Clint makes note of her as soon as she’d finished stating her name in front of the class. The way she shifts her bag strap impatiently on her shoulder, twisting uncomfortably as the teacher speaks to her, the way she’s suppressing a roll of her eyes–
Rushman, right? Natalie Rushman, he’d have to remember that.
“Hey – name’s Barton. Clint Barton.” He offers her a hand as she comes to sit beside him, trying to be friendly even if he is wary of the way she looks around at everyone else. He doesn’t have too many friends himself, sure, but he’s sure she would at least appreciate some semblance of company.
She looks at him for a moment before she takes his hand in a smooth, firm shake, just a hint of a smile playing on her lips. “Pleasure, Barton-Clint-Barton,” she repeats after him, and she slides into the seat beside him. “I’d offer mine, but...”
“Think I got it, Natalie,” he laughs and nods, a bit thrown by how comfortable she seems, for all the aura she insists on putting out. They say that they’d transferred her in – that her scores had been just high enough to allow her to join them in their senior year, never mind a couple of months.
“When’d you arrive?” He asks her halfway through the class, his chin propped up on his hand, turning to her again. Clint isn’t sure she’s even used to friendly, what with the way she stands, her posture tight and straight-backed. “I mean, did you oversleep or something?”
She raises an eyebrow at him, and she shrugs, looking down at her hands for a moment. The rhythm of her pen stops as she considered her answer, too, which Clint finds he likes a bit more than he should. “Smashed the car straight into a pole at that bloody junction,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Had to take some extra time to drop it off before I came in.”
“Ouch.” Clint winces a bit at that, and he looks back ahead to the board, pretending that it doesn’t bother him in the least. Red hair, twisted back into a messy bun, haphazardly pinned against her head; A scarf around her neck despite their recent weather, and the impossibly constant rhythm of her pen tapped against the desk. “Shame. You missed math.”
“Shame?” She snorts incredulously, and Clint laughs as he shakes his head.
“Suppose not,” he says. Natalie rolls her eyes.
Another pause, and Clint tries to genuinely focus – not because she’s particularly distracting, no, but he’s missed his coffee, barely awake as it is. Natalie isn’t the first transfer they’d had, and he knows very well she won’t be the last; Not when people were moving in and out of the area all the time, and it isn’t like he’d have many classes with her. Not enough to worry about.
“Barton?” She finally speaks up, and her voice cuts his thoughts clearly. She doesn’t turn her gaze to him, but she continues to drum her pen, the tap tap tap– “Take a picture,” she says, pausing the beat, swinging her eyes over with some amusement. “It lasts longer.”
“Has anyone seen Clint?” Tony asks as he drops down at the table beside Pepper, sighing heavily. “Poor guy ditched Gym, didn’t think he had it in him.”
“Might be sick,” Steve suggests from the corner. “Y’know, some people do that–”
“Rogers, you don’t understand,” Tony interrupts, and Steve bristles even as he falls silent. Tony stands up, leaning over to Steve, dramatically troubled. “This is Clint Barton, hereby otherwise known as Robin Hood–”
“And fuck you, too, Stark,” Clint supplies tiredly from behind him, holding his tray and his bow slung on the back of his bag.
“–passing up on the opportunity to outshine every bastard in class,” Tony finishes with relish, before turning to Clint. “What happened?”
“Wasn’t ditching. Got called out,” Clint smirks, sitting down in the last empty spot beside Bruce. “Someone got their panties in a bunch over the bow.”
“Could take someone’s eye out,” Bruce shrugs, and Clint rolls his eyes.
“Not with my aim. Thor not around?”
“Loki’s picked a fight, Big Brother’s stepped in,” Tony supplies dryly, and Pepper lets out a tired sigh.
“Boys,” she grumbles.
“Excuse you, Pep,” Tony nudges her. “Council treating you well?”
“Under the impression that I’m the only one they don’t behave with.” This is usually the part Clint stops listening, favouring the silent company Bruce offers as he begins to munch on his apple. ‘Course, lunch usually ends noisy, Tony and Steve getting into some spat or Thor insisting they visit him to keep Loki company. A round of strange hugs and some weirder handshakes later, they would split up for classes again, only to reconvene the next day.
Tony calls them family, and Clint thinks they just fit. Always have.
There’s Stark, the billionaire’s son – and the billionaire himself, more recently, since his father’d died. Bruce, the favoured lab-partner, the two of them losing the rest of the group as they launch into conversation about stars. And blueberries, on the odd day, but no one questions them.
Steve, the... Clint wouldn’t call him old-fashioned, not with the way he looks at things, but he seems to think Steve still needs some damn good alcohol to take that edge off most of the time. Weirdly enough, there’s Thor and Loki, the sons of hippies that Clint doesn’t quite ever want to meet.
Halfway through lunch, some girl from the English class he shares with Steve attempts to talk to the man again, sticking her head in at their table. There’s a bit of a collective smile at how bloody nervous he is, Clint smiles as he gives Bruce a shrug. Steve’s already flushed, and Clint thinks he’s going to be sick if he has to watch. “Think I’m taking my leave,” he murmurs, and he gets up quietly.
And it’s something he likes about Bruce – he doesn’t ask, and he nods. “Nest?”
“Yeah. And only if you need me,” Clint says carefully, but he nods – Bruce isn’t going to tell them where he’s gone, he knows, not unless something truly remarkable happens where Tony trades him the secret to the arc reactor. “See you.”
He slings the bow on his back when he reaches the staircase, shoving his hands in his pockets as he begins to climb up. It isn’t like anyone’s there to see, no, but he likes being up in the air more than he would admit, looking down at everyone from a place no one would be able to touch him.
When he’s approaching the roof, he notices that it’s oddly cold, and he pokes his head around to see that the door has been left ajar. Frowning, he hurries his step just a bit. Who the hell’d been up, if not him – and left the door open?
Pushing it the rest of the way, Clint steps out, shifting the string of his bow on his shoulder, adjusting his bag. Sure, could be a freshman messing with his head, dragging his girlfriend up, but he couldn’t be too careful – he knows that he’s made a fair few enemies over the year he’d been there, and he wasn’t taking chances.
The slight amusement in the voice behind him has him whipping around, looking above from where the voice had come from. She isn’t just on the roof, she’s perched atop the exit, her legs neatly folded as she looks down at him. Some time over the day, her bun seems to have fallen out, and she props her chin up as she leans forward.
Five floors up, and she’s chosen to sit on top of the stairwell. It must be nice, Clint notes, slightly higher than the rest of the concrete around them, the roof lying bare. It isn’t like anyone sees it, most days, and Clint usually sits alone for the better part of lunch, sometimes collecting his thoughts, sometimes aiming his arrows to the wall, or out to the trees.
Clint finds his words again, and he relaxes as he registers it’s just her. “Rushman, hi,” he greets her, looking up with some difficulty as the sun gets in his eyes. “How’d you get up here?”
“I walked, like you,” she replies simply, and she seems to consider a moment before she uncrosses her legs, hanging them over the edge. Clint lets a surprised smile spread on his lips as he watches her move, and he shakes his head as she throws her weight down to the ground in a graceful roll forward. “People are going to start thinking you’re following me, you know.”
“Hardly,” he rolls his eyes, and he watches her get to her feet again. Her movements are almost feline, swift and graceful. “How’d you find this place?”
She stares for a moment, and her reply is slow, almost confused. “You mean the roof? How hard is it to find the top of a building?”
“No, I didn’t – I mean, no one really visits,” he groans, and she raises an eyebrow mid-stretch, having been popping her joints out as she straightens up. “I mean, I’m usually on my own.”
“Yeah. No one comes up, no one that I know of,” he returns, and she smirks.
“What, you own the roof, now, do you?” She asks slowly, as if she’s assessing him.
“...Can’t say I wouldn’t like to, some days,” he responds after missing a beat, and he takes his bag off to set on the ground as he turns out to the view of the rest below. “Not mine, no. Friends call this the ‘nest’, though, and no one else’s protested much.”
“Nest?” She repeats.
“Nest,” he confirms, and he shrugs.
Natalie laughs, and she nods. “Yeah, I’ve heard about the name. ‘Hawkeye’, something like that? World’s Greatest Marksman?”
It’s his turn to raise an eyebrow at her, and she raises her hands in surrender. “Stark,”she says, like it explains everything – and the funny thing is, it does. “Wouldn’t shut up in my ear during Gym, said you’d ditched.”
“Principal’s office,” he retorts. She’s interesting – a love for high places, it seems, and a sharp tongue. “Barney called me that,” he says after a while, not sure if that’s a story that he should be telling her. “Got damn good aim with a bow, and Barney christened me Hawkeye.”
He rubs the back of his neck, and he looks around with some hesitation in his voice. “Yeah. Barney, he’s, uh– Dead, y’know. Accident.”
Her mouth falls into a small ‘o’, but she doesn’t even blink – like the idea of a dead brother doesn’t bother her in the least. It hangs in the air for just a moment, and then Natalie speaks again as she moves to the edge. “So,” she breaks the silence, looking at him, and then a smirk spreads on her lips.
He seems a tad afraid. “What?”
“Nothing,” she replies absently, and then she’s moving to get up, picking her bag up where he hadn’t seen it before.
Clint stops her, and he frowns. ‘What was it?”
“No, it’s really–” She pauses a moment, cocks her head to the side, and thinks it over. “You’re just really weird, Barton.”
“What do you mean ‘weird’?” He asks her, affronted.
She pokes her tongue out. “I would consider that an accomplishment.”
Natalie pulls her hair back up into her bun, pinning it back against her head, and she nods to him as she makes for the stairs. Her lips are still twisted into a smile, and Clint doesn’t really know what to say besides “thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” she responds graciously, winking. “Later.” She mock-salutes him, disappearing, and then Clint waits a moment as he blinks at the space she’d been in less than seven seconds ago.
Natalie Rushman. He turns out to the school, leaning out on the ledge they’d been sitting on, and he shakes his head. Wild, barking mad, and painfully interesting.
He decides he likes it.
Natalie comes in for Biology with a coffee the next morning, and Clint doesn’t need more than a single whiff to wrinkle his nose. “God, that smells bitter already,” he complains, and he sits down beside her with a raised eyebrow. “Please tell me you’ve got sugar.”
She almost laughs, and she shakes her head. “Nope. Black – always taken it black,” she says, and she toasts him with her cup as she knocks another couple of mouthfuls. Clint just shakes his head, dropping his bag to the ground beside his desk, waiting for the class to start.
It’s the first time since term started that he’s forgone his bow and the arrows that usually sit at the bottom of his bag, leaving him feeling a tad exposed. He laces his fingers together and rests his chin on his thumbs, rolling his shoulders out, fidgeting still, trying to get comfortable.
“Something in your pants?” Natalie raises an eyebrow as he crosses his legs for the thirteenth time in two minutes, and she shuffles the stack of paper in her hands as she looks at him. “Ants? Bees, even?”
