sparsenicjade
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AN: Thank you to ihearttwojacks for the beta and all her support. Written for chibifukurou in exchange for her donation to Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Using the "forced to participate in hurtful/illegal activity" square of my hc_bingo.

***


Tasha was seven the first time she killed someone. That particular time it was with poison—she wasn't big enough to take the mark down with her hands. She was given chocolate afterward and allowed to sleep five hours without interruption. It was probably the best day of her life up until that point.

*


A little over a year later, for the first time, she disobeyed the orders of those who had taken her in, saved her life when she was cast away as an infant. Or so the story she'd been told went. She didn't remember anything before the Program and her training.

The mark was a woman. That wasn't the problem, Tasha had killed numerous women by that time, keeping her thoughts on tiny rewards or big punishments. No, the problem was that Tasha made a mistake. The woman caught sight of her in a subway station, so Tasha pulled her little-girl-lost routine. It was a good way to get close to the mark and get her off the street anyway, it would work as well as anything.

Only, the mark squatted down in front of her, letting Tasha have the height advantage and said softly, "Hi, my name's Vicky, are you lost?"

And that part was easy enough to agree to, it was even easy to take Vicky's hand. But when they got up to the street, the woman said, "Are you hungry? You look a little hungry."

Tasha was always hungry. She figured it wasn't that big a deal if she let Vicky buy her a meal before killing her. Vicky, though, asked her what she wanted, and got her everything Tasha even mentioned. She sat by Tasha and made small talk with her, saying how pretty Tasha's hair was, and how she was brave to not be crying even though she was lost.

Honestly, Tasha still thought Vicky was just preying on her. Except then Vicky asked, "Do you have a phone number? Is there someone we could call? We can use my phone."

And something in Tasha shattered past the barrier of where she'd been taught everyone was out for herself. She knew it didn't matter that Vicky genuinely just wanted to help—marks were marks—but she couldn't find it in herself to palm her dagger, make a quick and merciful cut.

She lied her way out of the situation, and when she got back to the children's barracks, she lied to her trainer as well. It didn't matter. She had failed. But she thought it might go easier on her if she didn't admit to purposefully failing.

It didn't. They chained her up for over a day, in such a manner that if she didn't stay on her tip-toes, the pressure on her chest would cut off her ability to breathe. She would have just let her shoulders dislocate, but it never seemed to happen before she panicked and pushed herself back to her toes.

They sent her out to do the job again and Tasha wanted, more than anything, to not do it, to run away, but she wasn't certain she wouldn't get caught. And she wasn't brave enough to face that type of punishment—or worse—again. Of course, when Vicky blinked at her, startled and scared and bleeding out, Tasha realized it might have been the lesser of the evils.

*


Clint saved her life. She didn't like owing anyone anything, but it had been between taking Clint up on his offer of a hiding place on the train and a way out of the only life she'd known, or waiting until they killed her for messing up, getting something wrong. Maybe waiting until she couldn't handle it anymore, and goaded them into it.

At age nine, she took Clint at his word that he would keep her safe. She'd been using the circus crowd as camouflage, shadowing a mark. He saw her from where he was perched in the trapeze nest and found his way to her, holding out a bucket of popcorn. She'd sneered, "Go back to your parents."

Clint had just kept the bucket perched where she could reach in and said, "Don't have none. Why aren't you with yours?"

At this pronouncement, she decided to really look at him. He was slightly shorter than she was, with blond hair that was untamed, dirt across his cheek and slashing his forehead. He looked as hungry as she often felt. Most tellingly, there was a welt peeking up over the thin and worn collar of his shirt. She asked, "Did you steal the popcorn?"

He flushed, but nodded. She said, "Let's get somewhere we're unlikely to be discovered, then."

*


Tasha lost track of time chatting with Clint and eating popcorn. That had never happened before, she had a strict internal clock. But she'd also never spent time just sitting and talking with someone around her age. There were other kids in the Program, but they were punished for wasting time by socializing.

She understood, when Clint offered for her to go with him, it had nothing to do with keeping her safe and everything to do with Clint wanting a friend. Awareness of that fact actually made it a little easier to agree. In her mind, she didn't actually think she'd escape. She was certain they would find her, kill him, and take her back. But she wanted her last days to feel of adventure and newness.

She told Clint about thinking she was going to get him killed and doing it anyway years after the fact. Clint shrugged and said, "Would've been worth it anyways." Sometimes she couldn't decide if Clint was the most loyal person she knew, or just the stupidest.

