You look terrible, Natasha signed after handing Clint a cup of coffee. He had his own in a travel mug, but he didn't object, just took it and cradled it between his palms. It wasn't cold out; it wasn't even anything close to cold out. The high was supposed to be somewhere around 90, like summer wasn't quite ready to be done with them yet.
Technically, summer wasn't over for another three weeks, but for all intents and purposes it was over for them. He'd gotten up early that morning to avoid the chaos that the first day of school would almost certainly be, and had been out the door as Mrs. Sullivan was calling up to the younger boys that it was time to get up. She'd looked at him strangely but hadn't said anything beyond, "Have a good day."
Did you not sleep?, she asked when he didn't respond.
Clint shrugged. He hadn't slept very well. Every time he'd closed his eyes, his thoughts had started swirling, and he'd given up and opened them again, trying to focus on some mundane detail – the small crack in the ceiling that was probably nothing to worry about, the fact that his closet door didn't shut all the way – but none of it did much to slow his thoughts.
Natasha looked at him, her forehead furrowing, then grabbed his arm and led him out of the lobby and down the hallway where the business classrooms were. No one ever went down that hallway anyway, unless they were unlucky enough to have their locker assigned there. She took his coffee from him and set it on the floor carefully. Talk to me.
I don't know what to say, he replied.
Did you not sleep? , she asked, then waved her hand, dismissing the question. Bad dreams?
He shook his head. I didn't even get to the point where I could have dreams, bad or otherwise.
Why didn't you call me? Or text me, she asked.
I didn't want to wake you up. I thought at least one of us deserved to get some sleep before the big day.
The sound that she made was remarkably unladylike. Big day. It's just the first day of school.
The first day of senior year.
So? We still have to get through the year before it matters.
She had a point, he guessed, but he just shrugged. He was only making it through one day at a time at this point.
Are things still bad at home?
He shrugged again, and the glare she leveled at him then was enough to make him take half a step back.
Don't, she snapped, the sound of her hands colliding audible. Don't lie to me, don't act as if it doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter, Clint said defensively. I can't change it, so it doesn't matter. It's not my problem.
Like Jessica isn't my problem?, Natasha countered. Your foster brothers and parents aren't your problem like my foster sister isn't mine?
It was the first time he remembered Natasha actually referring to Jessica as her sister, although maybe it had happened once or twice before. But it was true enough, wasn't it? They were friends, of a kind, but it was more than that. They sure as hell could fight like sisters, and got on each other's nerves like he and Barney had used to.
He missed his brother, all of a sudden. He missed a life that made sense... or at least didn't make sense in a way that he understood. He missed knowing what he was supposed to be doing, and being able to get it done and done right like he never could with anything in school. No matter how hard he tried, it wasn't quite up to snuff, it felt like.
You and Jessica ... But he didn't know. Are close? They weren't. Not always. Get along? Only sometimes. It's just different.
Maybe, Natasha said. But it's still where you live, who you live with. It's still part of your life and it still affects you. Pretending it doesn't... She made a gesture that wasn't a sign, but Clint figured it translated to something along the lines of, 'You're an idiot, Clint Barton, and I'm kind of sick of your shit.'
Yeah. He was kind of sick of his shit, too, but he was also kind of stuck with it.
Did something happen with Jessica?, he asked, not even pretending not to be changing the topic. Is she flipping out?
A little, Natasha said, but her eyes were narrowed because she could see right through him. She doesn't want to be here without Carol. She thinks maybe we would all be better off just finishing school not at school, but obviously that didn't go over very well with Mr. Principal Fury. Her smile was crooked, slightly wry.
What did he say to her?
That she'd made it through a year already, and she could make it through another. That she and Carol hadn't even had classes together, so really, it wouldn't be that much different. She could always see her after school, as long as it didn't conflict with Carol's classes or work, and as long as she kept up with her homework.
Do you think they will?, Clint asked. Keep seeing each other?
Another sound, somewhere between laughter and contempt. They just got together a few weeks ago – I guess almost two months now – but after how many months of going around and around each other? They're not going to throw that away now. If they do, they're idiots.
Honestly, I expect that Carol will practically move in, Natasha said. She's already over all the time. I don't think she likes being at home much.
Do you think Mr. Fury will let her?
It was Natasha's turn to shrug, but for her it wasn't to dodge answering a question that she would rather avoid. I don't know. Probably not, but there's not really a lot that he can do to keep her from coming over every day. Even if he said that she couldn't, do you think they would listen?
The bell rang, signaling that it was time for them to start heading for their homerooms. Natasha sighed. Don't think I didn't notice that you didn't really answer me, she said. Let me see your schedule.
He handed it to her, and she held it up next to hers. Anything?
We have Civics together, she said, and English. We have lunch together. Natasha flashed him a smile. And it looks like we've got drama together. I didn't know you were going to take that.
