~ Pre-Story character death - Natasha Romanoff dies while on Mission
~ Steve & Tony = Couple (Stony is present in mild hints and will be brought up a tinge in chapter 3; you've been warned)
~ May contain some troubling themes: excessive drinking mentioned; bad parenting due to crisis/stress; child trouble/danger; bad depression; some minor/medium scale violence; foul language used

Universe Necessities

13 years post Battle of New York world where Clint and Natasha are a married couple, with either their son (Ilari [hilarious, Russian]) and daughter (Serafima [little fiery one, Russian]). They live in a house off the beaten path of a small town between DC and New York.

In this universe, Stark tower has been turned into the Avengers tower. All the Avengers, except Clint and Natasha live there. Steve and Tony are together, because someone has to control that mad scientist, and it can't be Bruce because he has Betty. Tony is not allowed to come over to Clint and Natasha's home due to previous fire problems...

Beta'd by: WhoLockVenger Of Awesomeness


Sparrows shot through the sky, cutting across the starry expanse and darting between the silver-lit stalks. Their high chirps carried on the soft breeze, meeting a lone man's ears. His brow was deeply furrowed as his feet drug across the dusty ground; clouds followed his steps. His mind was like his eyes, glossed over and lost far away.

He stumbled up the well-beaten path, stepping and almost tumbling on the worn stones. He could recall the day he and his wife had put the stones in. A half-chuckle broke from his lips as his back twitched in remembrance of the pain. Clint was used to lifting weights, hefting bodies and supplies from quinjets, but never had he done such a grueling task as lay thirty of those seventy-five pound stone slabs in the ground precisely where Natasha had marked.

Twelve hours it took him to put each and everyone where she had wanted. In twelve seconds time, he had crossed the path and climbed the porch to be standing in front of her smirking form. Twelve minutes was the time it had taken him to loose her.

Clint shook his head furiously, forcing the memories away. He tripped on a slab and landed on his knees. His eyes were shut tight, attempting to ignore the flashing images. He had other things he needed to think about. He could not afford to get lost in his thoughts. He needed to be strong. Their children needed him, and Natasha would likely come back to lecture him for neglecting to say goodnight to Serafima, or make sure that Ilari had done his homework. Clint knew from years of experience, not following his partners instructions ended badly for all parties involved.

A small ghost of a smile slipped easily onto his lips as he forced himself to his feet. To force himself forward he used the thoughts of his daughter sitting in the living room, reading her favorite book with Steve; used images of Ilari lounging on the floor of his room with music blasting, a book in his hands and a few scattered across the floor. Each step that Clint took towards the porch, and up the steps, was fueled by the fire that his children would fan to melt the pain.

His boots thudded against the wood veranda, causing the planks to groan. The sound was a welcome comfort, something he always knew was there, but never bothered to avoid. He had wanted to fix it, to make slipping out on missions easier, but Natasha had not let him. He stopped, turning to look at the railing. A faint smile breached Clint's lips as he drifted away, jubilant sounds echoing in his ears.

A chorus of laughter joined the sharp tweets of the sparrows and jays. Natasha tossed back her head, red hair glinting and glowing in the warm light. Her eyes sparkled as she looked over the railing. A small dust cloud was dissipating as Clint stood. A smile was beaming on his face, diluting the glare he was trying to shoot at Natasha.

"Why do we need the squeaky porch, Tash? It's not like people will think we're spies if the front doesn't squeak." His baritone laugh echoed as he walked to the steps.

"Because, Barton, in twelve years you'll be thankful for that board squeaking. If Ilari is anything like you, he'll try to slip out. One of the reasons he will fail will be because we have a squeaky porch. The others will be due to his resemblance to you, and your shared ineptitude at stealth."

Clint could not help but laugh at that. He knew that she was insulting his abilities, but he could not bring himself to care, not one bit. He circled an arm around her waist and hugged her tightly from behind. Both their eyes drifted shut as they reveled in each other's presence.

Clint's eyes slid open, tears gripping the corners. He turned his head away, closing his lids once again. The drops fell, slipping down his cheek on tracks long forgotten. His hand rushed to his face, calloused thumbs wiping away the tears. He dropped his gaze from the rail to the boards of the porch as he turned. He walked to the door… and stopped.

Clint lifted his hand to eye-level, and studied it intently. Hours earlier it had been covered in red, dripping crimson like Natasha's ledger. His arm began to shake as he forced the image away. His hand shot to the doorknob. With a quick twist the silent brass knob turned and the door swung open.

"Papa!" A voice squeaked from inside.

A smile slowly stretched across Clint's face as he stepped inside, only to be forced backwards as a small form leapt at him. It took all his restraint not to act on his instincts and shake off the "attacker". Instead, he wrapped his arms around the child. A chuckle built in Clint's throat as he knelt and set her feet on the ground. The small girl stepped back and he allowed himself to look at her.

She was a gorgeous child. Her blue eyes sparkled with innocent joy in life; her tight red curls bounced alongside her porcelain face as her thin lips pulled into a wide smile. It was a smile Clint had seen many times over the years, but with small alterations from the creator of that expression.

"Mое сердце." Clint smiled and pulled her back into a hug.

Giggles erupted from the little girl as she twisted and turned in her father's vice-like grip. The smile on her face said that she was not really trying to get away. Clint began to tickle her, loosening his grip only slightly as she tried to flee. Soon, they both began to laugh heartily.

The sound of someone clearing their throat caused the pair to look up. They bore identical pleading looks, as if one had learned from the other; as Serafima's babysitter looked at father and daughter, he recalled Natasha saying she was never sure who learned the look from who.

"Come on, Steve, it's not like going to bed five minutes late is going to be that much of a problem." Clint said with a light expression on his tired face.

"You'd be right, if it weren't for the fact that it's already more than three hours past her bedtime." Steve's blue eyes were stern as could be as he looked right at Serafima.

A loud huff pushed itself from the small child as she crossed her arms. The little red-haired angel could be stubborn, just like her parents - A trait which suited them only when they fell into the right-kind-of-wrong work.

"Sera, bed now, or else you won't be allowed to read tomorrow."

The discontentment was rather present on Serafima's face as she begrudgingly got to her feet. Steve watched Clint slowly stand up, and could practically see the weight of Clint's loss return to the archer's shoulders.

A knowing sigh broke from Steve's lips as he walked over to Serafima and plucked the child up from the floor. The young girl relinquished herself to Steve's grip, understanding there was no way she would escape from his arms and that it would better serve her next time to go along with it.

"Goodnight, Papa." Serafima giggled as she was walked up the stairs.

"Goodnight, Sera." Clint said back.

As soon as Steve's form left Clint's sight, carrying the precious bundle upstairs, the smile that had snuck onto the archer's face fell. The entirety of the loss came rushing back, hitting him all at once. Clint held back the tears and howls that his throat wanted to scream out. There was nothing any of that could do to help him. Blinded by pain, Clint stumbled through their home based on memory. He staggered around the furniture in the living room before tripping into the kitchen. His hands shot out for the door frame, missing it by hairs, before Clint collapsed on the floor.

Stunned, the archer remained sprawled on the linoleum for a few seconds. His eyes drifted shut as the weight of his loss swamped over him. Lying on the floor, there was no lower he could sink. He was a spy for an agency which lived in the gray zone, and for that agency he had killed more people than he could count. With slow, cautious movements, Clint lifted himself off the floor and sat back on his heels. A sigh broke through the tight-pressed line of his lips, dragging all his demons into the open air.

Necessary casualties to save lives before threats happen.

"Is that what you were, Tash?" Clint's head dropped, hanging limply off his neck with his chin tucked to his chest.

A tingling built up behind his eyes. It was almost painful, and Clint did not like it. In a quick motion his hands were wiping away the tears before they came. His face contorted, showing the pain that his heart was burdened with. Instinctively, his hands closed to fists tight as they could. Before he could register what he was doing, his body was on its feet and moving. He stopped at the counter, hands now gripping the edge for support. One shot up to the cabinet knob and pulled it open. Without looking, he thrusted hand into the cabinet, pushing boxes out of the way and feeling for the back. Seconds passed as Clint fumbled with the hidden lock. Somehow, he managed to open the panel. His fingers slipped into the darkness, searching for the cool feel of glass. Once they found a tall bottle, he grasped it tight and pulled it out.

He held the bottle with both hands, looking at the label. The air stuck in his throat, and he almost dropped the glass container. He wanted to throw the thing across the room as he looked at it. The crystal encrusted bottle held many memories, mostly of him laughing at Stark.

Silence had settled around the room, everyone was watching Natasha as she looked at Tony. Clint was standing beside her, his blue eyes looking the mad genius up and down for signs of tom-foolery. He himself was fair game, but his family was not. The man just looked between the two spies before glancing around the room; an exasperated groan slipped his lips.

"Why is it whenever I give gifts, people are so skeptical? It's not like I'm going to give you guys active bombs!" Tony grumbled.

"Because, when you give gifts they don't tend to be appropriate." Bruce chuckled gently, laying a hand on his friend's shoulder.

The billionaire was about to open his mouth to respond, but closed it tight as a pout spread on his face. His brows pulled tight as he sent a sidelong glare at Bruce and he mumbled grumpily as he shifted from his position and headed over to his kitchen cabinets to look through them. He pulled something out and then practically stomped back over. A sour demeanor had settled over Tony as he held out his parcel to Clint.

The archer took it tentatively and cast a glance to Natasha who nodded for him to open it. When Tony acted like a child, it was better to indulge him. With careful precision Clint undid the purple bow and peeled back the black paper. As the contents were revealed, people's expressions shifted. Most were confused and turned to look at Tony, while Natasha's turned into a stoic mask. In seconds, the room broke out into a chorus of shouting.

"Do you think before you do anything, Tony?" "Why did you give them THAT?" "Are you just an ass naturally?" "What do you expect them to do with that?"


Everyone went quiet when they heard Natasha's strong voice almost whisper the word. There was a drawn out pause.

"How?" She repeated.

Tony shrugged, "I'm a billionaire. A few thousand dollars isn't that much when it comes to a gift for friends." He was almost mumbling, as if he did not like having to explain the reasons behind his actions.

"No," the redheaded spy shook her head, "how did you know that I like Iordanov? I've never had a drink with you, and S.H.I.E.L.D. does not keep that kind of information in my file." Her expression was stern and icy now as she spoke.

Tony's face slackened with fear as his self-preservation instincts took over. "He told me." The genius squeaked as he pointed to Clint.

The archer's face blanched as he felt her frigid gaze turn on him. Some people, when they got angry their eyes lit up with fire; Natasha's eyes turned to an arctic desert that could kill you with a single look.

Clint almost laughed again. The urge to do so was almost as strong as it had been to punch Tony that night. The man had no loyalty whatsoever when it came down to it, at least in trivial matters. None of the Avengers could forget New York; how they had all been a little scared Stark would not make it back. He had not been anyone's favorite person then, but he was a teammate. That stunt with the nuke had showed everyone watching just how little they knew the genius.

Gently, Clint set the bottle on the counter. It had long been empty, but Natasha insisted on keeping it. The archer had never really listened when she began to talk about vodka, and the insane prices people paid for the liquor. Since their first mission, Clint had known that Natasha had a tongue for vodka, and was pickier about the drink than most women were about their shoes. He had never been too keen on it, preferring a cold beer or glass of whiskey to slowly sip while he watched Natasha drink away her whole bottle. Many would call her ability to hold that much drink and never look drunk unbelievable, and even enviable. Yet every time Clint had seen her start the night with a full bottle and end the night throwing it out, he never wanted to have that ability. He never envied her, because he knew slivers of what built her to do that.

When he thought about her life before S.H.I.E.L.D. he got angry, he always did. He could not stand the thought of anyone hurting her - let alone what they did to turn her into the Black Widow. Clint's hands curled around the counter's lip, trying to release the dangerous torrent climbing in him. With a violent shove he pushed off the surface, turning before stalking out of the kitchen and back towards the living room. His boots knocked loudly on the wooden floor of the room as he made his way to the fireplace.

He stopped a few feet away.

Orange flames danced freely in the brick space, licking greedily at the logs. Sizzling cracks popped in the air, a soft lullaby to Clint's frazzled mind. His eyes were drawn to the sparkling colors and bright warmth, of the fire. Another step edged him closer to the brick and marble mantle. He stretched a hand out to grasp the black surface, hoping it would act as an anchor for his numb body. He lost his strongest anchor, the one rooted so deep he had hardly given a thought to life without it.

Clint's head dipped, drooping from his neck as he shied away from the flames, his face scrunching in pain. A choked sound spluttered into the air. The archer tried to force away the rest of it, but failed as his voice gave rise to quiet moans.

"I'm sorry, Tasha." He mumbled to the flames, hands curling tighter around the granite.

His eyes darted up to the black surface, landing on two interlocked figurines. Another chuckle built itself in the spy's throat as he turned his head and looked around the room. A swarm of warm emotions swamped Clint, rushing over him and letting his baritone laughter fill the air. His and Natasha's house was home to him now, but the first time the two had set foot in their renovated home, they were surprised to say the least.

Sunlight flooded the room, casting a glowing golden aura over everything as the couple stepped in. Both of them were laughing, more than happy with the exterior and the squeaky porch. Clint reached to turn on the lights and all sounds stopped. The spies looked around the room, eyes swiftly taking in the details before sharing a glance.

"Stark." They said in unison before laughing again.

Clint was shaking his head, wondering how Tony had gotten the crew to give him design permission. His eyes scanned the room again as he walked forward. He had thought the porch light was different than what he had decided on with Natasha, but he would not have put it past her to change the plans on him. However, the amber teardrop pendant lights that hung from the ceiling and the black granite mantle to their fireplace were not of their choosing. Nor was the simple six branch bronze chandelier in the dinning room, or the ornate column that framed the archway and supported the half-wall. Though, they were all good choices. The pieces were simple, yet with touches of extravagance the befitted both the spies and Stark's ego.

"Clint, take a look at this," Natasha called from the dinning room.

Clint walked towards the dinning room, stopping next to the column and raising an arm to lean against it. The archer let his gaze slowly scan the room, appreciating the décor. Again he noted it was simple yet with touches of lavishness in the details of the designs. The vases that Natasha had bought were placed in a row on a dark wood shelf, a row of hidden lights illuminating them wonderfully. Clint's eyes were drawn to a small cherry tree lamp sat on a caramel wood cabinet, beneath the vases. He began to advance towards it, his head tilting as he picked out small figurines clinging in the branches. As he got closer he saw clearly what they were. He stopped and reached a hand out, his fingers ghosting over one.

"Stark always did have an oddly good sense of design." Clint chuckled as he looked at the small hawk and spider, clinging to the tree and to each other.

"Clint." A voice called softly to him.

The spy turned quickly, falling easily into a defensive stance. Though, it disappeared as Clint recognized the man in front of him. There was only one person on the planet that could look authoritative, concerned, sad and ready for action, all at the same time.

"Sorry Steve, didn't hear you come down. Guess I wasn't really paying attention." Clint mumbled as he turned to face the fire again.

The archer cleared his throat, placing a hand on the mantle. He shut his eyes tight before bringing his other hand up and rubbing at his tired lids. Silence stretched between Clint and Steve, broken only by the crackling fire. If only the searing heat the flames gave off could burn away the pain that was crushing him. The tingling behind his eyes grew, surpassing the archer's limits as his face stretched downwards. Droplets began to run down his cheeks. He made no attempt to stop them; there was nothing he could really do.

"It wasn't your fault, Clint," Steve said as he stepped closer to the archer.

Clint shook his head, tipping it forward as he ran a hand through his hair. "I should have been more careful," he sighed as he turned to face Steve. "It was one of the guy's I took down that fired. Maybe I should have put an arrow through his heart instead of just a knockout gas one."

"That would make you no better than him, choosing who lives and who dies." Steve's eyes were stern, though his voice held softness like that of a parent helping a child.

"It would have saved her!" Clint almost roared, only barely conscious of his daughter and son upstairs. "Sera and Ari would still have a mother, and goddamnit Steve that's more important than me keeping clean on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s records. Not like I don't already kill people for them; I've done it. What would that bastard's death have done to my record?"

"It would be one more thing dripping off your ledger, and we both know that Natasha would not want that on her."

