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Thanks: To forsweatervests for doing a last minute lookover and cleaning it up as best she could. All mistakes and huge plotholes are mine.

AN: Using for my "family" square on hc_bingo

***



None of them see what actually occurs when it happens, because Clint is where Clint always is in a battle: up high, directing, and picking their opponents off. It's only when the arrows stop flying, when his voice stops piping into their ears, laying out everything for them, that they realize something has gone down.

Natasha barks, "Barton!" and there's a response, a somewhat wobbly, "Who-- Who is this??" in a voice that does not sound even just a little bit like Barton's.

Thor and Steve have mostly gotten the latest threat--probably alien, definitely not tech-based, unknown to SHIELD and Thor alike--under control, especially since half of them have fled.

It hasn’t been a very long fight, and between that and the odd voice on the comms, Tony’s not feeling great about having “won.” Tony asks, "Was that a little easy for anyone else? I don't even think I've burned my daily share of calories."

The strange voice speaks up again. "Where am I?"

"Who is this?" Natasha bites out. "And where is Barton?"

"I-- I'm Clint Barton, if that's what you mean? I don't know where Barney is. He was, we were just--" Something that sounds suspiciously like hyperventilation flows over the comms.

Then there's a grunt Tony knows oh-so-well, and Hulk is coming toward them, someone very tiny in his fist. Natasha has made her way to Tony's side, clearly ready to get this shit straightened out. Tony is careful not to make any quick movements. She's just as precise when pissed off as always, but not as controlled as she likes to think.

The tiny person Hulk has in his fist turns out to be swathed in remnants of Hawkeye's uniform and looking eerily like Clint if he were, oh, eight, maybe.

Natasha swears. The Hulk tips the kid so that he can open his palm and hold his offering out to Tony. He says, "Hulk find birdboy."

The kid blinks at Tony and Natasha and draws a deep breath. His lower lip is trembling, but it's equally clear he's not going to let himself cry. He tells them, "I think I'm lost."

Tony flips his visor up and tells Hulk, "Nice work, big guy."

The Hulk does not seem particularly reassured by this. Tony feels for him. Natasha swears quietly in Russian. Tony looks over at her. "On the bright side, it'll be awesome to see Hill come up with the proper paperwork for this."

"Don't make me kill you, Stark."

Little-probably-Clint climbs the Hulk's arm and buries his face in the Hulk's neck. The Hulk blinks, but is careful not to move. Tony frowns at Natasha. "Now you're scaring the kids."

Natasha's gaze is on Clint as she says, "I always scare kids."

It's the first time in a while Tony's heard her sound sad. He hasn't missed it.

*


Clint clings to the Hulk, seated on his shoulder, with the Hulk walking strangely carefully, until they are back at the tower, in the common room, at which point Hulk sets him down gently. Clint looks up at him and says, very politely, "Thank you for taking me out of all those rocks and bringing me, uh, here. Sir."

The Hulk pats his head, which results in Clint being knocked on his backside. The Hulk makes a sound of what might be exasperation and lumbers off, presumably--hopefully--to turn back into Bruce, since Tony is going to need him on this problem if they're going to get their teammate back in his original form.

Clint stands back up and his gaze skitters uneasily between Tony, Natasha, Steve and Thor. Thor, evidently figuring that being a big brother can't be all that different on Midgard than it was in his house, takes a knee and says, "It is an honor to meet your younger self, friend Clint."

"We're friends?" Clint asks. He sounds suspicious, in a way that makes Tony want to break something.

"You are a brave warrior," Thor tells him solemnly.

"I-- I'm sorry," Clint says, and now he just looks terrified, "I think you have me confused with someone else. Maybe your friend got lost, too? I mean, I'm sure he'll find his way back, and all, being a brave warrior, but I'm not-- I'm just a dumb kid."

All four of them stiffen at that, at the way Clint says it, like he's just quoting something he's heard, over and over and over. Natasha turns to walk away, gets three steps and then turns back. She kneels down next to Thor and says to Clint, in a choked voice, full of forced calm, "When you were five, you were making cookies with your mom when you dropped the butter dish and it broke. Your dad was at home, because he'd gotten laid off again, and he was drunk, even though it was only three in the afternoon.

"He made you kneel with your bare knees on the glass for hours, and only then did he take a belt to you. He beat you so long you lost consciousness and came back, twice. And then he wouldn't let your mom or Barney help you clean your knees up, so they became infected, and you had to get medicine.”

Out of the corner of his eye, in the same way Tony notices the little details while in battle, he sees Thor’s grip tighten around Mjolnir, and Steve’s jaw tense. Tony himself kind of wants a drink, but is self-aware enough to know that’s fucked up and not actually move to the bar for one. And Natasha is still talking.

"You told the doctor you fell from a tree and he didn't believe you, but it was a small town, and people didn't report other people in the town to children's services. When you were seven, your father killed himself and your mother in a drunk-driving accident, and while you missed your mother fiercely, you thought maybe this was the universe's way of protecting you, finally.

"Only you got to the orphanage and you were smaller than a lot of the other kids. They liked to taunt you, kick and spit on you when Barney wasn't around. And sometimes they got you in trouble with the people who ran the orphanage, who would do things like lock you in a closet for two days without food."