I needed an art credit, Clint said. I didn't know you were taking it either.
Same. Well, I'll see you third period for history, she said. Her eyes flicked one way, then the other, but there was still no one else in the hallway. She pushed herself up on her toes and kissed his temple. Try not to fall asleep.
Clint smiled. I'll try. See you later.
She waved and went to join the rest of the student body as they made their way through congested halls. He looked at the knots of students going past the end of the hallway, then behind him at the door that would take him back outside. He could just go home... or, no, he couldn't, because Mrs. Sullivan would probably be there. He could go somewhere, though. Maybe find Carol, see what she was up to, or Steve.
Maybe see where the circus was, figure out if there was a way to get in contact with his brother. Not for now, but for later, when he needed a place to go. It would happen eventually, and he'd blown it once, but family was family and Barney would get over it eventually, if he wasn't already. After all, Barney couldn't really fault him for wanting to stay behind because of a pretty girl, could he?
Or maybe he could.
What would Natasha do, though, when he didn't turn up in history class? She would be fine without him, obviously, but she might worry. He could always text her, let her know that he was leaving. He could tell her that something had come up, that he'd had to go home, there was an emergency...
He slammed on the brakes of that train of thought. Clinton Francis Barton, don't be an idiot, he told himself. You've never lied to her before – at least not intentionally – and now is not the time to start.
He looked down at his schedule. Math. It should be a crime to put any math classes during first period, he decided, but he trudged toward it anyway. His homeroom was in the same direction, and once he'd checked in for the day, he would be less likely – probably – to decide to check out.
The first two periods crawled by, and he wondered if teachers of seniors were given some sort of script that they were supposed to follow when giving their "Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life" speech. This is your last year blah blah college applications blah blah blah not time to slack of blah make it count blah blah blah blah blah blah.
Which was pretty much what it sounded like to Clint, because both teachers decided that it would be a good idea to pace up and down the aisles while talking, turning their heads this way and that to make sure that every single student knew that they were being addressed, which meant that the sound warped and sometimes disappeared altogether for Clint. Weren't they supposed to get some kind of memo about him?
Fuck it, what did he care? None of this mattered anyway.
When the bell rang signaling the end of second period, he was the first one out the door. He made his way through the halls quickly, already on edge and knowing the clamor of several hundred kids surrounding him would only make it worse.
"Clint!" He stopped at the sound of his name, causing the person who'd been calling it to almost crash into his back. It was only highly trained reflexes that made her side-step at the last second. "I've been calling you," she said.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket, checking the screen for missed calls.
Bobbi laughed. "I meant just now. Your name."
"Oh. I'm not..." Clint just tapped his hearing aid and shrugged.
"Right," Bobbi said. "I didn't even think about that. I forget sometimes."
She smiled wryly. "Lucky me," she agreed. "Where are you headed?"
"Civics," Clint said. "Whatever the hell that is."
"I think it's the more practical applications of government," Bobbi said. "Like, not the history of government but how it applies to life now or something. Pretty sure on the first day they have you fill out voter registration cards."
"I can hardly wait," Clint said. "What about you?"
"Calculus," she said. "Can you tell how excited I am?" She made a face that was so over-the-top fake-excited that he couldn't help smiling. "I know math is important, but you hit a certain point and you start to think, 'You know, I think you're making this up. I don't think this is real.' And then it's not real, because they start talking about imaginary numbers, and it's all downhill from there."
"Imaginary numbers? Really?"
"Really. When's your lunch?"
"Too bad. Mine's sixth. I'll see you around."
And then she was off, and Clint saw Natasha coming around the corner and caught up with her. "Are you sure we have to go?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes. "Pretty sure."
"Really pretty sure." It was a line from a show they'd watched, which had given them both nightmares at least a few times, and yet they hadn't stopped until things just went completely over the top. 'Jumping the shark,' Carol had called it, but hadn't been able to explain why.
"All right." They found seats next to each other, and thankfully when the teacher came in he didn't decide to rearrange them all in alphabetical order or something. Clint hated teachers who did that; it meant he was inevitably right in the front. Which was probably good, except it was hard to ignore everything when the teacher was right in your face.
"Hey, everyone," the teacher said. "I'm Mr. Lawton, and I'm new here this year. I'll tell you right up front that I have only been teaching for a few years, but if you think you're going to walk all over me, you might want to think again. This class can be as boring or as fun as you want it to be. If you don't participate, it's probably going to be boring. If you do, there's a lot more of a chance that one, you won't be bored to tears, and two, you'll actually get something out of it."
He walked up to the board and took out a marker, scrawling in letters at least two feet high a single word: RESPECT.