Steve stepped closer to Clint and placed a large hand on his shoulder. The hold was firm but gentle, a comforting anchor for the archer. Clint turned his head, looking at Steve's massive hand and then, slowly dragged his gaze up towards the soldier's own. There was something swirling in those baby blue eyes, something that was too dark to be found somewhere so deceivingly innocent. It was on the tip of Clint's tongue as he began to open his mouth, though the archer's words were caught in his throat as Steve's grip tightened. The grip was only barely tighter, but quickly released, Steve's hand falling back to the soldier's side.

A long sigh drug in the air, the captain's hand reached up to rub the stress of memories from his eyes. "I've lost men before," Steve's voice cracked. "I've seen just about as much conflict as you have, and I know how it feels to lose the closest person to you."

A silence filled the air around them. It was choking them, so dense and unyielding to their attempts to penetrate it. The spy swallowed, cursing himself mentally when he heard it.

"Steve, you don't have to-"

"When Bucky died, I was… I don't know how to say it. I felt alone. He was my best friend," Steve paused, a smile flitting onto his face as he mumbled, "my only one for most of my life, actually." The soldier cleared his throat, lifted his eyes and continued. "After the mission, we returned to our own territory, and somehow I found this abandoned bar. I holed up there and thought I could forget about the war, about Bucky, about my dad and mom. I wanted to forget so badly about everything that had ever happened to me."

Steve raised his eyes to the floor as a shaky breath slipped between his lips. Clint realized that this was likely the first time Steve was ever talking about that part of the war. He and his platoon had experienced it, and Tony was probably more than aware of anything to do with the operations Steve had done in the war because of Howard. The spy turned away, focusing on the mantle to allow Steve time to compose himself. Clint's attention was brought back to Steve as the man straightened his back, standing taller and giving his head a slight shake.

"A close friend came to talk to me. She asked if I respected Bucky, if I believed in him and his choices. I answered yes." A breathy chuckle escaped Steve's lips, "I didn't even think about my answer, I'd known Bucky so long that I didn't have to. I respected the idiot's ideas, and his thoughts, because he had never doubted me; not once in all the years he'd been saving my ass from bullies had I ever doubted him."

The blonde smiled pleasantly for a heartbeat before launching again into his story.

"They were going after me, got me down and without my shield. Bucky was close enough to pick it up a-and he did the stupidest thing. He fired at them and got their attention." Steve's face scrunched in anger, folds forming between his brows as his lips pulled back in silent pain. "I was the person he followed into battle and I was the person he was protecting, I was his leader and I was the one responsible for his safety." Another brief pause lingered in the air as Steve inhaled shakily. "There was nothing I could do as they fired at him. One blow was all it took to destroy the train wall; the same blow knocked him out of the car. He didn't know the shield; he wasn't strong enough to stand the recoil… He fell out and when I tried to reach him, there was nothing I could do."

The soldier's hand shot up to his face, hurriedly wiping away the droplet before it dripped down his cheek. Steve cleared his throat, turning his head to the side and averting his eyes from Clint.

"It was my fault that he died, and I couldn't get over that. At least until Peggy came around. Peggy told me to stop blaming myself, because it would take the dignity out of his choice. I felt responsible, because I was Captain America and I couldn't even protect my best friend. How could I protect the world?" The captain let out a chuckling huff before he continued. "Peggy would have none of that, though. She flat out said that he must have damn well thought I was worth giving his life for if he followed me into the fight and died doing it."

"Peggy sounds like one heck of a girl." Clint blurted out, his tone utterly sincere.

A longing smile formed on Steve's lips as he responded, "That she was. That woman wouldn't take no for an answer. She said that Bucky must've seen something in me worth dying for. Now, I can only guess that he thought I would be the one save the day."

The soldier stopped again, a slightly determined look to his face. He took a step forward, arm reaching out to Clint's shoulder, and slowly clasped his hand on the archer, again his grip firm yet gentle. With a reassuring squeeze, the captain began again to speak.

"At the time, I didn't think I was worth Bucky's life. He was my best friend, practically my brother, and I would have given anything to have him back. I thought that he was wrong for a long time, that I wasn't what the war needed despite being a super soldier. It needed strong, dependable and worthy men."

Steve stepped around Clint and stood straight in front of the archer. "I thought he was wrong, I felt it almost in my bones that he was wrong. I cursed his name and screamed loud as I could at air that he was wrong and that he had better come fix his mistakes. But in the end, he- he was right." Steve put his other hand on the other side of Clint's smaller frame, forcing the archer to look him dead in the eyes. "No matter how much we think they were wrong, more often than not, there is a reason why we're the one's standing here. Bucky and Natasha gave their lives so that we could have ours. The only way we're going to be able to repay them is by living the rest of our lives the way they did in their last moments, bravely and without an ounce of selfishness."

Steve watched as the tenseness that clung to Clint's shoulders evaporated. The archer leaned heavily on the mantle. He was giving into the tears, and allowing the pain to surface because he had put it off too long. The spy hardly felt the warm hand that had snuck around his shoulders, nor did he notice as Steve pulled him away from the fire. Clint's body might well have been boneless for all the fight he put up.

So it was not surprising when the archer remained limp in Steve's grip. Clint had no energy left, not to disguise his pain nor to fight off an overly-protective team leader. So, he let himself become lost in the storm. It was both beautiful and painful. He could see her again, and that was worth all the painful truths that his head screamed at his heart.

Clint opened his tear soaked lids, looking around and was unsurprised to find himself in his room. The lights were dimmed to the point where he could hardly pick out any details. A low hum built in his chest as he told himself to thank Steve for his thoughtfulness in the morning. The bed dipped, and Clint turned his head to the side, hope bursting to life before he could stop it. A different pair of blue eyes met his. The archer's face fell before he turned away entirely, showing his back to Steve.

"Clint, I wanted to tell you that I'm staying the night. It's too late to hit the road and, besides, I think it'd be best to have someone else around tomorrow." Steve explained as his steps carried him to the door.

There was no answer. Though, in all truthfulness, he had not expected one. With extreme caution Steve closed the door as silently as he could. Neither of the kids needed to know about the tragedy till the morning. There was no reason their pleasant dreams needed to be interrupted with such sorrowful news. A long sigh pulled itself from Steve's lips as he slowly turned away from the door.

"What're you still doing here, Cap?"

Steve's head jerked upwards. His eyes landed instantly on the young teen standing in his own doorway. The expression on his rounded face was one of inquisitiveness, a very fitting look with his gray blue eyes, disheveled hair and wrinkled bed clothes, as if he had been asleep and woken.

"What're you still doin' up, bud?" Steve questioned, concern leaking into his hushed voice.

"I asked you first." Ilari countered with an almost smug expression on his features.

Steve almost groaned at the boy's answer. He was around far too many snarky people for his own good. Not to mention the fact that he picked up skills faster than Steve had seen any normal person ever do. Unfortunately, that had included lie detecting. The soldier looked over the teen again, judging and debating what he should hear. The boy would know quite quickly if Steve lied, and that would end with the trust between them broken. On the other hand, if Steve told Ari the whole truth, the teen would likely never get to sleep that night.

A heavy string of air flitted through Steve's lips as he exhaled. His great shoulders slumped forwards as his face fell, defenses and strength gone. Ilari's lips parted as he watched Steve's demeanor change. His pulse sped up as his mind raced with worry and fear. His eyes prickled as his stomach plummeted. The teen had always been perceptive, what with growing up in a house with master assassins. When Steve lifted his face and meets Ilari's eyes with his own, the boy's expression twisted.

His hope fell away, leaving behind pain too raw for his age. Ilari stepped backwards, shaking his head almost violently as denial sprang to life. Tears welled at the corner of his eyes. They poured down his cheeks as he pressed the heels of his hands hard into the corner of his eyes, simultaneously rubbing the droplets away and trying to stop them. His lips were moving almost soundlessly, garbled word fragments managing to squeeze through his clenching throat. He began to back into his room, stepping away from Steve as if the soldier was some sort of monster. The boy tripped over a stray piece of clothing lying on his floor, landing in a flailing mass of arms and legs.

