Alcohol wasn’t as common in the tower as it used to be, but you could still find a bottle if you were knew where to look. Specifically, Natasha’s bedroom, where she always kept a bottle of very high quality Russian vodka. She’d kill him when she found out he’d nicked it, but Clint didn’t care. Maybe it would even be better that way.
His daddy would be so mad if he heard Clint say that. But that was the problem. It had been six months and it was finally sinking in that Phil Coulson was never going to hear anything again.
For the fifth time that night alone, Clint picked up the bottle and swished the contents around, listening to the sloshing of the liquid inside. It would be so easy to indulge. He’d be able to drink all the pain away. For a few blissful hours he would be able to forget about his daddy, forget about the fact that he was alone, forget about the nightmares that would inevitably wake him up screaming.
He wouldn’t have to think about how he needed to be big all the time now, because it was just too hard to be little by himself. And if he was big, then surely it didn’t matter if he had some of the vodka?
His eyes burned with hot tears and he huffed, dropping the bottle into his lap. He’d lost count of how many times Phil had told him that alcohol wasn’t meant for little boys, but the lesson had stuck. He couldn’t bring himself to break the rule, even though he was no longer at risk of a spanking.
If it would bring his daddy back, he’d gladly take a hundred spankings. He wouldn’t fight to stay up late and then get cranky the next day because he was overtired. He wouldn’t refuse to pee before bed and then wake up crying and wet after a bad dream. He wouldn’t make a mess and then complain about having to clean it up. He wouldn’t do any of those things if he could just have his daddy back.
The bottle of vodka blurred as a tear spilled down his cheek. Clint choked on a noisy sob and stuck his thumb into his mouth to muffle the sound. More tears followed, hot and itchy, but it didn’t do anything to relieve the pressure in his chest. What he really needed was to cry out loud, but he was too worried about being overheard.
It was dangerous to be this little right out in the middle of the common living room, but he couldn’t bear to be on their - his - floor. It was too much of a reminder. But he wasn’t allowed to hide in the vents when he was feeling this little, and going to one of the many guest floors would’ve been too scary. And he didn’t know how Natasha would respond; she didn’t know about the arrangement between Clint and his daddy.
He wanted his teddy bear. He wanted his blankie. But most of all, he wanted his daddy. He keened softly and rocked back and forth, overwhelmed with how much it hurt.
It took a few seconds for the sound of his name to register. When it did, Clint snapped his head up and stared in horror at Steve and Tony. He’d been positive that everyone was asleep by now, even Tony. For a moment he wondered if he was hallucinating.
“Clint,” Steve said again, sounding concerned. Tony shifted next to him, and Clint suddenly registered the very familiar blankie and teddy bear in Tony’s arms. That was definitely real.
Oh fuck no. Clint kept staring at them, too shocked to even pull his thumb out of his mouth. His mind had gone completely blank.
Steve approached him slowly, one hand outstretched, taking the long way around the coffee table. Tony followed, but went the shorter way, and it wasn’t until the cushions of the couch shifted beside him that Clint realized they’d effectively blocked him in. He was trapped.
He shot to his feet, babbling something about his bow and practice. He might’ve gotten away with it, too. But the vodka bottle fell to the floor when he jumped up, and Clint accidentally stepped on it when he tried to jump over the coffee table to escape. Miraculously it didn’t shatter, but he slipped and fell straight onto the coffee table, slamming his knee into the floor and bumping his jaw hard on the table.
It was nothing compared to some of the things he’d endured as a SHIELD agent, but right then it was the last straw. Clint burst into tears. He tried to stop crying, and when that failed he tried to get up, but his knee hurt so bad that he gave up and curled up on the floor, sobbing into his hands.
What did it matter if Tony and Steve found out his secret? He had nothing else, so he might as well lose the team too.
“Oh, Clint. It’s okay.” Unexpectedly strong hands slid underneath his armpits, lifting him with ease. Clint found himself sitting on Steve’s knee, with warm arms holding him close. He knew this was wrong, but it felt so good after all those hours of lonely crying in the dark that he couldn’t help nuzzling into the comfort.
He was surprised when he felt a hand gently petting his hair after several minutes, and turned his head a little to see that it was Tony. When he noticed that he had Clint’s attention, Tony gave him a sad smile and scooted closer, offering the teddy bear. It was Clint’s only stuffed toy, one of his most prized possessions, and even though he didn’t understand, he couldn’t resist taking it.
He still couldn’t stop crying, but it didn’t seem to matter. Steve held him close and rocked him back and forth, and Tony kept petting his hair. It was very soothing and before long, Clint could feel himself becoming very sleepy. He closed his eyes and latched onto the ear of his teddy bear, chewing, and distantly heard Tony chuckle.
“Tasha didn’t say anything about pacifiers, did she?”
“No,” Steve said, his voice quiet. “But she didn’t know everything. He’s a lot worse off than she thought.”
“Yeah.” Tony sighed and stopped petting just long enough to tuck Clint’s blankie around him before he started again. “You’re better with little kids than I thought you’d be.”
Steve snorted. “Hugs are easy. 3am diaper changes are hard.”
“Kinda makes you wonder what Coulson was thinking,” Tony said thoughtfully. He said something else, but Clint didn’t hear anymore. He was fast asleep.
Clint was alone on the couch when he woke up. The bottle of vodka was gone. His blankie was pulled up around his shoulders, and his teddy bear was tucked underneath his head. He was still sucking his thumb, so a thin line of drool had made its way down his cheek and dampened the belly of his bear. Gross.
He pulled his thumb out of his mouth and winced when a sharp pain shot through his jaw. He had to blink back the tears that threatened to well up in his eyes. In spite of what had happened last night - and oh god, he’d really fucked up - he had to be big right now. And he’d had it drummed into him a really long time ago that big boys didn’t cry.
Something cold landed on chest and he winced. He looked up to see Natasha staring at him.
“Put that on your face,” she ordered. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you went a couple rounds with Cap. The right side of your face is purple.”
At least that explained why it hurt so much. Clint picked up the ice and pressed it to his cheek. If he was expecting her to say something else, he was in for a disappointment; she turned around and walked back into the kitchen. He realized now that Natasha had probably always known what went on between him and Phil behind closed doors. But that didn’t change the fact that she was uncomfortable around kids, best friend or not.
He sat there alone on the couch until the ice had melted into cold water, and then got up and limped into the kitchen to find some breakfast.
So it continued for the next week: Clint did his best to avoid Steve and Tony, too mortified over his breakdown to want to look either one of them in the eye, and concentrated on holding himself together through sheer stubbornness. He could do this. He could hold it together in Phil’s memory.
That determination last right up until one of the SHIELD psychologists looked him in the eye with a big, fake smile and said, “I’m afraid you are unfit to return to duty right now, Mr. Barton.”
The switch from agent to mister didn’t go unnoticed and made Clint’s heart drop straight through the floor. He protested, “But I passed all my tests!”
“Be that as it may, I have consulted with several of my colleagues and none of us feel you’re ready.”
“I’m an Avenger,” Clint hissed. “I have to be ready. You have to sign off!”
She just smiled even wider, not an ounce of regret - she didn’t even try to pretend that she was sorry - and handed him the already prepared paperwork that doomed him to months of wandering around the tower while the others went out on regular battles. And that was even if he was allowed to stay at the tower now that he wasn’t technically an avenger anymore.
God, wouldn’t that just be perfect.
Clint numbly took the papers and stood up when she did. He barely remembered the trip back to the tower, but he was conscious enough to know that this was not something he wanted to share with the others. Fury would pass it along, of course, but Clint didn’t want to be there when he did. So he did what any calm, mature, rational adult would do.
He took his blankie and his teddy bear and went to go hide in the ducts.
Over the months he’d been at the tower he’d built up a little nest of blankets and pillows, complete with non-perishable food and water, but Clint wasn’t interested in eating or drinking anything. He curled up into a little ball around his teddy and stuck his thumb in his mouth, staring at the folder of papers she'd given him. He could just make out the words ‘not fit for duty’, and he stared and stared until they were burned into his mind.
Not fit for duty.
“Agent Barton,” JARVIS said some time later. “Sir is requesting that you evacuate the duct.”
Clint didn’t answer.
“Not agent anymore,” Clint whispered. Speaking chipped away at the hard lump in his chest, and the first hot tear rolled down his cheek.
JARVIS must have relayed that, because the next thing Clint heard was some thumping and banging accompanied by familiar swearing. A blue light washed through the ducts, and, just for a second, Clint’s heart stopped. But then Tony dragged himself into view, muttering something particularly foul under his breath.
“Hey kiddo,” he said when he saw Clint. “There a reason why you’re staked out in here?”
Clint couldn’t speak. If he did, he’d cry and cry. He shoved the papers at Tony instead. Tony picked up the papers and skimmed them quickly. The way his face darkened with each sentence was truly something to behold. He looked about as pissed as they came when he was finished.
“You know this is bullshit, right?” he said.
Instead of answering, Clint sucked his thumb harder. Tony wrinkled his nose. “Oh ew. Do you even know how dusty it is in here, and I bet you haven’t washed your hands since you got back from SHIELD. And oh god, listen to me, I sound like somebody’s father…” He kept muttering as he rummaged in a pocket and finally produced a pacifier. He held it out. “Here.”
Pacifiers weren’t usually Clint’s thing. But Tony was looking at him expectantly, and Phil had told him it was rude to refuse gifts. He took it quickly, stuffing it into his mouth and huddling back down around his bear to hide.
Tony sighed. “Look. I doubt even I can change SHIELD’s mind about this. But it doesn’t mean shit in regards to the team. You know that, right?”
Clint didn’t know anything. He looked up at Tony with watery eyes.
“I did not sign up for this,” Tony said, mostly to himself, but he said it with the same air of resignation that he did when Thor broke the coffeepot or Natasha stole the last donut. Kind of annoyed, but - if you knew what to listen for - just a little bit fond.
He held a hand out to Clint. “C’mon, munchkin. Steve’s out there fretting like there’s no tomorrow, and you know that’s not good for his blood pressure. Also, you’ve been in here for two days straight and that can’t be good for you.”
“Why do you care?” Clint didn’t meant to ask. It just popped out. And muffled though the words were, Tony seemed to understand.
“Because you’re still an Avenger,” Tony said seriously. “And, you know, I don’t think Agent’s above coming back as a ghost to taser my ass for letting you waste away.”
Clint cracked a very tiny smile at that and took his hand.
It turned out that Clint wasn’t being kicked out of the tower. No one so much as mentioned the possibility of him leaving, and both Tony and Steve - who, arguably, ran the Avengers - were adamant that he was still a part of the team. Clint wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not; he’d never lived with anyone who knew his secret except for Phil, and that was a little scary.
But it wasn’t like he had anywhere else to go - even if he wanted to go back to SHIELD, which he didn't, he wasn't sure that it would be safe - and he figured that if he could pull it together and stop acting like such a baby, it would all be fine. So a couple of days after Tony coaxed him out of the vent, he packed all of his little stuff away into his closet and resolved that he wouldn’t look at it again. He could get by without all that just fine.
Predictably, not a week later that plan completely fell to shit.
When the alarm to assemble went off, Clint didn’t even bother to ask permission. He got into his uniform, grabbed his arrows and ran to the quinjet. Natasha and Bruce met him there; Thor, Tony and Steve had gone on ahead, with Steve catching a ride from Tony. As the best pilot of the team, Clint sat down in the driver’s seat and flew the jet to upstate New York.
It was only about thirty long, tense minutes before the three of them caught sight of the problem: a bunch of small, shiny silver robots were rampaging a small village. Bruce snorted at the sight, then sighed and removed his glasses. He got up and walked to the back of the plane. Clint silently pushed the button to let him out and watched as the Hulk fell to the Earth with a furious roar.
“You sure you’re okay with this?” Natasha asked quietly.
“I’m fine,” Clint said, staring straight ahead through the window. He set his jaw. This wasn’t their first call out since Loki, far from it. He’d held it together before and he could do it again no problem. He ignored the uncertainty bubbling up inside of him and landed the plane in a nearby field.
To her credit, Natasha didn’t ask him again. They descended the plane’s ramp together, and for a while it was just like always. Clint drew and shot on repeat, feeling calmer with every robot that whizzed and died after being skewered by an arrow. Beside him, Natasha was throwing knives with deadly precision, taking down robots left and right. He thought, I can do this. Everything was fine.
He kept telling himself that right up until Thor raised his hammer and three robots collided trying to get away from him, which resulted in a spectacularly loud explosion. The resulting flash of blue light made Clint’s heart skip a beat. It was the exact same color as -
and suddenly he couldn’t breathe, because it seemed like the whole world was tinged in blue again -
he was frozen, his bow falling from his fingers, a scream lodged in his throat -
and all he wanted was his daddy there to protect him, but that was never going to happen -
“I’ve got him, Cap!”
Iron Man seized him around the waist and yanked him out of the way of another explosion, robots falling from the sky. Clint fought wildly as the world flashed blue again, because he couldn’t let it happen again. He couldn’t, because last time he’d gotten Phil killed, and who knew what the hell would happen this time except he couldn’t he couldn’t he couldn’t -
“Clint! Whoa, munchkin, calm down. It’s me, Tony.” They landed on the ground, though Iron Man did not let go, and the helmet snapped up. Tony stared at him, eyes warm and wonderfully brown. Brown, not blue.
Clint stared back at him, desperately gulping in air.
“It’s okay,” Tony said.
“B-blue,” Clint stuttered, barely able to force the word out through his chattering teeth. “It’s t-too... c-can’t...”
“Blue?” Tony echoed, his eyebrows drawing together in confusion, and Clint flinched and whimpered when another flash of blue washed over them as the Hulk roared in satisfaction. He was mortified to feel a sudden wet heat running down his legs, and realized that he’d wet himself right there in the middle of the village.
“N-n-n-no,” he whimpered. “N-not ag-gain, c-can’t... don’t l-let him t-t-t-take m-me.”
“Oh. Oh, hey, it’s okay, kiddo. Loki’s not here. He’s locked up on Asgard. He’s gone. Just me and you. We’re good, peanut.”
Clint wanted to give him a very calm, rational explanation of why nothing was fine. Why, in fact, everything was the VERY OPPOSITE of fine. But by that point he was trembling so badly that he couldn’t make himself speak. He shook even harder when the blue flash came for a fourth time.
“C’mere,” Tony said, reaching for him, and very gently took hold of Clint’s head with his armored hands and pressed it to his shoulder. Clint squeezed his eyes shut and shivered pathetically through the rest of the battle, not daring to look up in case he saw more of that dreadful blue light. Not that he could have even if he wanted to; Iron Man’s strong hands cupped the back of his head, keeping him like that.
By the time the sounds of crashing had stopped around them, Clint was feeling cold and scared, not to mention stupid. Not only had he broken down in the middle of the fight, he’d pulled Iron Man away from it. From the sound of it the robots hadn’t been a difficult foe and the rest of the team had managed just fine without him, But what if they had been facing something more dangerous?
SHIELD was right. Clint was a complete liability.
“It’s okay now,” Tony said somewhere above him. “They’re all gone, Clint.”
“Is he alright?” That was Steve’s voice from behind them, and Clint cringed in embarrassment. He didn’t want to see the looks on their faces. But he made himself lift his head and take a step back.
Surprisingly, neither Tony nor Steve were looking at him with condemnation. Try as he might, he didn’t see any pity either. Tony looked kind of worried, while Steve’s expression was more assessing.
“Sorry,” Clint said hollowly.
“Don’t apologize, Clint,” said Steve, and Clint had to swallow back tears. It seemed like Steve was going to say more, but then SHIELD started to arrive and Steve sighed. “We’ll talk about this later, okay?”
“Sure,” Clint said, taking a step back as both of them made their way over to the SHIELD agents. Maria was one of the first ones out of the SHIELD cars, and she looked furious. She started talking to Steve while gesturing at Clint, and it didn’t take a genius to guess what she was saying.
SHIELD had been right to bench him. He didn’t belong with the team anymore. He couldn’t even handle one simple fight without having a panic attack or acting like a little kid. Clint had to take a deep breath to keep from bursting into tears right there in the middle of the battle scene. He knew what this added up to, and he didn’t think he could take being kicked out of another home, which only left one option.
He had to leave first.
