Chapter 1: Planning Statistics
"I... you... that's a child."
Stark has always had a talent for stating the obvious - it's actually one of Natasha's very favorite things about him, and a dark part of her is amused as hell at his reaction, but that doesn't mean she's not going to give him shit about it.
"Yes. She is." The child in question tucks her head shyly against Natasha's neck and her hand tightens on the edge of her mother's jacket. By necessity, Lina's unused to unfamiliar people, and the previous few days have been a lot to take in for a two year old.
"I wonder what the statistics are on super spies and accidental pregnancies," Tony says, half to the room and half to himself and she can literally see the hamster wheels turning in his brain as he tries to do the math.
"Double-oh-seven percent," Clint deadpans and Natasha rolls her eyes.
"Would that be zero point zero seven percent or zero point zero zero seven percent?" Bruce asks from across the room, the corner of his mouth turning up slightly.
"Regardless," she breaks in before they can veer too far afield, "we didn't contribute to them."
That brings them up short, and Tony actually does a double take. "So... not some kind of heat of the moment, oops how did that happen-"
"No. I got pregnant on purpose. It's called planning."
Clint reaches over and ruffles his fingers through his daughter's curls and she turns abruptly in Natasha's arms and reaches for her father. Reluctantly, Natasha lets her go, then only because it's Clint. They've both been clinging a bit more tightly since getting her back now that Loki's gone. The knots of tension in her chest relax a little bit more each time she sees Clint with her though, each time she watches him smile without quite as many shadows in his eyes because it's next to impossible not to be happy when his daughter smiles so openly at him.
They'd planned, oh they'd planned - every possible detail they could control thought out to the nth degree, once they realized it was a real possibility: mission schedules and recovery times, the work/life balance, and still there'd been so much they'd just had to take as it came. But they'd wanted this, to do something good and real and hopeful with their lives rather than just an endless string of deaths and regrets and violence. Avelina, their "little bird", whose name also means "life".
Chapter 2: A Failure of Language
Part of an old prompt: Nick Fury babysits from Be_Compromised.
Nick Fury didn't expect to get called into the SHIELD daycare facility. The teacher in question may regret that decision.
So, this is based on a true story - my cousin's mother is from Thailand and she was raised speaking both Thai and English. When she was about three or four, she "failed" her preschool placement tests because the people administering the tests didn't realize she was answering about half the questions in another language, and never bothered to check or ask her to answer in English.
I figure any kid of Natasha's is going to be at least bilingual, and might run into this problem, too.
Loosely a continuation of Chapter 1's "Planning Statistics".
Technically, Nick Fury was on the contact list with the (SHIELD run) daycare and school facility. Technically, Barton and Romanov had put him down as someone able and willing (more importantly, safe) to take their children from said facility should circumstances warrant it.
He was at the bottom of the list, mind you - the absolute last-chance-scenario call, and really he was only on there because he was a. the Director of SHIELD and b. the only person with certain security clearances should it ever come to that, god forbid.
If he was the one checking Lina and Matthew out of the facility, it was supposed to mean that the end-time had come (or that Loki was back) and the Avengers probably weren't getting out of whatever situation they'd found themselves in, at least not alive. It was supposed to mean a one-way ticket for the two children to some undisclosed (even to their parents) safe house and eventually adoption under so many layers of false IDs and paperwork that the US Witness Protection program would cry.
Never let it be said that Barton and Romanov didn't know how to prepare for the worst.
This was not that situation.
The world was not ending (except maybe that of the arms dealer in Kolkata who's neck Romanov was probably breaking right now), Loki was still locked away on Asgard, and the Avengers weren't even assembled.
But five-year-old Avelina Romanova Barton didn't look particularly happy.
The look on her face was sort of terrifying if you were familiar with the grown-up version, because holy god she looked like her mother. Only tiny.
"I apologize Director, but I wasn't able to reach anyone else on the list." Her teacher, a Mr. Mercer, stood up from behind his desk and held out his hand.
Fury ignored it. He also doubted that he'd been the only one they could reach. Her parents were in India, one of the rare times that they took a joint mission overseas now, but this one was complicated and they'd both flat out refused any other partners for it. But by a quick mental inventory he knew that Rogers was on a training run for most of the day (though he should be back in plenty of time to collect the kids for dinner), Potts had meetings in Chicago (and so wasn't on deck for this particular round of babysitting), Thor and Jane were on Asgard and had taken Lewis with them as an attache for some unknown reason they hadn't explained in the paperwork (Fury had his suspicions), which left Stark and Banner on the short list. He could actually buy that Stark might not be reachable - he played the damn music too loud all the time - but off the top of his head he wasn't sure where else Banner might be.
Regardless, Rogers easily could've been pulled from training if the idiot in front of him had just been a little more insistent when he'd called over to HQ, but Fury was here now, so there was no point in complicating the issue.
"What seems to be the problem?" he asked the shorter man, who shrank a bit under the look he was getting.
"I... well. We were working on evaluations, placement tests for some of the children who'll be starting our kindergarten program in a few months. Baselines really, not even IQ testing, just essential skills such as numbers, letters and colors; object recognition, that sort of thing. Miss Barton has had a very... difficult morning," he finished, and a small amount of something that could either be identified as mild pity or a hint of superiority was creeping into his tone.
"Is she misbehaving?" He'd believe it, she'd inherited both - both - of her parents stubborn streaks and wasn't old enough to have any of their self-restraint yet. He'd once observed Barton trying to get her to do something she didn't want to do, and the tantrum had been impressive.
"Not precisely. She did have a bit of a meltdown an hour ago, but that was really secondary to the main problem."
"Which is?" He really didn't have the patience for this man. God, who was in charge of hiring around here?
"Frankly, I'm worried about her development. I know that her parents have, let's say, difficult jobs, and are often gone. I've read her file."
You've read what we've let you see of her file, Fury thought to himself. Yes, her parents still took the occasional assignments, but rarely at the same time or for extended periods anymore. They did mostly consulting now, more training of new agents, and instead of being SHIELD's primary weapons they were treated more like the specialized, precision tools that they were. And there was a whole host of other adults in the children's immediate sphere of influence that had become just as attached and just as invested in their development and well-being. They didn't lack for adult supervision, interaction, or guidance.
"What's wrong with her development?" he snapped. He was really getting tired of this guy.
"She doesn't seem to be well socialized, and her ability to recognize even simple objects is remarkably lacking. She also has trouble with basic numbers and letters that should be more concrete at her age."
Fury's eye narrowed. That didn't sound right. Well, socialization issues, maybe... if by that they meant she had a temper, and strong opinions, and was usually happy playing by herself, all of which were true. But those weren't "issues" those were just her personality, the combination of nature and nurture and nothing to haul her out as "developmentally challenged". The other things though... He knew for a fact she'd been reading since she was three. And god help them, Stark had turned math and physics into some kind of a game for her and actually seemed to be getting somewhere with it. They probably didn't have to worry about her creating the next piece of super-Armageddon-inspiring-evil-villain tech for a few years, but she loved the holographic puzzles he gave her.
"What doesn't she recognize?"
The teacher produced a stack of picture cards, all with simple things like trees and books and cars and fruit on them.
"Show me," he ordered, because there was no way she couldn't identify things like that.
Mercer set his shoulders like a man going into battle and crouched down in front of Lina, who had her arms crossed and a dark stormy look on her face, and he held up a card with an apple on it.
"What's this, sweetie?" the man ask, and god help them all he was using that tone, the one some people used when they thought someone was very slow or very stupid. Fury was going to end him before this was all over.
"Pobo," she insisted, still looking irritated and angry.
The man had a said smile Fury read as "isn't it a pity?" and yes, he was going to hit him. Hard. Or at least he wanted to.
This time it was a tree. "What about this one?"
"Ruk." She looked like she knew exactly what she was saying, and even though Fury didn't understand those particular sounds...
Fury grabbed the apple card and held it up. "Lina, what's this one again?"
French he understand, even if Mercer didn't. "You do realize she speaks more than one language, right?" Three were listed in her file - English, Russian, and Spanish - those she was learning fluently, because both her parents felt language skills were important. There were several other languages she knew bits and pieces of, thanks to the extensive international Sesame Street collection that JARVIS had put together for both children. "Did you bother to ask her if she knew any other words for them?"
"I... well, no. What?"
"You're dealing with a child who's growing up speaking three languages at home. You didn't specify what language you wanted her to answer in. Did you ever stop to think that maybe she can recognize a damn apple just fine, and you just can't recognize the goddamn words?"
He knew he shouldn't curse around the children, but that was as toned down as he was getting right now. Romanov would forgive him.
"Lina, honey, what other words do you know for this thing?"
"Pobo, apple, yabloko, ringo, apfel," she recited obediently. Then she twisted up her face in concentration for a moment before, "pingguo."
"Thanks, baby," he said, but didn't look away from the teacher. He made a mental note to make sure that from now on they hired staff that were at least bilingual. And to screen for condescending assholes. "I think she's probably had enough for one day. If you can direct me to where she put her things and bring me her brother, I'll just take them with me. We'll evaluate the procedures and testing system later."
