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Ghosts That We Knew

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Circus folk looked after their own. That is, until you become too much trouble, and there was no doubt that Clint Barton was just that: trouble.

The whole Barton family was trouble, or they had been. Clint's drunk of a father was dead now (may he rot in hell) and his mother with him, and maybe Clint should miss them but he didn't. He missed Barney, but he'd given up on ever seeing him again. He'd tried, after it happened, after it all blew up (literally) and they left him behind, but for all that their job was to call attention to themselves, they were remarkably good at disappearing when they didn't want to be found.

And when there was a chance of the cops or CPS coming down on them, they didn't want to be found.

Clint was tainted now, and damaged goods, and that part of his life was over. He just had to accept it.

Not that this was a bad place, where he was now. He couldn't complain when he got three meals a day and a room of his own and if he did his chores he even got an allowance. If he got sick, they took him to the doctor and when he needed new clothes they bought them. They made sure he had what he needed, and maybe if he let them do more they would, but he didn't usually. Still, it could be a lot worse, and he knew it. He'd met kids before he got placed who'd told him horror stories.

Probably he would have ended up one of them, except he'd been dubbed "special needs" and fast-tracked into a foster family instead of a group home. His shrink (because yeah, they decided it would do him good to talk about it, not that anyone had asked him) would say that that was the silver lining or some shit.

He tried (sometimes) to make himself believe it.

"Clinton! You're going to be late!"

"Yeah, coming!" He grabbed his backpack and slung it over his shoulder. He looked at the bow propped in the corner and sighed. No point in bringing it when he wouldn't get to use it. The Sullivans didn't like that he had it in the first place, but he'd refused to allow it to be taken away. He'd had to concede the arrows.

"I don't see why you always get up so late. If you woke up earlier, you could have a real breakfast," Mrs. Sullivan fussed. He couldn't tell if she was actually annoyed or if she just felt it was her motherly duty to bitch at him about stupid shit.

To pieces of bread popped out of the toaster and Clint grabbed them, slathering one with peanut butter and the other with jelly , slapping them together to make a sandwich.

"'M fine," he mumbled around a sticky mouthful as he poured coffee into a travel mug and dosed it liberally with sugar. The agency had told his foster parents that they would need to pick their battles, and the one over whether or not he was allowed to drink coffee was one they'd eventually had to give up.

The others looked up from their places at the table with a mixture of admiration, envy and annoyance, and sometimes all three at the same time. There were four of them staying with the Sullivans right now, and Clint was the oldest, and the newest, so it bothered some of them that he got away with things they never could. They all had various issues, and the neighbors seemed to think the Sullivans were saints for taking them on. (They were also pretty sure the kids were the spawn of Satan, so...)

They weren't saints, but they were good people. It had taken a while before Clint believed that it was more than a façade, and they weren't going to turn on him as soon as CPS looked away. Almost five months in, though, he'd started to trust them, as much as he was able to trust anyone when suspicion had been bred into him.

He screwed the lid onto his coffee mug and took a swig, wincing as it burned his tongue, and headed for the door.

"Don't forget your lunch," Mrs. Sullivan said, shoving it into his hands.

"Thanks," he said, earning a look of disgust from here for talking with his mouth full again.

The high school wasn't that far away, and he enjoyed the walk. It was the only time he got any peace and quiet, pretty much, without taking his hearing aids off, which he wasn't supposed to do except in the shower or when sleeping. It pissed him off, but those were the rules.

He went to his locker, shoving his lunch on the shelf and switching out his books so he had the ones he needed for his morning classes. The whole school thing rubbed him the wrong way a lot of the time, but like most of his life these days, it was a necessary evil. And like a lot of things, it wasn't always so bad, although he spent a lot of time trying to cover for the fact that his "homeschool" education up to that point had been spotty at best.

"Mister Barton! Just the man I was looking for."

Clint turned to see the smiling face of Mr. Coulson, the school social worker. Clint had spent more time than he liked to think about in the man's office since he'd started school, doing make-up classes over the summer. Still, he couldn't think of any reason why Mr. Coulson would be looking for him.

"I didn't do it," he said. "Wasn't me."

The corner of the social worker's mouth quirked. "Not yet," he said. "I actually have a special assignment for you."

Clint went still, immediately on edge. "I don't need more homework."

"It's not homework. It's not really work at all. We have a new student and I need someone to show them around, make sure they find their classes, all of that."

"Why me?" Clint asked. "Why not one of the do-good suck-ups like Rogers?"

"Because Mr. Rogers has enough going on. I thought it might be beneficial to match them with someone who knows what it's like to be new. For both of you."

"Do I get a choice?"

"No. It's just for the first few days, until they settle in."

Clint heaved a sigh. "Fine." He slipped his arm through the strap of his backpack, settling the weight on his shoulders. He followed Mr. Coulson to main office, dragging his feet.

"Natalia," Mr. Coulson said. "There's someone I want you to meet."

The small figure slumped in one of the office chairs, hood over head, looked up. Clint hadn't even noticed her at first. But now that he'd seen her, he couldn't look away. The first thing he noticed was her flame-red hair, long tangled curls framing her face. Her skin was pale and her eyes were wide and blue, and she was beautiful.

She stood up, facing Coulson and barely sparing Clint a glance. She said something, but Clint didn't understand a word of it. Her voice was low and husky, not at all what he would have imagined from someone her size, and she had some kind of accent, apparently, or maybe she wasn't speaking English. He honestly couldn't tell.

Coulson shook his head. "Natalia, this is Clint Barton. Clint, Natalia Romanova."

"Hey," Clint said. "Nice to meet you." He didn't offer his hand because he got the feeling she wouldn't have taken it. She looked at him, finally, but didn't say anything.

"He's going to show you around, make sure you can find all of your classes. Just for the first few days." He handed Clint a copy of her schedule and a pass that would allow him to arrive at his own class a few minutes late and leave a few minutes early so he could be there to escort her. She looked even less thrilled about it than he was.

"I don't need help," she said as soon as they left the office. "You can go."

At least that's what Clint thought she said. The combination of the noise in the hall, the pitch her voice and her accent made it very difficult for him to understand her. He fiddled with one of his hearing aids but it didn't really help. "Okay," he said finally. "Go ahead then."

She looked at her schedule, frowned, and headed off – in the wrong direction. He caught up with her, touched her shoulder, but she yanked away, her hands coming up like she expected a fight.

"You're going the wrong way," he said, holding his hands up in surrender, to show that he meant no harm. "It's that way." He pointed.

She scowled, but straightened, her hands dropping. "Tell me."

"Maybe I should show you," he said. "Just this once."

Her frown deepened, but she finally nodded, once, and fell into step behind him. He wound his way through the halls, finding her classroom a few minutes before the bell. "I'll come back after," he said. "Your next class is all the way on the other side of the school."

She considered him for a moment, then nodded again and ducked into the classroom, obviously trying to avoid drawing attention to herself. He could sympathize; it hadn't been that long since he was in the same position. Which was probably Mr. Coulson's whole point, damn him.

He flashed his pass at his teacher as he took his seat and tried to pay attention, but his mind kept drifting back to Natalia, wondering who she was and where she'd come from and how she'd ended up here. He wondered how she was getting along in class, and whether she would actually let him help her at all.

He left class five minutes early to make sure he was waiting when her class let out. He wouldn't put it past her to slip out to try to get away from him. She glanced at him, her hands shoved in her pockets, and said nothing as they made the trek across the school. Which was how it went with every class, until they got to lunch.

He'd stopped at his locker to switch his books and grab the food that Mrs. Sullivan had packed before meeting Natalia. "You can sit with me if you want," he offered. "It's getting a little cold for it but I usually eat outside."

"I'm fine," she said automatically.

"I know. Offer still stands."

He could see her struggling. She didn't want anything to do with him, or anyone as far as he could tell, but what else was she going to do? Where else would she go? Her cheek dented in as she bit the inside, but finally she sighed. "Where?"

"Come on." He led her out of the school and away. Technically they weren't supposed to be out this far, but no one had ever bothered him about it. "Can you climb?"

She watched as he clambered up the branches of a tree, then scrambled after him. He watched as she perched just below him, within reach but not easily.

"You have a lunch?" he asked.

"I'm fine," she said again.

"You say that a lot."

"Because is true." A line formed between her brows. "Because it is true."

"Right." He pulled out his lunch. Ham and cheese, an apple, carrots, and two cookies. "Here." He held out half of the sandwich to her and refused to pull back his arm until she took it. The apple was split (with a pocket knife he wasn't supposed to have) and the carrots divvied up. After her initial protest, Natalia didn't argue. Clint knew he would be hungry long before the end of the day, but there was no way he was going to eat when she had nothing, and not share.

Maybe tomorrow he would ask Mrs. Sullivan for two sandwiches. He was a growing boy, after all.

He handed her one of the cookies and for a second he thought he saw the barest flicker of a smile. Once the food was gone, they sat in silence, and it was... nice. Peaceful. Clint could get to like someone who knew the value of quiet.

When the period was over, he motioned for her to climb down. She dropped from the last branch, landing lightly and stepping back to make room for him to follow.

His feet hit the ground and he shouldered his backpack again. She was looking at him strangely, and he instinctively reached up to make sure he didn't have anything on his face. She shook her head then, as if to say that wasn't it.

"Thank you," she finally mumbled.

"You're welcome," he replied. "Come on. Don't want to be late." She rolled her eyes, and he laughed. "Okay, maybe you don't care, but I don't need Coulson on my ass for not doing my duty or whatever." Not that he normally cared, but the truth was, for all that he'd complained about it at first, he kind of liked being able to show her around. He didn't want the job taken away from him because he didn't do it right.

As they approached the school, he slowed down. "Hey, uh... I was thinking if you wanted, after school, I could give you a tour of the whole place? When the halls ain't so full. Kind of map out where things are so tomorrow..." His voice trailed off.

She looked at him without looking at him, like her eyes were on him but she didn't see him, and she didn't answer. He finally just turned and kept moving, because what else was there to do?

At the end of the day, though, he waited for her after her last class, even though it wouldn't have been hard for her to find her way out of the building; just follow everyone else in the mass exodus. "It's this way," he said unnecessarily. "Do you take the bus?"

"I thought you were going to show me," she said, gesturing vaguely with her left hand. "When everyone is gone."

"Oh." Clint grinned. "Right. Sure." He found a place for them to wait, out of the way, and once the halls were mostly clear, he took her around the school, making sure to point out where all of her classes were, as well as other important places, like the office and the cafeteria. She said almost nothing, but he could see her taking it all in, filing it away. It seemed like not much escaped her, and he suspected that she wouldn't need his help for long.

They arrived back at the main doors and Clint pushed them open, stepping outside into the cool autumn air. She followed him and hesitated. "I see you in morning?"

"What?" Clint was sure that he'd heard her wrong. He had a hard enough time understanding her as it was, and this seemed so outside of the realm of possibility that he knew it had to be a mistake.

"Nothing," she replied, looking away.

"No, tell me," Clint said, reaching out but then stopping himself before he touched her, remembering what had happened when he'd made that mistake before.

"I see you in morning?" she asked again, color creeping into her cheeks.

This time he was sure he'd heard it. He hoped his grin didn't look as idiotic as it felt. "Yeah. I'll meet you here, okay?"

"Da." She frowned, shook her head. "Okay."