It took Tony a nearly a minute to distinguish the sound of Natasha’s voice from the lines of coding. He looked up, head swimming with numbers, and blinked to dispel the glare before he turned to stare at her and Steve. As the words finally processed, he blurted out, “What?”
“Clint’s gone,” Natasha repeated. The only sign that she was at all affected by the news was the very slight tic in her jaw. “I just went up to check on him, and he’s gone. He took enough stuff with him - I know he's not planning on coming back.”
Shit. “JARVIS, when did Clint leave the tower?” Tony barked.
“Mr. Barton left the tower approximately twelve hours ago, sir.”
“Why didn’t you stop him?!”
“I wasn’t aware I was supposed to,” JARVIS replied.
Which, fair. Tony hadn’t issued any order against Clint leaving, mostly because he didn’t think he had any right to. Or any need to. Clint was, after all, a grown man who was capable of making his own decisions. Except he wasn’t. Not all the time. And lately, ever since the fight with the robots that exploded in blue lights, it seemed like the line between adult Clint and little Clint had been thinner than ever.
“You need to find him,” Steve said, and Tony nodded, already spinning around to pull up the program that would allow him to track the team’s phones -
“Excuse me?” Tony said, shooting an incredulous look over his shoulder at Natasha.
“You heard me. Look, I won’t pretend to know everything that has gone on between you two and Clint -”
“Yeah, right,” Tony muttered.
“- but don’t bother looking for him if you’re not going to carry this through. I'll find him on my own.”
Tony stared at her, then darted a glance at Steve. It was reassuring to see that Steve looked as baffled as he felt. “I’m not sure I’m following.”
Natasha sighed, looking up at the ceiling in a bid for patience. “I told you what kind of relationship Coulson and Clint had. It wasn’t like that all the time, but it was real and it mattered, and that’s - that’s what Clint needs right now, okay? I think being an adult is just too much for him after what Loki did, especially after losing Coulson, and everything just - he needs a break, and this is his version of a break. It might be for two weeks, it might be for two years, it might be forever. But he needs that. And unless you two are willing to step up and provide it for him, you should just back off. I’ll find Clint and get him to a place where someone else can provide it.”
“Are you asking us to adopt Clint?” Steve said in a funny voice.
“I’m asking you to stop and think before you go off without a plan,” Natasha shot back, folding her arms. “He’s vulnerable right now. He needs someone to care for and about him; to put him first. I don’t want him to be hurt anymore.”
The idea was so ludicrous that, for a moment, words actually failed Tony. Sure, he and Steve had sat with Clint that night in the living room, but that was only because seeing Clint cry alone night after night had made the guilt too heavy. Tony had been floundering about what to do when Steve approached him, and, with Natasha’s input, the way forward had seemed obvious.
And sure, he’d climbed into the vents to coax Clint out, but that more about safety! No matter how good the cleaning service he employed was, the vents were unsanitary. And, okay, he’d bought an adult pacifier specifically for Clint to use, but Tony bought presents for everyone. It didn’t mean anything.
He darted a look at Steve, relieved to note that apparently he wasn’t the only one looking a little panicked. Not that Steve wouldn’t excel at this kind of thing. Putting aside the fact that he’d only woken up roughly six months ago, the guy was a born leader and would, no doubt, be an equally great father.
Not like Tony. He was definitely the last person who should ever be a father, considering his less than stunning role model. Howard Stark had left a lot to be desired, though the real Jarvis had done his best to make up for it. Tony had never imagined himself having children. It was one of the reasons that he and Pepper had broken up; she had her heart set on having children.
Then again, Clint wasn’t like a real little kid or baby. He wasn’t as fragile, couldn’t be dropped or stepped on, and had the common sense to get out of a dangerous situation. Which made it weird, right? Clint was a grown man, sure, but remembering that lost, terrified look in his eyes out there in the middle of the battlefield... it didn’t seem that way. In the heat of the moment, with the suit limiting what Tony could feel, he could have been cradling a child.
“I didn’t sign up for this,” Tony said, and it sounded less than convincing even to his own ears.
“No, you didn’t,” Natasha said, and she sounded more tired than angry. “I’m trying to get that through your thick heads before you do sign up for something you can’t take back. Not without breaking a little boy’s heart. If you go after him, he's going to deserve a certain level of commitment and care.”
Tony winced. Because that was the crux of the matter, wasn’t it? He’d been telling himself for the past several months that all of this - letting the team move in, getting to know all of them, even this with Clint - was for the sake of team unity. But the truth was, he'd fallen into this thing with Clint so easily. Too easily. Pepper had always told him that he was awesome at lying to himself.
He caught Steve’s eye and swallowed hard, recognizing the glint in those blue eyes.
Sure enough, Steve said, “I want to find Clint.”
“Are you sure? Even though Clint might never actually be an active Avenger again?” Natasha pressed, her voice dropping into a dangerous note. “You’ll have to discuss it with him, of course, but I know what Clint’s like. He’ll pretend he doesn’t want this to save face, but he’s broken right now. He has nothing left. Even if he protests at first, he’ll likely end up being your responsibility. Are you ready for a child, Steve?” Her tone implied that Steve better answer carefully.
“He’s still a member of this team,” Steve said stubbornly. “And if I had to adopt a kid with anyone, Tony would be my choice.”
Tony’s mouth dropped open.
Natasha straightened up and smiled, all of the deadliness melting away. “Good. Tony?”
“I - um - yeah - I guess?” Tony said blankly.
“Better. Now get to work and find your kid before he hurts himself or worse.”
It just figured that, with Clint's shitty luck, a cold snap would descend on New York City right as he made the decision to leave the tower. Within the span of twelve hours the temperature had plummeted fifteen degrees, leaving it cold enough to snow. He was left huddling further into his jacket as night fell and wishing that he'd thought to grab a heavier sweatshirt to wear underneath before he left.
But he hadn't expected it to get so cold so quickly, and so now he had a problem. He had enough money on him to spend about a week in a hotel, but that - even if he ate as little as possible - would leave him completely broke. His bank accounts were probably being watched by now, so he was going to have to get creative.
"Never thought that I'd end up worrying about money again," he muttered, sniffing. His nose was cold. He rubbed it with his index and middle fingers, cast one last look at Avengers Tower, and forced himself to turn his back on the only place he'd ever really felt at home.
He found a cheap motel that would only set him back fifty bucks a night and signed in under an obscure name. After ordering a pizza for supper, he curled up in the middle of the bed and wrapped himself in the thin sheets. The heater was broken, which explained why the room had been so cheap. He could see his breath in the air.
He thought about the room he and Phil had shared in the tower. They were lovers more frequently than anything else; he didn't know what Natasha had told Tony and Steve, but there hadn't been nearly as much time for age play as Clint would have liked. Both he and Phil had time consuming jobs, after all, especially after the Avengers Initiative came into play.
Clint wished he was there in their room right now. It would be warm, because JARVIS kept the tower at a perfect temperature, and there would be food that didn't make his tummy feel weird. He could have a bath and then get dressed in his jammies, and fall asleep watching his cartoons while cuddling with his teddy bear -
"Damn it," he hissed, rolling over onto his side. He'd told himself he would leave those thoughts behind. But they kept intruding. It was so tempting to be little, to let himself cry for Phil the way he wanted to instead of tamping down his grief, to ask for hugs and for help. To let someone else make the decisions. To be protected, and not have to worry about Loki coming back for him. To have someone there when he woke up screaming from the nightmares, which seemed to get worse by the day.
He'd give himself one more night. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out the pacifier Tony had given him. It was a little grimy now, but Clint didn't care. He slowly slipped into his mouth. The teat was made from silicone, and settled firmly against his tongue. He didn't think he liked it as much as his thumb, but it was a comforting weight and it was a gift from Tony. That alone made it soothing. He sighed, suddenly feeling tired, and shoved the disgusting pillows off the bed to give himself more space to spread out - though he ultimately ended up huddling under the blankets for warmth.
And that's where he was three hours later when the door suddenly slammed open. Clint jolted awake instantly, snapping upright and looking hazily at the door. It was so dark he couldn't see anything, and he flinched when someone snapped the light on. Belatedly he realized he should've grabbed a weapon - goddamn, what was wrong with him? His reflexes were never this shitty - and tried to scramble backwards when three figures lurched into the room.
"Whoa there, munchkin." Tony lunged forward and grabbed his arm, keeping him from falling backwards off the bed. "Don't want to give yourself a concussion on top of everything else, do you?"
Clint just stared at him in shocked wonder.
"What a dump," Natasha said critically, looking around the room. No doubt she was noticing everything, from the mold in the corners to the blood patch on the wall to the suspicious stains on the carpet, all of which seemed much worse now that the overhead light was on.
"I think we need to call the health department," Steve said, grimacing at the state of the blankets as he peeled them away from Clint. Clint let him do it, too stunned to protest even though he started to shiver again as soon as the cooler air of the room hit him. Steve just took his own coat off and draped it around Clint's shoulders. It was large enough that it fell down around his mid-thighs, and so warm Clint couldn't help curling into it. He blushed, realizing he still had the pacifier in his mouth, and hastily reached up to remove it before he spoke.
"What are you guys doing here?"
"Uh, what do you think?" Tony said, giving him a look. "You left."
"Of course I did," said Clint. "I didn't want you to kick me out."
Tony and Steve shared a look he didn't understand, while Natasha came closer to the bed and folded her arms. Even sandwiched between Tony and Steve, her stare was intimidating. "And why did you think you were going to be kicked out?"
"I'm a liability," Clint mumbled, dropping his gaze to his hands. Tears of shame pricked his eyes, but he tried to fight them back. "I can't be a part of the team anymore. SHIELD was right. Not only was I useless in the last battle, I took Iron Man away from it too. I don't know when I'll be able to be an Avenger again. Maybe never." He gulped, losing the battle to hide his tears, and sobbed once - but quietly.
But apparently not quietly enough. Steve put a hand on his shoulder. "Clint, you didn't have to leave. You're still a member of our team, and we want you in the tower."
"No you don't," Clint said, shaking his head. He wiped his face with his sleeve and sobbed again. He was just so tired of everything.
"Steve, Tony, can I talk to Clint alone?" Natasha asked.
"Are we going to get him back in one piece?" Tony asked.
Natasha gave him the hard stare this time. Tony put his hands up. Steve rolled his eyes, squeezed Clint's shoulder and then reached for Tony's arm. Clint watched them go, and the pain in his chest got a lot worse. He was crying in earnest by the time Natasha sat down on the bed beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. He leaned against her, but they both knew she just wasn't enough.
Svetlyachok = firefly. It's Russian, which I do not speak, so apologies if google has failed me horribly.
They probably sat together on the bed for at least half an hour. The whole time, Natasha never said a word. She let Clint cry until he couldn’t cry anymore, and then she took the pacifier from his hand and wiped it off. Clint watched her warily, eyes still wet and head aching from a lack of sleep and too many tears. She held the pacifier on the palm of her hand and looked at him.
“Tony and Steve will take care of you, Svetlyachok,” she said, her accent seeping through. “You don’t have to run away.”
“I’m not their responsibility.”
“Technically, as an Avenger, you are. They’re the leaders of the team.”
Clint snorted a little. “Some leaders. They bicker way too much for that,” he said, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was so confused and, most of all, he was just tired. Too tired. He couldn’t cope with struggling along on his own anymore; the world was just getting too hard for him. He wanted to be little, but more than that he wanted to know that someone cared for him out of more than just a sense of duty.
“Sometimes bickering is a front for something else,” Natasha said, and she was wearing that little smirk that meant she knew things everyone else didn’t.
Normally he would’ve tried to figure out what she meant, but that required more energy than he had to spare. He sighed and put his head in his hands. “You should’ve just let me go, Tash.”
“Now that Phil’s gone, I have to look after you.”
He winced at the dead seriousness in her voice. “No. I’m too fucked up right now to be around anyone. I won’t put you through that. I’m more little kid than adult right now, and even though I’m trying to keep it all straight, I slip at the slightest provocation. I like you too much to ask you to do that.”
“Then don’t ask. Just accept.”
Clint looked up at her. She held out the pacifier.
“Take it, Svetlyachok. Your parents are waiting for you.”
“I don’t have parents,” Clint mumbled, but he took the pacifier from her anyway and slipped it into his mouth. At least when his mouth was occupied, no one expected him to talk. No one would look at him and think that he was capable of making any decisions. No one would think he was big. He would settle for that much.
Natasha just smiled and patted his head before she stood up. Clint followed, stumbling as a wave of fatigue overtook him. He was used to going for days without sleep on missions, but not with this kind of emotional up-and-down. He caught himself before he hit the ground, ignored Natasha’s worried look, and walked over to the door.
Steve and Tony were waiting right outside - literally.
He blinked at them wearily, too exhausted to care that he should’ve been mortified at what they’d seen tonight, and turned to head down the hall. Another wave of fatigue hit and the world spun. His knees sagged. He would’ve hit the carpet had it not been for Steve’s superior reflexes; an arm wound around Clint’s waist and stopped his descent before he even realized what was happening.
Steve was tall, Clint realized in that vague way of people who were really sleepy, and solid. He leaned against Steve and shut his eyes for a moment, hoping that the world would stop spinning. Natasha muttered something behind him, and the arm Clint was leaning against flexed and shifted. A moment later, he was scooped up into Steve’s arms.
It was... weird. He couldn’t remember ever being held like this, not even when he was physically little, though he supposed his parents must have at some point. His mother, at least. He was being held against Steve’s right hip, legs hanging free and head at the perfect angle to rest on Steve’s shoulder, one arm under his bottom and another hand on his lower back. It was shockingly comfortable. Steve was so warm.
“We’re in way over our heads,” Tony said, but then Clint felt another hand on his back. He shivered under the touch.
“Chin up, Tony. Maybe changing diapers will make you more responsible,” Natasha teased.
“I’m a big boy. No diapers,” Clint slurred around the pacifier. Diapers were for babies. He might’ve had an accident once or twice when he woke up from a particularly bad nightmare, but he wasn’t a baby.
“Of course. Go to sleep, honey,” Tony said. He sounded amused. He rubbed Clint’s back a couple times, big, firm circles that had Clint melting into Steve, and then left his hand on Clint’s shoulder as Steve started walking.
They didn’t go through the lobby. Steve carried him out the back door of the hotel, Natasha following, and over to a car that was waiting for them. Natasha got into the driver's seat. For someone who had little to no experience with kids, much less adult-sized littles, Steve proved extremely adept at getting into the car without once setting Clint down. It turned out Steve’s lap was an even better place to curl up, and Clint did so happily.
Tony joined them a couple of minutes later, sliding in beside Steve and Clint, and the car started up. “The hotel owner won’t say anything. He agreed to erase any footage.”
“And you believed him?” Steve said.
“Money talks, and JARVIS can do the rest,” Tony replied. He was quiet for a moment before adding, “Is he okay?”
“He’ll be fine, given enough time and support,” said Natasha over her shoulder. “I wasn’t kidding before, you know.”
“About what? The diapers?”
“You know what.”
“It will be fine,” Steve said. His arms tightened around Clint. “Tony and I can work this out together. And then when Clint wakes up, the three of us will have a chat.”
“Spectacular,” Tony muttered, but it was only a little sarcastic and mostly fond. “Should I bother to ask why us? Surely there had to be SHIELD agents out there who were a better choice.”
“There weren’t,” Natasha said firmly. “SHIELD is a brilliant agency, staffed with equally brilliant people. None of them would be suitable for this.”
“And I - we are?”
Natasha was staring at Clint in the rearview mirror. Even half asleep, he could tell without even looking at her. “You care,” she said quietly, almost bewildered. “Both of you came to me when you noticed what was going on. You could’ve just ignored it, or found it too weird. A lot of people would have. It is weird. But you didn’t. And you’re still here, even now.”
“He’s part of the team,” said Steve, but automatically, like he’d said it so many times it was the only thing he could think of.
“Exactly. And that’s why SHIELD won’t work. They’ll throw their best psychologists and therapists at him, and maybe one or two would even do their best to understand what he needs. But it wouldn’t change anything.” Natasha stopped speaking abruptly, as though she felt she’d said too much, but Clint heard what she didn’t say.