He smiles a bit at the potential innuendo, and–
“If you make a dick joke, Barton, I’ll make it painful,” Natalie deadpans, and he has to laugh at that, a suppressed chuckle as their teacher walks back in. Tony, sitting a couple of rows in front, turns around at the sound, and he waves off the mild concern with a grin.
“How’d you know?” He asks her, joking a bit as he rubs his face. “Nah, I’m fine. Just tired, maybe? Didn’t get a lot of sleep.”
“Why not?” She asks, and it’s a bit more invasive than the day before – but she’s at least opening slightly, having found some traction in the school already. Effortlessly, it seems.
“Guys next door, football match,” he says, and they both wince in understanding. The image of the insufferable cheering at four in the morning, all drunk on beer, seems to permeate all minds.
So she accepts it, mostly, but she takes a moment with her post-it before she picks her cup of coffee up, holding it out in his general direction. “Drink up, Barton,” she says quietly, and there’s a playful lilt in her voice that bleeds confidence. “It’ll help.”
“What’ve you got in there, Red Bull?” He tries to joke, and Natalie gives him that look. The one that calls him an idiot and show him an odd sense of forgiveness in the same breath. She reminds him of Barney, he notes absently.
“Just coffee. Russian,” she says, smirking a bit, and he takes it with a raised eyebrow. Swirling it around, too, smelling it again.
“Yes,” she responds before the question is even through his lips, and she laughs a bit. “Vodka, right? There’s a fair bit, papa likes it.”
“Mm, doesn’t sound responsible,” he says, and Natalie rolls her eyes.
“And neither do you,” she retorts. “But here we are, and you’re about to drink it anyway. Funny how that works out, isn’t it?”
He takes a swig – a daring swig, just to rise to her challenge, and his tongue burns on the liquid as fast as the bitter taste hits him. He wrinkles his nose and promptly hands the tumbler back, letting her laugh even as the teacher gives her an odd look.
“Fuck you and your awful coffee, Rushman,” he says, and she genuinely grins for the first time as she looks at him again.
“I’m going to take that as a threat,” she says offhandedly, and Clint rolls his eyes. Natalie turns back as she takes a sip of her own poison, setting it down to take notes like it’s the most normal thing in the world. He wipes across his mouth, and then he bends to get his water.
She’s right, though. It helps.
It’s probably not healthy, but he’s had one and a half more cups of coffee and taken a couple of naps in class before he even gets to lunch that day, this time seated behind the ever-exuberant Tony Stark.
“Who invited the walking dead?” He asks absently, nudging him incessantly, finally knocking Clint’s hand out under his chin. “Sit up and look alive for once.”
He glares, Steve rolls his eyes, and Pepper gives him a look. The look. Tony has the good sense to cower, and Clint feels a bit too proud of himself.
“Something wrong?” Bruce prompts, and Clint sighs a bit – the man’s a genius with emotional manipulation, he’s concluded, what with the way Banner can make anybody talk. Even Tony, reducing him to tears on one occasion, the one no one dares to speak about lest they find themselves hung off Stark Tower begging for their life.
“S’nothing big,” he says honestly, true enough to absolve him of the guilt of lying to him.
“But it’s going to consume the hero’s soul, God forbid,” Loki adds from his corner, and Thor nudges him to shut up. Clint chuckles, then, and Loki continues to smile despite the chiding.
“Could get out, tonight,” Tony suggests. “Or, over at mine–”
“Not having repeats of last week,” Steve says tightly, and he looks at Bruce.
“Don’t need Miss Potts on a table, no,” he says, and Pepper blushes dark as she buries her face in her hands.
“Do not,” she says warningly, and Tony laughs as he kisses her cheek.
Bruce just raises his hand and offers a chuckle, shrugging. “I’m sorry, that was mean,” he admits, and he looks to Pepper. “I’m sorry.”
“No harm done,” she finally says, and her face is a brilliant shade of red as she rests her hands on the table. Clint waits a while and stays in their company, then he’s getting up, his lunch abandoned as he slings his bag on his shoulder. “See you later, Stark,” he says in dismissal, squeezing Tony’s shoulder as he walks off.
Natalie’s already in sight, this time, and her legs are hanging off the edge again as she overlooks the school garden. It’s odd, somehow, how she seems to spend even less time in the cafeteria than he does, preferring this... comfort of height and silence.
“Rushman,” he calls out, just so she knows that he’s there, and she turns like she’s been snapped out of a daze.
“Oh. It’s you,” she says, and she leans back a little as she looks back. “Coming to follow me again?”
“Not sure it’s not the other way round?” He shoots back at her, and she smirks.
“Absolutely. Not denying it, are you?” She points out, raising an eyebrow.
Clint pauses for a moment before he grins, shaking his head. “Guilty as charged,” he says, and he comes over to sit beside her. “Don’t let the others hear you. Professional stalkers aren’t meant to let their targets know.”
“My lips are sealed,” Natalie replies swiftly, and she crosses her legs. “Those guys–” She points them out, Tony laughing as Steve cuffs him. “You don’t seem to like them much.”
“You don’t seem to like anyone much,” he says offhandedly, and Natalie smiles a bit ruefully as she pulls her legs up into a comfortable sitting position.
“No one makes the effort,” she says, just as callously, and then she looks at him. “Not everyone makes it a point to pick on the new kid.”
“I don’t pick on–”
“I never said you did,” she says, and she looks back out. “Just saying that they don’t. Not that I’m complaining.”
“Don’t imagine you would – Hey, d’you even get lunch?” Clint asks her, the curiosity popping up again as he pulls the apple out of his bag, taking a bite out of it. “Seems like you’re always up here, every chance you get.”
“Like you. And I do, it’s a decently packed one,” she says easily enough, shrugging as she tugs at the ends of her scarf – it’s blue today, and it clashes with her hair, but it seems to keep her warm. “Can’t be in a crowd too long.”
“Introvert, I’m guessing,” he quips.
“How could you tell?” She presses a hand to her chest, mouth open, scandalised. Clint has to laugh at that, and she quirks an eyebrow as she regains her calm again. “Guessing from how extremely far you remove yourself, so are you.”
“No one’s contesting that,” he says, and he leans back on the ledge, the apple in his mouth. “Always liked high places.”
“Right. Had many nests, then?” She says, leaning forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “Eggs, mates, and all that–”
“Can it, Rushman.” To his surprise, she does, but she doesn’t look put out in the least. She still smirks at him, shrugging, and Clint rolls his eyes. “Just this one.” He isn’t going to offer any explanation beyond that, not yet.
“But you have friends,” she says simply, like she hadn’t been teasing him about his moniker moments before. “Them.”
He knows without asking that she’s referring to their little ‘family’, and he nods. “They’re worth dealing with human beings. Promise,” he smiles at her.
“I’ll take your word for it, thanks,” she says lightly, and she looks down again. “Don’t like them. Prefer to stay hidden.”
The bell is obvious from up there, calling him before he can get a reply out. She sighs as she watches people begin to move in toward their next class, the reluctance succinctly expressed in a breath. “Great. Math, now, right? The great class I missed?” She asks him dryly, waiting for him as she stands and dusts herself off.
“Yeah. All hail Mr. Patrick,” he grumbles, too, getting to his feet.
“May as well be off,” she sighs, and she makes for the staircase with a bit of hesitation.
“May as well,” he agrees, and he casts a look back out at Bruce chatting with Pepper, smiling a bit. “Wait up!”
Question: Have you actually met the Avengers?
He slides the note over to her as they clock another forty minutes, Natalie’s coffee long finished and Clint’s attention long wasted. He figures they can’t really carry conversation across an aisle, though, and he likes this better.
At least they’re seated at the back, no need to start any premature rumours with the population of the school. Natalie Rushman and Clint Barton, scrawled across toilet mirrors in lipstick – if the hearsay was to be believed. Fantastic.
Natalie raises an eyebrow at him, and she deliberates her reply.
Avengers? Think Stark’s mentioned them, though he makes them sound like his lackeys. Should I know them?
It’s ridiculously neat, of course, and it sits in the lines of the page that he’s offered her from his notebook. Clint raises an eyebrow at the description, though, and he frowns as he scribbles back a response.
Do I look like Stark’s lackey?
A pause, and then:
Hm. Sometimes, yes.
He rolls his eyes, and he takes his time with the next one, trying to be objective. The Avengers – it’s just a name, something they’d come up with in seventh grade, and the school had subsequently started referring to them by that name. Mostly due to Stark, he suspected, after his campaign for Student Body President as Iron Man.
Sure, it’s a childish story, but Clint’s compelled to tell her more about him; Nevermind that he hasn’t the slightest idea about her.
I’m hurt, Rushman. Right in the poor heart.
Stark doesn’t own the place, not by a long shot. S’got four other guys, including myself, and there’s Pepper. His girlfriend. Avengers, ta-da.
Natalie snorts when she reads it, and Clint isn’t sure he wants to know why – not when she’s shaking her head in exasperation, writing out what seems like a chiding response.
Pepper Potts? The best thing you have about our Student Body President is “his girlfriend”?
He rolls his eyes and laughs as he gets this one, enough for Steve to frown as he leans over to read the note. For good measure, he cuffs Clint on the back of his head, and Natalie lets a proper smile spread on her face as she props her chin up, hiding it.
Clint takes a moment to regain his composure as he flips Steve off, and he writes a longer reply.
Pepper’s great. Stark’s much less of an arse around her, must say. Worthy of a president, alright?
Guy next to me is Steve, he’s a real charmer. Don’t be too alarmed if he calls you dame, it’s completely normal, ignore him and move on.
Natalie, on the other hand, seems to remain unimpressed.
Steve waits patiently with a smile on his face as he looks at Clint, and he glares for good measure at the taller blond. Steve shrugs, and he takes the paper from him, writing a couple of words and handing it back to her.
“What’d you write?” Clint asks, watching her take it with a bit of a crease in her brow.
“Nothing you wouldn’t have said,” Steve says evasively – almost a private joke, what with the way Clint’s known to say anything and everything most days. “And nothing untoward – look.”
He turns, and Natalie has a slip of paper patiently held out as the period approaches its last minute.
“Rogers, you owe me an explanation–”
He can feel the odd sense that Natalie’s watching them out of the corner of her eye, and her lips are quirked in amusement. Steve just smiles, warm and knowing, and Clint shoves at him, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m serious!” He insists.
“Pretty sure you are,” he says callously, writing Natalie a reply, not even looking up.
He tosses it over and she snatches it out of the air without even moving her gaze. The kid on her left seems to stare a bit harder, but Natalie doesn’t seem to care, favouring the note instead for a moment.
“Steve, I swear,” he growls a bit, a last-ditch attempt to intimidate him into an answer.
Natalie’s ball of paper hits him in the side of the head before he can, though, and he bends to pick it up while Steve’s still smiling like a bit of a maniac.
I’ll be there.
