Their friendship began with a band-aid. It was Nat’s favorite story to tell whenever anyone asked. Or, y’know. Even when they didn’t.
Clinton Francis Barton was that kid that ate paste in kindergarten. Not even on a dare. Just because it freaked everybody out. He tasted it the first time out of curiosity, and the second just to make sure it was really that bad. And, well, that third time was just to hear little Janet Van Dyne shriek like the priss that she was. That was a bonus.
Not so much as one streak of errant crayon ever escaped the lines of Natasha Romanoff’s coloring pages, and every penmanship page returned to her table decorated with shining, gold stars, delivered by benevolently smiling teaching assistants. She sat at the same tiny, round table across from him out of duress. The teacher’s assistant arranged the students boy-girl, boy-girl around the room to cut back on gender-based rivalry. By the third week of class, Clint ran out of unstained, untorn clothes. After another week or two, they acquired an aroma.
Natasha was the only girl who stood next to Clint at circle time, holding his hand despite his dirty fingernails or the old remnants of marker, paste and fingerpaint streaking his flesh. Because someone had to, didn’t they? Natasha learned, with some maternal coaching, not to tell him that he smelled funny or that his hair was a mess.
“His mommy might not have much time to get him ready in the morning, sweetheart. Be nice to him. Saying something might hurt his feelings, and that wouldn’t be very nice, would it?”
Natasha looked uneasy but said nothing, acting like the plastic margarine container full of barrettes and clips on the dresser looked very, very interesting as her mother brushed her hair and tugged them into immaculate, snug plaits. Her slender fingers moved gracefully and quickly, like dragonflies, taming the gleaming, fiery skeins that already made Natasha’s teachers label her “that cute little ginger.”
“Is he nice to you?” her mother pressed.
“I guess.” Natasha thought about it a moment. Darcy Lewis was nice and always talked so fast that she sounded out of breath. Stevie Rogers was nice, even though he was kind of bashful, but he always shared the markers and paste at craft time (without tasting any). Sharon Carter was nice; she didn’t smash the tetherball when she hit it.
Clint Barton was just a mess. But, when she thought about it for a minute, Clint wasn’t necessarily mean.
Every time Natasha turned around, Clint had another owie. She caught him one afternoon picking at an angry red cut on his finger.
“Don’t do that, you’ll get germs in it,” she nagged.
“It’ll get all icky, and you’ll get sick,” she added.
He shrugged and slumped down in his chair, going back to his drawing and ignoring her, making her tsk under her breath. Fine, then.
“Mrs. Hunter, Clint has a cut on his finger,” she tattled, pointing triumphantly.
“No, I don’t!” he snapped, clutching the hand in question against his middle, under the table and shooting Natasha a wounded look. Natasha shrugged back.
“Oh, sweetie, let me help you, okay, Clint? It’s okay.” She bent down and gently tugged his hand out where she could see it. “Doesn’t that hurt, Clint? C’mon. Let’s go to the nurse’s office and get her to look at it.”
“She’s gonna put medicine on it, and it’s gonna hurt MORE!” Clint accused.
“Let’s see if she has ointment, bud. That won’t sting. You might even get a cool band-aid, okay?”
That pacified him. Natasha mulled that as she went back to her drawing of a black cat. She snuck a look at Clint’s drawing of a boy shooting a bow and arrow at a target that looked a lot like a pancake at first glance.
It was pretty good.
Clint didn’t mind band-aids. Good to know.
When Natasha arrived back home, she dashed upstairs while her mother began to fix lunch and climbed up onto the sink. She yanked open the medicine cabinet and spied the small box of Mickey Mouse band-aids. She grabbed a handful of the little strips, glanced out into the hall to make sure no one was looking, and she tucked the box back on the shelf. Natasha hurried to her room and found her American Girl pocketbook, opened it, and tucked the bandages inside next to her Tinkerbell lip gloss. There. Just in case.
The next day, when she found Clint crouched down by the water fountain, probing a scrape on his knee, she was prepared.
“Don’t, Clint. Look. Here.”
His sandy brows furrowed, and his voice held a note of warning. “Don’t make it hurt.”
“I won’t. I promise.” She wore a look of fierce concentration as she unwrapped the small band-aid and deftly peeled off the backing strips. He winced for a moment when she gently smoothed the adhesive flat, covering most of the scrape. “That’s not so bad,” she coached.
He hopped up, shaking off her touch quickly, and he ran off. Natasha threw up her hands in the direction of his retreating back.
“Well, fine, Clint!”
The next day, Clint gave her half of his Rice Krispie treat. A light went on in Natasha Romanoff’s head in that instant, that someone needed to look after Clinton Francis Barton, and it might as well be me.
Sometimes, Clint didn’t wake up that quickly from nap time.