He closed his eyes the rest of the way and stealthily shifted his right hand until he could hold onto Tony’s jacket. He didn’t really have the right to do this, and he was pretty sure Steve and Tony would throw their hands up once they realized what it really encompassed. But for the time, even if it was just for a little while, he would let himself do what he had when Phil was alive: pretend that he had daddies who cared.
Someone was humming. Clint didn’t recognize the song, but it was nice. That, plus the amazingly comfortable bed he was lying on, meant he was reluctant to move. He was warm now, with a blanket pulled up around his shoulders and his teddy bear under his head, and if it weren’t for the growing discomfort from his bladder, everything would’ve been perfect.
Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that if he didn’t move he was going to wet the bed. Again. He refused to let that happen while he was awake. He opened his eyes and blinked sleepily at the red sheets underneath him. He didn’t recognize those either. The humming stopped, and he slowly looked up to see that Tony was looking back at him.
“Hey,” Tony said carefully. He was propped up against some pillows. There was a Starkpad balanced against his knees, and his fingers were still poised to type on it. Clint didn’t think he’d been the one humming, though. Equally slowly, he glanced over his shoulder to see that Steve was sitting on the bed behind him.
“I need to pee,” Clint said, because his brain wasn’t working right, and Steve chuckled.
“Go ahead. We’re not going to stop you.”
Clint didn’t even know why they were there in the first place, but the demands of his bladder were more important than answers. He scooted to the end of the bed and hurried into Tony’s bathroom (because this was Tony’s bedroom, and how the hell had he ended up in here?) to pee. By the time he’d finished washing his hands, he remembered everything.
And was trying to decide whether it would be a kinder fate to just drown himself now instead of facing the inevitable humiliation in the other room.
“Clint,” Steve called. “If you’re finished, can you come back out here please?”
No. Clint squeezed his eyes shut but obeyed, though he stayed in the relative safety of the bathroom doorway and just stared at the two of them. He could see the space between them where he’d been: his blankie and teddy bear stood out against the red sheets. There was a pacifier on the sheets too, and a sizeable spot of drool on the pillows. His face flushed.
“C’mere, peanut,” Tony said, setting his Starkpad aside. He patted the bed in invitation. Clint’s body moved of its own accord, padding over to the bed, though he didn’t sit down.
“I’m sure you’re both busy. I’ll just go,” he blurted out, looking at the ground. The thought of crawling up between them and going back to sleep was just too tempting.
“I’m not busy. Tony, are you busy?”
Clint scowled at the floor, because he knew for a fact that was a lie: Tony was always busy.
“Clint,” Steve said, not unkindly. “Look at me.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Because.” Suddenly Clint felt close to tears. He slipped his thumb into his mouth. It seemed stupid to worry about Tony and Steve seeing that when they’d both seen so much worse.
Steve sighed and got up, walking around the bed until he was standing in front of Clint. Gently, he tipped Clint’s chin up until they were looking at each other. “Natasha told us everything about you and Phil. We’re not going to make you leave the team or the tower.”
“In fact, if you ever run off like that again without telling anyone, I’m more than willing to take you over my knee,” Tony said, and Clint’s eyes darted to him in surprise.
Your parents are waiting for you, Natasha had said. But that couldn’t mean what he thought it meant.
“Tony and I talked about it, and we would be willing to try acting like your guardians full time,” Steve told him. “Obviously we can’t replace Phil…”
“And we wouldn’t even try, munchkin.”
“But if this is what you need, we want to help.”
Clint just stared.
“I’ve been doing some research,” said Tony. “Before you start thinking that we don’t know what we’re getting into. We’re new to this, so you’ll have to bear with us, but we’ll learn.” He sounded kind of outraged that there was something out there that he didn’t have experience with.
“Only if you want it, though. I mean that, Clint. If you’re not interested, that’s completely okay. But either way you do not have to leave the tower. Yes, you’re temporarily benched. I think we can all agree on that -”
“- but the tower is still your home. Fury can’t make you leave. Neither can Hill. Frankly I’d like to see them try. Pepper hasn’t had a chance to tear someone to shreds in a long time…”
“Tony,” Steve said, shooting him a look. “You can take some time to think about it if you want. Tony and I have been talking about it for a while now. And if you are interested, we can set up some ground rules about what you like and don’t. We’re not trying to force you into anything.”
Clint… had no idea how to respond. It was like being offered a delicious meal on a gold platter. He couldn’t help being suspicious. “Why?” he whispered. “Why would you want to - to care for me? It’s so much work!”
“I like taking care of people,” said Steve. “And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Tony is a complete mother hen.”
“What! I am not!”
“Yes, you are.” Steve was smirking, just a little, and he winked at Clint.
“I am not a mother hen. And peanut, the word “mom” better never pass your lips in reference to me.”
“You’re right. You’re clearly more of a “mama”.”
“Steve, I swear -”
That one word as enough to silence them both. They looked at him with identical surprised expressions. Clint stared back defiantly. He had serious doubts this would work. In fact, he was pretty sure both Steve and Tony would get weirded out or end up not wanting to put the time or effort in. But he’d learned a long time ago that sometimes you had to grab something fleeting while you could. If this was all he could get now, he’d take it - even if it only lasted for a day or a week, he’d have the memory of being a little kid full time for the rest of his life. It would have to be enough.
Tony recovered first. “Good. What’s your safeword?”
“Safeword?” Clint echoed, wrinkling his nose.
“We’ll talk more after you nap,” Tony said. “But that’s important. It means you can fuss and complain all you want - well, not all you want. You know what I mean. You can be a kid and say no and still have something you can say when you need us to stop, or if something happens you’re not okay with.”
It wasn’t something that Clint had ever used before. His sessions with Phil just weren’t that involved or lengthy. But he knew right away what word he wanted to use. “Lola,” he said quietly. “I want to use Lola.”
For those who don't watch AOS, Lola is the name of Coulson’s flying car.
There were some things in life that were awkward, and then there were conversations like this. Clint really, really did not want to be having this talk. He stared down at the floor, hands so tightly clasped in his lap that his knuckles were turning white, refusing to look at Steve or Tony.
The silence dragged on until finally, Steve said, “Clint, are you sure this is something you want?“
“I do, it’s just… It’s weird.”
“All I asked was what you liked,” Tony said, sounding confused.
“It’s really not. I don’t want to go out and buy you a crib if that’s not something you’re interested in having.”
That was surprising enough that Clint actually looked up. He stared at Tony. “You were going to buy me a... they make those?” he squeaked, suddenly clueing in that the pacifier he’d been given earlier was larger than the ones for babies. Now that he thought about it, it fit his mouth perfectly.
Tony looked at Steve, then back at Clint. “Clint, exactly what did you and Agent do together?”
Clint shrugged and dropped his gaze again. “It was usually only for a couple of hours here and there when Phil had time. Maybe every two or three months. He would give me my teddy bear and we’d sit down on the couch together to watch television. Sometimes I’d still be little when we went to bed. A couple times I had nightmares and he’d comfort me.” He shrugged and risked another peek.
Tony and Steve were looking at each other. They were doing that annoying, non-verbal conversation thing again, and try as he might he couldn’t work out what they were saying. Clint tried not to scowl.
“It wasn’t meant to be a full time thing,” he said, not knowing why he felt defensive. “Just dumb stress relief. I didn’t expect -” He wanted to say that he’d never expected Loki to take over his brain and to come out of it feeling like he’d been put back together the wrong way. He wanted to say that he’d never had this much trouble staying big, and that this feeling of wanting to be little all the time and safe and protected was actually really fucking scary. But it all got caught in his throat.
“Okay,” Steve said. “That’s okay. But if this is going to be a full time thing...” He trailed off, glanced at Tony again, and changed whatever he was going to say to, “Are you okay if Tony buys you some things? Just to experiment?”
“I guess. But no diapers,” Clint said firmly. “I’m a big boy. I don’t need them.”
Tony’s mouth twitched, but he kept a straight face. “Not even at night?”
Clint shook his head. “I’m a big boy,” he repeated stubbornly, not thinking about the handful of nights when, having woken up from a nightmare in his little headspace, most of the comforting had been more because he’d wet the bed than because of the nightmare. He was not wearing diapers.
“Okay, fair enough. J, omit the diapers, put the order in and pay extra for discretion and immediate delivery,” Tony said.
“Yes sir,” JARVIS said.
Tony had already put a list together. Of course he had. Clint squeezed his fingers even tighter. He was curious about what the order contained, but he was too afraid to ask. He didn’t even realize that the room was starting to get blurry until Steve sat down beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
“What’s wrong, honey?” he asked.
The tears that were welling up finally spilled over. Clint bit his lip, but a tiny sob slipped out anyway. He turned his head, ashamed. “I’m supposed to be an Avenger.” His voice cracked on the last word.
“You are an Avenger, Clint.”
“No I’m not. I’m just a big baby. I can’t even be an adult anymore.” He was trying to hold it together, but the tears just kept coming and suddenly he was crying.
“Being an adult isn’t all its cracked up to be, for one thing,” Tony said, sitting down on Clint’s other side. “And for another, believe me when I say that no one responds to trauma in the same way. Some of us deal with PTSD by turning to a safe, therapist approved method like age play. Some of us hit punching bags until we bloody our knuckles and break our hands. And some of us get drunk and get into fights with our best friends and then go eat donuts while sitting inside of a giant donut. I gotta say, sprout, out of the three of us, you are definitely the one handling this whole trauma thing the best.”
“Do I even want to know the story behind the donuts?” Steve asked, and Tony waved a hand at him.
“Not the point.”
“I’m scared,” Clint confessed, sniffing, feeling dirty for saying the words out loud. “I can’t control it. I don’t know w-what’s g-going t-to.. t-to...” He started crying harder.
Steve and Tony both hugged him at the same time. Neither of them said anything. Clint held himself stiffly at first, but before long he couldn’t resist sagging into the warmth. He’d never been hugged like this before: surrounded on all sides. It was so safe.
“You’re gonna be ok, peanut,” Tony said after a long time.
“How do you know?” Clint whispered.
“Because I know everything.”
Steve snorted. “You really shouldn’t start by lying to the kid.”
“I’ll have you know that was not a lie,” Tony said, but he was smirking, and he ruffled Clint’s hair. “Look. I can’t make any promises. But you’re not alone. You got me and Steve, and Natasha, and Bruce and Thor. We’re a team now, remember?”
“That means we’ll figure this out together,” Steve added. “Maybe for now, you should stop worrying about being an Avenger and just focus on being a baby.”
“‘M not a baby,” Clint mumbled, but without any heat. He didn’t even know what he was, to be honest. He and Coulson had never gotten the chance to get that far. He’d never even dared to call Coulson ‘Daddy’ out loud; had really only thought of him by that name in the privacy of his own thoughts, and then only when he was feeling his littlest.
“Then I guess I better return most of the stuff I got JARVIS to buy,” said Tony.
“Was it all baby stuff?” Clint asked.
Tony shrugged. “I didn’t know what you’d like. I got a variety, but I was mostly going off the teddy bear and the pacifier you seemed to like so much.”
Clint blushed a little at the mention of the pacifier. “I don’t know either. But I could try some of it. Maybe. No diapers,” he added, because he wasn’t bending on that.
“You’re not going to see me arguing that one,” Tony replied, winking at Steve. Neither of them pulled away from the hug, and after a moment Clint cuddled into them.
Finally, this is caught up with where I was on tumblr. Anything from here on out is new content.
It turned out that Tony swore a lot when he was trying to put things together that didn’t want to go together. Clint bit his lip and tried not to giggle too loudly, because he was pretty sure that Tony had forgotten he was there and he might stop if he remembered. The two of them were sitting in the middle of his new bedroom, and Tony was trying – unsuccessfully – to put together the new bed he’d bought for Clint.
“Son of a bitch!” Tony yelled finally, throwing his screwdriver at the wall.
“Tony!” Steve said, sticking his head into the room. He was frowning. “Not in front of the baby.”
Tony blinked at him and then turned to Clint, looking surprised to find that Clint was sitting not two feet behind him. “When did you get here? No, no. Your room is supposed to be a surprise.”
“I wanna help,” Clint said stubbornly, folding his arms. He didn’t really like surprises. There had been too many bad ones in his life for that. Anything that Tony and Steve did, he wanted to be a part of. Besides… “You’re missing that piece there,” he added, pointing.
“I… oh for god’s sake,” Tony said, shoulders slumping. “I’m supposed to be a genius.”
Steve cracked a smile and winked at Clint. “You are a genius. Just maybe not at putting together store bought furniture,” he said kindly. “Why don’t you let me give it a try?”
For a moment it seemed like Tony would argue, but then he threw his hands up and sighed. “Go for it. Maybe JARVIS will help you more than me,” he said, shooting an accusing look at the ceiling.
“As I recall, Sir, you told me to shut up approximately one minute and thirty-nine seconds into the process,” JARVIS said.
“I’ll tell you that again if you don’t stop sassing me,” Tony grumbled without any heat. “Come on, peanut, let’s go get a snack and leave Steve to it.”
Clint nodded, hopping up and trailing Tony out of the room. Tony hadn’t been kidding when he’d paid extra for delivery: he’d ordered everything at about 8pm last night, and by 9am it had all been sitting on the steps of the tower in unlabeled, plain brown boxes. Steve and Thor had carried the boxes in while Tony ‘supervised’, which really just meant he’d stood back with an arm around Clint’s shoulders and watched.
It was just past eleven, and the cereal Clint had eaten for breakfast was a distant memory. “I’m hungry,” he said as they walked into Steve’s kitchen. Their kitchen. Huh. That was going to take some getting used to. His new bedroom was on Steve’s floor, and so was Tony’s. Apparently Steve and Tony had talked after Clint fell back asleep, and decided that all three of them staying on the same floor was – for the time being – the optimal solution.
“Okay…” Tony opened up the refrigerator. “How about some apple slices with peanut butter?”
Tony brought three red apples, the jar of peanut butter and a single knife to the kitchen. When Clint started to reach for the knife, Tony stopped him. “No, kiddo,” he said gently. “Little kids don’t play with sharp knives, remember?”
“I can do it,” Clint argued, frowning. This was where it got a little awkward. Sometimes he felt little and sometimes he didn’t; he wasn’t all the way there right now, and he ended up feeling a little defensive that Tony wouldn’t let him cut the stupid apple. He crossed his arms.
Tony sighed and set the knife down on the table. “Clint, are you absolutely sure about this? You can change your mind, you know. Me buying that stuff for you isn’t like a signed agreement. You’re free to safeword out at any time and Steve and I won’t be mad, I swear.”
“No!” Now Clint felt bad. He blinked back tears. “I… I’m sorry. It’s just hard to get myself in that headspace without Phil.”
Tony winced. “That’s pretty much the one thing I can’t give you.”
“I know. It’s okay.” It really wasn’t, but that was Clint’s issue to deal with. He swallowed hard and looked at the jar of peanut butter. “Maybe once everything is set up, I’ll feel more… you know. It was hard with Phil sometimes, too. It always had to be so rushed.”
And he remembered how much that frustrated him, now that he was thinking about it, though he’d never said anything to Phil. Sometimes it felt like he would just be fully settled in his headspace and Phil would have to leave, usually for a mission. Two hours really wasn’t much, but Phil was the one doing him the favor so he’d never felt like he could say something.
“Well, there’s no need to rush now,” Tony pointed out. “Open the peanut butter and I’ll be right back.” He hopped off the stool and left the room – taking, Clint noticed, the knife with him.
“I could cut you up,” Clint said sulkily to the apples, but he reached for the jar. It was brand new, so the silver foil was still on top. He peeled it off and looked down at the creamy, untouched goodness.
“Oh my god,” Tony said as he walked back into the room.
Clint jumped and looked up at him guiltily. He had three of his fingers stuffed in his mouth and there was now a chunk of peanut butter missing from the jar. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what had happened.
“Sorry,” he mumbled around his fingers, then swiped his tongue between the crease of his index and middle fingers.
Tony just shook his head and started to laugh. “I hope you at least washed your hands first,” he said, coming closer. He had one of his arms behind his back, and Clint gasped when he saw his teddy bear.
“Mine!” he cried, pulling his fingers from his mouth and holding his hands out greedily.
“Sorry, munchkin, but this time you definitely have to wash your hands. You don’t want your bear getting all gummy, do you?” Tony said. “Then he’d have to have a bath, and I don’t think he’d like that.”