“And then another one,” Clint grumbles, and he tosses the note back on the desk with a sigh. “You planning to stand her up?”
“Nah, this is better,” Steve is saying just as the bell goes off, and Natalie gets her things together within the minute – she’s out the door within seconds after, and Clint blinks a bit.
“What is?” He turns back to Steve, getting impatient.
“Lunch,” he says, shrugging. “Figure you’d want to invite her.”
“What are you on about?” He raises an eyebrow.
“Lunch, y’know, that free period that everyone’s eating? Lunch with us?” Steve returns, mockingly patient, and he rolls his eyes. “Seriously, if I hadn’t, you would.”
Clint takes a moment, but then he finally understands, looking at Steve as his jaw slackens a bit, turning to where she’d been sitting. “What, got a crush?” He teases, and Steve smacks his arm.
“No, thanks. Don’t fancy having Peggy on her tail,” he grins back. “You?”
He has to consider that, considering how much time he’s already spent with her in conversation, making a decent effort even though she’s hardly stepped within his social circle. Sure, she’s good-looking, and there’s a decent sense of humour up her sleeve, but–
“Nah,” he says after a pause. “Bit of a weird one.”
“Like that’s ever stopped you,” Steve rolls his eyes, mumbling under his breath.
Clint shoves him again.
“You don’t have to come, y’know,” he says to her, but they’re already walking to the cafeteria – Natalie has her bag slung across her shoulders, her hands shoved deep in her jacket pockets, looking more than vaguely uncomfortable.
“I keep my word,” she says, and she shifts her hood as she pulls her hair over her shoulder, looking over at him. “Did say I’d be there, wouldn’t want to break Rogers’ heart.”
Clint snorts and rolls his eyes. “Don’t think Captain America would care, he’s got his eyes on someone.”
“Captain America?” She repeats after him, raising an eyebrow.
“You should see him, fourth of July,” Clint shrugs, and he points Steve out. The other Avengers are all present, plus Pepper, and they all groan as Tony throws out another of his wisecracks. “He’s got flags and eagles, and... Just avoid talking country around him.”
“Roger that,” she says, and she catches herself in a bit of a childish moment, laughing at the pun she’s managed to land. “And he’s got his eyes on someone?”
“Yeah, another transfer, ‘cept she’s from England,” he says with a chuckle, running a hand through his hair. “Don’t think you’ll have her in your classes, she’s a sophomore. Peggy Carter.”
She nods, lips quirking thoughtfully. “Right. And anyone else to warn me about?”
He hesitates a moment, genuinely considering, and then he remembers. “Well, not sure it’s so much a warning, but there’s Thor...”
“Loki’s brother?” She raises an eyebrow. “I’ve heard of him, the guy’s supposed to be in my English class. Bit strange, isn’t he?”
“...Eccentric,” Clint agrees, but he nudges her for that. “S’a big fan of language, drives us insane.”
“Right, and which one’s adopted?” She asks him, and they’re approaching the table now. She looks up at him, pausing, wanting an answer before they sit down. Clint looks past her shoulder to the group of people in the cafeteria, making him vaguely uncomfortable – just like her, he’s never been one for crowds, not in the slightest.
“Loki, and I’d avoid mentioning that,” he says quickly, under his breath so only she can hear, wanting to get seated and get his back to the rest of them as soon as possible. Natalie doesn’t seem to complain, accepting the information and nodding without much issue.
“Hey, guys,” he says easily, and Tony turns to see the two of them stood there.
“Barton,” he claps Clint’s arm, and he smirks up at the redhead. “And Natalie, afternoon.”
“Stark,” she greets him, her hands still in her pockets, then she offers Steve a smile. “And Captain Rogers.”
Steve salutes her and Tony affects hurt, but he doesn’t seem to need a handshake – yelping a bit as Pepper pinches him, an odd, strangled sound. He pouts at her and rubs his arm, but she stays firm as Clint watches her move around to the other side of the table.”
“Do you all forget your names, friends?” Thor booms with laughter, and he stands to offer her a hand. Loki rolls his eyes, but he seems hospitable, seated beside his brother. “Thor Odinson.”
“Pleasure,” she murmurs, and she blinks at his grip when she finally takes his hand – his handshake ripples a bit through her arm, and Clint snickers. Natalie flexes her hand as she pulls away, and then it’s buried in her pocket again.
“Introduce yourself,” Steve encourages her, and she looks to the table.
“Natalie,” she says, looking mostly to Thor and Loki – she figures the others have pieced together her name, somehow or another. “Natalie Rushman.”
“Natalie,” Thor repeats, and he beams at her. “My brother, Loki,” he gestures to him, and Loki stands to take her hand. He offers her a smile of apology and they share a moment of camaraderie as they watch Thor out of the corners of their eyes.
“We’ve met,” she says, and Thor’s grin widens. Loki shakes firmly, much to Natalie’s apparent relief, and she withdraws.
“You seem to have been coerced,” Loki says conversationally, and Natalie laughs. Clint watches her as he takes his seat beside Steve, today, leaving her to sit with Banner. “What was the reward? Gold? Eternal life?”
“Oh, no, much worse,” she returns, sighing dramatically as she stuffs her hand back into her jacket. “I was invited here.”
Loki cracks a smile at that, and Natalie’s attention is again shifted as Banner finally raises his hand to greet her. The last of the group, the one who hasn’t touched her at all. “Hi,” he says simply, not offering much else.
He just looks at her for a moment, and Natalie waits a moment before she extends a hand. Clint’s about to tell him to knock it off when he finally reaches out to take hers, shaking. There’s almost suspicion there, but Natalie remains unfazed as she seats herself – in fact, she’s pretty damn resolute.
“Hi,” she returns, and she’s digging through her bag for a moment, looking up at him with a small smile. “Don’t talk much, do you.”
“You could say so,” Bruce offers her a smile of his own. “Natalie? Or is ‘Nat’ fine?”
“Nat, Natalie, whatever suits your fancy,” she shrugs, and she pulls her phone out to set on the table – obviously having just busied her hands.
“Excellent. Banner,” he finally introduces himself, and Natalie nods back to him with a warm-enough smile.
“Or you could call him Bruce, or the green rage monster,” Tony pipes up from the corner, and the collective gazes of the table swing to him. Tony holds his hands up in surrender as Natalie raises an eyebrow, still chewing on his nachos. “What? Guys, come on, it’s common knowledge–”
“It’s fine,” Bruce says beside Natalie, and she turns to look at him. Raising a questioning eyebrow, Bruce turns to her a moment before his answer comes. “It’s... a long story. Starts with an experiment and ends with Harlem.”
“Spare me,” she offers, and she turns back to her other side to look at Clint. “Anyone know why I’m here?”
“Lunch, hopefully,” Loki supplies from the corner, and his grin is unmistakeable as he looks at her. “Y’know, eating, merrymaking–”
“Bitching, gossiping,” Tony finishes, and he grins at her. “Think the story is that Barton invited you, isn’t it? Something like wooing the maiden, winning her hand in marriage...”
“He did,” Steve confirms before Clint can protest, his jaw slackening as he struggles to get words out, and Natalie doesn’t come to his rescue. She rests her head on her hand, smiling at him, challenging him to get out of it. Of course she would side with them, ever amused, even if it isn’t true.
They’re all staring at him expectantly now, and Clint groans.
“Seems like company’d do you good?” He tries, and Natalie lets out some laughter as she shakes her head. They both know better than that. The bloody roof itself probably knows better than that.
“Your concern is heartening,” she says anyway, and Bruce chuckles beside her. Tony cracks a grin, and Clint resists the urge to flip him off. “Never had lunch with a group, so thank you for the experience.”
“We’d invite you to leave if it made you comfortable,” Bruce said easily, hidden behind his coffee. Natalie laughs, and she props her chin up, pouting a bit at him. “Crowds seem to put you on edge.”
“I’m fine,” she waves it off, crossing her legs, clasping her hands together.
“Don’t chase a lovely lady away,” Tony sighs at him, and he stands to lean over, resting a hand over hers. “Listen, sweetheart, stay as long as you like. Help our lone Hawk here get his social skills in order.”
“Yeah, and fuck you,” Clint says, pulling another laugh from Steve, watching with interest. Tony glares at him well-meaningly, and Banner leans just slightly back.
“How comes your name?” Thor asks suddenly, and Natalie frowns.
“Your name,” he gestures to the centre of the table, and he smiles at her – like it’s the most normal question in the world, while Loki covers his face. “Rushman – The man of... rush?”
She stares. Honest to God, she just seems to stare for a good fifteen seconds before Clint clears his throat, nudging her back, leaning over. Loki mouths a subtle Just go with it, and Natalie blinks for a moment. Natalie looks to Clint for help and he shrugs, leaving her to turn back to him, vaguely forcing a smile.
“Really, it’s just... a name,” she says, keeping her gaze vaguely oblivious, even though Clint can see her suppressing her curiosity. It was obvious she was praying he didn’t ask any more questions, at least. “Rushman. Nothing special.”
“Don’t say that, sweetheart, you’ll jinx yourself,” Tony quips from the corner, and he grins. Loki pulls Thor over to have a quick conversation, effectively freeing her from the elder.
Natalie gallantly keeps her face smooth, and she props her chin up. “Can’t help it, bit of a pessimist,” she returns, absolutely pleasant, and Clint snorts. She seems to smile a bit at his reaction, but she keeps her eyes calm. “Can’t all be sunshine and rainbows, Stark.”
Tony grins, too, as if he’s finally met his match. Natalie isn’t quite like the rest of them, her tongue sharp enough to carry a conversation. “Live a little,” he pouted, and she rolls her eyes. Before she can throw back a reply, however, Clint nudges her, calling her attention back over to Steve.
The blond smiles encouragingly at her, leaning forward – he’d been the main reason she was even there, and Clint had known that as well as she did. “No one’s really said where you’re from,” he says, trying to keep the conversation light. “West Coast?”
“Seattle,” she says with a shrug. “Does it matter?”
Clint looks around the cafeteria for a moment. “Must be an interest in the hair, try to figure out where it comes from,” he jokes lightly. “Interesting shade of red.”
“Mama’s hair,” she rolls her eyes, pulling it over her shoulder slightly self-consciously. “Never really thought about it, no one’s pointed it out.”
Bruce chuckles beside her. “‘Course. Why’d you move?”
“Papa’s found a reason to, don’t think I want to ask,” she grimaces, tucking down a bit more information – Clint can see the way she shifts a bit uncomfortably, and he doesn’t press.
“And your mother just lets him have his way,” Loki sighs, setting his drink down as he rolls his eyes. “Unless she’s had work or the sort.”
Natalie pauses, and she rolls her shoulders out. “She doesn’t say much, considering she’s been dead for about fourteen years,” she supplies after that, trying to shrug it off. “Car accident.”
Steve silences, and Clint looks at him as he tries to backpedal in his head. Loki has the sense to look decently apologetic, sitting back so his back is straighter, meeting their gazes. “I’m sorry,” Clint finally offers, and Natalie shrugs again.