Steve reached out instinctively towards the youth, but retreated just as quickly while he watched Ilari curl into a ball. It was a position Steve had often used when bullies got the upper hand on him; it protected everything important when done right, and usually Steve could get up on his own afterwards. The soldier knew the pose was an instinctive one in all humans, though seeing Ilari coil into such a defensive position was harder than Steve had thought anything ought to be. And it's because of m- No. No, it's not, Rogers. Blame the Hydra agent who shot her.

Even through his own unease, Steve could see the pain Ilari was feeling. Though, not on the boy's face, but in the tensed and shaking muscles along his spine, the shuddering of his shoulders, unnecessary strangle-hold on his legs…

Steve's own face contorted in a sympathetic expression as he walked towards the boy. The soldier knelt to the ground, extending a hand slowly before resting it on Ilari's shoulder. He gave a soft squeeze as he had to force a reassuring smile on his lips. The facade almost fell as he heard Ilari let out a shaking sob.

"It's not true. Can't be true. She said she'd come back. She promised."

"C'mere Ari," Steve whispered to the teen as he half-picked the boy up.

Steve wrapped his arms strongly around Ari, giving him a sensation of safeness to grieve peacefully in. Tears began to moisten Steve's shirt, seeping through it far too quickly. A slow, comforting hand slid up and down Ilari's back, a gesture the teen had always found calming. Whenever low whimpers or half-quieted sobs would shake through the teen's form, Steve's arms would coil tighter around him in attempts to chase them away. Soft nothings were constantly whispered into Ilari's ears in hope of offering solace, though the soldier knew from experience that nothing would ever be enough.

The night continued to slip away, hours lost too quickly and yet not swift enough, in Steve's opinion. It had taken too long to calm Ilari down enough to put the teen to sleep, and even then he had refused to sleep in his own bed and forced Steve to let him into his father's room. There had been no arguing with the grief-stricken teen that needed to know that his father was still alive and that Steve had not been lying to him just to save him some more hurt.

As Steve closed the door to Clint's room it struck him that out of everything that he had seen and heard in his career, both as a military man and as a hero, the thing that had hurt him the most was the fact that a thirteen year-old boy was questioning whether or not he was being lied to about the state of his family, by his family.

A long low sigh pushed itself from the soldier as he walked away from the room.

He prayed to the Lord above that Serafima was still fast asleep, that at least her young soul would sleep peacefully with thoughts of her mother returning intact. Steve flinched as his next thoughts were oddly selfish. He could not handle another crying person due to the same sorrow that he was not allowed to share. There was only one person in the house who could be counted on to keep their heads at the moment, and that was Steve. He could not let the grief and harrowing pain that clawed at his mind and core to overwhelm him, not when he was needed.

The captain stopped at the end of the hall. To his left was the door to Serafima's room and to the right his own. It would be so easy to simply slip into his quarters and just lay on the bed till either he fell to the hands of sleep or was pushed from the comfort of the covers and into the fray of life at the early hours. He wanted so much to turn and just open his door, enter and let down all the safe-walls that he had to put up to keep everything in. He did not want to deal with anymore tears. He would break eventually; cracks were already growing in his armor.

A defeated groan pushed from Steve's lips, echoing in the silent hall. His eyes darted towards the white door with pink and purple flowers dotting it. A grimace almost resembling pain crossed the stout and stern features. Steve took a few slow steps to the door before stopping. He strained his ears, using his enhanced hearing to listen. He waited to detect sorrowful sounds that would call him to the small child.

None came.

It was as quiet in the little princess's room as it had been when Steve had come upstairs with Clint hours ago.

Relief flooded Steve as he turned, back facing the door. His eyes were closed, though not tightly. His shoulders had relaxed, as had his clenched fists. When Steve took a step towards his room he almost stumbled, such a great sense of dread had been lifted from him. In that split second, he forgot about what he had been dreading, and only reveled in the sensation of freedom.

Three steps it took him to reach his door. In three-seconds, he had it open and was inside. Three hours was the time it took him to fall into a fitful sleep, fearing who he would wake to: Clinton Francis Barton, man who lost his wife and has too many responsibilities, or Hawkeye, assassin-turned-hero who lost his partner and now has no ties anywhere.

Neither were good things for the house to wake up to.