“No bath,” Clint said firmly, looking longingly at the bear. Tony set it down on the table, away from the peanut butter, and gently grasped his wrist. He tugged Clint over to the sink and switched the water on, directing Clint’s hands under the flow. Clint sighed but begrudgingly allowed the hand washing to happen, peeking over his shoulder frequently to make sure his bear was still there.
When his hands were finally dry, he rushed back to the table and scooped his bear up, hugging it to his chest and rubbing his cheek against the soft fur. He didn’t notice the sad smile on Tony’s face as Tony watched; by the time he looked up, Tony was carefully cutting the apples up into several bite-sized chunks and putting them on a plate.
“There you go. Eat up,” he said, ruffling Clint’s hair. “I’ll get you a drink.”
“Thanks Tony,” Clint said, hugging his bear with one hand as he grabbed an apple piece with the other.
Clint’s room was the coolest. Somehow, Tony had gotten his hands on a bed that was big enough for an adult, but which was shaped like a car. Steve had finished putting it together while Tony was otherwise occupied; the frame stood in the corner, close enough to the window that Clint could sit up and look out if he wanted to, and was dressed with a dark brown comforter and pillows that were designed to look like the inside of a car. His blankie and teddy bear had a place of honor in front of the pillows.
There was a big wooden toy box, a rocking chair, and a hammock. Steve had been the one to hang that, too, in the corner opposite Clint’s new bed. It was up high enough that Clint had a perfect view out the window, and – when the window was open – the wind would sway the hammock, rocking him to sleep. There was also a new dresser, a nightstand with a brand new lamp, and a closet full of clothing that Steve had taken the time to hang up.
It was a little overwhelming. Clint would have happily traded his right arm to have a room like this when he was a kid. He’d never imagined that he would get it now, and at the expense of someone else to boot. Possibly the weirdest part was that Tony was looking at him all worriedly, like he honestly expected Clint to say that he didn’t like it.
“Thanks,” Clint said, maybe a little hoarsely, running a reverent hand down the bed’s comforter. Tony and Steve were taking this so seriously. He didn’t know how to handle that.
“You can help me paint the room later if you want,” Steve said. “Maybe… purple?”
“Really?” Clint shot a quick look at Tony. “No… that’s okay. Purple is really loud.” That was what his mom used to say about it. Which was better than his father’s response of slapping Clint upside the head and telling him that they weren’t made of money and that purple was a girly color anyway.
Tony held his hands up. “Hey, any color you want is fine with me. I had plans to do your whole floor in purple, but Pepper pointed out that Agent might not appreciate it. And then she started saying something about me getting carried away, but I stopped listening at that point.”
“You, carried away? Never,” Steve said, winking at Clint.
“I saw that. You’re teaming up against me,” Tony said, pouting.
“We wouldn’t do that,” Steve said, eyes wide with innocence, and made an exaggerated gesture behind Tony’s back that made Clint giggle. Tony pouted harder, but his mouth twisted up like he was fighting back a grin. He reached out and shoved Steve playfully, but Steve caught his hand and tugged him in. That made Clint’s giggles stop in a hurry.
“Ew,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “If you’re gonna be all kissy, I’m gonna go watch television.”
Steve and Tony separated lightning fast, practically jumping apart. “Kissy?” Steve said, face and ears turning pink. “That’s not – I think you have the wrong idea.”
“Yeah, just because we’re co-parenting doesn’t mean anything,” Tony said, ruffling Clint’s hair. Clint eyed him. His smile was definitely forced.
“But you –” Clint began, but he didn’t get to finish. Tony clapped his hands.
“Okay,” he said loudly. “I have some stuff to finish up for Pepper. Munchkin, are you coming with me or with Steve?”
“Sir, if I may remind you, Miss Potts is waiting for you downstairs.”
Tony visibly winced. “Yeah, no, you should totally stay with Steve. I have a bunch of paperwork to sign.”
“But I want to go with you,” Clint said, just to see what Tony would say. There had never been much of a need for limits or boundaries with Phil. Mostly because Clint was so grateful for whatever they did together that he didn’t see the point. But there had been a rare time or two when he felt out of sorts, and he’d wanted to push back and see how Phil would react. He never had, but if this was going to be a full time thing then he wanted to know where the limits were before he ran into them at full force.
“Listen to your mother, Clint,” Steve said.
Tony actually sputtered. Steve just grinned impishly at him.
“You know, you don’t have to watch me every minute of the day,” Clint found himself saying.
They both looked at him, Tony’s glare and Steve’s grin fading. Clint stared back. He watched as they exchanged looks. It was something they did a lot. He wasn’t sure what it meant.
“You’re, like, two years old,” Tony said finally. “I don’t need child neglect added to my list of charges.”
“I’m four,” Clint said, outraged. Sure, his headspace was a little uneven. Sometimes older, sometimes just a tiny bit younger. Phil had remarked on that just once, towards the end, after a particularly difficult SHIELD mission had left Clint feeling as helpless as a newborn. But for the most part, he evened out as a very firm four-year-old thank you very much.
Tony didn’t look convinced. “Sure you are, peanut.”
“Sir, Miss Potts would like me to tell you that if you’re not downstairs in one minute, she will, quote, come find you and make you regret it, unquote.”
Again, Tony winced. “Yeah, I need to go or she’s going to kick my ass.”
“Shut up, Steven, I haven’t forgotten that ‘mother’ crack,” Tony retorted. He ruffled Clint’s hair again and took off towards the doorway. Clint couldn’t blame him. Pepper Potts was right up there with Natasha in terms of not being a person that Clint would want to be on the bad side of.
Steve sighed once Tony was gone and turned back to Clint. “So, what do you want to do? I know they say that television rots your brain, but I could live with an hour or two.”
“Sure,” Clint said. And then, because he couldn’t let it go, “You really don’t have to. I meant it.”
“Clint.” Steve stopped and knelt down, putting him at a lower height than Clint. It made Clint feel amazingly small and little all at the same time. “First of all, Tony and I aren’t doing this because we have to, okay? Secondly, if we’re doing something that makes you uncomfortable, you can safeword. Otherwise, we’re going to treat you like a little kid. And no halfway responsible adult would ever leave a two-year-old home alone.”
“Four,” Clint muttered, but without heat.
“Whatever.” Steve stood up, hands coming towards Clint, and before Clint could react, Steve scooped him up off the ground like he weighed no more than a real toddler and settled him on his hip. Clint squeaked, hastily wrapping his arms around Steve’s neck, because wow the ground seemed really far away suddenly. Steve carried Clint out into the living room, apparently not caring that Clint was clinging to him out of terror.
And, okay, maybe because being carried when he wasn't practically unconscious still felt pretty nice.
Clint jerked awake, blue lights still flashing in his eyes. He sat straight up in bed, breathing hard and trembling from head to toe. In his mind, he could still hear the silken sound of Loki's voice ordering him to do things. Things which normally he wouldn't want to do, but which sounded like the best idea ever coming from Loki. He didn't think he'd ever forget that voice no matter how much he desperately wanted to.
"Get out," he whispered to himself, shoving the covers of his bed away. He half-fell out of the bed, hitting his shin against the frame, and stumbled over the dresser. He stared in the mirror, fully expecting to see the too-blue eyes that meant he was under Loki's control, and almost collapsed with relief when he saw his normal blue eyes instead.
Thank god. He sank slowly to his knees, curling in on himself and shivering. The room was dark, silent and cold - the only source of light was the eerie moonlight spilling in around the curtains - and he desperately wished for - for what? Clint didn't even know what he wanted at that moment, only that he was alone and he didn't like it. He buried his face in his hands and started to cry.
He didn't know how long he'd been there when the door opened, spilling warm light into the room, and Tony's voice was saying, "Clint? Hey, sprout, what's wrong?"
When the hand touched his shoulder, Clint didn't even think. He threw himself at Tony, who had crouched down to see him. Tony caught him but fell over backwards, landing hard on his ass. Clint practically climbed on top of him, sobbing and grabbing fistfuls of Tony's shirt in his shaking hands. This was what he wanted. He didn't want to be alone; he wanted someone to hug him and tell him that it was okay.
Like Tony could read his mind, warm arms wound around Clint's back. "It's okay, peanut. You're okay," Tony crooned, voice low and kind. "Shh, I'm right here."
"L-Lo-k-ki," Clint stuttered out.
"Oh shit, you had a nightmare, didn't you?" Tony muttered, sounding worried. "Steve!"
A moment later, Steve was saying, "What's wrong with him?"
"I think he had a nightmare, or maybe a flashback, about Loki. Can you help me? I can't move."
Hands slid under Clint's armpits and started to lift him away from Tony. Clint screamed and flailed, struggling to get away, thinking that it was Loki standing behind him.
"Clint! Clint, it's me," Steve called over the sound of his cries, physically turning Clint around so that they could stare into each other's face. "Honey, it's me. You're safe. We're here."
It wasn't Loki. Clint started to cry anew, reaching towards Steve with desperate hands. He was quickly granted the hug he needed so much, as Steve brought him in close to his chest and allowed Clint to cuddle in as much as he wanted. He could never be close enough as far as Clint was concerned, heart still pounding and half-convinced that Loki was close, but having Steve's arms around him and sitting in Steve's lap helped a little.
The lights in the room went on and soft music started to play. Tony's hands gently rubbed his upper arms and back, letting Clint know that he was there. Clint closed his eyes and gasped out sobs, the panic slowly dwindling as he realized that there was nothing to fear. Steve and Tony were here, and even if Loki was close, they wouldn't let Loki get to him.
As his sobs gradually tapered off, he heard the sound of Tony murmuring to him, words just barely audible over the music. It sounded like he was telling a story about Dummy. Clint tried to calm down, wanting to listen, and slipped his thumb in his mouth as Tony told him about Dummy learning to play fetch - apparently Rhodey had taught him while he and Tony were in college, much to Tony's displeasure at the time.
"I wanna play," he mumbled.
Tony's hands stilled on his ribs. "What? Oh, you mean with Dummy? I think that can be arranged. Rhodey doesn't have the chance to come over as much as he used to, so I'm sure Dummy would love that."
Clint nodded sleepily. "Fetch."
"Yeah, we can play fetch. So long as you stop giving us heart attacks."
"Don't apologize," Steve said. "It's okay, Clint."
It wasn't okay. Clint had woken them both up. He flushed, trying to bury his face.
"No, really," Tony said. "I was just messing around down in the workshop when JARVIS called me. I wasn't doing anything important. If anything, you probably did him a favor. He gets fussy when I spend too long down there without taking a break."
"That's because it's bad for you," Steve said, in a tone which meant they'd had this conversation many times before and would have it many times again.
"Says you, Cap. Clint, baby, are you alright now?"
Tony had never called him "baby" before. Clint thought about protesting because he wasn't a baby, but he liked the sound of it coming from Tony's lips. "Cold," he said instead.
"Cold? Here." Tony's hands left, but he returned with the blanket from Clint's bed, tucking the fabric snugly around Clint's shoulders. "How long have you been having nightmares like that?"
Clint shrugged. Honestly, he'd always had nightmares of one kind or another. They were just extra bad now because he was dreaming about Loki. For the first few nights after he'd moved into his new room the nightmares had stopped, and he'd been foolish enough to think that maybe they wouldn't come back. Apparently, his brain was just waiting for him to relax into a sense of false security.
"Clint?" Steve prompted.
"Long time," he mumbled finally.
There was a pause, and he had the feeling that Steve and Tony were looking at each other again. He sucked his thumb harder. What if they made him go back to sleep? His old method of dealing with the memories had involved a bottle of whiskey, but he didn't think Steve would let him do that. And while he could safeword out, he didn't really want to. He just didn't want to go back to bed.
"Okay," Steve said after a few long seconds. "Come on, little guy." He stood up, somehow managing to take Clint with him. Clint wrapped an arm around his neck, afraid that Steve would set him down on the bed, but Steve carried him out to the living room. The television was already on, showing an infomercial of a guy trying to sell a yoga mat, and there was a half-eaten bowl of cereal on the coffee table, indicating that Steve had already been awake.
Tony sat down with them, meaning that Clint was comfortably ensconced between them. He leaned against Tony and shivered one last time, fisting his free hand in Steve's shirt just in case Steve got any ideas about moving. Steve didn't, though; he just grabbed the remote, turned up the volume on the television, and settled an arm around Clint's shoulders.
After a while, they must have thought he'd fallen back asleep, because Tony sighed and said softly, "Jesus, that was fun."
"I haven't seen anyone go that pale for a long time," Steve muttered. "I didn't realize he was having nightmares that bad."
"I should've guessed," Tony said. "Something like that... no wonder the poor kid doesn't like bedtime." He trailed a hand through Clint's hair.
"He can't just not go to bed, though. And I don't think the solution is having him sleep with one of us, either. I only need about four hours a night, and on the off chance I do sleep more than that, I'd be afraid of hurting him if I lashed out," Steve replied. "And you keep weird hours."
"Hey, I keep genius hours, thank you very much," Tony shot back. He was quiet for a moment, then, "Did you notice he started to calm down when JARVIS turned the lights on and played music?"
"That's true. Maybe we should get him a nightlight?"
"I'll do you one better than that," Tony said thoughtfully. "I'll work on it tomorrow. I doubt it'll magically solve everything, but it might be a step in the right direction."
By the time Clint woke up he was alone on the sofa, with only his teddy bear and blankie for company. He lifted his head slowly, feeling muzzled, and realized that he’d been sucking on the ear of his teddy bear in his sleep again. The ear was matted with spit when he pulled it out of his mouth. He made a face, realizing that his tongue was coated with fuzz.
“Blech,” he muttered, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. He could hear dishes clanking in the kitchen, which meant that someone wasn’t too far away. It was just enough to soothe his instinctual thought, which was that he’d been left alone, but still left him restless and edgy. He didn’t want someone to be in the kitchen; he wanted someone to be right here.
He didn’t even realize that his eyes had welled up with tears until Steve came flying out of the kitchen, looking alarmed. Clint sniffed at the sight of him, trying not to cry, and hugged his teddy bear closer as Steve hurried over to him.
“What’s wrong?” Steve asked. “Did you hurt yourself? Have a nightmare?”
Clint shook his head.
“I believe,” JARVIS said, causing them both to jump, “that young Agent Barton did not like waking up alone.”
Steve’s face collapsed. “I’m sorry, Clint. I didn’t even think about that. I got hungry, and I figured you would be too. I was just making breakfast.”
“S’fine,” Clint mumbled, wiping his eyes with the arm of his bear. That drew Steve’s attention to the soaked ear. He looked at it for a moment, eyebrows furrowed, but didn’t say anything about it.
“It’s not fine. Next time I’ll make sure I’m here in the room with you,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
Clint wasn’t really, but he nodded anyway and stood up from the couch. Pain flared on his lower leg and he winced, limping once or twice before he adjusted to the ache. Steve was still watching him closely though, and he caught the limp. He frowned and rounded the couch, gently pushing Clint back down. Then he squatted in front of Clint and rolled up the hem of his pajama pants.
“Wow, buddy. That looks like it hurts. How did you do that?” He gently took hold of Clint’s foot, lifting his leg for a better look at the dark purple bruise on Clint’s shin. The skin around it was swollen and tender to the touch, and Clint winced when Steve’s fingers got a little too close for comfort.
“Hit it last night,” Clint said, the memory coming back in a rush, and felt his chin quiver. “When I was tryin’ to get outta bed.”
Steve sighed. “That makes sense. Come on. I’ll put some ice on it and that will make you feel better.” He reached for Clint, who wound his arms around Steve’s neck as Steve lifted him in a bridal carry. He carried Clint into the kitchen and set him on one of the kitchen chairs, then pulled another chair close enough to prop Clint’s foot up on. Somehow, Clint’s thumb gravitated into his mouth as Steve bustled around getting an ice pack.
“There, that should help. God knows I had my share of bruises and bumps as a kid. My ma used to do the same thing,” Steve said with a wistful smile. Then he caught sight of Clint’s thumb. “You haven’t washed your hands, Clint.”
Clint hunched his shoulders and grumbled, sucking his thumb defiantly.
“You are too much like your mother,” Steve muttered, giving him a pat on the head. “Tony would kill me if he heard me say that, but it’s true.”
