You know, I've heard stories of authors who are able to write stories, oneshots even, of less than five thousand years. I personally believe that, if they ever existed, that magic has long since been lost.
This monstrosity stands at just over 7000 words... and still isn't done. Sorry about that. Part three will be up whenever I can manage it, and reviews are fuel to the fire that is my inspiration. Happy reading!
She doesn't look back, and she hates herself for it.
Clint's panicked face flashes through her mind as she bobs and weaves through the startled pedestrians, feet light like only a ballerina's can be. His words echo through her ears, her heart beating out an agreement- run, run, run.
It takes only a few minutes to reach the end of town, and she doesn't pause, bypassing the path altogether and scrambling through the bushes and the undergrowth. When she finally reaches the clearing her arms and legs are seeping blood through deep scratches, her clothes are torn and she has a mixture of twigs and leaves in her hair.
The young girl doesn't know how much time she has- how long until Coulson sends more people looking for her, how long until they manage to force the location of the Hillock out of Clint, and she can't go back. She doesn't know if they know what she's done, but if they do then she's dead.
So instead, Tasha snatches up a mud encrusted blanket, a pen-knife, her still damp spare clothes, three cans of food and a can opener, stuffing them into the beat up old backpack that was once Barney's schoolbag. It is meagre, definitely not enough to survive off, but it will have to do. She adds the two dollars that she somehow has kept a hold of all this time, shoulders the bag and continues to run.
He isn't sure how long he's been sat in this car, only that it has been far too long.
Coulson is in the front, and hasn't said a word since they got into the word, though every now and then Clint sees the bright flash of blue when the man checks on him in the rear-view mirror. It's like the agent is worried that he'll try and make a break for it, and he has to admit, the thought has crossed his mind; however, even he isn't stupid enough to jump out of a car that is speeding down the interstate at seventy miles per hour.
There is a bitter taste in his mouth as he thinks about Pepper's words- I've never seen him before in my life. It's happening, just as he described it to Tony- the young genius has gone, and Thorki have gone, and Steve and the others don't want to know, and now Tasha's fled, and he's not alone, but he might as well be. He thinks about what he said to Tony- not alone, never alone, but forgotten. A person you knew once, whose name you can't think of but whose face you can sort of remember.
"Agent?" he asks, and Coulson blinks at him in the mirror.
"Yes?" The man doesn't even bother correcting him, and in any other circumstance Clint might consider that a victory.
"What's another way of saying back up plan?"
"You mean a plan B?" Clint shakes his head, desperately trying to remember it. He has so much trouble with words, so much trouble remembering what they are. Tasha said once that he might be dyslexic. He still doesn't know what that means, because she didn't explain it very well, but she was probably right- she usually is.
"It starts with con."
"A contingency plan?" He pauses, considering.
"Yeah, I think that was it... could you write that down for me? Um, please?"
That night, for the first time since her mother died, she fucking died okay, aliens had nothing to do with it- for the first time since her mother died, she lets herself cry. The tears trickle, leaving hot and salty tracks on her cheeks. She cries about her mother and her father, about her friends and the fact that she's alone in the middle of nowhere. She cries about a match she dropped, and the minister who used to come to the orphanage once a week to teach them about right and wrong, who once slapped a boy for asking if Satan could be saved and who explained to them how some types of love could be evil. She cries because she there is nothing else for her to do, and when she is done she sleeps.
After that it takes her three days.
Three days of tramping and trudging, begging where she can and occasionally running when a stranger offers to call the police for her, to help her 'get home.' The runaway doesn't even know where home is anymore- an empty mansion in Russia that may not even be hers? A dilapidated cottage where her father drank himself to death? Or a cardboard building with fifty other kids who took 'survival of the fittest' very seriously?
She ponders on it, both in Russian and in English, and finds that both languages supply the same images- Clint, basking in the sun next to the lake. Loki and Tony teaming up to tease Steve, Thor showing Pepper how to fight, Bruce earnestly explaining the science behind something. Picnic baskets and fishing rods and a cramped little Hillock that held all their worldly possessions. Everything snatched away by that bastard, Coulson. Why couldn't he have just left them alone?