Natasha stops and Clint has his arms wrapped around himself, his eyes huge and wet. He's still not crying. "How-- How do you know all that?"

"Because my friend, my best friend, Clint Barton, who is the world's best archer, and definitely a brave warrior, was brave enough to tell me those things, to let me know about all the people who had hurt him, and how he made something of himself anyway."

Clint's, "We're friends, too?" is so, so quiet, and tremulous and it's clear that he's just waiting for this to be a particularly cruel joke.

Natasha opens her mouth, then hesitates. Tony is about to kick her--and he's still in the damn suit--when she says, "No, Clint, we're more than that. We're family. You're the only family I've ever really had."

"Oh." Clint still looks like he's waiting for the punchline, and he fully expects he is the joke..

"We're family," Steve says softly.

“Family,” Tony confirms, even though the word sounds strange, saying it aloud, like it means something it didn’t before, when nobody had acknowledged what was going on between all of them.

Clint looks up at him, up and up. Steve sits down, folding his legs into a pretzel. "We're family, and we're not going to let anything happen to you, okay?"

Clint checks Steve's expression, then Natasha's, then Thor's. Finally, he looks up at Tony. Tony, who’s never really been around kids and has even more of an urge to cover nerves through babble than usual, tells him, "I look more like I could be related to you when I'm not in the suit."

"It's very nice," Clint tells him. "Red's my favorite color."

"Huh," Tony says. He never would have guessed. He doubts it still is, but he also wonders if the phasing out of red was a natural result of the need for stealth in a sniper. "Well, you can have all the red stuff you want, little man."

"But first," Thor breaks in, "let us prepare for you a welcome meal."

Clint scuffs his feet against the ground. "I am a little hungry. Just a little."

Natasha stands. "Waffles with cherries on them it is." She snatches him up and has him riding her shoulders before anyone can get to him first. Tony doesn't begrudge her the chance.

*


Tony isn't entirely sure why he has three waffle makers, but he seemingly does: a regular one, one that makes waffles in the shape of keyboards--and okay, he kind of remembers Pepper giving him that as a gag gift--and one that makes waffles in the shape of barn animals. This last is utterly mindboggling, but it makes Clint's eyes light up, so Tony says a silent thanks to whoever put it amongst his kitchen implements.

He leaves the kitchen to put a call into Sitwell and tells him Clint is pretty banged up. “Rotator cuff’s fucked, he’s probably not gonna be with us if something comes up in the next few weeks. And, honestly, given that situation, if it’s not big, don’t call.”

Sitwell, understandably, asks, “Why didn’t he come into medical?”

Luckily, the answer, “Barton,” and “Don’t worry, I’ve got someone on it,” is enough to cover that issue. Tony hangs up and goes to join the rest of them.

Bruce saunters in while Steve is teaching Thor and Clint how to make the batter. Tony catches Bruce's eye and the two of them gravitate toward each other. Tony asks, "Got any ideas?"

"This is not scientific," Bruce says.

Tony bites back a sigh. "No, probably not. Think Thor knows anything?"

Bruce shakes his head. “"I kinda think he would have mentioned. He's brash, not dense."

"So, what? We just let him stay like this?"

They both look over at where Clint is being held at counter level by Steve, so that he can add in the blueberries. He has batter on his nose and an expression of absolute concentration, the kind adult-Clint gets when he has to make something right with Natasha, or one of the others. In other words, Tony realizes, the one adult-Clint gets when something big is at stake.

Bruce bites his lower lip. "If we have to. It's not... Would it be so bad?"

Tony hears the wistfulness in Bruce's question. "Besides, you mean, us not having a key member of our team?"

Bruce shrugs. "I'm just saying, he kind of deserves it, you know? Whatever we can give him."

Tony thinks they all might kind of deserve that, but at the same time, "He deserves his friends working to get him back, Bruce."

"I'm not-- I agree. All I'm saying is that if we can't, we should, you know, make the most of this."

Across the room, the first waffle comes apart at the seams as maker opens, each part sticking to the supposedly non-stick maker. In Steve's arms, Clint goes stock-still and he whispers, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean-- I'll clean it up and you can make the rest and--"

Thor peels parts of the waffle away from the iron with his fucking fingers--Tony sometimes wonders if the guy feels any pain at all--and pops it in his mouth. "This is delicious, friend Clint. I will need more."

Clint is staring at Thor, who is now handing Natasha waffle fragments. She blows on hers a little bit, but then pops it in her mouth. She nods, humming in agreement. "I will need all the waffles." She tilts her head. "Well, I guess Clint can have a few."

Clint looks completely unsure of how to react to this, so Steve uses the hand that's not holding Clint up to tickle gently along Clint's ribs. This ends with Clint shrieking in laughter, while Natasha works to get the rest of the waffles pressed.

When Clint is heaving and looking a bit worn around the edges, Steve puts him in a chair and Thor puts a plate with two waffles in front of him. Natasha digs the cherries out of the fridge an piles several onto Clint’s waffles. Bruce sits down, too and says, "Eat what you can, big guy," at Clint's look of apprehension.

Tony comes to the table and says, "What, no syrup?"