He moved away and brought back toast and a couple different options for cereal. Clint pointed to the Lucky Charms and smiled around his thumb as Steve poured him a bowlful. He liked Lucky Charms a lot, but he’d never had the chance to eat them very often growing up. JARVIS, of course, had control of the tower’s grocery list, and Tony had told them all that JARVIS would order anything they wanted. Despite that, Clint had always felt too shy to ask and usually stuck to whatever didn’t have a prior claim to it.
They were midway through eating – or in Clint’s case, carefully picking all of the marshmallows out of his bowl – when Tony returned to the room. He was carrying a box, which he set on the counter so that he could approach Clint with free hands. He plucked the ice pack off of Clint’s leg and examined what was underneath with a frown.
“Edge of the bed,” Steve said by way of explanation.
“Hmm. Might have to make some modifications to it. Could staple foam to the side of it, maybe,” Tony said thoughtfully. “J, make note.”
“Other than that, how are my two favorite men doing?” Tony asked, ruffling Clint’s hair and turning back to the box.
Out of the corner of his eye, Clint saw a pink blush sweep down Steve’s face. Inwardly, he rolled his eyes. “Good. I’m eating marshmallows.” He felt inexplicably proud of that fact, pointing to his bowl. All that remained were the crunchy oat bits that he wasn’t as interested in.
“Good job, peanut. Eat the best part first. Excuse me, I gotta –” Tony jerked his shoulder towards the hall and then disappeared with the box. Clint leaned over just enough to see that Tony had gone into his bedroom. He looked at Steve, but Steve just shrugged.
Tony continued to go in and out of the bedroom a couple of times for the next hour; each time, he returned with what Clint was pretty sure was tools, though he couldn’t see because Tony was carrying them in a box. His curiosity was through the roof, but the first – and only – time he’d tried to sneak down the hall to see what was going on, Tony had immediately appeared to block his progress. After that, Steve kept him in the living room, distracting him with the TV and some video games.
It was lunchtime before Tony was done. He joined them at the table for sandwiches and then took Clint down to the workshop with him so that Clint could play fetch with Dummy, as promised. That was lots of fun and Clint thoroughly enjoyed himself, though it was also tiring. He fell asleep on the couch that Tony kept in the workshop.
Needless to say, he didn’t actually get to see what had been done to his bedroom until 7:30pm that night. Tony and Steve seemed to have decided that was Clint’s bedtime – not that Clint needed a bedtime, that was for babies – but for tonight, Clint didn’t mind. He was too anxious to see what Tony had done. He actually ran down the hall, ignoring the ache in his leg, to get the door open.
He wasn’t expecting to see a mobile above his head and stopped short. At first he was deeply indignant. Mobiles were for babies, not big kids like him! But then he got a better look at it, and he realized that it was actually kind of cool. It was purple, for one thing, and made of interconnected rods that looked like they could spin, like a tornado. Dangling sporadically from each rod was Iron Man’s mask, Captain America’s shield, and the rest of the team’s insignia, including his own shiny purple arrow.
“It can be modified,” Tony said behind him. “I can add more to it, if you want. I wasn’t sure what else you’d want. But it plays music and it lights up. It’s motion sensitive, so if you start tossing and turning from nightmares the light will come on.” He switched the overhead lights off. The mobile immediately lit up, casting a soft red light over the room. It was bright enough to chase away the shadows in the corners, but not so bright that Clint wouldn’t be able to sleep.
“What does it play?” Clint asked.
“Whatever you want. I preprogrammed some music.” Tony took out a remote and pressed a button. An instrumental version of a song that Clint wasn’t familiar with began to play. It was a nice sound.
“Why don’t you lay down and try it?” Steve suggested.
“Okay…” Very slowly, Clint climbed into bed and settled back against his pillow. Tony handed him his teddy bear, which he took and began to cuddle.
Then Steve offered him a pacifier.
“Not a baby,” Clint said immediately, scowling. They seemed to be forgetting that very important tidbit.
“I know that. I’m not saying you are, but this will save some wear and tear on your teddy’s ears. It’s more sanitary, too.” Steve pushed the pacifier into his mouth without giving him the chance to protest. Clint pouted, but when he looked to Tony for help, Tony just shrugged.
“Mean,” Clint mumbled around the pacifier, but he didn’t try to spit it out. He laid there and watched the mobile spin, realizing that there were strategically placed crystals here and there that reflected the light beautifully - red light, which was so much better than icky blue. He was barely aware of Tony and Steve leaving as his eyes drifted shut.
Clint yawned for the fifth time in ten minutes, though he did his best to hide it. He didn’t want Steve to notice and think that he needed to go down for a nap or something stupid like that, because then Clint would have to go lay down in his stupidly comfortable bed and force himself to stay awake for at least an hour. And it was hard enough keeping his eyes open while watching cartoons as it was.
He squirmed a little on the couch, wrapping his arms around his teddy and sucking lazily on his thumb. The mobile had gone a long way towards soothing his nightmares over the past couple weeks. He still had them, of course. But now the nightmares were averaging every two to three nights as opposed to every damn night, and that meant he was getting at least three to four solid nights of sleep a week. Which sounded good in theory.
In reality, Clint was sleeping so deeply he kept wetting the bed.
It was mortifying. He’d dealt with this problem on and off over the course of his life; usually, just as he thought he’d kicked it for good, it would make an ugly reappearance after a stressful or difficult mission. It had taken him weeks to sleep in the same bed with Phil (and Clint thanked god every day that he’d never wet the bed with Phil in it because then he’d have to throw himself out the nearest window and beg Iron Man not to catch him).
He’d wet the bed at least six times since Tony had given him the mobile. The first two times, he’d managed to keep it a secret. He’d changed the sheets in the middle of the night and bundled the soiled ones down the garbage chute, swearing JARVIS to secrecy. The third time, Tony had appeared in the room right as Clint was climbing out of his soaked sheets, arms folded and eyebrows raised. There had been no hiding it after that.
To their credit, Steve and Tony were taking it well. They hadn’t yelled or tried to slap him around or insulted him (and wasn’t that shocking in its own way? Because Clint’s father… well, let’s just say he had an entirely different reaction). They even had a routine now. JARVIS had to be letting them know, the traitor, because they came into the room without failing every damn time as soon as Clint woke up. Then one of them would usher Clint into the bathroom and make him shower while the other cleaned the room up.
It was just really, really embarrassing and Clint hated it. So he was determined not to fall asleep, or at least not to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time, until he figured out a way to resolve it. Serving as a SHIELD agent for so many years had taught him how to sleep lightly and wake frequently, and he was relying heavily on those skills right now. The only negative part was that he couldn’t stop yawning.
And after one particular yawn that was so wide Clint couldn’t hide it, Steve grabbed the remote and muted the television. “Clint,” he said, expression all serious. It was the look he wore when he wanted to talk about something that Clint would not want to talk about.
“What?” Clint said, trying not to sound whiny, but it was hard. He was cranky and tired and just wanted a good night’s sleep, but without the hideous 2am wake-up call.
“You haven’t been sleeping,” Steve said.
“Yes I have! You make me go to bed every night at 8pm.” And Clint couldn’t hide his pout over the fact. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a bedtime that early.
“But you’re not sleeping,” Tony said, entering the room with a bag in his hand. He set it down at his feet and looked at Clint knowingly. “And before you whine about the fact that JARVIS is monitoring your vitals, I didn’t need him to. Believe me, sprout, I’m familiar with the signs of sleep deprivation.”
“More familiar than you should be,” Steve muttered.
“Not now, Cap,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “The point is, little kids need lots of sleep. Want to explain what’s going on?” He crossed his arms, leaning against the doorframe.
“It’s nothing,” Clint said.
“It’s not nothing if you’re not sleeping,” said Steve. “Are you having nightmares? Is the mobile not working anymore?”
“It works fine.” It worked too well, but Clint wasn’t going to admit to that.
“So it is about wetting the bed, then,” Tony said bluntly.
Clint’s face burned as Steve glared at Tony. “Tony! What did I say about asking gently?”
“Too slow,” Tony said with a shrug, but his face softened a little when he turned back to Clint. “Seriously, peanut, is that the problem here?”
“No,” Clint lied, but he could tell that they didn’t believe him. He fisted his hands in his lap, hoping to hide the way they were trembling. He didn’t know if it was possible to combust from mortification, but if it was then he was well on his way to doing it.
Steve and Tony exchanged looks. Then Tony bent down and opened up the bag to show Clint what was inside.
“No!” Clint exclaimed, jumping up. “No way. I’m not a baby! I’m not wearing diapers!”
“These aren’t diapers. They’re pull-ups,” Tony said, like that really made a difference.
“I don’t care!”
“Clint, honey, these will help you sleep better,” Steve said gently, standing up. He took Clint’s hands into his. “If you have an accident during the night, it won’t matter. The pull-ups will keep your sheets from getting wet. If you want to wear boxers during the day, that’s fine. But anytime you sleep –”
“No way!” Clint said again. “You can’t make me.”
“Actually, we can,” said Tony, crossing the room. He set the dreaded bag on the coffee table. “We’re your parents. Caregivers. Whatever. Point is, what we say goes. And we’re saying you have to wear pull-ups every time you sleep, whether it’s at night or just down for a nap, from now on.”
Clint looked back and forth between them. “But I don’t want to!”
Again, Steve and Tony exchanged looks. It was Steve who said, “You are always welcome to use your safeword, Clint. You know that. We won’t be angry. And we’ll find another solution if you do. It’s up to you.”
Clint opened his mouth and then, after a moment, closed it. He couldn’t bring himself to say his safeword. Not when it meant that all of this would stop. Spending time with Tony in the workshop, painting and cooking with Steve, their dinners with the whole team, the hugs and affection he craved so much – everything that Clint had been relying on so heavily during the past couple weeks would be gone just like that.
Instead, he started to cry. Steve immediately pulled him into a hug, which Clint didn’t even try to resist. He buried his face in Steve’s shoulder and sobbed, hating the fact that he was so weak. It was unbearable.
“Clint,” Tony said softly, and it was so unusual to hear Tony saying his name instead of a nickname that Clint actually listened. “These aren’t a punishment. You haven’t done anything wrong. And Steve and I don’t think badly of you, or feel any differently towards you, for wearing them. It’s purely so that you can sleep without worrying about wetting the bed. We’re trying to help, and this is the best solution we could think of.” He put a hand on Clint’s back.
It was kind of galling that the best solution a genius could think of was pull-ups, but Clint didn’t have the energy to argue. He cried himself out against Steve’s shoulder, until he was so exhausted he couldn’t even open his eyes when Steve scooped him up. He heard Tony following them down the hall and wasn’t surprised when Steve set him down on his bed.
“Poor kid,” Steve whispered, hands working at Clint’s waistband. Clint tried not to blush as his jeans and boxers were removed. He heard the sound of plastic tearing and then something crinkling, and had to fight to keep still as his feet were guided through the leg holes and then a pull-up was being pulled up his legs.
“I know. He really hates them. But I tried everything, Steve. This was the best thing JARVIS and I could come up with. He needs to sleep,” Tony whispered back.
“Maybe he’ll get used to them,” Steve whispered. One last pull and the pull-up was in place around Clint’s waist. Fresh tears welled up in Clint’s eyes; he found the strength to open his eyes, looked up at and saw Tony and Steve standing above him with identical expressions of sympathy. He started to cry all over again.
“It’s okay, munchkin. It’s okay,” Tony said. They both sat on the bed, on opposite sides, and stayed with him until he’d cried himself to sleep.
Okay. Maybe the pull-ups weren’t so terrible. Clint did not like wearing them. Not one bit. But he could admit, if only to himself and with great reluctance at that, that the pull-ups were helping him to sleep at night. On nights he didn’t have nightmares, he could actually sleep through until morning. The pull-ups were always wet when he woke up, but Tony or Steve were also always there too, and they would help him get cleaned up and changed for the day.
He figured he could live with them so long as no one else knew, which is why he flew into a panic the morning that Tony woke him up. Clint was sleeping, exhausted after a 3am nightmare, when he woke to the feeling of fingers running through his hair. He knew it was Tony without having to open his eyes. He snuffled, giving his pacifier a couple of sucks, and nuzzled into the hand.
“Hey baby,” Tony murmured, voice filled with that gentle note of affection that always tugged at Clint’s chest. Tony had been using that voice more and more lately, and it got to him every time. Clint couldn’t even muster up a complaint over being called ‘baby’. He just blinked sleepily up at Tony.
Tony smiled a little. “Got a surprise for you. Aunt Tasha is here to pick you up so you can spend the day with her.”
It took a few seconds for the words to sink in. When they did, Clint bolted upright with a squeak of horror and quickly spit the pacifier out. Natasha had seen him at his worst, it was true. They’d once had a mission where neither one of them had been able to shower for well over two weeks. And she’d even seen him with a pacifier before, since she was there the night Tony and Steve tracked him to a hotel.
But she had never seen him sucking a pacifier while wearing a pull-up and a childish t-shirt, and she never would if Clint had his way.
“Whoa, hey, calm down!” Tony said, grabbing Clint’s wrist when he started trying to yank the pull-up off. “She’s out in the living room talking to Steve. I told her it would be a few minutes before you were ready. Calm down. You’ve got lots of time.”
“Promise?” Clint said, and it came out far more quivery than he’d intended. He didn’t have much left, but he was determined to keep what remained of his pride intact.
“Yeah, kiddo, I promise. Now come on. Shower time.” Tony stood up and helped Clint to stand too, accompanying him into the bathroom. Clint had refused to take baths, insisting that he was capable of showering by himself. Tony had agreed and persuaded Steve, though that hadn’t stopped him from purchasing increasingly cool bath toys in an effort to tempt Clint otherwise. It wasn’t working. Yet.
The rule, though, was that Clint had to leave the door open, and if both Steve and Tony were around, one of them usually hung around in the bathroom while he showered. Today, since Steve was otherwise occupied, Tony helped him remove the wet pull-up and get into the shower, then went to lay out some clothes for Clint to wear. Clint showered as fast as he could, jumping out less than ten minutes later.
He put on the jeans (with an elastic waistband, for some reason) and the purple t-shirt with Black Widow’s symbol on it that Tony had picked out without argument. As soon as Tony gave him the nod of approval, he shot out to the living room with an excited grin. Natasha and Steve were sitting on the couch chatting. Clint didn’t hesitate to throw himself at Natasha with a happy yelp.
“Tasha! You came to see me!”
She laughed. “We saw each other at dinner last night, Svetlyachok,” she said, ruffling his hair.
“But that was with other people,” Clint said, still hugging her.
“Well, we’re going to meet Pepper for an early lunch. But this afternoon, it’ll be just you and me. How does that sound?”
“Yes,” Clint said emphatically, letting go so that she could stand up. “Bye Tony, bye Steve!”
“Bye Clint,” Steve said, waving and laughing as Clint dragged Natasha out the door.
The sunshine felt wonderful on Clint’s face as he and Natasha walked out of the tower. He couldn’t help tipping his face up to enjoy it. Steve and Tony had offered to take him outside multiple times, but Clint usually declined. He wasn’t sure how he felt about strangers seeing them together. He couldn’t help being worried that someone might start to wonder, or a member of the paparazzi might snap an ill-timed photo – he didn’t think Steve or Tony could stop the babying even in public. With Natasha though, she just tucked her hand into his elbow and they looked the same as they always did.
They walked in silence for three or four blocks before Natasha cleared her throat. “So tell me, how have things been?” she asked.
“Okay. I have no complaints,” he said, not really paying attention. They walking past a really cool-looking toy store.
“Clint,” Natasha said, and her serious tone drew his attention. “Are they good to you?”
“What? What brought that on?”
She stopped walking, looking into his face like she was searching for the truth. “We’re outside the tower, so JARVIS can’t hear us. I need to know. They are treating you well, right?”
Clint squeezed her hand. “Yeah, they do. Much better than I could’ve hoped for, even if I hate having to go to bed early.”
Her mouth twitched into a smile. “I can’t blame them for that. You’re a brat when you don’t get enough sleep.”
She laughed at him, but it was kind. “Come on. Pepper’s waiting for us.”
Pepper was indeed waiting for them, sitting at an outdoor café another block over. She smiled at them both as they sat down. Clint returned her smile shyly. He’d only met Pepper a handful of times, and only once since he’d started age playing with Tony and Steve. He knew that she knew about the situation – Tony had requested permission to tell her, and Clint had agreed because he knew that would make this easier on Tony – but he wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Maybe she thought it was fucked up.
