AUTHOR'S NOTE: This was written for the be_compromised Secret Santa exchange, for Ellavescent. Her prompts included baby!fic; Natasha falls for Clint first; domesticity; and anything relating to the holidays. Imagine my panic.

So, after Frea_O and Inkvoices stopped me from hyperventilating, I (naturally) resolved to try and hit every one of those prompts. I'm not sure the result is entirely what my recipient expected, but ...

Huge thanks to my faithful bellwether, Runawaymetaphor and to Shenshen1977, best beta EVER. Cover art (AO3 only) by Frea_O.


Silver Bells

By Alpha Flyer

For Ellavescent


I.

"You gotta be fucking kidding me."

Clint stares at Fury as if the good Director has suddenly sprouted a second eye - on a stalk.

"S.H.I.E.L.D. actually expects us to take a live baby on a mission? An immobile, inarticulate, defenseless miniature civilian..."

"... who isn't even toilet trained?" Natasha finishes his sentence, but her partner isn't done.

"And you want us to take that same baby into a situation where they're not only exposed to dangerous criminal activity, but are actually the featured bait? Can't you get R&D to give us a - what's that term they throw around down there – live model decoy? Seems appropriate enough, under the circumstances."

Natasha invokes the final trump card.

"Have you talked to Legal, whether S.H.I.E.L.D.'s third-party liability insurance covers cases of gross negligence by senior management? Imagine the law suit."

"I'm confident that you two can make sure that the kid is not actually in danger," Fury growls, unmoved. (The bit about the insurance, Natasha notices, is left unaddressed.)

Clint isn't willing to let the matter go, though. If there were a soapbox in Fury's office, he'd be climbing it right now, brandishing one of his shoes. Natasha knows that it's not because Clint hates kids - he doesn't, quite the opposite, actually. If there's one thing Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton agree on, it's that kids have no place in harm's way.

"Romanoff's right. Aren't there, like, laws against what you're planning on having us do? Child endangerment? Criminal negligence? Kidnapping, for fucks sake?"

"Kidnappers is precisely what we are going after with this operation," Coulson notes in that inflection-free voice of his. "There has been a spate of kidnappings in the Westchester County area in the last couple of months. Kidnapping for ransom, usually for around a million dollars or two. When people stopped letting their children play outside, the perpetrators turned to home invasion."

"Something we have reason to believe you two would be more than able to deal with," Fury's face has that look of distaste that it gets when he utters something that could be mistaken for a compliment.

"We have complete confidence in your ability to keep the kid in question safe, agents. But the real reason you've been picked for this mission, rather than someone like Schmidt or Miyazaki, is that we need you to take the perps alive, and we need Romanoff to talk to them. They're currently holding three children. In one of the cases, the family simply can't pay. Not everyone in Westchester is as rich as they'd like you to believe. Time is running out, and the FBI has no leads."

What he really means, of course, is that the FBI would never conceive of a plan as unorthodox as this. The Feds might use controlled deliveries to make drug seizures, but controlled kidnappings? Natasha gives her partner a questioning look; Hill goes for the pre-emptive strike, lest the wordless exchange morph into a coordinated assault.

"We will have eyes on the site from above, should the perps … get away."

"We get extraction now?" The sarcasm dripping from Barton's voice is weapons grade. "And from Westchester County, yet? It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas."

"Don't flatter yourself, Barton," Fury replies. "It's not for you. It's for tracking the kid, if you lose it."

There's something there that Fury isn't saying – nothing new there - but the truth is, with all three of their superiors seemingly convinced that this is a good idea, Natasha finds herself running out of arguments. Barton seems to have gotten there already. The need to bring three children safely home …

"We have arranged for a house in the area where the number of kidnappings has been the highest," Coulson states in his best accountant's voice. "What we don't know is whether that is because the gang has the neighbourhood under a form of surveillance, or whether there have just been more targets of opportunity. But it's all we have."

The look Barton shoots his partner is intense and searching. They have obviously come to the same conclusion, but he won't let Fury off the hook quite so easily.

"Neither of us knows the least thing about babies," he says. "And that's a fact. If it doesn't get kidnapped, it might starve in our care. Or die of diaper rash. That's a thing, isn't it?"

"S.H.I.E.L.D. will arrange for a crash course in child maintenance," Hill snaps her file shut. "At fourteen hundred hours. And before you ask - yes, the child's parents have given their consent."

Fury seals it.

"You have your orders, agents. Dismissed."

There's little left to do for Barton but to mutter some general invective and leave; Hill and Coulson file out behind him. Natasha hangs back though, and closes the door behind them. When she turns to Fury, she has schooled her face into an impassivity that the Director will recognize as a whole different level of concern than those she has already expressed.

"You know why it is a bad idea to put me in charge of a small child, sir."

Fury takes her measure coolly, and throws the question right back at her.

"No, I don't, Agent Romanoff. Why don't you tell me?"

Natasha is a creature of subtlety, who finds truths hidden in shadows; the direct challenge startles her into a moment of uncertainty. But it doesn't last long and she straightens, ready to join battle with a challenge of her own.

"I spent my so-called childhood killing other children. To prove that I was better. That I was the best. Then later, I killed them to get their parents to cooperate with my employer."

There is something behind Fury's eye that she knows – hopes – isn't pity; no, it looks like anger. His voice is curiously flat when he asks,

"Did you do that because you wanted to?"

Yes. No. She doesn't answer.

"See? Didn't think so."

But he isn't done.

"In fact, it's why you left the Red Room, isn't it. When Barton made that decision to bring you in, his report said you kept children from harm when they were caught in the crossfire. He's always had a thing about protecting kids. Said you did too."

"I didn't … That doesn't have anything to do …"

"It has everything to do with why we think you can handle this. Would you knowingly endanger this child?"

"No, of course not."

"Would you let anyone else harm that child? Any child?"

"No. But …" The image of Drakov's daughter flashes before her eyes, the last in a line of children dead at her hands. The last, and the worst.

Fury seems to be reading her mind, but doesn't come up with the answer she wants to hear.

"You have the right to be traumatized by what you did in the Red Room. What they did. Anyone would be. But that does not make you unfit for this mission. That is all, Agent Romanoff."

II.

The house they pull up to is big. Not by the standards of some of the McMansions in the neighbourhood, mind you, but still the biggest place Clint has ever gone into without either paying entry or having an assigned target.

"Holy shit," he says, gripping the steering wheel a little too tightly for the occasion. "Guess people really do live like this."

Natasha scans the place with an air of detachment that doesn't fool him for a minute. He's noticed an unusual tension in her ever since they'd left S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters with their new identities and blissfully snoozing mission accessory.

"Apparently," she says. "At least if you're an investment banker."

Clint nods sagely. Coulson had dragged him to a seminar on criminology in Leiden once (and dragged him out again after Clint offered to provide anecdotal evidence of certain types of criminal behaviour); surprisingly, some of it stuck, including the bit about linkages between crime and economics.

"Until the next stock market crash, anyway. Then the For Sale signs sprout up like mushrooms, and people turn to crime to pay their mortgages."

He's about to say something else when a noise emanates from the back seat. A cough. A little high-pitched and tiny as these things go, but … it's definitely a cough. Maybe he shouldn't be surprised at how human it sounds, but he is.

"Do you think the baby is sick?" he whispers. Why he's whispering, he hasn't a clue, but it seems appropriate. "Already? We've only had it for what? An hour?"

Natasha peers over the back seat.

"I don't think so. Maybe babies just … cough sometimes?" Her voice gets firmer as she comes to a conclusion. "It probably just wants attention."

For Clint, coughing to get attention is something people do when they walk into a store where the clerks are too busy yakking to notice paying customers; seems a tad precocious for an eight-month-old. But what the hell does he know.

"Okay," he says. "Tell you what. I'll get our stuff out of the trunk, you take the baby inside and … I dunno. Give it attention. Cuddle it, or something."

Natasha stiffens with what he suspects has to be indignation, because the Black Widow doesn't freeze in panic.

"Here's the deal, Barton," she says. "If we have to do this suburban couple thing? I cook. You cuddle. No gender-stereotyping, okay?"

Clint is about to argue, but the baby opens its mouth and starts to wail.

"No, baby, no," Clint says as he scrambles out of the car. "No crying, you hear me? The neighbours are going to think we're abusing you, or something."

Which isn't that far off, of course, in the general using-a-baby-as-bait-for-criminals sense, but the last thing they need right now is for someone to call social services. Fury would kill them over the paperwork.

Then again, maybe sometimes babies just cry because they're babies? It's basically their job. Probably no one will come running quite yet. But how do you get one to stop?

Back in the foster system, Clint did time with kids even smaller and more helpless than he'd been, and there were things you did for them when no one else could be bothered. Maybe Fury was counting on that instinct, because it's sure kicking in now.

Clint disengages the bucket seat and hauls the whole thing out of the car. (Ingenious, really, the kit people come up with these days. He doesn't even remember seat belts being used in the Barton family pick-up.) He gives it an experimental swing, and says something like "look, sweetie, you're flying," in a voice that even to himself sounds like it's had its normal edge sanded off. Natasha's head whips around as if she'd just witnessed an instance of alien possession.

Inside the seat, though, the baby stops crying and its eyes – no, her eyes, it's supposed to be a little girl, not that he's looked to confirm, that would be creepy – her eyes go a little round at the sudden motion, and then she emits a totally different sound.

Is that what people are talking about when they say babies gurgle? Well, it sure beats wailing. Clint gives the baby bucket another swing, and is rewarded with another gurgle. Who knew babies can change moods on a dime like that?

"Hey, guess what, Romanoff," he says. "I seem to have a gift."

Natasha rolls her eyes at him and grabs their bags, sticking the one containing his bow into his free hand, and heads for the front door. Clint stops her.

Normally it's Natasha who has to remind him to get into character; it isn't like her not to sweat the details. But Clint has a vague feeling that crossing the threshold of your dream home with your child would be a thing for most normal people, so if that's whom they're playing, maybe they should stop and mark the moment.

"Hey, Mommy?" he sings out. "Come give us some sugar, for the lady peeking out from behind the curtain across the street. Who knows, she may be the neighbourhood lookout, and will spread word of our coming to the right places."

Natasha looks for a second as if she's ready to murder him, and not in a particularly pain-free way. But she slips into the suburban housewife routine easily enough, drops the bags and takes the few steps towards him with open arms.

"But of course, honey bear," she coos, a smile lighting up her features. "Provided you promise not to drop the carrier and end this mission before it begins."

"Wouldn't dream of it, sweet pea," he replies and leans down for a chaste peck as her arms wrap around his neck. Her lips always feel kind of nice when they have to do this for a mission cover, despite his suspicion that she'd rather lick out the bottom of a hamster cage than kiss someone who's not a mark. He shoots her one of his grins.

"Baby too. Mommy dearest."

He holds the carrier just at Natasha's chest height, and tries hard not to notice how she seems to instinctively recoil. But it's there, in the set of her shoulders, the momentary widening of her eyes, as she takes in the fuzzy head poking out from under several layers of flannel blankets. She puts a kiss into the space just above.

And just like that, the baby starts to cry again.

III.

Inside the house, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Property & Accommodations section has done a pretty nice job. The same people responsible for that dire shit hole of a safe house in Cartagena seem to be capable of both taste and functionality when properly motivated, and have pulled out all the stops to create an upper-middle class suburban dream home.

Teams of movers apparently spent the better part of two days moving in furniture, visibly announcing to the entire neighbourhood – and anyone driving by - that a new family was moving in, one that could afford an interior designer to direct traffic. (And all that apparently before Fury ordered Delta Team on this mission, and they accepted. The man's confidence knows no bounds.)

Natasha drops the duffle bags on the floor, while Barton sets his bow and the car seat on the granite-covered kitchen island with equal care. The baby quiets almost as soon as he loosens the restraints and picks her up, and Natasha feels a twinge of something in her gut. Jealousy? Ridiculous. Surprise. Yes, that's it. Surprise. Who knew that Hawkeye had it in him to be a baby charmer?

"Holy shit," he says now, taking in the hardwood floors, the gleaming countertops in the kitchen, and the ten-foot ceilings in the adjoining family room. "So this is how the other two percent live. Dibs on the couch by the fireplace, and that plasma TV better have cable."

"This isn't a holiday, Barton," she reminds him succinctly. "Plus we have work to do."

He sighs.

"Right. Walk-through and fix-its."

As always, he turns professional on a dime – paranoia and unwillingness to trust pre-installed security systems has saved their lives more than once. Except, his voice still doesn't sound quite the same, filtered through the fuzzy blonde hair of a baby that now has one tiny arm wrapped around his neck, her head turning this way and that as she is taking in her surroundings and pointing at something.

"Whatcher looking at, sweetie?" Clint asks the baby, and is rewarded by a finger being poked in his face. "Hey!"

Obviously thrilled by his reaction she does it again, giggling impishly at the frown that mere days ago caused Pedro Montalban to wet his pants. The next thing Barton says, though, causes a shudder to run down Natasha's spine, S.H.I.E.L.D. training notwithstanding.

"Shit. You smell something? Mommy, I think it's time to change nappies."

Natasha is not even remotely tempted. Barton seems to be enjoying talking to the baby for some perverse reason, and more power to him – he can keep right on doing it.

"All yours, Barton - I watched you practice. You're almost a pro. Besides, the baby seems to like you, God knows why. Diapers should be in the pantry with all the other supplies S.H.I.E.L.D. laid in. Good luck."

And with that, she's out of the kitchen and up the stairs before he can so much as utter a protest. The Black Widow does not do diapers. Not even for marks with a baby fetish.

Natasha takes her time with the recce. The rooms on the ground floor are large and open, with good sight lines to all three entry points and plenty of space for close combat. The gang's M.O. has been to push their way into the front door, with backup from yards, patios and side entrances.

Time to reduce the options.

Natasha disengages the garage door mechanism – sloppy work by the S.H.I.E.L.D. advance team, she'd have to mention that to Coulson – and jams the door leading from the garage into the house. (Is that what people call a mud room?) Barton will just have to clean the car if it snows.

That leaves two entry points – backyard, and front door. There are French doors leading to the garden, and she mentally draws lines on the floor up to which incoming gunfire might scatter glass. Keep the child inside those.

The garden is going to be a problem, she figures. Leaving the deck light on will only serve to put the rest of the space into greater darkness, and without it, the only way one could see anything would be to turn off the living room lights and wait for five minutes to allow one's eyes to adjust.

Upstairs, the bedrooms are sufficiently far away from the trees in the yard to be inconvenient as entry points; good. She sits down on the master bed for a moment, checking the sight lines to the room with the crib - less than ideal. She makes a mental note to move the crib into the bedroom.

That's not … un-normal, is it? Natasha frowns for a moment as she tries to remember where she might have once slept, before the Red Room became her nursery. But as always, there are loops within loops in her memories, pathways crossing and re-crossing, dead ends and dark corners that scream, Don't touch! And as always, it's impossible to sort out which ones are real, and which ones are remnants of the Red Room's ideas of what sort of past would be useful or convenient.

There's a glimpse of one that comes often, that she thinks is true, would like to be true: Warmth, a gentle touch, and the smell of safety. But whenever she tries to seize it, to truly remember it, the image gets pierced by a scream and shards of ice and skitters away, beyond her reach.

Not real, then.

By the time Natasha returns to the kitchen, dusk is falling even though it's just past four o'clock; the days can't lengthen again soon enough.

She is greeted by the sight of her partner, sitting on a stool in the center of the kitchen holding a dry - if crookedly diapered – baby. The latter is sucking contentedly on a bottle and compared to how Natasha had left him, the scene is one of peace, and bliss.

But there's also a smell that's a mix of baby powder, overheated milk and open sewer. Maybe the Hawk bonds better with infants than she does, but he has a long way to go down the road to domestication.

"Clinton Francis Barton. Couldn't you at least have tossed that … that thing in the garbage when you took it off? Those wipes, too? And isn't there a better place to deal with human excrement than the kitchen?"

He shrugs, and gives her one of those infuriating grins that she will wipe off his face some day. (Preferably with what's sitting on the table.)

"The table thing here in the middle was the right height for the job. Plus, I wouldn't want to deprive you of the chance to make a contribution. And I put a kitchen towel underneath, see? I'm not a complete barbarian. Come, munchkin. We're going to watch TV while Mommy cleans up."

Clint seems to have resigned himself to being the primary caregiver, which is fine with her. But … munchkin?

There's a chill running down her spine at the affection that one word seems to convey, one she can't quite put a finger on until she hears the voice in her head.

Love is for children.

"You do know what happens when you give things a name, don't you?"

He looks at her, frowning.

"She's not a thing, Romanoff. Or even a mark. And she has a name already, even if we don't know it. Two, if you count the one S.H.I.E.L.D. gave her, but I don't think it's right to get her used to that."

Natasha doesn't really have a good answer to that, at least none that she is prepared to give him. Besides, he's not wrong - Melanie is kind of … Seventies. She has no idea who came up with that. Probably Coulson, or that woman in Records, the one who wears crocheted vests even in the summer. She resolves the silence by stepping up to the kitchen window.

"Have you looked at this? There seems to be a competition in the neighourhood who can have the highest electricity bill."

Clint, still carrying the baby – Melanie - steps up beside her.

"Holy shit! Munchkin, will you look at that!"

The explosion of lights on the street is remarkable; every available piece of greenery appears to be covered in colourful decorations. Sometimes there are different colours for each bush, white or blue or red; in others, all the colours of the rainbow are jumbled together. Many houses, in addition, have the eaves lined with lights and a couple have what looks like brightly lid reindeer sleds on the front lawn or the roof.

Except theirs, which is bathed in darkness.

The baby is pointing at the lights, smiling and gurgling something.

"We need lights," she decides. "Front and back. It would solve some of the perimeter issues I noted. You can't see into the garden, when the lights are on inside."

Barton frowns.

"Wouldn't we want them to have some dark, so they feel comfortable and pick this house?'

"I don't think darkness is the issue. A number of the attacks have been in daytime. Wouldn't hurt to be able to see them moving around."

Clint frowns.

"You think S.H.I.E.L.D. would come back, put them up?"

He should have seen it coming of course but he didn't, and for some reason that pleases her.

"I thought putting up Christmas lights was the Daddy's job?"

In the end, they both go to procure those blasted lights, baby in tow, since it's not consistent with their mission mandate – not to mention basic common sense, given its purpose - to leave the child with just one of them. Of course, Clint has to phone Coulson first.

"You guys forgot somethingvital to the suburban experience. Where the hell can I get Christmas lights? … Hardware store? Not a lighting place? You sure? … Yeah, fine, whatever. So where do I find one of those suckers? And when do they close? … Yes, I know what the internet is, Coulson. Merry fucking Christmas to you, too."

IV.

By the time they get back from an experience that has sent Barton off on a major rant ('who the fuck invented the shopping cart, and why do people stuff it full of crap just so they can stand in line for an hour of my life that I'll never get back?'), it has started snowing. Those fat, juicy flakes that sit on your coat for a minute before turning into water, but that stick to the trees and turn them into something out of a postcard.

Natasha hates snow, hates the cold; too many times, and in too many ways, the Red Room used it as a teaching tool to discourage imperfection in its young recruits.

'Melanie,' on the other hand, is fascinated_. She waves her arms and legs excitedly as she gets lifted out of the car and squeals when one of them splats on her cheek. And just like that, Hawkeye turns off the invective and regresses before Natasha's eyes, turning the baby's face into the onslaught and proceeds to show her how to catch the things with his tongue. She seems to find this riotously funny and starts to imitate him, letting out shrieks of delight when he manages, time and again, to turn her mouth right into the path of the fattest, juiciest flakes.

It actually looks like … fun, and when she sticks out her own tongue and manages to catch a flake on its very tip, the sudden dribble of cold water that runs into her mouth makes her smile. You could run those Christmas lights off Barton's answering grin.

But there's only so much snow Natasha can stand in one sitting. She refuses to participate in the hanging of the lights and announces that she will look after food procurement instead. Luckily Barton doesn't argue. His smile dims and he looks at her for a moment in that way he sometimes has, the one that goes straight to her gut.

Why does he care that she hates the snow?

Natasha puts the baby down on the kitchen floor, within easy reach, and heads for the refrigerator to see what S.H.I.E.L.D. has stocked. Barton will be happy – there are several containers of Chinese takeout (someone knows her partner) and a few salads in plastic containers (and her), plus a selection of cold meats and cheese. Coulson. Not bad. She sticks the containers in the microwave one by one; Barton doesn't require china.

A sudden clanging sets every nerve in her body on high alert, and she whirls in the direction of the noise.

The baby is mobile. Who knew?

'Melanie' is sitting about ten feet from where Natasha had originally put her down, and has managed to pull open a cupboard door. How she got there is anybody's guess – crawling or sliding on her corduroy-clad behind, it doesn't really matter. Jabbering contentedly to herself in a language that could mean anything or nothing, she starts pulling pots and metal bowls out of the cupboard. She is having the time of her life, making them clang and ring as she goes, squealing each time, and Natasha has to admit that the whole scene is … kind of adorable.

She pulls her smartphone out of her back pocket and snaps a picture, which she e-mails to Coulson with the comment that "junior agent training is progressing nicely."

Barton comes in and takes off his boots. He pulls on sneakers before coming into the kitchen – sock feet is not really an option in close combat – and Natasha finds herself staring at him as he moves around the entrance with the silent grace of a cat.

"There," he says, shaking snowflakes out of his spiky hair that transform into droplets as they descend. "We blend in now, honey. Is there food?"

Dinner is a pretty messy affair, between Barton and his cardboard containers, and two rank amateurs taking turns at trying to put what amounts to orange mush into the baby's mouth with a spoon.

Solid food for supper, then a bottle before bed, the handwritten instructions say, in addition to providing details on how she likes her bath. The note came with a chewed-on velvet rabbit with ears perfect for being gripped by a small fist; this is clearly a child who is loved and cared for, not someone callously abandoned to the mercy of strangers.

Natasha feels an odd twinge at what the baby's mother might be thinking right now. (Did her own mother know something like the Red Room existed?)

But feeding solid food to someone who has decided that asserting the only form of control over their life they can is to keep their mouth firmly shut, is easier said then done.

Barton's "Quinjet, coming in for a landing, eeeeeow!" finally works, if only because the baby's mouth opens in surprise and he manages to hit the target with his usual uncanny timing. As a second round, she gets to pick up Cheerios with chubby little fingers; only half end up on the floor.

How do kids learn to do those things, without conditioning?

Natasha insists that Barton help clean up this time. Melanie is back on the floor, examining another cupboard and, finding it empty – S.H.I.E.L.D. obviously decided that they didn't need to be fully equipped - crawls inside.

"Good instincts," her partner remarks when she pulls the door shut from inside even as the doorbell rings.

They both reach for their guns, loosening the holsters. Clint's bow is still on the kitchen island; he moves it out of sight onto the bar stool and takes up position behind the island. Natasha is better at close combat, and so it makes sense for her to take point at the door and for him to have the space to loosen his arrows.

She examines the video transmission from the security camera on the porch and makes the all-clear signal behind her back.

Their visitor – it must have been the woman Barton called curtain lady, who'd logged their arrival and must have been itching for a close-up – is bearing a tray of cookies and an artless smile.

"Welcome to the neighbourhood, dears," she coos excitedly. "I wanted to be the first to make you feel at home."

Natasha isn't really sure what kind of response is called for, but she knows Barton will be no help whatsoever, and so she utters a non-committal thank you.

"I'm Annie. Annie Miller, from across the way at Number 78? I watched your furniture arriving these last couple of days, and I was so happy that someone was finally moving into the MacAdams' place. And the lights outside? Lovely. I saw your husband putting them up and thought you could do with something festive. Such a shame, isn't it, what happened to the MacAdamses, the foreclosure and all? But these are tough times and my, look what you've done with the family room already! Gorgeous, just gorgeous. You can just tell that couch is not from IKEA, can't you? Although of course some people like it, and it's okay when that's all they can afford, right? But you obviously have great taste, Mr. and Mrs. …?"

The tsunami of words ends as quickly as it had been unleashed, and the woman – early sixties, stout but not fat, bottle-grey hair with a bluish sheen and evidence of severe curling activity – looks at them expectantly.

"Watson," Natasha hastens to explain. "I'm Barbara, and this is my husband, Jim. He just got transferred to a bank in the city from Chicago, and yes, thank you. Our decorator did a marvelous job. We just moved in, but it already feels like home."

And because they are supposed to spread the news about a baby being available for kidnapping, she adds, with a lightness she finds surprisingly hard to conjure, "Our daughter seems to like it here too."

"Yes, yes," Annie twinkles excitedly. "I saw you bring her into the house, the little darling. Where is she? I just adore babies, don't you?"

Barton, to his credit, recognizes his cue and produces the infant, who has gotten bored with the empty cupboard and is currently making a beeline on hands and knees for the one she'd cleaned out earlier. She squeals in surprise when he picks her up, but seems happy enough to be swung around and settled in the crook of his elbow.

The bow remains on the stool. Annie Miller is duly excited by the baby, and if she notices Barton subtly blocking her way from getting too close to the island, she gives no sign of it.

"Oh, what a darling little girl. And doesn't she look just like her Daddy? Too bad she didn't get your gorgeous red hair, Barbara – may I call you Barbara? – but blonde is lovely too, isn't it?"

She fusses over the baby for another few minutes, before reminding them of the cookies Natasha has set on the counter.

"Now promise me that you'll try these, dears. My gran's recipe, from Pennsylvania, she was of Pennsylvania Dutch stock and don't they make just the best cookies?" she coos at the entrance, before taking her leave after another good look around, and more comments on the fabulous decorating job and their just adorable baby.

"Holy shit, what was that?" Barton demands as soon as the door has closed behind their visitor. "I'd no idea the human mouth was capable of forming words that fast, and so completely without content."

He reaches for a cookie and bites into it.

"But I gotta say, that woman can bake. Can you bake, Babsie dear?"

Natasha favours him with a glare.

"Didn't anyone ever tell you not to accept food from strangers, Jimmy darling?"

Barton swallows his cookie, reaches for another one and shakes his head.

"That was no stranger, Babs. That was Annie Miller, from across the way? Welcome to the Real Housewives of Westchester County. And guess what - you've just been tagged. You're one of them now. I suggest you start baking."

Natasha frowns, but not in response to his comment.

"Did you notice that she didn't even mention the kidnappings?"

V.

After dinner there's really nothing to do but to wait for a home invasion that may or may not come – they have been here less than half a day, and even the most eager criminals don't work that fast – and try and put the baby to bed. 'Melanie' is having none of it, though, despite a fresh nappy, which Natasha makes Hawkeye put on by praising his vastly greater experience and expertise. (Men are easy.)

The Baby starts crying as soon as he puts her in the crib.

Stroking her tummy doesn't help, and neither does leaving on a light. She does quiet down, though, as soon as Barton picks her up. He holds the baby to his chest, strokes her back and says things like 'If you don't go to sleep soon I'm going to have to ask Fury for a raise, 'cause cradling babies is not in my contract, and I don't care how cute you are' in his most soothing voice, and things are good as long as he's got her.

The second she's back in the bed, though, the hollering starts up again. Barton makes Natasha pick her up and – surprisingly – that works, too; Natasha doesn't know how to feel about having a pudgy fist reaching for her hair, but she cannot help but acknowledge that the baby smells nice from close up, and that the hair fuzz against her cheek is even softer than it looks.

The revelation and the moment of unexpected tranquility end the moment the baby is back in her crib.

Barton suggests calling Coulson, but Natasha points out that their handler, despite his know-it-all ninja attitude, actually knows squat about live child maintenance. (The closest he's ever come to baby wrangling is indoctrinating new S.H.I.E.L.D. recruits.)

"I'll go look if there are some tips on the internet," she volunteers, but the glare Barton gives her leaves no doubt that he knows exactly what she is really trying to do: man is no fool.

What's worse, he has an idea.

"She probably misses her mom. Maybe we should sing her a song or something? My own mom …" Barton stumbles a little over the word, "my mother used to sing to me and my brother when we were little. It was … nice. Always made things better when they were awful. For a bit."

Natasha can't help but stare at her partner. Obviously, she knows that he was a child once, everyone was - even the Black Widow (if only physically) – and he seems to remember enough childhood things for the job at hand. But he has never referred to that part of himself before, and for some reason, the thought of a small, miserable Clint Barton is … what? Disconcerting? Disturbing?

Clint seems to think that the look she's giving him is a question, and so he explains, although he doesn't have to.

"She stopped when our father really got into the booze and started beating her. And us. Like it knocked the singing out of her, and then there wasn't any better to be had anyway. But I remember it worked."

Natasha doesn't know what to say to that, but then the baby emits another wailing cry and she is spared the necessity. Clint sounds a little desperate when he says, "I don't suppose you know something that could pass for a lullaby? I doubt Thunder Road will do the trick here."

As a matter of fact, Natasha does – Red Room training was expansive. It's different, though, singing for an actual baby instead of a mark. The first couple of lines of Bayushki Bayu come out a bit self-conscious and wobbly, but then her voice gains confidence with each note. The baby looks at her with enormous eyes that won't leave her face; in the background she can hear Clint clearing his throat.

This time, they make it halfway down the hall before the crying starts again.

"I think you just need to keep holding her, Barton," Natasha says. "It's the only thing that seems to work."

And so it comes to pass that a wide awake and happily gurgling 'Melanie' settles on the couch, her head nestled into the shoulder of one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most lethal assets, and gets to watch It's A Wonderful Life, in black and white, and without commercials. ("I hold the baby, I pick the film.")

A few minutes in, and Natasha is deeply skeptical of the movie's premise and her partner's sanity.

"Angels getting their wings? You picked a movie with angels? And here I thought you were such a hardass, Barton. Wait till the Albanian mafia finds out."

But Barton refuses to rise to the bait and there's really nothing else for Natasha to do, so she curls up in one of those soft armchairs, resigns herself to her fate and starts watching. The whole idea of a movie about suicide is not exactly uplifting; she remembers too vividly the temptation to goad that strange American archer into letting fly the arrow he had pointed at her throat.

And what's that whole thing about alternate lives? Heaven as a black-and-white version of the Red Room, with unseen powers planting false thoughts in people's heads, in order to cleanse the real ones?

Natasha turns around to quiz her partner on just what he sees in the thing, but he seems to have dozed off and the words die on her lips.

Part of her is still amazed that, professional killer that he is, Barton can fall asleep in her presence at all. (And that she can do the same, and sleep soundly.) The current scene, however, is a different thing altogether.

His long fingers are splayed across the baby's shoulders, even in sleep making sure that she won't roll off, or only into the back cushions; his chest is rising and falling with her weight on top. 'Melanie' has drifted off too, maybe in response to the rhythm of his heartbeat, and is making soft baby noises as she puffs her breath into his neck. He looks younger somehow, his spiky hair matching the baby's blonde fuzz and a small smile on his lips.

And even though she knows that he can and will flash into lethal asset mode at the slightest sound, Natasha realizes with a sudden and absolute certainty that the man on that couch right now is not Hawkeye, one half of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most dangerous team.

No, this is Clint Barton, unshielded, unarmed, unguarded. Different. Real.

And she also realizes that somewhere along the way, this Clint Barton has infiltrated her defenses, not all that long after Hawkeye kicked down the door.

Natasha has no idea how to feel about that, or how to fit her own reality – the Red Room; the blood on her hands; Drakov's daughter; the years of being the Black Widow - into this sudden and inconvenient epiphany. All she knows is that examining the thought too closely could dispel the unforeseen peace she feels, and so she doesn't.

She just watches her partner, even as George Bailey gets back the life he was meant to have, as the good people of Bedford Falls come through, and the tinkling of a bell announces that an angel finally got his wings.

VI.

Morning comes early, and who needs an alarm clock when there's a baby around?

Clint barely remembers crawling into the S.H.I.E.L.D.-supplied king-sized bed after depositing 'Melanie' in her crib; it appears that he managed to take off his shoes, socks and jeans before sinking into the most restful sleep he can remember having in … well, let's just say, it's been a very long time. Westchester County sure beats Kinshasa or Irkutsk for comfort.

The bed is enormous and the warm space created by his body heat is surrounded by cool sheets, but it's comfortable and he allows himself a moment to luxuriate, and think. Maybe he should start spending some of the high-risk bonus that S.H.I.E.L.D. drops in his account every month. Buy some extras for his little pad, like decent sheets, a real duvet and some pictures for the walls. Just because his life was shit growing up doesn't mean he has to keep living in squalor, does it?

Of course, he'd need some help, 'cause fuck, shopping is a soul-sucking way to spend time. Maybe Natasha would …

Clint recognizes a small, tentative noise sound from across the room as the reason he woke up, not a cry, but rather a content babbling: 'Melanie' is talking to herself.

He is startled by another sound, plus movement, coming from close by. A sudden adrenaline spike sends him into full-on red alert, which doesn't abate in the least when it dawns on him that the Black Widow has been sharing his bed.

She's still asleep but scooting towards him now, a bit like a heat-seeking missile. (Natasha hates the cold.) Just how close might she have come during the night?

Clint mentally runs past the events of the previous evening: visitation by the Spirit of Suburbia; dinner; attempt at a bath that ended with more water on the floor than on the baby; several rounds of nappies; the sleep routine from hell_… By the time he gets to Jimmy Stewart's role in the evening, he concludes that the only reason his partner is in bed with him is that when it comes to playing a part, she's all about The Method.

A brief check confirms that, inconveniently, his body seems to be into The Method as well. It's not the first time her proximity has done this to him; Sitwell once claimed, after a bottle of paint stripper raki, that he could cut the tension between Delta Team with a knife - but this feels different. Why, he can't quite put his finger on_…

Shit. Bad metaphor. Cold shower. Or shower, anyway.

He makes his escape quietly, so as not to alert the baby to his presence; the water has just started when the burbling turns into a wail. His partner will have her hands full.

It's all in the timing, Hawkeye, he congratulates himself as he closes the door to the en suite behind him, and proceeds to have a long and productive shower. (Rain showerheads – another thing to put into his place. Soon.)

When Clint emerges from the en suite, dressed in a towel, Natasha is sitting cross-legged on the bed, bouncing the baby on her lap and glaring at him resentfully. But then he notices that her eyes widen a little and slide down his body for a second.

Now despite what Bobbi said there at the end, Clint is not an idiot when it comes to women, and he knows that this look means a heck of a lot more than nice abs, partner. It's a look that kicks him in the gut; nothing like the one she gives her marks either - no, it's much more … raw, and intimate.

And he just knows that it's for him.

Professional, Barton. You're on a mission. Plus, there's a kid in the room.

Yep, it's all in the timing. Or absence thereof.

"I think I need you to turn around if you want me to get dressed, Babsie," he says jauntily, but he knows bloody well that the professional interrogator across the room will not have missed the slight crack in his voice. Fine. So be it.

He knows that his voice actually matches what he saw in her eyes there, and maybe some day one of them will have the guts to try and deal with what just happened here between them.

But not now. There's a job to be done.

Since both the diapers and the coffee are in the kitchen, Clint grabs the baby and heads downstairs after a quick dressing job – jeans and a turtleneck, for that smart-casual yuppie look, socks can come later. They can probably both use a moment anyway.

Remembering her complaints about leaving the open nappy on the island, and unexpectedly inclined to please her, Clint decides to be Responsible for a change. The little Velcro tabs actually allow you to turn the disgusting object into a tidy and relatively unsmelly little ball, when you tamp them down just so. He's just trying to figure out whether he can toss the thing into that silver garbage pail in the corner with the lid still closed – firing from the right angle should lift it up just enough – when the door bell rings.

Who the hell would come to someone's house at eight in the morning?

Oh, invasion?

At eight fucking a.m.?

They've been here for less than a day; no gang works that fast, surely. Besides, the odds that they'll be targeted to begin with are pretty long, unless .E.L.D. has done some underground advertising about the Watsons' fabulous cash reserves.

"Honey," he hollers, loud enough for whoever is on the other side of the door to hear. "We have guests. I've got the baby. Care to open the door?"

Natasha is down the stairs before he's finished, Glock in hand, and heads for the door. Clint opens the empty cupboard 'Melanie' had explored earlier, and puts her half way in.

"Get in there and play, sweetie," he hisses. "Just so … you know. In case. Besides, it's a great cave."

He takes up position behind the island, hand on his bow, quiver on the barstool.

"Ready."

Natasha examines the image on the security monitor.

"It's okay," she says, her voice audibly relaxing, if not exactly enthusiastic. She sticks the Glock into the waistband of her pants, under her flowing top. "It's your girlfriend, the cookie monster."

She opens the door wide enough to admit Annie Miller, who says "Good morning dear," in a slightly shrill voice.

And then all hell breaks loose.

The woman is shoved aside by four burly men, who must have been waiting outside the security camera's field of view; suddenly the bright white marble of the entrance is filled with cursing, dark-clad, balaclava-wearing thugs, two of whom are waving guns.

They enter with shouts of "Give us the fucking kid and we won't harm you," as if that were any kind of enticement for anyone. They're probably used to dealing with terrified homeowners freezing before them in stunned surprise.

Well, there's a bit of surprise at work, to be honest, but Delta Team's response time is pretty unparalleled in the business, and the game's afoot before the invaders even realize it.

The first man, one of the two unarmed ones, makes a grab for Natasha, presumably to pin her in his gorilla-like arms. The sound of his wrist breaking is followed by the dull thud of his body landing on the floor, and the heel of her left foot connecting with his skull. He doesn't get up.

She has already moved on to the second one, a well-placed kick knocking the gun out of his hand before she twists his neck, when Clint's arrow drills into the larynx of another armed man who is pushing into the kitchen. (They don't all need to be alive to tell them where the abducted children are being kept, and this one looks dangerous.)

The fourth intruder seems to have come to the realization that their intended targets are putting up a bit of resistance, and reaches for a gun in his waistband. Since Clint can't be bothered to find out which hand he might favour when he gets it out, he nocks two arrows at once, drilling one into each arm. Stark Industries' fine workmanship allows both arrowheads to slice through the man's winter parka like butter. He doesn't go down, but his arms drop uselessly by his side, and he seems frozen in shock.

By unspoken agreement, both of them have been careful to keep their bodies between the attackers and the space behind the island, where 'Melanie' has been exploring cupboards in blissful ignorance. But with the threat from the four men reduced to a minimum, Clint vaults over the island.

He heads for the exit to cut off a retreating Annie, but Natasha is already on her way so he goes into mop-up mode, starting by kicking the various dropped weapons out of reach. Careful not to step into any blood with his bare feet, he takes a handful of zip ties from his duffel bag and gets down to the business of tying up the still-breathing casualties.

Natasha, in turn, has retrieved Annie Miller – her Glock points at the woman's face, which is twisted into what the latter probably hopes are fear and panic.

"They made me do it!" she screeches. "They were threatening my family! They're monsters!"

Natasha's gun doesn't waver, and she nods her approval as Clint zip-ties Annie's wrists together behind the woman's back, none too gently.

"Looking at the faces of at least two of these guys," Natasha says evenly, "they are your family. What are you, the Ma Barker of Westchester County?"

Impressed that some of his American history lessons have apparently registered, Clint gives Natasha a fond look before turning to the man whose arms still have his arrows in them.

"Sorry dude, but I'll need those arrows back. They cost a fucking fortune. Deep breath - you have the right to remain silent."

The man's two short screams quickly subside into a prolonged moan, and he looks as if he might pass out. Clint, unimpressed, takes his arrows over to the sink and rinses them off before he goes to check on Natasha's first victim.

"Still breathing," he confirms. "That leaves three of 'em to tell us where they're keeping those other kids. My bet is on Annie here to sing first. Let me know whether you need me to string the bow."

A little noise in the corner reminds both him and Natasha of the small civilian presence in the kitchen. For a moment, Clint finds himself wavering. Some personas are easier to put on than to take off, and the baby doesn't deserve to see who they are out here.

"You chat up her ladyship there, I'll take care of the munchkin."

Clint glares at Annie Miller – if that's her name – in passing. He suppresses the urge to take a swing at her (interrogation is Natasha's specialty) but he does inform her in passing that the sooner she gets to rot in hell, the better.

He picks up the baby and turns her face towards his chest as he carries her past the battlefield into the living room, hoping she won't see the carnage; he's been there, older than her at the time, but who knows what babies take in and remember, they don't talk, and … just, no.

The TV should be capable of producing cartoons at this time on a Saturday morning, and maybe it will keep her distracted. He tosses a few pillows on the floor - a bit of a mix between a nest and a fortress, so hopefully she won't feel the urge to crawl after him.

"Sorry, munchkin, we're a little busy right now. You'll like Tweety Bird, you'll see. Just don't believe any of the commercials, okay?"

He puts her in the centre of the pillows with a kiss on the head, closes his eyes, and hauls Hawkeye back to the surface. By the time he gets back to the kitchen, Natasha is saying, in her least reassuring tone, that, "Oh no, Mrs. Miller. We're not the police. We're much worse than the police."

Clint emphasizes her point by way of removing his arrow from the dead guy's throat; he takes no small satisfaction in watching the former cookie lady turn a sickly shade of green.

"In fact, you're going to ask for the police by the time Jim here is halfway done with your boys. But no one's calling them, so they won't come until we're ready to hand them four bodies, lawfully killed by parents defending their baby. You'll live without your sons, and we'll make the cover of Parents magazine."