Clint ducks his head and Tony grins. "C'mon, I have four kinds. You have to help me get rid of them."

Clint reads the labels of each of the bottles on the table and then pensively reaches for the strawberry one.

"Excellent choice!" Thor booms, and proceeds to drown his waffles in a combination of all four syrups.

*


Clint doesn't fuss when Steve insists on him needing a bath. Tony vaguely remembers being intensely opposed to all things related to cleanliness at that age, but when Steve says, "You're half dirt, half waffle-batter; you need a shower," Clint just nods, his posture keeping him as tiny and self-contained as humanly possible, and says, "Yes, sir."

It's freaky, and more than a little upsetting. Tony looks over at Pepper, who appeared midway through the waffle-fest, and is still working her way through her second one. She catches his gaze and gives him a small smile. She puts down her fork and says, "I bet we have something that can make that fun."

Clint does this amazingly creepy thing where he clearly wants to frown but keeps himself from doing so. On an adult Clint, it's par for the course. On a child Clint, it's unnerving. Clint says, "It's all right, ma'am, I don't need it to be fun."

"I disagree," Tony says. "You need fun. Trust me on this, lots and lots of fun. Oodles of--"

Bruce breaks in. "What Tony's trying to say, here, and will keep trying to say, until someone stops him, is that kids should have fun."

"Oh," Clint says, more a movement of his mouth, than a word.

"Oh wait, I know," Pepper says, and pops up, walking quickly out of the room.

Tony reassures Clint, "She does that. It comes with being Pepper."

She's back within minutes, a package in her hands, and oh man, Tony knows that box. She'd bought it because Tony sometimes gets distracted at the weirdest moments and needs to write things down. So it is that they have a box of bath crayons. He's only written two or three equations or ideas on the shower walls with them, so they're practically new.

"Here," she says, "It's for writing on the shower wall."

At this, Clint quails. "I wouldn't-- I can't write on the walls of a palace."

Tony grins at this description of the tower, he can't help it. "Sure you can, kid. Look, I'll show you."

Tony holds out his hands for the box and Pepper tosses it. He leads Clint--and by default, at this point, everyone else--to his shower, which is epic, if he does say so himself. Fully dressed, except for bare feet, he gets in and starts drawing an Iron Man representation. After a few moments, Steve is beside him, also barefoot, trying to help Tony's completely hopeless drawing.

At some point, Natasha comes in and starts in on a spider, and then, when Tony's not watching, Clint creeps in and whispers things to Natasha and Steve.

Thor, of course, waits until they are all done, turns the water on, cleaning the wall and soaking all of them and commands, "Again!"

*


Clint is finally left to himself so as to actually use the shower at some point. They’ve determined from wall pictures and careful interrogation that he’s “eight and one quarters” and knows perfectly well how to do everything from tying his own shoes to cleaning any part of a regular household. The shower seems safe enough, given this information.

The rest of them dry off and reconvene on Clint's floor, with Tony waiting to take him down there. Tony takes Thor aside quickly, to ask if he’s got any ideas of what’s going on, but Thor grimaces. “I would need to talk with the AllFather. The tesseract is on loan to our allies, and Jane has not yet reconnected the bifrost. He will not be able to bring me back for several days, and even then, I would be unable to return with the information in any reasonable amount of time.”

“When do your allies return the tesseract?”

“It will be months in Midgardian time.”

“Of course it will. Okay,” Tony says, and claps Thor on the shoulder, because he looks like someone killed every pet he has ever thought to own.

When only Tony is left, Clint emerges scrubbed clean and wrapped in a towel almost three times his size. Tony carefully does not think about just how small Clint is, how clearly the bones in his shoulders and cheeks jut out.

Pepper bustles back in carrying two bags from Saks. She smiles when she sees Clint and says, "I hope I was right about your size. Here, go through and see what you like. Whatever you don't want we can return. For now, though, you'll need something."

Pepper takes Tony’s arm to pull him from the room and Clint looks so lost Tony finds himself saying, "We're just outside that door. If you, y'know, need something."

Clint peers out the door roughly five minutes later. He's dressed in blue jeans and a soft-looking t-shirt with a dinosaur on it. Tony has to physically restrain himself from ruffling the kid's hair. Clint asks, "Is this okay, ma'am?"

Pepper grins at him and says, "It's perfect. Did you like anything else you saw?"

Clint wraps his arms around himself, scuffing his bare toes against the carpet. "You-- This stuff is all new, ma'am. I'll get it dirty."

"I should hope so," Tony says. "Otherwise, you'll make me look like a slob in front of the lady, which is just inconsiderate."

Clint's attention flickers to Tony, then back to Pepper. He takes a breath and tells them, solemnly, "I don't have money. If you take me back to the orphanage, they make sure I have stuff. You really don't have to--"

Tony makes an exasperated noise. He doesn't mean to, and he winces when Clint instinctively steps back. In response, Tony sweeps him up, balancing him on one hip--seriously, he weighs less than any single part of the suit, including the finger plates--and says, "You're not going back. Even if it still was there, even if we could, you wouldn't be going back. You’re ours. And I like that shirt on you, and I bet I'll like all the other stuff Pepp picked out as well. Understand?"

