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Aftermath

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"I'm on the list."

The teacher, or teacher's assistant, it wasn't entirely clear, looked a little haggard around the edges, but Natasha had to give her at least some credit for her tenacity. She'd barely flipped through the pages of names, but she was certainly convinced she was right. It didn't outweigh the negative points she was getting for stupidity, but Natasha believed in awarding credit where credit was due.

"Ma'am," the woman tried again with a distracted sigh, "I'm sure you mean well, and that you're a perfectly nice person, but I've met both Mr. and Mrs. Barton and you are-"

"AUNTIE NAT!" a small but solid blur came darting around the corner and crashed headlong into Natasha's legs, tiny arms wrapping around her thighs and a backpack banging into her knee.

"Hey, monkey," Natasha scooped her up into her arms and settled her on her hip with the ease of long practice, and Lila immediately snuggled her head into the space between Natasha's shoulder and neck. "I missed you."

"Missed you," she agreed and popped her thumb into her mouth, then stared at the teacher, who was still watching them.

"As I was saying," Natasha continued, "I'm on the list. You should have a Natalie Reynolds on file, please check again."

"Reynolds, Reynolds, I... oh." The woman's face fell. "Yes, well. I must've missed it the first go 'round."

"Must have," Natasha allowed, easily. She could withstand a little incompetence so long as it erred on the side of caution rather than negligence.

Cooper trudged up just then, dragging his feet a little and tugging down on his backpack straps until he was leaning forward. Probably disappointed she was here instead of Clint, Natasha thought. She refrained from reaching out and ruffling his hair like she wanted to because Laura'd warned her he was hitting that age where he was avoiding overt displays of affection.

"Ready to go?" she asked, and he nodded. She turned back to the desk. "Is there anything else?"

"Ah, just please sign here?"

"Thank you." It was easy enough to sign left-handed since she was still holding Lila with her right.

As she ushered the children into the dull brown SUV she'd requisitioned for the trip she wondered how long she should stall around town - ice cream, maybe a grocery run - to give Clint enough time to settle in before bringing them home. He'd gotten that look on his face when she'd mentioned the kids, the one that she'd seen too often in the last three days since New York, that spoke of images and dreams he'd been forced to see, things he'd been forced to do.

"I told him all about you," Clint had said roughly, when they'd lain side by side in an obscenely comfortable bed in whichever of Stark's properties they'd ended up in. He'd wanted to go back to SHIELD but she'd vetoed that idea, had known he needed something else, different and removed.

"That's okay," she whispered, but it sounded loud and echoed in the silence that was completely at odds with a New York City night. That night there had been no cars, no people, not in that part of the city, anyway, just silence and the weight of what they'd done.

"It's not. But... it's what I could give him, it's what he wanted me to give him. It was enough."

She could pretend the strain in his voice was from the physical strain on his body, the pulled muscles and bruised ribs and minor concussion. She could, but she knew better.

"He called it love."

The laugh Clint barked out was bitter and sounded wrong from him. "Love, huh?"

All she could think, all she could still think, days later, was that Loki'd had no idea. He'd taken the easy answer, not even a lie, he'd accepted it in lieu of the deeper truth - he thought that he was tearing secrets from Clint about her, and that those would be the deepest secrets he had to give, that he was sowing what he thought were seeds of betrayal, or maybe even just that he was picking apart Clint's heart to better manipulate him, her, them.

When really, it was still Clint diverting the shot, aiming for the body armor, the area that could take the hit to protect the vital organs above and beneath. He could've gone up onto the rooftops and proclaimed her sins to the world, and she would've been fine with that. Those were acceptable losses.

They protected the children.

Love is for children, she'd goaded, a calculated test, because if Loki had known about them, if he'd had any idea they existed, he wouldn't have been able to resist using them. But he'd recited a litany of her sins instead, and she'd known.

Known that Clint was still in there somewhere, and the children were still safe.

All the rest was just commentary.