“Really not a big deal,” she says lightly, and Tony’s surprisingly quiet. It’s apt, really, after Howard and Maria had died, leaving him alone in the house with a mass of money he doesn’t quite know what to do with. Clint knows it, too, and it cuts a bit. “I hardly think about it. Not anymore.”
She doesn’t seem to know much about the Avengers in general, really – none of them have fabulous relationships with their parents, opting for the perpetual guidance of their guardians and friends. Clint has Phil, and that keeps him sane, but he’s still sure that Tony has JARVIS. And that’s all he has, Pepper aside.
Natalie seems to sense the collective, pensive silence that has fallen over the group, and she sighs as she shoulders her bag again. “Sorry,” she murmurs to him, and she makes to stand as she tugs her jeans to sit better, arranging herself again. “I’ll see you. What’s on today?”
“You can stay,” he says in argument, almost tugging her down so they could have a decent conversation, but she shakes her head.
“Better off without me,” she says, and she tucks her hands in her pockets as she heads toward the staircase. Natalie disappears within the minute, up the stairs he had know she was going to take.
Clint, for whatever reason at all, does not follow.
Natalie doesn’t turn up for History.
According to Loki, she doesn’t turn up for French, either.
He finally finds himself on the roof, and sure enough, she’s tucked herself up against the side, knees up against her chest. She seems to have fallen asleep, defensive and slightly vulnerable, but when he approaches her eyes come open and she meets his gaze.
“I expected you,” she says smoothly enough, and he smiles a tad ruefully.
“I can’t be that predictable. Mind if I sit?” He queries, his bag still slung on his shoulder. Natalie shrugs, and she moves a bit to the side as she makes space for him. He notices that she’s fiddling with some kind of photograph, and she doesn’t quite seem present.
“What’s that?” He asks, and she stills her hands as she considers her answer. Tucking it into her pocket, she wraps her arms around her knees.
“Doesn’t matter,” she says after a moment, and she looks at him now. “Heard you’ve been looking for me, though. Want to get that out of the way?”
“Didn’t think you’d ditch. Just making sure you didn’t get your head bashed in yet,” Clint returns, trying to keep it lighthearted as he finally rests his weight beside her. Natalie abruptly straightens a leg as she lets out a sigh, as if it’s a motion she’s repeated for a while. Restless.
“No, I don’t think it’d be a problem,” she says softly. “Just needed some space to think. Can’t have a bit of peace in class, not when you’re staring at me.”
Clint pauses and holds his breath at that. He waits a moment, and then he opens his mouth to ask her. He’s just as much an orphan as she is without a mother, and he claims the right to ask – “About her? The death?”
Natalie’s lips quirk into a smile, but it seems vaguely forced, and she looks like she hasn’t got a clue what to say. “No,” she says anyway. “I haven’t thought about it for ye–”
The word is out of Clint’s mouth before he can really stop it, but he’s definitely said it to her clearly. Natalie blinks as her last word falls in the silence now suspended between them, and her posture visibly tightens as he threatens her personal space.
“Excuse me?” She finally asks.
“I mean,” Clint clears his throat, trying to make it better, easier. Less accusatory. “There isn’t a reason to lie to us. Not about this.”
“What, the Avengers are the champions of the weak, is that it?” She snorts, and she meets his eyes with some ice in her voice. Clint is thrown for a moment, her voice definitely morphing from the way he’s used to hearing it already. “Because I don’t need a hero, Clint. You’re better off without me.”
“Again with that,” he says, and he presses on despite himself. “Without you? D’you think you’re better off without us?”
“Doesn’t matter if I am,” she retorts.
“Think it matters to Steve–”
“Think it matters to you,” Natalie cuts him off, pressing on now that he’s given her that avenue. "Steve says he’d asked because you wouldn’t. Is it because of the way I look? What, the coffee offer, or something like that?”
“None of them,” he says after a pause, the truth in the statement surprising himself.
Natalie groans and puts her head in her hands. “Then don’t.”
“You’re interesting. Does that count?” He offers her, and she looks up at him with a pointed roll of her eyes.
“Sure, ever heard that phrase about curiosity and that fucking cat?” She bleeds the sarcasm as she stands to pace, folding her arms tight around her. “Should leave me alone, Barton.”
“Barton, and I’m sticking to that.”
She looks at him incredulously, and she steps closer. “Leave me alone,” she says quietly. “It’s better for us.”
“Us?” He raises an eyebrow. “Or you?”
“Or you,” she clarifies, and she picks her bag up as she starts to pull away from him. Again, the walls are up, and she’s slowly smoothing herself back into the calm. “Don’t know why you give a shit about me – bloody girl from Seattle. Leave me alone.”
“Because you won’t regret it,” she says dryly, and she meets his eyes again. “Isn’t much you can do there.”
Clint doesn’t respond immediately, but she takes it as her cue to leave. She offers a respectful nod and she shoulders her bag, turning to leave down the staircase. Her footsteps are fast, and when he finally decides on something to say, she’s long gone.
“Natalie, wait,” he catches her after Math, barely managing to close his hand on her wrist before she manages to slip out of the classroom. She’s been ignoring him firmly for a couple of days already, and he barely sees her outside of their classes. Not on the roof, not anywhere else – it’s like she disappears off the face of the earth whenever he’s looking for her.
Her face, smooth, stays unfazed as he holds her down, but she yanks her hand free and continues to walk – Clint is momentarily thrown by how strong the wrench is, but he shakes that thought off as he dogs her down the corridor.
“Natalie,” he says again, trying to get her to listen. “Listen, I’m sorry, okay? Been meaning to tell you–”
“Save it,” she returns as she turns another corner, and it’s obvious that she isn’t listening at all. “I told you to leave me alone.”
“You expect me to?” He says dryly, following her, and she glares even as she pulls the scarf tighter around her neck. A wordless response, then, and she’s still moving away from him as she leaves him in the corridor.
“What’s so bloody hard about a friend?” He calls after her, jogging. “Natalie, just wait–”
“I don’t need friends,” she rolls her eyes, and she stops at her locker for a moment to get her things together for the next class. “Was doing great on my own. Ever thought about that?”
“Will you listen to yourself?” He runs a hand through his hair, the exasperation in his voice apparent.
Natalie shuts the door curtly, silent, and she turns to walk off to her next class. She tucks her books against her chest and apparently tries to shut his voice out, too, and turns into her classroom. Clint finds himself stuck outside, since she’d cut it close, and he has to curse at himself for being so stupid.
The weekend comes without any success on his end, and the Avengers find themselves at Tony’s while they watch a movie. No one’s really even trying to watch by this point, knowing better than to ignore an issue when they see one.
“So. Anne of Green Gables has you on the couch,” Tony starts off, and Clint groans as he holds his hands up in surrender.
He tries to protest, at least. “Look, it’s all great that you’re trying–”
“And she’s apparently got an Ice Queen switch somewhere. Haven’t seen that much frost in someone’s eyes for months,” Tony continues, as if he hasn’t spoken. “Gym was a fucking snowfield – did you see how she was looking at him, Rogers?”
“Wasn’t that bad,” Steve rolls his eyes, dismissing it. Tony huffs noncommittally, instead turning to Clint as he leans forward. He clears his throat and narrows his eyes, ever dramatic, looking him over.
“Really, I’d take her advice,” Loki pipes up from the corner just as Tony’s about to launch another spiel, looking up momentarily from his book. Silently, Clint thanks his lucky stars that Thor had decided to keep Sif company – God knows what would have happened if he were around.
“She keeps a distance from everyone, it’s not hard to imagine that she’s serious,” Bruce adds in agreement, and Clint sighs as he runs a hand through his hair.
“It didn’t come up in the first couple of conversations. Bit strange, if you ask me,” he says by way of explanation, and Bruce frowns as he leans back.
“Strange, possibly,” he agrees slowly. “What sparked it?”
“Not sure. Flipped on like a switch, talking about... trusting in us.” He slows down as he speaks, and he tries to piece together an explanation for it. She doesn’t seem at all the type to genuinely have an issue with him, and she looks tired of being alone all the damn time.
Loki huffs out an impatient sigh and Clint ignores him rather pointedly, resisting the urge to flip him off – he isn’t being helpful in the least. “She wouldn’t be the first woman in the world to want her space,” the brunette goes on, crossing his legs.
“Trust issues, you’re kidding me,” Tony groans. Steve shoves at him, and he silences with a grumble.
“At the very least, I’d change your approach,” Bruce offers kindly, and Clint nods as he steeples his fingers, leaning forward. “Something less forward?”
“Pretty sure forward is the best option at this point,” he says tiredly. He’s definitely exhausted with trying to get her back on his side, feeling her watching him whenever they’re in the same room. “She hasn’t exactly been around for anything more subtle.
“Point,” Tony agrees, and he folds his arms as he looks at Clint. “Tried everything yet? Phone? Hell, if you’re desperate enough, I’d send her flowers and chocolate and beg for her forgiveness.”
“Chocolate?” Clint raises an eyebrow, and he props his chin up, out of ideas, but it piques his interest. “What, don’t even know what kind she likes–”
“He was kidding,” Steve adds from his corner, and Clint looks around to him, vaguely confused. “Chocolate. Romance, anything of the sort – it’ll push her away, it’s a tad creepy.”
“No, I knew that,” Clint says dismissively, but an idea’s settling into his mind as he speaks. He hasn’t known her long, but he knows she likes at least that. “But... A gift? Think it’ll land well?”
Steve frowns, and he looks to Tony; Bruce leans back, folding his arms. “Why not?” Tony finally says. “What’re you thinking?”
“Coffee,” he says immediately, and it doesn’t take much thought. He blinks, the idea sinking deeper in, and he’s finally got a grin on his face. Digging around for his phone, he sends Phil a quick text, and there’s a bit of a plan now.
“Do I want to know?” Tony quips from the corner, and Loki looks up again. Clint just smiles and shakes his head, waving his phone.
“Coffee. Works like a charm,” he says, and he sits to actually watch that movie as soon as his mind calms. He would offer her something bigger, a scarf or the like, but he may as well try his luck.
They’ll be alright. They’ll be fine.
He arrives early, the next day, and he’s got the coffee with him – Phil had taken some convincing, sure, but he knew determination with Clint when he saw it.
Almost sure where she’ll choose to sit, he sets the coffee down some distance away from him. It was the table she’d taken over when they’d started this awkward system of avoidance, Natalie always a couple of steps away from him. Instead of red hair and a smirk, he’s been subjected to Bobbi Morse, and he isn’t sure that it’s quite as enjoyable.
The bell rings, and he sits back to wait; Folding his arms on the desk and putting his head down, affecting a lack of sleep. He hadn’t been up that long, the vodka in her coffee needing to be strong and well done to get her back on his side.