And at the end of the third day, with blisters to make a lesser mortal weep and shoes that may or may not be stained with blood, she finally reaches the city. Anyone can make it big in New York, Barney had said, but this will have to do for now. It will be difficult, definitely, but Tasha knows that she is both strong and clever; anyone who messes with her is going to find themselves in for a world of hurt.
They take him to a powder blue office with a lady made from plastic- at least, that's what he thinks at first. A second glance reveals that she is just wearing a scary amount of makeup, her smile seemingly sewed in place. He has to sit on a bright red plastic chair while they ask him dumb questions like he's some sort of baby. Coulson's disappeared off somewhere- the lady asking him questions is some woman called Miss Hill, and when she can't get anything out of him, a man called Mr Fury. Fury is a lot harsher, demanding instead of asking, and he gets really mad when Clint says stuff about his eye patch. Clint makes sure to mention his eye patch as often as he can.
Eventually, when Fury looks like he's about to explode, the plastic woman steps in and tells him that, thank you Clint, that's all we need for now. Fury shoots him a death glare, and Clint just grins back, the first time he's smiled all day, damn does it feel good. The lady tells him he's going to be put into 'emergency foster care,' and Clint's heard of that before- it's where they send you to a house, instead of a 'home,' with a lady who may or may not be nice.
"So where's my new foster mother?" he asks, and he does his best to put as much sneer as possible into his voice- her stupid pink smile is annoying him, and he wants to see it wiped off her face.
"That would be me," says a voice behind him, and he whips around to see Coulson, standing in the doorway and looking amused though there's nothing to look amused about.
"What? No." Clint is desperately hoping this is some sort of sick joke, that that's why Coulson looks amused, but one look at Lady Plastic tells him that it's not. Instead, he stomps forward and jabs a finger at Coulson's chest. "I don't like you. If you think for one second that I'll fucking behave just because you're a secret agent, you'd better thing again, because it is NOT HAPPENING! Understand?"
The agent doesn't say anything, just puts a hand on Clint's shoulder and leads him away. As they walk, the man hands him a piece of paper. On it, in neat, block writing, is the word CONTINGENCY.
She knows she hasn't a chance in the big leagues- she's only ten, after all, and she might be eleven in a couple of months, but it still isn't very much when dealing with men who have done it for years. So she asks around, her torn clothes and dirty face an instant doorway to information. Eventually she finds what she's looking for.
It's run by Andre, who's sixteen, and Mattie, his sister who Tasha thinks might be fifteen. They're set up in the back of an old warehouse with cracks in the ceiling and holes in the walls. She is lead there by a little boy who everyone calls Bean. He is as small as Bruce, possibly smaller, with hollow cheeks and quick fingers that get into her pockets in a flash. She laughs then, because she has nothing left to steal.
"Who's she?" asks Andre when she arrives.
He is pretty tall for a sixteen year old, with dark skin, torn jeans and a scar under one eye. Two other kids are talking to him, but they immediately shut up when he speaks. Bean opens his mouth to answer, but Tasha cuts in.
"My name is Natalie Rushman," she tells him, and he quirks an eyebrow. She can see that he knows the name is fake, but it doesn't matter- if she had any money she would bet it on his name not being Andre. In a world as temporary as theirs, something as permanent as a name isn't shared lightly.
"And what do you want, Natalie?"
"I need somewhere to sleep, and I need a steady supply of food." One of the other kids snorts and mutters something like 'yeah, well, don't we all?', but Andre ignores him.
"And why does that concern me?"
"I'm quite," Tasha begins, before stopping herself; this is no time for modesty. "I can fight. And I can break into pretty much anywhere. Unless I take something big, they won't even realise they've been robbed. I'm useful." For the first time since she arrived, Andre looks at her, properly, turning to face her full-on. Their eyes lock, and for a second her heart stops- they are the same eyes she sees when she thinks of Clint, the same eyes she sees when she passes a window or a particularly shiny car: they are haunted, broken, hiding it all with a thin veneer of sarcasm and bitter humour.
"Sounds good," he says, "but that's what they all say; Bean?" Suddenly there is a fist flying towards her. Without even pausing to think, the redhead ducks underneath it before sweeping out with her legs. The smaller boy goes flying, landing hard on his back, and she flicks her hair out of her face before turning to glare at Andre.