Clint gives her an approving grin. She wants him to be bad cop? He can do that. In fact, he'd be delighted. People who use small children for personal gain have a special circle of hell waiting for them.

Speaking of children. He picks up his cell phone and dials Coulson.

"We have five … no, make that four prisoners, sir. Soon to be three, I think, if this one doesn't talk. … Baby's fine. By the time you get here, we should have the information you need. … Call before you come in though, in case we need a bit more time to carve it out of them. Wouldn't want you to have to see that – you're far too credible a witness. Yeah, fine, we'll keep one of them alive for the justice system. … Roger that, sir."

Natasha almost snorts at the last bits, most of which she is sure Coulson hadn't actually stuck around to hear. She herself is usually pretty subtle about obtaining information, but people who choose home invasion as their M.O. generally aren't into nuance. Sometimes the classics work best.

"Okay then, we can do this the easy way, or the hard way. Annie. Where are you keeping the children you took?"

Clint just twirls his arrow – this last one, he hasn't bothered to clean – and heads over to the man with the two holes in his arms. He's still conscious, and whimpers at the sight.

A few minutes later, it's Natasha who picks up the phone, providing Coulson with the location of the missing children and details about the number of gang members with them. The rescue will be done by the FBI (no questions asked) in the name of inter-agency cooperation and protecting the covert nature of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s operations.

"Whaddya know," Clint comments as he puts down his bow and reaches for one of Annie's cookies. "She really was the neighbourhood lookout. Should have just stuck to baking."

VII.

The debriefing at S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters in Manhattan is short and sweet. Hill is off dealing with the FBI (no one can choke off potential turf battles as decisively as the woman who can quell a riot with a raised eyebrow). But Coulson is there of course, with a sheaf of papers, while Fury greets Natasha with a look that practically screams, 'See?'

She pointedly ignores him; it is, after all, not easy arguing with your superior officer over the head of a happily chattering baby - at least not with any credibility.

Natasha never really thought about what it might feel to hold a small, warm human with no agenda other than soaking up information for its own sake. 'Melanie's' head is turning this way and that as she takes in the sights, pointing and making pithy observations about the monitors on Fury's walls in a language all her own.

Natasha also never really imagined just how good it might feel.

Coulson glances over at her, his eyes lingering on the baby for a moment, then on Natasha's face, before fixing on his notes. He starts without waiting for her or Clint to sit down.

"The Miller family is, in fact, a family, with a long and dishonourable criminal tradition. And yes, that is their real name. They escape tracking by the authorities by changing their birth dates around periodically. Father is a permanent fixture at Attica on a double homicide; Annie specializes in swindling senior citizens out of their life savings.

"You met the two sons and two sons-in-law. The man Agent Barton killed is Peter Kenshaw, married to Maude Miller, the oldest daughter. Based on his history, it was probably him who encouraged the clan to diversify into kidnapping for ransom. They would find a temporarily empty home in a good neighbourhood and use that as a basis for operations for a week at a time, snatch a child and move on.

"In your case, they obviously decided to take advantage of the fact that you were new to the area and your home, and moved faster than usual. They got Annie to scout out the security system, so the boys knew to stay outside the field of vision when someone opened the door."

Clint is fidgeting, strumming his fingers on his hips; the information is interesting, of course, but what he really wants to know is whether they found the kids. Coulson nods.

"The FBI retrieved four missing children from a house in Newark, all under two years old. That was actually one more than we knew about; her parents hadn't notified police and were apparently arranging for ransom. All are in good health, although understandably scared and confused. They are being reunited with their families; appropriate psychological services will be made available."

He stops, and Fury gives a small, satisfied nod.

"And if Hill does her job even the FBI will, in time, forgive us for solving their problems. Good work, agents."

Clint stares from one man to the other.

"Wait. That's it? What about our baby? When does she get to go back to her parents? I'd like to be there, by the way, and give them a piece of my mind."

The look he gives Fury strongly suggests to Natasha that it's more than a piece of his mind that her partner would like to deliver, but Fury is not inclined to play along.

"How about right now?" He punches the comm button for his assistant. "Please send in Miss Sanderson. She's a single parent, by the way."

Natasha and Clint are equally nonplussed. Sanderson. From Accounting?

A young woman enters the room; it's clear from the uncertain way she looks around that she is not accustomed to being in the Director's boardroom. But any hesitation ends the second her eyes alight on the baby in Natasha's arms.

Her baby, obviously.

"Amy!" she chokes out and rushes over, ignoring all dictates of protocol. And there is absolutely no doubt that 'Melanie' – Amy – is happy to see her. She emits a small squeal and stretches out her arms, practically squirming out of Natasha's grip.

The look on Clint's face softens a fraction at the sight, but only for a moment. His voice is harsh when he grinds out his challenge.

"What the hell were you thinking, using that beautiful little girl as bait for a gang of kidnappers? She could have been..."

He doesn't finish the sentence, can't seem to be able to, but it doesn't seem necessary. The young woman looks up from where her face is burrowed into her daughter's soft hair, but she doesn't answer immediately; maybe she is intimidated by the flint in Hawkeye's eyes.

The silence stretches until Natasha breaks it.

"Why?"

The young woman touches the baby's head with her lips. When she looks up, there are tears in her eyes.

"One of the missing children was my niece; she's younger than Amy. My brother died in Afghanistan three months ago. His convoy drove across an IED and Emily..."

The words come out in a flood, although her breathing is punctuated by small sobs.

"You see, Emily is all we have left of Tom. He never even got to meet her. She was born halfway through his tour. He was almost ready to come back when he was killed and… and Laura took it so hard. She moved back in with her parents and… well, when those people broke in and took Emily, it almost killed her."

She wipes her eyes on her sleeve and looks at Clint and Natasha a little defiantly.

"The FBI wasn't getting anywhere and Laura's family, well, they live in a nice house but their company isn't doing well and they couldn't make the ransom… and… And so I asked Director Fury if there was anything S.H.I.E.L.D. could do."

Fury nods curtly.

"We look after our own, agents. S.H.I.E.L.D. is family."

Clint, who has been to Afghanistan and has seen his share of untimely death, seems to be fresh out of protest. The only thing he seems to be able to do is walk over to stroke Amy's head with one long, calloused finger. She makes a happy noise and gives him a smile that he returns quickly, although almost reluctantly; it's echoed, a bit tremulously, by the baby's mother. Natasha is not so easily distracted.

"But Amy?" she asks. "How could you risk…"

"Everybody says Delta Team is the best," Tina Sanderson says softly. "Agent Coulson speaks so highly of you. And … I've watched you spar, too. You work together, not like some of the other agents, who just want to show off. I knew you would never let anything happen to Amy, that she'd be safe with you. And she was. I trusted you."

Natasha stills, and looks over to Clint in disbelief, to see if he's heard the same thing she has.

Trust? The Black Widow?

But Tina isn't done.