Tasha cut the tracker she'd discovered a few months earlier out of her shoulder. She had no idea if there were others. She threw it into a field and then stowed away in the compartment Clint found for her.

When one of the roustabouts discovered Clint had brought along "a friend," and when said friend knocked three of them out before anyone could get near her, five of the men—including the show's Strong Man—pinned her and made her watch as they beat Clint until he was barely breathing.

After they threw the two of them in with the monkeys—which were loud, and pooped on everything that stayed still long enough—Clint forced himself to roll on his side. He couldn't open either eye, and she wasn't entirely sure his jaw wasn't broken, but he managed to ask, "Y-you ok-kay?"

*


Tasha could kill silently in a few hundred ways, speak four languages, and pry secrets out of anyone with a pulse. But her foremost talent was reading a situation: knowing what people needed, and giving it to them. It was how she got herself and Clint promoted from stowaway and kid-who-does-all-the-crap-jobs to the opening tumbling and archery act. Well, they still had to muck out the animal cars, help clean up the big tent after a show, and a whole bunch of other annoying, menial stuff, but it was nonetheless a step up from when she'd arrived.

Clint clearly thought she walked on water. Tasha liked it, but it also scared her, especially seeing as how Clint was recklessly brave when protecting her, and was probably going to get himself killed. She told herself she didn't care—she hadn't needed anyone before, and she didn't now—but the punch of heat in her stomach told her different.

*


They were stolen from their sleeping corner in the cargo car. Tasha woke just long enough to hear the zing of the tranq gun, but was not as quick as she needed to be to get out of the way. She didn't know if their kidnappers saw their skills and decided they were worth the risk, or if Carson had been paid more than he ever thought he would make on them. It didn't really matter, but Tasha liked to think it was the former.

Clint was excellent at taking a beating—too much practice—but total shit at hand to hand. She taught him in spurts, whenever they were placed in a cage together. When they got caught, their keepers would punish her, but Tasha knew how to take abuse as well as Clint, if not better, and there wasn’t enough pain in the world to stop her from trying to keep him alive.

She told herself it was just because he shared food with her and sometimes told her really good stories, but for all that she was great at lying to others, she found it hard to fool herself. It sucked, but with Clint around, she had something—everything—to lose.

*


Tasha hadn't lost her ability to read people, to make them think her ideas were their ideas, when Phil Coulson carried the two of them into the hospital. Clint was still sporting broken ribs and more bruises than skin from their last fight. Tasha was barely holding on to consciousness, nauseated from the concussion she'd received when Jamie'd managed to smash her head into the cage. She didn't think he'd meant to. Sometimes the other kids panicked when faced with her calm approach to utter destruction.

She knew the gash on her ear was infected. She thought the bone in her finger they'd had to surgically set a couple of weeks might be as well. Everything was too cold and too loud and too painful, but none of that mattered. What mattered was that Special Agent Coulson had picked Clint up carefully. He'd gotten her a second later, when Clint had fussed, "Tash-Tasha," over and over again.

And the truth was, Clint had been forced into hurting the other kids, but he wasn't a killer, a weapon, something better dismantled and put away. Plus, she owed him an escape.

(She owed more, if she allowed herself to think about the myriad kindnesses he'd imparted to her over the years. She didn't, not because of the debt, but because it would keep her from doing what was right, and giving him up.)

She could get Coulson to take him, take care of him, and then it would be okay, they could do whatever they needed to her. She was tired. She just needed to make sure Clint was safe, and then maybe she could rest, close her eyes and shut out the world around her, let it spin as it would.

*


To Tasha's surprise, Coulson wasn't an easy mark. Usually Feds were, when it came to kids, but he seemed to have her number from the beginning. He kept telling her to just rest, but she knew what that meant: he wanted them well enough that he could disappear before Clint could be made his problem. But she was sure if she just pushed right, he'd move from thinking Clint was cute and sad to thinking he could make Clint smile. Tasha knew there were plenty of people in the world who couldn't give a damn about Clint's smile, but Coulson wasn't one of them. Coulson saw what mattered.

When Clint was awake she implanted suggestions of things he should say to Coulson, ways he should ask. Clint never questioned her, not on the important stuff, so he did as he was told. Coulson's gaze went soft around Clint and Tasha just needed to keep moving toward the goal.