"Satisfied?" He smirks.
"Yeah, you'll do. Welcome to the family. Oh, but one thing- the ginger's gonna have to go: way too obvious. Lils?" And a girl with bleached hair and a nose ring reaches forward and grabs her arm, dragging her into what turns out to be a labyrinth of back rooms. Tasha opens her mouth to ask what is happening, but shuts it again, not wanting to appear scared. Her hair, originally in a short bob, now swishes past her shoulders, a shimmering red wave that looks just like her mother's.
"I'm Lilith," says the girl, shoving her into a bathroom and turning on one of the taps, tossing Tasha a ratty old towel. "Call me Lils and I will kill you. Only Andre can call me Lils." The redhead nods, trying not to look apprehensive as she eyes the bottle of goo that Lilith is mixing up. "So, yeah, Andre's right- everyone notices a ginger. I would bleach it, but I think you'd look better with dark hair."
"Do I get a say in this?"
"No," Lilith replies, not even looking up from the now blue gunk. "Wrap the towel around your shoulders and lean forward." Tasha obliges, and watches in the mirror as the red is smothered.
Coulson actually has a pretty big house for a guy who's not even an agent, and Clint gets his own room. There are no other emergency foster kids around- there's no one else around at all. Coulson and his wife got divorced, and now it's just him in this big old house, all alone, by himself. The runaway doesn't feel bad at all- because of him, Tasha is alone too, and she doesn't have a big house or a fridge. Still, the bed is very wide and very, very comfortable. The pillows are goose feather, the blankets are warm as toast and there's no mud or spiders anywhere. He decides he can probably bear to stay for a few days.
Coulson himself is difficult to figure out. His poker face is immense, and Clint can never tell if he's annoyed or amused. Those piercing blue eyes are absolutely terrifying, but the guy seems kind of okay, for an adult, and a care worker to boot. The man's room is on the other side of the house, but he promises Clint need only yell and he'll be there. Clint snorts- what is he, some sort of baby? He hasn't shouted for anyone since the time his dad caught him sneaking to Barney's room and threw him against the wall (and no, that one night in the clearing when he had that nightmare doesn't count, because Tasha was already there, and anyway, it didn't happen).
The agent takes him shopping, and he gets three pairs of jeans and seven T-shirts, along with two new pair of trainers and a pair of formal shoes. Coulson tells him that this is just to start off with, he can get some more stuff in a bit, when he's better settled down. Clint is too overwhelmed to think of something snarky to say, and somehow finds himself asking for batman pyjamas. It is a stupid request, but for some reason Coulson doesn't mind traipsing all over the store until a saleswoman eventually finds some in a box in the back. That night, he sits in bed and hugs a pillow on his lap, picking at the stitching of his new pyjamas until it has come unravelled.
She is given a room fairly close to the front- the more important you are, apparently, the further back your room is. More time to escape or something.
It is small and smells strange, with peeling paint and cracks in the ceiling. It consists of a bed and two mattresses, and she shares with Katrina and Sadie. Katrina, who is Katty to Andre and Andre alone, gets the bed because she's nearly thirteen. She makes it very clear on Tasha's first night who is in charge, and though Tasha knows she could probably beat the older girl in a fight, she needs for this all to work out. So she says nothing and causes no trouble, and from the knowing looks understands that she'll have an ally in Sadie.
Sadie is eleven, with a pixie cut and a piercing in her lip that she can squirt water through. She is small and skinny, like Tasha, and she shares her clothes- ripped stockings and tight black skirts, charcoal grey crop tops and necklaces with spikes on them. Tasha learns to walk in a pair of heels that make her three inches taller than she normally is, and learns why thick black rings of eyeliner are a good thing, despite what she'd heard from the children in the American schools. One night, using a needle sterilised in mouth wash, they pierce her ears- and then her cartilage, and then her tragus too, and she's fighting back tears as the last one goes wrong and blood begins to trickle into her ear canal.
Katrina laughs and throws a box of tissues at her, which Sadie uses to dab her up. While Katrina meticulously reapplies her navy nail polish, Sadie explains that there's about twenty-five kids who live in the warehouse, and a larger group of maybe fifty or sixty altogether. They do pretty much anything, from deal to steal to trick- everything except pimping, because Mattie wouldn't allow it, and apparently what Mattie wants, Andre gets her. Tasha has an image of Clint, turning sixteen and running a gang like this; he would get her anything she wanted. The thought makes her heart ache, so she banishes it and instead focuses on scraping the blood out of her ear with her now black nails.
When he turns thirteen, Coulson lets him throw a birthday party- his first one ever. There are ten kids from school invited- seven boys and three girls, and he wants to invite more girls but he's too afraid to. They play a couple of round of laser quest, and then they all have pizza in a restaurant. He gets some music, and a dirty book from one of the boys that Coulson simply smirks at, and a couple of store vouchers, and a video game console from his emergency foster father. When the day is done, Clint can't stop grinning, and the agent turns a blind eye when he spends all night playing video games, even though there's school the next day.
She climbs out the window, a small satchel clutched tightly to her chest. The two boys on the street below grin, and motion for her to toss it down, which she does. By the time she makes it down from the fourth floor apartment window, they have vanished, and she is forced to trek the long slog back alone.
Sadie is sat on the bed waiting for her- Katrina ran off with a boy and appeared on the news a few days later, missing. That was nearly a year ago, and there is still no word; nobody talks about her, or brings it up.
So now Sadie has the bed, and Tasha is still on the mattress, and the other mattress is where they keep their clothes, because there aren't any drawers. Tasha is cold, wet and miserable when she gets back, but sat on the mattress waiting for her is a cheap pair of gold hoop earrings and a little store bought cupcake. Sadie grins, and wraps her into a warm hug.
"Happy birthday, Natalie," she murmurs into her ear, and they share the cupcake. It is delicious.
Clint is fourteen when Coulson sits down to dinner with his 'this is a serious talk' face on. The last time he'd worn that face, Clint had gotten D's in all his subjects. The shame he felt, both at the bad marks and at Coulson's disappointment in him, has kept him working hard since, and he is now a straight B student.
"Clint," begins the agent who never was an agent. "Are you happy?" This catches Clint off guard, and he pauses, trying to work out were this is leading.
"Yes, sir," he replies hesitantly.
"Are you sure?" Presses Coulson, and this time the ex-runaway doesn't waver.
"Would you like to stay here? With me?" And now Clint is truly stumped, so he does the only thing he can think of and answers truthfully.
"More than anything," he says, and ignore the questioning little voice in the back of his head asking Tasha?
"Clint," says Coulson, and if Clint didn't know better he would say the man looks nervous. It's impossible, of course, but the mind can play tricks. "If it's all right with you... well, I'd like to adopt you?"
And it isn't a question, but he makes it sound like it is, and Clint's mind flashes back to an angry ten year old, and his horror at discovering that this man was to be his emergency foster father. Now he can't imagine things going any differently. He doesn't know how to reply, how to say yes, how to say thank you, so he bumps Coulson's shoulder with his fist and gives a shaky smile.
"No worries, old man- I'm not planning on going anywhere." And thank god, Coulson understands.
She is reminded that this isn't safe, that these people aren't safe, that she cannot get Stockholm's or whatever the equivalent for her situation would be, the weekend that Mattie is attacked.
The now nineteen year old was walking home from shopping when three men attacked her. She managed to fight them off, managed to get away before too great an atrocity is committed, but she is scratched and bruised and scared absolutely shitless. Two days later, Tasha and the others are called to the front room, where Andre stands with a face like thunder.
"Read," he commands, throwing several newspapers in their faces before turning on his heel and storming out the room. Bean, who is six foot tall now and skinny as- well, as a beanpole- and who is now Andre's right-hand man, points them to page four. The article details the murder of three men, found stabbed to death on the side of the road. Police are investigating the murders and suspect it to be gang related. The message is clear- nobody fucks with Mattie and gets away with it.
That night, when Sadie is asleep, Tasha lies on her mattress and ponders it. Andre is tall, and very scary looking. He can be cold, but mostly he smiles, and asks how people are getting on, and pats your head condescendingly when you tell him about how much you got from that house on the other side of town three nights ago. Sometimes he gives the smaller kids, the ten- and eleven-year olds, ten bucks and tells them to buy a box of donuts (and make sure to give him one!). He probably didn't kill the men himself, but he definitely organised it. The thought terrifies her, and her mind flashes back to an angry ten year old, dropping the match that would kill a man. They are one and the same, and if he is a killer then she is a killer too.
Clint first hears tell of Jessica liking him via a note from his friend Aaron, landing on his desk and telling him exactly that. The ex-runaway doesn't know what to think.
Jessica is very pretty, with large green eyes and a wild mess of curly blonde hair. She has a snub little nose, and a tiny waist- actually, everything about her is tiny; she barely reaches up to Clint's chin.
And yeah, she seems nice enough, but Clint has only actually ever spoken to her once or twice, when they bump into each other in the corridors or that one time she had sat next to him in calculus. He doesn't know what to do- can you date people you don't really know?
"So, man, you gonna ask her out?" asks Aaron at lunch. "Because Chris is practically obsessed with her, and if you don't then he's totally going to make his move!" So Clint, because he feels trapped, and because it is apparently what he is meant to do, asks her if she wants to go the movies sometime.
She says yes, and then the moment he turns and walks away he hears mad squealing, and when he glances back over his shoulder he sees her jumping up and down with three friends. Shaking his head, he heads off- girls are weird.
They go to see a comedy, which isn't very funny, though Jessica laughs at all the jokes anyway. He's not old enough to drive yet, but it doesn't matter, because the town is pretty small and it's summer anyway. He walks her back to her house, and when he says goodnight she kisses him. She smells of shampoo and jasmine and theatre popcorn, and that night he can't stop grinning.
They hang around near the private schools, switch blades at the ready in their pockets, and approach the special snowflakes that walk home with an air of complete nonchalance.
"Nice necklace," comments Tasha, and the girl falters. They are three blocks from the school gate, four more blocks from the luxury apartment block where she's pretty sure this girl lives, and there's no one else around.
"Thanks," says the girl, absently reaching up to touch it. It is a silver swallow, gliding through nothing, with a small, glittering eye. Tasha thinks it might be a diamond.
"Nice shoes," says Sadie, and Tasha's eyes flick down- she hadn't even noticed them, but they are nice. Leather boots, with a low wedge and fur trimmings. The girl is starting to look scared, taking a step back, but she and Sadie simply take a step forward. She pulls out her blade.
"Yeah, I'm gonna have to ask for the necklace," she tells the girl, who has gone white as a sheet.
"And the shoes," adds Sadie.
"And your phone, your music player, that watch- ah ah ah." The hand not holding the blade darts out and grabs the girl's arm in a vice-like grip. "Where do you think you're going?"
They leave with a good $200 worth of stuff. The girl was in tears by the end, but she was unharmed, and that is all Tasha is really bothered about.
"Shotgun the shoes," says Sadie, the bag on her back bouncing with their haul as they walk back to the warehouse.
"Sure, but I want the necklace," replies Tasha, and her roommate agrees. It doesn't really matter who gets what- they share it all anyway. Still, in a world where even their names aren't their own, it is nice to say with certainty 'this is mine.'
They hand in the stuff that isn't the boots or the necklace to Dante, one of the older guys, who gives them ten bucks each for their trouble. It isn't much, but nobody is ever given much- with a place to sleep and food always lying around, there isn't that much more to ask for, especially when you can keep your favourite stuff from every haul.
While Sadie changes into the shoes, Tasha puts the necklace with her other jewellery and tries not to think of the girl, left to walk home barefoot and crying, having just been mugged. It's not like it was a long distance after all- not like with Clint, after Barney stole his shoes. Even now, the thought of Barney makes her blood boil with anger. She wishes she could see the older Barton again, confront him face to face- he'd have a lot more than a sore jaw by the time she has finished with him a second time.
And Sadie's got the shoes on and grins, and Tasha has to admit- they really do look good on her. Tasha pulls on the necklace, and they grab their ten bucks and go to McDonalds, because they're feeling fancy and a meal out is exactly the right thing.
A couple of days after, Chris stalks up to Clint, and boy does he look pissed.
"Here's what you're going to do, you little fostered freak," growls the older boy. "You're going to stay away from her- you're not going to look at her, you're not going to talk to her, and if I hear about any more dates, I'll kick your skinny ass! Are we clear?"
"Clint!" It's Jessica, bounding up to him, smile bright. Her blonde curls bounce as she moves, and her eyes glitter, and when he sees her Clint's heart does a little flutter. He turns back to Chris, who has an eyebrow raised as though to say your move.
"You're going to take that," says the Barton, pretending to make a big deal out of musing it over, "and you're going to shove it up your ass. No one tells me what to do, understood?" Chris scowls, and reaches forward, giving Clint's shoulder a small shove.
"I don't think I do understand, Clint."
"Don't. Touch me," warns the foster boy. Chris reaches out and shoves him again, a little harder this time.
"I might need you to explain, Clint."
"Clint, what's going on?" asks Jessica; she looks confused, and a little nervous, suddenly aware of the tension between the two.
"Stop it," he growls, ignoring her and focusing on the older boy. Chris does it again.
"Make me." And with a flash of anger so hot it sears straight through him, Clint draws back his fist and decks him. Chris is lying on the floor, groaning, blood gushing out his nose, and Jessica is shrieking, and everyone around them has stopped, and is staring at him, and whispering.
Stay away from those Bartons hisses a treachourous voice in the back of his head. They're known to be violent.
"You're crazy!" gasp Chris, scrambling to his feet and backing away. "I'm... I'm reporting you!" So Clint does the only thing he can think of: he smiles, long and lazy and slow.
The day is a week after her fifteenth birthday, the day the fragile calm inside their little sanctuary, the warehouse that Andre recently had the money to buy outright, the base for all their illicit operations, nearly explodes.
She can feel it when she wakes up, and one look at Sadie tells her that she can feel it too. The place is a livewire, and a single wrong move can set it off. The air is crackling with tension, and neither of them know why.
Everyone is creeping, whispering in small clumps, trying to figure out the situation. Everyone is hesitant to talk to loud, and no one dares to approach Andre, who looks ready to kill someone.
Tasha and Sadie find out just after lunch, the news trickling through to them, like osmosis, through the bedrooms. They have been offered a room further back several times, but they're happy with the room they have, small and cramped though it may be. They have, however, vetoed an occupant for the third mattress, but the older kids are surprisingly fine with that. Maybe it's because they're now older kids themselves.
Sadie keeps the books now, tracking cash, finding the men that they sell their goods to. Tasha leads the break ins, the younger kids following behind her, always watching and listening out for orders. Their hands are small, perfect for certain precision work, and Tasha is experienced. It is a good setup.
It is not long after they have heard the news that Andre calls a meeting, everyone there. He is 21 now, still in charge of everything. Tasha grimaces to Sadie when they see the expression on the older boy's face- angry doesn't even begin to cover it. He is completely enraged, but he is forcing it down, forcing himself to stay calm. He eyes the group before raising a sarcastic eyebrow.
"Okay- how many of you don't actually know yet." Only Mitch and Angus, two eleven year olds that arrived last month, raise their hands, and Andre sighs. "Well, then, I'll just tell you this- you won't be seeing her again. Anyone who mentions her to me, or in my presence..." his expression darkens. "That is all."
They quickly hurry from the room, not wanting to spend any more time with him than necessary- not when he's in a mood like this. However, before they can get back to their own room to talk about the events, they are waylaid. It is Mitch and Angus, and they want to know what's going on.
"You know Mattie?" asks Tasha, and the two boys nod. "Well, she's pregnant. Won't tell anybody who the dad is- most people are reckoning she doesn't even know."
"Did Andre kill her?" asks Mitch, and Tasha tells him no, Andre would never do that, no matter how angry he is at her. "Then why won't be seeing her again?"
"He's sent her out state," says a voice behind them, and they all spin guiltily, panicked at having been caught. It is Bean, and he looks grave. "To a flat in a town in the middle of nowhere. You won't have heard of it- nobody has. Nobody goes there either." Mitch and Angus slip away, uncomfortable at being around so many older kids.
"Why is he so mad?" asks Sadie. "People get pregnant all the time, right? I mean, it's not great, but..." Bean rubs the back of his neck and starts to walk through the maze of corridors, Tasha and Sadie following behind.
"He set this whole thing up for her, you know? They were put into a foster home, when he was fourteen and she was thirteen. The family beat him, and he was worried that they would do the same to her. So they grabbed their stuff and ran. He knew they couldn't join a gang, not with his sister- he'd seen enough films to know what they would do to her. So he set up his own, rounding up all the street kids he could find, kids too young or too scared to join gangs. He refused to have anything to do with prostitution because it might have endangered her. He would have killed for her- we all know he did. And then, after all that, she gets herself knocked up by some stranger... I guess he feels like it's all been for nothing." They reach Tasha and Sadie's bedroom, and Bean leaves them with a quick "See ya Sadie, see ya Natalie."
"It's kind of scary, don't you think?" asks Sadie once they're safely inside the room. "How he can just make her disappear like that."
"He's not actually mad... well, not that mad; my guess is he's doing it to keep her and the baby safe. Could you imagine a baby around here?"
"We've got Gracie." At eight, Gracie is the youngest member of the gang; Andre found her in an alley three months before, and despite her age, she is scary good at both disabling alarms and at poker. Both Tasha and Sadie have lost more than their fair share of stuff to the girl, and it makes Tasha a bit sad, because it reminds her of Pepper.
"Gracie knows how to use the toilet," is Tasha's curt reply, and, seeing that the other girl doesn't feel like talking, Sadie falls silent.
He is surprised when he doesn't actually get in that much trouble. The head teacher deems the attack 'provoked,' and says that exceptions must be made giving Clint's history- though Clint is never to anything like that again.
Amongst his peers he gets nothing but congratulations- Chris is a douche, and everyone knows it. The resounding message is 'we're glad someone finally put him in his place.' The only one who is upset is Jessica- they weren't ever really dating, but she makes it very clear that she wants nothing to do with him in the future.
Coulson isn't pleased, and on the drive home announces that Clint needs to take up a sport, "as a positive outlet for your anger." Clint's annoyed retort that he isn't angry is ignored.
They settle on boxing and archery. He isn't thrilled by the latter- who wants to get involved with such a stupid, poncey sport?- but his tune soon changes when it is declared that he has a natural gift. He is soon captain of the school archery team, then winner of the county championships, and he places second in state.
"What were you saying about it being stupid?" hums Coulson when he catches his adoptive son polishing his trophy for the third time that week.
"Shut up," mutters the archer, and the agent smiles.
"Natalie?" says a small voice behind her as she strides towards the kitchens. Tasha pauses, turning to find herself staring down into the dark brown eyes of Gracie, the youngest member of the motley gang that's become her family.
"Angus told me you know ballet; s'it true?" Tasha shrugs, then nods- she has no idea where the younger girl is going with this conversation, but there's no point in lying.
"I used to do lessons, yeah; could probably still remember a lot of it, if I thought about it hard enough." Gracie looks amazed; more than amazed, she looks awestruck, like she's just seen a fairy, and Tasha finds herself fighting back a smile. "I could probably teach you a thing or two, if you want?" She thinks the little girl may faint from happiness.
"Okay- but you have to teach me how to disable electric locks in return. Deal?" Gracie shakes the extended hand.
Clint unfolds the worn scrap of paper, stealing a glance at the calendar hanging on the wall. Yup. Three months. His heart doesn't know whether it should lift or sink at that, so it settles for beating madly. He bites his lip and heads downstairs.
"Coulson?" The man is in the kitchen, chopping onions for tonight's risotto, but he puts the knife down when he sees Clint.
"What is it, Clint? Has something happened?"
"No, no, it's.. well..." they sit down at the island counter in the middle of the kitchen, Clint trying to find the right way to say it. "Do you remember when you first, uh, caught me? And you were driving me to the office, and I asked what another way of saying back-up plan was?"
"And I said, contingency plan; yes, Clint, what about it?" Clint resettles himself, uncomfortable under the full intensity of Coulson's stare.
"Me and... I mean, Natasha and I... we had a contingency plan." And he explains about how it was originally going to be him and Barney in New York, and how Tasha suggested the contingency plan, on her birthday the year that she turns sixteen. Coulson is silent for a long time after he finishes. "Coulson?"
"It's in a month's time, am I right?"
"Yes, sir; a month and two days."
"And you definitely want to go through it?" Clint hesitates ,unsure if he's hearing what he is.
"Yes, sir; we made a deal. I can't just leave her, now, can I?" Coulson sighs and leans forward, planting his elbows on his knees.
"Then I'll organise it. I'll send you up to New York for three days, but I need to ask you, Clint- try to make her see that not all care homes are bad. See if you can't get her to come back with you." Clint bites his lip and nods.
"I'll try, but I can't make any promises."
She finds Andre and explains the situation to him, as much as she needs to to get him to understand. She tells him about Clint, and about their contingency plan. When she finishes the older boy nods.
"That two weeks away? I guess it makes sense you want to get going early; you've got two states to cross, don't you?"
"If it doesn't work... if he isn't there... I'll come back. Keep working as I have been these past few years." He flashes her a quick smile and pulls two fifty dollar bills from his pocket.
"You see that you do; you're a good girl, Natalie. Here, to help you with your trip."
"Thank you," she tells him, and leaves to pack her stuff.
As she packs, she explains to Sadie, who remembers her talking about Clint when she first arrived. Now Tasha is taller than her, and she has grown her pixie cut into a bob, which she dies a dark blue/black. A nose ring and an eyebrow piercing have joined the lip piercing, and she has a tattoo on her neck of a snake holding a key.
Gracie comes in halfway through her packing, and- upon finding out that she is leaving- promptly bursts into tears.
"Why are you going?" the young girl sobs, and Sadie rubs her back soothingly as Tasha continues to pack. "You can't just leave! You were going to teach me how to go on point!"
"Gracie, I can't, I'm sorry; but you listen to me, okay? Gracie!" The younger girl pauses in her bawling to blink at Tasha. "You're going to stay here. You're going to work hard and you're going to stay out of trouble. You're going to get real good with electrics, and then, when you're big, you're going to get a job at an electrics company. Then you can get real ballet lessons- proper ones, not done by some dumb teenager like me. Okay?"
"Okay," sniffles Gracie. "I'll miss you." Tasha stands up, shouldering her pack.
"I'll miss you too; Sadie? Can I get a hug?" Sadie steps in and they embrace, clinging to each other one last time.
"Good luck, Natalie," Sadie whispers. "If he isn't there- come back to us."
"I will," she whispers back. "And Sadie? It's Natasha. Tasha for short." Sadie gives her a watery smile, breaking away to dab at her eyes.
"Okay; Tasha? It's Selene." They embrace one last time, and Tasha heads out.
"Do you have your passport?"
"Your emergency money?" Clint heaves a long suffering sigh.
"We've been over this like eight times; I've got everything. Besides, it's still twenty minutes until the cabbie gets here."
"Well, there's something I've been wanting to say to you before you leave, so that's fortunate."
"Don't worry, Coulson, I have my spare underwear too." At Coulson's grave expression, Clint's smirk dropped. "What is it?"
"Seeing Tasha... well, it might be a shock. It's been six years, Clint. People change a lot in six years- you more so than anyone I've ever seen. But Tasha hasn't been in social services. She hasn't been adopted. Most likely, she's been on the street all this time."
"I get it, she might be on drugs."
"No, Clint, that's not what I'm saying. When you were first brought in, you were hostile, scared, angry at the world. You were severely underweight and you were displaying signs of mild malnutrition. It's very likely that, when you see Tasha, she will be the same."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because it wouldn't be fair to send you in ignorant. I know you want to make sure she's safe, give her the same life you enjoy... but don't be surprised if she doesn't want it." Clint bites his lip and nods, thinking it over. Outside, a horn honks- the cabbie has arrived early. "Clint? Come back to me, okay?" The teenager manages a watery smile and bumps his adoptive father's shoulder.
"Don't worry, old man- I'm not going anywhere."
I live in South England- I know nothing about gang life outside of what I've seen in films. Please don't shoot.
Also, I tried to make these tender goodbye scenes. That clearly didn't work :P Sorry 'bout that.
Reviews are welcome!