Clint has his fists clenched, his knuckles white, and Tony feels bad about not giving him any warning. He makes a note to self: no sudden movements. Clint nods at the question, but it's so clearly a lie Tony would laugh if it didn't make him want to cry.

Instead he says, "C'mon. I bet I have a ton of movies you've never seen," and starts walking to the cinema suite. Clint clings for a second at the sudden movement, flinching back when he realizes what he's done. Tony just holds him more tightly in response.

*


Clint goes from being completely and utterly wrapped up in Cars to passed out in the space of about ten minutes. Bruce tucks a blanket over him. Natasha mutes the movie, her fingers moving idly through Clint’s hair; he’d fallen asleep with his head on her lap. After a moment, Steve looks at Tony and says, "You doing that thing where you figure out a way to fix things by being a genius would come in really handy just now."

Secretly, Tony agrees, but, "This isn't precisely my area, Rogers."

Steve gives Bruce a pleading look, which Tony has to struggle not to duplicate. He knows damn well Bruce isn't holding out on them. Natasha sighs. "Far be it from me to suggest we should possibly trust governmental entities, but I think we'd best tell Fury. SHIELD has resources for these types of things that even you don't have."

The last is said to Pepper and Tony. Tony gazes over at Pepper, who gives a tiny nod.

Thor, in a surprisingly quiet tone, asks, "Would it do such harm, if we were unable to recover our friend as he was?"

Natasha all-but snarls, "What is that supposed to mean?"

"I know I am not well-versed in Midgardian notions and culture, but it is clear, even to me, that friend Clint was not valued by those meant to cherish him as a youth."

Natasha's jaw tenses, but she gestures for Thor to continue. Thor says, "You told him we are his family. If it is true, then we will do what is best for him, will we not?"

Bruce's words from earlier ring in Tony's head, and he can feel Bruce's gaze on him. Tony's waiting for Natasha to answer when Clint begins whimpering in his sleep, curling into a tight ball, biting his lips even while asleep to cut down on the noise.

Thor has Clint in his arms before any of them have even managed to move, his large hands soothing their way over Clint's back, crooning to Clint that he is safe, he is in the clutches of those who care the most for him.

When Clint has settled back into sleep--in Thor's arms, since the Asgardian shows no signs of putting him down again--Natasha nods at Thor and says, "I'm telling Fury. But if they have to do anything that hurts or scares him or, well, anything, then we'll-- We'll give him options, let him decide, and we'll support whatever he wants."

She glares at all of them, as though they might naysay her in this. When nobody is stupid enough to try, she leans over to press a kiss to Clint's forehead and strolls out of the room, presumably to bring SHIELD down upon all their heads.

*


Natasha returns by dinner time. Clint is still asleep. They've gotten him to lie back down, but he holds Thor captive with one very tiny fist gripping at Thor's t-shirt.

Pepper looks up from the couch where she has curled up, intent on work, and is the only one brave enough to ask, "So?"

Natasha's expression is hard to read, even for Natasha. After a moment, she says, "He said he'd send an appropriate party to evaluate the situation."

Bruce tenses, they all notice it, because it's Bruce, and they might not be afraid, but they're not stupid, either. He asks, "What does that mean?"

Natasha frowns then, admits, "I'm not sure."

"Oh. Well, that's good," Bruce responds, his demeanor doubly wry.

It's quiet for a stretch of time, everyone contemplating what SHIELD would consider an "appropriate party" before Steve says, "I'm ordering pizza. What do you think he likes?"

Automatically, Natasha says, "Pineapple, banana peppers and Italian sausage, but nobody ever lets him get it, because it's gross."

"So, medium of that, large of all the regulars?" Steve asks.

Tony watches with not a small amount of awe as Natasha actually softens enough to smile at Steve.

*


Over dinner, they learn what Fury meant. Tony, who sees a lot of things coming, can honestly say this one comes out of nowhere. He has a second of warning, JARVIS informing them, "Sir, the security on levels 25 and above has been breached," before Phil Coulson steps out of his elevator--again--this time bearing pizzas.

He stands with them between himself and the rest of them and says, "I paid the guy."

"You look--" Tony starts, and then, after a second's thought, changes what he was going to say into, "Pretty good for a dead guy, actually."

It sounds funny, lighthearted and glib, but it doesn't feel that way. It feels like betrayal, so he can only imagine how Natasha is feeling. Given the tension in the room, he's very, very glad they haven't woken Clint for dinner yet. For that matter, he's glad Clint and Thor are still in the other room, where they will be away from this if--when--it becomes messy.

Pepper approaches him first, taking the pizza boxes. The way her eyes are tearing up is enough to make Tony want to kill Phil Coulson all over again, but he's beat to the punch, literally, by Natasha.

Tony has never seen anyone other than Clint, Steve or Thor manage to evade her before now; well, when Thor even bothers. He adds Coulson to that elite list. She goes in again and Coulson moves out of the way again. The third time, though, he slows, she lands a blow to his stomach, and he's on the floor, panting. She frowns down at him. "That's-- It's never been that easy before."

"Was actually dead there, for a bit, Tash," he says, voice tight.

"Tell it to someone else. Someone who hasn't been holding Clint together with her bare fucking hands for the last three months because nobody else knew you were his everything and he was left with nothing.