She was so caught up in making sure Clint would be taken care of, that when Coulson sat down and asked, "How would the two of you feel about going home with me?" she actually blinked.

Two of us? Coulson looked at her, and must have misread her carefully blank face because he reassured her, "It will just be a trial run: you can choose to leave at any time."

Tasha felt her eyes narrow. Or you can hand us over when it's more convenient.

Even so, it gave Tasha some more time to cement Clint's position, and maybe she could even run when Coulson started to figure out what she was. She was pretty sure she was about thirteen. She had good life skills; could take care of herself.

The thought of living without Clint hurt worse than the time Finn had accidentally caused internal bleeding in her and the doctor who'd come had only given her the barest of local anesthetics while fixing it. But she'd survived that and worse. She'd survive this, too.

*


Tasha had obviously lost some serious skills while in the cells, because Coulson caught on to her three month plan for leaving and making a life for herself at the beginning of month two. Clint was doing well. He liked to please, and Coulson made it easy for him. The other kids regularly checked in, so if anything went wrong, someone would come get him. And she wasn't going to go far. She'd be around to make sure he didn't need her.

She thought he'd be okay. Clint was one kid. He was careful not to eat too much, or make too much noise, and his baggage came from being a victim. Natasha wasn't going to get in the way of that. Coulson had gotten her out of the cells, and the only way she knew how to thank him was to get out of his hair.

When she came back from visiting Parker one day, though, Coulson was sitting on the bed he'd gotten for her. The bed she had trouble sleeping in because it was so soft. It helped when Clint climbed in with her, also wriggly from the weird comfort, but it was still a challenge.

Coulson asked, "Neal and Eliot doing all right?"

Natasha nodded and kept her back to the wall. It was annoyingly obvious, but she didn't have any better options. Coulson said, "How about you?"

She did her best I've-no-idea-what-you're-talking-about face. It was very good. "I'm fine."

"Where fine means 'not actively being harmed'?" He kept his voice low and even, his body language non-threatening. He was very good, too.

"I'm not like Clint," she lied. "I don't need to be taken care of."

Coulson didn't laugh or roll his eyes or any of the things adults tended to do when being patronizing. Instead, he frowned slightly. "We all need to be taken care of, at least a little bit."

Okay, she could work with that. "Clint's good at cleaning and making soup."

It was something they'd both learned in the circus. That and lasagna: meals that easily fed lots of people.

"And you're good at protecting others and hiding and probably a number of things I don't know about yet. But I'd like to."

Tasha was so used to being in control of her thoughts and words that she blinked at herself upon hearing the word, "Why?" drop from her lips.

He shrugged. "If there's a right answer to that question, I don't know it."

"I'm a killer," she told him. "That's really all anyone needs to know."

Coulson's expression was calm. "The kids who died in the cages—"

She cut him off, wanting this over with, wanting to flee from the hypnotic warmth in his eyes, his stance. "Not them. Others. Lots of others, because I was told where to go and what to do and I didn't question my orders."

She expected horror, maybe even arrest, but instead his face crumbled a bit before he regained equanimity. He said, "I wish I could hug you."

Tasha looked for a good response to that, but all she could find was, "What?"

Coulson waved a hand. "More of a…metaphor, I suppose." He pressed two fingers to the bridge of his nose and Tasha wondered how she'd missed the fact that he looked exhausted. He trained his gaze back on her and said, "When I was a kid, for a long time, whenever anything went wrong my mom would hug me and rock me until I fell asleep, and when I woke up, most of the time, it was all better."

Tasha stared. "You want to make everything better."

He laughed, but it wasn't as though he thought anything was funny. "Even if it means not having you."

It was Tasha's turn to frown. Coulson sighed. "You don't get it, which is fair, because for some reason you've had impressively bad luck all your life, but from the second I gathered the two of you up, the moment you leaned into me? I wanted you. I wanted to keep you safe and warm and clean and fed and happy. I wanted it more than I have every wanted anything, up to and including Quantico and the NY Field Office."

Tasha found herself repeating, "I'm a killer."

Coulson pinned her with a look that said he didn't expect her to believe a word out of his mouth and said, "You're a girl who's had every choice she ever should have had taken away from her. So I won't make you stay. But if you do, I'm going to make sure to catch you up on all the choices you've been missing."

*


It took over a year, but at some point, without even being aware of it, Tasha began thinking that her decision to stay would be respected.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile