.”

She sighed and said in a very slightly kinder tone, “It’s ok, Peter. I have it worked out.”

“You…how?”

“We’ll talk about that in a minute. For now, you all need to plot a course to Satriani.”

Rocket spluttered furiously, “Satriani! Satriani! Do you know how many times I have had to break out of their prison? Five. That’s how many. Five!”

 

24 October 2017, Ste. 4102, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

“Come on, Clémence, it cannot be that bad, dear. You’ve only just come out of the bonding chambers.”

“That’s just it! That’s exactly how I know that everything is ruined already.   We aren’t supposed to have left the bonding chambers already, Emilie. He has been kind and nice about everything, but Steve would be that way about almost anything. This is the worst thing ever, Emilie. He must be disappointed in me already. I must have done something wrong. Do you know how much of a failure Papa is going to think I am now?”

Shocked, Eleanor put a hand on Clémence’s shoulder, as she cast a startled look at Emilie. “Why do you say everything is ruined, honey? What’s wrong?”

Her eyes began to fill with tears, as Clémence insisted, “Steve says that he’s going to join the others on this mission next month and that he’ll be gone at least 20 days and that I cannot expect him not to do his duty. When he leaves, we won’t have been bonded even four weeks!”

Eleanor laid a gentle hand on Clémence’s arm and soothingly replied, “I understand that it is upsetting to think of him going on a mission so quickly. But, to be fair, it really is a huge, important one and when it was planned Steve hadn’t even met you. Clint has been out there six weeks already and even Tony went out a few days ago. Trust me, Steve isn’t trying to get away from you, honey. He is the leader of the Avengers, so he cannot miss something this critical.”

Emilie added kindly, “Bucky is going with him, too, and you know how Bucky is about Steve. I pity the person who thinks they can harm Steve when Bucky is there, frankly. Steve will be safe, Clémy.”

Clémence waved her hands dramatically and then moaned, “I know he is important and that he can’t ignore his responsibilities. But we have barely been bonded a week, so I didn’t even expect to be allowed out of the apartment already. I’m supposed to be entirely focussing on him and the bondmatch now. Right? Our hormones haven’t even had time to stabilise yet. I was setting up the table for breakfast and Steve came in and stood in the doorway watching me. Then, he suddenly announced that he was going to spend the day training. He suggested that I might as well go off and socialise, because he wouldn’t be back until tonight. I don’t understand! Maybe I’m doing everything wrong and he’s too nice to tell me. You know that the initial bonding time for level-4s and -5s is two weeks and the householding time is three months at least.”

Emilie replied sympathetically, “Yes, it is fast to go back to his job, Clémence, but Steve is probably someone who only thrives when he has something active to do. By the time we completed our two weeks of bonding time at the house in Brooklyn, Bucky was going insane. That is why we withdrew to my uncle’s hunting lodge, so Bucky could spend his time with shooting practice and hours of physical exercise during our householding. If we hadn’t done so, then he would have never have made the four months’ time that we did have. It is likely that Steve doesn’t feel that he can skip his training for two weeks, since the final part of the mission is coming soon.”

Eleanor added calmly, “Honey, I imagine special ops soldiers don’t get three months householding time either. It is the nature of jobs like our matches have to be extremely demanding of their time. Clint and I did not, despite Natalia taking two missions on her own to give him more days with me. Steve cannot plan everything around his bondmatching, you know. Supervillains don’t take time off. None of our matches want to be away from us for long, you know, dear.”

Clémence dropped her head and stared miserably down at her lap. “I suppose that you’re right. Steve said that what he does as Captain America is too important to ignore his responsibility to help protect the world. At least, I think that is what he was saying, except with many more words.” Clémence snatched up and then hugged a large, fluffy cushion tightly to her chest. “Except…except I thought that I was supposed to be his responsibility, too. And I agreed to that and…well, he…he said a lot of things during the Courtship, but I thought...well, he seemed to mean it. I don’t want to make him angry or disappoint him, but I think that I must have, since he was surprised that I would feel sad when he went down to train this morning. He just told me that he has to get ready for his mission, since it is his duty and that he is sure that I can understand.”

Emilie asked with a wry look, “Well, did you tell him that you didn’t understand at all and that you felt hurt?”

Clémence’s eyes widened and she looked shocked. “Of course not! That wouldn’t be appropriate. If my match has made a decision, then I have to accept it. I’m just having a hard time figuring out how to actually do that without making him angrier than I must already have. I really thought we’d at least have the full householding time before he started taking away missions.”

Eleanor patted her hand and said soothingly, “I know. Of course, you’re disappointed, but I’m sure he is, too.”

Emilie sighed and then interjected, “I think that Steve would want to know when you were hurting. He has always seemed very nice and kind.”

“Oh, but he is! I promise, he is. It isn’t his fault. I’m the one who must have done something very wrong. I must have, or he’d never have run off like that this morning. But he must know that I am sad about him planning to go away, Emilie. It wouldn’t be right to complain or ask him to change his mind.”

First setting down her teacup firmly on the tea table, Emilie responded, “Darling, you should talk to him. Honestly, I would have spoken with Bucky even if that had happened back when we were first bondmatched and I was so crazy in love and determined never to upset him that I didn’t even admit to him for a year that the smell of his beloved coffee makes me gag. It is normal and ok to admit that you don’t want to be parted from your match so quickly. I am sure that even if one has been bonded for years, knowing their Omega match misses them so much makes Alphas feel loved and appreciated.”

Uncertain, but hopeful, Clémence looked at Eleanor for confirmation. “Do you think that is true? Is it acceptable to be upfront about something like this, especially so soon? Particularly since I don’t know what I did to make him unhappy?”

Eleanor considered for a few moments and then replied, “Well, yes and no. I have to be honest that I probably would not say anything to Clint despite knowing now that he wants me to be honest when I’m unhappy. Frankly, I would probably stupidly sit there suffering miserably, which would upset him terribly and make everything worse. That is not because I don’t believe I should tell him, but because I’m too afraid to say things. Our bondmatch is not yet settled, so I’m uneasy about doing anything that might make Clint unhappy.”

Clémence nodded slowly. “So, you think I shouldn’t say anything?”

“No, I didn’t mean that you should be quiet. I was just being honest that I would be. Emilie is right that if you think Steve would respond favourably, then you should try to talk gently to him. Tell him that you want to make him happy and please him; that you are talking to him about your fears so he doesn’t misunderstand when you overreact to something.”

“I don’t think that I could though. Especially…well he still scents so strongly at nearly everything I do. One minute we are talking and then then next I can barely think. If he goes away so soon, then will the bond ever settle properly? Isn’t that why we are supposed to have the bonding time?”

Eleanor laughed slightly, but her expression was miserable, as she said, “That is what they said at school, but I don’t think these traditions are designed for level-5 Alphas. Clint and I could have had a year before he left on a mission and I don’t think we would have a settled bond. I do not actually know if the hormones he exudes when we are together are still this strong since our bond is so wobbly though. It could be a level-5 thing.”

Emilie frowned and asked sharply, “Is he using his scent-control against you, Ellie?”

“No, Clint promised on our bondmatch night that he would never use his scent-control against my will. He promised. And he’s too honourable to break his word.”

Emilie sighed. “I’m glad. Unfortunately, Bucky has no such qualms. He is jealous enough to have used his scent-control several times on me. I hate it so much. And afterwards he always regrets it and feels horrible.”

Clearly very anxious, Clémence stuttered, “St-steve said we are n-never supposed to admit that they can control their scent.” Clémence anxiously looked between Emilie and Eleanor. “It is supposed to be heavily regulated or something.”

Eleanor nodded. “Absolutely so. No one must know. Ever. I just know that your matches both can, so we can discuss it with each other. Clint says that he has only ever met one level-5 other than your matches and he is confident that Alpha couldn’t scent-control.”

Clémence shrugged and asked uneasily, “So, why is it so bad if people know?”

“It isn’t bad. It is simply an immense tactical advantage, Clémence. Clint can do so much more than just release bonding hormones, dear. He can influence other Alphas, too. That is why it is dangerous for people to know.”

Emilie added, “We learnt this in school, Clémence. You must remember that. Bucky and Steve grew up decades ago, so they weren’t registered in the current system. Their level was determined retroactively and they are Enhanced, so they’re different anyway. Clint dropped out of school before the placement test would have been administered and is a few years too old to have undergone genetic sequencing as a child. They are all lucky, therefore, that they can keep their most extreme abilities quiet. You cannot talk about it, Clémence.”

“I won’t say anything, Emilie. I just don’t really understand why it matters. Wouldn’t it mean people are just more likely to respect our matches’ ability in the field?”

Eleanor looked over at Emilie and shook her head to indicate that Emilie shouldn’t reply. “No, dear. This is an ability that puts our matches in danger. Trust me on this.”

Clémence nodded submissively. “Ok. I do.”

Grabbing her cousin’s hand and squeezing firmly, Emilie said with a smile, “Why don’t we finish what we were saying before? We were talking about you speaking honestly with Steve. I would tell Bucky if it were me. Eleanor says you should tell, too.”

As she her lip while she watched Clémence, Eleanor admitted, “Honestly, I haven’t had to worry about talking to Clint about things like that yet, because Natalia always speaks up for me. She is frighteningly good at reading me.”

Clémence replied, “So, basically, you don’t think that I should say anything.”

Eleanor tugged her shawl closer around her shoulders and then continued sadly, “No, not at all. I was just admitting that I am not very good at talking to Clint myself. I’m not brave at all, you see. However, I believe that it is very true that Alphas need to know that their match will miss them, otherwise, they feel like they aren’t important enough. You just have to be careful about how you say it, so Steve doesn’t feel manipulated. If I had any courage at all, then I would tell Clint everything I am feeling and so should you now with Steve.”

Emilie said, “Exactly. That is how I have to handle things with Bucky sometimes. He needs to know that I actually care when he is absent. I could tell him 100 times and he’d need to know 100 more. Remember what they said at school? The higher-level Alphas are naturally more insecure about their bond, since it is so critical to their wellbeing.”

Clémence pleaded, “Well, would you tell me what to say? Please? I can’t bear feeling like this, Eleanor. I don’t know why he isn’t satisfied with me. And I definitely don’t know how to talk to Alphas at all. Everything with Steve is all so new that it almost feels like it can’t be real still. I’m pretty much the least qualified girl I know to be Captain America’s Omega match. I’m not beautiful, I’m not clever, I am too shy to be any good at parties or galas, I can barely hold a conversation about anything other than flowers or fashion, and I have no idea what an Alpha from his time needs. I know he only chose me to please his bonded brother, so I can’t blame him for being disappointed. And who am I to keep him from going out and stopping the villains and all that? He’s my match, so I have no right to tell him what to do. I just want to do what makes him happy. Please tell me what to say.”

Emilie, who had gasped when Clémence made the comment about Bucky, insisted urgently, “No, dear, Steve didn’t choose you to make Bucky happy. That isn’t true at all. Bucky told me that night after he made the Introduction that he couldn’t believe how excited Steve was about you.”

Clémence began to cry and pulled her hand away from Emilie, saying only, “No, you don’t understand, Emilie. Two days ago, Steve admitted that he had originally felt like he should refrain from bondmatching for at least another year or so, since both Clint and Natalia are only available part-time now. It was only because Bucky arranged it that Steve even accepted the Introduction to me.”

Eleanor put one arm around Clémence and replied, “That was an awfully tactless thing for him to say, dear. Perhaps he only meant that this was what he thought before he actually met you. He may have accepted the Introduction because of Bucky, but entered into Courtship and made the Claim because of you.”

“I don’t really think so, Eleanor. I cannot imagine why he would choose me when he could easily have someone much more beautiful or clever or intelligent or anything else he wanted. He wants to rebuild his bond with Bucky and a bondmatch to me would strengthen those ties because of Emilie.”

Emilie frowned and said sharply, “Not if he is treating you poorly, Clémy. I will not stand for it. I really thought Steve was a nice guy, but if he is telling you that he only bondmatched with you because of Bucky, then he’s nothing like I thought he was.”

Clémence began to cry again and attempted to make some sort of explanation that got almost entirely drowned out by her sobs and sniffles.

“Ok.” Nodding, Eleanor repeated softly, “Ok.” She looked across at Emilie, who had leant against the arm of her chair exhaustedly as she scowled angrily. Obviously, Emilie was not much up to helping. “You forget that I saw Steve with you at the dinner to announce his Claim, Clémence. He did not take his eyes off you for more than a few seconds at a time. I don’t know what exactly he was trying to explain to you about the Introduction, but during the dinner Steve looked overwhelmingly happy and excited. It also looked to me as if he found you to be extremely attractive based on the way that he kept staring at you.”

“Do you think so?”

“Absolutely, I do. You have to talk to Steve, dear. Let him clarify everything and explain his feelings. I suppose that you can start with just saying that you are feeling unhappy at the thought that you will have to go without him for a few weeks, but add that of course you are proud of him for everything he does. That is absolutely the truth, right?”

“Ok. Yes, I am proud of him. I think he is pretty amazing.”

“Of course, you do. You do not want him to think that you believe he doesn’t put his bondmatch with you at the top of his priorities. So, make sure that you let Steve know you are confident that he wouldn’t go on this mission unless he had to.”

Surprised, Clémence stammered, “O-oh. D-do you think that is wise? He might think that I’m actually trying to manipulate him.”

“I don’t know, dear, but you do need to be absolutely sure that he knows you trust him. “

Clémence dropped her head and mumbled, “Ok.”

Emilie commented, “It’s alright, dear. It is new and you’re still figuring everything out. He said something hurtful, but he may be quite shocked to know that it came out that way. Steve isn’t really erudite, you know.”

“You’re right, I know. He tends to stumble over everything he says to me. Sometimes it takes him forever to get a thought out.”

Eleanor frowned. “That doesn’t sound like Captain America, dear. Honestly, that seems more like Steve Rogers: a male Alpha who is very emotionally affected by you.”

Emilie added, “I agree. Try complimenting him, since it might make him feel more confident. They do like being told that you are impressed by them, you know. I tell Bucky all the time that he is the prime Alpha anywhere. It always makes him frown as if he is annoyed, but then he struts as he walks out of the room afterwards, so he obviously likes hearing it.”

Eleanor made a sad humming sound. “Clint doesn’t believe that I think that about him no matter how much I say it, but perhaps one day he will if I say it enough.”

Clémence gasped, “Does Clint really not know how you feel? I don’t see how that is even possible. You clearly adore him!”

Her smile dropping as her posture stiffened, Eleanor quietly said, “No, he really doesn’t. I will find a way to show him eventually and one day Clint might even believe he is worthy of that. It is surprising how fragile the high-level Alphas are. I always thought Alphas had shocking egos, but our matches are all level-5’s and they are similarly insecure.”

Emilie replied thoughtfully, “Well, they haven’t had easy lives, have they? Maybe being top-level almost guarantees that you cannot live normally, especially if they are Enhanced. But perhaps it is just as bad for the Naturals, since they are all born into families who are completely unprepared for a child with such special needs and unusual abilities.”

“I had never thought of it that way, Emilie. You are so right.” Eleanor stared into the distance as she considered Clint for a while and then continued, “That was quite an insight. Thank you.”

“Even in a world that reveres Alphas, Eleanor, many people are equally thrilled and repulsed by the upper-level Alphas. Bucky has told me that even Steve, who has the most golden reputation of any Enhanced or Natural upper-level Alpha on the planet, has vocal detractors.”

Clémence’s eyes filled with tears as she confirmed, “Oh, that is so true. Just last night, Steve was agonising over something one of his critics published about him too. He was telling me that he worries about every death that was not prevented whenever the Avengers complete a mission, since he always feels that there must have been something different that he should have done. Dr Erskine ought to have found a way to give Steve a way to emotionally handle all the power that came with his Enhanced body.”

Eleanor shook her head. “No, it is important that they wrestle with these dilemmas, Clémence. If they did not, then they would not be human. Do you really want ‘heroes’ who do not count the cost of every human life?”

“I suppose not, but you don’t know the agony Steve was feeling over it all. He paced the floor for an hour.”

“Don’t I?” Eleanor countered sharply. “Do you think that Clint just lets his arrows fly into someone’s body and then trots along home blithely without any concern about the result? Don’t be ridiculous. He knows his exact body count. He also calls himself an assassin, not a hero. You try to tell me that I haven’t seen my match suffering with that guilt, too, Clémence.”

Emilie stomped her foot and exclaimed, “Well, I think that we can all agree that my Bucky grabbed the short end of the stick in this contest because: HYDRA. So, shall we let this topic drop please?”

Clémence nodded. “I’m sorry, Emilie. Sorry, Eleanor. You were giving me such helpful advice and I am really grateful. I didn’t mean to insult you or Clint, really, I didn’t.”

Eleanor shrugged stiffly, but replied more politely, “Very well. The most important point, Clémence, is to let Steve hear how much you respect him and that he is already so valuable to you. It is possible that he will rethink how involved he needs to be in this mission, but much more likely that he will simply take great pains to make sure you feel better about him needing to leave.”

Emilie said seriously, “That is much better advice than my suggestion to just blurt it all out. I’m very sure Steve wants you happy, Clémence. Remember that I also saw him at the Claim announcement and, in my opinion, he was thrilled. To be so newly bonded and have to leave already will be very hard for him, too. Honestly, Bucky told me that Steve was over-the-moon that you wanted to bondmatch with him.”

Clémence’s face reddened and she gasped, “Really, Em? Are you sure? I don’t know…even Mama says that I’m nice looking, but not beautiful like you two. Steve is a very good man, so I know that I’m very lucky to have bondmatched with him. However, since we actually bondmatched, he has sometimes been so stiff and proper about things that I wonder if he’s disappointed now that he knows what I’m really like.”

First glancing over at Emilie, Eleanor said kindly. “Clémence, you have only just begun. It will take time, but you will get there. Steve is a very old-fashioned man and you are a very traditional girl. That is why I thought you would be a good fit. I didn’t have any idea what Clint was thinking when we first bondmatched, you know, and I’m only just starting to have general ideas about it now. I mean, if it had not been for Natalia, then things would have been even worse.”

“Do you understand him now?”

“Only a bit, unfortunately. Clint is unpredictable and very non-traditional. My match is nothing like we were taught to expect in school.”

Clémence curiously asked, “But are you happy with him?”

“I think he is the most incredible man that I’ve ever met. He is utterly amazing.”

Emilie nudged Clémence. “I think that is a yes, don’t you?”

Eleanor laughed. “Definitely, it is a yes. He is so intense.”

Clémence sighed. “That was the first thing that I noticed about Steve: he is just so fierce about everything.”

Smiling wryly, Emilie added, “Yeah, I have the champion of the universe when it comes to intensity. Bucky makes a laser look unfocussed.”

Clémence rested her head on her hand and stared dreamily in front of her. “That sounds pretty incredible though, no? Steve told me that Bucky loves you so much that it surprises him still, even though Bucky has always apparently been deeply passionate about everything that matters to him.”

However, Emilie shrugged and made a less than impressed face as she replied, “Yeah, yeah, he does, Clémence. So much that he is ready to fight and destroy anything that takes too much of my attention away from him.”

“Oh. Oh! I thought that was just because he doesn’t like Camille that he was always so weird.”

“Bucky has no problem with Camille, dear. He was jealous that you and Camille were taking up my time. In fact, I have gone months sometimes without talking to anyone but him.”

“Oh my gosh, Emilie, really? I thought Uncle Philip and Aunt Maria were exaggerating. Is it because of his past and stuff? The HYDRA stuff? That could be trauma or something.”

Emilie stared at her young cousin and replied sharply, “Yes. It is absolutely because of trauma. He has raging PTSD, but he doesn’t want to deal with it. He is never going to be like Steve, Clémence, ok? It is different.”

Seeing that she was about to cry, Eleanor patted Clémence’s hand soothingly, as she faced Emilie to reply, “Maybe not, Emilie, but I think that it is important that Steve and Bucky have been going to bond rehabilitation together these last five weeks. That is a huge development.”

Emilie added flatly, “It is. I know. Bucky won’t talk about it, but he made the promise to Steve that he would go, since he knows that their sibling bond has been badly damaged. Also, Steve has his own issues that Bucky is determined to help him with.”

Camille asked anxiously, “Does Steve have PTSD, too? Is he ok?”

Her patience having clearly run out, Emilie replied with asperity, “Darling, he crashed his plane into the ice and thought he was going to die. Then he woke up 70 years later and everyone he ever knew was dead. Then his best friend, who he thought was dead, showed up and tried to kill him because HYDRA is evil. Then his best friend (with whom he had the closest of sibling bonds) goes off and bondmatches a girl, which stretches their sibling bond to near breaking point. So, for the past four years your man has been miserably lonely and trapped 70 years in the future with his best friend half-insane and difficult to predict. Of course, he has PTSD.”

Clémence moaned and then began to cry messily. “I ought to have known that! I’m so stupid.”

Eleanor frowned, as she replied firmly with a meaningful glare at Emilie, “That is not true, Clémence, and I won’t let you say it. You are lovely and already quite devoted to Steve. My guess is that Steve would not like you to know he has any weaknesses, dear, because he thinks that then he might lose your respect. You know how Alphas are.”

“Are they?” Clémence seemed very uncertain, but willing to trust both Emilie and Eleanor—who nodded in unison—she asked, “Would he truly think that I would think badly of him because of that? Alphas are so strange. That’s…that’s just silly. Do your matches ever react like that?”

Eleanor dropped her eyes and fiddled with her hands. “Oh yes, Clint still thinks that, honey. I have not yet been able to do or say the right things or enough of the right things to convince him that I think he is quite perfect as he is.”

Emilie tilted her head and replied seriously, “You hadn’t told me that, Eleanor. Is your bondmatch struggling that much?”

“Unfortunately, yes. If it weren’t for Natalia, then we would be in a terrible mess. It isn’t Clint’s fault at all. I am just dumb at a lot of things. I am having trouble adjusting to how non-traditional Clint is even though I actually prefer everything about him compared to what North Shore taught me to expect. Oh, there’s so much that I need to do still.”

Clémence tentatively put her hand on Eleanor’s. “He loves you. Everyone says so.”

Eleanor nodded. “Yes, I believe that. I’m just so silly about certain things.”

“But he loves you, so it is ok. Right? He wouldn’t stop being with you.”

Eleanor bit her lip slightly as she looked at Clémence. “Bondmatches are unbreakable, dear. You know that.”

Sighing tiredly, Emilie commented, “Well, some Alphas do live separately, Eleanor. The bond cannot be broken, but in rare situations…

Clémence squeaked miserably and she interrupted, “Oh no, oh no, do Alphas really do that? I thought only Betas did that to their wives. Steve won’t do that, will he? I would die. I really would. Emilie, you know what my father would do if I disappoint them again. My family would never forgive me.”

Emilie hugged her cousin and replied fiercely, “No, of course Steve wouldn’t! Nor do I believe that Steve would allow Uncle Alois to do anything to you. Why are you afraid that Steve might want to leave you? Is there something you haven’t told us?”

“No. I wasn’t actually. I didn’t even consider that until you mentioned it.”

Eleanor breathed out forcefully and tried not to grind her teeth as she answered, “Well, Steve will never do that, ok? You can be sure of that. It would be unthinkable for any decent Alpha to do something like that, Clémence.”

Emilie glanced at Eleanor and tried to ask her silently what was wrong, but Clémence did not catch the subtext. She just moaned, “I have to go and talk to Steve. He should be back soon, I think. I’ll try to remember what you suggested, Eleanor.”

Looking down at her watch, Eleanor then forced herself to face Clémence and say, “I am sure that Steve wants to spend time with you and have more days for building the bond. If you talk calmly with him, then it will probably go well. He must feel incredible pressure to go on mission because of his responsibility as the leader of the Avengers. I hope that you will give him a chance instead of falling apart, Clémence.”

Clémence and Emilie both seemed surprised by both what was said and the vehemence with which Eleanor said it. Yet before either replied, Eleanor continued, “My match has been gone for six weeks now, you know. His previous mission was nearly three weeks and we only had four days in between. We have only been bondmatched for half a year. I hate the time apart, but Clint is doing what he feels he is meant to do. I will learn to handle it though, since he does. When he returns, I am determined that this time I will do anything possible to make him happy. I’m sorry, but I need to go back upstairs now. Natalia requested that I be back before 4 and it is now 3.45. She does not like if I am too close to the deadline, so I need to hurry.”

Biting her lip nervously, Clémence commented, “You obey her like she is your Alpha.”

Emilie elbowed Clémence. “Don’t be rude! Besides, would you dare to disobey the Black Widow?”

Eleanor coldly stated, “She is Clint’s bonded sister. I wouldn’t ever go against her.”

Nudging her cousin again, Emilie replied to Eleanor, “I know, dear. However, it is probably a good thing that Bucky and Steve decided to go for a lateral bond for our matches. The one Alpha I already have is more than enough.”

Clémence shivered, clearing considering how unpleasant it would be to have as close a connexion to the Winter Soldier as Eleanor did to Natasha.

Eleanor stood up sharply from her seat and responded emotionally, “Well I like having a sister. I would not change it for anything. Anyway, I cannot imagine that a joint bond with Steve orer Bucky would be anything like mine with Natasha. Brothers are very different from sisters. Oh dear, now I really need to go!” Eleanor hurried upstairs and only made it into the flat at 5 ‘til 4.00, which she was quite aware was late in ‘Natalia Romanova time’. As she raced across the floor of the sitting room, she then turned to go down the corridor towards her bedroom in Natasha’s flat. Yet, as she did, she heard voices coming from inside that startled her. Accordingly, Eleanor wrenched open the door handle to her room and saw Natasha and Clint standing beside her bed.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

 

24 October 2017, Suites 3800 A and B, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

"You are home! I thought you did not get back for a couple of weeks at the earliest!"

Clint set down the armload of clothes that he had been holding and crossed the room towards her. Eleanor dropped her head to him, but instead of the traditional Alpha greeting that she had come to expect, he lifted her chin with one hand and kissed her lightly. "I didn't want to disappoint you if we couldn't make it happen, but I've been trying to get back for days. Nat and I were getting your things together, so I can take you back down the hall to the new apartment."

"I could come and get them later, Clint. It's ok. I have other things down there, right?"

Clint grinned, but she noticed that his smile did not quite reach his eyes. "Sure, baby. Nat won't mind if we get this tomorrow."

"Ты должен помнить, что я сказал маленький ястреб." Natasha gave him a look that Eleanor could not quite read and then put an arm around Eleanor. "Your cosmetic things are already in their bag, sestrenka. Let Clint take those and leave the rest."

Eleanor smiled genuinely and gave Natasha a hug, then said quietly, "Thank you for being here with me. You've been wonderful."

A lopsided little smile slipped onto Natasha's face before she said, "Do not be silly, Lenochka. This flat is always your home, too. Now go on before someone gets impatient."

Eleanor looked over at Clint, whose posture seemed very stiff and who was rather fiercely gripping the handle of the lavender ostrich skin travel bag that contained all of Eleanor's makeup.

Clint did not say anything as they exited Natasha's flat and walked down the corridor towards their own. By the time that he had silently led them both into their bedroom, Eleanor was feeling not only sure that something was very wrong, but that she was in quite a bit of trouble.

First setting the purple case on her dressing table, Clint then stalked towards the window. Grimacing at the stale smell in the room, as no one had been living there for a month and a half, he roughly tugged the curtains open and said stiffly, "It is probably best if we talk, Eleanor."

Feeling her stomach drop immediately, Eleanor replied quietly, "Yes, Alpha."

Clint turned around from the window out of which he had been staring and said seriously, "I know that I was gone much longer than planned. I don't usually have missions that go over three weeks, let alone twice that. However, I knew that Nat had you with her, so I hoped that you would be ok. Honestly, I thought you might even be better off, since you adore her."

She gasped with shock, as she looked up at him. "I do, but I do not prefer her over you, Clint. That would be impossible."

Clint continued, as if she had not even spoken. "Apparently, it was a serious mistake to allow the mission to be extended, but I thought you would be ok and the mission really is a critical one. I'm not going back, ok? I've already informed Cap that I'm tapping out for the second part of the mission, so Nat will take my place tomorrow when Cap and Barnes fly out to join the others. I am so sorry, Eleanor. Even Nat thought you would be fine, but it looks like we were...f***. F*** it, Eleanor. I didn't have a clue."

Eleanor interlaced her fingers, as she tried to hide how much she was shaking. Managing to compose herself enough to steady her voice, Eleanor said, "I'm really sorry. I was trying to do everything right, Clint. I will do better next time, I promise." She had no idea what she had done to make him this upset, but she had to figure it out now so she knew what to fix. Whatever she had done, Clint was both angry and devastated. She looked up at him briefly when he did not reply right away and felt her stomach drop nastily.

At that moment, Eleanor felt all the years of strict training rushing over her and heard the words of her comportment instructress, Madame Dierickx, echo in her mind: 'Once you are bondmatched, your Alpha match and your children will be your world. Your own actions will do much to shape that world, but if you shame your match even once, then you can lose everything that you have worked for years to build.' It was evident that she had already managed to do this only a half year into their bondmatch! Every lesson that had been drilled into her was pressing on her mind at that moment. Although Clint had told her numerous times that he did not want her to display the more traditional marks of surrender, Eleanor could not imagine how else to respond. She dropped her head and held her hands out in front of her exactly like they had practiced at school.

Yet, instead of appearing uncomfortable, Clint nodded as he put his right hand over them briefly. However, he let it fall it again almost immediately as he watched her with a frown. "That isn't necessary, Ellie. I'm not blaming you. I blame me."

Eleanor knew that was not a good thing to hear. She had truly made a mess of whatever it was she had done. He hadn't reacted positively to her gesture, nor had he dismissed the need for it like he usually did with any traditional signs of respect.

As Eleanor felt the waves of panic bringing her to a severe amount of nausea, she just managed to focus her mind enough to hear Clint continue flatly, "I think that it would be a good idea if we talk with an analyst, who is used to working with guardian-class Omegas. She can try to help you figure things out, I guess. I never liked the SHIELD therapists, but this one is supposed to be really good at this. Barnes has been bringing her in to see his match, which is about the best recommendation I can imagine."

Her cheeks flushed with mortification, Eleanor gasped out, "Of course. If you think it is a good idea, then I will do it."

Clint shrugged miserably and said, "I don't know what is a good idea, but we have to try something to help you, Ellie. I cannot have you feeling like this and not do something. I just can't lose you, ok? I won't recover from that."

Still clueless as to what she had done wrong, Eleanor felt even more confused by his declaration. "I wouldn't leave you, not ever. Please, please don't say things like that! Why would you think that I want to go away?"

"Are you actually serious, Eleanor? Could it possibly be because you are f***ing scraping yourself all over your thighs with needles? And you told Nat that you hate everything about yourself. F***." Clint's eyes blazed with anger, but his face was drawn and miserable. "What kind of man would I be if I wasn't terrified by that? I had no clue. No f***ing clue, baby. How didn't I know that my match was so unhappy with our bondmatch that she felt like she needed to hurt herself?"

Eleanor opened her eyes wide and stared at him. This was about that. And he misunderstood completely. That wasn't how things were at all!

Stupidly, she had hoped that he wasn't still upset, since it had been days since Natasha had forced her to tell him and all their video calls had seemed ok during that time. Yet, when she had been at school, Dr Macaveo had warned all the students during treatment that if they relapsed, they would likely lose all their match's respect. As much as they understood physical fragility, Alphas did not like mental weaknesses. It seemed that Dr Macaveo might have been right. Mortified, Eleanor whispered, "Oh!"

Clint's eyes blazed with fear and anger. "Yeah, so, I want to do whatever I got to do so you aren't harming yourself with a needle every day. F*** me. I never thought I'd ever have to say that sentence in my life, Eleanor."

Her anxiety was reaching critical levels. She would not be able to keep from passing out or throwing up if she could not calm down. Eleanor stammered placatingly, "I-I promise that I haven't done that since the day Natashenka found out about it. I wanted to, but I didn't."

Clint clenched and unclenched his fists at his side, as he explained gruffly, "Ok, you see, that doesn't make me feel as much relief as you apparently believe it should. Obviously, yeah, I'm glad you aren't harming yourself now, baby. But you still want to. So, I'm still worried, ok? And it said a lot to both Nat and me that you wouldn't promise her that you were not going to do it again. You have never before refused anything she asked you to do. So, yeah, I'm still pretty freaked out, Ellie. I don't know if I should take you straight to the Omega ward at Weill Cornell and have them admit you for observation or if this is something that can be handled at home. Is this something that you've been doing the whole time? I don't f***ing know, Ellie, because you don't talk to me about anything real. From the moment that I met you, as much as I've been aching to get to know the real you, you've stayed hidden. I got no idea what's going on in your head, so I really can't do s*** to help you or protect you or any of the things that I'm supposed to do as your Alpha. So, I'm not asking anymore, Eleanor, I'm telling you that you are going to be honest with me now. How badly are you hurting yourself? Are you suicidal?"

Eleanor impulsively grabbed his hand and lifted it to her cheek, as she watched him fearfully. "No, Clint, I would never. I am not going to do anything like that. All I've ever done is prick or scratch myself with the needle, I promise, and only for those few days. I'm sorry. I cannot just make myself not want to do it yet. I can get better, really. I just didn't want to promise Natashenka that I'd stop, since I didn't want to have to disobey or break my promise if the urge got too strong. I knew that I wasn't in control yet. So, I thought it was better to be honest, wasn't it?"

"Yes, of course. We don't want you to lie, baby." Clint groaned and shoved his hands into his hair. His expression was both wild and fearful, as he continued saying, "S***. I just am horrified that you still want to harm yourself. Ellie, I would slaughter anyone who gave you anything greater than a papercut, ok? That's not exaggeration. I would actually break the spine of someone who dared to touch you. How am I supposed to handle you hurting yourself? And I want to fix it, but I don't really even know what is wrong. Why do you feel like you have to do that? What am I not doing that you need?"

Feeling the tell-tale prickling along her neck that told her she was near to passing out, Eleanor asked tremulously, "May I sit down, please?"

Clint surged forwards and guided her onto the bed next to him with his arm wrapped around her. "Yeah, of course. I am sorry, baby. This ok?"

She leant into him, seeking comfort as she tried to gather her thoughts. It was too difficult, however, as all she seemed capable of noticing a myriad of wonderful things about him. How warm he was. That he was finally right there with her again. How he smelled like some wonderful combination of lime, musk, and pepper. That he hadn't shaved in days and his hair was more of a mess than normal. How his dark grey t-shirt had a suspicious stain splattered along the side, which someone had inexpertly tried to wash out. How his tactical pants—she really thought he should never wear anything other than those type of trousers—had several rips and one small burn hole. His boots were coated in dust and grime. He had clearly walked right off the quinjet and come to find her without showering, changing, or perhaps even debriefing. He was much, much more than 'just worried'.

Eleanor lowered her head and threw all her energy into exuding submission as she pleaded, "Don't send me away to the hospital, Alpha, please. Please. I don't want to go through that again."

Clint had been about to speak, but stopped and stared down at her with an expression of horror on his face. "Again?"

"Treatment. It was effective, but horrible. I am sorry that I relapsed, but it was only for two weeks. I've been good for days and I haven't had any urge since that last time. If I do everything that the analyst says, won't you let me stay at home?"

"You've been treated for this kind of thing before?"

She had put herself in the midst of the fire now, so she might as well go all the way. Clint had the right to know, since she wasn't as cured of the autolavoma as she had hoped. "Yes, when I was at school. They assess you when you enter. I had to attend six weeks of an intensive programme before school began, then continue therapies throughout the first year. I was checked daily by Matron to be certain that I hadn't relapsed. My aunt kept that up when I got home for ages. I explained it to Natalia; didn't she tell you?"

Clint ground his teeth together as he replied angrily, "No. She said that you had trouble with maladaptive coping mechanisms in the past, but she didn't give me details. I figured she meant panic attacks or negative self-talk. Your school treated you? Was it a rehab centre? I thought you went to one of those fancy Omega finishing schools."

"I'm sorry, but I am not sure what a rehab centre is. My school is just what you thought: actually, it is the most selective finishing school in the Northeast so they are quite severe about insisting on the quality of graduates they produce. More than half of the girls in my year had anxiety-based psychiatric disorders, but if we wanted to continue at North Shore then we had to complete all therapy, follow anti-recidivism protocols, and diligently study. We are never supposed to talk about this, you know."

"More than half of you? Holy s***! Is that normal for Omegas?"

Surprised that he had reacted the same way as Natasha, Eleanor replied honestly, "I don't know, honestly. I guess so? I think it probably is common for we guardian-class, but maybe girls from my background are more susceptible because of the high expectations. I can tell you that every Omega currently living in this building went through the treatment programme."

Clint stood back up and exclaimed, "Holy s***, Eleanor! Is this something that most people know? Did Cap and Barnes know beforehand?"

"No, no, of course it is not something that people generally know. It's considered a shameful thing, Clint, so we aren't going to tell someone unless we have to. Our siblings usually know of course, but some parents keep it quiet even from them. Bucky knows now, of course, since Emilie still struggles with her eating even now. Should I not have told Natashenka about my past? I didn't think about it. It seemed so natural to be honest with her when she asked, but she isn't my match. You are, so I should have told you first. I am so sorry. Sometimes I am not sure what boundaries you want me to keep with her. I should do better."

Clint waved his hand with annoyance. "No. I've told you that you don't have to keep secrets from Nat. She, on the other hand, keeps lots of secrets even from me, d*mn it. So, all this secrecy means that Cap probably doesn't know that his match has apparently suffered from some severe anxiety-based psychological issue?"

"No, he doesn't. Oh, golly, and I should not have told you about that either! That was a serious breach of confidence on my part. Clémence is so terrified that Steve will find out. Please, please do not let anything slip."

"This the kind of thing that we Alphas need to know about our matches though, Eleanor. If we are supposed to protect and care for you, then we need all the information to do so properly. I needed to know this beforehand, so I could make the right decisions to support you."

She dropped her head in surrender yet again and exuded as strongly as possible. "I am so sorry. I did not realise that you would want to know. I promise that I didn't realise that you would prefer to be told. And I never thought I'd relapse. Not ever. I had it under control for four years."

"Are there other things that you need to tell me? Other secrets that you hid away because that is the 'approved' or traditional way? NOW is the time to tell me, Eleanor. I won't be happy if you keep something else hidden."

She shrank back from him and stammered, "I-I don't think so. Unless…do you need to know about the medications I take? We've never talked about that and they were given to me as part of treatment."

"Probably. I know about the pill your doctor has you take every night. Then there is the sedative. What are they?"

"The pill at night is for anxiety. I don't know the name of it, since they never said. And the sedative is lor-something. I forget."

"Lorazepam?"

"Maybe. That sounds possible."

"That is Ativan. Depending on the dose, that can be strong stuff. Are they monitoring your usage?"

"I don't know. I guess? I never have to ask for more. They just know when to send another prescription to the dispensary, so I suppose they must."

"Yeah, I think I'll be the one going to the OPS dispensary next time you need your meds. I gotta know what they're giving you, Ellie. I definitely don't like how often you take that sedative, especially if it is Ativan. That s*** is addictive."

Started, she first flashed a nervous look at Clint, then flushed hotly as she nodded acquiescence.

Clint boomed angrily, "What do I need to know? Why did you react like that? Have you had trouble with substance abuse in the past?"

Eleanor squeaked with fear and insisted, "No! No, I promise, never."

"Well, you exuded intense fear just there, so I need to know why."

"Not me, Clint, but I know a girl who did. She was given the sedatives when she was young, since she has terrifying anxiety. She was extremely dependent on them when she got to school and treatment was awful for her. I don't understand why her physician and OPS didn't notice it, since they are the ones in charge of our prescriptions and dispensaries."

"She might have been getting her pills somewhere else."

"The only way for that to happen was if her family helped her and I don't think that is possible. They are so disgusted by her former sedative dependence even now. Anyway, she could not have gone elsewhere on her own, Clint, especially as a young, female Omega child. Therefore, OPS ought to have been aware of her usage, since all guardian-class prescriptions are managed by OPS dispensaries through our local state's Omega Wellness Assurance plan. Don't Alphas have something similar?"

Clint stared down at her coldly. "No. We get our medicine at pharmacies like the rest of America. Omega Wellness Assurance is a government initiative for Omegas only. Your plan is more extensive because of your rating, but all Omegas are covered by the various state OWAs and are not eligible for regular health insurance."

"Really? I thought pharmacies only carried Beta medicines."

Clint watched her for a moment and then said seriously, "There are no such thing as Beta medicines, Eleanor. All drugs that Betas use, Alphas and Omegas can, too."

"Really? But…are you sure?"

Clint huffed with annoyance, but then pushed himself to say more gently, "Occasionally the arcanthrogen hormone causes an interaction, so Alphas need a different dosage. There are a few meds just for Alphas, but they are only used to treat problems with our different biology. I'm sure that is true for Omegas, too, since Alphas and Betas don't produce peneloprone."

"Oh. So, that is why we have to see only physicians who are Omega specialists? The effects of peneloprone are that complicated?

Clint shoved his fingers into his beard and raked them back and forth as he tried to calm himself down. Then he groaned. "I don't have a clue, Eleanor. Maybe they taught that s*** in school. However, I don't know, as I didn't even get as far as finishing algebra before I dropped out. SHIELD does have specialists for internal medicine that treat any level-3 Alpha or above. Maybe arcanthrogen is weird in some way like peneloprone. I don't f***ing know. I don't know s*** about your Omega biology either, but I still cannot believe that it requires being drugged by sedatives all the time."

Eleanor recoiled and looked up at him in surprise. "Do you believe that I'm drugged?"

"No, not you, Eleanor. Your 'friend'." Clint stopped still and turned towards Eleanor. "Aw, s***. It's Clémence, isn't it?"

"Oh gosh. Please, please, please don't tell Captain Rogers. Please."

"That is the kind of s*** that a man needs to know about his match, Eleanor. Cap is going to feel very betrayed if she doesn't tell him very soon. They've only been bondmatched about a week, so it's early still. At this point, honestly, he'd probably forgive her anything."

Eleanor was huddled over her knees and rocking back and forth in misery. She didn't look up at him as she explained, "Emilie and I already tried to convince her to tell Captain Rogers, but she is utterly terrified that he will be disgusted by her if he knows. We cannot pressure her any more yet, Clint."

As he started pacing the floor again, Clint's expression softened. "Poor kid. It doesn't sound like it was her fault anyway. These OWA doctors were drugging the s*** out of her for years apparently. Then she had to detox and get treated like cr** at this school of yours for taking meds that her doctors gave. I've always hated doctors."

"But that isn't a normal thing, Clint. I've never heard of anyone else who had that trouble. This was just a horrible exception. I'm sure that the OWA did something about her physician, so it wouldn't happen to anyone else."

"Maybe. I don't really trust those f***ers, since they are connected to OPS. That's why I want to find out what you are taking. Your health is too important to screw around with, Eleanor."

Uncertain what he wanted her to say and secretly horrified that he felt she might be taking too many drugs, Eleanor made a guess and replied uneasily, "Thank you."

"Are you stable right now, Eleanor? I don't need to take you over to Weill Cornell? I know that I'm pretty upset right now, so I am probably frightening you and doing this all wrong. I know that I gotta calm down, baby. I'm sorry. I'm just not sure what I'm supposed to do keep you safe. What do you need right now?"

Eleanor shook her head. She reached her hands out and begged, "Please don't put me away, Clint. I will do anything you think that I should. I will do any therapies you want. Just don't send me away. Please?"

Finally, Clint stopped his jittery pacing and stood in front of her. "I wouldn't put you away. Is that what you think I meant?"

As soon as he got near enough, Eleanor convulsively gripped his left upper arm overtop where the faded angry green and blue swirls of an old tattoo that he had gotten when he was a mercenary was showing underneath the edge of his torn short sleeve. Clint knelt down in front of her and lifted her hands off his arm and pressed kisses on the backs of each one. "Baby, I'm not going to let them take you away from me. Never. Maybe you don't realise how serious I am, but if anyone has the mistaken idea they are going to keep you from me, then I can fix that with an arrow or a bullet really fast. If they actually touch you, well…I'll just take my time but the result will be the same."

Eleanor breathed out with relief. "You really would, wouldn't you?"

"I would and then I'd sleep like a baby once I had you back in my arms and they were rotting six feet under. No one is ever, not ever, going to take you away, Ellie."

She looked at the desperately sincere expression in his eyes and then said with a sob, "Thank you. I don't want to be away from you Clint. Not even a day."

"The only thing that will take me away is work. I promise. Now, will you tell me about this treatment s*** that they do to you? I gotta know what you're so afraid of, baby."

Eleanor bit her lip and watched him for a minute more and then explained nervously, "If you need treatment like that, then they keep you for a long time, Clint. They warn us at school about what will happen and how much worse than the pre-term treatment at school was. They will do the chloral drops, which were awful. I had the most terrifying dreams. Or they might do electro-sedation. There is nothing worse than that. I promise that I won't self-harm again ever."

Clint stood up from where he'd been kneeling and stared down at her in horror. "Holy s***, Eleanor. They were giving you chloral hydrate and doing electroshock? Are you f***ing kidding me?"

"I-I-I don't know. Why are you angry? Those are the usual treatments for anchodia and teleiomania. They fixed me. I messed up, but I won't do it again. I really won't."

"Ellie, I don't know what either of those things are."

Eleanor looked away and took a deep breath. "Omega-specific psychiatric complexes. Some of us are weaker, so we need extra help learning to handle all the requirements of a guardian-class life. The analysts at school determined that my aunt had not been able to properly prepare me, since she was only an A-rated Omega. Also, my father was too lenient with me. He did not hire any instructors to begin any of my serious instruction until I was 10. Before then, all I had was my aunt, who worked with me on reading, arithmetic, penmanship, French and Italian, deportment, traditional harp, and the catechism."

Dumbfounded, Clint sat down next to her and laid a hand on her knee as he asked, "That is not considered serious instruction?"

Eleanor shook her head and looked at him as if trying to be sure his question was not a trap. "Not if I was to go to North Shore Young Ladies' Preparatory when I was 16. Sixty percent of the girls who attend are legacies like Emilie and Clémence, so it is extremely difficult to get one of the remaining 4 or 5 slots each year. My family is from Virginia, so all the females in my family go to Lynchburg Academy for Ladies. Well, except for my sister, since she is a Beta. Anyway, as it was, even though my Father offered a bequest and I had letters of recommendation from two graduates, I think I was selected because I am an AAA, so I boosted their percentages."

"S***."

"I'm sorry, Clint. I'm so sorry. I really have failed you so badly."

Clint breathed in and out slowly for a moment and then said with a shaking voice, "No, you haven't, baby. I f***ed up and made some stupid judgements about what you need. This was too long for me to stay away and it was too much for you. Nat isn't enough, is she?"

"She is wonderful, but she isn't you. She can't replace you, Clint."

Clint looked down at her and said gruffly, "We can work on this together. I think that we will try the analyst, as well as work on spending actual time getting to know each other more. I've been too focused on training and my job. Then, when we were together, I didn't spend enough time actually talking to you. As I said, this is my fault, Ellie."

"Please don't blame yourself. I should have done better, Clint, and I will. I promise."

 

26 October 2017, 44th Floor Range, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

"You ready, Barton?"

Clint set down his Apex 7 and said cautiously, "Yeah, but need to talk to you first for a sec."

Bucky looked askance at Clint and replied suspiciously, "What?"

"You're going to be pissed and I'm sorry. Well, no, I'm not, but I should apologise anyway, since I'm stepping over a big boundary here. So, when I'm done, you can tell me to f*** off and I won't be even angry."

His eyes narrowed into slits as he regarded Clint for a moment. Then Bucky said bitingly, "Well that introduction is sure to make me receptive, Barton. Great job."

"Whatever Barnes. But listen, I know you think she doesn't, but your match absolutely adores you. F*** if I know why, because I think you're an a**hole, but she is so caught up in you that she talks about you all the f***ing time to Eleanor. I think every single time I called Ellie when I was on this last mission, she would mention yet another conversation in which Emilie was worrying about whether you knew how much she adored you. Also, I know exactly what it's like to experience unequal feelings in a bondmatch, so I get it. That is why I decided to tell you that your match apparently thinks you are her hero or some s***."

His expression showing unmasked pain and barely restrained anger, Bucky replied only, "F*** off, Barton."

Clint shrugged. "Sure, whatever. Just thought you could use some intel that Emilie told Eleanor that she thinks you're Prime Alpha or something. Anyway, shall we shoot the f*** out of Stark's new targets?"

Bucky clicked a magazine into his weapon and snarled, "Don't ask stupid questions, Barton. Actually, just don't even f***ing talk to me right now." He snatched up his ear protection and then added coldly, "But I am going to destroy you. Put the targets out to the max, so we get a fairer test."

 

18 November 2017, Barton Family Farm, Someplace Else

 

Standing in the doorway as she held out a large mug of coffee, Laura Barton quietly chastised, "Honey, I thought you were finished laying the floor in here."

As soon as he heard her voice, Barton hopped up from the floor and walked towards her with a big smile. "Those three boards are warped, baby. I don't know how I didn't realise it when I put them in last week. You don't want me to put the finish on them and have it look bad, right?"

"Are you sure that you aren't being maybe a little bit of a perfectionist, Clint? Because when I cleaned the floor this morning, it all looked just fine."

"It is just three boards, Laura, and I want it to be right. We're going to live in the house for the rest of our lives, so I don't want to take shortcuts anywhere."

Accepting several of his quite passionate kisses before she shoved the lidded coffee cup into his chest, Laura then replied with resignation, "As long as those are the last few boards, Clint. You said that you were going to have it done by Thanksgiving. At this point, I don't know if you'll even make Christmas, Clint."

"Aw, I'm sorry, baby. I know that I'm a mess. Forgive me?"

"Always. Are you going to take Lila out in the back pasture again for practice?"

Surprised to have been caught out, Barton asked uneasily, "Uhhh…am I?"

"You are. And then, you're joining Cooper for a haircut in the kitchen. Scruffy."

Barton kissed her again. "But you like me scruffy."

"I like you and you are occasionally scruffy. However, I prefer your hair not to look like it needs attention from a weedwacker."

"Aw, it ain't that bad, is it, Laura?"

"No, but it is shaggy. And tomorrow is Sunday."

"Oh."

Laura nodded as she looked into his eye determinedly. "Yep. You're going to church and you're going to like it, mister."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Ok, drink your vat of coffee and finish your three boards. But I suspect your daughter is waiting out in the barn for her secret practice session."

Barton made an uncomfortable grimace as he asked, "I should have asked you, huh?"

"Yes. We are supposed to talk this stuff over, Clint."

"Yeah. I know. Are you really ok with it?"

"I don't think that it matters. She's your daughter just as much as she is mine. She is going to be besotted with projectile weapons of some sort. I'd rather it be a bow and arrow than a sniper rifle."

Barton insisted, "I have never let the kids touch the guns, Laura. I won't do that until they are at least 15?" He looked appraisingly at her and amended, "16? Uh, 17?"

"Maybe 18. I'd prefer 21, but with you as their father that is probably unrealistic."

"We'll talk about it, right?"

Laura nodded. "Yes, Clint. We will talk about it. Better go back to finishing the floor. I have to feed the chickens and fix the sprinkler in the greenhouse."

Barton grinned at her soppily. "You're an amazing woman Laura Barton. I will worship the ground you walk on until the end of my days."

She smiled as he pulled her close and dipped her before planting a deep kiss on her lips. "And I love you, Clint. Always."

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

 

20 November 2017, Ste. 4102, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

“Emilie?” Barnes walked into the smaller sitting room, where his wife liked to read in the evenings, and watched her reaction to him carefully.

“Bucky! You said you were going to the range again tonight. Is everything ok?”

“Yeah. Just tired.” Aware how thin his excuse sounded, since Emilie knew as well as any of his colleagues how, as long as he could lift a gun and stand, physical ailments would never keep him from training for a mission.

“Oh. Well, I’m happy you are back, but do you want me to get something for you? Coffee or…something?”

He grimaced and said tersely, “No.”

“Oh. Are you sure you are ok?”

“Fine.” Bucky then dropped onto a chair near the doorway and groaned. “No, I’m not fine, but it isn’t something you should worry about.”

Concerned, Emilie asked, “Is it the mission?”

“No. Look, Emilie, I want to talk to you about some things. Don’t make that face, please. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Are you sure?”

Bucky got up again and moved onto the ottoman in front of Emilie, then he said softly, “Really. I think that I have made some enormous mistakes, but not you, my love.”

Her eyes popped open wide and Emilie asked in a whisper, “Why do you say that you have, Bucky? What has happened?”

“Nothing has happened exactly. S***. I don’t know how to even talk about this with you.” He stood up and stalked across to the window. As he stared blindly out into the Manhattan sunset, Bucky miserably continued, “Look, Emilie, I know that I’ve been a total horror to live with. I’m insanely jealous. I’ve caught myself as I do or say ridiculous things and I wonder what is wrong with me.” He turned back around and slumped back against the glass as he said, “You’ve never once given me a reason to suppose that you would run off with someone else. Even if you absolutely despised me and met someone you thought was better, then you’d still be loyal to me because you revere the bondmatch. I’ve always known that. I just haven’t been able to help myself.”

“I know. At least, I know that your jealousy was something you haven’t known how to control. But I didn’t think that you trusted me really. Do you really know that I am loyal to you, Bucky? Truly?”

“I do. I have always known, but it has seemedblike no matter what I knew that I had a vicious voice shouting the opposite in my ear. I couldn’t drown it out.”

Emilie asked sceptically, “But you can now?”

“Maybe. Right now, yes. The problem is that I’m pretty f***ed in the head, Emilie. And I know that someone who has done the things that I have has absolutely no business bonding with a woman as wondrous as you.”

Emilie stood up and crossed the floor as she asked quietly, “Then why did you do it?”

“Because I had to. I had to, Emilie, because as soon as I saw you, then I knew I either had to win you or just give up.”

She stopped walking a few feet away from him and exclaimed, “Give up? You would have killed yourself?” Emilie looked at him unhappily, as she added, “That’s…even for you, that is pretty over the top, Bucky.”

Bucky nodded seriously. “Yeah, I know. That is why I never told you that before now. I am aware how ridiculous my reaction was.”

“But, Bucky, you’ve continued to punish me for acknowledging your Claim, since you feel you aren’t worthy. I feel as if you decided that I’m not trustworthy because I was foolish enough to bondmatch you.”

“No, baby, I have always trusted you. I don’t know why I have been this way. I don’t know how my brain works. I never consciously thought anything other than that I love you and that you wouldn’t ever truly love me in return, so I had to keep any interested Alphas far away.”

“Which to you meant any other Alpha on the planet, Bucky.”

He sighed. “Only unmatched ones. I know. I am a fool.”

“Even if that Alpha was your bonded brother.”

“Yeah.” Bucky nodded. “Yeah. I know.”

“Steve would rather die than hurt you. Steve wouldn’t betray you any more than I would.”

“I know. I know, Emilie. It was a mistake to do a lateral bond. I should have allowed you to have Steve as a brother.”

Emile gasped. “But you said…Bucky!!!”

His expression immediately shifted to deep shame, as Bucky replied, “Yeah, I lied. Steve would have loved to take you on as his sister. My jealousy has basically deprived you of everything since the moment we bonded. I’ve been terrible to you.”

Emilie stared across at him for a while before she finally asked, “Why are you telling me this now?”

He shook his head and did not reply to her question. Finally, he asked, “Why did you choose me?”

“Oh. Because…because I loved you. It wasn’t because of how handsome you looked or because I could see how you felt about me. I just watched you while you were saying all of these incredibly charming things that were meant to sweep me off my feet and I saw something in your eyes. Somehow all your words suddenly meant something different. I knew that you needed me to acknowledge your Claim. That was why I agreed to sit beside you at dinner to find out if we were compatible. Before dessert, I knew that I was going to say yes. I cannot give you any better reasons than that.”

“My desperation. That was what you saw, Emilie.”

Emilie nodded. “Maybe, I don’t know. So, why did you choose me then? Was it just because I am guardian-class and you are level 5, so you formed that supposedly irresistible hormonal attraction? Was it that simple like all those fairy tales they read me as a little girl?”

“No. Perhaps the desperation came from that, but not my emotions. I’d actually forgotten about those stories. I remember my mother reading them. But no, Emilie, it had nothing to do with that. I just saw you smile and that was it. I was on the other side of the room and standing next to an Omega who was turning it on strong to attract Steve, so I couldn’t possibly have caught any scent from you, Emilie. It was just you.”

“My smile.”

Bucky’s laugh was hollow with misery. “Yep. Something I’ve nearly banished thanks to my absolutely s*** treatment of you.”

Emilie perched on the chair near the window where Bucky was still propped up as he watched her and asked, “Why did you start this conversation, Bucky? What has changed?”

“No one particular thing has changed, but I was forced to rethink some things.” Bucky laid his hand on her cheek and said sadly, “Something Barton said a few days ago made me really analyse and reconsider the last four years. I didn’t like what I saw.”

“If any of it was my fault, then I hope you will tell me. I would never want to hurt you, Bucky.”

Bucky stroked back her hair and said intently, “I know, my love. I do know that. I actually believe everything that you’ve tried to tell me.” He leant down to kiss her head and then said in a voice rough with emotion, “Once I came to realise that you meant it and that you’d always meant it, then it was like a revelation.”

“Oh, Bucky.”

He hesitated for a moment before he asked uneasily, “Can you still be happy with me, Emilie, now after everything I've put you through?”

Emilie tilted her head and stared at him for a moment before she answered, “Yes.”

“Can I make things right with you? I think that I can promise that I can and will control the jealousy.”

“Oh. Honestly?”

“Yes, although I cannot pretend that I’ll be perfect. I’m not always in complete control.”

She sighed. “I know.”

“But I am going to learn that. I do love you and my actions have not shown that. It has to change.”

“That would be wonderful, Bucky, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. How is anything going to change tangibly?”

Bucky laid his hand along her arm and lightly stroked it, as he said quietly, “Quite a lot. You have wanted friends and you’ve wanted to be able to do things outside of the house when I’m not there.   You should be allowed to go out of the tower with a friend.”

Frowning with uncertainty, Emilie asked, “You will let me go out without you?”

“Yes.  There was never any good reason for me to be so untrusting. I've just been paranoid about all of the worst case scenarios.  Here in the tower, we have security personnel that would travel with you. I think that, as long as you have a friend with you, it should be fine. I’m not sure that Clémence is sufficient company because she’s as silly as a new-born kitten. However, Barton’s wife is an acceptable companion if the two of you want to have a car take you somewhere safe. I trust that Stark’s drivers won’t take you somewhere unsafe, since both Barton and Romanova are deeply protective of Mrs Barton’s safety.”

“Thank you, Bucky.  That would be wonderful.  Ms Romanova is perhaps more protective than Mr Barton, you know. Ellie says that it was Ms Romanova who made the list of places where Mr Stark’s drivers could take her after Ms Romanova personally vetted every location herself. Mr Barton was willing to just let Ellie have a bodyguard and choose for herself where she went.”

“I’m not surprised about Romanova, since she’s nearly as paranoid as I have been. However, I don’t want you to repeat that about Barton to anyone else. It might give them the idea that Barton does not care for his bondmatch sufficiently.”

“Oh, no! I promise that wasn’t how I intended it. I know he cares for her.”

“More than that, my love. Barton is deeply in love with his bondmatch. In fact, probably as much as I am with you. That is why I listened to what he had to say.”

“Do you really think so?”

Bucky nodded firmly. “There isn’t any doubt. Barton would do anything for his match—without hesitation—which is why Romanova cares as much as she does. She is not the type of woman who bonds to anyone easily, Emilie. Somehow Barton was her exception and now his match is her sister. Surprisingly, Romanova seems to have truly bonded, too, which is what makes me realise that I should have allowed you that with Steve. I would like it if we could change the bond.”

Emilie asked uneasily, “It cannot though, can it?”

He hesitated before he replied slowly, “It can, actually. It is just extremely difficult unless the Alpha can perfectly control his scent.”

Clearly confused, Emilie responded, “But you can.”

“Yeah, well, I’m one of maybe 20 Alphas in the world who can.”

“Is it really that rare? I know that Mr Barton can, too. Ellie told me and now that I’ve said that, I remember that I wasn’t supposed to mention that, actually.”

Bucky muttered, “Cr**, really? And Barton isn’t even Enhanced. Emilie, baby, you must never tell anyone that Barton can scent at will. No one. You cannot imagine how important it is that no one know that information.”

“I won’t say anything. I know that I’m not supposed to talk about your abilities to outsiders, Bucky. I wouldn’t say anything about Steve or Mr Barton either.”

“Good. Good. Look, if Steve and I control our scent so we are producing bonding hormones, we should be able to shift the bond. Steve has read probably everything available on this and he thinks it can work.”

Emilie nervously asked, “Is it safe?”

“I have made bonding hormones for you on our bondmatch day every year, baby. You know it is safe.”

“I meant safe to try to shift the bond. It won’t damage our bondmatch or something if Steve is making his hormones, too, right? Because as nice as it would be to have a stronger family, Bucky, it is too important to keep my bondmatch to you stable.”

Bucky wrapped his arms around her and replied in a low, rumbling voice, “There is nothing that could break my bond to you.”

Emilie looked up at him and then, slowly, began to smile brightly and said, “Ok. Ok, If Clémence is willing, then I will do it.”

 

29 November 2017, Ste. 3800 B, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

Eleanor stared at the wall in front of her. She’d lost him. She had lost him. She had lost Clint all because she was so weak and stupid. Why hadn’t she been strong enough? Why was she so useless? Now he didn’t want her anymore. Who could even blame him? He couldn’t be proud of a match who was like her, could he? So now, he didn’t even want to kiss her, whereas he had been exceedingly physically demonstrative before he had left. She had assumed that he would be the same when he returned. Instead, he seemed almost uncomfortable in her presence.

She knew that she needed to hurry and get dressed. Natasha had been very clear when she expected Eleanor to be ready that morning. Eleanor was actually relieved that Clint would not be the one with her in therapy that morning. The joint part of the sessions was so much harder than the private portion. Whilst she was usually scared and embarrassed, Clint was always angry and frustrated. On the other hand, Natasha was cold and clinical: supportive but not emotional. That was far better than the quiet fury that Eleanor scented from Clint throughout any of their sessions.

Lately, Clint seemed to be angry about a great many things, actually. He and Natasha were often out of sorts with each other. She knew from Emilie that he and Bucky had come to blows briefly a week previously. Clint had argued jealously with Tony when he had sent Eleanor a beautiful new silk wrap to wear out on the balcony. Clint’s furious reaction had made her cry with embarrassment and worry, which had ridiculously led to a further argument with both Tony and Steve. Clint now had poor relations with nearly every member of his team, in fact, which was incredibly unlike him. Eleanor knew that Natasha was deeply concerned and his colleagues were fast losing patience.

But the worst of all was how he had reacted to her medical treatment, since it had such unpleasant ramifications for her. Clint had been utterly livid to discover that her night-time pill was a combination of Clonidine, Seroquel, and Buspar. He had insisted that Eleanor was being dangerously overmedicated and demanded to speak with the chief dispenser. That had, in turn led to a very uncomfortable appointment with her physician. When the physician had refused to change the prescription, Clint had immediately insisted that Eleanor be discharged from the physician’s client list.

Despite his recent arguments with Clint, Tony still seemed to want to retain his familial role as Eleanor’s terminal guardian, so he had convinced Clint to allow him to bring in a private physician that specialised in working with guardian-class Omegas. That physician had admitted that Eleanor was overmedicated, so he decided to change all of her meds immediately. So, over three days, she had been suddenly transitioned off Seroquel and Clonidine and onto a stronger dose of Buspar. Yet, after only two days, the drastic transition had proved horrific for Eleanor, who became so physically ill, as well as emotionally unstable and anxious that the physician diagnosed her with acute agonia and placed her on isolated bedrest.

Furthermore, she had recently overheard the physician telling Natasha that if Eleanor didn’t improve that there would be no choice but to admit her to treatment at Weill Cornell. She knew just what that would entail, which was almost terrifying enough to make Eleanor wish that she still had access to her pills so she could take the entire bottle. She had lost Clint’s interest, Natasha was severely disappointed, her reputation was likely permanently damaged by the shameful diagnosis of agonia, and now they were going to put her into formal treatment where they would force her to undergo electro-sedation. She could bear with the chloral drops at night. As much as she hated how they made her feel, she could even withstand the Thebacon tablets and Pantopon injections that they gave her for the pain after the electro-sedation. But the horror of the electro-sedation was enough to make her willing to do nearly anything not to go to treatment.

“Lenochka, are you ready?”

Putting down her hair brush rapidly, Eleanor replied mendaciously, “Oh. Yes, mostly.”

Natasha entered the room and stood at the doorway watching carefully. “The analyst will be here very soon. I will make you the special calming tea, alright?”

“Oh dear, the poppy one? May I please have the lavender one instead? I don’t really like the flavour of the poppy tea.”

“No. You know that the physician says to take this tea, Eleanor. Perhaps with honey it will be more pleasant.”

“Alright, Natalia. OK.” Eleanor looked at Natasha, who had carefully controlled her expression, and added nervously, “I am sorry that I was not ready before you came. I will hurry.”

Natasha’s mouth turned ever so slightly down, but she only replied, “We have sufficient time still. Are you hungry?”

“No. Thank you. I ate breakfast.”

Natasha pointedly looked at her, but did not say anything.

“I ate some of it. My appetite is just odd right now. I am sure that it will come back once my medication is stabilised again.”

“I certainly hope so. You were very slender to begin with, Lenochka, but now you are worryingly small.”

Eleanor looked down at herself and asked, “I suppose that I am. He says that I look sick.”

Her only tell regarding her emotions was a slow blink, after which Natasha asked, “Who did, sestrenka?”

“Clint. He doesn’t like the way that I look now.”

Natasha allowed her expression to demonstrate just how puzzled she was, as she replied, “That is not in the least bit true, Eleanor. Why would you think that?”

“He said that I am sickly looking. He even looks away or leaves the room immediately when I am changing. I know that isn’t the main reason why he avoids me, but it is clear to me that he doesn’t like how I look now that I am broken.”

Natasha’s breathing sped up noticeably, as she watched Eleanor for a moment. Then she asked, “Why do you feel that you are broken, Lenochka? Is this your opinion?”

“It is everyone’s opinion. Clint is embarrassed by me. I am not allowed to see Emilie or Clémence right now. Their matches do not want them to be affected by my troubles, I am sure. Tony just sat there and looked sad when Clint allowed him to visit that once and he didn’t come back. You have been disappointed and frustrated every time that you come. However, it is outside of my control how long my body takes to adjust to the latest medication regime, so I am stuck.”

Natasha closed her eyes for a brief moment as she muttered, ‘Говно! Дорогая маленькая сестренка, я боялась, что ты так себя чувствуешь.’ She then breathed out slowly, as she replied, “You are not supposed to have visitors, Eleanor, since the physician wants you calm and rested. That is why Rogers and Barnes have not allowed their matches to visit and why Clint refused Tony permission to return. Both of your friends have asked repeatedly if they might come, as they miss you.”

Eleanor turned away and picked up several bracelets, which she slid on while she replied, “Having to lay in bed all day for weeks makes me feel like I am in a trap—it is not calming, Natalia.”

She kept her back towards Natasha, as she put on the Elizabeth Locke earrings that Clint had given her before his latest mission. Natasha had noticed that she had yet to wear any other pair, since his return. The bracelets were all gifts from Clint, too, including the heavy gold Roberto Coin bangle which Eleanor had only worn once before Clint’s extended mission, since it was so large on her tiny wrist that it slid off almost constantly. As she waited for Eleanor to select a necklace, Natasha watched and saw that…yes, Eleanor was sending a subtle message to Clint that, sadly, he would never notice. Eleanor had very strong opinions on accessories and usually refused to wear anything that was silvery looking unless told to, since she had been educated in the Byzantine school and, in that tradition, jewels in a silver metal tone meant an Omega was unmatched. Yet, the platinum diamond and ruby pendant that Clint had brought back from Myanmar was the one for which Eleanor had reached. Natasha gripped her hands at her side and wondered what it would take to get through to Clint, short of breaking her word to Eleanor.

Eleanor had continued explaining, but Natasha had not been fully listening. She turned her attention back to Eleanor and heard, “…so I got in trouble since I hadn’t understood that Clint only wanted me to do that when someone was there. He barely looked me in the eye when he told me that he didn’t understand why I was sabotaging my health. He thinks that I don’t want to get better.”

Herself uncertain of the answer, Natasha asked, “Do you?”

“Yes. Yes, of course, I do. I know that I should have made a different choice and not returned to the autolavoma again. I truly don’t feel the need to do it again right now. I haven’t done anything since the day that you found the sewing needles in my pocket. I cannot go back and undo the past though. Therefore, now Clint is so disgusted with me that he doesn’t even like me anymore, but I cannot do anything about it.”

Natasha grimly replied, “Lenochka, мой маленький соловей, Clint is desperate to help you. He would do anything to make you better.”

Eleanor sat down on her vanity chair and reached for her stockings, which she began to slowly pull over her too thin legs. “I know, because he is a good person. Even though I embarrass him, he isn’t turning his back on me.”

Natasha shook her head. “Clint does not feel embarrassed by you, sestrenka. He is terrified that you are going to harm yourself, as am I. We want you to get better, Lenochka.”

Eleanor did not reply for a moment, as she finished pulling on her second stocking and then stood up to reach for her shoes. Finally, as she shoved her foot into one of the many pairs of pointed Valentino flats that she strongly favoured, Eleanor braved an answer. “No, I don’t think so, Natashenka. Clint doesn’t even want to hold my hand any longer. I finally wore that purple Oscar de la Renta gown that you and I ordered for me when he was gone. The one you said he would lose his mind when he saw, you remember? He stared at me for a minute and then didn’t say a word before he went to go down to the range. He often waits until I am asleep to come to bed. He avoids me as much as he can, honestly. I understand that I’m hopeless at some things, but I want to be better and I think that I could, if I just knew what I was supposed to do.”

At that moment, there was a buzz from the doorbell, so Natasha said cautiously, “Sestrenka, I think that we need to talk this over during our session today. I did not understand that you were feeling this way. Will you finish getting dressed so that I can get the door?”

“Yes, of course. I’m sorry that I wasn’t ready. I’ll hurry.”

Eleanor rushed over the closet and pulled out her favourite dark pink Lanvin dress and corresponding pink and cream Loro Piana wrap. As she tugged the dress over her head, she heard Natasha’s voice whilst she talked to the analyst. Eleanor wondered just what Natasha was telling the analyst. Whatever it was, they would all talk about it in a few moments.

As soon as she had checked her hair in the mirror and wiped a bit of extra powder off her cheek, Eleanor hurried out into the corridor that led to the sitting room. Yet, she immediately froze because she heard Clint’s voice. He wasn’t supposed to be there! Why had he come?

Eleanor leant against the wall and listened as Natasha replied at length to whatever Clint had said. The tone of Natasha’s rapid Russian was very angry, which surprised her. Was Natasha telling Clint what she had said? Was she that angry with her?

Clint’s voice was nearly a growl it was so low when he responded. She thought it was a very good thing that she could not understand Russian yet, since whatever Clint had said must have been very unpleasant. Did he dislike her that much now that he would respond so angrily to Natasha’s report about their conversation?

It was time to go out there or one of them would come to find her. She didn’t need to inflame things by making them angry by being late. Eleanor inched her way down the corridor, so she was finally standing at the doorway to the sitting room and peeking in.

Clint’s body language nearly screamed pain and aggression, while both he and Natasha were scenting heavily. It was nearly enough to make Eleanor run back to the bedroom. However, Clint stopped in the middle of furiously snarling something at Natasha and turned rapidly. As soon as he saw Eleanor gripping the doorway and watching them, he crossed the floor so he was standing in front of her. He said only, “It’s ok, baby.” Then he wrapped both arms around her tightly.

The relief that flooded through her was almost enough to make her knees collapse. Eleanor clung onto the front of his shirt as he hugged her and spoke into her hair, “It is going to be ok, Ellie.”

Somehow, a few moments later, she found herself on the sofa with a blanket wrapped over her legs and Clint on her right with his arm tightly wrapped around her, which was enough out of character to confuse her. But even more startling was that Natasha had sat down on her left and taken Eleanor’s left hand in her own. She had not been treated that way since before her mistake. The temporary reprieve was so incredibly comforting that Eleanor sighed and looked across at Dr Swanson. Perhaps this session would be different.

 

29 November 2017, Grounds Outside Prince Thor’s Pavilion, Someplace Else

 

The autumn rains of Vanaheim swirling around him and whipping his hair around wildly, Thor stood over the shrouded body of his brother, gripping Loki’s sword in his hand.

“He fought bravely, your highness.”

“I know. He was always brave. Always an incredible fighter. I cannot comprehend this loss, Fandral. My brother.”

Fandral nodded. “This is a great loss for Asgard and our cause.”

Sif spoke quietly from the other side of Volstagg, who was supporting Thor. “My lord, your own wound badly needs dressing.”

“The body must have a guard of honour.”

Fandral and Hogun each bowed. Hogun gravely replied, “We shall both keep guard, my lord.”

Volstagg asked carefully, “Will you allow us to bear you to the healers now, your highness?”

Thor shook his head and stared down at Loki’s body, which was pale despite the blue skin of his natural form. He looked up and caught Sif’s expression. He frowned and looked away with a shuddering gasp. “Very well, Volstagg, help me to the healers.”

Sif walked over and moved to help Volstagg support Thor, but as soon as she touched his arm, Thor quietly said, “Lady Sif, you must take yourself to the tents for your own wound to be attended.”

A look of betrayal slipped across her face momentarily, but Sif then bowed her head briefly as she replied tightly, “Very well, your highness. You are gracious to consider my health.”

“Dear lady, the health of all four of you is of the gravest import to me. Always, I would have you well-tended, my lady Sif.”

Sif nodded and then bowed again before leaving.

Volstagg nearly carried Thor, as they slowly limped towards the healer’s tent. After several minutes, Volstagg commented, “She thinks well of you, my lord.”

Thor sighed harshly and turned his head in the direction that Sif had gone. “And I of her, Volstagg, but now is not the time for handfasting and feasts, friend.”

“Is it not? There has been little joy amongst our peoples ere this battle began.”

 

29 November 2017, Royal Pavilion, Hörfa Konungsins, Vanaheim

 

Loki shrugged away Thor’s grip on his shoulder and said dourly, “I will be fine, Thor. I got away clean. The best news of all is that Jotunheim has a new king.”

Thor stood with a grim expression on his face and replied, “I find no joy in that news, brother. You had a knife in your gut due to jötunn treachery, Loki.”

“As I said, I will be fine. Our healers are more than up to the task of treating this wound, Thor. I am relieved that my half-brother, Hailstrum, is now king of Jotunheim, not Bjorgolf, who is openly hostile towards Asgard.”

“And why should I trust that Hailstrum would not betray us like Grundroth?”

Loki sighed. “Truthfully, Thor, I rather liked Grundroth. I was quite surprised that he chose to attempt to steal the Casket before our alliance was completed. I don’t like Hailstrum, but perhaps him being blood kin to me will prove helpful to us. That and the fact that I required him to take a blood oath over his son. That might help even more, truthfully.”

“Loki!”

“It is the jötnar way, Thor. Or don’t you remember?”

“I do. You know that I do. That is how Laufey’s life was forfeit. Yet, we used trickery in crafting that oath, Loki, therefore I have long felt discomfort when I remember the circumstances. We knew that Laufey did not know that you are his first son, when he made me the promise over his eldest-born’s head. I do not like our deceit in this matter and I fear Hailstrum will avail himself of this chance for vengeance.”

“True, and he may well choose that despite the fact that it would doom his people. Jötnar have long, bitter memories, as you know perfectly well. Furthermore, it says much about Hailstrum that Laufey felt he would have allowed his father to betray an oath, Thor. I may be a trickster and a liar, but I have never broken an oath.”

Thor nodded sententiously. “I know. You are not faithless, Loki. Your mother was clearly a giantess of calibre.”

“I wouldn’t know. She died when I was born, seemingly. And my size proves to other jötnar that her blood was inferior. Nevertheless, Hailstrum knows that I could take the throne by rights, so he needs to tread carefully.”

Thor made a sceptical face. “Or he may choose to thrust a blade in your belly like Grundroth did.”

“Yes, he might. Or I may revenge myself on Hailstrum for Grundroth’s betrayal. He and I are both jötnar, after all. Thor, we still have the alliance. We still have the Casket. Your mighty battalion of Valkyries are holding the lines in Vanaheim. It is going well.”

“I hope so, Loki. I certainly hope so.”

Loki asked in a slightly teasing tone, “Has the Queen not come to visit in too long, brother? You look particularly careworn.”

Thor sighed. “Sif is busy with the cares of home. Magni is teething, so he sleeps ill. The citadel is rebuilding too slowly, so she must see to that. Also, Braggi and Tyr have been at odds, so Sif has needed to mediate. I fear that I shall not see her for some time yet.”

Loki smirked briefly and then replied sympathetically, “Your temper suffers greatly when the Queen is away too long. Perhaps a short visit could be arranged.”

“I have already requested her presence twice and twice she has regretfully postponed because of her responsibilities on Asgard. I am loath to command it.”

Now Loki’s smirk settled openly into place. “Are you king or not, Thor?”

Thor’s anger was immediate. “Do you question my ability to rule in my own home, brother?”

“I am merely surprised that you allow your queen to dictate her schedule to you once you have requested her presence on Vanaheim.”

“My queen is a strong woman, which is why I can trust her to act as my viceroy on Asgard. Yet, she knows which of us is the king, Loki.”

“As you say, brother. I am sure you know best.”

Thor stalked out of the room, shouting angrily, “Eindride! Eindride, where is the courier? I must have a letter taken to Asgard!”

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

 

29 November 1017, Ste. 3800 B, Avengers Tower, New York City

“Good morning, Mrs Barton. It seems like we might make a few changes to our usual procedure for today’s session. Are you comfortable having both your match and your bonded sister here?”

Eleanor blinked as she heard Dr Swanson’s description of Natasha as her bonded sister. No one other than she and Natasha had ever referred to Natasha as her sister. It was, strangely, validating to hear the relationship publicly acknowledged. “Yes, I am.”

“Very well. I am pleased to finally have a session with your entire family, Mrs Barton. I think that this could be quite beneficial for each of you. It is my belief that communication has been a primary issue, so we may benefit strongly from all three of you being given the opportunity to speak to each other, instead of just as pairs.”

Clint grunted sceptically, but Natasha replied, “I agree, Dr Swanson.”

“Very well. I suspect that you might not feel comfortable discussing the confrontation that I just witnessed, yet I also feel that what you were discussing, Ms Romanova and Mr Barton, was very likely at the heart of our chief concern.”

Clint removed his arm from around Eleanor, causing her to immediately look up in alarm at him. However, he did not notice because he was intent on staring down the analyst. “That was private.”

“Mr Barton, much of what we must discuss in therapy, by its very nature, is private. This is why there are strict expectations of confidentiality for licensed analysts regardless of the designation or gender of the patient or the analyst. In the case of a matched Omega, I cannot share what is discussed with anyone, not even with a physician, unless I have the express, written approval of the Alpha match.”

Natasha leant forwards so she could catch Clint’s eye. “Yastreb, we need to do this.”

Clint crossed his arms over his chest and said gruffly, “I know, Ubiytsatchka.”

“Are you willing to share what you and Ms Romanova were discussing, Mr Barton?”

“Not particularly.”

Eleanor looked up at Clint and asked desperately, “Please?”

Startled, he looked down at her for a moment, then dropped his aggression and said quietly, “It isn’t nice, baby. Are you sure you want to talk about it?”

“Yes, because I need to know what is really going on. I would rather know the truth, even if it is terrible, than continue dreaming up awful scenarios.”

Clint looked over at Natasha, who nodded acquiescence. “We were discussing your emotional state, Ellie. You told Natasha that you are broken.”

Dr Swanson turned to Eleanor. “Would you describe yourself as broken, Mrs Barton?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Would you be willing to explain why you feel that way?”

“Must I?” Eleanor looked at Clint and then Natasha before she sighed. Then she dropped her head and tried to keep her posture as she had been taught, but inadvertently curled inwards as she began talking. “Well, everyone thinks so, right? I messed up when I was on the old medication, so they changed it to the new one. But making the change has made me worse, so now I’m not allowed to do anything because the physician wants me to rest. I’m not permitted to have visitors, since it might stress me. My match usually comes in after I’ve gone to sleep, so some days I haven’t seen anyone except for Nadezhda, who delivers my meals and sits with me for an hour at teatime. In fact, until just now, it has been four days since anyone has even touched me. I think that I must be awfully broken if people think that I am so fragile that I cannot bear people interacting with me. I can see that my family is so disappointed in me that they stay away.” When there was no reply, Eleanor looked up again and asked uneasily, “If broken is the wrong word, then maybe I should say deficient. Would that be better?”

Clint exclaimed, “F***.” However, Natasha asked him, “Собираетесь ли ты объяснить или я?”

Dr Swanson frowned. “Please refrain from speaking in any language that everyone here cannot understand.”

Clint growled, “Fine.” After a moment in which he glared across at the analyst, Clint finally huffed angrily and said, “Natasha was asking if I was going to cowboy up and explain or if she was going to have to do it. At your request, I will reply in English, Dr Swanson: I’ll do it, Nata. She’s my match, not yours, and I’m not a child that needs prompting. S***.” Clint rested his elbows on his knees and dropped his face into his hands. “Eleanor, I have f***ed up so bad that I don’t even know where to begin. I trusted the doctor we got for you that complete rest and quiet was crucial for you to heal. He was insistent that I not allow any visitors and that you do nothing but rest calmly in a safe environment. He told both me and Nat that your nerves were too fragile for anything else right now while your body was getting used to the change in meds.”

Natasha added hostilely, “And I have been opposed to the isolation policy, Clint.”

“Yeah, I know. You have said so repeatedly. However, I figured that a doctor is supposed to know this s***, isn’t he?”

The analyst asked Eleanor, “Mrs Barton, does it affect your view any to know that your family was acting on the physician’s orders?”

“No, ma’am. The physician has determined that I am incapable of doing anything but resting because I am weak. I think that is just what I was trying to explain before. It is simply everyone’s opinion that I am too broken to do anything, so I didn’t mean to say anything surprising. I have overheard the physician talking to Natalia twice about how poor my prospects are.”

“Ms Romanova, has Mrs Barton’s physician spoken to you about this?”

Natasha looked at Eleanor and replied with intensity, “Yes, the physician has said that Eleanor needs rest to adjust to the different medications and he recommended that all unnecessary stimuli be kept to a minimum, even when I suggested that this exact policy was causing more distress instead of soothing her. However, he never stated that my sister was weak or useless or broken or else I would have immediately fixed his face for him.”

Clint stood up with a jolt and agitatedly paced across the floor of the room. “So, I’ve been making you feel worse, Eleanor. Essentially, I’ve just made everything completely s*** for you.”

Eleanor dropped her head again and stared down at the ground. There was too much aggression in the air and she could feel both Natasha and Clint warring with each other. There was even a third layer of scent that she was sensing, which didn’t even make sense. What was that about? She was losing her mind. “No, please. Please, it is not your fault. I am the one who made the mistake, Clint.”

Eleanor could sense Natasha’s anger growing and pleaded with her eyes for Natasha not to attack Clint. As she heard Clint talking, Eleanor was still focussing on Natasha and watching with relief as Natasha indicated with a single nod that she would back down.

“What mistake, baby? I went away for too long, so you were unhappy. When you were chastised for a situation out of your control after that party, I should have fixed that right away. But I didn’t, which is my error, not yours. We didn’t give you any way to resolve how you were feeling in a healthy way, so you resorted to this maladaptive behaviour that you knew.”

Eleanor replied so quietly that it was only just above a whisper, “I knew not to do it. They taught me that in treatment. Relapsing into autolavoma is unacceptable.”

Clint shook his head. “You are not deficient or weak. I do not think that. I do not think you are broken, baby. Not at all. I will not pretend that I’m not terrified to know that my match is harming herself when I would do literally anything to keep her from being hurt. I am angry that I cannot fix it and that, apparently, I’m just incapable of being able to make you happy. That is not your fault though, Ellie. That is ALL on me.”

Eleanor looked away from him and kept her eyes from focussing on either Natasha or the analyst, who she had finally realised was producing the third layer of scent. Why was Dr Swanson so upset? Eleanor had no idea what she was supposed to say or do.

“Mrs Barton, do you have anything to say in reply?”

Oh. The analyst was not upset with her after all. Her feelings were directed towards Clint. However, Eleanor didn’t want Dr Swanson to misunderstand and blame him. He hadn’t done anything wrong. “No, ma’am. I don’t know what to say to that. I am not harming myself any longer, nor do I have the desire to. Unfortunately, my mistake then is still costing me dearly now. Yet it is still my error and no one else’s.”

Breaking her silence after an apologetic look at Eleanor, Natasha snapped, “I have opposed this isolation from the beginning, as my brother is quite aware. I have no doubt that there are Omegas for whom a short rest cure is beneficial, however, my sister thrives on personal contact and affection. Instead of a soothing respite, this has been a punishment and I think that it has harmed her significantly.”

Eleanor looked briefly over at Natasha and then allowed herself to peek at Clint. His jaw was tightly clenched as he glared at Natasha. She could sense that he was barely controlling himself. In fact, Eleanor thought that it was only her presence and her purposeful exuding of the appeasement hormone that was keeping him from attacking Natasha, who looked quite willing to engage with him. There was a long pause whilst both Natasha and Clint stared each other down—Natasha’s intense aggression was shocking to Eleanor, who had never seen Natasha’s veneer of control peeled back so completely. Clint let out a low growling sound, to which Natasha replied with hissing fury, “Enough.”

Just as Eleanor realised that she might actually be about to witness an Alpha confrontation, she saw Clint’s shoulders drop slightly and his scent reduce dramatically. Recognising his intent to yield, Eleanor looked hopefully at Natasha to see if she was going to accept his capitulation. Yet, Natasha appeared unwilling to give in—her body was very tensely poised as if she were going to strike Clint down. “Explain everything, Clinton.”

Finally, Clint nodded, which caused Natasha to change her stance and drop her challenge by turning away towards Eleanor. She laid her hand on Eleanor’s head and said in a rough, angry voice, “This was never your fault, Lenochka. It was our job to guide you and we failed. It was my mistake, too. I need you to listen to what Clint says, do you understand?”

Bewildered and frightened, Eleanor nodded. “Yes, Natashenka.”

Clint waited for Natasha to sit back down, then he turned to the analyst, who was nearly frozen in her chair so as to remain neutral in the confrontation. “Sorry. That shouldn’t have happened.”

The analyst nodded sharply, but replied tersely, “I will not allow an Alpha confrontation in my session, Mr Barton. This will not be repeated.”

“I sincerely apologise, ma’am.”

“You, as well, Ms Romanova. This is entirely unacceptable behaviour, especially in front of your Omega sister.”

Natasha glared at the analyst, but replied properly, “You are correct. It will not happen again.”

Dr Swanson cleared her throat and asked more gently, “Mrs Barton, would you prefer to take a short break? If you would like, we can reconvene in a short while. Or we could end our session early if that would be better for you.”

Eleanor shook her head. “No, ma’am. I think that we still need to discuss things, don’t we? Natalia feels that it is important and I think that Clint has something to say, so I would prefer to continue, if that is alright.”

Clint sighed. “Baby, we can talk later. I’m not going to run away from this conversation. Nat is right that it is important.”

Dr Swanson frowned. “The choice to continue is Mrs Barton’s, not yours, Mr Barton. Please refrain from influencing her unduly. She has clearly stated her desire to continue.”

“Right, ok. I can see that you are quite determined to be fair here, Dr Swanson. As a male Alpha, I naturally only want to control my match, not protect her and comfort her in a difficult situation.” Clint’s sarcasm was so nasty and bitter that Eleanor peered at him with surprise. He looked down just then and saw her expression, which caused him to deflate noticeably. “I swear, baby, you weren’t being punished. I would never do that, Ellie. All I wanted was to make you better. I promise you that I was following the doctor’s advice because I trusted him. I don’t know anything about this kind of thing, ok? I am just a dude who dropped out of school, who now shoots people with arrows. Everything the doctor said made sense when he explained it, even though it seemed weird when I thought about it later. However, I figured, f***, this guy is supposed to be a specialist, so he ought to know what he was doing. I sure as s*** don’t. I know that your designation means that you have very different needs, so I tried not to assume anything based on my own experience. But I never talked to you about what the doctor said though, did I? I should have, so you understood why we were doing that. I really should have asked you how you were feeling, too.”

Eleanor said only, “Ok.”

“I f***ed up, Ellie, ok? I swear that I want to do better and figure out what you really need.”

Eleanor nodded and then looked back down at her lap where her hands were fiddling furiously with her shawl.

Clint came forwards and laid his hand on her cheek and he said more gently than before, “It was not a punishment. I did see that you were unhappy, but I truly believed that was the agonia stuff, like the doctor said, ok? Baby, I have hated having to tell you no every time you wanted to do something. However, the doctor seemed to think that you would not be able to stabilise your nerves from the agonia or whatever if you had any significant emotional stimulation. He insisted on complete calm.”

“But she hasn’t been calm, Clint!” Natasha snarled. “She’s been anxious and miserable because she was shut away like a bird in a cage. You and I both know what being caged feels like.”

Clint stepped back as if he’d been kicked in the gut. After several moments in which they traded looks that were clearly a severe, yet entirely silent conversation, Clint said furiously, “Yes, thank you, Natalia Alianova. I’ve f***ed everything up. I’ve already admitted that, but if it needs to be said again then I will. I. F***ED. UP. Ok? I was trying to do what they said was best, but I’ve just made it all worse. It is my fault and I accept the blame. So, what do we do now to make it better?”

Both Natasha and Clint looked towards Eleanor, who immediately shrank back into the cushions of the sofa.

“Ms Romanova, Mr Barton. I think that now is the time for the private portion of our session. It would be best to talk to Mrs Barton alone so she and I can explore some thoughts. After that, we can return to a joint session. I think that the situation today is critical enough that we need to address some of this immediately, even though our time will run much longer than usual.”

Natasha stood back up, stared at Clint, and said sharply, “I agree.”

“Yeah, whatever we need to do. I’m ready to do anything, ok? I just don’t know what needs to be done.”

Eleanor waited for a moment, until she realised that they were expecting her to reply. “Oh, ok, that is fine. However, before we do that, could I speak to my match for a moment? Just for a really brief moment, please?”

Dr Swanson smiled tightly and said, “Of course. Ms Romanova and I will step outside to give you privacy.”

As soon as the front door of the apartment closed, leaving her alone in silence with Clint, Eleanor stood up and walked over to him. “It really isn’t your fault, Clint. I disappointed you by doing something stupid and you don’t have to apologise for feeling let down. I did let you down.”

“Baby, I don’t see it like that. I don’t. All I want is for you to feel better and for us to get to a good place. I miss you so much that the ache of it burns at me constantly. I love you so much, Ellie.”

She choked down a sob, as she asked, “Why do you stay away then?”

Clint frowned. “When I first came back, I did not want to push myself on you, since you were already unhappy enough. I thought we’d just ease back into being back together. But then the doctor told me that I needed to leave you alone so you could heal. He suggested that you should be allowed your own room, but I could not bring myself to go that far unless you asked for it. So, I came in after you went to sleep, so you wouldn’t be bothered.”

“Didn’t you think that I might miss you, too?”

Clint seemed both embarrassed and hurt as he replied, “I…yes, but not like that. Not like…not the same way, baby.”

“Why not?”

“It isn’t the same for you as it is for me, Eleanor. You know that.”

“Because I am an Omega? I suppose you are right. We exhibit our emotions differently, but we feel them just the same. I have felt horrible and disgusting, since you even look away from me when I’m brushing my hair. You said that I look sick and you think that I’m sabotaging my health.”

“No! Baby, please don’t say that. F***. You are so beautiful, so perfect, that I have had to force myself to look away or leave the room just so I won’t lose control of myself and bother you when I’m supposed to be letting you be free of that. I know that I am a disaster, but I’m not going to put that on you. Baby, I swear that I don’t want anything more than I do you.”

“It hasn’t seemed like it, Clint.”

“Then let me be clear right now. I am in love with you. I am wildly attracted to you. I am so wholly caught up in you, Ellie, that I would do anything to make things right for you. Anything. I have followed bad advice and made stupid assumptions and choices partly out of bitterness and anger, but my intentions were always to help you and never to punish you. I don’t think that you have anything for which to apologise.”

“Okay, thank you. I suppose that I should talk with Dr Swanson now.”

“You still believe that I don’t want you anymore, don’t you?”

“I don’t think that you are a liar, Clint.”

“No, but you’ve been so convinced that you are not worth anything anymore that you can’t see any other view.”

“I am sorry. I do believe that you mean what you say.”

“What happened, Ellie? Did you feel this way about yourself from the very beginning?”

She looked away fearfully. “Please, must I answer you now? They are waiting for us.”

In response, Clint stalked over to the front door and walked out into the corridor.

 

29 November 2017, Unregistered Campsite, Someplace Else

 

Barnes flopped back into his camp chair and growled, “You know how I feel about Canada, Steve.”

Rogers smiled indulgently as he replied, “Yeah, I know, Buck.”

“And we aren’t just in Canada, Steven, we are in Labrador. In November, so it is actually 21 degrees outside and snowing.”

Looking pointedly at Barnes’ Russian language comic book and his pile of (Russian made) winter gear, Rogers shrugged. “Gee whiz, Comrade Cupcake, you getting soft in your old age? You can’t handle a bit of snow all of a sudden? I thought you trained daily in 10 feet of snow and walked uphill both ways in a blizzard when you were living in Mother Russia.”

His eyes sparkling as he snorted with amusement, Barnes kept a straight face as he replied, “Aw f*** you, Captain Capitalist. I can take a few measly feet of snow if I gotta, but why bother if you can go somewhere else? We could be waiting it out in the d*mn Virgin Islands or somewhere like that. Why Canada of all cultural wastelands?”

“Jumpin’ Jehosophat, Bucky, you’re right! Why did I choose here? I’m not sure their local theatre is up to my standards and I just know that their art scene is lacking. I suppose the fact that no one would look for us in Goose Bay was a pretty stupid reason to come here.”

Barnes leant back and closed his eyes as he smiled dreamily and said, “Honestly, no one would look for the Winter Soldier on a beach either, buddy.”

“True, but if we were lazing around on a beach somewhere, you couldn’t wear those nice black gloves you’ve got. Or sport that stylish black parka. Or your nifty black balaclava. Or those shiny black winter boots you’ve brought. You might have to wear some d*** colour or somethin’. Aren’t you glad I saved you from that horrible fate?”

“Always got an answer for something, pal.”

Rogers elbowed his best friend and replied, “You got that right, Buck. If I didn’t, you’d run roughshod right over me.”

Barnes barely moved as he lazily drawled, “I’ve got news for you, Steven. You’re not the boss in this relationship.”

Wilson’s laughter grew lounder, causing Barnes to lift one finger in reply. Rogers kicked Barnes’ boot and said with a smirk, “Neener, neener, Buck.”

Now even Romanoff laughed, so they all relaxed somewhat as they sat quietly for some time, staring into the fire in front of them. They were all exhausted, as they’d taken three missions back to back. But now, as their run as vigilantes was coming to a close, each of them seemed to drift into thought about the next few weeks.

Finally, Wilson asked, “So, am I gonna be arrested when we get there or how’s this going to work?”

“I don’t know yet, Sam. I’ve talked to Maria again. She thinks that she can probably get us over the border next week.”

Barnes held his hand out and waited until Rogers sighed and handed him the bottle of raki. “When you go into the town to get supplies tomorrow, Wilson, then you better get a couple of bottles if we’re gonna be here that long.”

Wilson threw a stick into the fire angrily. ”Hey, I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb here, you know. I may be the most normal looking of all of us, but this is Canada, man. I do not look like a local.”

Romanoff tossed back the remaining portion of the raki and sharply added, “At least you don’t look like a giant killer Ken doll, a vicious baby-killing cyborg, or me. We stand out far more, Wilson.”

Barnes leaned back and closed his eyes again as took a sip out of the flask he’d just refilled. “Don’t tell the man stories, Romanova. You and I can both do unobtrusive if we want. We just don’t wanna. I’m going to sleep.”

Rogers kicked Barnes’ boot to acknowledge his friend’s comment and then muttered to Romanoff, “A giant killer Ken doll, Nat? I’m only two inches taller than Buck, you know. And he’s just as broad as I am.”

Romanoff patted his knee and said quietly, “Barnes is thick with muscles. You’re sculpted. There’s a difference. No one misses you coming, Steve. You couldn’t do undercover work even if you had a year of study under Prepodavatel’ Sheremeteva.”

Barnes grunted. “Steve isn’t meant for that kind of thing. If anyone has to do that, then you and I will. I’m serious; I need sleep.”

Even Romanoff respected the threat behind that statement, so she snatched the Major Grom comic that had slid out of Barnes’ lap onto the ground and settled back to read it with Rogers’ arm around her shoulders.

 

29 November 2017, Small House Near Suhar, Oman

 

Steve sighed. “Sounds like things are pretty bad with them, Tony.”

“Mm. They are. Barton has f***ed things up royally.”

“If she has agonia, then it isn’t really his fault though. You can’t just blame Clint for everything, Tony.”

Tony dropped his feet off the table, which was covered with the remains of dinner, several devices on which Tony had previously been obsessively working, and four guns that Steve had been methodically cleaning. “No. F*** that. Ellie doesn’t have agonia. The physician that I found is apparently a s***head. I don’t believe she has agonia anymore than your match does. Ellie was sad that Barton was gone. She was worried about something Romanova did—that neither Barton or Romanova will explain by the way. Then something else that is apparently a state secret happened that scared both of our assassin twins and all of a sudden Barton grabs the first flight out of Doha back to New York. Subsequently, the physician f***ed around with Ellie’s medications, after which she was so miserable that she could barely sit up in the bed when I visited. Tell me how you would feel if you were forced to stay in bed all day for a month, Steve?”

“I’d probably end up being admitted to a psychiatric facility, honestly.”

“Exactly. Barton, Romanova, and the physician have created this supposed agonia by making mistake after mistake with Ellie. Last week, I started my attorneys looking into this physician. Looks like he’s deep in the OPS’s pocket. I don’t know what the OPS’s angle is here, but it is clear to me that there is one. Therefore, I found another physician who has no puppet master that JARVIS can discover. Also, I had my people draw up the paperwork to have this d***head removed from the Omega Health Physician’s Association for a purposefully false diagnosis. But we cannot do anything until Barton comes around and the new physician concurs with what we think happened. When we talked yesterday, Romanova was in agreement.”

Steve stood up and looked over at Sam, who was sleeping soundly. “You think that they would actually try to purposefully cause Eleanor to have agonia?”

“Frankly, yes. The Avengers made them look bad. As soon as they realised that an unmatched, North Shore-educated AAA was without a proper guardian, the OPS started offering her to interested families sight unseen. Apparently, the mayor was already in talks with the head of OPS New York to bondmatch his oldest son to Eleanor when the social worker reported that Eleanor had acknowledged Clint’s claim. A lot of money was going to change hands and powerful connexions would have been formed. They want to make an example of both Eleanor and Clint and, if possible, all of us.”

Steve dropped his head into his hands and groaned. “Just when I let myself believe that maybe, just maybe, the government isn’t as bad as I think, then I’m offered proof that they are worse. Everything went so well with my bondmatch to Clémence that I had begun to hope that Eleanor’s situation was an aberration.”

“Nope. In fact, the OPS has both Emilie Barnes and your Clémence under close scrutiny.”

Jolting up from his seat, Steve clenched his fists and snarled, “If they so much as consider touching a hair on her head, then I will gut them with my bare hands.”

Standing in the doorway to the kitchen with his rifle still gripped in one hand, Bucky calmly commented, “Hey, now. You don’t want to go ripping out entrails barehanded, Steve. You cannot imagine the mess that would make. Much easier to shoot them in the head, pop them in the bathtub, and then we’ll pour in some суп из щелочи.”

Tony grimaced. “I have no idea what zup iz shel-whatever is, Barnes, but I suspect it is very nasty and I want no part of it. No one is going to touch your Clémence, Steve.”

Undeterred from his fury, Steve snarled, “I know they won’t, since I will put them down before they can try.”

Bucky moved closer to Steve and put his hand on Steve’s arm. “We’ll stand together, Steve, don’t worry. You and me. Clémence is as safe as my Emilie. Can we calm back down now, pal? You’re scaring the purported iron man over here.”

Tony glared at Bucky, but was obviously relieved when Steve sat back down with Bucky by his side. “The security in the tower is four levels deep, Steve, in addition to whatever you and the cyborg here have added in your respective apartments. No one is getting to any of the ladies. I may not have a match of my own, but I am a f***ing Alpha and you are my team. Team is family.”

Bucky tilted his head back and nodded in the nearly archaic sign of Alpha respect towards Tony and said only, “Уважение.”

Pleased, Tony smirked and lounged back as he waited for Steve’s response. Yet Steve was still clearly unstable, as he slumped in his chair and looked at Bucky. “I didn’t even get six weeks with her.”

Bucky grunted and knocked his shoulder into Steve’s side again. “She’s completely loyal. The bondmatch will do fine.”

“Yeah. Yeah. I know you’re right, Buck.”

“So, let’s dial it back and maybe get some sleep. Sound good?”

“Fine. Yeah. No, wait. Tt is only the middle of the afternoon there, right? I could call.”

Bucky laughed. “Yeah, you sure could.” He fished the sat phone out of his tac vest and passed it to Steve. “I just talked to Emilie. They are playing Cartouche in my apartment.”

“That’s good. It sounds like she is doing ok. Maybe I shouldn’t interrupt.”

“Don’t pretend that you’re an idiot, Steve.”

Steve grabbed the weapon that Bucky was handing him and stalked out of the room, so he could make the call.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

 

29 November 2017, Small House Near Suhar, Oman

 

As he dialled the number and began opening all the locks on the front door, Steve heard Tony call out, “At least walk further away from the house, will you, Romeo? We heard every word last time.”

Steve gestured rudely behind his head and then slammed the door behind him. As soon as he heard Clémence’s voice, he said thickly, “Hello, Clémence. How are you doing?”

“Steve! Oh, my goodness, I didn’t think I would get to talk to you again for ages! Are you ok? Is everything doing well there? Do you want me to send you anything? I’ve missed you!”

Steve made an amused sound before he replied, “I’m fine, Clémence. No, I don’t need you to send anything, but thank you. I have missed you, too, my love.”

He smiled as he heard her soft, high-pitched voice asking, “Is the weather awful there?”

“Not too bad. Warm. How are you doing, Clémence? Have you been taking good care of yourself?”

“Yes, I promise. Emilie has been such a good friend. We’ve been together nearly every day this week. Bucky sent her a beautiful, gemstone inlaid game of Cartouche and we’ve been a bit obsessed.”

Steve leant against the outer wall of the small safehouse that the team had been using and groaned slightly. He ought to have sent something like that. Flowers were not much use after all. “I am glad that you’ve been having fun with her. Bucky is extremely concerned about his extended absence.”

Clémence animatedly replied, “She’s been doing ok, I think. He calls her a lot, so that helps. I don’t think that he has to worry. But she talks about him so much.”

He frowned as he wondered if she was complaining about how frequently he had called or if she was just trying to reassure him about Emilie. Metatext was usually lost on him, sadly. “And when is the physician coming for the next check?”

Her excitement was palpable as she responded happily, “In two days. But I really feel fine. Not sick at all. I think that Emilie is going to figure it out though. I’m completely awful at keeping secrets.”

Steve banged his fist into his thigh as he tried to keep his control and very calmly responded, “If you are spending that much time together, then I don’t see how you can keep the secret. Bucky knows, so you might as well let her in on it. You’re sure that you are eating ok? Nadezhda is there to help all three of you, not just Eleanor. She will make you anything that you want to eat.”

“I’m eating everything that the physician suggested and a good bit elsewise. I’ve been really hungry this week.” She hopefully asked, “You’re sure that I can tell Emilie?”

“Of course. It is fine, my love. I should talk to you about Eleanor.”

Suddenly, Clémence’s tone changed and she anxiously replied, “Oh! Oh, poor Eleanor. I cannot believe that she has agonia. She shows anchodia like most of us, but agonia is so awful. She never seemed like that before.”

He cleared his throat and spoke in a firmer tone. “I don’t think that the situation is quite as it was reported, Clémence. Tony seems to think that she doesn’t have agonia at all, but was misdiagnosed and given the wrong treatments all this time.”

He could hear her shock as Clémence exclaimed, “Really? But that is horrible! Who would want to do that to Eleanor? A diagnosis of agonia is almost social suicide for a guardian-class woman, Steve.” There was a pause and then Clémence added, “It means that she is unstable and, you know, many Alphas would not want their matches to be friendly with her.”

As he flailed despairingly within the sea of his emotions, Steve did not reply for a moment. When he finally did speak, his voice was rough and hoarse with displeasure. “You will not abandon that friendship because of some ridiculous social convention, Clémence. Clint is my teammate. Do not forget that Eleanor is the sole reason that I was privileged to receive an Introduction to you. We do not give in to superstition and social pressure like that, Clémence. Eleanor Barton is a very special person and we will support her and Clint throughout this time.”

Clémence’s voice wavered pitifully as she tried quite unsuccessfully to hide that she was crying. “Yes, of course, Alpha.”

“I know that you are better than that, Clémence.”

She whispered pitifully, “I did not intend to upset you, Alpha.”

“No, you intended to see if you were supposed to shun a woman who has been nothing but kind to you simply because she had been given an unfortunate psychiatric diagnosis.”

Clémence gasped and then took several deep shuddering breaths before she said, “But, Alpha, it is my duty to do what you desire. No matter what my own wishes are.”

Steve threw down the twig he had been shredding and kicked the side of the building as his anger surged forwards. “If I want you do to something, Clémence, then I will talk to you about it. You don’t need to borrow trouble by asking for it. It does not say anything good to me that either you were hoping that I would let you shun Eleanor so you wouldn’t be socially damaged by your friendship with her or you thought that I am the kind of man who would judge people in that way.”

He could no longer pretend that she wasn’t crying miserably, so the warring impulses in his head were beating at him painfully. After her continued silence showed no signs of abating, Steve demanded, “Well?”

“I-I am not sure what I am supposed to say. I am sorry, Alpha. I-I don’t understand. Please tell me what you want me to say.”

He growled, “I want you to explain yourself.”

Clémence sniffled and stammered tearfully, “Ok. I will. I…I am so sorry that I upset you, Alpha. I don’t really understand what I did.”

Steve rested his forehead on his right arm against the side of the house and then slowly, carefully explained, “You need to tell me why you want to shun your friend, Clémence.”

“Oh, I don’t. I don’t! However, I cannot socialise with her if you forbid it. My father would have ordered me to have nothing further to do with her a month ago.” She sniffled and made a small sound like a hiccough as she attempted to get control of herself before she gushed, “I like Eleanor so much. I remember when Emilie brought her to my uncle’s house during their Short Break, I was 15 and I wanted to be just like her. I-I thought she was so cultured and clever and elegant. She was even more beautiful than Emilie, which made all my male cousins go crazy. She had such perfect style and she was so kind to me: she taught me how put my hair up in the North Shore hairdo and helped me practise wearing court-shoes for dancing. Of course, I don’t want to stop being her friend. She’s the nicest girl I know.”

He could clearly hear his match’s admiration for Eleanor, so Steve felt the fight start to go out of him. His temper had always been the worst part of his character. “I do not approve of that kind of snobbery, Clémence, so you may assume going forwards that I will not expect you to shun people in that way.”

“Yes, Alpha. I won’t try to ask in the future. I will wait until you talk to me. I am sorry that I offended you.”

Steve groaned and, before he could stop himself, snapped, “I was offended because you believed that I might be the kind of bastard who turns on friends when they are in need.”

“I see. I see. I am very, very sorry. I do understand that you are very different from my father. I won’t make that assumption again.”

As he heard her crying once again, Steve slumped against the building and muttered, “S***.” After a moment more of listening to her misery, he more gently said, “Clémence, it is fine. Please, don’t cry anymore, my love. It is understandable that you would expect me to react like your family would have. You have never known anything different. I ought to have expected that, instead of overreacting.”

“You are so much kinder than my father and my brothers. I should have known you wouldn’t respond to Eleanor’s situation like they would. It is my fault.”

Steve replied in a purposefully calming voice, which usually had the effect of reassuring her, “Perhaps not. We are still very new to each other, Clémence. It was very unfair for me to be so angry with you about this. I am sorry. I am very glad that you like Eleanor. Once she is allowed to receive visitors, it would be good for you to go over to Clint’s apartment.”

Her excitement surprised him and further demonstrated to him how unreasonably he had reacted before. “May I really? Will Agent Barton allow that yet?”

“I don’t know when he will, but as soon as he does, then it would be kind of you to go.”

“Thank you. I would like that. Am I forgiven, Alpha?”

Steve sighed. “There is nothing to forgive and you don’t have to call me that always, Clémence. You are now my match and my partner.”

“Oh. Do you not wish me to use your title any longer? I am sorry if I have done things wrong. I only wanted to show you the traditional respect.”

“Clémence, love, I am grateful that I have finally earned that title, especially as it is from you. It means everything to me. Yet, I am not a dictator. I do want your partnership more than I want your submission. You are allowed to use my name, ok? Do you understand?”

Clearly frightened and utterly unsure what Steve was trying to say, Clémence whispered, “I will do my best.”

“I was wrong to have misjudged you earlier, Clémence, and to speak so cruelly to you. You deserve better than that. Will you take care of yourself now, my love? I am concerned for you, since I am not there to help.”

“I am doing everything that the physician is asking, I promise.”

“I am sure that you are. I am afraid that I cannot talk for much longer. Will you tell me if there is anything else that you need? Would you like for me to order anything for you?”

“No, thank you. I have everything I need.” There was a moment silence and then she added in a flustered rush, “Oh! The flowers that came this afternoon were really, really lovely. I love that particular shade of yellow.”

He couldn’t help but smile with relief that she had liked his offering after all. Next time though, he would send something more useful like Bucky had. “I remembered you saying so. I am glad that you enjoyed them. Please be sure to be careful with yourself, Clémence. You are irreplaceable, you see.”

“I-I will. I worry about you being safe, you know.”

Steve grimaced. “I’m safe. You do not need to worry. Unfortunately, I may not be able to call you again for a few days. However, when that is done, I should be ready to come home.”

“Really? I thought the mission was going to be so much longer.”

“It is. I am passing the last portion on to our SHIELD backup. It is time that we were all home.”

“That would be so wonderful. I will be very happy to have you back.”

Steve wished that she wanted him back because her feelings in any way matched his. However, he knew well enough that the truth was that Clémence merely felt insecure and anxious without him there. Her reaction to his bonding hormones during their bondmatching ceremony had been quite intense, so she now feared that his job would get him killed and leave her with a broken bond. The coming baby was not likely to help her anxiety in the least. “Not nearly as much as I will be to be there with you, my love. Good night, Clémence.”

“Goodbye, Steve.”

He turned on his heel and growled furiously as he stalked back towards the front door. When he entered the house, Bucky looked up from the cot beside the door and commented dryly, “Well that was not quite what I meant when I told you to call your girl, Steven.”

“Shut up, Bucky. I’m not in the mood.”

“Well too bad, pal. Look, if you think that Emilie didn’t fear that I might have the same reaction, then you’re not thinking clearly. As soon as she heard about Eleanor, Emilie asked permission to continue the friendship. And I didn’t make her feel like s*** for asking me either.”

Steve glared at Bucky. “You weren’t pissed off that your match thinks you’re that kind of man? That doesn’t sound like you, Buck.”

Bucky, however, simply shrugged. “Our matches both grew up in a powerful, prominent family that is restrictive like that. Instead of making her cry, Steve, you could have used that opportunity to show your quality. Honestly, I can’t believe that Clémence even got up enough nerve to ask. From what I have seen, Steve, she’s too terrified of displeasing you to take a risk at anything you haven’t explicitly told her to do.”

“She didn’t. She brought up the subject obliquely. You make me sound like a Bluebeard, Bucky. I don’t order Clémence around like that.”

“Ah, that sounds more like it. Too afraid not to ask but even more afraid to actually ask. Bringing the subject up in conversation was the way to go. I bet Emilie suggested that, actually.” Bucky nodded sagely and then looked at Steve for a moment before saying, “Poor kid. Emilie says that Clémence’s parents were even more controlling than hers, which is a pretty extraordinary statement, honestly. I suspect that Clémence was taught that once she was bondmatched, she should change everything to please her match.”

Steve sighed despondently. “I really hope not, Bucky, but I’m starting to wonder. They certainly taught her to be afraid of using my first name if there is even a chance that I might be unhappy about something. It was nice at first to have finally earned the title of Alpha. However, then I realised what it really means when she says it so often. It means she’s scared.”

Bucky nodded. “Yep. It won’t always be like that once she feels more secure, Steve. You’ve only been matched a very short while.”

“I hope so. Buck, I really hope that Emilie was never this afraid of you all the time. It is miserable, you know? There is no way to please her, since she is afraid to be happy. She is always uncertain and trying to find something else to do in order to please me. It is making me crazy.”

“Yeah, well, that was the whole first year for us. It might take a while, Steve. Also, the subservience is not nearly as natural to Emilie as I suspect it is to Clémence, so her father used to cane her when she acted even slightly out of step to his demands.”

“Holy s***, Buck.”

“It isn’t like you and I didn’t get the belt as boys, but we were out there breaking windows with baseballs and getting into fights. Once Emilie got caned because she asked why guardian-class Omegas were not allowed to play on the playground with the other children at school.”

“So, Clémence was probably punished like that, too. S***. My poor darling.”

“I think that it is quite definite that she was. So, it might take a while, Steve. You have told me that Clémence was not the favourite child.”

Steve’s expression darkened angrily. “Definitely not. Her two older sisters were supposed to be the family beauties and Clémence didn’t have an easy time at school, apparently, so she was not expected to do well for her bondmatch.”

“Looks like they were wrong about that.”

Steve smiled slightly and kicked Bucky’s leg lightly. “Thanks, Buck.”

His voice unusually uncertain, Bucky asked, “Hey, Steve, we’re good, right?”

“What? Yeah, of course we are.”

“Because…you know.”

Steve dropped down next to Bucky on the cot and replied, “Yeah, I know.”

Bucky breathed out unsteadily and then admitted, “I’ve been doing a lot of s*** that was damaging the bond.”

“Bucky, I’m not going anywhere. You will always be my brother.”

As he scratched his scruffy, untrimmed beard, Bucky asked, “Even when I’m acting like a complete f***head?”

Steve laughed sharply as he punched Bucky’s arm. “Yep, even then. Honestly, I’m still amazed that we made it through my hopeless fighting days.”

“Oh? We made it through? Thank f***. When was that?”

Smiling broadly, Steve started taking off his boot as he responded, “Shuddup, jerk. I meant the days when I sought out other guys just so I could instigate an Alpha confrontation.”

“So, yesterday.”

“Ugh. You’re impossible. I’m talking about our childhood, you a**.”

Bucky laughed. “Ok, ok, Steve. I know what you mean. Most of us Alphas did the same thing as teenagers, you know. We were just better able to keep from getting the stuffing knocked out of us than you were pre-serum. Honestly, I was impressed as f*** that you kept getting back up every time. That s*** actually sealed our bond, you idiot.”

Steve grunted with relief as he kicked his other boot aside and wriggled his toes. “Well, it sure did on my part, Bucky. You always, always stood at my back and fought with me.”

“D*** right I did.”

“I’m going to recall the team to New York tomorrow.”

“Yeah, I overheard that.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Did you hear the whole call?”

“Supersoldier hearing is a blessing and a curse, Steven.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m going to make a report to SHIELD tonight and order us out in the morning.”

Bucky slumped back against the wall beside the bed. “It’s a good call, Steve. If our morale got any lower, we’d need fireproof gear and pitchforks to fend off the locals. Are you even going to try to sleep?”

“Not really. You should though.”

“Yeah, that’s gonna happen. I’ll make us some coffee. You get that report done and then we’ll head out for one last recon.”

 

29 November 2017, Penthouse Apartment, Stark Tower, Someplace Else

 

“No, Rhodey, that’s a steaming pile of bull. If Rogers and his band of merry men were hiding out in Canada, then my sources would know.”

“Ross is pretty sure that Romanoff was seen in Newfoundland.”

Stark tapped his stylus on the desk and replied sharply, “Ross has s*** for brains, Rhodey, so what he thinks doesn’t matter. Besides, do you honestly believe that I don’t have better intel than he does?”

“No, I don’t. However, I did think you might want a warning.”

“Whatever. How are the braces doing?”

Rhodes’ voice got a little more upbeat, as he replied, “They’re good, Tony. The latest updates have been helpful when I’m using the stairs. I’ll be there on Saturday for my check-up. We can talk about all that then. I’m worried about you, man. Pepper says that you have been sleeping down in the workshop most nights and you’re back to subsisting on mostly smoothies and coffee.”

“I’m fine. It is fine.”

“It isn’t fine, Tony. You know it isn’t. Pepper was bedrock for you, so there is no way you aren’t having a hard time with this. She’s worried about you, too, you know. Look, you know that I was one of the strongest supporters on the team for signing the Accords. It seemed like a good, reasonable compromise. But that was before we found out about the off-shore Supermax that Ross is running and how draconian the restrictions really would be. They wouldn’t even approve us to help with the earthquake relief effort. This just isn’t working, Tony.”

Stark groaned and stared at the ceiling for a while. Then he said resignedly, “I know. F***. I hate that Steve was right, but d*** it, he was right. Everything has gone to s***.”

“You had a hand in it, Tony, so you’re going to have to be part of the solution.”

“Nope. I’m not reconciling with them. Barnes killed my mom and Steve protected him. He protected a f***ing murderer.”

“They are best friends, Tony. You created a genocidal AI robot and I protected you.”

“That isn’t the same, Rhodey.”

Rhodes made a derisive sound and said grimly, “No, actually, it is worse, Tony. Barnes had no more control over what HYDRA made him do than my plane did when I dropped a bomb. You may not have intended Ultron to kill all those people, but you did programme a sentient robot to protect the world without asking the people of the world whether they wanted it. We’ve all seen ‘AI’, Tony. I think most people would have said no. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the thing went full-bore Tutsi and we were the Hutus.”

Stark threw the stylus against the wall and, as that was insufficient, threw a pen and then a wrench. “I watched a video of Barnes choking my mother to death, Rhodey. I don’t know how to come back from that.”

“Well, would it help if you used B.A.R.F. and relived what happened in Siberia? You might see it very differently from the outside. And you truly, truly need to rename that programme, by the way.”

“Uh, probably not a good plan to try it, buddy. Seeing that again might make things worse.”

Rhodes replied, “Think about it. I’ll do it with you.”

“Maybe. See you Saturday.”

“Yeah, ok, Tony.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

 

29 November 2017, Penthouse, Stark Tower, Someplace Else

 

“So, you cannot expect me not to acknowledge this.”

Stark shrugged. “I don’t, Rhodey.”

“You know that I’m under a different obligation than you are, Tony. Why did you tell me?”

“You aren’t going to tattle to Ross any more than I am. However, you do need to know what is coming.”

“Who is coming, you mean.”

“Same difference.”

Rhodes leant back into the low sofa cushion and then replied, “I’m serious, Tony. Why did you tell me?”

Breathing out forcefully, Stark said, “Because there really is something coming, Rhodey. Bruce and I have been tracking some very strange readings. We also got a cryptic, but urgent message from Asgard. Something about draugr, whatever that is. I just don’t think that we can afford to be divided like we are now. If some big bad came again like the Chitauri—or worse—we’d be screwed.”

“You really think that something like that is coming.”

“I know it is. What I don’t know is who, what, when, where, or how…why doesn’t really matter. So, Cap chose the Winter Soldier over me. Despite appearances to the contrary, I’m a big boy. I can fight beside Rogers in order to save the world, at least, Rhodey. It’s time we let the Rogues come in closer, so when they are needed, they’ll be ready to jump right into the fight.”

Clearly unconvinced, Rhodes asked cautiously, “But you’re not inviting them back onto the team, Tony?”

Stark snorted and growled, “No. We aren’t friends. We aren’t colleagues. We are just fellow residents of planet Earth, who are similarly opposed to being subjugated by alien forces. I’m not fighting against Ross and the UN on Cap’s behalf. Whenever this alien force or whatever it is comes, they aren’t going to be getting in our way. That’s as far as my willingness to deal with Cap and the traitorous gang goes.”

“Tony, as much as I am on your side, you know that isn’t a reasonable statement.”

“I don’t care. I can be as unreasonable as I want when I’m dealing with my mother’s murderer and my former friend who is protecting him.”

“Can you? You honestly believe that you could fight alongside Rogers and the others without first settling this? If you two cannot trust each other, Tony, then none of us will be able to work together. One way or the other, you both have to come to some sort of understanding.”

“We are each intelligent, professional men. His people will follow him and he will work with me. He’s made that clear. That is as far as I’m going to go.”

Rhodes shook his head. “Then you might as well accept failure now, Tony. We all know that the Accords ended up being a terrible mistake. I don’t regret signing at all, but I do regret how we handled it. We didn’t spend time checking into it. We didn’t look into exactly what the regulations meant. We allowed ourselves to be manipulated by people we thought were motivated by justice. As for Steve Rogers, he made the wrong choice regarding telling you about Barnes, but for a very understandable reason: he had to choose between his oldest friend versus his newest.”

“Awesome. Perhaps my friendship points just hadn’t matured yet, huh?”

“I suspect that if Barnes had been the one trying to blow you away, Tony, then Rogers would have stood in the breach for you instead. Of the two of you, Barnes was the one who was vulnerable at the time. There was no one but Rogers on his side: shoot to kill orders were put out for him based on remarkably flimsy evidence and no one but Wilson and Rogers seemed bothered. I admit that I wasn’t.”

“Hey, as soon as I realised that, then I did try to do something. And when I got to Siberia, I got the Shield of Lying and Injustice smashed into my chest.”

“Oh? You were just standing there all innocent and doing nothing and wham!!! Rogers bashed the shield into your suit? That’s how it happened, was it?”

“Yeah, so was I just supposed to look my mother’s killer in the face and do nothing?”

“No, Tony, but you didn’t need to try to kill him either.”

“Why the h*ll not? He choked her with that f***ing HYDRA death hand, so I blasted it off. He told me that he remembers every victim. He’s not just some brainwashed victim. He IS the Winter Solider.”

Rhodes stood up and said sadly, “No, Tony. I am sorry, really. I cannot fully imagine how you must feel. However, you aren’t right about that. Barnes is far more of a victim than either of us can really comprehend. He didn’t choose to murder any of those people, but he has to remember it happening forever.”

“Good.”

“No, not good. You’re better than this, Tony.” Shaking his head slowly, Rhodes continued quietly, “If Rogers hadn’t apologised and offered to try to make things right, then I wouldn’t be sympathetic. However, as far as I can see, the only thing Rogers should have done differently here was tell you about your parents’ murder. The rest…sure, he handled it about as dramatically as humanly possible, but he was right. It sucks being wrong about something so big, but we were, Tony. Living in denial like this isn’t going to fix anything or make you feel better about this. You’re really hurting yourself by holding onto your rage in this way and it worries me.”

“What do you want me to do, Rhodey? How am I supposed to feel when I’m confronted with my parents’ murderer?”

“I don’t know. I guess if you really believe that Barnes is that man, then you turn him over to the authorities. However, I kinda think that your parents’ murderer is already dead. Wasn’t he shot to death in the Triskelion? Pretty sure that definitely happened, Tony.”

Stark bared his teeth slightly, as he snarled, “Barnes remembers killing her, Rhodey. He said so. How does that not make him my mother’s murderer?”

“Killer or murderer?”

“What’s the difference?!”

“You know the difference, Tony. We’ve had this conversation enough times that you know what I have to say about it. The enormity of what was done to Barnes may make it difficult to believe, but that doesn’t make it untrue. I cannot do this conversation with you again right now, Tony. Please.”

“Fine.”

“If we are going to plan to work with them against some dangerous future invasion force or whatever, then we need to start the process now.”

“Maybe. I’m not ready yet, Rhodey.”

“Yeah, I can tell that, Tony, but the question that I have is this: will you be ready in time?”

 

29 November 2017, 38th floor, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

As Clint exited the apartment into the corridor, he gestured to the analyst that she could re-enter, then he stalked towards the waiting area near the lifts for his and Natasha’s flats. When he reached the seating area, he dropped forcefully on the seat next to Natasha.

With a surprisingly sympathetic expression, Natasha asked a little stiffly, “Well?”

After a questioning look at Natasha, Clint groaned, “I’m so f***ed, Nat. So completely f***ed. She thinks that I don’t really love her anymore. And it is all because I’ve made incredibly stupid decisions. I know that I’m unworthy of her, Ubiytsachka, but I cannot bear thinking that she believes that she is the one who is worthless. I have to fix this.”

Natasha leant back into her chair and stared at him with an immediate return to hostility. “It’s bad, Clint. She has given up on herself.”

“I know. I know. I have to fix this. She’s got to see that she’s amazing. She’s…she’s everything, Nat. First thing tomorrow, I will have JARVIS send paperwork formally firing that f***ing quack of a doctor. Tony sent me another message about it earlier. He says he’ll show me the list of other Omega docs he’s vetted when they return from the mission tomorrow.”

Her eyes narrowed dangerously, Natasha insisted, “Physician, Clint. Omegas see physicians. Like so many things about them, the terminology is purposefully different. It matters to Eleanor, so you need to remember.”

Clint waved his hand dismissively, “Does she really care about proper terms for things that much? Seems ridiculous.”

Not particularly kindly, Natasha explained with a sigh, “She cares about whether you notice her world, you absolute fool. She is desperate to know that you pay attention. Honestly, I think she’s longing for any approval she can get from you. She’s starving for love, you idiot. Not a sister’s love, but yours. If this could have been fixed by anything that I could do, then we would not be in this situation, Clinton. My sister needs you, so you’re going to take your manhood in hand and make this right.”

“Nat, I…”

Pulling away from him furiously, Natasha viciously snarled, “No! You couldn’t see her expression when you were hugging her at the beginning of the session, Clint, but I could. Relief, hope, and desperation. The only thing that is going to make this better for her is something that you can do. SO DO IT.”

Clint stood up abruptly and walked over to the wall next to the lifts. He flopped back against it and stared up at the ceiling hopelessly. “S***, Nat. Why did I keep listening to her physician? You told me that the isolation was making her fade away instead of get better. You saw it. Why did I ignore everything?”

Natasha threw a knife-sharp glance his way, as she sneered, “Well, Yastreb, primarily you are so convinced that she doesn’t care for you that you made some angry, bitter decisions, as well as some thoughtless ones. You did not consider how she would react to essentially being ignored and kept away in a room all by herself. Secondarily, you blamed yourself for what happened and you felt unworthy of her, so isolating her was useful for you.”

Shocked, he turned his gaze on Natasha and demanded, “Useful? F*** that, Nat. No. I did not intend to keep her a prisoner in that room. But that’s how she’s felt, isn’t it? Like it was a punishment for the capital crime of being unhappy. F***. F***. F***!” Clint punched the wall hard enough that it left a dent, which in turn made him yelp in pain.

Natasha sat very still on her chair and waited for Clint to calm down. Finally, she said with stone cold causticness, “Are you done being an idiot? Because that is not helping anyone. The question is, what are you going to do now?”

Clint gestured rudely at Natasha. “Stop isolating her, for one.”

It was several minutes before either of them spoke again. Clint remained leaning against the wall, twirling one of his knives as he glared at the large potted plant between the chairs. Natasha, on the other hand, was intently watching Clint much in the same manner as a leopard regarded its dinner. Eventually, she said in a deadly whisper, “Maybe you should consider talking to her about what she thinks. She’s an intelligent woman.”

“I know. She’s smarter than me, Nat. I’m well aware of it.”

“Yes? Then why did you treat her like a child?”

“She isn’t a child. She is my match and a guardian-class Omega. I am not just expected to make these decisions: I am required to. It is literally my job as her Alpha, Nat. I’m a total f***up, ok, but even I read up on what is expected of me in a bondmatch. Do you not understand what is at stake? Stark’s lawyers say that the OPS bastards are monitoring us, you know. If I don’t do my part or she has to be admitted to treatment, they will come barging in to offer ‘re-education’. I promised Eleanor that she would never have to deal with those f***ers again and I will do whatever it takes to keep that promise.”

Natasha nodded and icily answered, “I do know that, but I wasn’t aware that you were aware just how far OPS is willing to go. They may despise your bondmatch, but it is now public and you are a popular figure. There has even been speculation in the media that you may be a level-5 Alpha, since, in addition to what the public knows about your job, you managed to bondmatch to a very beautiful AAA Omega. OPS will not allow you to have a public failure now, Clint.”

Clint pushed off the wall and gestured widely. “I’m concerned about Eleanor’s feelings, not OPS’s agenda or the public’s perceptions, Nat. I cannot allow Eleanor to be touched by any of that. And it isn’t like the media has it wrong. I am a level-5. I don’t get why that s*** has to be classified anyway.”

“So, do the right thing. Worry about her. Make Eleanor happy and then OPS won’t even matter. She craves your guidance and attention, but she does have feelings and opinions. She won’t admit them to you though unless she is absolutely sure you want to know them and that she won’t be punished for her opinion either.”

“Have I made her feel like that in the past? Does she feel like I punished her for having an opinion at some point? S***. I am such a bastard.”

“No, Clint, but did you in some way make her feel as if she was not meant to talk unless it was to reply to you? Have you treated her like a person with legitimate feelings and thoughts? Because I have to say that it has been clear to me that you’ve been so wrapped up in your own feelings that you didn’t pay much attention to hers.”

“Хуй тебе!”

“Трахни тебя, твой мозг настолько полон дерьма, что ты не думаешь!” Natasha lunged at him and pinned him to the wall as she snarled, “You will fix my family, Clint. It might have been partly my fault that Lenochka felt so trapped after that party initially, but you have compounded everything with your decisions. I cannot do your job for you. FIX. THIS.”

Clint shoved her off and wrestled her into the ground before they both got back up and began circling each other with the chairs in between them. As he watched her cautiously, Clint responded bitingly, “That is what I am trying to do RIGHT NOW, Natalia Alianova. I cannot make it happen instantly, but I’m ready right now, today, to find out what I do need to do. I will do literally anything to make it right. It does not matter what. Anything. And I will do it immediately. I accept that I f***ed up before, but all I can do is change what happens now.”

Her arm swinging out, so she clotheslined him just as he swept her feet so they both went down in a tangled mess, Natasha growled, “Are you truly going to do it?” From her position underneath him where they fell, she demanded, “You’re going to try to learn how she sends messages to you almost entirely with her actions? You are going to watch what she does not just what she says? You are planning to actually pay attention to Eleanor the person, not the woman you feel spurned you?”

Clint put his forearm over her collarbone and replied, “Yes. I did not realise that I was treating her like that, Natalia Alianova. I thought that I was doing everything I could for her. I am not a total d*ck, you know. It may hurt like f*** that she doesn’t feel the same as I do, but that is really unimportant. I just want to see her happy and give her everything she wants.”

In one swift move, Natasha freed herself and remained crouched on the floor beside Clint, ready to spring. “If you mean that, then I will yield, Clinton Francis. Do I yield?”

Clint got up and stepped back with his hands up. “I mean it, Nat.”

Natasha jumped up from the ground and stood in front of him. “Very well, then I yield.”

Both of them stood breathing heavily and watching each other warily for several moments, before Clint said gruffly, “I didn’t mean to be the one to f*** up our family, Nat. I thought I could do this better. I will do it better.”

“I told you that I would always be your best friend, your partner, your sister. I have not changed my mind, Clint. I am fully invested, which is why I am so angry with you.”

“You are the best of best friends, the most incredible of partners, and the only sister I could ever want. I deserve for you to be angry, but please help me going forwards. We are going to turn this around, Nat. I know she means a lot to you, too.”

“Yes. She does. But she’s your match, not mine.”

“I know, Nat. You do know, Nat, that if you ever…”

Natasha cut him off. “No, I don’t want that. You know that is not who I am, Clint. Lovers are convenient, but disposable when I lose interest. I do not have time or the desire to coddle a man.”

“Yeah, I know you said you won’t bondmatch an Omega of either gender and I get that. But you could make an Alpha life-partner bond. Like Richards and Storm did.”

She laughed without bitterness, but also without any humour. “No, I do not think that I could trust another Alpha like that again. I am satisfied with our family, Clint.”

They both turned around as the door to the apartment opened. Natasha coldly regarded the analyst for a moment until Clint wrapped an arm around her, which she surprisingly accepted. Then they went inside the apartment behind the analyst.

Eleanor was sitting on a chair across from the sofa and did not get up to move over next to them. Yet, she was clearly waiting for something, which confused Clint immensely. What did she need from him?

He walked over to her side and held out his hand to her. She took it tentatively and stood up beside him. Uncertain what she was expecting him to say, he asked, “Are you ok, baby?”

Her tone was very flat as she replied, “I don’t know, but I am ready to talk.”

“Will you sit next to me, Ellie? Please?”

Eleanor appeared flustered, but pleased as she replied, “Ok.” She flushed with surprise when he led her over to sit down and wrapped his arm around her like he had earlier. Natasha also sat on the sofa, but gave Eleanor and Clint a significant space between her and Eleanor, unlike before.

Dr Swanson looked pointedly between Clint and Natasha before she stated coldly, “I think that Mrs Barton and I have had a very beneficial discussion while the two of you were…conversing. She has, however, asked me to lead the next portion of our session. Is this acceptable to you both, Mr Barton and Ms Romanova?”

Natasha tilted her head and asked sharply, “What is the purpose of this proposed discussion?”

“We are going to talk about communication.”

Clint sighed. “Yeah, ok, we definitely need that.” He noticed with delighted surprise that Eleanor moved a bit closer to him, so he added, “I know that I’ve been pretty s*** at it.”

“The intention is not to pass judgement or to blame anyone, Mr Barton. We will be simply hoping for the three of you to state how you each feel currently, what you each would like to happen, and one thing that you believe you are willing to do to work towards that goal.”

Natasha’s frustration and annoyance were so palpable that—misunderstanding the reason for her anger—Eleanor reached out her hand and tucked it into Natasha’s, as she asked, “Please, Natashenka?”

Natasha nodded curtly, then pushed herself to smile more warmly at Eleanor, before turning back to wait for the analyst to speak.

The analyst regarded Natasha for a moment before she said, “Very well. Ms Romanova, I think you might be the best person to begin.”

“If you like.” Natasha coolly stared at the analyst, as she lounged back on the sofa. “I am concerned because I feel that a series of mistakes has occurred that compounded misunderstandings that probably date from the original situation that brought Clint and Eleanor together. I would like to see us have a better understanding of what each of us needs as a part of this family, but it would probably help if we all had a clearer grasp of how both designation and gender are at play here. Our family situation is unusual, so we cannot use common assumptions to understand our unique needs. Lastly, I’m willing to make an effort to be more patient. I have several times been unfair towards Eleanor, both because I am used to putting Clint first and because I am unused to considering the perspective of a female who is a AAA Omega versus my own level-4 Alpha designation.”

Eleanor squeezed Natasha’s hand gratefully and whispered, “Thank you.”

“Yes, thank you for such a forthright answer, Ms Romanova. Would you like to go next, Mr Barton?”

Clint looked down at Eleanor and said slowly, “Yeah, ok. Uh, I feel angry and frustrated as all h*ll that things have gotten to this point.” He then looked over at the analyst and continued, “I think I f***ed it up pretty good because I didn’t understand what Eleanor required. As her Alpha, I’m supposed to know what my match needs, but I definitely didn’t.” He then turned towards Natasha before looking back down at Eleanor. “I realise now that I need to talk with her to see how she is feeling—instead of mostly listening to outside sources—before I make a decision. And what I want is to see Eleanor feeling safe. I know that this is important to her, so I want to focus on that.”

Clint felt Eleanor grip his hand in both of hers, which made him look down. His extreme discomfort and tension started to ease somewhat as he saw the surprised, hopeful look in her eyes. He had not seen her look that way in a long time.

“And now, Mrs Barton, shall we tell your family your answers to these questions?”

Eleanor nodded, then pulled her hands back and tucked them between her knees. She hunched down awkwardly and said uneasily, “Yes, please.”

“Very well. As you requested, I will read what you told me, Mrs Barton, but you are free to add to or change what I read at any time.”

She nodded, but did not speak, keeping her eyes focussed solely on the carpet in front of her. Clint moved his other hand across to lay it on her knee, but she did not respond other than to look across at the analyst.

“Mrs Barton has relayed to me that she has felt trapped by the treatment she was prescribed and shameful both about her actions that led to the situation and that she cannot overcome the unpleasantness of her isolation to improve her health. She wants both Ms Romanova and Mr Barton not to feel embarrassed and disappointed by her any longer, so she says that she is willing to do whatever they envision for the next stage of treatment. Mrs Barton would not specify a specific cause of action that she would choose, but said that she was even willing to submit to electro-sedation if that is what they believe would be best. I think it is important for them to understand, Mrs Barton, your state of mind when you made that offer.”

Eleanor darted a terrified look up at the analyst. It could not have been clearer that she had not expected to be asked to talk. Finally, without a glance at either Natasha or Clint, she whispered, “Scared.”

“You told me something about your feelings towards electro-sedation, Mrs Barton.”

“Yes.”

“Would you be willing to share them with your family?”

Eleanor’s reply was nearly inaudible. “Please, no.”

Clint cleared his throat. “This electro-sedation c***, that’s electroshock therapy, right?”

The analyst pursed her lips and then said carefully, “Not precisely. ECT, which is the current name for what you were describing, is administered under general anaesthesia. Electro-sedation, however, is not.”

Natasha hissed furiously and leant forwards on the cushion as she demanded, “Is this what they did to my sister previously?”

“I believe so, which is why Mrs Barton is so reluctant to enter any form of treatment.”

Outraged, Natasha asked further, “Is this done merely as a punitive measure or do they also feel that there is a treatment benefit?”

The analyst sighed. “I am immutably opposed to electro-sedation, Ms Romanova, which I should make clear. However, the bulk of the Omega Health Physician’s Association supports its use. If Mrs Barton were admitted into treatment, Mr Barton would need to submit a document from his attorney that clearly states that any use of electro-sedation was not only disapproved by him but would be met with legal action. In my experience, that is the only way to ensure that it is not used.”

Clint shook his head and insisted furiously, “I will never let my match undergo that s***, are you kidding me? That is torture.”

“Although there are some therapeutic benefits to ECT as it is used on Beta patients in Standard Practice Medicine, it is contraindicated for all Alpha patients and poorly tolerated by most Omegas. Statistics are really very clear, but decades of common practice take some time to overturn. I think that you understand that the deterrent factor is also a portion of the continued usage of electro-sedation in young guardian-class Omega patients who are being treated for the major complexes of agonia, teleiomania, anorexia, autolavoma, or narkotikethismos.”

Clint looked over at Natasha for clarification, but Natasha was too focussed on the analyst to react to him. She breathed out harshly through her nose. “These are truly that common?”

“Amongst guardian-class women from privileged, wealthy backgrounds? Exceptionally so. Every school for these young women has a treatment facility. Guardian-class girls who attend state schools have significantly lower diagnoses, possibly because of the different lifestyle and pressures exerted by their families. If any of those women display one of the five ‘Omega complexes’, then they are sent to an OPS state facility and rarely fare well. A mark is made upon their identification that they have a history of that complex.”

His face red with anger, Clint demanded, “And this would occur if my match were sent to a hospital?”

“Most definitely.”

“Well f*** that then. Look, Dr Swanson, what does my match truly need? We can help her here, right? With someone other than that jagoff that I have been allowing to treat her until now? I want to know what is best for her.” Clint looked down at Eleanor and said more quietly, “What you need, not what they say, is really all that I’m interested in providing for you, baby.”

The analyst was not entirely successful at hiding her surprise. “It is possible, yes, Mr Barton. However, your match has been diagnosed with three of these conditions. Any physician is going to recommend aggressive treatment.”

“Clearly, I want my match to have treatment, Dr Swanson. She has not been happy and I won’t be satisfied until she is healthy and content. However, I want her to have appropriate treatment, not this isolation cr** or the electro torture s***. You’re the specialist, so you know more than I do in this case. What does Eleanor need here?”

The analyst frowned. “I will be perfectly frank with you, Mr Barton, as I have been with your match. I do not agree with the physician’s diagnosis. I have adjusted it on my treatment paperwork; however, although I have rights to prescribe treatment, I cannot prescribe medication.”

“Yeah, but I’m asking about treatment, not medication.”

“I do not believe that your match is suffering from agonia. She has anchodia, however, this is so prevalent amongst Omegas along with douloprepeia that they are widely considered secret categories on the testing scale.”

Clint growled angrily, “What is with the names you people come up with for all this? Does any of this correspond to something an Alpha or even a Beta might experience? Most of us do not understand Greek.”

Natasha snorted. “Anchodia is anxiety, Clint. Douloprepeia is submissiveness or subservience.”

“Then why can’t you call it that? Why the secrecy hiding behind all the fancy sounding Greek and Latin?”

“Greek is used for Omega treatment, Mr Barton. Latin is used for Alphas. This is standard practice. For an Alpha, one would describe Anchodia as Pavor. Similarly, Abjectio is the parallel to Agonia. Treatment is different for both the Omega and Alpha designations, but so is diagnosis.”

“Right. Not any secrecy there at all, huh? Whatever you actually say, Dr Swanson, you mean that my match has anxiety.”

“Anchodia, yes, which is both severe and acute. Mrs Barton experienced some significant trauma directly before your bondmatch, correct?”

Clint grimaced and nearly bared his teeth before he replied, “Definitely.”

“The nature of your work takes you away often and puts you in significant danger, Mr Barton. This is true of you, as well, Ms Romanova.”

Natasha nodded briefly and looked over at Clint, who shrugged antagonistically at Natasha and then stared at the analyst.

“Mrs Barton has told me that she does not want either of you to adjust your schedules to accommodate her, since she believes your work is too important. I understand that you have so far been refusing to accept missions where the both of you would be gone at the same time even though it was previously your practice to work as partners.”

“Yes.” Clint narrowed his eyes at the analyst and leant forwards in his seat aggressively.

“This is unlikely to be tenable for the future, however, correct?”

“It is definitely not sustainable, yes.” Natasha snorted and continued. “The Avengers have hired a companion that is shared between Barnes’ and Rogers’ matches. This is one of several possible solutions that Clint and I have discussed for Eleanor.”

“Yes, so I understand. Mrs Barnes is also my client, Ms Romanova, but I cannot discuss her situation, as you are aware.”

“Well, I can, so that is not relevant. Do you think that we need to have someone like a companion come in more regularly? I mean, even outside of the missions that my brother and I might take.”

Eleanor moved slightly closer to Clint, who looked down at her. “Did you have any ideas about this, Ellie?”

“I…I don’t know.” Eleanor turned towards the analyst and said, “No one really can replace Clint or Natasha, you know? I don’t like being alone, but no matter how nice a companion is, they aren’t my family.”

“What does that mean, baby? You don’t want a companion?”

“I just mean that I’m supposed to miss you when you’re gone, right? It doesn’t seem natural to expect me not to feel that way just because I have a companion for a few hours. Is that wrong?”

Clint shook his head. “Of course not. I miss you intensely when I’m away, baby. What we are concerned about is whether you are taken care of. Right?”

Natasha added, “We are concerned about your daily needs, Lenochka.”

“Oh, well, perhaps that makes sense.”

Clint added more gruffly, “We need to make sure you have your meds, have help with your daily activities, and have regular companionship so you are not isolated again, Eleanor.”

Eleanor stared up at him and then finally said with wide eyes, “I am not refusing a companion, Alpha. I am willing to do whatever you think is right.”

Natasha cut her eyes at Clint, who muttered, “F***.” Then he turned towards Eleanor. “Baby, look. We are all three of us figuring this out with Dr Swanson’s help. We gotta get our balance, right? It might take a few tries, but I know we will get it. OK? I don’t want you to simply submit out of fear. I want you to be happy. That is incredibly important to me.”

She did not reply, but simply watched him anxiously, as if trying very hard to read his true intent. Eleanor only turned away from uneasily regarding Clint when Natasha’s hand wrapped around hers. In a soft voice that she only ever seemed to use with Eleanor, Natasha explained, “We want to make this right for all of us, sestrenka.”

Eleanor sighed. “Ok, Natalia.”

“Mrs Barton, perhaps it would be beneficial to take a break for a few minutes? This has been a particularly intense session and has run more than twice the normal length.”

“Yes, yes, please. Would that be alright?” Eleanor was looking nervously up at Clint, who nodded.

However, Natasha then replied with a glare of challenge at Clint. “Of course, sestrenka. We have discussed some very emotional things. Perhaps you would like to go down to your room in my flat? It would be a change of scenery and give you some privacy.”

Surprised, Eleanor looked eagerly at Clint. “Yes, may I?”

In response, Clint stood up and held out his arm to her. He glanced furiously at Natasha, but then almost immediately looked with a slight smile down at Eleanor.

 

29 November 2017, Fontaine Home, North Haven, New York

 

“One and half million dollars, Lilith.”

Lilith ran her hand along her newly cut hair and said sulkily, “For what, Jonathan?”

“For moving my family’s business several blocks away into a building that I don’t even like. A move that would not be necessary if you had not taken it upon yourself to swan into the Avengers Tower and try to blackmail my sister’s match.”

“Oh please. Like you wouldn’t have been pleased if I could have walked out with a nice, fat settlement. Do you know how much dowry a AAA Omega commands these days if she is decent looking and educated at one of those special Omega schools?”

Jonathan stared at his wife and commented miserably, “You are so common. Father told me that you were low-class, Lilith, but I was too in love back then to listen.”

“How dare you talk to me like that!”

“I have put up with your schemes for years, Lilith. And every time that I think that I’m actually through with you and I cannot take one more embarrassment or filthy fight, you reel me right back in somehow.”

Gesticulating angrily, Lilith insisted, “I won’t sit here and be talked to like this, Jonathan. I am the one who has had to put up with everything around here. Your father never liked that you married a Beta and not some perfect little Omega. He always talked down to me and took your sister’s side in every disagreement. He spoilt your sister shamefully and then you would have done the same. Your family squandered shocking amounts on her hair, clothing, shoes, perfumes, and all the things that there never seemed to be any money for me, your wife, to buy. The whole reason your family spent so much on her was so you could get a good dowry for her. And we got cheated by that piece of trash that eloped with her without even getting the family’s approval.”

Jonathan dropped his head into his hands as he leant forwards on his elbows against his desk. “She is my sister, Lilith. That is how guardian-class Omegas are supposed to be treated by their families. She was equally my father’s child, so she had every right to be pampered and spoilt by the family. In fact, as a daughter, Eleanor had far more right to my family’s money than you do, Lilith, as merely a daughter-in-law. Of course, I didn’t like that she was Father’s favourite, since I could never do anything right according to my father. But she devoted all her time towards being perfect for Father, so she really deserved his favour more than I did. Anyway, I cared about Eleanor and it wasn’t her fault if my father spoiled her a bit more than average. She reminded Father of our mother.”

“Bulls***, Jonathan. Eleanor was a family investment. And you let that go out the front door. Hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Clearly horrified, Jonathan growled, “We do not SELL our Omega siblings, Lilith. A dowry is traditional, but is not required. And my sister was the one who had the right to choose her match. We were merely supposed to vet and then present the candidates.”

Lilith laughed. “Are you that naïve? Do you think that Allardyce offered such a huge sum because it was traditional? He was expecting me to make the match happen, Jonathan. I promised that to him and he was prepared to repay that generously.”

Jonathan frowned. “What do you mean Allardyce was planning for you to make the match happen? If Eleanor said no, then there was nothing more to be done. I don’t like the man myself, so I cannot blame Eleanor for being repulsed. Not that I understand the appeal of whoever she did choose, but that’s her affair.”

“You are a spineless, hopeless fool! This is why we lost out on the opportunity to control your sister’s bondmatch and receive a dowry. And why you ended up having to pay to move your company, since she’s clearly got Stark fooled and he’s bankrolling the legal attacks. Besides all that, Jonathan, you know exactly how to force an intractable Omega to acknowledge a Claim.”

Jonathan bolted up from his chair and pounded his fists on the desk. “Are you telling me that you actually conspired to have my sister forced? That red-headed terror that visited me implied that we had done something of the sort, but I thought it was just a threat that she would publicly accuse me of that if we challenged Eleanor’s bondmatch to Barton.”

Lilith raised one eyebrow and laughed. “Don’t be naïve, Jonathan. It is quite common. The little b*** is supposed to be obedient, isn’t she? Well, she didn’t want to do her duty. She just wanted to sit around and spend all our money on things like dresses that cost 20 times what you allow me to buy. So, I just left Allardyce alone in the house with her.”

Jonathan came around the desk and pushed Lilith up against the wall with a snarling growl. “You had no right to do that. None. That is utterly repugnant.”

“Get your hands off of me, Jonathan.”

“No. Did that sack of s*** rape my sister?”

She snorted with disdain as she replied, “Allardyce? No. He was too drunk to get the job done. He said he needed liquid courage, since he wasn’t used to doing that sort of thing. Spineless worm. A real Alpha would have marched in there and gotten it done. Anyway, Jonathan, she is an Omega. Literally their entire job in life is to look pretty and to do whatever an Alpha tells them to do. So how is it rape, especially when the Alpha bondmatches them afterwards?”

Jonathan’s rage was so intense that he clenched his hands together to keep from lashing out physically. He then backed away from Lilith and spat out, “Leave. Pack a bag. Leave now before I change my mind and report you. I will have my attorney send the final settlement papers.”

“What are you talking about? Are you talking about divorce? You’re an Alpha. Alphas don’t divorce!”

“Yes, I am an Alpha, which you seem to conveniently forget much of the time, Lilith. Alphas never break bondmatches. However, you are a Beta, so this is merely a contract marriage. And I am calling it finished.”

“You cannot do that!”

“I can and I just did. Don’t you even remember the contract you signed, Lilith? It wasn’t a secret. I do not need to prove any cause to end our marriage, which fact will work in your favour. You do not want it to be known that you tried to have my sister forced. That is a felony.”

“You bastard! I will fight this. I will drag your name through the courts and I will take every penny that I can. You are barely an Alpha. That contract cannot possibly be legal.”

“I am the son of a 7th generation Alpha and my blood tests were solid. You will have no hope of challenging my determination status, Lilith. You should know that the contract stipulated a divorce settlement. No attorney will take you on once he learns that your ex-husband is an Alpha and you had a contract marriage.”

“That can’t be legal. It can’t! I don’t believe it.”

“Didn’t you listen to anything that Mr Sopwith said that day, Lilith? He explained everything to the both of us. I should have done this years ago.” Jonathan stalked across the floor and opened the door of his study. “I will give you two hours. Everything you brought into the marriage, in addition to your clothing, jewels, etc are yours. Everything else stays.”

“I don’t have any money!”

“Neither did Eleanor, but that didn’t stop you from pressuring me to kick her out. I allowed myself to be convinced that she had acted inappropriately and needed a drastic scare to get back into line. But I think I always knew it was a lie. It was just easier to let you have what you wanted. I should have stood up for her. Now you can see how you like being cast adrift. At least you can rent a hotel room, get a job, order food in a restaurant…none of which Eleanor can legally do. I’m sure you will find a way to get by, Lilith.”

 

29 November 2017, Knowhere

 

Quill stared ahead of them as he slowly began to say, “That is…”

Rocket interrupted sharply, “A head.”

“A gigantic, floating space head, yeah.”

“I am Groot.”

Turning around for a moment, Quill frowned and then said seriously, “No, it doesn’t hurt him, buddy. That guy’s dead.”

“Dead a long time, Groot. Don’t worry about it. So…where are we supposed to be going now?”

Gamora continued flipping through the screens on the tablet in front of her, but she replied without looking up, “I already gave you the coordinates. We are meeting with an informant.”

“Right. Because we can trust people who live inside an ancient space skull. Sounds good.”

“This is part of the plan, Rocket, therefore, you’re going to need to get on board with it or get off the ship. I’m not in the mood for debates today.”

Mantis looked mournfully at Rocket and then over at Drax, who was stoically staring into the ghostly green haze surrounding the skull in front of them.

Rocket punched something into the computer as he muttered sourly, “At what point is she ever in the mood for a debate, I’d like to know?”

“So who was he? He looks very sad. I think he was a very unhappy person when he was still living.”

Rocket glared at Mantis, but it was Gamora who answered. “Probably. It was a celestial, which is why they are mining the head for the last dregs of celestial bio-material inside. But that’s not why we are here. What matters to us is that Tanaleer Tivan lives here.”

“His museum was destroyed.”

Gamora turned sharply and asked Drax furiously, “What do you mean?”

“Three years ago, when I fought here against the treacherous Kree, Ronan the Accuser, there was great destruction. Much of the inside structure was damaged, including the Collector’s museum. Ronan attempted to keep the orb for himself, but after I killed him, I believe that the Collector did eventually procure it.”

“Uh, is this Collector guy the person we are supposed to see?”

Gamora shook her head. “No. However, we do need something from inside his collection.”

Quill groaned. “Stealing or just borrowing?”

“All we need to do is use it.”

He sighed. “And what about when it is time to leave? This Collector guy isn’t going to send an army after us or something?”

Gamora smiled grimly. “Who said that we were leaving?”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

 

29 November 2017, Small Latverian Cottage, Someplace Else

 

“You are too trusting, little sis.”

Wanda glared at Pietro, but did not answer, as she returned to reading through the papers in front of her.

“We don’t know who this woman is. Last time we trusted someone…”

“I probed her. It is fine, Pietro. This is what we need to do.”

“I don’t see why we need to get involved. We’ve been through enough, haven’t we?”

“Have we? Are you really going to sit by and allow something like this to happen, Pietro? I cannot. If you don’t want to come with me, then…”

Pietro was instantly at her side, as he replied forcefully, “I will always come with you, Wanda. I am just not sure that we should be trusting this weird woman who says the world is going to end if we don’t go and fight some giant Titan.”

“It won’t just be us, Pietro. Ah, here is what we will need.”

She handed the document to Pietro, who read it, then raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Really? Well…that is unexpected.”

“Dear Pietro, just what about our life in the last few years has actually been expected?”

“Sadly, sis, not much. So, if it isn’t just us heading into this impossible fight, then how many people are going to be there with us?”

Wanda shrugged. “I don’t know. I tried to read the woman’s thoughts, but I could only see at most 10 faces. Many of them I didn’t know. Thor was there. Vision. A woman with green skin. A rodent with a large gun. But I cannot be certain those are all actually fighting on our side. Surely there will be more than 10 of us, however.”

“A rodent with a gun? Sis…”

“It isn’t any weirder than this.” She waved her fingers and the resulting red cloud surrounded them and lifted them outside over the ruined outer wall of the cottage. “This is, Pietro, a very strange world. Is it not?”

“I hate when you do that.”

She laughed and hugged him. “No, you don’t.”

 

29 November 2017, Ste. 3800 B, Avengers Tower, New York City

 

As soon as the door to the flat closed, Dr Swanson commented, “Ms Romanova, your sibling bond with Mr Barton is unusually strong. You two have clearly worked quite hard at strengthening it.”