Actually, some days, Clint slept a lot, even when it wasn’t nap time.
Nat sometimes had to poke him awake during the class movies. He always managed to doze off five minutes in, because the room was dark. He woke up with a puddle of drool slicked across his desk when they watched The Phantom Tollbooth and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
“Clint,” Nat hissed, eyes widening when she saw him slumped over his desk, tousled blond spikes of hair peeking over the edge of his scabby forearms, “wake up! It’s over!”
She leaned over the aisle as far as she could reach and poked him with her pencil eraser, just the faintest tape against his elbow. He grunted and fidgeted but settled back to continue his nap. Tony snickered and poked James where he sat in front of him.
“Look at Barton,” he teased. “He’s out like a light.”
“He went nighty-night,” James agreed without malice. “He just doesn’t care. Look at him, man.”
“Leave him alone,” Steve chided as he doodled in the margins of his notes. He pushed his reading glasses up on his nose and then snapped to attention as the classroom lights came back on. “He’s tired. Just let him sleep. Sheesh.”
Steve struggled with anemia, asthma, had a bout of rheumatic fever that kept him home from school for almost a month, and he knew what exhaustion felt like. When a guy needed a nap, he needed a nap. His rescue inhaler was tucked into the outer pocket of his backpack, he took a bajillion prescriptions every day, and he still felt self-conscious whenever he had to change for PE, because he didn’t want the guys seeing the scar on his chest from when he had a hole in his heart repaired when he was little. That being said, no way was Steve Rogers ever gonna give Clint Barton shit. Once they hit middle school, they both joined ASL Club, and Clint and Steve started holding private conversations at the lunch table and anywhere else. Nat soon joined it, too, so she wouldn’t miss out. Nat and Clint signed during study hall, during detention (it was worth it, Nat decided, to cut class and to meet Clint at Baskin Robbins to cheer him up when his older brother Barney got sent to juvie), during assemblies, during boring class movies, provided that Clint could stay awake… you name it.
Clint still didn’t like to talk about how he lost his hearing. It was a sore subject.
“Clint,” Natasha hissed again, just as insistently. “Wake up.” She didn’t want him to miss anything important.
Tony took a more direct approach and flicked a folded paper football triangle at the back of Clint’s head. Clint jerked up with a start. “Ugh… what?”
There was a crease in his cheek from the seam of his sleeve pressing into his flesh, and his hair was mashed on one side. He looked like a drowsy, irritated kitten. Tony and James chortled, and Clint calmly flipped them off.
“Please take out your pencils and a sheet of paper. I’m going to pass around a quiz sheet for each of you, and I want you to use your notes and what you saw in the film.” A low chorus of groans went around the room. Clint looked crestfallen, until Natasha poked him again and shoved a pencil at him, along with a sheet of paper she’d already ripped from her binder.
It was nothing new.
Clint turned up the volume on his hearing aids and scrawled his name atop the page.
“You have til the end of class to finish this quiz.” Mr. Fury leaned back in his chair and sipped his cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.
Multiple choice. Nat signed Clint most of the answers.
“Please return your papers to me quietly when you’re finished,” Mr. Fury ordered. He gave Tony and James a pointed look, since the two of them were already whispering and stirring up the beginnings of a ruckus on that side of the room. Guiltily, the two of them turned in their papers, unsurprising that they finished first. Bucky, Scott, Sharon and Nat were next; Steve finished quickly, too, but he dawdled a while as he packed up his things and fiddled with a doodle in his notebook.
Clint caught up to Natasha for a minute by her locker. She crammed her pre-algebra book inside and reached for her bag of field hockey gear. Clint leaned furtively against the adjoining locker and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Whatcha doin’ after school, Nat?”
“Practice,” she shrugged. “Studying. I’ve got a science quiz tomorrow.” She glanced down and clucked at his purple rugby shirt. “You’ve got a stain.”
“Huh. Oh, yeah. I do.” He licked his thumb and rubbed at it futilely. “Hot cocoa. From yesterday.”
Nat wrinkled her nose. “Ew. Clint.”
“It’s just a little chocolate.”
She glanced around the corridor and leaned in. “Want me to wash it?”
Clint gave her a sheepish look. “I wouldn’t mind.”
“Drop it off before you go home. I’ll sneak it into the hamper.”
“Sweet.” He gave her shoulder a brief, fond swat. “Later.”
“What are you doing today?” she countered before he could dash off.
“Eh. Nothing special. Hanging out with Barney. He came home last week. We’re just gonna watch movies.” His tone was casual, but Natasha could hear the hint of excitement, and Clint’s blue eyes lit up. When Clint got into a scrape, it was usually physical, but he meant well; Barney made no bones about relieving a department store of a pair of Nikes when he felt like it, or sneaking a smoke behind the field house. Stealing their neighbor’s truck and taking it on a joy ride down the back mountain roads and bringing it back with a rash of dings in the paint from the gravel got him a month in juvie, a hefty fine, probation class, and their pop taking it out of Barney’s hide.