Natasha caught his hand when his breathing stuttered, giving him a significant look. “We’re fine,” she said to Pepper, apparently in answer to a question that Clint hadn’t even heard. “We left Tony and Steve watching television together. No progress.”
Much to Clint’s surprise, Pepper sighed expressively. “Those two. I don’t know how such intelligent people can be so oblivious,” she lamented. “I mean, Tony’s always been like this. He flirts with everyone but it goes way over his head when someone flirts back. I was just hoping for better from Steve.”
“Steve once took the number of a woman who was flirting with him because he thought she was serious when she said she needed help moving things around the house,” Natasha said dryly. “He actually went to her house the next day and got all the way into her bedroom before he realized what was going on.”
Clint giggled into his glass of water. Both women smiled at him. He flushed a little, but said, “They’re always touching each other. Like hugging and stuff.” He wrinkled his nose. It was kind of gross to be honest, but if Clint said or did anything to draw attention to it, Steve and Tony would practically leap away from each other. And then things would get all awkward for a few hours until they forgot about it.
“Yes, we know,” Pepper said. “Natasha and I have been trying to nudge them together for the better part of a month now.”
“You have?” Clint said, surprised. Then he thought about it, and suddenly realized it was so obvious. No wonder Pepper had been complimenting Steve a lot lately. Tony usually just sulked after she left and muttered stuff about intelligent, buff, red-haired babies.
“Evidently it’s not working,” said Natasha. She wasn’t quite pouting, but she didn’t look very happy that her plans were falling through. “We thought you might have some ideas.”
“Lock them in a closet?” Clint suggested.
Pepper sighed again. “Steve could just punch his way out.”
Clint shrugged. “Sorry.”
“Okay, we’re not going to give up,” Pepper said determinedly. She beckoned to a waiter and, when the waiter approached, asked, “Can we get two of your strongest cocktails and a chocolate milk?”
“I want a cocktail, too,” Clint complained when the waiter walked away.
“You’re not big enough for that,” Natasha said. “And I’m the one who’ll be in trouble with your mommy and daddy when Steve smells alcohol on your breath.”
“I could brush my teeth,” Clint muttered, but didn’t push the issue. The alcohol bottles he’d hidden on his and Phil’s floor had mysteriously disappeared a few weeks ago, and he figured Natasha was probably right. Age playing sucked sometimes.
“We’re going to figure this out,” Pepper said, as though she hadn’t even heard their squabble. “Because if I have to listen to Tony moan about how perfect Steve’s abs are while simultaneously whining about how Steve will never love him one more time, I’m going to put my heel through his face.”
The waiter was just approaching with their drinks when Pepper said that. His face went white. He hastily set their drinks down and practically ran away. Pepper and Natasha didn’t even notice; they both grabbed their drinks and put their heads together, hissing ideas at each other. Clint picked up his chocolate milk – it even had a cool straw – and took a sip, figuring that it could be worse.
Clint took a moment to smile to himself. It was dumb, but it made him feel special that he was the only one that JARVIS called by his first name. Tony was always “Sir”, Steve was “Captain Rogers”, Natasha was “Agent Romanov”, Bruce was “Doctor Banner” and Thor was “Prince Odinson”. At one time, Clint had been “Agent Barton”. He had to admit that he kind of liked being just “Clint”.
“Where’s Tony?” he asked, stretching his arms over his head. Normally he was never left alone. But Steve had gotten a phone call that was supposed to take ‘just a minute’ almost two hours ago. Clint was pretty sure Steve was talking to the nursing home that cared for Peggy Carter, so he didn’t want to disturb him. But he was hungry and maybe just a little sleepy, and one of those things couldn’t be resolved without a grown-up.
“Sir is in his workshop,” JARVIS replied.
“What’s he doing?”
“At the moment he is cursing at Dummy.”
Clint grinned. “Why?”
“Sir was working on a car engine. There was a spark when he switched the car on, which Dummy took to be the start of a fire. He found the fire extinguisher. Would you like to see?”
“Yes please,” Clint said, sitting. He couldn’t hear any sound, but he still took into giggling at the sight of Tony covered in foam, waving his hands exaggeratedly and yelling at Dummy. Poor Dummy had lowered his arm as far as he could and was, no doubt, beeping pathetically. His weapon of choice – the fire extinguisher, probably empty judging by how much foam had been sprayed out – lay on the floor between them.
“Shall I tell Sir you have need of him?” JARVIS asked.
“No. Tony’s clearly busy.” Clint bit his lip to swallow even more giggles as Dummy perked up the instant Tony turned his back. He was pretty sure that sometimes Dummy just liked using the fire extinguisher.
He could’ve asked where Natasha, Thor and Bruce were, but he didn’t bother. It was the middle of a Wednesday afternoon so they were probably just as busy as Steve and Tony were. He tipped his head back, looking up at the ceiling, and rubbed his eyes. He was sleepy, much as he hated to admit it. He wasn’t a baby. He didn’t need a nap. But Steve and Tony insisted on him going to bed for at least an hour every afternoon at 2pm. And right now it was – he checked the clock – 2:30pm.
“Ugh, they got me used to sleeping more,” Clint grumbled, digging his fists into his eyes harder, as though that would make the sleepiness disappear. He could’ve just closed his eyes, but he was afraid that he’d wet his pants. He couldn’t sleep at all now without waking up wet. But there was no way he was willingly putting a pull-up on. He’d stay awake for a month straight before that happened.
The only solution was to force himself to get up and move. Clint did just that, shuffling around the couch and taking a quick peek into Steve’s office. Steve was sitting at the desk. From the sound of it he wasn’t talking to the nursing home anymore, but rather Fury. Clint listened for a couple of minutes, but Steve’s side of the conversation was composed of ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘I don’t think so’, and ‘I don’t know about that’. Hardly fascinating.
He crept away from the door and finally decided to head down to the communal kitchen. Some sugar would keep him awake, and he was pretty sure that Bruce had a stash of oreos in the cupboard. He hummed softly to himself as he stepped into the elevator and headed down three floors. He had full run of the top ten floors of the tower even now; he tried not to think about the fact that JARVIS would stop him if he tried to go any further without permission.
The elevator doors opened and Clint stepped out. He stopped short at the sight of someone standing by the windows. Immediately he tensed, taking a step back. So far as Clint knew, none of the Avengers were scheduled to have visitors today – and even if they were, the list of people who were allowed to be in the tower without an escort was pretty short. An intruder?
“JARVIS, who is that?” he hissed, wondering if JARVIS had stopped functioning in the past ten minutes.
“Agent Coulson,” JARVIS supplied, as though those two words weren’t pulling the world out from under Clint. The man by the windows turned around. Clint’s breath caught in his throat.
Oh god. It was really him. At first glance Coulson looked pretty much the same as the last time Clint had seen him, but then – after a hard pinch to the back of his hand to prove that he wasn’t dreaming – Clint realized that he was significantly thinner. The clothing he was wearing had been tailored, yet it hung on him still. His face had lost some color, but he still smiled at Clint.
“Hello, Agent Barton,” Coulson said.
Clint was vaguely aware of JARVIS saying something about how his protocols regarding Agent Coulson had never been changed, and that he was alerting the rest of the Avengers. For the most part, the words were lost on Clint. He couldn’t stop staring at Coulson. Drinking in the sight and sound of someone he’d thought for sure was dead. Coulson’s voice hadn’t changed at least, still sliding sweetly over the syllables of Clint’s last name, even if he’d gotten Clint’s title all wrong.
“’M not an agent anymore,” Clint said. His voice sounded distant. Coulson frowned.
“Yes, I heard. But you’re still here with the team, and that’s good. I was worried about you.”
“So worried that you let me think you were dead for more than six months?” Clint asked. The question wasn’t imbued with nearly as much anger as he wanted it to be. He felt numb, and it was reflected in his tone.
“Barton – Clint, please. I came to explain.”
“Oh, that’s rich,” someone said behind Clint. Tony. It was Tony, and he sounded pissed. He came right up beside Clint, practically muscling his way in front. Steve and Natasha appeared seconds later; Natasha’s eyes were wet and wild, a dangerous combination. A hand caught Clint’s arm – Bruce – gently tugging him back between him and Thor.
“Explain what?” Natasha hissed. The rest of what she said was a slew of hot, angry Russian that probably would’ve gotten Clint’s mouth washed out with soap had he dared repeat it. Coulson winced and spread his hands, though whether it was a poor attempt to make it seem like he was not a threat or an equally poor attempt at pacifying her, Clint wasn’t sure.
“The team needed a cause to fight for,” he said in a low voice. “My death rallied you together. There were concerns that your progress might stop or even reverse if you found out otherwise. Aside from that, I’m told it was very touch-and-go for the first three weeks. By that point, you were doing so well… under the circumstances, it was decided that my skills were better used elsewhere.”
“That’s bullshit!” Natasha growled. She was holding a knife now, and it didn’t look like Steve was planning to stop her from advancing. “You have a new team, don’t you? I’ve heard things. And Fury couldn’t keep the lie under wraps anymore.”
It was the truth. Clint knew Coulson well enough to see that much in his face, and his heart twisted painfully in his chest. Because not only had Coulson let him spend weeks mourning over him, he hadn’t come here because he felt guilty or because he missed Clint. He’d come because the Avengers were going to find out regardless, and in true Coulson fashion he wanted to mitigate the fall-out as much as possible.
Coulson looked right at him. He wasn’t begging, but he was as close to it as Clint had ever seen him when he said, “Clint, please…”
“Don’t talk to him!” Tony snarled. “You have no right to -”
Whatever else Tony said, Clint didn’t stick around to hear the rest of it. He squirmed out from between Bruce and Thor and dashed into the elevator. Ignoring the calls of his name, he gasped out, “Workshop, please JARVIS” in a voice that didn’t even sound like it belonged to him, so broken was it.
JARVIS obeyed, shutting the elevator doors and sending the elevator swooping down much faster than usual. Clint wrapped his arms around himself, shivering, until the doors swept open. He ran out, heading for the workshop. All of them had limited access when Tony wasn’t there. He was too overwhelmed with relief to be surprised when the doors opened; Dummy beeped welcomingly, but Clint couldn’t speak.
He jumped up on the tallest table and reached with shaking hands for the vent cover. It lifted easily – Tony did most of the maintenance on the vents himself, and had cleaning ‘bots dispatched from the workshop regularly – and his grasping fingers caught the edge. He hauled himself up, relying on sheer adrenaline to make up for the hours he’d stopped spending in the gym.
Once he’d scrabbled into the vents, he kicked the cover back into the place and sank in on himself, shivering from head to toe. The vents above the workshop were his favorite, not that he’d ever told anyone: even before he had started age playing with Steve and Tony, he’d found it immeasurably comforting to lay here in this dark, enclosed space and listen to Tony’s music or the sound of Tony and JARVIS snarking at each other.
Right now, there was only the sound of Clint’s sobs.
There will be no update next week, as I'll be on vacation at my parent's house.
Clint didn’t know how long he’d been there before he heard the vent cover moving again. Tony appeared, hauling himself up into the vent just like he had last time. But this time, the thought of last time made Clint curl forwards in grief. He remembered asking Tony why he cared, and Tony had answered by making a joke about Coulson coming back as a ghost. Except obviously that was impossible since Coulson wasn’t dead.
Tony didn’t say a word, surprisingly. He just crawled closer to Clint and pulled Clint into a hug. Clint resisted for all of two seconds before collapsing gratefully into Tony’s embrace and sobbing into his shirt. He’d thought he would never stop crying when he was all by himself, but with Tony there his tears dried up until he was just laying limply into Tony’s arms, eyes hot and swollen from weeping.
The blue light of the arc reactor was visible just inches away from his face, and he pressed a shaking hand to it. How could he have ever thought that this light was the same as the one from Loki? The arc reactor was as warm as blue light could be, making Clint think of comfort and safety. It was nothing like the light from the Tesseract, which had left Clint feeling as though he’d been dipped into ice.
Tony had tensed a little when Clint touched the reactor, but he quickly relaxed and cupped a hand around the back of Clint’s head. “He’s gone,” he said quietly. “Thor escorted him out of the building.”
Hearing that was a relief. After months of wanting nothing more than to see Coulson again, now the reverse was true: Clint didn’t want to see him. He thought he might break apart if he did. He closed his eyes. “’Tasha?”
“Bruce has her, and I had JARVIS call Pepper. She’s on her way. The two of them will take care of Natasha. They won’t let her do anything too bad.”
This too was a relief, and Clint sighed. He liked this: being able to rely on someone who had all the answers was both new and exciting. He rubbed his nose against Tony’s shirt. “Steve?”
“He’s right below us, pacing a hole through my floor out of worry.” Tony chuckled though, so he couldn’t have been too angry about that. “He was very angry at Coulson. So was I, but…” He hesitated, as though having to force the words out. “I’m hurt, too. And I didn’t even know him as well as you and Natasha.”
Clint tilted his head to look up at him. “He was your Agent,” he supplied.
Tony smiled. It look shaky and wrong, but he was trying. “Yeah, baby, he was,” he agreed in a whisper. “Do you think you’re ready to come down? You need a bath.” He patted Clint’s hip. Clint blinked, slowly realizing that his jeans and underwear were damp. That hadn’t happened while he was awake for a long time, but he lacked the energy to freak out about it.
But he had the strength to grab onto Tony when Tony went to move. “No!”
“No? Why?” Tony said, freezing. “What’s wrong?”
Clint dropped his gaze, not speaking.
Tony was using his first name, which meant he was worried. Clint’s chin quivered. “Daddy didn’t want me,” he said thickly. “I’m not good enough. So he left. You and Steve…” He couldn’t finish his sentence.
“Clint,” Tony said again, quietly and fiercely, and tightened his hug until Clint’s ribs ached. “Munchkin, that is never going to happen, understand? I don’t have the best track record, I admit that. But Steve… Steve’s good. Once he decides that you’re worth it, nothing can change his mind. He told me that once.” His voice shook, just once, before evening out. “I know he feels the same way about you. Steve stays.”
“And you?” Clint asked, because he had to know.
“Me too. That goes for me too. We’ll figure it out together.”
Clint stored those words and the determination in Tony’s away, holding them close in his heart. “I want P – Steve,” he whispered, heart thudding at the near slip. He might have started to think of Tony and Steve in those terms, but that didn’t mean they were okay to say out loud. Especially now.
Tony didn’t seem to notice. “Okay. Steve?” he called over his shoulder. “Get ready. I’m bringing him down to you.”
“I’m here,” Steve answered immediately.
Of course Clint was just as skilled at maneuvering out of the vents as he was at getting into them, but this time he was content to let Tony do it. He remained limp as Tony nudged him up and out the opening, and barely had the chance to start to fall before Steve’s arms caught him, immediately pulling him close in a hug. Clint restrained from crying again, but just barely. Something like a cross between a hiccup and a sob escaped anyway and Steve shushed him.
“It’s okay, honey,” he murmured, rubbing Clint’s hair.
Tony jumped down from the vent and stood up, dusting his jeans off. “He needs a bath, and then we need to talk.”
Talk? That word never had positive connotations, but before Clint had the chance to tense up he was being hoisted onto Steve’s hip. Steve turned to walk out of the workshop and Tony immediately fell into step beside him, shooting Clint a comforting smile. Clint couldn’t bring himself to return it, but he willingly took Tony’s hand when it was offered to him and clutched at it hard.
They entered the elevator; no one spoke during the trip to Steve’s floor, but the silence was comfortable and not strained. Tony kept pace with them as they got off, following Steve right into Clint’s bathroom. Steve set Clint down on the toilet and started removing his clothing, starting with his wet pants and boxers. Tony leaned over and started the water, plugging the tub.
“I’m a big boy,” Clint said weakly, though more and more he was beginning to question that. Maybe he wasn’t as big as he’d always made himself believe. A bath did sound really good right now, and the thought of getting to his feet and standing long enough to shower was exhausting.
Maybe he’d never had anyone that he could trust enough to let himself be truly little.
“I know you are. But just this once, I think a bath is best,” Tony replied. He dribbled in some blue liquid that began to foam into bubbles immediately. The smell of blueberries filled the bathroom. It was a comforting scent that reminded Clint of hiding in the vents above the workshop while Tony snacked on a mixture of blueberries and dried mango slices.