Coulson pushes himself to a sitting position. "He had you, Tash. And New York is still on the map."

Tony's pretty sure Natasha is for real going to kill Coulson at that, but Steve intervenes, holding onto her for all he's worth, pulling her away with soft words. She looks over Steve's shoulder and tells Coulson. "You don't deserve to get him back."

Coulson nods. "Maybe. But would you destroy him, just to spite me?"

"Evidently you were willing to," she points out.

He shakes his head. "No. No, the director and I agreed. No more than six months. Enough time to allow the ties to form. If they didn't by then, I came back, either way."

"Glad to see we've moved up your schedule," she snarls. Tony isn't used to seeing her this outwardly pissed. It's unnerving and incredible, all at once.

"You left the others with him as a child, Tash," Coulson says quietly. A silence unlike one Tony has ever heard follows this pronouncement. "You moved the time table up. All of you did."

Nothing Tony can see changes, but Steve releases Natasha, and she stays where she is. Finally, she says, "Figure out how to fix what has happened and maybe, maybe I will let you be in the same room with him again. If you prove yourself worthy."

Coulson stands, slowly. "I have some people to see. Don’t-- I’ll take care of this, okay? You… You feed him his favorite pizza and play with him and…make this time better. I'll be back."

Coulson leaves, and several moments later, when the worst of the shock has worn off, Steven puts a hand to Natasha's shoulder and squeezes. "Pizza. Then ice cream and cookies. Good night's sleep. The problem will still be here when we wake up."

Natasha nods stiffly. Pepper says, "I'm thinking we all get our own pint."

Bruce rubs his face. "Fuck that. Gallon. We all get our own gallon."

*


Within a day, Tony--and probably the others, but he hasn't asked, won't ask--has established that Clint's tendency to flinch from sudden movement and eye any semblance of alcohol with trepidation makes Bruce uncomfortable; his tendency to soak up even the slightest amount of attention paid to him makes Tony want to crawl out of his own skin; and his clear lack of knowledge around weapons or even desire for that knowledge keeps Natasha off-kilter. Steve, Pepper and Thor pick up the slack whenever one of the others needs to duck out for a bit, but Clint's mere presence is clearly wreaking havoc on Thor's grieving process over Loki, and Pepper has a company to run, so sometimes Steve is the last man standing. Tony has also noticed that Natasha tends to rescue him from that problem, no matter how she is feeling, which is something he has filed away as Likely Significant.

Bruce comes up with The Idea out of frustration, which usually bears great fruit with Tony as well, but he's currently busy using all that mental energy avoiding Pepper's attempts to Talk To Him About His Feelings. The idea is double terrifying because normally Tony at least knows which feeling Pepper wants to talk about. There are a myriad of possibilities this time, starting with clearly-attention-deprived-Clint and going well past I-seem-to-have-adopted-five-other-weirdos.

Bruce throws out over a coffee break from the lab, "We should build him something. A kid-something."

"I built him an owl robot. It flies."

And Pepper had figured out a way to cushion it the first time it had flown into Clint. Tony doesn't bring that part up. Not everything can work the first time out.

"Yeah, the owl is cool. I was thinking building in the more low-tech way."

Steve, who can be annoyingly silent for someone the size of a small skyscraper, has entered the kitchen at some point and pipes up, "A swingset. I always wanted a swingset when I was a kid, didn't you?"

"I wanted a chemistry set," Bruce says. "Which I suppose comes as a big shock to everyone."

"I had everything I wanted," Tony quips.

Bruce coughs out something that sounds suspiciously like bull-shit. Tony decides not to call him on it, since he doesn't really want to have that argument. Instead, he looks at Steve. "I don't think he's entered his monkey phase yet. He hasn't tried climbing into the vents once."

Steve shrugs, and after a second, grins. "I guess we get to introduce him to that kind of fun this time around."

Bruce sips at his tea. "So, I guess we're all pretending that he doesn't do that as the result of, you know, serious childhood trauma?"

"I suspect we're pretending it doesn't have to be about that this time around," Tony tells him.

"I suspect," Steve says, quiet and serious, "that we're all pretending we can change anything, when none of us have any idea how this ends."

"Then again, isn’t that usually the case?" Tony asks, quirking a smile at both of them.

Bruce's body language concedes the point, and Steve smiles back. He says, "C'mon, let's go build a Stark Industries Swingset."

"It needs a better name than that," Tony says.

"You'll figure something out," Steve reassures him.

*


Tony has never thought of adult-Clint as a particularly neat person, but rather just as someone who doesn't have much to be messy with. As far as Tony has been able to tell, in the eight months Clint has lived in the Tower, the guy has his weapons, which he keeps locked away from everyone who might touch them, a few pairs of jeans and shirts, and a toothbrush.

Tony knows Clint scavenges sometimes. More than once he's witnessed Natasha warn Clint what would happen if her favorite throw didn't reappear, and there was the Epic of the Hoodie Clint Hadn't Realized Jane Had Given Thor, and an incident with Steve's pillow. But all those things showed up again, freshly laundered and folded, and placed where they came from.