"This is my only rule," he said. "We can break it down into a whole bunch of other smaller rules if you really want to, or if I feel that we need to, but it all comes down to this." He tapped the board. "Respect. Respect me. Respect each other. Respect each other's opinions. No matter how wrong you think someone is, they have the right to believe what they do. They have to right to express it. You have the right to be upset by it, and to present your own opinion, your own counter-argument, but you must do so respectfully. Anything less and you will find yourself having to deal with me, and if that's not enough, the principal. Is that understood?"
Everyone nodded or mumbled something in the affirmative. "Good. Now, first thing's first." He took a stack of cards from his desk and began handing them out. "Many of you will be turning eighteen this year," he said. "That means you can legally vote. In order to vote, however, you need to be registered. This is a voter registration card. Fill it out and I will return them."
Natasha looked down at hers and pushed it to the edge of her desk. When Mr. Lawton came around to collect them again, he looked at the blank card. "Is there a problem?" he asked.
"I am not American citizen," she said. "I cannot vote."
"Ah. Well, that would be a problem, yes." But he didn't ask any more questions, just picked up the card with the rest.
Clint felt Natasha relax, even with the space between them. He looked at her but she didn't look back.
The rest of the class was spent going over the syllabus, reviewing what the major assignments would be for the semester (it was only a half-year course) and what they could expect each class. When the bell rang, they got up and left.
"That could have been worse," Clint said, and Natasha nodded.
It could have been worse, but it could have been better. English was better, but then Clint (along with a lot of the other students) had chosen their senior English electives by what they thought would require the least amount of work. Hence, Film as Literature.
"Is too bad Jessica is not in this class," Natasha said, looking over the sheet they'd been handed that listed the books they would read and the movies they would watch. She pointed to Harry Potter.
Clint grinned. "Maybe we should convince her to switch."
"Or take next semester," Natasha said.
After English they had lunch, and even though it was almost too hot and humid to stand, they went outside, because being stuffed into a cafeteria crammed with other students was even less appealing than being steamed to death.
They unpacked their lunches, sharing what they had between them, which was habit by now even though they weren't sharing because Natasha didn't actually have a lunch to eat. Sometimes what Clint got from the Sullivans wasn't all that exciting (but always nutritious – Mrs. Sullivan had even found healthy cookies, which was far as Clint was concerned was just plain wrong). Natasha usually had leftovers, as long as it was something that could be eaten cold.
It's not so bad, Natasha said.
School. But there was something in her face that turned the word into a question.
I guess not, Clint said. I just... I feel like maybe I should be working. Making money is more important than watching movies and comparing them to books, you know?
Money isn't everything, Natasha said.
It is when you don't have it.
She shrugged and let the argument – if it was even an argument – go. They ate in near silence, lost in their own thoughts. When the bell rang, Natasha looked up and started packing things away, in a hurry all of a sudden (although maybe it was justifiable since they only had a few minutes passing time between classes. I'll see you later, she said, not even waiting for him.
Clint stared after her for a second, then picked up his backpack and headed to his next class.
He didn't see her again until last period: drama. Drama I, to be more precise, and second semester would be Drama II. The class was a mix of all grade levels, and Clint figured most of the people taking it were theater kids... but then maybe some of them just figured it would be a more interesting way to get their art credit.
A few seconds before the bell rang for the start of the period, a familiar figure came traipsing in, making a grand entrance as always. Loki.
"What are you doing here?" Clint asked before he could stop himself.
Loki turned and looked at him, one eyebrow arched. "Excuse me?"
Clint started to say he was sorry, but he really wasn't, and Loki didn't deserve an apology anyway. "I figured you would have taken this class when you were a freshman or something."
"It's only open to grades ten and up, for one, and for another, I had other classes that had to take precedence."
Great. Just our luck. But Clint didn't have time to respond, because the teacher came in then, apologizing for being a few seconds late, and began class.
About five minutes in, the stage door (as the class took place in the auditorium) banged open. "Yeah, thanks, I got it," a voice called from the wings, but seemed to be speaking to someone outside of the theater. "No, sure, thanks, buddy. Really appreciate it. Never could have figured it out without you."
And then the door banged again, and a boy, dark-skinned and muscular – came skidding out onto the stage, his entrance even grander than Loki's, although perhaps unintentionally so. "Hi," he said. "Sam Wilson. Nice to meet you." And he dumped himself into a seat and gestured to the teacher, who was staring at him, open-mouthed and gaping. Clint was pretty sure the technical (or at least British) term for the expression was 'gobsmacked'.
"Please," Sam said, leaning back and stretching his legs out in front of him, "go on."
Natasha tapped his arm, and when he looked she tilted her head in Loki's direction. He looked like he'd been fed a fistful of broken glass, and if looks could kill, Sam Wilson would be dead. Deader than dead.
He grinned at her and signed, Looks like things just got interesting.