“Go in on three.” James says over the com.
Natasha nods, watching him raise his fingers until he has the third one in the air.
They both jump in front of the metal door, kicking it in as hard as they can, and thankfully it busts open. They’re not going for stealth on this mission, no, it’s a get-in-get-out deal. Rough and dirty, something Natasha hasn’t had in a long time, and while she loves her espionage there’s a soft spot in her heart for breaking bones and knocking people out.
As quick as they bust the door down there’s HYDRA goons on them. Each one is armed, tall, and male. Natasha grins, they know who she is and she knows what they call her: The Red Death. She kicks knees out, disarms them, uses her garrote, even tazes them, but she’s on strict orders not to kill so she doesn’t. Just leaves them half dead like an animal dragged in by a cat.
Natasha runs down the hallway, dropping to her knees and sliding across the smooth concrete floor when more goons flood in. She throws tazing disks at their feet, pulls her pocket knife out and cuts behind their knees, all before she’s done sliding. When she gets up- pushing her hair back as she does because fly-aways suck- all the men are on the floor, some groaning, some unconscious, and she couldn’t be happier.
“Goons are down on my side, head on in.” She says into the com, listening for any punches or grunts on James’ side of the warehouse, “I think James got his done, too.”
James huffs into the com, “I was done hours ago compared to you.”
She rolls her eyes, looking down an empty hallway, “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
“Wanda, Clint, and I are coming in.” Steve says, interrupting their banter, “I’m heading in toward you, Nat.”
Natasha nods, deciding to go down the hallway, “Got it. I’m checking for any stragglers or scientists.”
Nobody says anything over the com as she goes down the hallway, not like she’d really listen even if they did. She pulls out her sidearm, kicking in doors with her gun pointed. So far the rooms are empty, just bunks with messy sheets and alcohol bottles in closets. HYDRA’s coming undone faster than she assumed. She continues down the hallway, kicking doors in, frowning each time a room ends up empty and her clip stays full- it’s not that she wants to kill someone, it’s that shooting’s fun and her trigger finger’s slightly itchy.
Natasha slows her walk when she comes to the last room. Unlike the rest of the rooms this one doesn’t have a small rectangular window, instead the door’s solid metal and light spills out from the bottom crack. An uneasy feeling washes over her, something she hasn’t felt since she learned who exactly the Winter Soldier was. She touches her com with a finger, “Some backup, Steve?”
“Be there in a sec.” He says into the com, slightly breathless from what she can tell.
She watches the door, listening for the sound of Steve running her way, and looking down the hallway when she does. She nods to the door, “This one’s different.”
He stops next to her, looking from the door in front of them to the rest, “It’s metal.”
“And there’s no windows.” She comments.
They both stare at the door for a moment before Steve wraps a hand around the knob, raising his shield in front of him, slightly crouching his body, “How about we find out what’s in there?”
Natasha raises her gun so it’s over Steve’s shoulder and nods at him.
He turns the knob and pushes the door in, quickly running and hitting a stunned scientist in the head with his shield so the man knocks out. Natasha turns around, pointing the gun at each corner of the room just in case another scientist or goon lingers before slowly lowering her gun, “The room--” she starts, Steve finishing her sentence.
“It’s a nursery.”
The walls are painted a soft yellow, bee stickers lining the parameter. There’s a rocking chair in the corner behind the door, painted white, with pastel pink pillows on it. She lets her eyes take in all the nursery equipment before noticing the two cribs pushes against the far wall. She flicks the safety back on her gun and puts it back in its holster, taking a step forward, breaking Steve out of the trance he was in as he follows suit.
She carefully edges to the cribs, completely unsure as to what’s going to be in them, “What the fuck?” Inside both cribs are two baby girls. Both are in white onsies, have downy red hair, milky skin, and a birthmark above their right knee that Natasha knows all too well. Her stomach churns, knowing exactly what they are, who they’re supposed to be.
“Nat?” Steve asks, concern lacing his voice, oblivious to the situation at hand.
Natasha opens her mouth to tell him why HYDRA has two baby girls but gags instead. She slaps a gloved hand to her mouth, shaking her head before running out of the room. Thankfully, she makes it into the hallway before barfing, any and all food she consumed within the last couple of hours now on the floor. She brings a hand up to brace herself on the wall, wincing at the acidic taste in her mouth, and breathing out slowly, trying to keep it together. She doesn’t flinch away from the hand that rests on her back, or the hair that gets pulled away from her face.
“You okay?” Steve asks softly, the hand from her back leaves and she hears something clip off and the sound of unscrewing before a thin open flask appears in front of her face, “It’s water.” He says in explanation, “Rinse your mouth and drink some.”
She nods, taking the flask and takes some into her mouth, swishing the water. If this were any other day she’d make fun of Steve being such a boy scout, keeping a damn flask on his person. But this isn’t any other day, so she spits the water out and takes a sip, pushing herself away from the wall. Thankfully, there’s no barf on her shoes or pants.
“Thanks.” She tells him, raising the flask.
He shakes his head, “No need.”
Natasha looks away from him, keeping her eyes on the doorway of the nursery.
“What happened?” Steve asks, his voice quiet like she’s a scared animal.
If she weren’t in a leather bodysuit she’d show him the birthmark above her knee, one that’s an exact match to the one those girls have in the nursery. But she is in a leather bodysuit so she can’t, “I think those girls are my clones.” She says instead, her eyes locked on the yellow painted room, on the white cribs.
“Clones.” Steve says simply, there isn’t disbelief in his voice, nor is it a question.
Natasha nods once, her lips pursing, “The birthmark above their knees are an exact match to the one above mine. If you ran blood tests our DNA would be identical.”
“Red Room?” Steve asks.