Aside from that, though, Clint's very non-material, so Tony only realizes he's actually a neat freak roughly two weeks into Clint being a kid, when he's accumulated every toy a kid could ever want, because none of them can stop giving him things. He's careful with all his gifts in a way that makes Bruce get a look on his face and have to leave the room.

And he's very, very neat with them. Tony assumes latent OCD until the day Pepper accidentally stumbles over one of the toys Clint is playing with in the living room. She's not paying attention, walking while reading, and she doesn't even fall, but Clint's eyes go wide, and he apologizes profusely. From under the couch. Where he has wedged himself.

Pepper lies down on her stomach and peers at him, making hushing noises and telling him she's fine. He's fine. Thor lies down on the other side of the couch, and Natasha takes the space near his head.

Bruce leaves the room. It's probably best for everyone.

Clint whispers, "I'm sorry, Miss Pepper. I shouldn't have left my toys out where someone could trip on them."

"And I'm sorry I walked right into where you were playing."

Clint shakes his head. "That isn't-- I was in the way."

"No," Natasha says. "No, you had a spot and Pepper didn't see you, but you weren't in the way. You were there first."

Tony’s pretty sure it’s not a conscious action, but Clint’s hand inches upward until it peeks out from underneath the couch, to where Natasha can take it in hers. From the sliver of Clint Tony can actually see, the kid looks unsure of how to handle the situation. On the one hand, he doesn't seem to agree. On the other hand, they've all figured out he's well learned not to argue with adults.

In this instance, he takes the middle road. "I'll try to play where people aren't walking."

Tony goes and sits in between where Pepper and Natasha are still lying. "Alternately, you could just be louder, small fry."

Clint blinks at him. Tony gestures to himself. "Like me." He gestures in the general direction of Thor. "Or him."

Clint looks as though he wants to laugh, but he tells Tony, "Kids aren't supposed to be loud," as if this is a Statement of Fact.

"I like loud kids," Steve says, coming to sit next to Tony. "Don't you, Tony?"

"It just so happens that I love loud children, Steven."

"Asgard children are all very loud, Clint Barton," Thor informs him.

"But they're special," Clint protests. "They grow up strong and magical, like you."

Natasha tells him, "You grow up pretty damn strong and magical, too, kid."

Clint looks doubtful. Tony can't stop himself from using the arm attached to the hand Natasha still has to tug the kid gently out from his hiding spot. He takes it slowly: he’s learned that robbing Clint of protection, or even startling him, is a quick road to quiet panic on Clint’s part, but he cannot bear to leave the kid where he is. Tony tries, but it's useless, even though he knows it's more about what he wanted as a kid than what Clint wants now. When Clint has finally acquiesced to Tony’s grip and the other’s words of encouragement and allowed himself to be unearthed, Tony folds him up in a hug. Clint clings pretty tightly though, so Tony figures it works out all right.

*


Tony's a fucking block away from Natasha when she gets ambushed, but Clint's not there to tell them that, so fifty-seven stitches and one separated shoulder later, Natasha's going to be fine, but they're down another teammate for a month; two, if medical gets their way.

Even worse, Clint goes into what they've all deemed "nuclear spring" mode--a type of pervasive silent terror that none of them have figured out how to abate--when she doesn't return with them, and it only gets worse when she reappears, all bandaged and banged up and moving very deliberately.

He stays by her every moment, brings her glasses of orange juice or water in the morning, snacks several times a day, books and even a few of his toys to keep her busy, cookies in the evening. Between Steve, who is also there to see to every single one of her needs before she even knows she has them, and Clint, Natasha seems utterly bewildered by the care being shown.

Tony spends a lot of time in his lab, indiscriminately blowing shit up. Bruce disappears with one of the cars for a day and when he gets back, the look on his face tells Tony he doesn't want to ask. Pepper takes one look at the both of them and gets to work hounding Fury and Coulson for progress reports.

She tells them, "Coulson thinks he may have found some people who can figure this out. He'll bring them by in the morning."

Which means another night of having to separate Clint from Natasha, because he inevitably wakes screaming, pleading for her not to leave him, and Natasha needs rest if she's going to heal. Steve stays with Clint, at Natasha's request--order, really--and Thor and Bruce keep tabs on Natasha.

But in the morning, Coulson shows with a pair of scientists out of a London facility that Tony is 100% certain isn't on SHIELD's pay. He doesn't know what Coulson did to find them or to get them here, but he thinks both efforts might go a ways toward getting Natasha to forgive him.

The scientists, Doctors Jansen and Holly, explain things in short phrases and with easy-to-understand words. When it becomes clear that Clint is a little more withdrawn and easily scared than most kids, they have Steve come and stand by them and help talk Clint through most of the procedures.

They send Clint off with Bruce afterwards, and the doctors ask the three of them questions, and they try to tell them as much of what they know of what happened. Even having written down their recollections as a group, there's just not much, but the doctors nod when they start talking about the characteristics of the alien they were facing.

Tony asks, "Run into something like this before?"

Dr. Holly admits, "Once. It's not magic. At least, we don't think so, but it acts a lot like it. We've liaised with experts on that sort of metaphysical question, and the best we can come up with is that there are certain types of science that are so advanced they simply look like magic to us."

