Special thanks again to all the amazing reviews and likes for my other Avengers stuff! So glad you all are enjoying it.

Here's another ficlet that sprung out of me today, again inspired by the kinkmeme on lj. 3 you guys!

Possible triggers: child death, references to child abuse. Be aware!

Red Balloon

It's a red balloon that sets him off, in the end.

He's been fine for months since the New York incident. Sure, there have been weekly visits to the psych ward and Natasha hasn't let him sleep alone unless she's out of the country, but he's been doing a bang up job of holding everything together.

It's like Loki never came to Earth, never touched Clint with that scepter of his, never turned Clint into a mindless automaton. He's fine.

All of that changes when Clint and Natasha are working an undercover op as a favor to Charles Xavier.

Xavier had gotten wind that a mutant smuggling ring was stepping up its operations in Eastern Europe, but he simply did not have the resources to check it out himself. A phone call to Fury later, Clint and Natasha were on a plane across the Atlantic.

They're in Budapest, of all places, when they discover the truth about the smuggling ring, and it's darker than any of them imagined.

The men in charge, two Bulgarians and an uncertain number of Hungarians, are kidnapping children and young teens and selling them to the highest bidder. Mutant slaves fetch a large price, apparently, and the more practical the talent, the more lucrative the offer.

Everything comes to a head outside of the city, in an abandoned part of town. As it turned out, the area was not as abandoned as it appeared, and Natasha opens a shipping container in an otherwise empty warehouse to find sixty children, none of them older than twelve, crammed inside.

Clint and Natasha are leading them out of the shipping container when the shooting begins.

They do their best, shove as many kids back inside and yell at them to lie down on the ground, but it isn't enough. Five of the kids are killed almost instantly, toppling to the ground like falling trees in the first wave of gunfire.

Ten more die when panic sets in and they try to make a break for it. Either Clint's Hungarian is really that terrible or they just didn't care to listen to what this strange man had to say. Maybe both.

In the end, barely half of the original group they found survives the shootout, and of those, at least 15 are wounded. By the time backup and a med team arrive, three of the wounded have succumb.

Clint is grateful when they sweep the survivors away, loading them onto transport planes bound for the nearby SHEILD base.

They are alone then, Clint and Natasha, with no company but the corpses, waiting for the Helicarrier to arrive. The little bodies all around them are nothing new to either one of them. They have been soldiers since long before these children were born and they will be soldiers until long after their bodies have decayed. It's a gruesome fact, but one long since accepted by the operatives.

They're laying the bodies out in neat rows, readying them for the SHEILD team that will take pictures of each tiny corpse as if there's any hope that these children's parents are either alive or would care that their child is dead.

It's then that Clint catches sight of it.

He's turning over the body of one little girl, maybe five or six years old. She's got green skin, a clear target for the organization ultimately responsible for her death, but she looks different from the others. Her sweater looks hand-knit and the clip messily holding her hair back is the same shade as her shoes.

Someone had loved this child.

Around her wrist is tied a piece of ribbon, to which is attached the remains of a red balloon. It's just the very end of it, as if it were popped violently and no one had bothered to cut the ribbon from her wrist.

Clint wonders idly if she was with her parents when she was taken. If she was out somewhere, having fun with her parents before she was ripped away from them. He wonders if her parents are out there, somewhere, still hoping that she will be returned safely to them.

He remembers the last red balloon he saw, floating gently upward through the buildings in Manhattan, forgotten by some child as they ran from Loki and the Chitauri on that horrible day.

All the therapy and denial in the world isn't enough to keep Clint from losing it then.

Before he can stop himself he's on his knees, sobbing the deep wracking sobs of a person who's never mourned for much of anything in his life, and he doesn't really know how to do this except that there's no stopping it and its hard to breathe and now he's on the floor on his knees and what are you supposed to do with all this water coming out your eyes anyway.

It's gut wrenching and vicious, the way he can't stop and maybe he doesn't want to stop and thank god it's only Natasha here with him right now because he doesn't think he could stand it if it were anyone else.

And then Natasha is there beside him and she's got her arms around him and he's sobbing into her neck. He clings to her, unwilling to let go, and he knows that if she weren't there propping him up, he'd be in puddle on the ground right now, clinging to the body of the little green girl.

He's never cried like this in his entire life. His father, his birth father, the drunk one that got himself and Clint's mother killed, that father always told him that boys weren't supposed to cry. And Clint, being little, had listened. So when his parents died and he and Barney were sent to the orphanage, there were one or two guilty drops that leaked from the corners of his eyes, but nothing else.

The man who took him out of the orphanage and taught him how to shoot, well, he liked to beat the boys, and Clint was damned if he was ever going to show that piece of shit that he made enough of a difference in Clint's life to make him cry.

After Barney betrayed him, tried to kill him, but ended up dead instead, Clint just counted his blessings.

And then, after Loki, he was already well trained in pushing all of his emotions aside and pretending that nothing was wrong. So good at it in fact that he's kind of forgotten how to mourn something, if he ever really knew how to in the first place.

All it took was a red ribbon tied to a red balloon attached to a little dead girl's wrist for him to figure it out.

He's pouring all of it out in one fell swoop. His dead parents, his shitty childhood, his asshat brother, Loki, the kids that he couldn't save here – it's all so much and the sobs wracking his chest don't seem like they'll ever be enough to make him feel like he should somehow get to be here, now, crying on the floor of a warehouse in Hungary, lining up the bodies of children into neat rows. Any one of them is worth more than him, any one of them deserves more than this painfully stupid way to die. If he could trade places with any of them, he would.

But he can't, so he's crying instead.

Natasha's rocking him now, slowly, gently, back and forth, and she's whispering things he does not understand into his hair. He prefers it that way. He's got the idea that if he knew what she was saying, he'd disagree with it anyway.

Eventually, she starts speaking in English.

"I know it's hard, but they're going to be here in a minute."

No need to ask who "they" are; the helicarrier is rarely late for an announced rendezvous.

He's mostly done anyway; he thinks he's emptied his tear ducts at this point, and the back of his mouth feels like a desert. He gratefully accepts the canteen Natasha offers him, and then lets her help him off the ground.

"You okay?" She asks carefully, hand rubbing his shoulder.

"No." He looks away from her, focusing on the corpses at their feet. "But I'm alive. And I'm going to make sure that nothing like this happens again. Not if I can help it."

Natasha swallows, still worried, but she doesn't state the obvious. Doesn't point out that there's no way that Clint can make that promise. Doesn't point out that there wasn't anything he could have done here to prevent what happened. Doesn't point out that he's setting himself up for another breakdown with that statement.

Instead, she just hands him a tissue and waits silently by his side.

So, I definitely need to write something upbeat now. This was SUPER depressing. If you've got a prompt, I'd love to hear it!