She comes in on the verge of being late, and she sees the coffee on the table – at first, she walks past it, and Clint smacks himself for that. Of course she’d think someone had chosen that seat, leaving her to move around.
Finding no other spot, however, she hesitantly, tentatively sat at the desk with the coffee.
It takes her a while, her gaze flickering between her notes and the cup over the course of the lesson, but she picks it up to sniff. It smells different from the usual around the school, he knows, having made sure it was well-signposted for her to find the trail back to him.
She rolls her eyes as she recognises the scent, though, and Clint frowns. Natalie takes another whiff of it and nods, mostly to herself – she sets the coffee down again and continues to write, not even sparing him a glance.
Clint groans, and then it seems to happen – her lips turn into a smile, and she shifts a little bit. So she knows, and she’s paying attention.
He rolls his eyes and shakes his head. Progress, he supposes.
When he ends up on the roof again – the others seem to have taken a bit of a holiday trip to meet Peggy, Clint opting out in favour of the solitude of the open sky.
It’s bloody poetic and he knows it, but that isn’t about to change.
He closes his eyes to try and focus for once, wondering absently about Natalie – he doesn’t like how she’s becoming a point of interest for him. He can smell danger on her, if he’s honest, with the way she had been avoiding him, the talent in running something that he hadn’t expected.
And of course, his curiosity bugs him again, because he knows next to nothing about her.
It goes comfortably dark as he thinks it over, and his mind lets the thoughts spring about for a moment. There’s a quiet ricocheting in his head despite the calm position he’s chosen, hands behind his head, and he hums a bit. Something from the circus, he’d assume, but he doesn’t know–
“You’re not bad,” a voice says, and his eyes come open abruptly.
The tassel of her scarf is inches from his nose, and she isn’t exactly kind as she looks down at him. Eyebrow raised, hands in her pockets, and she straightens up as soon as she’s sure that he’s registered her presence.
He blinks again, and he sits up to regard her. “When’d you get up?” He asks her finally, because there isn’t much else to say. Clint had gone to such lengths to gain her forgiveness, true, but he wasn’t even completely sure why, not even now.
“About six in the morning,” she replies dryly, and she looks evenly back at him. Clint almost chuckles, knowing full well he should have anticipated it. “The coffee helped. Thanks.”
“You didn’t take it,” he says with a frown, and then he notices that she’d brought the tumbler up with her – Natalie notices that he’s watching it, and she pulls it out to hand it back to him. It’s been cleaned, and he looks up at her.
“Had someone bring it to me,” she says callously, shrugging. “Didn’t really want to be dogged. Me, making moves on Clint Barton, of all people – recipe for disaster.”
“What d’you mean ‘of all people’?” He asks her, and he’s genuinely confused now as he looks her over. A lack of sleep seems apparent, but that isn’t too strange. Not when they’re all allowed later out on the weekends, probably out with friends. Her voice takes on a bit of weight, too, and she seems slightly more honest and uncomfortable than she usually is.
But Natalie hadn’t made many friends, and Clint found himself wondering.
“Yeah, of all people. I mean, should’ve told me not to mess with the Avengers,” she says tightly, and she takes a step back to leave the roof again. “I mean – Tony fucking Stark was bad enough, but you’d brought me to Steve and Pepper. Don’t belong with people like you.”
“You fit in fin–”
“Belong,” she stresses the word again, and she looks off the roof almost worriedly. “You lot, bloody heroes around here. Don’t belong with people like you.”
“And what does that mea–”
“Nothing of your concern,” she replies before he finishes his question, and she tugs on a curl as she adjusts her bag. “Thanks for the coffee, again.”
“Wait, wait,” he says, and he reaches out to try and stop her again, but Natalie tucks her hair behind her ear, and her eyes roots him to the spot. She stops, sure, and she looks at him for a moment, but then she turns and she’s gone again.
He’s faster this time, though, and he catches her by the shoulder to turn her around a bit more force. She isn’t crying, nor does she look upset in the slightest, it’s only a tired and exasperated look back to him. “I told you to leave me alone,” she says quietly. “Honestly, Barton, what d’you want from me?”
“No idea,” he says honestly, the first thing in his brain, and she lets out a noise of frustration as she closes her eyes.
“So just go, find your ‘no idea’ back with your friends, alright?” She says kindly, and her language is forced, not at all her. But it’s genuinely trying to soothe him, trying to get him to back away from her. “I’ve got class.”
“Not for another ten.”
“It’s on the other end of the school,” she says immediately, not missing a beat, and Clint snorts.
“Nat, we have class with each other in ten,” he retorts, and Natalie’s face smooths out as she realises that it’s true. Math again, the two of them stuck side by side for for far too long. “Listen, you’re fine with us, alright?” He tries to tell her. “The others, they like you. Helped me out.”
“...Doesn’t matter,” she argues, and it’s weak. It’s not a compelling argument and she knows it, leaving her open. “I... Heroes. All of you going ‘round, helping people – I’m not a charity case.”
“God forbid,” he agrees with her, and she raises an eyebrow. “I know you don’t need us.”
She’s suddenly more patient as she hears him admit that. It roots her down for a bit, and she looks up at him. “I don’t,” she shrugs, honest, and she crosses her arms as she looks at him. “So?”
“But you want it,” he says, and she snorts.
“What, a self-indulgent group that think they’re better than anyone else because they help people?” She accuses him, and she steps forward with enough force to drive him back a stop. “Nice try, Barton, but I don’t want any of that–”
“You’ve got friends with us, that’s all I’m saying,” he insists, ignoring that his points are falling flat and quickly. “You’ve got us. Alright? That’s all I’ll promise.”
She stills, and she runs a frustrated through her hair, tugging all the long curls back, dragging them. Eyes closed, and then green meets blue. “Right. Thanks,” she says, almost dismissive, and she turns to keep walking again. “Tell Mr. Patrick I’m sick, something like that. I’ll head to the infirmary.”
His first instinct is to offer to follow her, but he knows better than to breach that just yet. He lets her go, and she looks back at him with a weakly offered smile. It’s more than she’s given him for a while, at least, and he isn’t left completely alone again – and Natalie isn’t running anymore.
When he gets home to Phil, he greets his guardian with a mocking salute, sprawling out on his bed, ready to drop off immediately. Before he can, though, there’s a text, and it’s probably from Tony. He knows that Stark’s birthday will be soon, and he had been planning that party of his for months.
What he doesn’t expect is an unknown number, but he’s texting back a ‘sure, why the hell not’ before he has to think about it.
“It’s lunch,” Clint says dryly, standing with Tony and Pepper for just a bit – he’d meant to return Bruce his notes, and he had come across them instead. Brilliant, too, that Tony had managed to get news of his plans.
“It’s one step for mankind, lunch with Rushman,” Tony insists. “Plus, I’ve got a bet with Rogers that she only keeps our company because you introduced us. Think I’m winning.”
Clint rolls his eyes but doesn’t protest, and he adjusts his bag strap as he looks to the clock. “Whatever. Don’t wait for me,” he says quickly, realising the time, giving Pepper a quick kiss to the cheek as he moves past her.
Tony gives a shout about touching his girlfriend, but it’s lost in the crowd as Clint makes his way to the staircase. Without really talking about it, they’d decided on the nest, and he lets his lips quirk into a smile as he climbs up to meet her.
It’s the second of the lunches she’d offered, and she had made it a point to come out to talk to him – but he doesn’t tell Tony that, Lord knows she’s got enough attention from him as it is. Natalie would seek him out, though, like she needed his company, like she didn’t have anyone else.
He doesn’t complain much – it isn’t like he has many others, either. It’s a relief to have someone around, he knows that well enough.
He looks around for her as soon as he pushes through the door – Natalie wasn’t ever in plain sight, not if he knew anything about her. So he looks down to see if she’s hidden herself on the ledge below, the place she usually sought refuge in – but it’s empty. With a smirk, he rolls his eyes and turns, checking if she’s tucked up on the top of the staircase, like the first time he’d seen her; The second of the hiding places he’d had to catalogue.
It takes some effort to climb, but when he gets up, it’s empty and she’s not there, either. He pauses a bit then, and he takes a look from the vantage point that he’s given himself. It doesn’t seem quite right, because she doesn’t seem to be in sight, and it’s starting to feel like a hide-and-seek – but once he’s checked every place on the roof in minutes, he’s pretty sure that he’s completely alone.
He frowns, and he pulls his phone out –
Where are you?
And he waits for a reply, because she’s rather quick with those – she’d already proven that, the night before. It’s possible that she’s been held up by a teacher, that she’s chatting with a friend and forgotten the time, but he allows a few minutes of silence before he starts to get a tad worried. Perfectly normal, perfectly fine.
Three, four –
And then it’s about five minutes when he gets up to go looking, an odd sense of mistrust settling in his stomach. He slings his bag over his shoulder, the coffee tumbler empty now, and he pushes the door open to the staircase again. She isn’t usually late to anything, unless she’s crashed a car or broken something on her way to school – so where is she?
And as he tries to search, it occurs to him how little he actually knows – where she would be if she wasn’t on the roof, and where she would go. Whose company she would keep. But he looks anyway, just in case, see if he’s been forgotten. Doesn’t seem like her either, forgetting. She’s good with time, and better still with appointments. Or that’s what she’d said.
Classroom first, but he isn’t sure which. French is the closest, he supposes, but that’s empty, and then there’s English. But he still see any hint of red hair hiding in a corner, keeping out of sight, and he takes quicker steps toward the yard. Must be somewhere there, she can’t exactly be anywhere else unless he’s missed her in the corridor–
“You think you’re a hero, Rushman?” Someone says suddenly, vague and distant, but it’s enough to catch his attention and still his thoughts. “Think you can walk into our school and save a worm like this?”
“I think I’m better than a fool like you.” That voice, Natalie’s, instantly recognisable. It doesn’t sound right, though, slightly choked, and that sets him running.
“You think you’re better?” The other asks incredulously, and he can hear Loki, too, protesting. His brain slowly clicks pieces together, fitting in Evans’ voice – Loki must have gone for another fight, and Natalie’d been pulled into it.
“Better than you,” she says simply, and then a sound that sounds like a strangled yelp escapes her as he hears a body collide with the wall.
“Yeah? What, got some skills on the mattress, something like that–” He pauses, and Clint stills as he holds his breath. Something’s wrong something’s wrong– “Ah, that’s why you save him. Boyfriend of yours?”
Clint sets his jaw hard, pushing himself faster. Just a bit, the voices still echoing just enough in the corridor for him to pick up on.
“Twenty-six ways to kill you with that bag strap, don’t push me,” she snarls, and there’s a distinct sound of a foot colliding with someone’s unfortunate shin. “Leave him alone.”
“He came after us, sweetheart,” he says, and Natalie makes another odd noise – like she can’t breathe. Loki’s silent, and that could mean anything from unconsciousness to terror, Clint can’t tell, not until he gets sights on them.