She nods again. She doesn’t remember what they did to her, doesn’t remember the medical procedures, but this has their name written all over it. She was their best work, so of course they’d want to make clones of her. If she was still telling their lies, spreading their words and morals, she’d probably have agreed to it. Why should they only have one of her when she’s the best outcome?
Natasha clears her throat and walks back into the room, heading straight for the cribs. She sets the flask on what looks like a diaper changing station, and picks up one of the girls instead. The baby girl doesn’t open her eyes, just gurgles and nestles into Natasha’s warmth. She doesn’t look harmed from what Natasha can see, nor does she look malnourished. She looks healthy, given the circumstances.
Natasha turns around to find Steve cradling the other little girl. Shield strapped to his back and his complete attention on the little girl. His eyes shine in a way she’s never seen before, in a way she doesn’t want to speculate on but has to because his face isn’t hiding a damn thing from someone like her. His face shows longing and want, shows something he knows he can’t have but can’t help but crave. It shows the raw hurt of not being a father, and the unknowing of if he’d even be a good one. She wants to look away but can’t. Yes, Steve’s an open person, but he’s never this open, not around the likes of her at least. They might be best friends, maybe even on a sibling level, but he’s never once told her of his desire for a child.
After a moment- giving Steve some time with the baby, a moment where he can pretend and love with his whole heart- she clears her throat, “We should take them to the jet, out of harm’s way, and to the Tower.”
Steve blinks at her like he forgot for a moment where he was before clearing his own throat and nodding, “Of course.” She watches as he adjusts his hold on the baby, bringing her up to his shoulder, one hand under her butt, the other against her back and nods once more, “Let’s go.”
She mirrors his hold of the baby, completely unsure of how exactly one holds a child in a situation like this, and follows him out of the room. She can hear him in the hallway and through the comm, notifying the Avengers in the building and in the sky of the situation. Calling for them to head to the jet and leave the rest for SHEILD to take care of. Everyone gives a slightly stunned affirmative answer before getting off the comm.
They make their way out of the warehouse unscathed, the girls still sleeping soundly in both of their arms as they walk into the jet. She can already feel panic clawing at her chest, so she silently hands the child over to Clint who takes the baby without fuss. She shoots him a look that reads don’t ask and goes to the furthest bench in the jet, hoping for some silence.
Before she closes her eyes she sees Steve and James with the child Steve was carrying. They both share that look of want and desire, James stroking a human finger down the baby’s cheek, smiling up at Steve when the baby smile in her sleep. She sees their mirrored want and shuts her eyes, hoping that this is all just a dream, wishing it was them instead of her who found baby clones.
The smell of the med bay fills Natasha’s senses. Bleach, plastic, and coffee, all of it seemingly intensified. She has her head in her hands, elbows on her knees, as she sits, her hair curtaining her face like it will make all the concerned looks go away and leave her alone. Her mouth tastes like cotton from the DNA swab, the crook of her arm throbs from the taken blood, her head pounds with fear of the unknown and what they- HYDRA, Red Room- took from her. Not just her innocence, her childhood, but her own DNA. Her own person.
She wants to leave, to run away. She knows the fastest routes out of the Tower, knows places where she can get away from prying eyes and ears- get away from Clint, even. There’s bleach and hair dye in a bag, a photostatic veil for her face, anything and everything she would need to go from Natasha to Kimberly. There’s safe houses, credit cards, cars, and identification all under that name. There’s a one way ticket to England where she’d tell everyone she went to study in the sciences and left America because her only living sister died. She could leave now and vanish without a trace, nobody would know where she went, and while everyone would look- Clint, Tony, stupid and faithful Steve- they’d never find her.If she got up now- Clint with his back turned, Sam’s sleeping in an armchair, Wanda’s getting her twisted ankle checked out, Tony’s in the back, Steve’s with the babies, James is nowhere to be seen, and everyone else isn’t on assignment- she could slip out like a ghost.
Natasha shifts her foot, wanting to push up and out of the seat so she can actually leave, but she can’t make herself. She knows behind those doors there’s two babies that are her, that are all of who she is, and while she doesn’t really have anything binding herself to them she feels like she does. There’s something making her stay, keeping her from getting up and leaving without a trace. Maybe it’s the fact that she wants to make sure those girls don’t live the life she led, or it’s the fact that they are her because no matter what she can’t change that. If she leaves, like herself, they’ll have nobody. They only family they’ll have are the Avengers. And, yeah, Steve’s eyes shine at the babies and James mirrors it, but they won’t have any blood relatives, they’ll be alone except for each other. She can’t do that to them.
She feels when Clint sits next to her, sees his feet spread wide in front of him, and hears him slurp his coffee. Any other day she’d kick his shin, slap his arm, and tell him to sit correctly and not slurp or she’ll throw the cup away, but today isn’t any other day.
“What’s on your mind, Nat?” He asks, voice quiet like the bay around them.
Natasha sighs, rubs her eyes quickly and pushes herself up so her back’s against the chair. She leans her head on his shoulder, finding some peace in the warmth that radiates from beneath his tac suit, “A lot.” She answers, “Trying to decide between running or staying.”
He nods, slurping his coffee again, “If you left I wouldn’t stop you.” A promise.
“I can’t leave them behind. They’re me.” She tells him, closing her eyes. The whole team was briefed on the situation when they got to the med bay, none of them even blinked, this is their life now. Not Dead supersoliders, seemingly Super humans, and science created powers. Clones were to be expected.
“Take them with you?” He offers, trying to give her an out.
Natasha shakes her head, hair falling over her face, “I don’t want to raise them with my morals, with my standards, I don’t want them to follow my lead.” She opens her eyes, watching a sleeping Sam. He had a normal life before the Army, before meeting Steve- and now that she thinks about it, Steve and James did too. The three of them had normal childhoods, they got to be kids for the most part. She didn’t though, it was all ballet and murder, “I want them to have a childhood.”