"Amy seems to have really taken to you, Agent Barton. And you, too, Agent Romanoff. If you'd like, you can come visit her. Anytime. She's in the day care on the tenth floor, so you don't even have to go far. I'm sure she'll be happy to see you."

Coulson clears his throat.

"I'm sure you'd like to go home now, Miss Sanderson, and see your sister-in-law and your niece. And take a couple of days; come back after New Year's."

Tina beams at him, and mouths another 'thank you' in Natasha's and Clint's direction before leaving, trying with mixed success to get Amy to wave goodbye.

Fury, as always, has to have the last word, and he picks up where he and Natasha had left off, a mere two days ago.

"You see, Agent Romanoff, trust. Trust is a beautiful thing. You just have to have it in yourself, too. Dismissed."

VIII.

"Amy. That's a good name for her," Clint says as they wait for the elevator that will take them down to street level. "I think I'll miss her."

Natasha has been observing her partner being in an unusually introspective mood; Clint can go for hours without saying anything, but that faraway look, that's new.

"Why?" she asks. "What do you think you're going to miss, exactly?"

Clint looks a bit self-conscious, almost as if he wishes he'd kept his mouth shut.

"Oh, I dunno. It was nice having something small and warm to pick up whenever you felt like it, I guess. Being around someone who just … trusts you. Trusts you to do the right thing, and make everything okay."

There it is again, that word. Natasha almost rolls her eyes, but as her partner is blissfully unaware of her discussion with Fury, she decides to cut him some slack.

"I had no idea you liked kids that much," she says. "I mean, I've known since Abidjan that you're prepared to move mountains to protect them, but this … this was different."

She pauses, and casts a sideways look at Clint, to see how he'll respond. He weighs his words carefully, not least because Sitwell is getting on the elevator, giving them a nod and a thumbs-up. (For a secretive organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. has a very finely tuned grapevine.) He looks her straight in the eyes when he responds.

"I guess it's good to know that there are alternatives out there, you know. That life isn't all about death and evil and … that there are better things out there. Kids are … Shit, this is going to sound totally corny."

She lets him know with her silence that it's okay to go on, that she won't laugh at him, won't judge him, and he looks momentarily grateful. Sitwell has his iPod buds in, which is probably just as well.

"Kids are … what's good, Tasha. It's good to be reminded of that occasionally."

Natasha doesn't bother to challenge him on the use of the nickname he keeps insisting on; instead, she blurts out what she knows.

"I didn't use to believe that. That there was anything good. Maybe I was wrong."

Clint doesn't say anything more and she wonders whether he even heard her, or got what she is really saying. Thanks to a father with a violent streak and a penchant for smacking his boys in the head with an open hand, Clint's hearing isn't anywhere nearly as good as his eyesight; it tends to get worse when there's background noise, like the whine of the elevator. But when they stop on the ground floor and the door slides open, he suddenly turns to her, his eyes cool and measuring, as if he has a target in his sights.

"So what are your plans for the holidays, anyway? Feel like getting together and watching sappy movies? I missed most of It's a Wonderful Life."

She's not quite sure what he's asking or why, but she can't shake the image of him and Amy on the couch, and that memory makes for as good a response as any.

"You sure you won't just sleep through it again?"

He shrugs and gives her one of those lopsided grins.

"No promises. Been a long day. But I trust you to wake me up when Clarence gets his wings. I don't want to miss that again. It's the best part."

She doesn't actually remember agreeing to his plan, but it seems that she has and they end up walking through the lobby of HQ side-by-side, nodding greetings to colleagues as they go.

Bing Crosby's Silver Bells wafts out of the PA system, somewhat at odds with the guards cradling their submachine guns. Worse, some bright spark in HR obviously decided that S.H.I.E.L.D.'s workforce needs a little more Strategic Homeland Intervention and less Law Enforcement at this festive time; as a result, the front lobby is a great deal more Martha Stewart than Maria Hill.

But somewhere over the last twenty-four hours, Natasha has come to the conclusion that holiday tackiness may just have its place, and she holds off on the sarcastic comment. Clint does the same, she notices, but after what she's just witnessed during this mission, she would no longer believe him anyway.

There's a steady stream of agents heading out for the holidays, shouting wishes to each other that the world will hold together for the next couple of days, so they can actually stay away. But there's an odd pattern in the exodus as people cross the lobby - a special gravity field that seems to reside somewhere around the central lighting array. Some people seem to actively avoid it or are repelled by it, while others slow down and hone in; an odd dance of opposing magnetic fields.

And then she spots it, a ball of something green – real or fake, it's hard to tell and it doesn't really matter – swaying in the draft whenever the front door whooshes open or shut.

Mistletoe.

Clint has noticed it too, she's sure of it. He hesitates for just a fraction, looks at her briefly as if for confirmation – of what, she doesn't know. But his intent becomes obvious when he touches his hand to the small of her back, steering her - he probably thinks, unobtrusively – towards the parasitic plant.

By the time they get there she has made up her mind and reaches up first, burying her fingers in his short (and surprisingly soft) hair, to pull his head down to her height. Neither of them hesitates. When her lips touch his, the feeling is … well … She's gleaned from a trashy airplane novel that the word should be electric. At the time she scoffed, but that's the word that currently fills her senses, all the way to her core.

They've kissed before, of course, and it's always been pleasant. But this?

There's something completely new in the way she wants to lean in, the way his lips now are opening, tracing the outline of her own with surprising tenderness. She gives a small, involuntary moan, which Clint seems to take as encouragement to open her mouth with his tongue. He cups her cheek with his left hand as he makes the kiss more demanding, and she molds herself to his body.

Natasha has no idea exactly how she should feel about whatever seems to be happening here, but it does feel … right. Clint gives her an almost triumphant grin after they part, as if he has just made an important point. Perhaps he has?

All movement around them seems to have stopped, and a familiar voice (Sitwell?) proclaims loudly that, "Mistletoes don't count for the pool –neutral territory. And no, it doesn't matter how long or whether there's tongue. Nice try, Evans."

Time to stop being a spectacle. Natasha hooks her arm into her partner's and hustles him out of the lobby, towards the next street corner where you can catch yellow cabs heading for Lower Manhattan and Clint's little loft. (Natasha hates having to pay cabbies for what amounts to a course correction.)

The sidewalks are busy, slushy and wet, sparkling in the neon of the city and the Christmas lights shining out of the store windows. The fat flakes that transformed the suburbs into a white wonderland don't have a chance against the trudging feet of masses of last-minute shoppers, but they do cling to woolen coats, hats, and – briefly - eyelashes.

Clint and Natasha blend into the crowd almost effortlessly. She thinks that maybe they could pass for office workers, on their way home from work. No one gives them a second glance.

It's a strange feeling, being like everyone else, but not an unpleasant one and for some reason she feels compelled to give Clint's arm a squeeze. He squeezes back and looks down on her, with a smile that feels like what it might be to be coming home.

Somewhere, Natasha thinks that she can hear the sound of a bell tinkling, and she almost laughs out loud at the sheer audacity of the thing. It's purely a figment of her imagination, of course.

But all things considered, that in itself counts as a win.