Only warning for this chapter is angst, people, buckets of angst.
Clint turns out to be hard to get ahold of.
Natasha tries, during Summer Enrichment, picking locked doors and using classroom phones to call his number. She slips out her window, crosses Mountainview's roof, and drops down into the director's office in the middle of the night to use her office phone. One evening in the kitchen she lifts the aide's phone from her purse and squeezes into the pantry to dial.
She gets voice mail every time, but makes herself leave lame messages: "Hey, it's me, just wanted to see how it's going."
Just once more, she finally tells herself. One more try and then I let it go.
She gets a postcard in the mail then, covered with tight, blocky writing. "Sorry I keep missing you. Orientation is more like boot camp, they gave me a gun! I work all night, cameras watching everything. I crash during the day. I'll try to catch up when my probationary period is over."
It's better than nothing.
But she stops trying to call.
The last day of Summer Enrichment is especially bittersweet, because it really is the last day. Next summer, Natasha will be… elsewhere. Working at a tedious job probably, going home to a crappy apartment in a poor section of some city.
Mrs. Pulaski hugs her, and gives her a gift card to the bookstore and a business card with her name and email. "If you ever need references, please contact me. I would be happy to write them for you."
Sophie-Anne's mother approaches her as the students scatter to get into cars. Would Natasha be interested in taking Sophie-Anne as a private student, perhaps one day a week for the school year? Sophie-Anne's mother would be happy to pick up and drive Natasha home, and Natasha can choose whether to meet in the public library or Sophie-Anne's house.
And just like that, Natasha has her first paying job.
Once school starts, she picks up another, in French. Brian had given up once he'd passed (barely) his credit requirement for language, and Natasha uses her freed-up time to find a paying student.
She tucks the money away in the envelope with the twenties.
The weather cools.
She's in the computer lab one morning (Mr. Wieller having suggested a comprehensive computer class for her—"It's another type of language, after all. Why don't you see how you do?") when she gets an odd email in her inbox. The sender is unfamiliar, a series of letters and numbers that looks like a code, and then some sort of corporate suffix. That it got past the school's rather impressive filters intrigues her, and so Natasha opens it.
"Sorry, Romanov, looks like I'm going to miss taking you to Homecoming like we planned. I'm not really supposed to be using my work email to contact outside people, so don't reply here, but I wanted to let you know.
Homecoming? What in the hell is he talking about? Natasha closes down her computer, grabs her backpack, and asks for a bathroom pass.
The Phys Ed office is empty; all the teachers are outside with classes. She pops the lock, slips inside, closes the door quietly behind her. Her fingers slip with dampness as she dials an outside line.
Clint picks up on the second ring. "Barton." His voice is rough with sleep.
"It's me. What happened?"
"Romanov. Hang on." There's a rustle, and faintly in the background she hears a door open, then shut, and then music switches on. "Okay. Everything's okay. It's just… No one's supposed to know, but I couldn't not tell you. Stark's PR office kept it totally out of the media."
"There was a break in." Clint's voice still sounds gravelly, and she presses the phone tight to her ear. "Completely professional—it was more like a military operation. They had night vision, some kind of device that put the security cameras into a loop, canisters of knock-out spray and these big-ass assault rifles. They ambushed the truck that supplies the cafeteria somewhere out on the highway and came in through the service garage. Hang on." Natasha hears a can pop and hiss, and Clint gulps something down.
"Are you okay."
"Yeah, I'm fine. Security fired everyone in the service area, but I was on the roof."
"I don't care about your job…"
"I'm fine, Romanov, they never even saw me. They got into one of the server rooms and unhooked a computer bank, and then they wrapped it up to look like a cart of food trays and wheeled it right out into the truck. They were after Stark's research, the dad's, not Tony. He works on some freaky-ass stuff, down in the lower levels where I do not want to go."
"Why are you telling me this?"
There's a faint rasping noise, and Natasha can picture Clint rubbing at the back of his head.
"I stopped them." His voice is abashed, and she closes her eyes, trying to hear what he's not saying. "The truck came out, and I noticed it had taken a lot longer than usual for a meal drop, and when it came up out of the garage it was riding really low. A server bank is apparently pretty heavy. I looked over the edge of the roof and the driver was wearing a night vision helmet and so I, uh… shot the truck."
"You shot the truck."
"With my slingshot. And one of Tony's pellets. I was trying to be quiet. The damn thing went clear through the front end like water, shredded the engine, stopped the truck dead in its tracks. They tried to get it going again and when it wouldn't they piled out and took off running. I hit the alarm and the rest of security brought them down at the gate."
"Holy shit, Barton!" Natasha feels lightheaded. She gropes beside her for a desk chair and collapses into it. "I thought you were like a mall rent-a-cop or something! This is… this is big time serious!"
"I know it. I don't know what the hell Stark Industries is doing in there, and I don't really want to. But, see, the thing is…"
"Jesus, what else?"
"I sort of got promoted. There was extra training and now they're sending me overseas, for some security detail that's…"
"If you say 'high-risk', I'm going to scream at you."
"It's okay, I won't be on my own. There's a whole team, I'll just be the back-up."
"Back-up gets killed, too."
"I'm not going to get killed." Clint sounds irritated now. "It's not a war-zone. It's a parts pick-up from Switzerland and Security is all stirred up over that night, that's all."
"Oh, that's all. Well, I guess it's perfectly safe, then."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
"You said they had assault rifles!"
"And now they're in jail. Or, actually, I don't know if they're in jail, Daddy Stark kind of operates in his own system of justice, I think. Anyway, my supervisor swears it's a milk run."
"Shit, Barton, what have you gotten yourself into?"
"It's a job, that's all. I just have to keep my head down and shoot straight and it'll be fine. I just wanted you to know, that I'll really be out of reach for a few days."
"You better come back. That's all I have to say to you." Natasha is clammy with cold sweat, and her stomach is churning. Before she disgraces herself completely by bursting into tears, she twists and claps the phone back into its cradle.
Ten days later there's an email waiting for her when she logs in: "Hi, how was Homecoming?"
She deletes it and takes a deep breath and opens her classwork for the day.
It gets even harder to reach Clint. Natasha still tries, off and on, when she can no longer stop herself from dialing. She only ever reaches voice mail; she never leaves messages, because what can she say? 'Are they keeping you busy?' 'Get shot at recently?' 'Are you still alive out there?'
Anyway, he has to know the hang-up calls are hers.
Steve swings around at his desk in homeroom one morning. "Clint says hi."
Natasha looks up, startled. "He what?"
"He left a message, at, like, three this morning. I guess he works odd hours?"
'Odd hours'—that's an understatement. Natasha shrugs. "I guess. Thanks, Steve."
She leaves a voice message of her own at three the next morning: "Get a Gmail account, you jackass."
Steve's waiting for her Monday morning. "Clint says to tell you 'as soon as he gets to an internet café'." He gives her a puzzled look. "That make sense to you?"
"Yeah, it does. Thanks for playing messenger."
"No problem. Hey, Peggy and I are going to a movie this weekend, did you want us to swing by and pick you up?"
Where did that come from? Natasha wonders. She shakes her head. "Thanks, but I do tutoring on Saturdays."
"Okay, maybe next time then," Steve says easily.
The email she receives from 22hawkeye12 (his numbers from the two lacrosse teams he played on) the following week says only "See you soon", but when it's followed ten days later by another one saying "Hi, it's good to be back", the knot in Natasha's stomach loosens just a notch.
Natasha knows something's going on when Steve asks her if she has a date for the Snowflake Ball. "A friend of mine is in town for the holidays, and I wondered if you'd like to go with Peggy and me."
Steve Rogers knows absolutely everyone in the school and probably half of them would fall over themselves to date a friend of his, so Natasha can't work out why he's asking her. She shakes her head. "Thanks, but I don't think so."
"Just as a friend, that's all. Snowflake Ball is more about friends going out to dance, there'll be a lot of people there who aren't dating."
"It's really not my thing. You should check with Darcy, though, she's one of the cutest, most fun people I know. Your friend would probably have a blast."
"Okay, if you're sure. If you change your mind, you can always just come with us."
What the hell? Natasha thinks, but she nods. "I'll keep it in mind."
The package waiting for her after school drives away all thoughts of winter balls and strange invitations. Natasha brings it into her room and sits crosslegged on her bed to open it. There's an airmail stamp on it, and half a dozen postmarks, and a customs label indicating it came from out of the country.
Inside is a plain silver tin, and something wrapped in a crumpled bit of Turkish newspaper. There's no note and no card, no festive wrappings or bows. Natasha pries open the lid and the tin is full of small sesame-honey candies; the mildly sweet scent that wafts up wrenches her instantly back to her childhood and she sucks in a breath. When did I tell anyone…?
She uncrumples the paper to reveal a tiny carved wooden donkey.
She hides the candy in her various coat and backpack pockets. The wooden jackass she slips into her jeans pocket for safekeeping.
Winter break ends without word from Clint. At first, Natasha doesn't let herself dwell on it; she has a big project for Spanish, and Clint's gone long stretches without emailing before. She goes to the library where she can spread out her supplies and immerses herself in homework rather than worries.
He never picks up his phone, either.
She knows he never answers at night—that's when he's most likely to be at work. But now every call she makes goes to voicemail, even when classes start again and she can get to her school email, swallowing her pride to send a blunt message: "Answer the phone next time I call."
Her emails languish without replies.
Finally she can stand it no longer; the strangeness of receiving a Christmas gift, when they've never marked holidays or birthdays before, and the long gap in communication after that, eats away at her peace of mind.
Saturday morning, Natasha cancels her tutoring sessions and pockets money from her stash. She hikes through the early-morning chill to the bus stop across town. An hour-long stop-and-start ride gets her to the train station near the interstate, and from there it's another swift but lengthy ride to the outskirts of the city.
Clint's apartment is in a sketchy section of town half an hour's walk from the station. It's a tall Victorian that looks one stiff breeze from collapse, but she can see why he chose it—it bristles with small balconies and porches and outcroppings that look easily climbable for someone who spends half his life on a roof.
His apartment is on the third floor. She climbs a staircase with missing balustrades and peeling turquoise wallpaper, trying not to touch anything. The chipped door at the top is shut; from behind it thumps music with a heavy bass, and she has to pound hard on the door before someone finally stomps over to yank it open.
His roommate has thinning hair scraped into a ponytail, grease-stained chef's checks, and a sweater that makes Natasha itch just to look at it. "Is Clint here?"
"Barton? Dunno." He turns and yells back into the apartment, "Hey, Andre! Is Barton here?"
"Naw, he came back last night, but now he's out."
He turns back to the door. "Nope. Not here."
"Do you know when he'll be back?"
Chef Pants turns around again. "Know for how long this time?"
The music lowers and there's a cascading sound, of piled junk sliding to the floor; a moment later the second roommate shuffles into view, barefoot and carrying a limp slice of pizza. "He went out with that Bobbi chick, so probably not for, like, a really long time." His eyes slide up and down Natasha. "You can, like, come in and wait for him, though."
"Bobbi?" she asks, before she can stop herself.
Pizza Slice leers at her. "Yeah, kick-ass girl, dresses all in black, comes by to pick Barton up at really weird hours. They 'work' together. If you know what I mean." He winks.
All the blood drains out of Natasha's face. She turns away stiffly.
"Oh, hey, I meant it about coming in to wait! We've got pizza!"
"And beer," Chef Pants puts in. "It's cold, even."
Natasha doesn't remember getting down the stairs, or out the front door. The cold air brings her back to herself a bit, enough that she can retrace her steps to the station.
The next train southbound doesn't arrive for another two hours. She stands out on the platform the entire time and stares at the bare tree branches silhouetted against the sky.
One of the aides pages her to the front hall Sunday morning. "You have a guest. You can sit in the lounge with him, or on the porch."
It's Thor, wearing a very long red scarf wrapped around his neck and shoulders and a very worried frown. He holds out his cell phone. "Clint Barton needs to speak with you."
"You came all the way out here for that?" Natasha asks dully. She doesn't reach for the phone.
"He said it was of great import." Thor pushes the phone into her fingers and turns away. "I will wait on the porch, fair maiden."
Natasha stares at the phone for a long moment; its screen is lit, indicating an open line. She's tempted to simply close the connection and hand it back to Thor, but then she hears a faint voice from it. "Romanov? Are you there? Natasha."
She lifts it to her ear. "What."
"Listen, I don't know exactly what those two morons told you, but I was at work. I got called in for a debriefing. A meeting."
"You don't have to explain anything to me."
"Bobbi works with me. She picks me up in the company car because she says riding in on the bike takes me too long."
"You don't have to explain. I get it. You're busy; I'm sorry I showed up on your doorstep like that."
Clint huffs out an exasperated breath. "If I'd known you were coming, I'd have said debrief had to wait. And Bobbi's my partner, that's all."
The word hits her like a bolt of lightning. "Partner," she manages, through stiff lips.
Somehow hearing him describe someone else as his partner slices deeper than knowing this Bobbi may have been something… personal.
Even Clint seems to realize his misstep. "My work partner," he says hastily. "Just for my job, like cops, Tasha. She trained me, she's on my team…"
He's only making it worse. Natasha waits for a pause in his rush of words and then interjects gently, "It's okay, I get it. Good-bye, Barton. Stay safe."
She walks out to the porch, where Thor swings around with a hopeful expression. Natasha hands him back the phone. She feels brittle, and light, as if the winter wind could blow her away. "Thank you. You don't need to drive out here with any more phone calls, okay?"
She thinks he protests, but she goes inside without listening and gently shuts the door.
Steve spends a week looking at her with concern. The day before the long Presidents' weekend break he stops her on the way out of homeroom. "Listen, my friend Bucky is coming down for the weekend and we were going out to Bower Hill to go snowtubing. Why don't you come along?"
Natasha has suspected for a while now that he's been instructed to look out for her; it's the only explanation that makes sense. But why not? It's her senior year; all the songs say it's supposed to be the time of her life. She shrugs. "Sure. What the hell."
Bucky is tall, and handsome, and while not quite as much of a gentleman as Steve, still doesn't take more than a fleeting glance at her chest when she shrugs out of her coat. The drive out to the Hill is pleasant enough; Bucky keeps regaling them with wild stories of his exploits, and Natasha finds herself smiling at some of his wilder tales.
Careening down the hill is so exhilarating that for whole minutes at a time Natasha is able forget everything but the rush of cold wind on her cheeks. After a dozen or so trips, Bucky drops into his tube and pulls Natasha down with him before she can get into her own. He wraps his arms around her and shoves off hard to build up extra speed.
She lets him, without protest. They rocket down the slope and bounce off the tube at the bottom, rolling through the packed snow, and he's laughing when he gives her a hand up.
There's snow in his dark hair, and his eyes sparkle when he looks at her.
She lets him bring her hot chocolate when they take a break in the lodge.
But when Bucky walks her to the door in the blue twilight and bends to kiss her, she turns her face to the side with a rueful smile. "Sorry."
He shrugs, straightens. "No problem. I did have fun with you, though."
"Me, too. Just… that's all I can do. For now."
Natasha filters her school email so that anything other than teacher or administration messages are sent straight to another folder.
She never opens it.
You've traveled alone before, Natasha reminds herself. You can do it again.
The lighting for the musical is just fine, thank you very much. Only a major critic would notice the transitions are jerky and the spots miss their cues by a beat or two in a couple of crucial scenes.
College letters start to trickle in. Everyone around Natasha is in an agony of waiting; she watches faces go from tense one day to either crushed or jubilant the next, depending on the contents of the envelopes.
Jane's standing on a cafeteria chair one rainy day with her arms around Thor's neck. "Syracuse!" he announces, beaming at Natasha across the others' heads as she walks up with her lunch tray.
"Congratulations." She can't help but smile at the proud expression on his face. Jane releases him and drops lightly back in her chair and Darcy straightens up with sheets of paper pulled from her messenger bag, laying them in the center of the table.
"Since we're sharing good news: Berkeley said yes, and so did Long Beach; I'm still waiting to hear from San Diego. Berkeley was my first choice, so I really think that's where I'll be next year."
"That's fantastic!" Jane slides the letters over. "You went with all West Coast schools?"
"Yup." Darcy digs her spoon into her yogurt and slurps up a pink dollop. "I know everyone thinks I'm Little Miss Sunshine and Rainbows, but this place hasn't always been a bowl of cherries—I need distance between some bad memories and me. California, here I come."
"As long as there's a strong science program, I don't care which coast I end up on. I've got a list of twelve, but this summer I'm doing in-depth research to narrow it down even more." Jane hands the letters back to Darcy.
"What about you, fair maiden? Have you any plans?" Thor asks.
Natasha smoothes her expression before she raises her head and lets her hair fall away from her face. "Mr. Wieller made me put in a few applications," she says. "But even with the state's stipend because I'm JINS, the aid package isn't enough to cover the costs. I'll still have to finance most of it with loans. I'm not sure I want to be stuck with that kind of debt." She makes herself smile coolly. "I'll probably just work, maybe pick up some classes at Valley Community."
"Oh, I know what you mean," Jane sighs. "I'm planning on graduate work, I'll be paying off my loans for the rest of my working life."
"It's so totally unfair," Darcy says. "All your life they tell you to work your tushie off to get into a good college, and then you do and get stuck paying for it forever."
Natasha lets the conversation swirl around her as she goes back to picking at her lunch. Darcy's words are ringing in her mind—"distance between some bad memories and me".
Maybe that's what she needs more than college—a continent's worth of distance, and a clean break from her past.
The envelope in the ceiling is getting fat with tens and twenties, but when Natasha counts it one Saturday night, the total makes her stomach tighten. Clearly, she won't get far on a year's worth of tutoring.
There are job listings in the local paper, and on an online message board. Natasha starts taking the late bus so she can sit in the school library after her last class and comb through them.
A team bus is loading in the parking lot for an away game when Natasha comes out of the school. Someone breaks away from the equipment-laden players filing onto the bus and jogs over to intercept her.
"Have you word from Hawkeye, fair maiden?" Thor asks her.
"No." She thinks about qualifying her flat answer—his schedule is crazy, he's wrapped up in his job, Stark Industries is crazy paranoid about letting its people have outside lives—and then doesn't bother with excuses.
Her heart knows there's no word because he has a new partner, and doesn't need her.
"I wish to invite him to playoffs, but his phone has been rendered out of service."
Natasha's stomach lurches. "Maybe he got a new one," she says with studied disinterest.
"Perhaps." Thor sounds dubious. "My lady, did he mention a new residence?"
"No. I told you, I haven't heard from him in," months, her mind supplies. "A while," is what she says.
"Nor has anyone. I took it upon myself to contact his roommates. They report he moved out."
The world tilts around her, but from a dark corner of her mind, Natasha produces a careless shrug. "I guess he got tired of the squalor. I'm sure SI Security pays enough for him to afford a decent place of his own."
Or with a certain single roommate.
Maybe Thor is thinking the same thing, because he looks deeply unhappy. "Fair maiden…"
The bus honks, and someone drops a window to holler, "Move your ass, Odinson!"
Natasha nods toward it. "You better go. Good luck today."
She waits until Thor has jogged reluctantly back to the bus. Then she turns and re-enters the school.
The computer lab is still open. She sits, brings up student email, and logs in.
The folder full of non-school-related messages is waiting for her, untouched since she created it. She clicks open the oldest, and works her way down the list.
"See you soon."
"It's good to be back."
"See you soon."
"It's good to be back."
"See you soon."…
A whole winter's worth, with intervals ranging from one week to three. Coded messages for "I'm doing something risky for the insanely secretive and cutthroat company I work for and I can't tell you what or where or who will be trying to murder me and steal whatever-it-is I'm protecting, but I wanted to let you know."
Followed by code for "I'm still alive. This time."
Natasha clicks on the last one. "It's good to be back."
She stares at those five small words until they blur, because the date on the header is five full weeks earlier.
Five weeks ago, Clint stopped sending her messages.
He changed his phone.
He changed his apartment.
For a long moment, simple terror scorches through Natasha like lightning. Her ears roar, and cold sweat trickles down the hollow of her spine.
She sits frozen, unable to kick her brain into gear.
Finally, though, reason seeps back in. She loosens her grip on the edge of the desk and rubs her palms on her thighs. Her head is pounding; she sips in air with one shaky breath, then another.
If he were dead, someone would have told her.
Even if he didn't have her listed in his personnel records (he would have done that, wouldn't he? Even if they no longer speak?), Tony Stark would surely notify her.
If not for her sake, then for Bruce's.
Just severing ties and moving on.
Natasha takes a long, calming breath. She feels Uncle Alex's training settle back over her like a cloak and she straightens in her chair and slides the mouse forward.
Delete. Delete. Delete.
When the folder is empty, she logs off and rises. Picks up her backpack.
One more deep breath, and she's ready to go.
Managing alone, with no partner, is what you were trained for, you foolish child.
Like Clint a year earlier, Natasha isn't going to bother with graduation.
She has a room lined up, and a successful interview as an interpreter at a North Philadelphia hospital under her belt. A budget, outlining how much she needs to save until she can relocate far, far away from the East Coast. A suitcase half-packed beneath her bed.
But Thor keeps gazing mournfully at her whenever they cross paths. And then Peggy is named valedictorian, and Steve is so head-over-heels proud of her that Natasha can't find it in herself to just brush him off.
And so one hot June morning she slips the stupid flimsy gown over her new summer dress, and bobby pins the even stupider cap to her curls and goes out to the state car with Ms. Martinez and Cherie and the boy who took Trey's slot when he left.
There's a stage set up in the home team endzone of the football field, and row after row of folding chairs on the turf. The stands are filling up rapidly.
Inside the field house, harried teachers shove the graduating class into alphabetical lines and try to confiscate beach balls and bubble wands. "This is a solemn occasion, people! Approach it with decorum, not like a circus!" Assistant Principal Coulson cries vainly, his hands full of silly-string cans.
It is a circus, Natasha thinks, excitement and anticipation thick in the air as the school band strikes the first notes of the processional and the show begins. Someone squeals, and the line starts to move.
It's as much a popularity contest as the preceding school years ever were. The salutatorian, a girl who barely ventured from the mathematics wing her entire school career, gets a minimally polite scatter of applause for her speech, while the class president receives whoops and hootings for his disjointed tribute to partying. Even Peggy, when she steps to the podium, draws a muttered, "She's such a stuck-up bitch," from someone behind Natasha. She thinks (hopes) Steve is beaming too hard to have heard, though.
It's the same when the speeches are finally dispensed with and the awarding of the diplomas can commence. Some names get scant notice, others a roar of applause and cheers. A few, with no family or real friends in the audience, get no acknowledgement at all.
"Amanda Palmer," Superintendent Fury intones, and it's time for Natasha's row to rise, file into the aisle, and inch toward the front. She twitches the polyester gown straight and gazes over everyone's heads at the sky as Fury calls out the Ps, then Quillen and Quinteros, and starts on the Rs.
"James Rhodes!" triggers a click in the audio, Fury's voice suddenly overridden by a rousing sound clip of the Air Force anthem. Rhodes freezes in his diploma-and-handshake, whips his head toward the top of the stands, and glares, and there's another click as control of the audio is returned to the sound tech. Natasha doesn't even have to crane her head with the others to know that Tony Fucking Stark has crashed his buddy's graduation ceremony.
"Steven Rogers!" gets such a sustained wave of shrieking and clapping that Fury has to pause until it dies down before he can proceed with "Lucrezia Rollins!". Steve's ears are bright crimson as he half-stumbles down the stage.
Movement above catches Natasha's eye as she steps from the risers to the stage. Over the stage, bright against the clear blue sky, drifts a blood-red balloon, a weighted string steadying its course.
There's no extravagant response to her name. She hears scattered applause (Steve, and Peggy, possibly Darcy), matching whoops from both Thor on the field and Frigga in the stands, but it barely makes an impression as she reaches the podium, one hand outstretched to Principal Hill's handshake, the other to the diploma declaring her accomplishment.
Because above her there is a sharp pop!
Latex shreds rain down, along with a glittering shower of confetti. It drifts down in a shimmering stream, swirling on the light breeze before finally dusting Natasha's cap and shoulders and bright red hair.
She's almost smiling, her head high, as she makes her way back to her seat in a shower of radiance.
There are more names, proud words from both Fury and Hill, and then caps soar into the air, spill down again in a pattering wave. Airhorns blare from the stands, joining the swell of applause. Natasha registers none of it, impatient for the ceremony to be over already.
The recessional breaks down into milling chaos just outside the field gates. People are grabbing each other, shrieking, clutching bouquets of flowers and shiny mylar balloons. Natasha's gaze slides over misty-eyed relatives, friends sobbing joyously in each other's arms, impromptu photo ops. In the swirl of activity she glimpses Thor lifting and spinning a thin dark-haired boy, Steve with his arm around Peggy, Darcy being kissed by half a dozen relatives. Tony Stark is standing in the back of a groundskeeper's commandeered golfcart and passing out flyers—"After-party at my place, directions right here, take two and pass 'em on, after-party at my place."
She turns away, lifts her face to the breeze. Pinpoints its direction, and then she's tracking it back as she skirts the crowd of now-former classmates. She makes her way down the sidelines and out past the visitor's endzone.
He's at the foot of a towering pine tree, arms crossed, shoulder propped on the trunk. Scuffed bark dusts his jeans; he has sunglasses pushed up onto much-shorter hair, and a faded t-shirt pulling tight over new muscles.
Natasha stops at the line where sunlight turns to shade. "Barton."
He smirks, and her stomach flips. "Romanov."
"Hey, I had to mark the occasion." He pushes off the tree and lets his hands drop; she can see the slingshot outlined in his back pocket and strange new calluses on his fingers.
"You're lucky security didn't come down on you for bringing a weapon onto school grounds."
"They never even saw me."
"I never saw you," she admits. "I didn't think to look."
"You think I'd miss this?"
"I thought you were busy working. Out of the country. With… Bobbi." The name is bitter on her tongue.
Clint shakes his head. "I quit."
Natasha's breath catches. He's not smirking any more, and he's watching her, carefully, that old closed-off blankness threatening to creep over his expression. "Why?"
"Got a better offer. Government-affiliated security, not corporate. They had an opening for a marksman and it wasn't like I had any ties to Stark Security, so I took it."
Natasha thinks she's heard wrong. "No ties?" she asks.
"No." Clint shakes his head, slowly, his eyes never leaving hers. "None. Never."
The crushing weight falls away from Natasha's shoulders, and suddenly she can breathe again.
"I've been working, yeah, maybe too much, but their training was top-of-the-line and the money's damn good. I've got a car now." He runs his hand over his hair. "You, uh, want to see it? Maybe… take a ride?"
Natasha can read the naked hope beneath the casual words. "A long ride?" she asks, and watches his grin wipe away all traces of guardedness.
"How long 'til you're sprung?"
"I'm already packed; they cut my paperwork on Tuesday."
"Cool." Clint falls in beside her, their arms nearly brushing. Natasha unfastens the gown and lets it slip from her shoulders, leaving it pooled on the bottom-most seat of the bleachers as they pass.
"Hey," Clint says, deceptively casual, as they head side-by-side toward the parking lot. "Wait'll you see the new hobby I've been practicing."
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