“You want them to be normal.” He says plainly.
She nods her head, “No fighting, no untold wars. They should be able to go to school, to have fun, to not have this.” She waves her arm to the med bay around them, to the half broken heroes and agents.
“No.” She never thought about it, not really, but she wouldn’t put them in the system. Not where they could in up in a home that wouldn’t treat them right, and that look in Steve’s eyes.. She wouldn’t strip him or James the chance to finally have a child, to finally be that domestic couple the universe never wants to let them be. Putting them in the system would be like washing her hands of something that isn’t dirty, of something she could come to like and possibly get used to.
“So you’re keeping them?” He asks even though it’s not a question.
Natasha lets out a slow breath before nodding, “They’re me, so they’re my responsibility.”
He nods slowly, clearing his throat before asking: “Nat.. have you ever even taken care of a child?”
She snorts, a grin spreading across her face, “I can learn.” She can almost feel the eye roll he gives her but before he can say anything the double doors leading to the medical rooms open and Steve steps through.
He nods to Natasha and Clint, taking short strides before walking to where they sit, “DNA match was one hundred percent identical.” He lets out a breath, “Do you want to see them?”
Natasha sighs and pulls herself away from Clint’s side, getting a reassuring pat on her back from Clint in the process. She sweeps a hand out, “Lead the way.”
The walk down the hallway is silent between them. Natasha doesn’t feel like speaking just yet, wanting to see the babies for herself, and Steve’s giving her as much room as possible. She’s thankful for that.
Steve nods to a door- curtain closed over the small, glass window- and opens it for her, quickly shutting it once she’s inside.
“How are they?” She asks, going up to the large crib that holds the two babies, it’s then she notices that one of the babies has slightly shorter hair, she picks that one up.
Steve follows suit and picks the other one up, the babies are sleeping and connected to a heart monitor, so both of them rock them slowly in their arms.
“Completely healthy.” He answers, looking down at the little girl, “No signs of rapid growth or serum in their blood.” Steve shrugs looking up at her, “I guess HYDRA wanted them to grow at a natural pace.”
Natasha nods, looking down at the baby in her arms, “And were they harmed?”
He reads between the lines and shakes his head, “No.”
She nods again, this time slowly, just taking in the relaxed features of the child before her.
“Do you want me to leave?” Steve asks softly.
“No.” She tells him sharply before taking in a deep breath and looking up, “Stay. I-” she licks her lips, averting her eyes for a moment before looking back at Steve, “-I don’t know if I can do this on my own.”
His face softens like his words and he moves over to stand beside her, their shoulders touching as some kind of anchor, “They’re almost a year old, not sure when their actual birthday is but Bruce said he’d find out.”
Natasha raises the hand not cradling the child and brushes a finger across the child’s cheek, “So small to be with HYDRA.” She wasn’t much older but she wasn’t this young in Red Room.
“I’m glad we busted that location before they could move.”
“Same.” She adjusts her grip on the child and turns to face Steve, “What if there’s more?” She asks, “More clones of mine just out there waiting to be saved or ordered?”
Steve purses his lips, a righteous look crossing his face, “Then we’ll save them and bring them here. Take care of them because they’re one of our own.”
She eyes him, “Even the ones that have already been conditioned?” HYDRA has to have more than a few clone children lying around, they probably have pre-teens too, and conditioning starts from the moment they could tie their shoes and go to the bathroom on their own. Finding a clone of hers that’s a teen would be like finding a HYDRA agent and trying to make it come to their side. It would be difficult.
“Nat.” Steve sighs, “If I told you we wouldn’t save the conditioned ones then I’d be the biggest hypocrite in this building.”
She grins, it’s small but it’s there, “I momentarily forgot that James was conditioned.”
He hums, nodding, “And he’s doing just fine now. Look, if I- we could save him then we can save them, okay?”
Natasha studies his eyes, reads the truthfulness that rolls off of them, “Do you promise?” It’s dumb to ask for promises, to sound like a kid that need their parents to swear on something, but she needs it this one. She needs this promise.
“Cross my heart.”
She nods, looking down at the child in her arms. They’re quiet for a moment, both of them basking in the grace of these children. Natasha thinking of what room she’ll clean out to make a nursery- not her yoga setup, maybe the office that she doesn’t use- and what she’ll have to change in her life to be the best guardian these girls could ask for. Steve’s probably thinking of having ten babies with James and wishing he could hold them himself, if the look off his face tells her anything.
Steve’s head snaps up, like he was ripped away from his daydream, “You need to fill out birth certificates since you’re their legal guardian.”
Natasha blinks, she realized that it was going to be her taking care of them but it didn’t dawn on her that she was going to be legally bound to them, “Okay.” She responds, unsure.
He looks at her, “You’ll need names.”
“Oh.” She looks between the two copies of herself and grins slightly, “The one in your arms is Audrey, and the one in mine is Natalie.” She’ll be able to tell them apart by the length of their hair, and she hopes the Team will too.
Steve frowns for a moment, “Aren’t those--”
“Aliases? Yes.” It will be her own inside joke. If she wanted something funnier she’d name one Stacy and thus be Stacy’s mom who’s got it going on, but she doesn’t want to submit her clone to the torture of a stupid name nor is she their mother.
“Fitting.” Steve snorts.
“Gotta’ love babies.” Sam says, his voice quiet, as he rocks slowly, holding Audrey with a bottle in her mouth.
Natasha just hums, gently laying Natalie in her crib, turning the planet mobile on, “You’re not the one that has to wake up at all hours.” The girls always go to sleep without a fuss but at different times each night they start crying for milk or a diaper change. It’s been a month with them and she still can’t figure out a pattern. It’s taxing on her mental and physical state, if she’s being honest, “Nor are you the one that had to baby proof their apartment and hope they don’t hurt themselves.”