Mercer paled, maybe even shook a little, and that gave Fury a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
Matthew had apparently just woken up from a nap, because when the aide that brought him in set him down on his feet he yawned hugely and toddled over until he could wrap his arms around Fury's legs and lean into him. If Lina had gotten all of their volatile, stubborn characteristics, Matthew seemed to have gotten their adaptability and calm.
Fury scooped him up in one arm, and held out his other hand to Lina, who took it with a smile and he led them to the car. Once they were in route back to headquarters he sent messages to all the relevant adults who might need to know where they were (a remarkably long list, even just considering the ones on planet and in the city) - Rogers had been slated to pick them up so Fury figured he'd show up in his office eventually now that he knew they'd been moved. He had quite a bit of paperwork he'd been needing to catch up on, and this gave him a good excuse to lock himself in his office for the rest of the day.
A stack of old papers and a box of crayons someone had produced seemingly from out of nowhere got Lina happily settled, and there was some sort of soft, stuffed set of creatures and little puffy clouds that had Matthew happily entertained. Lina was able to tell him what she and Matthew both wanted for lunch (he even let her have the chocolate cake she asked for since she'd had to put up with that idiot all morning) and despite his morning nap, Matthew went down again around two. Lina claimed (in two languages) that she was a big girl and didn't need a nap, and if she kind of slumped over her crayons at one point Fury didn't bring it up.
Then there was a little bit of wrangling involved when Matt woke up and didn't want to hold still for a diaper change, and by 4:30 Lina had earned herself a time-out because she was getting too tired and frustrated and had thrown her crayons at the wall.
Steve showed up at 4:45 and tried to apologize profusely for being out of pocket but Fury cut him off with a wave of his hand. "No need, Captain. They jumped the gun and didn't follow procedure."
"Are they okay?"
"The kids or the teacher?"
"I meant the teacher, sir," Steve said with a hint of a smile.
"He's been dealt with."
"Duly noted. Is there any word on when Barton and Romanov are expected back?"
"Late tonight if everything went as planned."
"Two more days, d'you think?"
"Right. Well, come on, Lina, we need to get you home for dinner, ok?"
"Can we have ice cream after dinner?"
"You already had cake today, Miss Barton. Don't go trying to tell Captain Rogers that you didn't."
Lina looked up at him with big, innocent eyes, and Fury had a sneaking suspicion she'd still get that ice cream after all.
Chapter 3: Night Watch
Before he'd walked in the door, all he'd wanted was a hot shower and a solid eight hours sleep, preferably with one or both of them curled up next to him, but he could see that would have to wait. Natasha wouldn't let herself sleep, he realized, unless she knew someone she could trust was making sure that everything was alright.
There's no downtime in parenting.
When he got back on base, to their quarters in family housing, he found the lights off and the curtains drawn against the bright midday sunshine.
"Nat?" he called hesitantly, not wanting to wake the baby if she was napping.
"In here," she called, but her voice sounded unnaturally weak and reedy, and his heart rate kicked up just a little bit.
"Nat, what..." he froze in the doorway, taking in the sight before him. She was in the bed, braced against the wall and a mound of pillows to help support both herself and Lina, who was curled into her side like she'd just been nursing and fallen asleep. Natasha had a protective hand on Lina's side - he could see it rising and falling along with his daughter's breathing. All around them were discarded tissues and he could see the beads of sweat along her hairline. Both of their faces - their skin was the same - were flushed with a too-bright pink that he knew on Natasha meant she was running a fever.
"We've got the flu." She did sound rough, hoarse and faded, which worried him. Natasha was so rarely sick - he couldn't remember, in fact, a time that she had gotten sick from natural causes rather than injury.
He left his duffel and weapons case by the doorway and cleared a space so he could sit next to her on the edge of the bed. She looked exhausted. "Have you been able to get any sleep? If I'd known, I could've-"
"You couldn't have. You can't make the flu disappear, and you can't just up and leave whatever Fury had you doing because we're sick."
"You haven't slept, have you." He made it a statement, not a question.
"No. She's been so congested, I was afraid..." she trailed off, looking down at Lina.
Before he'd walked in the door, all he'd wanted was a hot shower and a solid eight hours sleep, preferably with one or both of them curled up next to him, but he could see that would have to wait. Natasha didn't have a lot of fears, but something happening to their daughter had rocketed to the top of the list. She wouldn't let herself sleep, he realized, unless she knew someone she could trust was making sure that everything was alright. Which meant him.
Leaning down, he carefully extricated the 14 month old, balancing her warm, sleepy weight with one arm while gently pushing Natasha back down with his other hand. "You, get some sleep," he whispered and brushed a kiss across her hair. "I've got her until you wake up, okay? She'll be fine, I'll keep her close."
Natasha nodded, and was already out before he could straighten all the way back up. He pressed Lina's face against his for just a minute and flinched at how warm she was. Not dangerously so (long years of dealing with field injuries in the middle of nowhere had given him a fairly accurate thermometer) but warm enough he knew she was still sick. Natasha's felt higher, and he made a mental note to check on her again and make her take something if it wasn't down by the time she woke up.
The bathroom yielded mixed results, he was able to find a wash cloth and soaked it with cool water before tucking it against Lina's face and neck, but the bottle of children's pain killer was overturned and there was a sticky pink puddle streaked across the bathroom counter.
"You wore your momma out, didn't you, darlin'?" he whispered, soft enough she didn't even stir in his arms.
He ended up in the arm chair with her sprawled across his chest and her face against his neck so he could feel the rise and fall of her chest between his and his hand and the soft rhythm of her breath against his throat. He didn't sleep, but closed his eyes and let himself drift, confident he'd know the moment either changed. He opened his eyes occasionally to check the light level in the room and the red digital readout of the clock on the bookcase.
A small whimpering and restless shifting brought him fully back to the present and when he looked down Lina's eyes were open and staring back up at him.
"Dadda?" she asked, a smile crossing her face.
"Hey, little bird. You feeling any better?" He set the back of his hand against her face and was pleased to find she was cooler to the touch. "Yeah, I bet you are."
She patted his face in return, and giggled, but it broke off in a cough.
"You probably need more medicine. And dinner. We can't do much about that first one until Momma's awake, but I can help you out with some food, alright? You want some banana?"
Banana was one of the very first words she'd learned, and her eyes lit up at the mention. "Binna!" she crowed and he shared her grin.
Lina was well and truly sticky and covered in a combination of banana paste and cheerios when Natasha stumbled blearily into the kitchen and leaned against the doorway.
"Mama!" her fever had broken not long after she'd woken up, and with it receding her general cheerfulness had returned. Some days Clint wondered if this is what Natasha had been like, or might've been like if things had been different for her.
Now though, she still seemed more the worse for wear than not, but her color was down and he guessed that her fever was on it's way to breaking too. Thank god for super-soldier regeneration sometimes.
"How long have you been back?" she asked in a stronger voice than she'd had before.
"Eight or nine hours," he admitted. "You needed the sleep."
"I got sick."
He nodded. "Pretty unusual. How long did you go without sleep?"
Their eyes met and he watched her consider what she could get away with saying, saw the moment when she gave up and just went with the truth. "Three days."
"The first night she cried. She didn't have a fever, but you could tell her head hurt. And she cried and wouldn't sleep for more than about twenty minutes at a time. So I walked the floor with her to calm her down."
"She got more and more congested. I got her to sleep once, and tried to set her down, but she started coughing and couldn't really seem to stop. She could breathe better up on my shoulder, so I just... stayed up."
"Nat," he started, stepping in front of her and pulling her against his chest. Yes, she was definitely cooler, back to something like Natasha-normal, and he threaded his fingers through her sweaty hair. "Why didn't you call? They could've gotten me if you needed me."
"I managed, Clint. I can manage, and we were fine. I'm just really, really glad you're home."
They stood like that for a long handful of minutes until the clatter of a bowl and spoon redirected their attention. "She looks much better."
"Yeah, her fever's gone, and she hasn't coughed in an hour or two. We were just having breakfast."
"It's two a.m."
"She woke up hungry. So was I."
Natasha smiled and rolled her eyes. They were both too nocturnal themselves to do much good trying to fake a regular schedule. Lina didn't really seem to mind. Then Natasha pulled away, was still a little unsteady on her feet, but he could see how rapidly she was fighting off whatever the bug had been now that she'd had some proper sleep.
"So, cheerios and bananas?"
"When do you leave for Malibu?" Clint's fingers were back to playing with her hair, damp now from their shower.
"Monday. I need a few days to get set up, get some proper clothes and familiarize myself with her things." She rubbed her cheek against his shoulder and pressed herself closer to his side.
"He give you any idea how long it would take?"
"No. Stark's dying, but it's slow. He's trying to kill himself quickly. And god only knows how long it'll take him to crack the damn science code. If there's really one to crack, and if it really has anything at all to do with saving his life."