"To whom would they not look like magic?" Thor asks.

"Races somewhere between two to three centuries ahead of us," Dr. Jansen admits.

Steve looks at Thor. "How long would it take, if Odin needed to send you both ways?"

"Too long, but the tesseract will be back in the hands of my people by the end of this Midgardian week. I can have my father bring me there and return by way of its energy."

Steve turns to the doctors. "Would someone like that be able to fix this?"

The doctors share a look. Jansen says, "Probably? I can't make any promises, but they'd have a much better shot than we would, than anyone would, really."

Steve nods at Thor. Thor starts to leave the room. Steve says, "Say goodbye to Clint. Let him know you'll return."

Thor nods. "I have acquired something for him in the anticipation of possibly having to take some leave."

Tony finds Clint later, guarding Natasha with a plush Mjolnir. Tony bites back a laugh, knowing Clint will think it's aimed at him. Instead he sits next to Clint and asks, "Thor show you how to use that thing?"

Clint inches next to him, until they're basically cuddling, and tells Tony, "He said I have the soul of a warrior and would know."

Tony puts his arm around Clint. "He's not wrong there."

*


Thor returns with a creature that looks like nothing so much as a cross between a shark and a centipede on LSD and speaks a language only Thor can understand. The sharkipede relays the fact that he can fix the situation to Thor, who passes on this news.

Coulson asks, "What are his terms?" neither a challenge nor a promise, just a request for knowledge.

Thor rumbles the question and Sharkipede's response is short, with an edge to it. Thor tells them, "They are allowed to bring retribution to those who caused this."

Given that the team still isn't entirely sure who caused this, or how, that sounds like a pretty sweet deal, but as with most pretty-sweet-deals, it makes Tony ask, "Why? Clint's nothing to them."

Thor translates and then tells Tony, "Their race has a moral code regarding the rogue use of these types of technologies, particularly upon those without the capability to defend themselves."

It rankles, but Tony can see where they have a point.

Natasha asks, "It's safe?"

After some conversation, Thor tells her, "Entirely, my lady."

There's a long, emotionally packed silence. Then Steve says, "I suppose we should say goodbye to this iteration of Clint, in that case."

None of them move for a time, and then, because she's Pepper, and she has always done the things Tony can't do for himself in his place, she says, "I'll just go get him," and leaves.

*


Clint comes back holding Pepper's hand with one hand, the Mjolnir plushie with the other, and looks at all of them, standing and sitting around the room, faces somber, and asks, "Did I do something wrong?"

Clint’s gaze lingers on Coulson, whom he’s never seen, and who is wearing his usual Extremely Official Looking suit and standing back, against the wall. Clint seems fairly at ease with the sharkipede, but then, he’s been living with the six of them. Tony doesn’t blame him, really. Coulson smiles at him, real and gentle. It helps a little; Clint is able to look away.

"Never," Steve says, approaching and plucking Clint up, tossing him in the air and catching him. Clint's smile is hesitant, but it's there. "We just all need a hug, because something's about to happen, and we all have to be brave, and none of us can do that without a hug from you."

Clint's expression is pure doubt, but he wraps his arms around Steve and squeezes. "I can help," he tells him. "Just tell me what to do."

"Well, there's the hugging," Steve points out. "And you have to be brave with us. But since you're always brave, I didn't think that merited a mention."

Steve is gentle in his hug, because even after nearly three months of feeding him up, Clint still has the look of a kid who missed way too many meals. Steve hands Clint off to Tony, who isn't half so careful with his hug. He's never learned to be gentle in his affections, but Tony thinks he's recognized that characteristic in adult-Clint, and just never realized what it was. Tony doesn't say a damn thing, because if he so much as opens his mouth, every moment he's spent building a reputation for himself is going to come crumbling down around him. It's not that he thinks the others will take advantage. He's starting to get that they won't, that Clint, this very situation, is proof of that. But the distance between knowing that and being able to act upon it is still too vast.

Pepper has to come and pry Clint from Tony, hand him over to Thor, who has a very solemn conversation with Clint about his excellent service to the team, and closes his eyes, breathing in when Clint fulfills his part of the bargain by hugging the everloving crap out of the god.

Thor gives him to Bruce, who holds him tightly, and calls him, "My man," ruffling his hair.

Finally, he is given to Natasha, who whispers softly in Russian in his ear, and Tony kind of wishes he didn't hear the way Clint wistfully, fearfully, whispers back, "Love you," as though it is a weapon she will use, one he cannot help giving her.

Instead she kisses his forehead and tells him, "No matter what."

Then, still holding him, she walks over to the couch and sits down, with him on her lap, not letting go. Her look dares sharkipede to protest. If it does, Thor doesn't let them know.

Almost three months, and it is the work of one alien and five seconds, and they have their archer back, whole and regular-sized.

*


Clint blinks several times, takes a shaky breath, pulls off of Natasha to stand, and says to the sharkipede, “Ah, thanks. For-- Well, thanks.” Then he stumbles toward the door. “I’m just going to—“ He gestures nonsensically with his hands and is gone before any of them can argue.

Coulson who has been sitting quietly out of the way, asks, “Jarvis, you can monitor the air ducts, correct?”