It’s quite a scene, when he gets there. Natalie, pressed against the wall, almost suspended, her toes barely touching the ground, her hands tight on Evans’ wrist. Loki, lying on the ground, hilariously outgunned as he usually was – but Natalie, still fighting back.
She pulls her legs up suddenly, pushing her weight against Evans chest, and he’s forced to drop her. She gasps hard for breath, rubbing at her neck, and Clint’s getting to her side as he helps her up. “Oy, Nat,” he says, letting Evans get his breath back. “Nat, are you alright?”
He tries to pull her up, and she lashes out – she shoves him back, fully expecting him to fall, and her head snaps up to focus her eyes on him. He lets her push, despite his instincts, and he takes a step back. “Natalie, it’s me.”
She steadies, and she gets her breath back. “God, it’s you,” she mutters under her breath, and she looks back down as she continues to pant a bit. “What’re you doing here?”
“One of us didn’t forget lunch,” he says dryly, looking at Evans slowly trying to pick himself off the ground. Clint turns around, and he sticks his hands in his pockets. “Big enough an ass to pick on the girls now, are y–”
“Thought you’d have gone back to your friends, when I didn’t show,” she says from behind him, cutting him off, and she dusts herself as she gets to her feet. “I’ve got this.”
Evans grunts a bit as he looks straight to Natalie – she narrows her eyes, and she takes a step to position herself defensively. Clint steps between them, and he drops his voice into a threatening growl. “Leave her alone,” he says.
“Barton,” she warns from behind him, and she gives him a look that clearly tells him to get out of the way. Clint stays stubborn, though, and he holds his ground as he looks between them. “We’ve been through this. Don’t need a hero.”
“Christ, Nat, this isn’t about heroes,” he says exasperatedly, keeping his eye on Evans. “No one needs to lie down and take a beating–”
“I wasn’t lying down and taking it!” She cuts him off, sharp as she takes steps forward toward her ‘attacker’. “Evans, take it from me. If you’re round here again with him–” she gestures to Loki, lying on the ground, stepping past Clint abruptly when the kid behind him makes to run. “I’ll show you ‘better’.”
It’s such a change in her demeanour, completely out from what he’s used to, and he’s forced to step aside as she sneers at him. Natalie lets him go, then, and she sighs as she bends to check on Loki. It’s obvious now to him (and he feels the slightest hint of wanting to kick himself) that she knows exactly what she’s doing.
She clears her throat, and she chokes a bit before she can speak – it’s still hoarse, but she’s largely unscathed. “Sorry that m’late,” she says vaguely after a pause, rubbing at her neck. Her tone’s softened again, and she looks up at him. “Lost my phone...”
He shrugs with a slight delay, folding his arms. “No worries,” he says quietly, and rests a hand on her back. She doesn’t shrug it off, and she sighs as she crosses her arms, too. Looking down at the brunette.
He notices that her scarf is missing – her hair covers most of it, sure, but the fabric is lying a bit of a distance away, roughly chucked aside. He goes off to pick it off the ground, and he’s a bit slower as he returns to her side.
When she finally looks up, and he can see the barest hint of a burn scar as she takes it. “Thanks,” she says softly, pulling it back around her neck, rolling her head around. “Sorry, again. Lunch, tomorrow?”
Clint shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it. Not your fault.”
She snorts, and she combs her fingers through her hair. “Yeah, funny you should say that,” she says, and she pushes herself to her feet. “Started it, if I’m right. Told him to stop picking on Loki, ended badly for him.”
“Still. Impressive that you managed to take him,” he says lightly, ignoring how bad the burn seemed to have been. He’d wondered about it, and he wouldn’t be asking her about the scarf anytime soon. “Usually don’t get out easy.”
“Experienced,” she says dryly, shoving a hand in her pocket. “I’ve been knocked around – told you I didn’t need a hero–”
“Why d’you keep saying that? Heroes, Avengers are heroes, blah blah blah,” he says, waving his hands about as he gestures. He doesn’t understand that, not the way she keeps talking about them.
Natalie smiles a bit, vague, and she crouches beside Loki. “Mean your consciences would suffer if you saw a kitten in a tree and didn’t save it,” she says, folding her arms to rest on her knees. “Plus, you can’t leave a girl alone when she’s got a fight under control.”
Clint has the decency to look a tad sheepish as he looks down at her, and he waits a moment before he speaks up again. “Think it’s decency, really. Should help if you can.”
“Well, yeah, but I mean – think hard about it, Barton, it’s like... When you need any kind of help, everyone goes to you. Like they’ve got no backbone,” she says quietly, straightening up suddenly as she goes to pick her bag up, looking for her phone. “Can’t save their own asses.”
“There’s homework from Bruce, and there’s tech support from Tony – even if he’s a dick about it,” she continues, pulling her scarf tighter. “Football team – every sports team that can get him’s dependent on Steve, and Pepper’s everyone’s bloody listening ear.”
She sighs, and she comes to a stop. “And then there’s you. Picking stray kittens and trying to give them boxes,” she says quietly, looking at him. “And I don’t need that.”
He frowns at her, trying to listen patiently, but her argument’s messed up in all the wrong ways. “Wasn’t trying to–”
“Isn’t about you trying to, no,” she holds up a hand to stop him, and she lowers his guard carefully with a smile – rueful, but a smile nonetheless. “Suppose I get used to it, but you’re bloody annoying.”
He ends up smiling at that, a chuckle escaping him. “Thanks,” he says. “You’re very kind.”
“I do try,” she quips dryly, but she rolls her eyes and nudges him. A little sign that they’re alright, that she’s sorry for ditching him, and that she’s not too mad. “So. Started my first fight, proud of me yet?”
The laugh that comes through Clint’s lips is surprised, and he cuffs Natalie at her shoulder. “Stop that,” he says warningly. “You’re going to make me endorse it.”
She pouts at him. “It can’t be that bad,” she insists, and she crosses her arms. “You said it was impressive, after all.”
He pauses a bit, and then he eyes her with an exasperated smile on his lips. He opens his mouth to say something else, yeah, but before that –
“Rushman, I got your message,” Tony calls from behind her, and he looks between them. “Said Loki got caught u... Right, I see the carnage.”
Natalie grimaces, and she turns away from Clint to look to Tony. “Got himself pretty smashed before I got here,” she lies smoothly, sporting no wounds to prove otherwise. “Clint showed up, saved our asses, hero drags the heroine into the sunset.”
Stark cracks a proper grin at that, and he steps forward. Crouching down and taking his pulse, checking up on the bruising, Tony nods. “Think you can go. I’ve got this,” he says offhandedly, not even looking up – Natalie nods without question, and she turns to leave.
Clint hesitates. They’re friends, they should be waiting, but Loki doesn’t look like he’ll be stirring anytime soon. Natalie nudges him quietly, looking at Tony working, and she gently tugs him away.
“You lied to him,” he says after a pause, and Natalie misses a beat in her step. Enough for Clint to know she hadn’t completely meant to.
“Which part?” She says delicately, and she looks at him.
“‘Before I got here’,” he quoted after her, and he sticks his hands in his pockets. “You were there the whole time, weren’t you?”
Natalie’s face twists into a strange sort of smile, and she shakes her head. “Wasn’t lying about that,” she says quietly, and she shrugs. “Was playing hero. Like you do. Like you did, just now.”
Clint raises an incredulous brow, and he rolls his eyes. “Of course you did,” he says slowly. “When you said you didn’t need it – hypocrite, aren’t we?”
“Not saying I’m not. Also, not saying I’m honest, Barton,” she replies sharply, her voice smoothly crafted. “You shouldn’t associate with me, like I’ve said.”
“Pull the other one,” he snorts, and he walks with her still. “Can’t shake me, I don’t think.”
“Yeah. Koala, you are,” she grumbles quietly, and she looks at him with a bit of resignation. “You planning to ditch me sometime?”
He waits for a moment as he considers it, but they both know that he can’t leave a case like hers alone. “Nope,” he finally replies, popping the ‘p’ obscenely.
She pokes her tongue out, arms crossed again, and she runs a hand through her hair.
He returns the gesture.
“Mature, Barton,” she says dryly.
It’s late at night, sprawled out on a couch at Bruce’s, when he finally mulls it over – ‘picking stray kittens’, Natalie’d said, and it bounces around in his mind, making him uneasy.
Clint lets out a sigh, turning to see the rest of the Avengers laid out on the floor. As far as he’s concerned, she doesn’t need protecting, doesn’t need any of the help he could possibly offer her. She’s right, somehow. A bunch of self-appointed heroes, and they’d always relied on each other as a team. Something safe, something others could rely on.
He remembers coming to New York, too, and how he’d been jumped by Thor – almost shot an arrow through his head when the blond had come barreling into the archery range, but it’d meant that he’d got to meet Loki.
It gives them a sense of purpose. Maybe, it gives him a sense of worth.
When he winds up on the rooftop again, he isn’t as alone as he’d like to be. Natalie’s spread herself out on the ground, looking up into the sky; Clint laying beside her, thoughtful, lolls his head to the side in question.
“What are you doing, again?” he asks after a pause, deciding to break the silence, and Natalie rolls her eyes as she turns to meet his eyes.
“No one asked you to come,” she returns, completely unapologetic. “Wasn’t lunch tomorrow?”
“Stark’s made it his personal mission to have Rogers ask Peggy out to the party, and I’m not getting in the middle of that,” Clint replies dryly.
“Thought you were the mollycoddling aunt,” she teases, eyes sliding shut. “That should be your costume.”
“Only if Banner’s the tooth fairy,” Clint shoots back, not missing a beat, determined not to be outdone. He doesn’t really want to ask her for company, not when he’s already not heard the end of it, but he knows there isn’t much other choice.
He could go with Bruce, he supposes, dressed as a tooth.
Natalie barks out a laugh, and tucks her hands into the mess of curls, keeping her head supported. Clint doesn’t comment on the fact that she’s ditched Math, not when she finally seems to drift, some semblance of peace on her lips. “I should ask him,” she said teasingly, but her voice was softer, more tired.
He chuckled. “Would you? Red Riding Hood–”
She smacks his head swiftly, curling up on her side. “I’m not going,” she says pointedly. “A party and Stark? Recipe for disaster.”
Clint rolls his eyes, but he’d already known she was bound to decline. “Come on, Nat. Pepper’s going to be there,” he says anyway. “She’ll have him under control.”
“No,” she says firmly, closing her eyes a bit tighter. “Not going to a party.”
“I said no,” she repeats, and she eyes him. Clint lets out a sigh, meeting her gaze, and she curls into a ball on her side. “I’m not going, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Why not?” He asks her, a bit more gently. She’d caught him out – of course she had – but he refuses to back down.
Natalie shrugs, and she tries to relax. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me,” he says gently. Natalie smiles, a bit rueful, and she rolls back up onto her feet. Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she shrugs.
“You care too much,” she says callously. “I’ll be fine.”
It’s almost been three days when he finally gets a decent word in – History comes around and Clint’s dozing off on his hand, having been watching a game with Phil the night before. Sure, it’d been a couple of text messages, but he gets the distinct sense something’s off.
Tony chatters anyway in his ear, and it seems like he’s not even noticed that the blond’s hardly paying him any attention. Clint supposes it’s for his own good – Lord knows if Tony would ever survive not being the centre of attention.
A bit of a clatter of the chair beside him seems to startle him awake, though, blinking stupidly awake as the jostling finally settles in a messy pile of Natalie Rushman. She looks distinctly frazzled, somehow, but Tony’s already picked up conversation with her.
“Late,” he says, and she glares. “Don’t suppose you’ve had a long night? Anyone we should worry about?”
She pulls her book out pointedly, dropping the weight on the table, her gaze cool and even. “Yeah. My father, stay out of his way,” she mutters, almost under her breath, and Tony has the sense to shut up as Pepper squeezes his arm subtly.
Clint frowns. “What happened? Anything–”
Natalie turns her eyes on him, too, and Clint snaps his jaw shut with just the hint of an audible snap. It takes a moment as she gets a notebook out, too, but she eventually offers some form of friendship in a smile.
“Going to talk?” He prompts her, turning back to the notes he tried to take.
“No,” comes the reply, swift and sharp, impatient. She pulls her hair over her shoulder as she closes herself off, and then she looks up at the board as she begins to tap her pen. “I’m fine, Barton. Nothing to talk about.”
Clint sighs, and Natalie seems to pretend she doesn’t hear. He looks her over, from the way the curls aren’t even properly combed through to the messy knot in the scarf, hardly ‘fine’. Pepper seems to be giving her curious looks, too, but she seems to have better sense not to engage her.
A good half-hour passes without incident, at least, and Natalie lets him copy what he’s missed – it’s normal as far as anything else is concerned, but she keeps rubbing at her eyes. A tic, like something’s genuinely bothering her, despite her assurances.
“...You don’t look fine,” he says after a pause, testing the waters, and Natalie gives him an incredulous look of disbelief. Instead of backing down, he keeps his gaze steady, though, and she clenches her hand into a fist.
“Oh, Christ, it’s my personal doctor. I’m going to swoon,” she says, rolling her eyes as she looks back to the board. She scribbles down the last line just as the bell goes, and she stacks it all up to replace in her bag. “I told you, I’m fine.”
Another period of silence as she drums her pen on the table, and then – “Lunch today?” She asks him. Clint tried to keep the surprise off his face, looking at her, because he recognises an offer of peace when he sees it. They hadn’t agreed on another meeting, but he isn’t about to leave her alone in this state.
“Yeah,” he says, and she nods. Almost comforted, the way she stands there, keeping her posture straight, and then she turns to leave. Like she’s just a bit relieved that she’ll have him around.
He’s happy to give her that, he supposes.
“Barton!” Steve is calling him, and he’s pushing through people to get through – “Oy, Barton!”
Clint frowns at the sound of it, and he turns around slowly, adjusting his bag strap. He had lunch in his hand. and he was pretty sure he’d told them he wasn’t joining them for lunch. “Something wrong?” He asks, trying to be light, and he offers a tentative smile.
Steve eyes him carefully, and he comes to a stop in front of him. “Natalie,” he says quietly. “Think she might’ve... been stepping on some tails.”
He pauses, and he gestures up the stairs. “Yeah, I was just about to go...” He stops halfway through, and he lets out a sigh as he runs a hand over his face. “Jesus Christ.”
“Yeah, and Loki’s gone to help her–”
The words are strangled when Clint cuts him off. “Loki’s gone to help her? Steve, have you seen the guy’s swing?”
He’s already stuffing lunch into his bag, and he pushes through the crowd Steve had come through. The blond barely follows behind him, quiet but making no move to stop him. They manage to push until they get to the cafeteria, and Steve nudges him along toward the West wing.
“Where is she?” Clint asks over his shoulder.
“You’ll see,” Steve says firmly, and he pushes Clint forward – it’s almost a scene from a movie, Natalie trying to hold her ground as she looks to the kid who’d pushed her again. Evans – and a friend, if the sight’s anything to go by.
“Think you can just walk in here like you own the place, princess?” Evans sneers at her, and she doesn’t move. Her bag’s fallen in the corner, and Clint just manages to tug it over, handing it to Steve.
Loki’s gone to help her, right. “God of Mischief seems to be taking his time,” he says dryly, looking up at Steve, handing him his own bag.
He takes the sack and slings it, sighing. Clint rolls his head out, and he waits for an opportunity – Natalie stands tall in the middle, unafraid, but Clint knows better. The attention, it’s always unnerving.
Her lip’s broken, her breathing slightly ragged, but he doesn’t understand. She had taken him on before, and she’d won by a long shot, but he can see that she’s fighting hard and still not gaining the upper hand.
“Listen, we make the threats around here,” Evans had been saying, circling her, and she remains absolutely silent until finally, her lips quirk into a smile, and she straightens her back. What he can see, however, is the limp. “You, Rushman – you’re a troublemaker. We can’t let that happen.”
“You already have,” she says, defiant, almost growling, but it’s masked by calm speech. Clint frowns, and the other – Travis, he remembers absently, comes to purr something in her ear. “You’re on our turf, see,” he says, and Natalie makes a visible effort to move out from his grasp.
She waits a moment, and then she hooks his ankle out from under him.
The next move is sudden as Evans begins with shouts of frustration, making to grab her. But just as Natalie takes a couple of steps back, wincing as she steps on her bad leg, Clint’s decided she’s had enough, and chooses to intervene.
He thanks the odds in his favour, Evans being large and fairly stupid – he grabs him by the collar of his shirt and throws him back against the lockers, using whatever force he can muster to knock him out with the slam of his head against the metal.
Someone cheers in the crowd, and Clint rolls his eyes. Turning back, he barely manages a to catch Natalie thrusting her knee up – grunting at the effort of standing on her bad leg, barely apologetic as she pushes him aside.
Clint turns back to Evans, bending to check for any real damage done, but it seems basic. Simple, and it’s enough to keep him out for a couple of minutes at best. Natalie grits her teeth, leaning back on the locker, and she tries to even her breathing.
Walking over slowly, he looks expectantly at her. Her eyes are closed, but she knows – knows he’s waiting for her to speak, to admit that she was wrong.
Instead, she looks up at him with her pride dribbling out, her hand still gripping at her leg. It’s still prim, her back straight and her collarbone open, but it’s enough for him – she doesn’t need to ask, because she needs him anyway.
He slides an arm under hers, holding her up, and she rests her weight gratefully on him as he moves her toward the nurse.
“Looks awful,” Clint says, moving her hand to get a better look. He grimaces at the purple, dark, spread near her knee.
“Thanks for the update,” Natalie returns dryly, sitting back on the cot. She’s holding the cold compress to her leg, and she holds back another hiss of pain as she applies some pressure to it. Clint goes to pull out a bandage for it, figuring she’d be better off with some semblance of support.
He’s already managed to get some band aids on the smaller cuts, her skin broken where she’d been thrown against the lockers herself. She’s tied her hair back, sighing, but she won’t take her scarf off.
She sits back after a while, and Clint watches she chucks the compress into the nearest chair. “Why’d you come?” She asks finally, and she looks up at him. He pauses, having been digging in the first aid kit, and he looks back at her.
“Rogers tipped me off,” he tells her, sitting down, nudging her hand aside as he begins to wrap her leg. Avoiding her gaze, because he knows exactly why she’s asking. Playing hero. “And I suppose I didn’t fancy you ditching me again.”
She leans back, already resigned to him insisting on patching her up, and she sighs. “Figures. Were you going to send the whole team after me?” She asks, eyeing him with amusement. “Avengers assemble, something like that?”
He snorts, and he meets her eyes. Natalie shrugs unapologetically, but she’s grinning. “Rogers tipped you off, huh,” she hums quietly.
“Loki was... supposed to show up,” he says, just a bit hesitant to mention, but Natalie groans and he grins. “Not ideal, you can imagine.”
“No, not really,” she chuckles weakly, and she looks down at him – her foot still in his lap, but she makes no effort to move anything. Clint doesn’t mind, and he doesn’t bother pointing it out. There’s a companionable silence between them, and then:
He smiles. “Yeah, no problem,” he says with a smile, and he helps her back up to her feet. “Suppose you’re going to insist on walking.”
“You got it, Robin Hood,” she teases, and she winces as she takes a couple of steps. She pauses before she leaves, however, and she shrugs her jacket off; Another bandage sitting on her arm already, and it hardly looks new.
It’s slightly blackened from use, and the material’s stretched. She must have wrapped it at home, by the look of it, and it isn’t any kind of minor injury.
He frowns at it. “What’s that, then?” He asks, trying to be friendly, but she shrugs it off.
“Nothing,” she says callously, barely sparing a glance to it. She smiles reassuringly, limping out, jacket slung over her arm. “I’m fine.”
It’s causing her enough pain that she doesn’t straighten her arm as it hangs at her side, something that he’s bound to notice with the way she’s walking. “Nat, seriously.”
“Seriously. It’s nothing,” she says pointedly, and she waves her hand to show him her elbow is fine. When it drops again, though, she holds it tense.
Clint isn’t having it. “Nat–”
“Leave it,” she says sharply, knowing the story isn’t holding water, but she doesn’t want to talk. Her eyes are sharp, and her back is straight – posture alert, not wanting him to breach it. “I’m fine.”
“Got a queer definition of fine, Rushman,” he presses, and he takes her hand. She pulls it away, and she hurriedly slides her arms back into her sleeves.
“I am fine,” she says, clearing her throat.
“You’ve gone and wrecked an elbow!” He says, catching some attention from the other students in the corridor.
“Barton, I’m perfectly alright, and you’re paranoid,” she shoots back at him, ire bleeding into her voice. She turns around just as the bell goes, and she uses the lockers for some support before she forces her weight upright. “Just–” She pauses, still talking. “I’ll text you, or whatever. Later.”
“Least you can do in return for the leg,” he called after her, dry, exploiting her pride. Clint doesn’t like it, not when it reeks of suspicion, and he isn’t about to let her slip out.
She snorts, but she doesn’t look back.
Updates will be delayed until late November or early December.
It decides to rain on Saturday, and any plans Clint’d had to get out to the range are trampled. Instead, pulling out DVDs, they wind up at Bruce’s again. Tony’s insisted on a proper marathon of The Walking Dead, and they’re all curled up with the popcorn and sodas in front of the television – he cringes again as Pepper screams, earning herself a laugh and a hug from Tony.
He isn’t sure what he’d wanted from her, but there hadn’t been word from Natalie – not that he’d genuinely expected her to text, but it was unnerving. There had been something to hide, and like she’d almost wanted him to know, keeping her head down so she didn’t draw the attention of too many; just him. But why?
He rolls back into the couch, and he sighs. It isn’t really important, in retrospect, but something just doesn’t add up. The injury keeps worrying him, the radio silence is more unsettling than he wants it to be, her fixation with silence, and that she won’t ask for help she seems to need more than she’ll chance saying.
Clint turns back to the television after a while, eyes falling on his friend beside him. Bruce had finally sat him down that morning – with coffee and pop tarts, no less – and sighed, resting a hand on his shoulder.
“What are you doing, Clint?” He asks after a moment.
They don’t need much confirmation, and Clint leans back in his chair with a sigh. He shakes his legs almost nervously, considering it, silent and biting his lip before he tries to answer. “I haven’t the slightest,” comes out before he stops it, but it isn’t true.
Bruce raises a brow. They both know that.
The brunette sighs, and he leans forward when it becomes apparent that Clint isn’t going to speak. “Why’d you keep chasing that one girl in school?”
“She’s worth a lot,” Clint says in return, and he pauses to consider that. Natalie isn’t proving any of that to anyone, not until she’s holding her own in a fight or mouthing off some other kid who’d set their eyes on her. He sighs. “I mean, she’s interesting.”
“Like Bobbi?” Bruce asks, genuinely curious, and Clint winces. He’d known that was coming, and he’d said the same thing before.
“Bobbi – now that was a mess,” Clint agrees vaguely, and he leans forward. “You saying I shouldn’t go after her? Shouldn’t worry about that–”
“No, meant if you like her... what are you doing?” Bruce tries, a bit more direct, sipping at his coffee.
Clint lets out a breath sharply at that. He hadn’t quite expected that, and he looks to Bruce again. “Not sure if I like her, honestly,” he says, trying to be open, struggling with the words. “Seems like more trouble than she’s worth, most of the time. Done that before.”
Bruce just shrugs – kinder than Steve or Loki would have been, at least, cautious about his reaction. “You were good about leaving her,” he says lightly, finally settling for that.
“Yeah, well. She was moving to Michigan, not really a question,” he sighs. “Never did well with the whole idea of a distance.”
“She wanted to keep contact,” Bruce points out, cocking a brow.
“I couldn’t. A phone’s not good enough,” Clint retorts.
“It’s good enough with Natalie,” he says, raising a brow. “Texting her pretty often.”
“Not really the same, is it?” Clint sighs. “Nat, I’ll see her pretty often.”
Bruce nods. “She’s another story, I s’pose,” he says dismissively. “Was just wondering if you knew what you were doing.”
“Fuck if I know, Bruce,” he says, and they both chuckle. “Always gone with the gut.”
And they’d gone nowhere. It’s good for him, Clint supposes, since he’d finally been let off the hook when Tony had stumbled in with Pepper. Bless him, Stark, always with perfect timing and a horrendous drinking habit.
Thor comes in just then, interrupting his thoughts, and he’s clutching a rather... large box, full of books he’d claimed he was reading. Clint still thinks it’s a ruse, Bruce thinks it’s brilliant, and Steve hasn’t seen quite so many books in his entire life.
“Brought the family library?” Tony greets him dryly.
“Not quite,” Thor laughs, booming through the sound of rain outside, and he beams at everyone.
Loki rolls his eyes, propping his chin up. “Who for?”
“You,” Thor says, dropping it in his lap – the clatter of books inside it draws a wince from Bruce in the corner, and Loki grimaces. “Perhaps you’d like to share with your friends.”
“Perhaps,” Loki repeats dryly, and he picks it up to shift to the floor. “They’re foreign, it’s not like I can read them.”
“Rushman,” Tony says, his mouth full of chips as he turns around. “Rushman can. Always has her nose buried in some text written in cyrillic. Bulgarian, I’m suspecting.”
Loki quirks a brow. “Bulgarian?”
“Could be Russian,” Tony shrugs, looking to Pepper. “You’ve seen her, haven’t you?”
Pepper frowns at him, almost chiding, and she looks back at the rest of them. “She hasn’t mentioned it. Seattle, remember? Why would she know it?” She reasons out slowly, drumming her fingers on her jaw.
“Could be her parents,” Steve says absently, dismissive.
“Parent,” Clint corrects instinctively, and they all turn to him. He pauses, and he wonders if he should have said – but it doesn’t seem like a well-kept secret, not when it was on record with the school. “There’s her father, and her mother seems to be out of the picture.”
Steve winces. “You have any idea what happened to her?”
Clint shakes his head, and he stands to get a drink. Tony goes on about the stunt she’d pulled in the hallway the other day, impressed. Clint shuts that out, though, as he steps into the kitchen, taking himself a moment of silence.
It didn’t last long, though, and his phone brings him back out of his reverie. Probably Phil, really, calling to nag him about archery practice, something to do with helping out in the circus, or something mundane.
“I’ll be there, don’t worry,” he says as he picks up, expectant, and he chuckles. “I haven’t forgotten.”
The reply, however, is harried. There’s a vague confusion in the voice as it speaks, obviously not quite Phil. “Clint? Have you got a minute or two?”
He pauses, and his brow furrows. “Natalie?” He says tentatively, and he turns back to see the others still talking about her. “Is that you?”
She sighs out, almost vaguely relieved to hear his voice. “Yes, yes, it’s Nat. I– I need your help, alright? Listen,” she says, and she’s a bit breathless. “Are you alright?”
Clint remains confused for a second, and it’s throwing him off just a bit more – something sounds wrong about the way she’s talking, and he frowns. “Yeah, I’m... fine – Nat, what are you on about?”
“I need help,” she repeats.
“Well, tell me what you need, then,” Clint says, more direct, easing her along. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she assures, him, still slightly breathless. “Are you listening? Nothing going on?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, everything is fine, now what do you need?” He says, worry creeping into his voice. Natalie isn’t who’ll ask for help, and she really needs to keep herself a bit better.
“Let me come over,” she says finally, closing her eyes. “Please.”
“I’m not at home,” he says, looking back at his friends again. “I’m at Banner’s–”
“Please,” she says again, and she pauses to catch her breath. There’s a bit of a pause as Clint listens for clues, something – anything – that could help him out.
He pinches the bridge of his nose. “What do you need?”
“Can I come over?” She asks hurriedly, breath quickening as she seems to start moving again. “Wherever you are. Banner’s, did you say?”
“Banner’s,” he confirms, and he turns back to look. “Give me two minutes.”
He misses her response, but he moves back out to the kitchen – it’s hurried, his steps faster than usual, and he tries to get into their lines of sight.
“-it’s like he hasn’t any idea what he’s doing,” Tony finishes with a sigh, and Clint interrupts.
“Listen, is it alright if Nat comes over?” He says to Bruce, trying to keep his face smooth.
“Nat? Natalie Rushman?” Steve raises a brow, turning to look at him – conversation forgotten, no doubt, not having been terribly important.
Clint nods, holding his phone nearby. “S’raining, and her house’s got a leak,” he lies smoothly for her, trying to get her a way in. “She’s on the phone.”
Lying. He isn’t sure why he has to lie for her, but he’s sure that he has to – that she needs his help, and that he’ll only question her later. Bruce shrugs in return, oblivious, and he looks to the others. “Suppose we could rescue her from the flood. Loki could hand the books over,” Tony suggests from the corner, and Bruce shrugs.
“She can come over if she likes,” he says in confirmation, and Clint smiles at him – Bruce raises a knowing brow at him, but it’s all in understanding.
He returns to the kitchen then, and he pulls the phone back up to his ear. “Nat, still alive?”
Natalie almost chuckles, he can hear, and he smiles ruefully. “I’m alive,” she returns after a while. “Why, were you mourning?”
He has to laugh at that, and he shrugs – though she can’t see. “Banner’s given you the all-clear,” he tells her, leaning on the counter. “Come on over – you sure you’re fine?”
“I’ll... I will be,” she says after a pause, as if wording it too carefully. “Text me an address.”
“Roger that, Rushman,” he agrees, and he hangs up then. It’s a relief, for him, and he knows that she’s at least alive – that she’s on her way.
To my readers, If you're reading this, you are on the last chapter as of now – I'm going on an indefinite hiatus with this story, and I may take it down for a rewrite so I can complete it before publishing anything else. Let me explain:
My grandfather has recently passed away, and I do have some loose ends to finish up with the family. I will be writing off and on, though, possibly in one-shots and other stories I've yet to publish, but you're likely to only hear from me in larger pieces of complete work instead of giving you crappier, unreliable updates. If you like, the first part of my current two-shot piece will be up within the next week, and you can also read 'Iridescent' or 'Unmade/Remade or a Late Night in Minsk' to keep you occupied.
I'm really sorry to everyone that's followed, and I know I've broken the promise to update - here is what I managed to complete before I was stuck at the hospital every day. I'll hopefully be back to continue, but I don't foresee myself picking this massive project up again soon.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It takes another twenty minutes, but the steady knocking that comes to the door is definitely hers. Clint sighs as he chucks the fresh bag of chips unceremoniously at Steve's head, pushing off the couch to go and let her in – worried, yes, but he isn't about to put it on display.
"You made it," he says, pulling the door open, before he pauses.
Her curls lie flat on her head and she's soaked to the skin, dripping water on the little mat she's standing on. Natalie meets his eyes, skittish, and the smile that spreads on her lips is weak. She's paler than usual, he notes absently, standing aside to let her in.
"Alive, too," she jokes, trying to be light, squeezing some water out.
"Yeah. Seems like you are," he agrees, reaching over for a hand towel to toss at her. It isn't much, but he supposes it's better than letting her leave a puddle on the marble of Banner's floor.
He's curious to why she'd called, but she doesn't seem to volunteer the information, and Clint doesn't want to press until he's quite sure that she won't kill him. So he settles for trying to get her comfortable, warm. "You look... awful, really," he says, trying to be open and honest, hoping it's what she's looking for.
"Thanks," she replies, rolling her eyes. "You look pretty shit yourself."
"Hey!" He raises a brow at her, and he tugs at the shirt he's wearing. "I'll have you know I got this at the best game of the season, last year. Signed and everything, you can't just say that–"
"Easy, Barton," Banner calls out as he joins them in the kitchen, greeting Natalie with a nod. He tosses her a proper towel before he folds his arms, pushing his glasses up his nose.
Natalie flinches a bit when he comes in, but she steadies herself and thanks him. "Did I interrupt movie night?" She queries, noticing the screen still on, and the snacks strewn out on the floor.
"Maybe not, since Tony's passed himself out there," Bruce chuckles.
"Ah. Taken out the vodka, then," Natalie jokes, tentative, and she runs a hand through her curls. "Wonderful."
Bruce does laugh, and Clint chuckles a bit, too. Natalie wraps the towel around her shoulders, pushing her hands into her pockets. "And Rogers? Odinson?"
"Present and accounted for," Clint murmurs, poking his head out to check where they've gone to. Loki had finally busied himself with one of the books, and Thor had tried to settle in to watch the show – shovelling pop tarts in his mouth, but none of them had ever bothered to say anything.