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I'll be the stone that you need me to be

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Natasha Romanoff is not a mother.

Natasha Romanoff will never be a mother.

Natasha Romanoff will never be a mother.

She's known this since she was sixteen and the Red Room took that opportunity away from her. They had cleansed her of weakness and turned her into a stone-cold monster. Natasha has killer's instincts and a stone-cold persona, and she's been this way for decades. There is no reversing the surgery or changing her personality.

Any motherly feelings she ever harbored had been beaten out of her long ago.

And, for such a long time, Natasha's fine with that. She's cold, remember? If there's no changing the past, there's no need to worry about it. That wastes brainpower and time that could be spent on something more important.

But then she meets Laura Barton, Clint's lovely wife, and their children. The bulge of Laura's stomach taunts her. When the other woman rests a hand above her unborn child, an emotion that Natasha rarely experiences hits her like a brick.

She's jealous.

They'll name the baby after her, Clint says. Natasha Barton.

She knows that she should be grateful for the consideration. They're under no obligation to mark their child with a killer's name- but the only emotion she feels is rage. She doesn't want to be a kid's namesake, she wants a kid.

She wants the one thing she can't have.

The one thing she can never have.

And that on its own is enough to break Natasha Romanoff, even though nobody else will ever know it.

Peter throws his backpack down onto the counter, rolling his shoulders with a grunt. His muscles ache after a long day of toting his books around- and there are a lot of them, too. Even for a superpowered kid like him, it's a bit much. He can only imagine what normal high schoolers deal with on a daily basis because there are way too many things in his backpack.

If he's got achy muscles, what does Ned have?

Kicking his sneakers off and nudging them under a chair, he grabs a glass from Tony's cabinets and fills it up, chugging the water so quickly that it fills his mouth and throat and he can barely breathe. Peter sputters, slamming the glass down and pounding himself on the chest. Water floods over his lips and splatters on the counter and floor.

"Need a towel?"

His heart jumps, following the water in its path out of his body. He hadn't thought there was anyone in the building- at least, in this wing of the building. And the voice didn't belong to Tony- too female- or Pepper- too raspy.

So who...

Peter whirls around, water dripping down his chin, and nearly faints. He hadn't heard her step into the room and stop in the doorway, and his spidey sense hadn't alerted him to any danger, so how the hell had Natasha freaking Romanoff snuck up on him?

She watches him, expectant, with calculating eyes and a quirked brow. The look on her face is relaxed, but every part of her body is coiled and ready for a fight. She's even angled toward the knives. One finely-manicured hand slips into her pocket and stays there, clenched around something that definitely won't feel good if it's used on him.

"You're- you're the Black Widow!" Peter blurts, coughing out the last bit of water before raising a shaking finger. "You're the-"

"Natasha."

A pause.

"The Natasha?"

Natasha watches him with parted lips, looking him up and down and appraising his entire being like she can't believe what he's just said. An awkward silence falls over the kitchen. Peter can feel his cheeks flushing with pink, because seriously? Did he just say that?

A quiet snicker breaks the silence.

Natasha smirks and takes a deep breath in through the nose, nodding like he's passed some sort of test that only she knows about .

"Are you going to answer my question?" She asks, shifting her weight to lean against the doorway. One booted foot rests against the other side of the frame. "Or are you going to stand there and stare at me for the rest of the night. I"m patient."

What.

"Um-" Peter stutters, trying to tone down the inner fanboy preparing to make its appearance. "I don't know?"

"Towel."

Natasha points a finger at the growing puddle of water on the ground.

"Do you want one. That was the question."

Idiot.

"Yeah," Peter says, cursing inwardly when his voice cracks. "That- that would be great."

Another appraising look, this one more sweeping than the first. She watches him for a moment, allowing another bit of quiet to settle in. Just enough time for every doubtful thought Peter's ever had to run through his head, because what this is the Black Widow this is insane what what what-

He probably looks like an absolute moron- maybe even a bit disturbed. After all, what would he think if he walked into Ned's kitchen and found some four-year-old spitting water out and coughing like an absolute madman?

Probably that something very wrong was going on.

Natasha steps past him to pull a dishtowel off of the otherwise-spotless counter, presses it into his hand, and takes a seat on one of the barstools. Peter can feel her eyes on him as he stoops down to mop up the spillage on the ground before moving to the counter. He tries to avoid her gaze, but there's no escape- she follows him as he hangs the towel on the edge of the sink to dry. It's incredibly awkward.

Why couldn't he just meet his heroes as Spider-Man? Why can't he be cool? Why?

Because the universe hates you, he thinks, and your luck is non-existent.

"H-hi," he says, standing across from her with only the counter as protection. "It's nice- nice to meet you."

Natasha rests her chin on the palm of her hand and watches him expectantly. "But I haven't met you yet."

Peter grimaces. "Sorry. I- I'm Peter. Parker. Peter Parker."

Could you be any more awkward?

"Nice to meet you, Peter Parker."

She's not smiling, but something in her voice tells him that she's clearly joking. She's not teasing him.

"Um. Yes."

That gets a smile, teeth and all. Natasha pulls her hand out of her pocket and tilts her head, gesturing toward the seat beside her. Peter takes it, leaning away as gently as he can without being obvious and offending her.

"Now, Peter Parker." She swivels her barstool around to face him. "May I ask what you're doing in Tony Stark's private kitchen, or is that not my business?"

This is a truth that can't be told fully. Ever since the whole Civil War debacle, Tony hasn't been the same- and that's an understatement. Peter has walked in on panic attacks and guided him through his own breathing exercises. He knows a bit of what happened in Siberia- Tony got there unharmed and left with a damaged arc reactor and destroyed trust in one of his former teammates, as well as a new traumatic memory that had something to do with his dead parents.

Peter knows all about dead parents.

Peter wrote the book on dead parents.

But Natasha isn't firmly on Captain America's side- she's a traitor to Tony, and that's almost worse.

"I'm a friend," he says, expression guarded. "Of Tony's."

"A friend?"

That's not enough.

"I'm supposed to help him out in the lab. Today."

"You look like a kid," she says dryly. "I know Tony, and he's not the kind of person to let a kid into his lab."

"Well," Peter spits, heated enough not to think what he says through, " maybe you don't know Tony as well as you thought."

He freezes. When in the world had he gotten the guts to talk back to someone who could literally kill him? He's dead. Right here, in this kitchen, she's going to kill him. It's going to take a lot of bleach to get his blood off of the tiles.

But Natasha just laughs and nods. " Clearly. Well, Peter Parker, don't let me keep you from your lab day."

Peter doesn't think he's ever run faster.

The first thing he does when he gets to Tony's private floor is burst through the lab doors with loud screech and slide across the floor, already pulling on his web-shooters.

"OH MY GOD, MISTER STARK!" He screams. "HOW COULD YOU NOT TELL ME?!"

Tony almost falls off of the rolling workbench he's sitting on. His eyes are as wide as saucers and his face is white and, for a moment, Peter realizes that scaring the traumatized inventor in one of his only safe spaces probably wasn't the greatest idea.

Ah, well, he's already done it.

"Tell you what?" Tony clutches at his chest (He sounds like he's joking, but it can be difficult to know). "Lordy, Pete."

Peter's voice drops to a reverent whisper.

"Black Widow."

Two words and Tony's machine-run heart drops. He opens his mouth once, twice, gaping like a fish. Black Widow. That means Natasha Romanoff, traitor extraordinaire. A trusted member of his team. The only to turn against him, switching over to stand beside a murderer like she was playing dodgeball.

"Black Widow," he repeats, watching as Peter draws his eyebrows in and sticks his bottom lip out. He's confused.

He thinks you know something you don't.

"Pete, what do you mean?"

The kid pauses, searching his expression for any chance that he could be lying, before speaking. "Black Widow? She's upstairs? In your kitchen?"

No way.

"Peter," Tony says slowly, drawing out every syllable. "Natasha Romanoff shouldn't be in this city, let alone my kitchen."

"You didn't invite her?"

"I took out a restraining order on her. She's a wanted fugitive."

Ah.

"Er... you said she was in the kitchen?" He asks, watching as Peter's face slowly drains of color until he looks like he's going to keel over. "She's really not supposed to be."

"Yeah." Peter blinks. "I didn't think she would've been able to get in on her own."

"Neither did I."

"Romanoff."

God, she really is here.

Natasha turns at the sound of Tony's voice, swiveling around on her stool with a raised eyebrow. Her hair isn't red anymore, he notes- it's been dyed a vaguely  insulting shade of blonde, maybe even white. But everything else, from the curve of her lips to the constantly sarcastic look on her face, is distinctly the same.

He's still having a hard time considering her a traitor.

"Tony," she says, nodding her head in greeting. "It's good to see you again."

A spike of pain shoots through Tony's artificial heart.

"I'm afraid I can't say the same."

Natasha twitches, her flinch almost undetectable. But he's known her long enough to see the little things.

At least, he thought he had.

"Tony-"

"What are you doing in my kitchen?" He asks coldly, one hand edging toward his wrist gauntlet's trigger. "I distinctly remember barring all entrances from public enemies."

Another wince.

"Your intelligence system let me in."

Natasha Romanoff is a good liar, but she's not good enough to get past him. Peter had helped him update FRIDAY's code so that the Rogues could be kept out. The kid had used everything from facial recognition to fingerprint scans and DNA-operated doors, making it completely impossible for anybody but Tony, Peter, Pepper, and the occasional visitor to get into the upper levels.

"I know that's not true."

She shrugs, cracks her knuckles, and jerks her head in the direction of the nearest window. "I climbed down from your helipad."

There it is.

"I appreciate you not breaking my window."

"I assumed that it wouldn't be seen as a gesture of goodwill."

Since when has she been concerned with gestures of goodwill? Natasha doesn't care about that kind of stuff; Tony knows that. Deserting him to help a team of traitors and war criminals when he had counted on her.

Gestures of goodwill don't matter anymore.

"Well it was a nice thought," he snaps, painfully aware of the fact that Peter probably hadn't stayed in the lab like he had been told, "but I think you should leave now. Before I call the police or the government to tell them that there's a convict in my kitchen. You think they've heard that one?"

" I think it would be an interesting assignment for whoever's sent to remove me," Natasha says cooly. In the quiet that follows, the kitchen turns into a veritable pit of tension.

Peter Parker, bless him, shatters it.

"Mister Stark?" He asks in his soft, raspy voice, stepping out of the hallway. The kid stares down at his shoes, shuffling like a nervous second grader on his first day of school. A messy strand of hair falls in front of his eyes.

Tony blows a breath out of his nose and forces a smile. "What's up, Underoos?" He asks, refusing to let Natasha out of his peripheral vision. "Told you to stay upstairs."

"Yeah," Peter replies, and his fidgeting gets worse. "But May texted? And she said she was gonna go ahead and make dinner and we're gonna have spaghetti and she needs me home by six instead of seven . And I didn't know if Mister Happy could give me a ride or I should walk home or-"

"It's all good." Tony cuts him off. "I'll give Happy a call and get him to come to pick you up."

The kid acts like a stuttering wreck, but Tony knows when he's faking and when he's being honest, and that absolute mess that just came out of his mouth? That was fake.

Peter Parker, ever the sweet, innocent child, can be terrifying when he wants to be.

"It's really okay, Mister Stark. You don't have to call Mister Happy. He's probably busy. Maybe you could give me a ride?" He hesitates, bites his lip, and glances at Natasha. "Unless you're busy too. I can walk."

"No, no," Tony says, thankful that Peter's given him an out. "We're wrapping up. She was just leaving, right?" He gives Natasha a pointed look, and for some reason, she nods.

"I can see where I'm not wanted." Natasha slides off of her chair and pulls a keychain out of her pocket. "Thank you for your time, Tony. I hope we can talk again sometime."

"Forgive me for not returning the sentiment."

She shrugs like she can't bother to argue or disagree, and leaves with a wave and a wink in Peter's direction. The kid waves happily, keeping his facade up until she disappears from sight.

The change is instantaneous. His shoulders slump, giving way to a clearly tired expression. The light smile on his face flattens into a thin, angry line, and Tony can't tell if he notices, but his hands curl into tight balls.

On the car ride back to Peter's house, Tony says only one sentence, and Peter says only one in return.

I want you to stay away from Natasha Romanoff, understood?

Yes, sir.

But it doesn't work out that way, and whatever Tony says, it wasn't Peter's fault. Accidents happen all the time on patrols- literally all the time because, in May's words, Peter has no sense of self-preservation and would step in front of a nuke if it meant saving three people.

Of course, he would. Is there even a question about that? Has there ever been a question about that?

Nah.

Anyways, it's a regular patrol. Peter's swinging around on a new web- he'd spent a few hours in the lab with Tony, doing research on prototypes to try and figure out how to make them dissolve so that they didn't get stuck to the buildings and stay there for the next poor window washer to clean off- looking for crime, as usual.

It's been a quiet night. A beautifully quiet night. Queens is peaceful when nobody's trying to shoot up their neighbor or rob the nearest pawn shop, and for a few hours, Peter gets to enjoy a safe place for the people he loves to live.

Queens has been his home since he moved in with Ben and May at age four after the plane crash that killed his parents. He can remember moving into the apartment, meeting the neighbors, discovering his favorite places, all that good stuff. 

Home, home, home.

Peter Parker is a Queens boy, and he always will be.

But there are rougher aspects to home- the gunshots that ring out in alleys like clockwork, the armed robberies, the small crimes and things that the Avengers can't stoop to take care of because they're too busy defending the world to defend the people in it. That's where Peter comes into the picture, saving those who need to be saved.

Ther

After all, there's no reason to protect the world if there are no people in it. So, really, Peter has a very important role in the superhero hierarchy.

It doesn't matter if nobody else notices it.

Just as he had predicted, the gunshots ring out less than ten minutes later, loud and pointed from a small backstreet a few miles to Peter's right. He pulls a hairpin turn in midair, so here-and-there that he almost gives himself whiplash. There's a loud beating in his ears, and he's eighty-percent sure it's his heartbeat. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub.

Steady.

So, so steady.

Nothing like the racing of his thoughts.

There are gunshots in Queens every night, but they always bring him back to the outside of a gas station at fourteen with a bag of groceries and a dead uncle at his feet.

Peter races through the skies, jumping off of fire escapes and kicking off of buildings to build momentum, the beating in his ears slowly growing faster. The gunshots were quick- one, two, three, pop, pop, pop- but three gunshots mean three possible deaths, and there's no time to spare.

Because when people wait, people die.

His heart doesn't stop racing when his feet finally touch down, slamming into cracked concrete streets and nearly jarring his knees. It actually seems to speed up, because the dark mouth of the backstreet yawns in front of him, threatening to suck him in. There's no sound, nothing at all to hint that something could be wrong.

Peter knows better.

He goes in with guns-a-blazing, moving at a brisk jog (can't be too sudden, can't scare them), his fingers over the triggers of his web-shooters. He's ready to take them down within the blink of an eye.

Gunshots hurt like hell.

There's nobody at the front, so he keeps moving, picking up speed as the sound of ruffling fabric. A mugging, then.

He knows those well.

When the first figure comes into view, Peter ducks behind the closest dumpster, peeking out from a stack of battered cardboard boxes. He curses under his breath.

It doesn't look good.

There are three people in the street. Two are moving, one is frozen against the wall of a nearby building, hands up in a clear surrender. One of the others is rifling through his pockets. The third has a gun up against the clear victim's head.

None of them look hurt, so the three shots must have been warnings.

Peter watches as the pocket-rifler finishes his rifle-ing after he withdraws a wallet from the frozen person's pocket, flips through its contents, and gives it and his partner a satisfied nod. For a second, the possibility of a fight-free night comes to mind; maybe the victim doesn't need their wallet back. It's late. He's tired.

They could all get out of this unharmed.

But then the guy with the gun tells his partner to leave in a deep, angry voice, gesturing with his Glock, and turns back to the wall. The gun goes up, pointing straight between a pair of teary eyes, and even in the darkness, Peter knows what's about to happen.

Someone is going to die.

And it's not going to be the innocent bystander.

Peter's body seems to move on its own, jerking out from behind the trash can and toward the man with the gun. He moves faster than he can think and practically bodyslams him the minute he gets close enough, throwing his full weight forward so that he knocks him off balance and they both go tumbling to the hard floor.

It's probably a bit rougher for the mugger, considering the fact that Peter lands directly on top of him, but he's not dead so the 'don't kill criminals' mindset hasn't been broken quite yet.

Blood and grit fills Peter's mouth. He almost closes his eyes, clenching his teeth in an attempt to bite back the pained moan that comes with new bruises. A fist gropes for the top of the mask (wow, right to the point, man). Peter rips it away from his face and can't stop his hand from slamming into the man's nose. A loud crack resonates through the alley.

And then there's a sharp pain in his stomach and he's choking because it hurts and he doesn't know why what's happening what's happening why am I in pain-

As he falls away from the now-broken-nosed mugger, the blurry figure of the second man (dammit) comes into view, standing over him with the fallen gun in his hands. Smoke curls from the muzzle- the bullet is in his stomach, his stomach, and he can feel it- as it drifts up to point at the spot between his eyebrows.

He's going to die.

He's going to die the same way Ben died, fallen in the street, bleeding from his stomach just like Peter is, leaving May alone.

May is going to be alone.

Peter closes his eyes, squeezing them tight so that he won't see the bullet when his killer squeezes the trigger, and-

A muffled grunt, followed by a heavy impact and silence, is all he hears.

The silence is the scary part.

Silence is always the scary part.

Peter's almost too afraid to open his eyes, but when the silence persists, curiosity wins out. He pries them open with the apprehensive air of a small child, gritting his teeth as a spurt of blood soaks his suit.

Natasha, in all her blonde glory, grins happily from her seat atop the unconscious mugger's chest. Her black jacket is spotless, as is the rest of her- she doesn't look like she's been hurt at all, and Peter isn't really surprised.

After all, she's the Black Widow.

And she came to his rescue.

"Nat?" Peter asks, shocked. He raises his hand weakly and tries to wave, but the small movement is too much and it falls back to the ground. "Nat, wha... wha're you doin' here?"

"Wow."

Even with fuzzy eyesight, he can see how she raises her eyebrow. Her expression betrays no concern, but the light in her eyes is worried.

Awww, she's worried about him. That's sweet.

"Saving your ass, Parker," she says, brushing a stray hair out of her eyes. "You're a mess."

"I know tha'." Peter whines as the bullet in his stomach shifts and the warm stain on his front grows. Natasha winces, stands, and kicks the unconscious body at her feet away. Somewhere in the confused fog of Peter's mind, it registers that the victim's disappeared.

Good. He's okay.

So maybe he can sleep? He should probably check with Natasha first, though. After all, it's thanks to her that he's alive.

"Sleep?" He asks, peering drowsily up toward her. Has she gotten blurrier?

Yeah, he can't see her eyebrows clearly anymore. She's blurrier.

Isn't that bad?

"No, Peter," Natasha says. "You can't sleep yet."

"...why?"

He should be allowed to sleep. Getting shot is pretty exhausting- his energy levels are dropping rapidly- and it's not even his fault this time! Is he being punished? Is that why she won't let him sleep?

That's got to be it.

"S'rry," he slurs, groggy and absolutely done with everything. "S'rry, Na'. S'rry."

Natasha frowns down at him before crouching down and reaching toward his face with a single gloved hand. Peter squeezes his eyes shut, gritting his teeth, and feels fingers brush over his forehead before moving down to his stomach and gently pulling his own away. He moans when a curved nail prods the bullet wound, feebly tries to push her away, and promptly falls back to the slick concrete. His head bounces once, twice, brain-jarringly hard, before Natasha reaches out and cushions the top of his hairline.

"No reason to be sorry, kiddo," she murmurs. "You did well, okay? You did really well."

"So- so sleep?" He asks again, already feeling his eyelids slip down, heavier and heavier by the second. "Gotta- gotta sleep, Na'."

"Not yet, Peter. You have to hold on for Stark." A glint of white shines in the darkness as she turns to stare at the mouth of the alley, seemingly waiting for someone, before turning back.

Stark?

"Mean Tony?"

"Yeah, I mean Tony. He'll be here soon, and then you can sleep, okay? Just hold on until then."

But the darkness is growing stronger and stronger, and Peter is growing weaker and weaker, and his eyelids are just so heavy.

He can't do what she says.

"S'rry, Na'," he says, yawning as his eyes close and the pain ebbs away. The last thing he hears before everything goes dark and silent is the sound of repulsors firing up, and then there's nothing.

It's kind of nice.

There's no excuse to hurt someone without a legitimate reason; Tony knows that. And maybe he should've thought a bit more before blasting Natasha away from the inert form of his kid- noticing the unconscious body of a gunner at her feet, for example, would've been a great start.

But it was his kid. Better safe than sorry, especially when it came to annoyingly trusting spider children like Peter Parker.

Natasha grunts when the blast hits her in the right shoulder, rolling away from the spot where Peter lies before coming to a stop against the graffitied wall of the convenience store on one side of the alley. She's quick to recover, standing and almost bouncing back over to Peter and kneeling at her original spot, almost entirely unfazed.

Tony knows that she wouldn't have let him hit her if she hadn't wanted it. He knows that she knew he was about to shoot.

So why didn't she move?

"Stark," Natasha greets, looking up as Tony's suit withdraws from his body and he steps out, already pulling his wrist gauntlet over his hand. 

"You shoot my kid?" The gauntlet fires up and finds Natasha's head, ready to fire again. She doesn't blink.

"No, I didn't shoot your kid," she says. Her head jerks at the other figure, this one a middle-aged man with a gun beside his right hand. "Credit for that goes to him."

"Peter took him out?"

"I did. Before he got shot again, but in the head instead of the stomach. That would've been a lot more sudden."

A sudden cold feeling washes over Tony's chest. Would've been a lot more sudden. So Peter's dead? He didn't get there in time, and he died with a war criminal and murderer beside him instead of a friend. Sixteen years old and dead.

God, how is he going to tell May?

"I know what you're thinking, Tony," Natasha says softly, twisting a strand of hair between bloody fingers. "He's not dead. Just unconscious. He said he wanted to sleep."

She looks just as unsure as Tony feels, and at that moment, as the cold is replaced by undeniable relief, the urge to hug her is stronger than it's ever been.

He's okay.

You weren't too late.

"I'll take him from here," he says, bending down and gathering up Peter's limp form in his arms. His back groans in protest at the kid's weight (he's made of muscle mass, and a lot of it). 

Natasha steps back and nods, but she looks... disappointed? Is that an emotion she feels? What in the world would she have to be disappointed about?

As an afterthought, Tony adds, "Thank you." 

She shoots him a questioning smile.

"For saving him and being with him until I got here." For keeping my kid alive. "Just... thanks, Nat."

Natasha's small smile turns into a full-fledged grin, white teeth and shiny eyes and happiness, and the relief turns to... something else. An emotion without a name.

"Meet us back at the Tower. Once the kid's stable, we'll have coffee and talk."

And Tony blasts away into the night, Peter in his arms, Natasha watching them with the stars in her eyes.