Clint spent the whole night crying up in their room afterward. Nat went with him to Baskin Robbins and dipped into her weekly lunch money to buy him a double scoop cone.
Barney had a gift for getting into trouble, but Clint worshipped the ground his older brother walked on. Natasha couldn’t understand why Clint was always so hung up on trying to please him, but she understood the desire to protect him, despite the fact that she was an only child.
Darcy, Sharon, Janet and Jane rushed Nat at her locker, effectively pushing Clint off, and he backed away, holding up his hands. “I’m out.”
“Get lost, fart knocker!” Darcy yelled at him. She gave Natasha a strangling hug and warned him, “She’s mine, see? She likes me best!”
“Fine, then! She’s got your cooties all over her now!” Clint crowed back.
“Hey! I don’t have COOTIES!”
So. Yeah. Clint was just. Clint.
It wasn’t that they grew apart. It was just that Nat and Clint gave each other space for a while. High school was intense. Once Clint’s teachers stopped insisting that he was a discipline problem, and “distracted,” and “inattentive,” and actually started working with him, he managed some decent grades. Miss Munroe reminded him that if he wanted to participate in any of the intramural sports, like archery or gymnastics, he needed a solid “C” average, and, well. That lit a fire under him. Clint wasn’t a perfect student, but he started actually using the library as a place to study instead of just take a nap. He’d never really love school, but there were worse places to be.
Natasha kept him on the fringes less out of a lack of interest and more out of a lack of time. AP classes and extracurriculars crammed her schedule and assured her return home barely before dinner. Ballet classes. Chemistry. Precalculus. Drill team. Concert band. Student government. Honor Society. Every night, she fell into bed exhausted and wondering if she’d missed anything.
Once in a while, she nudged Clint awake in study hall or at lunch. They stopped sitting at the same table by the middle of sophomore year, but once in a while, she still slipped him a piece of gum or a couple of singles if he was tapped out.
Clint hung out with Scott, Logan, Steve, Bucky and both Petes at the table in the back of the cafeteria, closest to the window.
“She’s stuck up, but Natasha’s hot,” Logan pronounced before he took a swig of his Power-Ade.
“Shut the hell up,” Clint insisted. “C’mon. It’s Nat.”
“What? Shut up because she’s not stuck up, or she’s not hot?” Logan challenged.
“Shut up, because just shut the hell up, dude.”
“Pffft… whatsamatter, Barton? You like her, or what?”
“It’s not like that,” Clint argued. “It’s Natty. That’d be like dating my sister, if I had one.” Despite this claim, Clint felt a flush creeping up over his ears and hot prickles running down his back. Logan didn’t look convinced, either.
“You like her,” he pronounced smugly. “You can totally tell, bud. Don’t lie.”
“Dude. Shut up..”
“It’s no big deal if you like her, Barton,” Scott told him. “She is hot.”
“She scares me, but she does it in a hot way,” Pete (Quill) admitted. “Kind of like Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body.” Next to him, Peter (Parker) nodded emphatically.
“That sounds about right. Like, she probably knows at least a dozen different ways to kill you, but you still wouldn’t mind it if she kissed you.”
Quill grinned. “Sure wouldn’t.”
“I sure wouldn’t mind if you shut the hell up,” Clint reiterated as he took a swig of his sports drink.
Both Petes smirked and gave each other a fist bump. They’d gotten to him.
Natasha waved to Clint through the window. Tony was trying unsuccessfully to impress her. Her posture was casual, but Clint recognized the amused expression on her face as boredom. Tony follow closely on her heels as she entered the cafeteria and made a slow beeline toward Clint’s table. She smirked down at him.
“So, about Friday…”
“I’ve got plans,” Natasha told Tony without looking back at him. Her green eyes gave Clint a once-over. “You’re supposed to eat that. Not wear it.” She dusted off the crumbs from Clint’s shirt.
“And don’t chew with your mouth open.”
Clint took a bite of his sandwich, chewed it, nodded, and then showed it to her.
“Ewwwww.” She wrinkled her nose and gave him a brief shove before walking off.
“So, how about Saturday?” Tony attempted.
“I’ll text you,” she assured him as she walked off.
“Yes!” Tony hissed, pumping his fist and grinning, until he realized, “Wait. You don’t… you don’t have my number. Nat? Natasha?” he called after her retreating back. “She’s not gonna text me, is she?” he asked no one in particular.
“Nah,” Clint assured him. “It’s good to want things, buddy.”