“I could shower,” Clint mumbled, but it was a half-hearted protest at best. He lifted his arms up to Steve like a toddler asking to be picked up, figuring that neither Steve nor Tony would let him step into the tub by himself. It was the first time he’d ever asked to be lifted, and he couldn’t deny the flicker of pleasure when Steve immediately responded by lifting him up.
Steve turned to the tub and lowered Clint into the water, which was the perfect temperature. How Tony had learned that Clint liked his baths in hot-but-not-too-hot water, Clint had no idea, but it made the flicker in his belly grow into a ball. He sat on his butt as the water and bubbles grew around him; Tony switched the water off when it was up to Clint’s belly button. Both he and Steve knelt on the floor beside the tub. For a moment, there was quiet.
Then Clint sniffled. He didn’t mean to, but he couldn’t stop thinking about how Coulson wouldn’t have put this much effort into a bath for him. Age play for Coulson had never meant more than sitting on the couch or playing a couple of games. Clearly it had never meant as much to him as it did to Clint, and now Clint couldn’t help feeling a swell of shame that he’d pulled Coulson into it in the first place. He’d done the same thing to Steve and Tony.
“I’m sorry,” he said, further ashamed by how his voice quivered.
“Sorry?” Tony repeated. He and Steve exchanged looks.
“I made you do this,” Clint said miserably, fresh tears sliding down his cheeks. They dripped off his chin and into the bubbles. “I dragged you into my weird stuff and I’m so sorry –”
“Enough,” Steve said, gently but firmly. “Clint, you didn’t drag us into anything. Tony and I volunteered to help you because we wanted to. We did a lot of research before agreeing to this. We’re not pushovers. Anything we do is because we want to do it.”
Clint tried to swallow a whimper, but it slipped out anyway. It was a dumb question, but he had to ask. “Then why didn’t Coulson want to?” Why didn’t he care enough, for all that Clint had offered to him, to come back?
“I don’t know, Sweetheart. But we’re going to try to find out,” Steve promised. He took Clint’s right hand, and Tony took Clint’s left. Tony didn’t say a word, he just smiled sadly at Clint with a look that he understood far too much. They held his hands while Clint cried.
Clint’s heart was beating so hard against his ribs that it actually hurt, but he tried not to let on that he was nervous. His hands were slippery with sweat and he rubbed them against his jeans. It was tempting to jump up, run over to the door and throw himself into Steve’s arms and say he’d changed his mind, that he didn’t really want to meet with Coulson after all. Only Natasha’s presence beside him kept him from doing so. She didn’t deserve to have to face Coulson alone.
“Settle, Svetlyachok,” Natasha said, the words barely audible. Under the table, she found Clint’s hand and grabbed on. It was a surprising show of nerves from Natasha, and had anyone else been in the room with them, she probably wouldn’t have done it.
“I’m settled,” Clint said, realizing as he spoke that it was sort of true. The grip of her hand made some of the tension drain away, and he stopped wishing that Tony and Steve had come into the room with them. It had been Clint who insisted that they not come in, after all. He needed to do this without them. It was just him, Natasha and Coulson in the beginning, and it had to be just them now.
He took a deep breath, glanced one more time at Natasha, and then nodded. The door on the other side of the room opened almost immediately. Coulson stepped in, looking much the same as he had during his last visit. Clint was a little surprised to see him wearing a suit; he’d become accustomed to Coulson letting himself relax around him and Natasha. Then he realized that was stupid. This wasn’t the Coulson that Clint thought he knew.
“Good morning,” Coulson said when it became obvious that neither Clint nor Natasha were going to greet him first. He walked over to the table – well, actually he limped over, Clint noticed. It was barely perceptible – and pulled out a chair, sitting down.
“I should put you back in the hospital,” Natasha said in Russian.
Coulson sighed. “I suppose I would deserve that,” he said after a moment, but he sounded too indulgent for Clint’s tastes. Like he didn’t really think he deserved that, but would let Natasha do so if it made her feel better.
“Damn right you would,” Natasha said. She’d switched to English, but her grip was tight enough that Clint’s hand was going numb. He figured it was a fair trade.
“Please believe me when I say that I didn’t do this to hurt you,” Coulson said. “I really did think it was the right choice to make. When I first woke up, all I wanted was to see you.” He looked straight into Clint’s face. “But then Fury explained his reasoning. You know what it’s like to listen to him for too long. Eventually even the stupidest plans start to make way more sense than they should.”
Clint had to give him that. More than once, he and Natasha had ended up being sent out on an op that, at first glance, sounded ludicrous. That was the real power of people like Nick Fury as far as Clint was concerned. They could make just about anything sound reasonable, given enough time, and it was one of the reasons that Clint admired Tony as much as he did. Tony had the unique ability to see and cut straight through Fury’s bullshit.
Natasha practically growled. “Stupid is right. You let us keep thinking you were dead, Phil. It doesn’t matter how important it was for the Avengers to have team unity. A month, hell even a week, after the battle, we were committed to working together. You’re not that important.”
Coulson winced. “Blunt as always,” he said.
Natasha’s eyes narrowed. “Only when it matters. I think you’re full of bullshit. Fury saw that we were working just fine as a team. You could’ve contacted us at any time to let us know you were alive. But I think you didn’t want to. At least have the decency to admit it. You wanted to start fresh with a new team. You didn’t want to be a part of the Avengers Initiative.”
“What?” Clint whispered, shocked. He hadn’t really intended to speak at all, but it was hard to keep quiet after hearing that. He stared at Coulson. Coulson, who was Captain America’s biggest fan. Coulson, who had pushed and nagged at Tony until Tony agreed to look at the files for the initiative. Coulson, who couldn’t even meet Clint’s eyes.
“And you took the coward’s way out,” Natasha continued ruthlessly. “You were hoping we would never notice. That Clint and I would gradually cut ways with SHIELD and become full Avengers, and then you could just keep working away in the shadows. Admit it!” She was leaning forward, staring him down. Clint hadn’t seen her this upset in years.
“Yes,” Coulson said quietly. “I don’t know what else you wanted me to say. Fury offered me the chance to be the lead on handling inhumans, so I took it. It was a promotion and a chance to stay out of the limelight. You know I prefer to work in the background. Being a part of the Avengers – any part, no matter how small – means that your every action is scrutinized. We need the Avengers. That’s why I pushed so hard to get the initiative off the ground. I never intended to be a part of it beyond that.”
“You never told me that,” Clint said.
“I didn’t think you’d agree to be a part of it if I did,” Coulson admitted. “You needed the team, Clint. You needed them more than me or SHIELD.”
“Don’t act like you did this for me,” Clint snapped, surprised by how sharp the sudden wave of anger was. “I needed you. You were the whole reason I joined SHIELD in the first place. And I thought you wanted more.” He forced himself to stop, biting his lip to keep the emotions in. He didn’t want to fall apart, but he wanted to be honest at the same time: he’d thought Coulson wanted a relationship. Not just age play, but an actual romantic relationship.
“I know you did. I may not have been as honest with you as I should have been.”
“What does that even mean?” Clint said.
Coulson looked at him, their eyes meeting. “It means you wanted more than I did, and I didn’t know how to tell you that. I realized that I wasn’t interested in you that way, and…” his eyes flicked to Natasha, then he said, “that, plus everything else, was just too much for me. It was convenient.”
“Breaking my heart was convenient,” Clint repeated numbly.
Coulson winced. “If you want to word it that way, then yes. It was a clean break. I was convinced that you would find a replacement for me relatively easily.”
“A replacement?” Clint repeated. It seemed like all he could do was repeat Coulson, he was that dumbfounded. He’d always known that Agent Coulson could be logical to a fault. He’d heard plenty of agents complaining about it, some even going so far as to accuse the man of lacking empathy completely. But this was the first time that logic had been turned on him and he didn't like it.
"Fury could assign you another handler," Coulson said. "And I knew you'd find someone else."
"So you washed your hands of us," Natasha said. "Let us become someone else's problem."
"Natasha, no. That's not how it was."
"That's what I'm hearing!" She cussed him out in Russian, showing more emotion than Clint had seen from her in months. "We were becoming too much for you to handle, was that it? Getting more clingy than you ever signed on for? So you thought you'd let us become someone else's problem? Stark's problem? The Captain's?" She was looking more angry with every word she spoke.
Clint squeezed her hand before she could lunge over the table and she stopped yelling. In the wake of the sudden silence, before Coulson could draw breath to speak, Clint said, "Natasha was right, wasn't she? The only reason you're here is because Fury doesn't think he could keep us from finding out about you. You would've let us... let me think that you were dead forever. Because you didn't have the guts to break up with me to my face."
Coulson opened his mouth, then closed it without speaking. That was good as a yes.
"You didn't want me," Clint said, and his voice was unbearably small. "Why? You owe me that much."
But Coulson just shook his head. "I don't know why, Clint. I just... don't. Not for a partner, and not for anything else beyond agent and handler. I'm sorry. I'd like -"
"I don't care what you'd like," Natasha snapped. "You don't have any right to make demands of us. I'm done with this." She stood up. Clint rose with her automatically. Coulson stood as well, looking between them.
"Please try to understand. It was the best move we could make under the circumstances."
Natasha told him to do something very long and very complicated and very illegal as she dragged Clint out of the room. Clint went with her, unable to do much more than trail along in her outraged wake. He was vaguely aware of Tony and Steve immediately rushing over to them, but he didn't say a word to either one of them. All of a sudden, he couldn't bear being inside of SHIELD any longer. He was horrifyingly conscious of all the prying eyes that might be staring at them, knowing that he wasn't even worthy of Coulson's respect.
"Can we go?" he said abruptly, interrupting Natasha mid-sentence.
"Yes," Natasha said decisively. She marched down the corridor. Tony and Steve took up a position on either side of Clint and the three of them followed, but their protection was hardly necessary; no agent was stupid enough to get in Natasha's way when she was radiating fury. Clint envied her for that. He wished he felt angry. Anything would've been better than empty.
“Clint, could you please put your bowl in the sink?” Steve said.
Clint glanced at him. Tony hadn’t joined them for breakfast today. He had a breakfast meeting at Stark Industries. After pouring Clint a bowl of cereal and some milk, Steve had disappeared behind a newspaper. All Clint could see of him was a few tufts of blond hair sticking up above the paper. He felt a flash of annoyance. Steve was the only person he knew who still read an actual newspaper instead of using a phone or tablet.
Steve had gotten the bowl out, so Steve could put the bowl away, Clint decided. Without saying a word, he got up and walked towards the door. There was a new episode of a cartoon he liked starting in five minutes, and he had plans to watch it. Alone.
“Clint!” Steve said, head popping up from above the newspaper. “I asked you to put your bowl in the sink.”
“I heard you,” Clint muttered.
“Then please do as I asked. And finish your milk.”
Clint glared at him as he shuffled back to the table. He put the glass to his lips and clumsily drank, letting milk spill down his chin. It dribbled onto his shirt, but Clint didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything, especially not Steve’s stupid rules about cleaning up after yourself. He slammed the glass and bowl into the sink and stomped out of the room before Steve could say anything else.
He wiped his chin with the back of his hand once he was out of Steve’s view and sat down on the couch to watch his show. For a blissful hour, he didn’t have to think about anything beyond ninjas and magical horses. He was vaguely aware of Steve walking back and forth behind him a couple of times, but Clint ignored him. The fact that Steve felt the need to supervise him got his hackles up in the worst way.
Clint wasn’t a baby, okay. He didn’t need someone to hold his hand at all hours of the day. He was perfectly capable of deciding what time to go to bed, what to wear in the morning, and what to eat. But trying to get that message through Steve’s and Tony’s thick heads was next to impossible. They insisted on babying him at every opportunity and it was getting on Clint’s nerves.
“I don’t even like milk,” he muttered at the television. “I wanted juice.”
“Did you say something, Clint?” Steve called from the kitchen.
“No!” Clint snapped back, crossing his arms.
The day didn’t get better. It actually went exactly the same way the last two days had gone: Steve spent the morning going through some paperwork and Clint was left to amuse himself. What he really wanted was attention, but he didn’t even want Steve and Tony to look at him. It was a contradictory feeling. He dealt with it by taking the markers Tony had bought and making a small drawing on the wall.
His bad mood only increased when, shortly after noon, Steve called him for lunch. Clint walked into the room, shoulders slouched because he knew that bad posture bothered Steve, and scowled when he saw that Steve had made sandwiches for lunch, but he hadn’t cut the crusts off the way that Tony always did.
“Don’t bother!” he barked when Steve realized his mistake and went to remove the crusts.
“But Clint –”
“I said don’t!” Clint wrapped his arms around his sandwich protectively and glared at him. Steve looked exasperated, but didn’t argue.
“I’m sorry for not doing it the way Tony does,” he said evenly. “It was a mistake.”
Clint just glared harder and picked apart the sandwich, ripping it into tiny pieces. He wasn’t that hungry. Actually, it was just the opposite. His stomach was all tangled up into knots and his throat was tight. Eating was the last thing he felt like doing. Especially not when Steve had served up grilled cheese sandwiches on whole wheat bread. Didn’t he know that Clint liked white bread better?
“Clint, stop playing with your food and eat it,” Steve said.
“I don’t want to.”
Steve pressed his lips into a thin line and didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he said, “I can make you something else if you want, but you need to eat lunch.”
“I said I don’t want to!” Clint yelled.
“Clint! There’s no need to raise your voice!”
Being scolded stung. It only made him more upset. “I don’t want your dumb sandwich! I’d rather starve to death!”
“Whoa, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Tony said. He’d come into the room without Clint noticing. Clint hated how they did that, sneaking around like they were always trying to catch him at something. He hated their stupid rules and they way they always teamed up against him.
“What is going on with you?” Steve asked, seizing his chance. He was frowning at Clint. “You’ve been acting up for three days now and I’ve hit my limit. You need to tell us what’s wrong.”
“Nothing is wrong!”
“Obviously something is,” Tony said, and he sounded so calm. Too calm. “Steve’s right.”
“Of course you’d take his side!” Clint yelled.
“No one is taking anyone’s side,” Tony said, exchanging a look with Steve. That did it.
“Just leave me alone! I hate you!” Clint shouted. He got up from the table and stomped out. It felt good to go into his room and slam the door, so he did it a second time for extra emphasis. He even punched the wall a couple of times. Then he threw himself onto his bed and buried his face in his pillows. The urge to cry was building up in his chest, but he fought it back down with the help of some deep breathing exercises Natasha had shown him once.
The truth was, he didn’t know why he was acting like such a brat. Nothing seemed right since they’d come home from SHIELD. It didn’t matter what Steve and Tony did, Clint automatically wanted the opposite. Tony could put out his favorite purple shirt and Clint would want the red one instead. Steve could make his favorite meal and Clint would want something else. And the nicer they were about the changes, the more annoyed he got.
Except they weren’t being so nice anymore. Steve was definitely past the point of frustration, and even Tony had looked exasperated last night after Clint changed his mind three times about what he wanted for a snack before bed. Eventually, Clint thought, they would probably get so exasperated at they would just stop caring about him entirely. The thought made his stomach hurt.
He got the chance to be alone for a couple of hours. Maybe they thought he was sleeping, Clint didn’t know. He was bored and irritated at having to stay shut up in his room, but as soon as someone knocked on the door his mood flipped. He sat up and glowered at the door, as though the person on the other side would know that he was upset at being disturbed.
“Clint?” Tony said through the door. “Are you awake? Can we talk?”
“No,” Clint muttered, but he wasn’t brave enough to say it loud enough for Tony to hear. Louder he said, “Yeah, whatever.”
Tony pushed the door open and walked in. Steve was right behind him. Tony was still dressed in the suit he’d worn to Stark Industries, but he’d taken the jacket off and his shirt was half-unbuttoned. It made him look like a different person. Clint curled in on himself, pulling his knees up against his chest and wrapping his arms around his legs. He waited for them to speak, heart pounding so hard that it was giving him a head rush.
"What is going on with you?" Tony asked, staring him down. "You've been acting out."
"I don't want to talk to you," Clint snapped back.
"Don't talk to your mother that way!" Steve said sharply.
"Steve." Tony gave him a look, which Steve returned. Clint hated it when they did that. He didn't like that they could communicate without words, especially when they were communicating about him.