Sam frowns, “They can’t even walk yet.”
Natasha shoots him a look from where she is by Natalie’s crib, “Doesn’t make a difference. They can still get hurt.” They could roll off their blanket and into the side of a table or try to walk and fall onto marble floors. Hell, somehow one of Natasha’s safely put away knives could end up in their little, pudgy hands.
“I think you need to take it easy, Nat.” Sam tells her, his Therapist Voice coming on.
She sighs, “Do you now?”
He nods, still feeding and rocking Audrey, “I think you’re too wound up and stressed after a month of taking care of two babies. It’s not something you’ve done before.”
Natasha’s the one to frown, “I did research.” She looked over every top rating website that related to infants. She asked some of the mothers she did know how to take care of a child. She educated herself, she’s done it before in far more complex situations- like defusing a bomb- so she figured she could do with this situation. It’s all about caring, feeding, playing with, and overall loving the child, she’s learned, and while she does greatly care for them she doesn’t know about love. How can she love something so grey area- something that hasn’t even had the chance to show its true colors yet? She cares, yes, but love is hard to come by these days.
“But you’ve never done this before.” Sam says. Audrey turns her head away from the bottle to he sets it to the side, picking up a long towel to drape over his shoulder, and stands up.
Natasha watches him burp Audrey, eyes narrow, “No, but you don’t always need personal experience to know how to do things.”
Sam just rolls his eyes, stopping beside Natasha with the baby, still bouncing on the balls of his feet, “Look, all I’m saying is you need a little break.” He pats Audrey’s back with a light hand, “I took care of my sister’s kid for a while when I came back, I know how to do all of this from experience and I don’t mind doing it.” He shrugs, “Besides, we all know Steve and Bucky would dive at the chance to help take care of your little clones.”
Natasha stays quiet for a moment, watching the rise and fall of Natalie’s little chest, “I’m just worried I’ll screw things up. Not with changing a diaper or burping them, but with instilling morals in them. We all know my morals aren’t great.”
“But that worry tells me you care.” He says, quietly, “If you didn’t give a damn about what you thought your little clones then I’d be concerned, but you do have good morals. You know what honesty is, you know loyalty, and you know respect and who to give it to. Yeah, your background ain’t the best for child raising but neither is mine or Steve’s, or- hell-Pepper’s” He shrugs again, giving her a little bump with his shoulder, “You’ll get this whole thing down, Nat, it’s just gonna’ take some time.”
She takes in everything he’s said, letting it settle into her bones that she can do this and that she won’t screw it up spectacularly. Still with her eyes on Natalie she nods, “Thanks, Sam.”
“No problem.” The grin is evident in his voice, “Now, go call up that spa you took me to a while back and take a couple days off. The rest of us got it down here.”
“You mean it?” She asks, turning her head to look at Sam, asking two questions with the one. Asking both about the small vacation and whether or not she can actually be a good guardian.
He catches on, smile softening, “Yeah, I mean it.”
“The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout.” Natasha sings to the clones- her own itsy bitsy spiders, honestly.
“Down came the rain and washed the spider out.” She continues. She’s rocking gently in the rocking chair Clint made (and Steve painted) for the nursery, a clone tucked into the crooks of both her arms. It’s closer to sunrise than it is midnight but the two girls wouldn’t stop crying until she picked them up and held them. Natasha should find it annoying, but she doesn’t. It’s oddly peaceful singing the same, ironic nursery rhyme over and over while their lids flutter shut and the crying turns into little breaths that could be snores.
“Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.” She slowly gets up from the rocking chair, the clones secure in her arms, and goes over to Natalie’s crip. She lays her down slowly, watching as the baby stretches her little arms before settling into the crib’s mattress.
“So the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.” Natasha finishes, laying Audrey down in her own crib. She watches her like she did with Natalie, waiting until the baby’s content with her position before moving away.
Instead of leaving the nursery and going back to her bed like she probably should, Natasha dims the lights down to a soft glow and settles herself in the rocking chair. She pulls a leg up to her chest, the other on the floor pushing the chair, and grabs one of the small blankets off the changing station. She adjusts herself a couple of times before getting to a position that isn’t too uncomfortable, seeing as the chair is wooden and the seat pads do nothing for her ass, and listens to the sounds of Natalie and Audrey breathing deeply before closing her own eyes.
That’s the first night of many that she falls asleep in the rocking chair.
The sound of something rustling over the baby monitor wakes her. For a moment she thinks it’s just one of the girls moving around their cribs but the noise continues and the movement sounds too large for it to be either of the girls.
Quickly and quietly, Natasha grabs the pocket knife from her bedside table. She flips the knife open and slips out of a bed, not even the sheets rustle. The girl’s room is to the right of hers at the entrance of the hall and with quick movements on her toes- something akin to a ballet movement- she’s at the end of the hall.
Natasha adjusts her grip on the knife and lunges through the open door, about to stab the intruder in the jugular when she notices the glint of a metal arm in the moonlight and lets out a deep sigh, “James.” She says, relaxing her body, flipping the knife close.
“Natasha.” He replies. He’s leaning over Audrey’s crib but she can’t see what he’s doing.
“What are you doing here?” She asks, eyeing him as she slips the knife into her pocket. She doesn’t remember giving him the code to access her floor, but then again it’s been passed around so much during babysitting duty that everyone probably has it.
He shrugs his shoulders, still leaning over Audrey’s crib, “Couldn’t sleep.”
“So you decided to break into my floor?” Natasha asks, coming to his side. It’s then she sees that Audrey has her little hand wrapped around one of his metal fingers, sleeping with a content smile on her face. It’s then she realizes that James mirrors that smile, it’s small and reaches his eyes. She looks away to the crib.