Natasha nodded curtly. “It is beneficial.”

“I will not pretend to understand your precise situation, Ms Romanova, but I can appreciate that, as a female, being a level-4 Alpha might prove difficult.”

“Would it? How so, Dr Swanson?”

“Expectations. Your designation is so rare that there are only 23 registered female level-4 Alphas in the United States. There is only one registered level-5 female Alpha.”

“You are surprisingly familiar with the statistics, Dr Swanson.”

Shrugging dismissively, the analyst said, “I like numbers and I find that it sometimes helps my clients to visualise their best response when they can accurately quantify their situation. To compare to top-level female Alphas, Ms Romanova, the also extremely rare AAA Omega designation has 6169 registrations. That is more than 250 times the number of females with your designation, which is why schooling and nearly everything else has to be decided on a case-by-case basis for women like yourself.”

Natasha tapped her fingers on her thigh several times before she replied sharply, “Perhaps so, however, I was not educated here, Dr Swanson. I learnt the expectations for my kind in my mother country and I learnt them very well.”

“Were these traditional expectations, Ms Romanova, or a part of the programme that Enhanced and trained a child for their purposes?”

“I have no knowledge of any non-Enhanced top-level female Alphas in Russia or any of the former Soviet republics, Dr Swanson.”

“I see. Would you like to discuss these expectations or would you rather move on?”

“It is not a secret, Dr Swanson. Romantic entanglements are not encouraged. Bondmatching is not a possibility. A life-partner bond is an unacceptable risk. I was not intended to have any emotional attachments, so meeting Clint changed everything. I am fortunate that my sibling bond—and that now includes the joint bond to Eleanor—provides me with most of the human connexion I need. I satisfy myself elsewhere when necessary.”

The analyst took a deep breath and then sighed. “You are aware of my designation.”

“You are at least a level-2.”

“I am a level-3, yes. There are only 411 of us in America at present, in fact. I am sure you are quite aware how the government keeps extremely strict tabs on any female Alphas, but especially those who are not level-1. I have found this to be…annoying, shall we say? I have also struggled to find sufficient outlets for ‘human connexion’. I do not like Betas and I do not trust men of any designation. Counselling difficult guardian-class cases is how I satisfy my drive to protect and guard. If having Mrs Barton as your sister is fulfilling this for you, then that is probably very stabilising and satisfying for you. However, you need to be very careful, Ms Romanova. The balance must be so fine. Your brother is dangerously unstable regarding the state of his bondmatch at the moment.”

Natasha sighed. “Unfortunately, yes, he is.”

“He has previously relied on you for his stability, am I correct?”

“Yes, he has.”

Dr Swanson nodded almost sadly, “He can get stability from Mrs Barton’s counsel and support, like he does from you, but he will gain a different kind from confidence from his match than from your bond.”

Her aggression rising slightly, Natasha replied, “I agree. However, his insecurity is bone deep and until he truly believes that Eleanor loves him and that this will not change, then he is going to continue to act like the bull in a china shop.”

“Yet Mrs Barton does love him, Ms Romanova.”

Natasha snarled, “I am aware of that, Dr Swanson, but he is not.”

“Yes. Honestly, I was surprised to learn of the strength Mrs Barton’s attachment to Mr Barton, especially considering his reprehensible treatment of her since returning from his last mission. I do not think that all of his choices can be blamed upon the physician’s recommendations. Yet, interestingly, Mrs Barton does not blame him. She blames herself for every mistake, which is all too common amongst women of her designation. However, Mr Barton absolutely must demonstrate complete trust towards his match, Ms Romanova, or else she will continue to flounder and feel unsafe. Do you understand why I am discussing this with you?”

Natasha blinked and then tilted her head as she said sharply, “Yes. You have a bonded sibling, too, don’t you?”

“I do, yes. She is a level-4 like you. Maria and I have struggled with our bond at times over the years, especially since she decided to take on an Omega match.”

Natasha allowed a startled look to pass over her face briefly. “That is…rare.”

“It is. I was hesitant, admittedly partially because I did not want the bond to change or Maria’s attention to be divided and partly because I do not get along with females in general. Nevertheless, I agreed to do a joint bond for Maria’s sake. It has been a rough journey, but three years later I can say that I do feel very close to Andrea.”

There was silence for almost a minute as Natasha seemed to consider something. Then she said cautiously, “I did not relish the change in the balance between Clint and myself when he alerted me that he had met Eleanor and intended to extend a Claim. However, he has always longed for a bondmatch, whereas I have never had an interest in one. Naturally, I did everything that I could to help him to procure her consent to bondmatch. Honestly, I am surprised at the degree to which I feel bonded to Eleanor.”

“Are you?”

Natasha shrugged nonchalantly, but her body language clearly shouted discomfort and discontent as she said, “Yes. I feel attachment to very few people: Clint and, to a much lesser degree, our old handler at SHIELD. My socialising is limited to my team for the most part. I respect Captain Rogers and am somewhat fond of him, I suppose. Barnes, on the other hand, I dislike strongly. Stark annoys me, but is occasionally an interesting challenge. Wilson is a weak Alpha when he could be more, so I am generally frustrated by him. I find both the Storms and Richards to be nearly impossible to work with, although Grimm is quite competent. I have yet to meet more than two X-Mutants who I do not despise.   For the most part, Betas are useless, with some Enhanced exceptions like Banner. So, Dr Swanson, I find few people that interest me socially and only slightly more with whom I wish to work professionally. Accordingly, I have not felt any emotional tie to anyone beyond Clint and my former handler before, so I did not expect the bond with Eleanor to be so immediate. In fact, I was forming an attachment to her before the ceremony even. The entire relationship has challenged me beyond anything I could have predicted.”

“AAA Omegas produce quite powerful hormones, Ms Romanova. During the time when you first met her, I suspect that Mrs Barton was exuding distress, need, fear, and all the things that pull upon an unattached Alpha no matter what one’s sexual orientation is. Initially, Andrea was so terrified to meet me that she was exuding heavily. It was a strange sensation, since it made me want to pat her on the head, give her a chocolate bar and a hug, then stand guard against an unknown threat. It was disorienting to say the least, especially as I did not find Andrea to be very compatible with me or even with Maria at that time.”

“I felt the same desire to protect Eleanor—much like I would a child—although even more strongly than it sounds like you did with your sister’s match. I definitely do not care for almost any females, so that made my surprise even greater.”

The analyst nodded. “That is a common issue for female Alphas. In my case, the only woman with whom I have ever gotten along is Maria. Although I have a bond with Andrea, I have to work hard to keep it healthy. Her interests and needs are still nearly incomprehensible to me, which has caused significant friction between Maria and me. I think that you have a much more natural understanding of your sister, Ms Romanova. You also seem to be working to improve your understanding of the motivations and needs of female Omegas compared to Betas or we Alphas. Very few Alphas make that effort, unfortunately, so I am impressed with how much time you have put into it, Ms Romanova.”

Natasha raised her eyebrows as she regarded Dr Swanson for a moment. Then she said simply, “I have not done as well as you may think, Dr Swanson. The original situation that led to Eleanor harming herself could have been averted if I had understood her better and had more reasonable expectations. I do not like admitting fault, but it would be foolish not to do so here.”

“Perhaps so, Ms Romanova. Yet, the change in the sibling bond between you and Mr Barton is a significant stressor, which it would be unwise to discount. I do want to be certain that you are aware of the unusual degree to which your sister hero-worships you, Ms Romanova. She seems to place immense trust in your judgement; therefore, I want you to be conscious of both the power you hold over her and the risk that Mrs Barton’s attachment to you might damage your sibling bond with Mr Barton if you and he are not careful. Jealousy is a pernicious influence for anyone, but especially for we Alphas.”

Natasha raised one eyebrow as she replied coldly, “That is simply part of our designation, Dr Swanson.”

“Yes, however, I feel a particular concern regarding Mr Barton at the moment. If I had not previously met Sergeant Barnes, then I would say that I have never before experienced such an incredibly potent explosion of hormones as those I do coming from Mr Barton whenever his match is present. Additionally, the antagonism that I have witnessed today between you both is quite significant, Ms Romanova.”

“We are used to it, Dr Swanson. Do not concern yourself.”

“Ms Romanova, you and Mr Barton engaged in an Alpha confrontation in the corridor less than an hour ago.”

Natasha shrugged, but the tension in her body increased dramatically as she watched the analyst warily.

“Mrs Barton has been quite insistent that Mr Barton has rarely even raised his voice to her. However, I cannot ignore the fact that he is naturally extremely aggressive. I have mentioned this to Mr Barton, but I feel that you should be aware that I am monitoring the situation.”

Her eyes glinted with fury as Natasha sat forwards in her seat and stated coldly, “Clint is an assassin, Dr Swanson. Aggression is a required personality trait.”

“Yes, but we are not dealing with the professional in these sessions, but the personal. I would like to ask you to consider that Mrs Barton is just as able to sense Mr Barton’s scent as you and I are. Yet, she is less likely to comprehend the meaning or direction of it. How do you imagine that your sister would feel being overwhelmed with the sense of his anger, aggression, intense physical attraction, and extraordinary possessiveness?”

Dropping back her veil of control, Natasha said flatly, “Alright. I understand your point, Dr Swanson.”

“I am glad that you do. I genuinely wish to help your sister, Ms Romanova. I even believe that there is a high likelihood of a very satisfactory outcome, but only if all parties take this seriously now.”

Natasha stood up, as the door to the apartment was opened with a marked thud, and said, “I am glad to hear it.” Looking over as Clint stalked towards her, she asked, “Well, Yastreb, is Lenochka doing ok?”

Clint nodded tightly. “I think that she is finished with therapy for the day. She was nearly asleep by the time I left to come back down here.”

“That is surprising.”

He shrugged as if apathetic, but Natasha narrowed her eyes warily. She could sense the underlying storm of emotions and sighed as she realised that a further argument was unavoidable. They had not yet finished their confrontation, it seemed.

The analyst said carefully, “This was a particularly difficult session for everyone. Mrs Barton has communicated quite clearly that she wants to do almost anything that she can do make everything right, however, she is uncertain what that should be. That is something that the two of you must determine soon. I can help you if you like, but the critical points will be communication, consistency, and unanimity.”

 

 5 December 2017, Bonding Suite at the Peninsula Hotel, New York City

 

“But there were so many guests! It was overwhelming.”

Eleanor laid a hand on her friend’s shoulder and smiled slightly as she replied, “Only eight and didn’t you expect that Steve’s friends would want to honour something this special, Clémence?”

“I don’t know. I suppose that I didn’t think it would be a public ceremony, to be honest. Bondmatches are so private.”

Emilie shrugged. “That they are, but this is different, Clémy. A shifting of the bond is so unusual that it was important for everything to be witnessed by several unassailable Alphas and guardian-class Omegas, so as to be incapable of legal challenge.”

“Yes, but it was just as critical that they be trustworthy.” Eleanor frowned and added, “Scent-control is so controversial and heavily classified. The Avengers cannot risk the wrong information getting out. Speaking of control, I have never met an Alpha life-pair bond before.”

Immediately looking up from adjusting her longest layer of curls, Emilie exclaimed, “Yes, they were odd, weren’t they?”

Clémence sighed sadly. “At first, I just thought Dr Storm was really beautiful, but then I realised that she never even spoke to me. I almost felt like she was looking right through me when she stood there talking with Steve for nearly 10 minutes. I could scent that she’s very high-rated.”

Eleanor nodded. “She is a level-4 like Natalia. I asked Clint. Dr Richards is only a level 3. I can only imagine how difficult that must be for them to navigate.”

Her eyes wide as she considered the power dynamics of a higher rated female Alpha life-bonding to a lower-level male Alpha, Emilie gasped, “I cannot. Alphas need such control over everything. How can any male Alpha bear being the lower-ranking one? I cannot imagine it.”

Clémence stammered, “Well he is clearly very in love with her, so it must be ok. And if an Alpha forms a life-pair bond, then they must be already comfortable with very different romantic dynamics than the usual bondmatch.”

“Maybe. Or maybe that is simply one of the few decent options available to female Alphas, Clémence. Do you think that Natalia would ever form a Alpha life-pair bond, Eleanor?”

“No. Natashenka has very clearly told me that she has no interest in ever doing so. Apparently, Clint is her only exception when it comes to trusting male Alphas enough to have anything other than a professional relationship.”

Emilie patted the last of her perfect curls that laid along the back of the vanity bench and sighed. “Alpha life-bonding seems very unnatural anyway, doesn’t it? But girls, what did you think of that Omega who is bondmatched to Captain Storm?”

Eleanor flushed bright red and said cautiously, “Not everyone can attend places like North Shore or Lynchburg, Emilie.”

Laughing unkindly, Emilie replied, “No, but she looked like someone dragged her from the smallest small town in America and pointed her towards the first big city Omega boutique they saw and said, “Go!””

Clémence suggested tentatively, “Don’t you think that perhaps she just doesn’t have anyone’s guidance? She wasn’t inappropriately dressed and she seemed to have a very nice demeanour. Her clothing was only a bit gaudy and a style intended for mature Omegas. You could see from her hair that she is Trastamaran school and those girls tend to prefer a lot more sparkle, too.”

“Trastamaran protocol via some little school out west, perhaps. I would have thought that Captain Storm could do better.”

Almost pleading with her cousin, Clémence replied, “Emilie, please. Perhaps Captain Storm loves her. She had a very nice smile and it is clear that she’s at least AA, so he could make a very good deep bond with her, I’m sure. It would be very overwhelming to bond someone so public like that if you didn’t have the training, wouldn’t it?”

Shrugging carelessly, Emilie snorted with disdain. “That is exactly what we go to school for, Clémence. That poor girl will be eaten alive by New York society. Captain Storm is being unfairly selfish to put her in that position without arranging for further training to help her.”

Eleanor interrupted, “That is his responsibility alone, Emilie, so I am not going to judge their bondmatch. She is now registered as the second Omega witness of your bond-shifting, so you will need to treat her kindly. I most certainly will.”

“Oh, you two are too nice. Now I feel guilty. Fine. Why don’t you invite her back then, Eleanor? She will be miserable out there with all those Alphas wandering around.”

Nodding approvingly, Eleanor got up and left the preparation room to find Captain Storm’s match and bring her back with them.

In the meantime, Clémence asked unhappily, “Do you think it went ok, Emilie?”

“It was incredible. No wonder you get all mushy-brained about Steve, dear. He produces scent on par with my Bucky. I actually physically felt the bond shift. It was much more dynamic than I ever expected.”

Sighing deeply, Clémence replied, “It was the same for me. I’m so relieved. Perhaps now that we have a joint bond, then things will go better for you with Bucky. He can feel more secure.”

“I really think that he will. It is unlikely that Bucky will ever really be able to let go of the jealousy completely, but if he could just trust a few Alphas on the team…right?”

“He trusts Eleanor’s match.”

“Yes, he does. That is quite the surprise really, but Bucky strongly approves of Clint.”

“Clint is as much in love with Eleanor as Buck is with you. I think that has a lot to do with Bucky’s perspective. Don’t you?”

“Yes. Definitely. Ah, here is Eleanor and Mrs Storm.”

The petite red-headed girl who was following Eleanor had such an anxious expression on her face that Clémence immediately stood up and crossed to greet her. “Thank you for joining us, Mrs Storm.”

Alice Storm’s voice betrayed a strong Texan accent, as she replied quietly, “Thank you for inviting me, Mrs Rogers. You are very kind.”

“Not at all. Won’t you sit and talk with us? It is at least a half-hour before the dinner will start.”

“Thank you. Y’all are very kind. The bonding suite here really is exquisite, isn’t it?”

Eleanor nodded and smiled warmly. “It is, yes. All three of us were bondmatched here, so it is particularly special to each of us. Where did you bondmatch?”

“At my family’s hotel back home in Dallas. John wanted to come back to New York, but my father had other ideas. Are all of you originally from New York?”

Emilie replied with a slight smile. “Yes, Clémence and I are. Eleanor is from Virginia. We all attended school together here, however.”

“I have not had much time to get used to the Byzantine protocol so many of y’all use yet, but I have enjoyed it here so far.”

“Is it all Trastamaran where you grew up?” Clémence asked politely.

“A mixture. Dallas is all Angoumousine. However, my father insisted on the Trastamaran school in Houston, since he felt that I’d be better prepared that way. That meant that I couldn’t go to the same school as Mama, which was a bit disappointing.”

Passing on a legacy to a good school was so unusual that Eleanor commented sympathetically, “I also did not attend my mother’s school. However, I found that North Shore was such a wonderful experience that I am not too disappointed, after all.”

“Where was your mother’s legacy?”

“Lynchburg.”

“Yeah, that would be a hard school to pass on, wouldn’t it? But y’all’s North Shore wit is famous, so I’m sure you enjoyed your time there, right? My school, San Raphael, is mostly known for its serious discipline and a reputation for producing good hostesses.”

Clémence nodded her head encouragingly. “That is good then, isn’t it? You will be able to support Captain Storm well, I’m sure.”

“John isn’t much for social gatherings, to be honest. He’s a dear, but he isn’t your typical Alpha. Probably a lot like y’all’s matches, I imagine.”

Eleanor answered, “Enhanced or topped-out Alphas are probably outside of the norms taught in any school, I imagine.”

“That is certainly true in my experience. It is very evident from everything I saw earlier that all three of you have particularly devoted matches.”

Emilie reacted in a slightly friendlier manner, as she answered, “I am sure that Captain Storm is equally attached.”

Alice laughed. “Yes, he is, but he isn’t going to stop being outrageous nevertheless. He needs very, very clear boundaries. Fortunately, I have no problem providing them. John is a wonderful Alpha.”

Surprised, Emilie responded, “You are happy with him, aren’t you?”

“Of course, I am. He is ridiculously fun and wonderfully passionate. I turned down three other candidates to choose John—very much against my father’s wishes—since I was sure that I would never be bored with him. Texas Alphas are all the same and I really couldn’t choose that once I’d met John.”

Eleanor nodded with understanding. “You had already begun to make your bond, I suspect. That is how it was with Clint. I didn’t understand it then, but I did realise later that I had already begun to make the bond during Courtship.”

“I’ve wondered about that. John is a little crazy and when he wants something, then he puts everything into getting it. He was scenting the whole time much to my chaperone’s horror. I didn’t care, to be honest. I knew that I was going to acknowledge his Claim. Fortunately, John knows that he has to keep working to keep things happy with me.”

Both Clémence and Eleanor were deeply shocked, but Emilie nodded in agreement. “Some Alphas are like that. My cousin is. That is why he chose a Beta, since he needed the challenge.”

“Poor dear, did he have to give up bondmatch to find his challenge?”

“Yes. But Sebastien has always been difficult, hasn’t he, Clémence?”

Mortified, Clémence blinked at Emilie, but did not reply other than to nod very slightly.

“John told me that he’d never wanted to bondmatch, actually. That was what he said during our Introduction. Can you believe that? I immediately cancelled the Introduction.”

Eleanor gasped. “Oh!!”

“Exactly. So, he pleaded for a secondary Introduction, which I eventually agreed to allow. Funny, I never did hear anything more about not wanting to bondmatch. And he sure seemed in a rush to make the Claim after that. That was why it seemed wiser to wait a few days. You never know.”

Emilie laughed. “Oh, my goodness, you were bold.”

“No, I just knew John needed to know that I’m not soft. He’s like that.”

“My match would have gone mad.” Emilie looked over at Eleanor and said, “Can you imagine?”

Nearly as shocked as Emilie, Eleanor shook her head. “No. However, Bucky has never had any trouble finding a way to obsess over you, dear. He doesn’t need extra challenges.”

“No. No, he doesn’t.” Emilie’s expression was very firm and she looked over at the door, as if concerned that Bucky might come through it at any moment. “It sounds like you are just what Captain Storm needed though, Mrs Storm.”

Alice smiled slightly. “Well, certainly he is just what I always wanted, so I want to make him the happiest Alpha in the world.”

Clémence commented, “I think that we all feel the same about our Alphas then, which is lovely. We are very lucky, don’t you think?”

“Yes, we are. And all three of y’all have joint bonds now too, which is rare.” Emilie and Clémence both started blushing deeply, which made Alice add kindly, “I am glad that I was able to be present. It was a very special ceremony.”

 

12 December 2017, Extremely Northern Location, Someplace Else

 

“Cap!”

Rogers looked over at Wilson and nodded, before he jogged over and took the phone from him. Putting the phone to his ear, Rogers said, “Hello?”

“Is that machine gun fire and circus music? Where the h*ll are you?!”

“Uh…are you sure that you want to know, Maria?”

Maria Hill laughed throatily and answered, “Not really, no. But I do need to know if you are going to make the next window. If you don’t, then it will be well into the new year before I can try again. Perhaps even February.”

“The earliest we can be in Vancouver is the 20th. Will that be soon enough?”

“No. I need you and Barnes somewhere in Canada by the 18th. The other two can meet you sometime after that. You could cross over on the 23. Barnes will enter the same day, but elsewhere. The other two on separate days yet to be determined. Can you make that work?”

Rogers considered for a moment and then said, “Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Natasha and Sam can stay behind to finish off and Bucky and I will get to Vancouver on the 18th.”

“I’d still prefer Yukon Territory.”

“Can’t do it, Maria. We cannot risk being that close to Alaska right now.”

Clearly annoyed, Maria said, “Fine, I’m not going to ask why. Vancouver it is. Make certain that you follow the pattern we discussed. I will have everything to you within 12 hours of your arrival. Please do not let Barnes cut his hair. You need to keep the beard. Tell Romanoff that blondes don’t have more fun, so she needs to take that look back to the drawing board. If Wilson can pull off a beard, then he should start growing it now.”

“Ok. I’ll take care of it.”

Maria hummed thoughtfully and then added, “And Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“I know how Barnes gets about his weapons, but he isn’t going to be able to bring them in.”

Rogers almost laughed. “Huh. That’s going to be a hard sell, Maria.”

“Well it is either that or you pass into the country and he stays behind. He can take it or leave it.”

“Honestly, Maria, you’ll be lucky if you can convince Buck to let me pass into the country at a different checkpoint than him.”

Her voice hard, Maria replied aggressively, “Actually, Steve, he can get as difficult as he likes. When it comes time, he won’t even be conscious.”

“Jeez, Maria. Remind me not to ever piss you off.”

“Sure. Hey Rogers?”

“Yeah?”

She hissed, “Don’t piss me off.