"Just leave me alone!"
"Okay," Tony said, much to Clint's surprise. "That's fair. We'll leave you alone. When you want to talk, just come out. We'll chat."
"That's not going to happen," Clint hissed. He stayed tense until they walked out of the room. Tony gently shut the door behind him. The tears rushed to Clint's eyes so fast he was dizzy with emotion. He crumbled, burying his face in his pillow.
Clint jerked awake, breathing heavily. The room was dark and quiet around him. He listened for a few seconds, heart pounding, but there was no sound aside from his own breathing. His mobile wasn’t on – of course it wasn’t. Before falling asleep, he’d dragged his toy box in front of the door so that Tony and Steve couldn’t get in. Steve could’ve pushed his way in anyway, but obviously he’d chosen not to.
Maybe Clint was alone now. He gulped, pushing the covers back and sliding out of the bed. The floor was cold against his feet and he shivered as he stood, padding across to the door. He struggled with pulling the toy box out of the way, wincing as two corners scraped the floor. Tony was going to be mad about that, but Clint couldn’t stay in his room any longer. The space, large as it was, felt like it was suffocating him.
He finally managed to open up a gap large enough to squeeze through. That left him standing in the hallway, which was just as dark as his bedroom had been. He could see a light in the kitchen, but that was the opposite direction of where he wanted to go. Behind him, the hall leading to the rest of the bedrooms – and to where Tony and Steve were – was pitch black.
Clint swallowed hard, taking a shaky step forward. Maybe Tony had gone to sleep on his own floor tonight. He did that sometimes if he thought he was going to be up late, or if he had an early morning. And it was possible that Steve was down in the gym, because Steve did that if he was having trouble sleeping. It would serve Clint right if they were gone, because he’d been an unmitigated brat over the past few days.
But he wanted them so badly. He wanted Tony to hug him and press those soft kisses to his hair. He wanted Steve to scoop him up and carry him. His throat constricted. He felt desperately little suddenly, and incapable of taking even another step. He crouched down, pressing his thumb to his lips, but when he opened his mouth a sob slipped out.
“Mama!” he whimpered. “Papa!”
As if by magic, the hall light snapped on. “Clint?”
It was Tony, hair disheveled and squinting, wrapping a silk robe around his body. Steve’s door opened a second later and Steve came out, dressed just in boxers. They both stared in surprise at Clint, who blinked back at them. But only for a second. The sight of his parents made another sob shudder up Clint’s chest, escaping as a wail.
Tony jerked forward, closing the distance between them in a handful of steps. “Whoa, hey, it’s okay. Don’t cry, baby,” he soothed, sinking to his knees and pulling Clint against him. Steve was there too, just as quick, wrapping his strong arms around both Tony and Clint and leaving Clint comfortably enclosed between them. He cried for a few minutes, until finally he felt capable of forcing a word out.
“S-sor-ry,” he stuttered between sobs, clutching at Tony.
“You don’t have to apologize for anything,” Tony said, running his fingers through Clint’s hair. His voice was gentle and brimming with affection, demanding Clint’s attention. He looked up with wet eyes and Tony’s whole face softened, eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiled. He brushed the tears from under Clint’s eyes.
“I don’t think the floor is very comfortable for us old folks. Is it okay if Papa moves you to the bedroom?” he asked. Clint flushed, slowly realizing that the names he’d been saying in the privacy of his own thoughts for weeks now had finally slipped out, but nodded.
“Okay. C’mere, sweetheart.” Steve released Tony and wrapped both arms around Clint, hefting him up. Clint threw both arms and legs around him, clinging like an octopus, as Steve retraced his steps back to his bedroom. He moved across the room and set Clint down on the bed, taking a seat beside him. Tony was right behind them, crawling onto Steve’s bed to join them. Clint rolled over, burying his face in Tony’s robe. The silk felt cool against his hot face.
“You’re pretty unhappy, aren’t you, munchkin?” Tony said quietly.
Clint nodded, sniffing. “M’sorry,” he mumbled again. “I don’t mean to be such a brat. I just – it’s – ” His breath hitched. He couldn’t even put into words why he was feeling so frustrated, and that only served to frustrate him even more.
“It’s okay,” Steve said. He pressed up against Clint’s back, rubbing his arm soothingly. “Clint, it’s okay. Maybe you’ve been little too much lately.”
“What? No! I don’t want to stop!” Clint cried, panicked. He looked up so fast that he nearly reverse-headbutted Steve in the face. Tony choked on a laugh, sliding his hand around the back of Clint’s head and carefully tugging his head back down.
“I don’t think that’s what Steve meant.”
“No, of course not. Clint, we love age playing with you. But you are still an adult, and, as much as this helps you, I don’t think you’re ready to devote twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to it. You need a bit of time to be big and make your own decisions.”
“Like you did that day with Aunt Tasha,” Tony cut in, smiling down at Clint. “Remember?”
“Yeah,” Clint said slowly. That had been fun. He’d been ready to be little again at the end of it, too. One of the best parts of the day had been coming home and getting to tell Steve and Tony everything he and Natasha had done (the main topic of their lunch with Pepper had been carefully omitted, of course).
“On those days, you can do whatever you want within reason,” Steve went on. “No avenging and no drinking, and we'd prefer if you didn't leave the tower alone, but otherwise you can go nuts. You can plan some days out ahead of time if you want to. Or, if there’s a day when you wake up and want to be big, you can just let us know.”
“And wanting a day, or even a couple of days, to be big doesn’t mean this stops,” Tony added. “We’ll still be waiting for you at the end of it.” He pressed a kiss to Clint’s forehead. “What do you think, baby? Would that work for you?”
Clint thought about it for a moment, and the more he thought about it the more he liked the idea. Maybe that was one source of his frustration over the past few days: feeling like he was trapped, even if it was a trap that he’d chosen and actively wanted, and that he couldn’t talk to anyone about it for fear that Tony and Steve would see it as a slight against their activities.
"Okay," he whispered. "Yeah. That works. But..."
"But what?" Steve asked.
"I'm not a baby," Clint said. That was the other source of frustration that had been plaguing him. Sometimes this was just too much.
Tony and Steve glanced at each other. Then Tony said, "We didn't mean to make you feel like a baby, Clint. Steve and I insist on the pull-ups, but you know that everything else is negotiable, don't you? If you need us to back off a little so that you can act older, we can do that."
They weren't mad or insulted. Clint felt a rush of relief. He lowered his gaze, staring at Tony's robe. "Just sometimes," he mumbled shyly. Sometimes the babying, embarrassing as it was, felt nice. He liked it when Steve picked him up and carried him. He liked it when Tony would give him a pacifier and tell him stories until he fell asleep. He didn't want that to disappear entirely.
"Then you tell us," Steve said. "You let us know what you need, okay?"
Clint nodded, muffling a yawn. Somehow, his thumb found its way into his mouth. He felt little and cared for and sleepy. "Mama, 'tory?" he asked before freezing. Shit.
"Yeah, about that," Tony said. He was trying to school his face into a scowl, but he couldn't stop the smile from tugging at the corner of his mouth. "I distinctly recall telling you, peanut, that the 'm' word better never pass through your lips in relation to me."
"Oh please," Steve said. He was smiling. "The kid's found a name for us that he likes. It would be mean to make him change it now that he's gotten comfortable enough to say it. Right, Clint?" Steve winked at him. Clint nodded again, looking up at Tony imploringly.
He couldn't call Steve or Tony "Daddy". That word had been forever tainted. He couldn't even think it without wanting to cry. But he could call Steve "Papa", and it seemed natural to call Tony "Mama" by extension. The titles were just so fitting, especially Tony. Steve was nothing at all like Clint's father (and that was for the best) but Tony... sometimes Tony evoked memories of his mother; no one else gave Clint that special, fluttery feeling in his tummy that only happened when Tony was being at his most gentle and affectionate.
"Steven Rogers..." Tony tried to glare at Steve, but it didn't work very well: he was having a hard time hiding his smile. And when Steve widened his eyes and blinked innocently, Tony lost the battle and cracked a smile.
"It's settled, then," Steve declared. He laid back against the pillows, tugging Clint against him. "Tell us a story, Mama."
Tony sighed, rolling his eyes, but never once lost his fond smile. "Fine. Once upon a time..."
Someone was watching television. The sound was on low, but Clint could still make out the sound of canned laughter. He blinked heavy eyes, realizing that he was laying on the couch on the common room floor. Bruce was still in the room with him, half-watching the television and half reading the book that was open on his lap. The last thing Clint remembered was eating a sandwich he’d made for himself.
He'd felt big when he got up that morning, and Tony and Steve had backed off accordingly. In fact, Steve had left the tower entirely, heading out to go to the movies with some friends, while Tony had rubbed his hands together in a manner reminiscent of an evil overlord and walked away muttering something about an invention. Clint hadn’t seen either one of them all morning, and that was just the way he liked it. It was a good feeling to know he could have space when he needed it.
But right now, he was the complete opposite to how he’d been earlier: he felt very little. He didn’t know what had happened during his nap to change his headspace, but suddenly all he wanted was a pacifier and a drink of juice. Even his thumb wouldn’t do right now. He pushed himself up with one hand and whined low in his throat. Bruce glanced over at him.
“Hey,” he said. “You okay?”
Clint whined again; he was a bit embarrassed to be this little around Bruce, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted his mama or papa, he didn’t know how to make that happen. Tears formed in his eyes and he gulped.
“Tony!” Bruce called out immediately. “Clint needs you.”
Tony appeared in the doorway before Bruce had even finished his sentence. “What’s wrong?” he asked. Clint lifted his arms up, whimpering. Understanding flashed across Tony’s face and he was by Clint’s side in an instant, reaching down to cup the side of Clint’s cheek. Clint leaned into the touch, closing his eyes.
“Hey baby,” Tony cooed, voice dropping into that sweet tone that made Clint feel warm. “Someone having a hard afternoon?” He sat down, sliding into the space Clint’s upper body had been occupying, and pulled Clint down onto his lap. “Shh, you’re okay. Here.” He produced a pacifier like magic, guiding it into Clint’s mouth. Clint gave it a couple of sucks and sighed, relaxing into Tony’s lap.
“Bruce,” Tony said, rubbing Clint’s back. “Would you do me a favor?”
“Sure. What do you need?”
“Could you get me some apple juice in a sippy cup? There should be one in the cupboard.”
“Not orange?” Bruce said, setting his book aside and getting up.
“Clint doesn’t like orange juice,” Tony said.
Bruce smiled. “Fair enough. I’ll be right back.” He walked into the kitchen.
Clint smiled too around his pacifier. He couldn’t put into words exactly how it felt whenever Tony remembered exactly how he liked or didn’t like something, but it was kind of like getting a giant hug from the inside out. He’d wondered why there was a sudden increase in apple and grape juices in the fridge when everyone else in the tower liked orange juice. Of course it was because his mama had noticed.
“There’s my happy boy,” Tony said, smiling back at him. “Is that better, peanut?”
Clint nodded. He loved that Tony and Steve always seemed to know what he wanted when he was feeling this little and couldn’t put things into words. He nuzzled into the hand that was still on his cheek. Tony’s smile widened and he leaned down to brush a kiss against Clint’s temple.
“Papa will be back any minute. Maybe we can all go upstairs and play a game. I found something new I think you’ll like.”
A new game? Clint’s eyes lit up, but before he could demand more details Bruce came back into the room with the promised cup of juice. It was in one of two favorite cups: this one was the Black Widow cup, which Tony and Steve used when Clint was feeling extra little because he had to suck to get the juice out. The other was a Hulk sippy cup, which he didn’t need to suck from; there was a lid, but the liquid came out as soon as the cup was tipped.
He took the cup with a shy, “Thank you” and spit his pacifier out. Tony caught it as Clint put the spout to his lips and sucked to get some of the juice. It was cold and fresh and he drank eagerly.
Steve walked in while Clint was still drinking. He paused in the doorway to take Clint and Tony in. His expression softened, and then the biggest smile broke out across his face. “Someone feeling little this afternoon?” he asked, walking over to the couch. He bent down and kissed Clint on the forehead, which was normal enough. But then he turned his head and kissed Tony on the month.
Clint choked on his drink. Bruce gasped. It was enough to make both Steve and Tony freeze like deer caught in headlights. Then Steve bolted upright, turning a shade of red to rival the Iron Man armor. He babbled something about a shower and took off, nearly running right into Natasha and Thor. Natasha just barely stepped aside in time and raised both her eyebrows as she watched Steve literally run away.
“What was that about?” she asked.
Bruce snapped out of it and swatted Tony on the arm. “What are you doing?! Go after him!”
Tony’s mouth open and closed soundlessly. Finally, he sputtered out, “B-but h-he – maybe –”
Before Tony could talk himself into thinking that the kiss had been mistake, Clint said, “Mama, please? I want you and Papa to be happy together.” He plastered on his best pleading look, complete with the big puppy eyes Tony could never resist. Because if they left this to Steve and Tony, it would mean weeks of awkwardness and dancing around each other until one of them finally got up the nerve to confess.
“You think…” Tony trailed off.
“We all think,” Bruce said gently. “This has been a really long time coming. We’ve got Clint. Go talk to Steve.”
Clint nodded encouragingly when Tony glanced at him. Tony swallowed hard, then slipped out from under Clint. He squared his shoulders and followed Steve. No one dared to move or even breathe until they heard the sound of the elevator doors closing for a second time.
“What the hell just happened?” Natasha said then, her eyes wide as saucers.
“Papa kissed Mama!” Clint said gleefully.
Natasha actually squeaked. “I need to call Pepper!”
“This is a joyous occasion indeed,” Thor declared, moving over to the couch. He scooped Clint up and tossed him into the air. Clint squealed with joy, dropping his sippy cup. Bruce caught it before it could hit the floor.
“Again!” Clint shouted.
“Thor, don’t make him sick!” Bruce said.
“Not sick! Again!” Clint yelled.
Thor grinned and obliged. He threw Clint up over and over until Clint really did start to feel sick, at which point Bruce put a stop to the game. Bruce asked JARVIS to put a movie on. Natasha sat down on the couch and let Clint put his head in her lap. Thor and Bruce both sat in the chairs. Clint felt very peaceful laying there with his aunts and uncles around him, though he couldn’t stop wondering about his parents.
They were all the way through the movie and halfway into another one before Tony and Steve came back. Steve was still blushing a little, but he was beaming just as widely as Tony. Clint figured that was as good as an answer, but, having suffered all the dancing around for literal weeks, he figured they were due some confirmation. He sat up and looked at them over the back of the couch.
“Papa, did you kiss Mama again?” he asked, all wide eyed innocence.
Both of them flushed and Natasha snickered, but Steve nodded. “Yes, baby, I did.”
“So you’re together now?” Natasha asked.
“Yup. This All-American bod is mine now,” Tony said, playfully slapping Steve’s ass.
“Tony!” Steve squawked. Tony just grinned.
“Congrats,” Bruce said. “It’s about time.”
The rest of them nodded in unison, and Thor added, “We should celebrate. Friend JARVIS! Order in food and drink so that we may celebrate in style!”
Steve walked over to the couch and picked Clint up over the back of it, giving him a hug. Clint wrapped his arms and legs around Steve’s neck and waist and hugged him back hard. He couldn’t help giggling when he felt Tony pressing up behind him. Tony wrapped his arms around Clint and Steve, leaving Clint caught in between them… which he loved until he glanced up and realized that they were kissing over his head.
“Mama! Papa! Ew!” he whined.
Tony laughed. “First you want us to kiss, then you don’t. Make up your mind, my little imp.” He tickled Clint, who squealed and burst into giggles. Steve started laughing too.
“Oh my god, it’s like watching a sit com,” Natasha said, sounding somewhere between awed and disgusted. “Is this going to be how it is all the time?”
“Probably. Better get used to it,” Bruce told her.
“Excuse you, we are adorable!” Tony said, releasing Clint to follow them into the kitchen.
Steve rolled his eyes at them all, pressing a kiss to Clint’s temple. “Come on, sweetheart. Let’s go rescue your mama before Natasha gets too annoyed,” he said, but his words were all tempered with fondness and affection. Clint smiled so wide his cheeks hurt and nodded.
There will probably be a sequel to this fic at some point. I suggest subscribing to the series if you'd like an update when that happens.