“Didn’t break in.”
“I could have killed you.” The knife is a heavy weight in her pocket.
He shrugs again, “But you didn’t.”
She eyes him, “So why are you here?” Natasha repeats her question, hoping to get a different answer. The one he gave her might be the truth, but it’s only a small part of it.
James nods to Audrey, “She calms me.” He shrugs again, the third time tonight, a nervous tick, “I dunno’ what it is about her but when I’m with her I just feel calm.”
“Does Steve know you’re here?” She asks. It’s not that Steve’s his keeper, but if James leaves suddenly Steve’s mind, often times, switches to the worst possibility of train of thought.
“They sent him and Sam on some night run. ‘S why I couldn’t sleep, too worried about him.”
She hums with a nod. From both Steve and James- mostly Steve- she’s heard about their relationship. The scare it must have gave both of them back in the thirties when it was too hard for Steve to breathe on his own. The scare of the war and the fact either of them could have died at any time. Losing each other time after time. If that was her life she’d be scared of not having her lover at her side, too, she’d be scared to love again.
“But this little girl.” He coos softly, “She makes everything better.”
“Do you want kids with Steve?” Natasha asks, from the way both of them look at the babies it tells her that they do, but she can never be sure with them.
He’s quiet for a moment, a small frown appearing on his lips, but eventually he answers: “Yes.”
She waits for the “but”, giving James time to answer, to sift through his own thoughts. If someone told her this would be her life- taking care of two baby clones, counseling supersoldiers who don’t think they’re good enough to be parents- she’d laugh in their face. If someone asked her the same question as she just asked James, she’d snort in her face and tell them not over her dead body. She’s never wanted children, she’s never wanted to be a parent, but parenthood and child raising has been thrust upon her by the universe, and she can’t move away from it.
“But,” he starts and her attention switches to him, “I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Why?” She knows why, but asking, digging information out of people comes easy to her.
“There’s so much blood on my hands. My life has been tainted by what people made me do, I still get nightmares, I still can’t trust myself, I’m still worried I’ll hurt Steve.”
She nods along to all of them, completely understanding. It’s how she feels now. She used to kill by orders of other people, she sold and told the KGB’s lies, told SHEILD’s lies, and now she’s an Avenger. There’s blood on her hands that both should and shouldn’t be there, she’s killed on her own will and won’t hesitate to break a neck or slash a throat.
“I know Steve wants kids.” He continues, “But what if he doesn’t want kids with me?”
She stops nodding, “You’re an idiot if you believe that, James.”
James looks up from Audrey, “What?”
Natasha rolls her eyes, taking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, “Steve loves you, James, all of you. Not just that guy that he used to know back in the day. It’s plain and clear on his face, the only one that doesn’t seem to know that is you.” She keeps her voice quiet, trying to not wake up both Natalie and Audrey, “If he could somehow conceive your child I know he would, James.” Steve would probably be one of those happy-pregnant people, with a natural glow, all sunshine and daisies even though something’s kicking at his insides and sitting on his bladder.
James just blinks at her.
“He loves you more than ever, James, okay?” She looks down at Audrey, “If I could trade this with anyone else-” she nods at Audrey, “-I would trade this experience with you two.” She looks back up at James, “I never asked for this, I never asked to be a parent. It scares me.” Natasha confesses.
“That someone else’s future’s in your hands?” James asks.
Natasha nods, “I’m worried I won’t be able to give them what they need, that me not wanting this situation could rub off on them.” It’s a fear that’s kept her up at night, ever since she became the guardian of these two. What if she subconsciously neglects her clones because she’s never wanted kids and still doesn’t? What if they don’t get as much love as they’d get if anyone else- anyone that wants a child- found them and took care of them? What if she’s as clinical and methodical as the HYDRA doctors that took care of them? It worries her, she wants the best for these two but she doesn’t know if she wants to be the one that gives them that for the rest of their life, and that concerns her.
“Maybe I’ll just adopt this little one.” James jokes, wiggling his finger slightly in Audrey’s hand.
Natasha looks up at James, slightly surprised that he’d actually say something about wanting to care for Audrey. She studies him, watching the flush that rises on his cheeks in the dim glow of the nightlight. Watching how he averts his eyes, Winter Soldier steel gone and replaced by the dorky human that is James, how he gives Audrey a smile so sweet and small that Natasha feels like it’s private.
She studies him and gives him a slight grin, “Ask me in a couple months.”
James’ eyes snap up to hers, surprise making a laugh bubble from his lips, “Really?”
Natasha just shrugs a shoulder and sighs, “You can stay in here as long as you’d like. If they start crying it’s either a diaper change or feeding time. Don’t wake me up when you leave.” She waits for his nod before making her way out of the nursery, closing the door silently behind her.
She grins all the way to her room, slipping back under the sheets and closes her eyes.
It’s one of the first times she sleeps soundly while knowing someone other than Clint’s in her apartment. Maybe it’s because she’s finally growing more trust for other people around her, or maybe it’s that she trusts James to protect the girls with his life. She doesn’t know and she’s not going to question it.
Natasha usually loves missions that sends her somewhere obscure. Ones that require prior knowledge and recon. She loves trying to blend into a culture, trying to become someone she’s never been before and make everyone believe her. She usually loves it, but right now? She hates it more than ever.
“How much longer do we have here?” She asks, pacing the ratty motel room floor, satellite phone clutched in her hand.
“A week.” Steve says. He’s laying halfway on one of the beds, his legs stretched out on the floor. He doesn’t sound happy about that fact, either.
“How long have we been here?” She asks, already knowing the answer.
Natasha pauses in the middle of the room, “I used to love these kind of missions.”
Steve snorts, “I’ve never loved these.” She can see him scrunch up his face, “I don’t like pretending to be someone I’m not.”
“You’re a soldier, not a spy.” Natasha tells him, “You can’t lie to save your life.”
“Hey!” He protests, sitting up on his elbow to glare at her, “I’ve been doing just fine pretending to be Brendon your future husband.”
She could almost gag at the thought of marrying Steve in real life. It’s not that he wouldn’t be the best husband ever, because he would be- he’s got all the looks and smarts that made him America’s No.1 Eligible Bachelor before James came along. It’s that she can’t think of marrying Steve- or anyone- and being happy with herself. Intimacy? Not her thing.
“You’ve been getting by.” She’ll give him that. He’s doing better than she assumed he’d do, but she still doesn’t know why they didn’t send Clint or James with her.
Steve huffs and lets his body fall back on to the bed, “Maybe one day Fury will realize I don’t belong on espionage missions.”
“In both your and my dreams.” Natasha tells him, throwing herself on the twin bed next to Steve’s. She looks at the satellite phone in her hands and frowns, “I wonder why they haven’t called.”
“It’s almost seven in the morning over there, you think Buck or Clint is going to be up that early?”
The frown stays on her lips, “They’re usually very punctual.” Everyday since they’ve been on this mission one of the team members back in the Tower’s called to tell them about the girls. Natasha doesn’t usually accept phone calls or even brings a phone on missions such as this one, but this situation is different: She’s with Steve, who needs to talk to James at least once a week, and she has two clones at home that she’s the legal guardian of. If they somehow get hurt it’ll be on her, no matter if she was the one watching them or not.
“Maybe they’re sleeping in?” Steve says through a yawn, “God knows I want to go to sleep already.”
Natasha looks over at him, he’s still half off the bed but his eyes are closed and his face is tired, “Go to sleep.”
He’s quiet for a moment before making a face, “I’m waiting for them to call, too.”
“Waiting for your dearest James?” She teases, a grin replacing the frown when Steve blushes.
She opens her mouth to tease him even more when the phone rings. She jumps to answer it, pressing the speakerphone option the moment the call goes through, “Hey.” She says into the receiver, not knowing who she’s talking to just yet.
“You kill my Stevie yet?” James says in greeting, knowing full and well that the phone’s on speaker.
She snorts into the line, “No, not yet. Soon, though, if he doesn’t get his alias into line.”
“Sorry I keep forgetting I’m married to you, Nat.” Steve says from his bed, smile crossing his lips.
James laughs, “It’s ‘cause you can’t keep me outta’ your head, that’s all.”
“That’s almost exactly it.” Steve sighs, being completely honest.
Natasha rolls her eyes, “How are the clones doing?”
“Fine.” James says, she can hear him shrugging, “They’re both still sleeping, had a late night since they both didn’t want to eat dinner at a decent time.”
“Still?” Steve asks.
“I think they miss you guys.”
Natasha hums. She wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the clones when she left on this mission, whether they’d be okay or not. The first few days they were just fine, but as of recently they’ve both rejected food and cuddles for sleeping and crying. It makes sense: She’s the one that’s taken care of them for two months, or so, of course they’re going to have some reaction to her absence.
“No more long missions, I guess, until they’re older.” Natasha says into the phone, sighing. She doesn’t want to quit these missions, but for the sake of the clones she might just have to.
“No more long missions.” James agrees.
They talk about the girls for a while longer, vetting James for any information he can give her. Until she passes the phone to Steve so him and James can talk while not being on speaker.
Natasha stares at the ceiling, wishing that she were back home instead of on a mission so the girls would be at their utmost healthiest. Sure, she expecting some reaction out of the two but not them rejecting food and sleeping more than they should. She doesn’t want them to hurt themselves in her absence, and the only way- apparently- that she’s going to prevent that is if she doesn’t take anymore long missions. Not like she likes them anymore, anyways.
Natasha lets out a slow sigh and moves up her bed. She cuts her bedside lamp off- Steve’s still on, washing the room in a dim glow- and gets under the covers, settling into the bed. She closes her eyes to the sound of Steve talking, already in the clothes she’s decided to sleep in. His voice lulls her concerns about the girls away, and lulls her to sleep.
It’s decided, then: No more long missions.
“What about this?” Clint asks, holding a purple onesie with little dogs up to where Natalie sits in her stroller.
They’re in a baby store- her, Clint, and Sam- trying to get the girls new clothes since their couple of onesies and outfit sets isn’t cutting it since the girls like to make a big mess. Pepper and Tony offered online shopping, but spending money on the girls and herself on their dime isn’t something she’s going to pass up in person.
“No.” Natasha says, “If you put your colors and Lucky all over my clones then everyone else will want to as well.”
Clint frowns, pulling the onesie back to look at it, “But she likes it.”
Natasha looks down at Natalie and rolls her eyes when the kid starts making grabby hands and gurgling sounds at the onesie, “You coerced her, somehow, my clone does not have terrible taste.” She leans over the stroller she’s pushing to Audrey, “You’re our only hope.”
Clint scoffs, but throws the onesie over his arm.
“Guys!” Sam says, running up to them with a couple of onesies in his hands, “They have little onesies with all the Avengers’ logos!”
Natasha looks over to Sam and sighs. Sure enough, each little onesie has their logos on it. A black one with the widow’s mark in red in the center, grey with a little cap shield, white with a grey shoulder and a little metallic red star, they have Tony, Sam, Bruce, Wanda, Clint, Thor, Rhodey- all of them. Each little onesie with their own logos. It’s too cute for Natasha’s heart to handle.
“We need two of each.” Clint says, nodding his head rapidly at the little onesies, “Do we get paid for these? I’m pretty sure Pepper patented our logos.”
“I already got two sets.” Sam says, holding them up, “We get paid for these, Clint, anything with your, or my, name on it gives us some profit.” Sam stops talking, frowning, “How do you think money ends up in your bank account?”
Clint shrugs, “Figured I got paid per world saving.”
Natasha and Sam both snort.
“Don’t I wish.” Sam says, rolling his eyes.
“Take the onesies.” Natasha says, sighing, before pushing the stroller down the rows of clothes. She wants to find them more clothes other than onesies.
“Steve and Bucky are gonna’ melt at the sign of the girls wearing these onesies.” Sam says, grinning, shaking the two onesies with their logos on them.
Natasha grins as she pushes the stroller, “They might cry.” She can almost picture it, Steve and Bucky noticing Audrey as she lays in her playpen, one of their logo onesies on her little body, the silence that will pass them as they watch the baby girl. It’s almost cruel to dangle that in front of them.
She’s going to do it anyways.
She grins down at a little white sundress, thoughts of playing that on Steve and Bucky pleasing her, when a shrill voice comes out of nowhere.
“Oh my!” The woman’s voice yells, making Natasha’s finely tuned ears pray for rest, “Aren’t these twins just the cutest!”
Natasha looks up at the yelling women, eyeing her for a moment with a raised eyebrow.
The woman leans down to the stroller, making Natasha want to roll it back, and pinches Natalie’s cheeks, Natalie turns her face away and frowns. The good girl doesn’t cry, Natasha should see if Natalie’s pain tolerance has been heightened because that pinch could have brought tears to Sam’s eyes.
“They look so identical, oh my!” The woman yells once more, looking between Natasha’s stroller and Clint’s.
“Yes.” Natasha answers, wondering if she needs to knock the woman out so she won’t touch her clones again, “They’re identical twins.”
Clint, being no help, just snorts.
The woman looks up, then flicks her eyes between Natasha and Clint, “You, my dear,” she says to Natasha, “have amazing genetics, seeing as the daddy didn’t get any of his good looks in.”
“I know!” Clint says, playing along, “What a shame these little girlies didn’t get my hair.” He shakes his head with a sigh and Natasha wants to roll her eyes.
The woman clicks her tongue, “Well, I’ll let you two go along.” She gets in two quick pinches to the girls’ cheeks before Natasha can so much as move, “Happy shopping!” And she’s gone.
Sam appears from whatever clothing rack he was hiding behind and bursts out laughing, “I thought Nat was gonna’ put her down.”
“I can’t believe she thought we’re a couple!” Clint says through his own snorts and laughter.
Natasha just rolls her eyes and pushes the cart forward, she should have brought Steve and Bucky shopping with her.
“What the hell?”
Natasha grins, walking into the common room with a clone on each hip. They’re dressed identically: white sundress, little frilly socks, and a headband with a yellow flower pulling their hair back. To someone that isn’t her- doesn’t have her training, or her knowledge of the difference in her clones’ hair- they look like a mirroring image of each other. They look like actual clones because she usually dresses them differently and has their hair down, in these outfits, though, they are what they were created to be.
Clint gets up from the dining table and meets her halfway, standing in front of her with his hands on his hips, frowning at the two girls.
“Care to take a guess as to who is who?” She asks, the grin on her face only widening.
Clint continues staring at the girls, they stare back at him, both blinking and not showing any of their personality traits- which would be a dead giveaway. Natalie likes playing with everyone, she’s a bit sweeter, more welcoming to anyone’s hugs or kisses or peek-a-boos. Audrey, though, she only like Natasha, Steve, Bucky, and Wanda. She tolerates Sam, hates Tony, deals with Pepper, and ignores both Bruce and Clint. It’s amusing.
Clint makes a frustrated sound before throwing his hands up, “No! I’m not gonna’ play this game.” He stares at the two for another moment before sighing and going back to the table, “Someone will figure it out.”
“Nobody will figure it out.” She walks over to where Wanda sits in an armchair, watching whatever soap is on. She motions to the clones, “Take a guess.”
Wanda eyes Natasha, then eyes the girls, before shaking her head, “I can’t tell without their hair being down.” She bites her lip, looking at the girls, “They’re being very quiet, it’s too hard to guess.”
Natasha rolls her eyes and steps in front of Sam who just pushes her legs out of the way with his foot, “Nope, not even gonna’ try. Besides, General Hospital is on and Sonny might actually die this time.” She stares at him for a moment, his eyes are glued to the screen, before huffing and moving towards the love-seat Steve and James have claimed as their own.
Steve has a sketchpad open on his lap- probably drawing James, when isn’t he- and James is playing with his new found love of a Nintendo 3DS- she thinks he’s addicted to the thing because he never got to be the young adult he still is. Natasha stops in front of them, directly between the two, “Guess.”
They both look up from what they’re doing. Two sets of blue eyes flicking between the two babies, eyeing each and every piece of clothing and facial expression like if they don’t get this right the world’s going to end. They take their eyes off the babies to look at each other before both of them point to the baby on Natasha’s left hip and say, in sync, “That’s Natalie.” They point to the one on the right, ”That’s Audrey.”
Natasha frowns, “How did you get that?” The clones are dressed exactly the same, she should be the only one that knows the difference.
James shrugs, “Their eyes are different.”
She flicks her eyes to Steve, raising an eyebrow, waiting for an answer.
“I spend more time with Audrey.” Steve shrugs too, “It would be a shame if I didn’t know which one she was by now.” A grin spread across his face, he lifts his hands, “Right Aud?” He says, his Baby Voice at it’s full potential, “Of course I’m gonna’ know who you are.”
Audrey breaks out in a little grin of her own and wiggles in Natasha’s clutch. Natasha quickly passes Steve Audrey before she drops her, and sighs, “One day you won’t be able to tell the difference.”
James snorts, looking at Audrey instead of his game, “Doubtful.”
She glares at them, hating that she lost at her own game to the two most oblivious people in the world, “Just you wait.”
Natasha moves away from them and plops herself down on the couch by Sam, putting Natalie in her lap where the baby immediately begins playing with her feet, “So,” she starts, “how are things in the General Hospital?”
Going by labs and tests done by Tony and Bruce, today- December fifth- might be the girls’ first birthday. It’s hard to tell if it’s their actual birthday, seeing as they’re essentially lab-grown babies and figuring out ages via DNA is still something being tested in the sciences, but a party was in order, anyways.
Natasha grins, leaning back in her seat at the head of the table, while she watches the team interact with the girls.
“Why won’t they laugh at my jokes?” Clint says, frowning at the blank stares the girls give him.
“Because they’re lame.” Tony replies, waving a hand in the air, “They’re lame and it seems like you’re the only one that gets the joke.”
Clint huffs, crossing his arms over his chest, “You don’t know how to make a joke that you don’t laugh at, Tony.”
Tony shrugs a shoulder, “Because I’m hilarious.”
“They probably don’t even understand jokes yet.” Sam says, being the mediator between the two men, he adjusts the headband on Natalie’s head, rotating it so the flower’s on the side of her head instead of on the back. He does the same with Audrey.
“I make them laugh all the time.” Steve says, lifting Audrey off the table and into his arms, “Don’t I, Aud?” Baby Voice back in full force.
Audrey, much to the chagrin of Clint, giggles and Steve looks at the rest of them like he should be spreading out his arms going “Whatcha’ gonna’ do about it?”
James smiles at Steve like a proud mother whose son just scored his first soccer goal.
Pepper swoops Natalie off the table before she topples over, “I wish I could want kids.” She says, looking down at Natalie, “They’re so cute but such a fuss.”
“You already have to deal with Tony.” Clint snorts, “Tony is a child.”
Tony gasps in like he’s been fatally wounded.
Pepper looks up from where she was gazing at Natalie to Tony and sighs, “You’re right, Clint, I already have to deal with Tony. I’m not missing out on having children.”
“I’m hurt.” Tony says, clutching his chest.
Pepper rolls her eyes, and focuses her attention back on Natalie.
“The cake’s ready!” Wanda yells, walking into the dining room, Bruce following behind her, the cake levitating in her red power in front of them. She settles the cake in the middle of the table, it’s three tiers of pastel pink fondant with little yellow flowers cascading down the cake.
In all honesty, Natasha wasn’t sure about letting Wanda and Bruce make the cake, but she’s glad she did. It looks amazing, professionally done, almost. She hopes it tastes as good as it looks.
Everyone breaks out into their own form of praise at the cake, Bruce and Wanda blushing but taking the compliments.
“Candles!” Sam yells, tossing the multicolored pack to Wanda.
Wanda pulls two candles out- one yellow, one pink- and gently stabs them into the second tier of the cake, lighting them with her powers.
“Wait, wait!” James says, fumbling with his phone before letting out a sigh, “We need to document their first birthday.” He explains.
They all give him a moment before breaking out into a crappy rendition of Happy Birthday.
Natasha sits back in her chair, singing under her breath, watching everyone else.
She’s glad she didn’t run like she originally wanted to. Glad that she took these two clones under her wing and took on the task of raising them. She’s still slightly bitter with the fact that she has to give up her life to raise these two, but she doesn’t regret it, and she won’t. It’s not a burden raising them, especially when there’s a literal team of people waiting on her call to ask if they want to babysit, especially since she’s considering asking Steve and James to adopt Audrey.
If she left- ran away from that hospital room, changed who she was- she can’t imagine what she’d be now. A life without her friends, without those whom she cares for and who care for her back, would turn her stoic and stony. It would have made her into the woman Red Room counted on her to be- someone she doesn’t want to be. But she doesn’t have to live that life, not now nor ever. She has two clones that are, on paper, her sisters: Natalie and Audrey Romanov. She has a horde of friends that look over her cracks and scars and two little clones that could- God forbid- take care of her in her old age.
Natasha lets a small grin cross her lips as everyone claps- Steve bouncing Audrey, Pepper doing the same to Natalie- as they finish singing.
Steve leans up to the candle with Audrey in his hands, “Make a wish, Aud.” He tells her softly, waiting a moment before blowing out the yellow candle.
Pepper follows Steve’s lead before handing off Natalie to Clint when he makes grabby hands and settles back into her seat.
Natasha leans over to where Pepper sits at her left, “Hey, Pepper, could you do something for me?”
Pepper looks over to her, smile still on her face, “Sure, what is it?”
Natasha leans in a fraction closer, “You see James and Steve with Audrey?” She waits until Pepper flicks her eyes over to the three of them, “Well, Christmas is coming up, and I’d like to get some adoption papers filled out for them.” It won’t hurt her at all to let them adopt Audrey, she doesn’t hold a maternal feeling over either of the girls. Besides, it’ll be both easier for her to take care of only one clone instead of two, and she’s been thinking about this since she first got the clones. It’s no skin off her back, no spilled milk, no tears to stain her cheeks- nothing.
“Oh!” Pepper says, surprised before calming herself, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Natasha nods, “That’s all I ask.”
She moves back to her seat, thanking Bruce for the slice of cake.
She’s content. Here, with the team and her clones. It’s an odd feeling, to be so content with her life as it is. To not want to run or regret something she’s done, but it’s what she feels. It’s who she is now, and she’s okay with that. She wouldn’t change a damn thing about her life, as of now. Well, she’d give Steve and James custody over Audrey, but that’s it. That’s all she can ask to change. That’s all she wants to change.
That’s it and it feels nice.