“Indeed, sir.”

“Keep an eye on Clint’s whereabouts. Let me know when he finds a spot to settle.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tasha, can I borrow that blanket he likes?”

Natasha hesitates, “I’m not sure you’re the person we should send after him.”

“Maybe not, but he needs someone who hasn’t spent the last months baby-sitting him, and right now, I’m the only qualified person.”

Natasha considers this for a moment, and then gives a tight nod. “It’s on my armchair.”

Coulson’s almost out the door when she says, “Take your Dartmouth hoodie, too. His drawers, beneath his secondary bow.”

Coulson looks back at her, and Tony has to look away from the expression of regret on Coulson’s normally placid face. After a second, Coulson nods. “All right.”

Once he’s gone from the room, it feels like everyone takes a breath, gets ready to wait the situation out, at least for now. Tony’s horrible at this part of things. He does what he can by looking at the sharkipede and saying, “We owe you one.”

The sharkipede responds once Thor has translated. Thor says to Tony, “He claims our willingness to let them handle the Dshiqui is enough. Evidently Midgard is not the first less-advanced peoples they have seen fit to play with in this manner, this is merely part of a pattern.”

The sharkipede…smiles, for lack of a better word, and it kind of makes Tony want to wet himself. Adrenaline seeking and all, he’s not sad to let them handle this one. Hell, they had no leads on who had done this to begin with, so if someone else wants to do all the footwork, Tony’s perfectly fine with that. He nods. “Well, offer stands.”

Thor and the sharkipede leave with a few parting words that are mostly niceties, and then it’s Bruce, Pepper, Natasha, Steve and himself. Mostly because he cannot stay still, Tony ends up crossing to where baby-Mjolnir is still sitting, picking it up.

He expects some kind of smart comment, but the others are silent. Tony smiles, but even he can feel the bitterness of it, the way it doesn’t cover what he’s really feeling like he can usually trust it to. He says, “This sucks.”

Nobody disagrees. The silence is oppressive until, surprising everyone, maybe even herself by the look on her face, Natasha says, “I think I have a plan.”

*


It's a full three hours before Clint finds them all playing on the swing set. Steve is pushing Natasha on a swing, Thor's gone back and forth on the monkey bars at least ten times, Bruce is sitting in the pagoda-like area above the high slide. Tony's lazily pushing Pepper in the swing next to Natasha's.

Clint comes out alone, but swaddled in a Dartmouth sweatshirt that's too small for him, and scrambles up to sit on the bar holding the swings up, of course.

Nobody says anything for a long time, and Tony's never been great with silence--or tact, for that matter--so the first thing that comes out of his mouth is, "So. You and Agent, huh? Does he call you Specialist when--"

Pepper swings back, plowing feet first into Tony, who stumbles backward at the impact. She throws a too-sweet smile over her shoulder at him, and then smiles up at Clint, a real smile. "Hi Clint. We missed you."

If anything, Clint's shoulders just hunch up even further. "Sorry about-- Um, I mean, thanks for--"

"Getting to do a bunch of stuff most of us never got to do as kids?" Bruce asks, peering out of the door to the slide. "Well, maybe Pepper did. I don't know, she seems strangely well-balanced for someone who spends so much time with us."

Tony can see the way Clint fights the smile inside of him. And maybe Tony's wrong, but he thinks that if they were anyone else, Clint would win that fight. Clint loses. He directs the smile down at Pepper. "It's true, you should get some new friends."

"I like the ones I have, thanks." She swings sideways into Natasha at that.

Natasha's face is hidden behind a curtain of hair and Tony's not naive enough to think that's not on purpose. But then, neither is Clint, who vaults down and catches Natasha in a front swing, lowering her back into a still sit. He murmurs something in Russian. Tony doesn't speak it, but he knows the language of apologies, and that's what this is.

In English he says, "What you said about us being family--"

She looks at him then, the hair falling back from her face. She says, "I was just--"

"You're the sister I never got. And I should have said it years ago, when you would have first listened. I should have kept saying it until you knew, until you wouldn't be sitting here, thinking you have to tell me you only said it because I was an embryo and scared shitless."

"Not just us now," she murmurs, leaning in closer to him, and Tony thinks he's probably not even supposed to hear, but, well, he's listening.

"No," Clint agrees.

Thor speaks up. "It would not be seemly to use this interlude against you, brother, even were it something that had proven shameful, rather than elucidating the fact of your warrior soul having been born into you, tempered by events, but not grown."

Clint is slow to respond. When he does, he says, "Guess 'seemliness' hasn't played a huge part in my life."

"Don't expect it to become a thing, Barton," Tony says.

Clint smirks. "From you, Stark? Sooner I get turned into a kid and don't manage to lose a limb for the months that it takes to return back to normalcy."

Steve laughs, and Tony lets him have the point. Clint smiles, bright and real, at Steve. Steve says, "I think it's a shwarma night."

It's Natasha who laughs first, rich and low, and says, "Definitely a shwarma night."

She stands, her arm draping around Clint's waist, and the two of them lead the way back down into the tower. Tony waits for Thor, Steve and Bruce to follow, waits for Pepper to tug on his hand and say, "C'mon, we're gonna miss family fun night."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile