sparsenicjade
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Warnings: allusions/references to prior child abuse of all forms

Thanks: To my alpha, egelantier, who helped me find a conclusion, and my beta forsweatervests who's pretty much responsible for the world building and other good stuff. My fanartist, kymericl for being enthusiastic, and on top of everything and creating lovely art which can be found here, please go let her know what an excellent job she did. Last but not least, both mods of marvel_bang, who made this year and last a joy and delight.

AN: Being used for "dungeons" square on my first hc_bingo card.

***






***


The ghost walks into the tent on two feet, like any normal human being, but Clint knows better. Its hair is a special gold-red color and it looks soft. Clint bets his hand would go through it. He's not going to try. He's not very brave, really.

When he heard someone coming in, he was sure it was Lyndon. Lyndon likes finding Clint during the stage show, likes that Clint can scream then and nobody will come. Clint's not sure why someone would come if he screamed. Maybe because it was bothering them? He's never asked, though. He only uses words when he has to. They get confused on his tongue. He's a very stupid boy, everyone says.

The ghost turns. It might be an angel. Caleb, the barker, says they don't exist, but Clint wonders if maybe he just hasn't seen any. Looking around, Angel-ghost asks, "Tony?"

Clint frowns. He can't remember anyone named Tony working for the circus. There'd been an Italian roustabout a few months back, but he'd gone by Antonio, and had been left behind when he hadn't made it back to the train by the departure time. Roustabouts were like that, coming and going.

"Tony, this is not—" Angel-ghost stops as Blue, one of the performing monkeys, manages to reach out from the bars of her cage far enough to get hold of a strand of hair and yank.

The hair goes where it's pulled, and the maybe-just-a-person makes a sharp noise in her throat. Clint doesn't really think before jumping down from the rigging, holding his hand up to give Blue something else to play with. Blue isn't mean; she just likes shiny things.

The woman, who's touching her head lightly says, "Oh. Thank you."

Clint shrugs. He wants to ask her not to tell, because Victor, the animal trainer, will take it out on Blue, but he learned a long time ago not to ask for things. Asking only makes the eventual punishment worse.

She crouches down in front of him and Clint backs up hastily, wishing Blue weren't holding on so tightly, that he could scramble up to relative safety. She says, "It's—it's okay. I won't hurt you."

Blue is now tugging at Clint's hair, which hurts, but Clint doesn't mind. Blue doesn't mean it, the way people always do. The woman looks over at Blue, then back at Clint. She smiles a little. "Is he a friend?"

Even if she looks nice, like maybe she could be somebody's big sister, Clint isn't telling her anything. He made that mistake with the Doskocils, the first tumbling family he remembers.

Clint doesn't know if he was born in the circus or not, but he can't remember anything before it. He's heard rumors that he was born to a star rider, who died in childbirth, leaving Carson with a useless baby. Or there's the one about how the circus bought a group of orphans for jobs the adults were too big to do, and didn't realize they'd been given one orphan too little to do any good until they were on their way. There's also the one about Clint being the bastard of one of the clowns who'd gotten stuck with him. He's not sure any of them are true, but they do all explain why nobody's ever seemed to like him much.

The Doskocils had loved their kids, and hadn't hit Clint or tied him outside the tent at night or anything like that. Clint had thought maybe they could like him, like their kids, if he was good.

Instead, after he'd eaten with him a few times, they'd told Carson he was stealing their food. Clint understands that he was an extra mouth to feed. He also imagines they thought he wanted a cot or maybe some new clothes. He hadn't, but they hadn't asked, so he couldn't tell them that. Clint doesn't think about what happened when Carson found him after being ratted out by the Doskocils. His hand tightens unconsciously in Blue's fur.

Blue chitters at him before swinging away, out of his grasp. Clint's almost up the bars, atop the cage when the woman puts her fingers to one of the inflamed blisters on his foot and Clint curls up instinctively, his hands coming to his head. He falls all the way back down. He can still fit under the cage, where most people can't get to him. He's getting himself to move when she says, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean—I'm sorry."

Clint's never heard an apology. Well, no, he's heard them, those just weren't for him. It's nice, but also really scary. Clint likes to understand things, to see what's coming.

The woman is frowning, but she doesn't look mad, at least not the way Clint's always witnessing it. She says, softly, "I just wanted to see if you know where my husband is. He gets distracted by machines and other curiosities. Do you know where he might have wandered off to?"

Clint wonders if she'd let him get away this time. He could try again. He almost does, but…she said she was sorry, and she hadn't even hurt him, not much. Clint chews on his cheek while he considers, and after a few seconds, he nods tightly. She smiles at him, gentle and clean and Clint is maybe having a dream. He likes it though. She asks, "Take me there?"

Clint tries to smile back. He's not used to it, and his jaw aches from the last beating, but it feels nice all the same. He reaches up to her before realizing just how filthy his palm is. Clint didn't know he was smelly and dirty until the older kids started making fun of him for it. The circus is rarely near a creek, though.

He's about to pull his hand back, but she is too quick: fitting hers around it and holding on.

*


Clint is unsurprised to find an unfamiliar man atop the new engine. The old one gave out a few months earlier, and the only thing available in the region had been the newest of hybrid engines. None of the roustabouts had been paid since its purchase. And nearly everyone with even a vague interest in machinery seems drawn to it, as if by magic.

The woman sighs. "Tony."

It's time for Clint to go. He's helped, but last time he got caught in the near vicinity of the new engine—he'd just wanted to see it—Carson's security had dangled him outside the train while it was moving and laughed when he couldn't help screaming. He starts to slip his hand out of hers, but she looks over the moment he does it, bends down to where they're eye to eye.

She opens her mouth, but before she's able to say anything, the figure from the engine jumps down to land beside them. Now that Clint can see something more than an outline, he notices just how nice the man's suit is. Well, the parts that aren't covered in grease and soot. Much more strangely, his heart is evidently very loud, with whirs and clicks that Clint can hear and a bit of light that peeks through his shirt. The woman looks up at him indulgently. "Having a good time, dear?"

Tony makes a face and rubs and hand through his already-funny hair. "Got distracted."

"Is the train now going to fly?" she asks.

Tony blinks. "No, but, now that you mention it—"

"Tony," she says again, just as he's about to reclimb the engine.

He gives her a small smile. "Pepp?"

"I want you to meet someone first."

Tony looks over at Clint and Clint's pretty sure he hasn't even noticed his presence till now. It makes Clint want to run, but "Pepp" is still holding his hand and hers is soft and gentle and Clint can't seem to make himself.

"Making friends?" Tony asks.

Pepp's smile is small, a bare flicker of her lips. "He hasn't told me his name, but he saved me from a monkey and found you for me."

Tony's eyes are dark, and there's never just one expression in them. Clint doesn't like it. Not knowing what's coming is the worst. He asks Clint, "Doing my job?"

"Tony." Pepp's tone is a warning. Clint knows all about warnings, for all that he's rarely granted them.

There's a beat and then Tony smiles. It's a sharp smile but not mean, at least not in the way Clint knows mean. Tony says, "Fair enough, I wasn't doing it."

Clint doesn't really know what that means, except he thinks he's safe for the moment. Still, he has to go. Even from this far away, one glance over at the big top and he knows exactly where the show is, and that if he's not where he's supposed to be in minutes, he's going to regret it for days. Clint shrugs and tries, once more, to pull away, this time a little more forcefully, panic lending him strength.

Pepp's grip tightens, not quite enough to hurt, but close. Clint gasps out the one word that he trusts not to make things worse. It might not make things better, but Clint is used to taking what he can get. He whines, "Please," then, for good measure, "Please, miss."

"Missus," Tony says, even though he doesn't seem to be paying much attention anymore, his thoughts back on the engine.

"Tony," Pepp repeats, sounding fond, but also tired. Then she says, "Brave little boys deserve rewards. I'm not letting go until I see about getting you one."

Clint isn't sure what happens, then, only that his mind gets stuck in the last time a townie tried to help him out. He'd lived on water and whatever he could dig out of the animal troughs for over a week, and his hip was still sore from how long it had been before one of the clowns sneaked him to a "healer" in backwoods Alabama to fix it. His breaths feel sharp in his chest and everything is too bright, despite it still being night and he can't find his voice to beg some more. Too used to running only delaying things, he instinctively goes deathly-still.

Vaguely, Clint hears Tony say, "Hell, boy-o."

He's too entrenched in his own fear to respond until he feels a gentle, warm hand against his face, a large palm lying lightly on one of his shoulders. Clint can hear a sound like when one of the horses is giving birth, or one of the cats needs a wound treated, but doesn't realize he's making it, not fully.

Pepp, for her part, just says, "All will be well, little one. You'll see. Everything will work out."

*


As soon as the two adults get distracted just enough by thinking of who, exactly, they need to find to "help" Clint, he twists free and runs for all he's worth, thinking frantically. He needs a good hiding space. They'll find him up high, now that Jacques and Carson have figured out to look. The lion cages keep him safe from people, but not from the lions. He'd learned that the hard way.

Praying he gets lucky, Clint heads to the car reserved for the pretty flame thrower, "Miss Blaize," who almost always spends her evenings with the horse-trainer. Nobody will think to look in one of her trunks. Clint just has to stay quiet and tucked up until the worst of it blows over.

Once he's inside, he almost reconsiders. The dark doesn't bother him so much—darkness usually indicates safety—but he's trapped inside. If they find him here, there will be nowhere to go. Then again, having somewhere to go has never really saved him. He knows better than to run from the circus. He's seen townie kids without parents begging on the streets, their skin hanging on bones, almost see-through. Scraps are better than nothing.

It's a while before he hears voices calling for him. That's…unusual. It's general knowledge that Clint's not one to give up his hiding place until he's been dragged from it. He doesn't know what to make of the change. His stomach cramps in fear, but he ignores it. They won't find him, they won't.

The one thing Clint hasn't planned on is everyone—Miss Blaize included—being drafted into finding him. She is the one who opens her trunk, probably not even to find him, probably to grab something, and screams, "Get out! Get out, you filthy animal."

Clint is fast, but not quite fast enough to scramble away before she's pulling him out by his hair. He chokes off the sound of pain in his throat. It is easily swallowed by the sheer amount of terror he's feeling. Blaize says, "Stupid carnie-spawn," like she's any better for not having been born to the life. She pushes him out of her car, "Carson wants you."

Clint is all set to hide again, but one of the roustabouts catches him and drags him to the main tent by his ear. Clint doesn't whine, it will only make the man pull harder. He's tossed into the tent, catching himself on his hands. He doesn't bother to get off his knees. He thinks about things he likes: the smell of rain, the softness of the horses' noses, the funny sounds the monkeys make. Sometimes he can hold onto these thoughts, stay in them, and it hurts a little less.

Then something happens Clint cannot understand. A woman's voice—Pepp's voice, he realizes—bites off the words, "Thank you for your…cooperation in this matter," and someone, oh, Tony, squats down and tucks his hands under Clint's underarms, saying, "Up you go," before putting him on his feet and dusting him off, or, well, trying.

Pepp takes his hand again and says, "Come now, Clint."

Clint has no idea what to do. Has he been thrown out? Is that the punishment for helping these people? Should he beg? Should he go with them? They haven't hurt him so far. Clint chances looking at Carson, but Carson just sneers and makes a dismissive gesture. Pepp starts walking, and Clint could dig his feet in, but he'll stumble sooner or later. Instead, he follows.

*


Clint is brought to a carriage drawn by machines. He's not certain if he should be terrified of the way they seem to mimic horses, or if he should offer them treats. He doesn't have any at the moment, but when he does, he might have to try.

Tony says, "Show you how One and Two work later, for now, let's be gone from here."

Clint's lifted inside, where he discovers the nicest space he's ever seen. It's even prettier and softer than Carson's car, and that's the best one. This, though, has seats that feel like Clint's always thought clouds would if he could reach them. It's warmer than the chilled outside, but not hot and stuffy. It's clean, too, and Clint doesn't want to find out what happens to things that get the car dirty.

Pepp, though, says, "On the seats, Clint. It's too dangerous for you to stand."

Clint is still healing from a severe switching two nights earlier. He hasn't been sitting, just perching, but he knows he can't do that. He resigns himself to the discomfort, and to the likelihood that he will get another beating for making things muddy and stained, and sits gingerly on one of the seats. Despite biting his cheek, he can't quite help the sharp breath it knocks from him.

Tony's eyes narrow and Pepp frowns. Clint hastens to tell them, "I falled." Then, because they look doubtful, "I climb and do stupid things and fall. All the time."

"Most words the kid's said all night and it's to cover for people who just sold him off," Tony comments.

Clint doesn't understand. "Sold? Like…" Like an animal?

Pepp glares at Tony. "Some people, Clint, money is all they understand. And if you want something, you have to speak the language of the person you want it from. Does that make sense?"

Not really, but Clint is too busy thinking about how the horses are sold to the glue factories if they even make it that long. He blinks back tears. He may be stupid, but he's not a cry-baby. "Are…are you gonna make something with me?"

Pepp tilts her head and Tony says in a tone that manages to be both flat and sharp, "You're not high enough grade machinery, kid."

Pepp closes her eyes for a moment, taking a breath. When she opens them, she asks, "What do you mean, make something?"

Clint grips the tatters of his pants with his hands so that they won't shake. "The horses are turned into glue."

For a moment, both adults are silent, wearing expressions Clint doesn't understand, their cheeks a bit green. It is Tony who says, "You're not a horse."

Clint actually knows that. Still, "I got sold."

"But not bought," Tony says. His lips are twisted in threatening way, but he's not looking at Clint, instead staring out the window of the coach, back in the direction of the circus.

Clint doesn't know a lot, but he's pretty sure that doesn't make any sense. Pepp sighs. "Give us a chance, Clint? Things will make more sense if you just give us some time."

Clint's used to not being told anything, so he nods and works on not falling asleep. The carriage is so soft that even the bumps in the road don't bother him, and he hasn't had any real rest in days, not since they came to town and Jacques started using him as a way to make some quick money on the side from the townies. Even the pain from the beating and from the men isn't quite enough to keep him from drifting.

He does everything he can think of, including digging a finger into one of the scabbed spots, but in the end, just like always, he loses the fight.

*


Clint wakes to the feeling of hands on him and immediately goes limp. He has found he won't win any fight, but he can make things hard for the other person. A male voice says, "I'm not carrying deadweight. Since you're up, you can walk."

Clint blinks his eyes open and it takes a second, but then he remembers. Tony. Tony and Pepp and being sold. Clint slides off the carriage seat and follows Tony out of it. Pepper is already standing in front of the carriage, speaking quietly to a man with dark skin, the kind Clint has only seen when the circus traveled southwards, and then only behind fences. Clint wants to touch, to see if it feels any different than his skin, but he knows better.

The man has a holster holding a pistol at each of his hips, the metalwork extremely detailed and pretty. Clint's never seen beautiful weapons. He knows he should be scared—he is—but he also wishes he could touch them. Their owner turns to him and smiles. "Clint, yes? I'm James, but friends call me Rhodey."

The man holds his hand out and Clint isn't entirely sure what to do. Is this man going to be in charge of him? His curiosity overcomes his wariness—a flaw that has landed Clint with more scars than not—and he reaches up to take the hand. It closes gently around his and shakes twice before letting go. Clint blinks. Disappointingly, his skin feels the same as everyone else's, but with calluses that reminded Clint of the roustabouts more than the performers.

"Welcome," Rhodey says.

"Th-thank you?" Clint knows it shouldn't be a question, but he doesn't feel assertive enough to state anything just then.

"Rhodey," Pepp says softly, and Rhodey nods.

"Of course. I'll return shortly." He walks off toward a stallion, a real, breathing one.

Now that Rhodey is gone, Clint has nothing to distract him from the house in front of him. House is a bad word. Clint has seen houses when the performers have taken him into towns for one reason or another. This is, well, maybe it's a castle. Clint's never seen a castle, so it could be. It's taller than any home Clint has ever seen, maybe three stories, and has statues at the top, and actual lights gracing the front. There are windows bigger than Clint knew windows could be. It's not exactly pretty, but it is impressive.

"You're welcome to sleep in our driving way, but I, for one, am going inside," Tony announces.

Pepp shakes her head and looks down at Clint. "Ready to see your new home?"

Suddenly, things shift into place. This house probably needs little hands to clean in places adults can't get. There are lots of kids in need of jobs, so Clint doesn't know why these two wanted him from the circus, but he's not really too bothered. He'll miss the animals, but maybe he can do better here, not be naughty, and he won't be beaten as much. It's a new start.

Clint nods and offers Pepp a small smile before following her in her trek toward the house.

*


Inside the house is more beautiful than anything Clint has ever seen. He's used to the cheap glamour of the circus, its riotous colors and the fake sparkle of glass. There are plenty of colors here, too, but they fit together, neither so bright nor loud as those of the big top, but rich and wonderful. What glass there is does not sparkle, but shows him the night sky, the dark quiet surrounding the house.

There is a wonderful clock ticking steadily in one of the nearby rooms. Clint can just see the slow movement of gears painted to fit with the rest of the décor. He cannot tell time with a clock, but he likes to watch them, all the same.

Clint cannot help but be a little distracted by how many hiding places this house might have, where he could tuck himself in and not come out until a pursuer lost interest. Of course, he'll try to be good, but Clint knows he'll mess it up. He always has before.

A tall, distinguished-looking man with the neatest eyeglass Clint has ever seen, with lenses that rotate at the click of a brass dial just to the right of the frame, greets Tony and Pepp as "master" and "mistress." The lenses click and whir into place as he peers curiously at Clint. Clint makes himself stop staring, distracting himself with the question of whether Pepp's a queen, or something. Queens probably seem like angels from far away. Pepp says, "Evening, Jarvis. This is Clint. He's going to be staying with us."

Jarvis gets to one knee in front of Clint and Clint has to keep himself from bolting, the movement is so strange. Despite his clipped, clean tones, Jarvis has a soft gaze, and when he says, "It is a pleasure to meet you, Master Clint," it does not sound like a joke. Then again, maybe Clint just doesn't get the joke. This is all very confusing.

Clint wants to ask questions, but he knows it's better to wait and be told what to do. He doesn't want to get this wrong, not so soon. He dips his head and whispers, "Nice to be meeting you, sir."

"Jarvis," Pepp says, "could you have one of the maids draw up a bath? And see about getting Clint something clean to wear, at least for tonight?"

"Of course, mistress." Jarvis stands fluidly and walks further into the house, turning a corner so Clint can no longer see him.

"Pepp," Tony says. It sounds like what Clint would call a whine, but he daren't think that, not even in the questionable safety of his own mind.

"Go," she says, laughing a bit, and waving her hand. "You've done your duty by me."

"Yes, well, seeing as my manly feats have been…feted, I'll just—" he leans in to kiss Pepp quickly and then disappears in a different direction from Jarvis.

Pepp looks down at Clint. "Don't mind him. He gets ideas, and then he must get to his workshop."

Clint thinks it's weird she feels the need to explain. It's not Clint's place to mind.

She smiles at him, but even Clint can tell there's something odd about the smile, just a bit off. All she says, though, is, "No doubt that bath is already in progress. Let's go see if we can find where they've chosen to draw it, shall we?"

Because she seems to be waiting for some type of response, Clint nods his head once.

*


The water in the large shiny copper basin Pepp shows Clint to is warm. Clint's never felt anything like it before. In the summer the streams he finds to wash in are nice, a relief from the heat, but in the winter they are painful, and washing a torment he is occasionally made to endure by others in the circus. He fully expects something of the kind, but finds himself wanting to stay inside the water, the way it laps at his skin gently and seems to make him warm even inside his stomach, which never feels that way in the winter.

She instructs him to scrub behind his ears and under his fingernails. The tub, which has a machine that heats and pours the water into it, spilling over a turning gear with a waterflow space carved into the surface, has to be emptied and filled three times before she seems content, but Clint can't find it in himself to mind. Even the way it stings his open blisters and welts can't bother him. The overall feeling is wonderful.

The nightshirt Clint is put in once dry is much too large for him, but so, so soft. Clint wonders if it belongs to a big kid, or one of the adults. Clint's not sure how old he is, maybe seven or eight or nine, judging by the performing kids he's always been around. He's small, though, smaller even than some of the kids he's definitely older than. He trips over the nightshirt walking down the hall with Pepp, and instead of scolding, she does nothing more than pick him up and carry him the rest of the way. Clint is too surprised to even startle. She doesn't hold him so tightly it hurts anywhere besides where his back is still healing, and when they reach where they are going, she is gentle about setting him down. He finds himself missing the feel of her arms and wraps his own around him. It's not the same.

The room where they have stopped is huge, as big as one of the side-tents. It has a bed as big as half a train-car and is decorated with a red so dark it's nearly purple, accented with a creamy white. It's beautiful, if mostly empty. It has places to hide and the biggest window Clint has ever seen in his life.

Pepp says, "This is where we'll start you out. It's very near to where Tony and I sleep, and Rhodey and his wife are just down the hall. We can move you if need be, but for now, I think this is best."

Clint nods. He thinks he'll like working on this room, even if there are a lot of things that will be hard to reach. He can be careful. He asks, "Can I, uh, where're the rags and mops an' stuffs? Missus?"

Pepp frowns. "Is something dirty?"

Clint blinks. He doesn't understand the question. "Whats you wants cleaned?"

The frown does not go away. "Why would I want you to clean?"

Clint chews his lip. "Oh. Did you buyed me for the animals?"

That makes some sense. Clint really is very good with all kinds of animals and a large house like this might keep quite a few. Of course they wouldn't want someone as dirty as Clint had been to clean their things. He'd been stupid to even think it.

Pepp folds to her knees with a grace Clint is only used to seeing from the acrobats. She tilts her head and says, "We have plenty of people working for us, Clint. We don't need any help."

"Oh," Clint says again, feeling even more stupid. He should have known better. "Is it…am I just for Rhodey, or is there more?"

"For?" Pepp asks, and there is something Clint doesn't understand in her voice, something that scares him.

He doesn't know how to make her happy. He uses Swordsman's word, because the others he's heard he's pretty sure he isn't supposed to say to ladies. "En'ertainment?"

Clint doesn't know what he's done wrong, but Pepp's eyes get watery, the rest of her face drawing tight. She says, "You're not for any of that. For cleaning or animals or entertainment or whatever else you did before. None of that, never again."

Her voice sounds weird. Clint says, "I'm sorry?"

It's frightening, not knowing what's expected of him, what he's supposed to do, but he hates the way he's made Pepp look and sound, so he won't ask anymore. If he gets punished for not knowing, it won't be any worse than Pepp crying.

She shakes her head, draws in a few breaths and says, "Nothing to be sorry for. Let's just…you must be hungry."

Clint is, but he can't tell if that was a question, so he just tries out a little smile. It seems to work.

*


"Some people find our cook to be unusual, but he really is a genius in the kitchen," Pepp says as she guides Clint along endless hallways, her hand wrapped warmly over his. Clint can't remember a time when someone touched him the way she does. He thinks he could live without food or water, if he could keep holding her hand.

The kitchen is huge. Clint is starting to think his whole life has maybe been small, everything seems so big. There are lots of copper pots and pans hanging about, as well as whirring timers and machines Clint has never seen, but at least one of them seems to be making coffee. A smell Clint cannot recognize, but very much wants to be familiar with, floats in the air. Pepp calls, "Bruce, you here?"

A man with unkempt curly hair and a shirt covered in flour and other, darker powders emerges from a room off to the side. He is holding a dead fish in his hands. "Oh, Pepper. Weren't you planning on staying out later?"

"I was with Tony," she says.

Bruce nods, as if this explains the universe and all its secrets. "I'm experimenting with the five-star anise he bought for me."

Pepper smiles. "Every once in a while, he can actually be thoughtful."

Bruce snorts. "If he wants something in return," but the words aren't bitter. Clint thinks Bruce likes Tony.

Pepper says, "Bruce, this is Clint. He's going to be staying with us."

"Oh." Bruce blinks. "You really think he should be around me?"

Softly, she says, "The medications Jane has given you have stopped any incidents for two years now. I think you'll both be fine."

Clint isn't sure what any of that means, but he makes a note to be quiet and invisible around Bruce. Bruce immediately makes this hard by saying, "Well, it's nice to meet you, Clint. Did you want something to eat?"

Clint is one hundred percent sure there's never been a time when he wasn't hungry. That said, he doesn't know the rules here, like how at the circus, certain people got fed first and others last, if there was any left. He's wondering if he should ask when Bruce says, "Of course you're hungry, you're a boy."

He disappears, then, around a corner, fish still in hand. Clint looks up at Pepper, "I don't need nothing to eat."

"Mm," she says, and steers him toward one of the chairs at a table that's little more than a place to rest a few teacups. Bruce returns with a slightly less than half a bowl of something that is sending steam curling up from the rim, carrying with it the rich smell of meat and spices.

He puts it in front of Clint and hands him a spoon. He hesitates, then says, "Eat slowly, all right?"

It's disappointing, because it probably means the food will be taken from him after only a few bites, but he's not going to mess up the first order he's really been given. "Yes, sir."

Bruce's face scrunches uncomfortably. "Bruce."

Instead of trying out the name, Clint takes a spoonful. He can't help the noise he makes as his tongue comes in contact with the food. Clint has grown up on food made for large crowds, and scraps of that food, at that. This is…this isn’t food, this is a reward. Clint doesn't know what he did, but he will do it forever if it means only a few bites of something like this.

He goes slowly, as requested, but they never even try to take the bowl away from him, not even when he rests for minutes upon beginning to feel full. Instead, Bruce talks about something he needs from Tony, and hide-row-ponick thing, that Clint thinks is another machine. Pepper nibbles on what seem to be flower petals with sugar on them, occasionally telling Clint he's doing well, or responding to Bruce.

When Clint has finally finished, Bruce asks, "Was that good? I was experimenting with caraway seeds, it might have been a mistake."

Clint, despite having a hard time imagining why it matters, tells him solemnly, "It was the bestest food I'm ever tasting."

*


Rhodey returns as Clint is looking around to see if anyone is watching, or if he can lick his bowl. Next to Rhodey is a woman whose hair is in a messy bun and who is tiny, even next to Pepper. She's carrying a black bag. She smiles at everyone when she walks in, a broad, sweet smile and Clint finds his own lips curling.

She says, "You must be Clint. I'm Jane. Rhodey says you need a bit of patching."

Clint blinks slowly, sending a questioning glance at Pepper, who says, "She's a doctor, Clint. I want her to take a look at you, all right?"

"I'm healthy, missus." Doctors are expensive. He's heard it yelled, whispered and everything in between when circus performers have been hurt. And the circus docs…Clint forces himself not to think of the injection machinery that left scars wherever it pierced, or the cheap tin limb replacements that almost always turned green, the skin around them turning angry red and having to be cut away, further and further.

"Then it won't hurt to let her confirm that, will it?" Pepper asks.

Clint shoves his real fears away. Letting on to being scared has always been a path to other people learning how best to punish him. He goes the safe route, and mimics what he's heard. "Docs is expensive."

Pepper blinks then. After a moment, she says, "Tony and I have the money to spend, and want to spend it on you."

Clint can't help asking, "Why?" He knows better than to ask that question, has been hit at least eight or nine times before learning that lesson, but it literally just tumbles out of his mouth. He opens his mouth to take it back, to apologize, but Pepper is too quick.

"Because—because I always wanted a fairy godmother growing up."

Clint is too distracted by his own curiosity to notice himself digging the hole deeper by asking, "What's a fairy godmother?"

Pepper hesitates for a second, then answers, truthfully, as far as Clint can tell, "Someone with the desire and ability to take care of someone else who needs it."

Clint still doesn't really understand, but he does know that Pepper, for whatever reason, wants him to let the doctor poke at him. He says, "Oh."

"I will be very gentle," Jane tells him. Clint shrugs. The idea seems kind of strange, but if she wants to try, he won't argue.

*


Jane starts with his feet. She makes a hissing noise upon seeing them. Clint bites his lip and mumbles, "I cleaned'em best I could, miss doctor."

"Jane," she says softly, as she begins to take bright and unusual gadgets out of her bag. "I like being called Jane. And you did a very good job of cleaning them, but…they probably hurt to walk on, right?"

Clint supposes they do. He can't remember a time when they haven't, though. Some days it hurts less, but then he'll accidentally step on something again, or be given a job involving some task his feet aren't used to, and it will start all over. "They'll gets better."

"Mm," Jane murmurs. "What I'm about to do, Clint? It's going to hurt a lot. But it's going to help, too. Okay?"

Clint still doesn't understand why people keep asking him things. Jane sighs and tousles his hair. "Poor thing. We're going to get you fixed right up."

It does hurt, what she does to his feet. It burns and pinches and Clint finds himself biting his wrist to stop himself from whimpering. Jane carefully moves his arm away from his mouth and says, "You can make all the noise you want to."

Clint can't think of any reason she'd lie, but he's had noisiness beaten out of him too thoroughly to believe her. When she's finished, she wraps his feet in soft, clean bandages, and then puts a pair of socks on them. Clint flexes his toes. He's never worn socks. They feel weird, not in a bad way, but new all the same.

Jane continues to look him over, tapping and listening to different parts of him with little machines from her bag, frowning at all sorts of things, and occasionally asking how he got a scar. Clint remembers a few of the worse ones. He just says, "I'm clumsy," again and again and again, like he was trained. Eventually she gives up. She doesn't get angry or rough with him. He waits and waits for it, but it never happens. She's even careful when she discovers the irritated welts on his back from his latest strapping.

When she's finished, Clint is exhausted. He tries to get to his feet and nearly pitches face-first to the floor. Jane catches him and says, "Just rest for a moment," holding him up and steady.

*


Tony bursts into the room where Rhodey and Pepper are reading to Clint aloud and in voices about a wolf and a little girl and her grandmother. It's kind of scary, but Clint wants to know what happens. He's seen books—Simon, the animal doctor who patched people up in the circus when they needed it, had always had one somewhere—but the insides are all gibberish to him. It's amazing, the way they make up a story.

At first he was nervous, when they started reading, that maybe they had better things to be doing, but he's since become too involved in the plot to notice that thrum of concern. It resurfaces immediately when Tony appears, looking bedraggled and announcing, "I am a genius."

Pepper glances up from the book, and Clint thinks she's a little annoyed, but he's not sure at whom the emotion is directed. She asks, "Why don't you come back when you have something newsworthy to share? We're having story time."

"And you can go back to having it as soon as I show you what I did," Tony says, evidently unbothered by Pepper's reaction.

Pepper opens her mouth, but Rhodey cuts her off, saying, "All right, show us."

The piece of machinery Tony is carrying, which looks like a cross between a cat and one of the electric lanterns Clint has seen throughout the mansion, moves, then, and Tony places it on the floor. It stalks toward Clint, who fights his desire to run. He'll only be caught. Better to figure out what the machine-creature is supposed to do.

It stops just before it gets to him, tilting its "head" back and forth before purring, "Mine. Miiiiine."

Tony winces. "Ah, the programming necessary to make her protective also makes her a little possessive."

Clint doesn't understand. He doesn't think he can hurt the people here, but he wouldn't, in any case. "I—I won't cause troubles, sir."

He knows he won't be believed, but it's worth a try. Tony frowns. "You probably should think about it, being a kid and all. But what does that have to do with anything?"

"You don't hafta make her watch me. I won't—"

"She's not to watch you, Clint," Pepper says from behind him. He whips his gaze to her. She smiles. "Tony is wonderful at making things and terrible at explaining their uses, but he made her to keep you safe." She looks past him, at Tony, "I presume she has some type of alert protocol, should it be necessary?"

"Why are you always underestimating me?" Tony asks. "It wounds me. In my soul. In the deepest—"

"Does she have a name?" Rhodey interrupts.

Tony says, "Uh," but Rhodey shakes his head, "Not you, you're terrible at naming things. I was asking Clint."

Clint has never named anything in his life. He's probably worse than Tony. He stares at Pepper's hands, where she's still holding the book in her lap. He doesn't even realize he's going to speak when he says, "Story."

"That's—" Tony starts and Clint hunches in on himself, waiting to be kicked or hit or spit on or anything before the laughter comes, the mocking. Instead, Tony says, "That's good. I like that. Story. Huh."

For her part, Story makes her strange electric rumble-purr sound, walks in a circle three times, and settles herself between Clint and everyone else in the room. Carefully, Clint reaches out to run a finger over the shiny arch of her back. She whistles, "Miiiine."

*


Clint has never slept in a bed before. A couple of times, when he was younger and stupider, he would try sneaking into the cots of performers who didn't spend their nights in their own, but after the beating with the handle of the riding crop, he'd gotten the message that it didn't matter whether those cots were empty or not, they weren't for the likes of him. The bed he's led to by Pepper isn't a cot. He can only clamber up through years of climbing skills and when he gets to the top he doesn't even realize he's speaking before asking, "Is this made of clouds?"

Pepper smiles. Clint wonders if maybe she's made of sunshine. Maybe everything in the mansion is made of magic and the best parts of the world around them. She says, "Close. It's called down. It's made from the feathers of ducklings and very soft."

Clint wants to swim in it, but Story somehow clears the height of the bed with a very mechanical-sounding pounce and starts nosing him into lying down. He doesn't know if it's appropriate, but he can't help giggling. Story's nose is cold and the bed catches him and there are warm covers waiting and everything is too perfect. This is probably a dream. Maybe like the time one of the people from the town hurt him bad enough that he had to sleep for a few days. He hadn't dreamed anything this good then, but he could be now.

He's just happy his mind can come up with this fantasy. It's so different from everything he's known. He turns to tell Pepper thank you, to tell her he can earn his place. He's little but he can carry big things and get in small places and other useful stuff. She quiets him by tucking the covers over his body, just at his shoulders, and brushing a gentle kiss to his forehead. Clint startles at that, wanting more, but having no idea what has just happened.

Pepper brushes the hair back from his face and says, "Rest, Clint. Dream well."

Clint nods. "You too, missus. And…and tell sir goodnight, please?"

Softly, she says, "I will. Now sleep."

Clint is too tired to do anything else.

*


He wakes from a nightmare in the middle of the night to darkness and no sense of where he is, in a cocoon like he's never felt. He scrambles to the side, trying to get his bearings, and tumbles off the edge of the surface, meeting the floor with hands frantically thrown out and one knee. It hurts, but Clint knows better than to cry out. That will only mean more pain.

He's always been able to see well in the dark given a little bit of adjustment time. Now he sees that the thing he just fell from has a space underneath that he can just fit into if he makes himself control his breathing. That isn't a big sacrifice for the safety the spot offers. It will be hard for grown-ups to get to him. They will, eventually, they always do, but for the moment, he'll have some time before he's caught.

Story half-wheels, half-toddles in right next to him. She makes whirring and chiming noises, her gears reflecting off what little light the lantern in the window is still giving off. Her eyes are pure black, but so shiny they glint as well. Clint imagines it should make him more scared, being watched. It doesn't. Instead it helps a little. It's not enough to make him come out, but when she rumbles, "Mine," it at least makes him feel less alone.

*


Clint must fall asleep underneath the bed, because he wakes to the sound of spurs clinking softly and Rhodey calling his name. Clint bites his lip and tries to decide if it will make punishment worse if he hides longer, makes them find him. It usually does, so Clint takes a breath and slips out from his hiding spot. Softly, he says, "Sorry, sir."

Rhodey turns around from where he is checking out the window, and says, "Oh. There you are. Didn't like the bed?"

Clint wants to duck away. "It's very nice, the nicest thing."

Rhodey takes a step toward him and Clint flinches away. He doesn't mean to, it just happens. Rhodey stops, stills for a second, then sits down on the ground so that he and Clint are roughly the same height. Rhodey says, "But it's not a very good hiding place, huh? Anyone could get to you."

Clint stays silent. He doesn't understand what's happening. Rhodey asks, "Has Natasha allowed you to see her, yet?"

Clint can't think of any Natasha, so he shakes his head. Rhodey nods. "I'm not surprised. My wife Natasha and I run security for the Starks. The mansion is my domain, anywhere else is hers. She was with them yesterday at the circus. Probably rode atop the carriage to get back. She feels safer and more effective when she can hide."

Clint doesn't think it's the same thing. She's not afraid, she's sneaky. He doesn't argue.

Rhodey continues, "She was raised by a mercenary organization. She doesn't know if she was kidnapped or sold or born into it. They taught her that to be seen was to be hurt. I hired her on as a contract worker when Tony was changing the focus of his business and had a lot of people who wished to harm him. After the interview, I didn't see her for eight months, but she saved Tony's life three times.

"The first time she allowed me to see her again, I asked her out." Rhodey's smile widens. "She said no."

Clint must show his surprise, because Rhodey laughs. "I just kept asking. She eventually took pity on me."

Clint smiles a little, not sure if he should, but it's a good story. Clint likes happy endings. Rhodey carefully lifts one hand, slowly, and where Clint can see. He reaches out and gently squeezes one of Clint's arms. "We understand the need to hide, Clint. But nobody here is going to hurt you, or let you get hurt. I know you don't believe it yet, and that's all right. Pepper, Tasha and I are all very patient people, and nobody listens to Tony."

Rhodey slowly stands, his hand coming up to ruffle Clint's hair lightly. Clint thinks of the way the big cats arch into being petted when they're in the mood. He's starting to understand why. "Come on, Clint. Let's go get some breakfast, before Pepper sends in reinforcements."

*


A man in a perfectly fitting brown and blue pinstripe three-piece suit who uses a walking stick with purpose, despite not appearing to need it, arrives as they're finishing breakfast. Clint has been careful to not take too much, but still has had eggs with cheese and a biscuit and some strawberries. He's never had strawberries before. It's all he can do not to steal the ones left. He doesn't, because as much as he'd like to be sure of his next meal, the thought of taking from these people who have done nothing but be nice to him makes his stomach feel funny. He doesn't like it.

Pepper smiles at the man's arrival. "Phil. It's been entirely too long."

The man, Phil, returns her smile with a slight one of his own. He is smaller than both Rhodey and Tony, with dull brown hair and blue eyes. "Busy keeping Nick from killing any of the attendees."

"A full-time job, I do imagine," Pepper says with a laugh.

"You mentioned needing a favor?" Phil asks.

Rhodey, who took Clint's plate away, returns with a cup of coffee, which Phil takes and thanks him for. Phil seats himself at the table. Pepper says, "Phil, this is Clint. Clint, Phil Coulson, Assistant Headmaster of the Institute for Higher Martial Education."

Clint isn't really sure what any of that means. He nods politely at Phil and keeps his head down. Phil says, "Hello, Clint."

"Hullo." Clint wonders if maybe this is where he's being sent. Maybe they need a cleaning boy at this institute, or a—a boy for entertainment. For a moment, he considers whether he could run, if it is the latter. Perhaps it would be better than being that boy, even if he starves. He's been hungry before. It isn't the worst thing, although, it was probably easier back when he didn't known what it feels like not to be hungry.

The man interrupts his thoughts with a short laugh. "What Pepper means is that I do my best to make something useful out of rich young wastrels whose parents don't know what to do with them."

Clint blinks. That does not give him any more information. He's not rich, but he guesses Tony has the money to put him anywhere. He's unsure what a wastrel is. Carson always called Clint a waste, but he doesn't know if the two are related. "Sir."

"Phil," Pepper says, "Clint was working for the circus. We, ah, thought he should have a more normal upbringing. Neither Tony nor I knows anything about the proper raising of a boy, and I just—"

"Of course," Phil says. He turns to Clint. "How old are you, Clint?"

Clint wants to curl up, wants to hide. Instead he answers. "Maybe seven, sir. Or eight. Or um, nine? I'm sorry, I—"

"It's perfectly all right. We don't all have the chance to be so sure of everything in life. Do you know how to read, by any chance?"

Clint can feel himself going red. He mumbles, "Too stupid for that, sir."

Phil's eyes narrow and for a moment, Clint is certain he's about to be hit. Then Phil's face smoothes out again, to its normal calm. He says, "I sincerely doubt that."

Clint bites his lip and thinks about staying quiet. In the end, though, he says, "'Everyone says so."

"Well, only everyone you knew, and as I don't know them, I don't trust their opinions very much. What you need, Clint, is a tutor, and help."

Clint isn't sure what a tutor does, but if they say he needs it, he will take it. "Yessir."

"Clint," Pepper says, stepping close enough to him to brush the hair at his forehead with her fingers, "Will you do me a favor and help Thor out in the stables for a bit? He's by himself and could use someone else who actually knows about horses."

Clint cannot hide his excitement at the thought of seeing the horses, both the strange ones from the carriage and real ones, so he slides from his chair and answers, "Yes, ma'am," before forcing himself not to run outside.

*


The man in the stables is a giant. Clint has never known anything but the circus and its folk, outside of the trips to the towns, and the men who hurt him didn't usually talk much while doing it. He's seen Strong Men and Bearded Ladies and even a Lion-Faced Man. He's never seen an actual giant. He's never even heard of giants actually existing.

Clint is careful to be quiet and look around before he speaks up. There are a few hiding spaces where he can fit that the giant will not be able to reach, in case he needs to run. He takes a deep breath and says, "Sir? Are you—that is, I'm looking for Thor?"

"You have found him, tiny sir," the giant says. His voice is as big as his body. His smile, somehow, is too. "You must be Clint. My lady wife spoke of your presence."

Clint has only met two ladies since coming, Pepper and Jane, and Pepper is definitely married to Tony. Clint nods a little. "Missus Pepper says to come heres and help."

"Are you familiar, then, with horses?"

"I feed them, sometimes. And clean their car." Clint would pet them if there were nobody around to discover it, but he's not stupid enough to admit to that sin.

"Then you shall be of great assistance to me," Thor tells him with a tone of great solemnity. "I shall tend to the iron beasts even as you do so to those of the flesh."

It almost slips from Clint's mouth that Thor talks funny, but years of keeping himself quiet kick in at the very last minute. "Yessir."

Thor smiles and shakes his head. "I am only Thor, little one. Son of the mayor of a small Finnish town, who wanted to wander and never found his way back."

Clint attempts a smile, since he is unsure of what other response might be appropriate. Thor says, "Come. Let us begin our tasks."

*


"She's hurt," Clint says softly. He's about to go into the stall of a mare Thor has called Soteria, but he notices that she favors one leg. The injured limb sports a brace of copper and something else, something that seems stronger. Clint has seen it in the mechanical horses, but nowhere beside. He's not sure, but he thinks it is helping her to support her full weight.

"Yes," Thor says. "She was badly injured a while back during a storm. It was when Tony decided he must have something he could fix leading his carriages."

Clint frowns. "What is she for?"

Thor moves into the stable, where she turns her head enough to nose at his chest. He laughs. "For?"

"How does she work?"

Thor stills. "We would not work her. That would be cruel."

Clint's chest feels hot, like fire that wants to rip right through his lungs. In the circus, when horses could not perform anymore, they were shot and used as food. Nothing was without purpose. When you couldn't do anything, you were given away or killed. This place where things can just be as they are can't be true in the way he understands the world, but he's pretty sure this isn't a dream. It's like he woke up in a different world, and nobody told him.

Clint nods as though he comprehends and approaches her, letting her smell him. Story stalks in and winds her way between Soteria's hooves. Shyly, he says, "Hi."

She wickers a bit and bumps her nose against his forehead. It's soft and perfect. Clint wishes he could climb on her back and hang onto her neck like a hug and never let go. Instead, he goes to work, brushing along her sides. A small machine joins his efforts, a caterpillar of gears with bristles on their underside making slow circuits over her back, where Clint cannot reach without a stool.

She's beautiful: huge and black with feathered legs. She doesn't look like any horse Clint has ever seen in the circus, larger in every way. Clint cannot imagine her prancing.

Casually, as they are clearing her feet of any stones, Thor asks, "Do you know of the origin of the name Soteria?"

Clint shakes his head. He likes the sound of it, but that's all it is: sounds.

"She was the Greek goddess of safety and preservation from harm."

"It's pretty," Clint says quietly. It fits, somehow.

Thor brushes her mane and says, "Indeed. A pretty name for a pretty girl."

She noses at Clint again. This time it tickles a little, but in the best way. He says, "Pretty girl," and reaches up to pet along her neck.

*


A routine develops. Clint gets up in the morning—or, well, usually crawls out from underneath the bed; he's still having a rough time sleeping in it—and has breakfast with Pepper and Rhodey and anybody else who decides to join. He sleeps until after the sun has risen, and nobody takes food from him, no matter how many servings he has. He keeps expecting something different, something real, but reality is afraid of this house and the men and women who keep and guard it.

After breakfast, Phil comes over. At first, Clint was certain Phil was going to get him sent away. Phil sat him down the first day, and asked him endless questions of all types, some of which Clint could answer, but most of which he could not.

Phil had asked, "What colors are in the rainbow?"

Clint knows his colors, they were important in the circus. He can also tell Phil what sounds most animals make, and he knows the difference between a square, circle and triangle. He cannot count to ten, nor can he recite the alphabet. He cannot tell Phil what state they are in, or what the temperature is, or the difference between a penny and a nickel.

At the end of that first session, when Clint feels exhausted and like a rope coming unraveled, Phil tells him, "You did well," and Clint rubs at his face to keep himself from crying and says, "No. No lying, please, sir?"

Phil tilts his head slightly and asks, "Why do you believe I am lying?"

"I din't knowed the answers."

"If you had known all the answers, what would I have to teach you?"

Clint doesn't know the answer to that, either, so he stays silent, and Phil comes back, day after day after day. When Clint learns and remembers things, Phil will take him on walks, or otherwise reward him. When he cannot remember, Phil finds a new way to show him.

Pretty soon, Clint can count to twenty, knows a song for the alphabet, and is able to identify all the different types of coins. Clint spends his mornings with Phil, learning ever more, and his afternoons helping Thor with the horses, and sometimes even riding one or two of the more gentle ones out amongst the grounds of the estate. He likes polishing and cleaning the leather of the bridles and saddles, which are designed to be useful and still attractive, and have none of the tackiness of the ones in the circus.

Dinners, like breakfasts, are regular, and Pepper is there most nights. She drags Tony along some of the time. He makes a fuss, but once he's seated and has a plate full of food in front of him, he tells funny stories and sometimes shows off whatever he has been making. Tony does magic in his workshop, real magic, the kind the circus magicians always said didn't exist.

Most nights, there is even something sweet after dinner: a baked pear or a twine of black licorice or oatmeal cookies. And Pepper almost always spends a couple of hours either helping Clint with schoolwork or teaching him a game or doing something silly, like making up stories, with him.

Clint really does understand that none of this is his to keep, but he starts to believe that if he sticks to the routine he might get lost amongst the others, just become another person in the household, and then maybe he can stay, at least for a bit. No sooner has he worked this out, of course, does the routine change.

*


Clint crawls out from beneath his bed, dresses and goes down to breakfast one morning to discover a man almost as big as Thor sitting at the table, slowly eating his way through enough food for three grown men. The man smiles at Clint very politely and offers him a completely baffled, "Hello, there."

Tony, who is never at breakfast, looks up from his coffee and says, "Oh. This is Clint. I think we might have adopted him."

Steve's fork pauses in mid-air. "You what?"

Clint's glad Steve is asking, because he can't find the right words. Tony looks at Clint like he's a puzzle to be solved, or a machine to be fixed and says, "Not sure. There were a lot of papers. Pepp had me sign stuff." After a beat he adds, "Phil says the kid has advanced capabilities in mathematics and problem-solving." Tony looks over at Clint and says, "Steve goes places and buys me stuff. Pepp says we pay him to do it, something about logistics and procurement management, but I know it's 'cause he loves me."

"Tony—" Steve begins.

"You do, Rogers, just own up to your manly feelings of adoration for me." Tony gestures with the hand not clinging to his coffee cup.

"You may have adopted a kid? Without actually making any, say, adult considerations in regard to such a choice?"

Tony cuts him off with a pleading look at Clint. "I'm not that bad, right? I mean—" He blinks rapidly and suddenly looks intensely upset. "Son of a bitch, I'm my dad."

Steve rubs a hand over his face. "Your dad wasn't a bad guy. He just had a lot on his mind."

Tony frowns and Clint wonders if he can escape. He's good at disappearing, but Tony is still paying attention, which is a problem. Also, Story is standing right behind him, like she knows what he's planning. After a moment, Tony asks, "Do you like me?"

Clint doesn't know Tony, not really. He's always busy with something else, and when he's not, he takes Pepper away, to spend time with her. And the gears and lights that swirl in his chest are a little bit scary. But Tony bought Clint away from the circus and has let him stay in a palace and learn things and always have food. "Of course, sir."

Steve makes a sound in his throat. Tony's eyes go a little bit darker for just a moment and Clint wonders how he's answered wrong. Tony says, "All right. Then it won't be a chore for you to come to the workshop for an hour every day and help me out."

Clint doesn't even realize he's begun breathing too fast until Steve's hand is on his back, spanning almost all of it. He says softly, "Hey there, little guy."

Tony gets to his knees in front of Clint and says, "You don't have to. I just thought that…it might be nice. A little bonding time. Man-to-man."

Clint manages to gasp, "I'd be breaking something." If Phil were here, he'd correct Clint, and Clint can almost hear the, I'll break in Phil's patient tones. He wants to try again, show he can do it right, but he hasn't got the breath left.

Tony looks confused. "Then we'll fix it."

Clint knows it's not that easy, but Tony's there in front of him, and something about him feels familiar, like the blanket of loneliness Clint has known all his life. He thinks carefully about how to say his next words, wanting to get it on the first try. "I—I would like that."

Steve murmurs something about the belly of the beast, but Tony is smiling and talking too quickly to really be followed, and Clint thinks he's passed this test.

*


Tony's different in his workshop. He's still loud and hard to follow, but there's a caution about him Clint has never seen. Mostly, Tony tells Clint to hold things, or says, "Watch this."

Except, Tony has a phonograph, the neatest one Clint has ever seen: it can switch between three records at a time, and Tony always allows Clint to pick all three records. The first time—and second and third—when Clint hadn't known any music aside from the Big Tent standards, Tony had gone through the titles with him, and hummed bars or made suggestions, or both.

And one time, when Story accidentally left her tail where it was crushed when Rhodey unexpectedly walked into a room and right over it, Tony sat Clint down and showed him, step by step, how he was fixing it. Tony talked to him, telling him all the things that needed to happen, and what he was doing to make the appendage better.

Tony talks a lot, actually. He regales Clint with stories that can't be true, but he also tells Clint what he's thinking about making, or what kinds of problems he's running into with his creations.

Clint doesn't really understand most of what goes on, but Tony seems to like having him as an audience, and Clint is more than happy to make Tony cheerful. Tony acts as though Clint does get it, and it makes Clint feel valuable in a way he's never known. Sometimes Tony even asks, "What d'you think?" and Clint will say something along the lines of, "Is it gonna blow up?" or "Neat!" and that's all Tony really needs to keep going, keep making magic and allowing Clint to listen and watch and learn.

There's a lot of clinking, and shiny metals and things that glow in the lab, even apart from Tony himself. If nothing else, his time there is interesting. It probably is Clint's fault that he gets hurt. Clint's always paying a little too much attention to the sounds and sights of the lab, to the cadence of Tony's creativeness pouring over and onto Clint. Tony knows all about the stuff in the lab, so Clint's the one who has to have made the mistake when what he's holding turns hot.

Clint holds on as long as he can: Tony has told him to hold the piece of shaped metal, it is probably important. Clint has had burns before, has been in pain. It's been a while, but not so long he doesn't remember how to take it.

When he knows he's going to drop it, that his hands just aren't going to listen anymore, he says, "Sorry, I'm sorry," and sets it down on the ground as gently as he can. Story is making alarmed, whirring noises and Tony has turned at his apology, looking at him with an expression Clint doesn't know, but it's not good. Not having any better ideas, Clint apologizes again and drops to his knees to see if maybe he can handle it a little bit longer.

Practically before he's on the ground, Tony is there, between him and the piece, turning Clint's hands over to see his palms. Clint tries to keep his hands still, bites the inside of his cheek to keep from making a sound. Tony does make a sound, short and low and terrifying, then scoops Clint up into his arms and practically runs from the lab, shouting for Jane.

*


They find Jane in the stables. It's early, before breakfast, even, and she and Thor like to spend time before the day starts spoiling the horses. She runs outside at the shouts. Upon reaching them, she puts a hand to Tony's shoulder. He's still speaking, but Clint can't make out the words. Everything feels fuzzy.

Jane puts a few fingers on his cheek. "Clint, look at me."

Clint blinks at her. She smiles and says, "You're being very brave. I'm going to fix you right up."

"Brave," Tony says, and there's something wrong about the way he says it, but Clint doesn't know what. He tries to keep his head up, but in the end he falls against Tony's shoulder, his eyes sliding shut.

*


Clint wakes in a bed. His hands ache, but when he holds them up to look at them, they're covered in white bandages. Pepper, who is sitting at the desk in the room, must hear him shift, because she turns to him and smiles. "Well, hello there."

"Did I break it?" Clint asks. Story pokes at him with one of her "claws" and he allows the examination.

Pepper stands, walking toward him. Her mouth curves down a bit. "Break what, love?"

Clint knows he should answer the question, but for the moment he lets himself roll the word 'love' over in his mind. She uses it for Tony, and it was probably just a mistake, but it sounds so nice. "The…the thing I was holding."

Her eyes darken a bit. "No. No. And when Tony decides to be brave and stop hiding, he'll tell you himself you should have put it down when it began to hurt you. Even if it had broken it."

Tony's hiding. Clint tries to make sense of that for a few moments, then gives up. "He told me to hold it."

"He forgot he had," she tells him softly. "Tony's very smart, but also, not always the best about paying attention."

"Oh," Clint says softly. It's not that he's never gotten hurt by accident before, but it's weird that someone feels guilty about it. "Am I not gonna—" Clint realizes what he was about to ask and shuts his mouth. This place is making him stupid.

Pepper tilts her head. "Not going to what, Clint?"

He shakes his head. She sits down on the bed next to him, and very gently takes one bandaged hand. He can't actually feel her touch, but it still seems as though he's being cradled. She says, "Please. Let me answer the question."

Clint bites the inside of his lip, but then figures he's lived through punishment and being told no before, it's not as though this is any different. "Not gonna get to be with Tony? Anymore?"

Pepper smiles, but it's different from her usual one. She kisses Clint's forehead and says, "I'll let him answer that when he finds enough courage to come in here, if it's all the same to you."

Clint supposes it's the best he's going to get. She brushes his bangs from his face and says, "Rest a little more, and then we'll see if we can't clear that up."

*


When Clint wakes next, though, Tony is not in the room. Nor is Pepper. Rather, there's a woman with fire-and-brick red hair whom Clint has never seen, perched on the end of the bed like a skittish cat, stroking Story. She has two daggers inlaid with silver designs strapped to her forearms, and a holster similar to Rhodey's, but with smaller pistols that have a strange blue glow. For a second, Clint wonders if he's dreaming. In the circus, sometimes, he dreamed up friends or even just small animals that took a liking to him. Then the woman says, "I have decided building up your self-preservation skills is not a waste of my time."

Clint isn't really sure what that means, so he just nods. Cat Lady smirks just a bit and says, "I am Natasha."

Clint blinks. "Oh. You're—"

"Married to James. Yes."

Clint isn't sure why she's showing herself now. He just finishes his earlier thought. "Pretty. Like the lady lions."

Natasha's face is unreadable, but after a bit she says, "Thank you."

*


It's harder without the full use of his hands, but Clint is still good at climbing and hiding. He's not stupid enough to let skills like that become rusty and unused. When it becomes clear Tony is very mad at him, he takes to finding ways to follow Tony that he won't discover. He thinks if he watches Tony enough, he'll come up with a good way to apologize and make things better.

Natasha catches him at it almost immediately and Clint stumbles over words trying to explain he means no harm. When he's run out of words he knows, Natasha tilts her head and asks, "You believe Tony is mad at you?"

"He don't come see me. And Pepper says he says I'm not allowed in his lab no more."

"Anymore," Natasha tells him. She says it more absently than Phil does, but with the same lack of mockery. "And none of that is because Tony is angry with you."

Clint just crosses his arms over his chest. He doesn't like being lied to. Natasha mutters something he doesn't understand. It does not sound like English. She focuses back in on him. "Tony is angry at himself."

Clint blinks. "Why?"

"Because you are a child and he is an adult and it was his duty to keep you from harm, and he failed."

Clint considers this explanation. Finally he asks, "So what?"

Natasha makes a sound that might be a laugh, but it doesn't seem mean. She crouches down so they are roughly the same height and says, "Adults are supposed to care for children. The ones that do not, they are in the wrong."

Clint shakes his head. "I think that's just moms and dads."

Her smile is shaded and darkly understanding. She asks, "If there was someone smaller than you here, someone weaker, would you hurt that person, or protect them?"

"I—" Clint swallows. "I'm no good at protecting."

"I don't believe that. But I believe you would try."

Her confidence fills Clint with a warmth that's unfamiliar. He nods. "I'd try most hard."

"That is what a good person does, Clint. Protects those around them in need. And right now, you need protection and care."

"I'm doing fine," he tells her.

"You are, yes," she says. "But your bravery and strength does not make the world any less cold, and so our task, as those who can protect you, is not lessened by the fact that you do not ask it of us. Do you understand?"

"I'm trying."

"Well and good," she says softly. "And Tony truly is not mad at you."

Maybe, Clint thinks. But he gives her his best smile, and lets her think her reassurances have worked.

*


Clint isn't much use without his hands. He can't help with the horses, can't learn his writing, can't even properly eat. He takes to hiding at meals, sneaking down to the kitchen at times when he won't be bothering anyone and pilfering little bits here and there. He tries not to take any more than he gives to the household, but right now the latter is not much.

It works for a while, because it's rare that any of the adults is at all the meals, or even more than one a day. Pepper tries when she can, but most days, by the time lunch or dinner rolls around, she's busy keeping the world turning. All the same, he wakes up one morning, safe underneath his bed, to discover Pepper, Rhodey, Natasha, Phil, Thor and Jane all sitting in his room. Natasha is curled up in the window bay with Rhodey standing to the side, his hip brushing her arm. Pepper is sitting at Clint's study table, sipping a morning coffee and discussing something quietly with Phil. Thor and Jane are playing with the building block toys Clint was given upon first arriving. He has been very careful with them and kept them in excellent condition.

He almost ducks back underneath the bed, but he knows better. Making people wait doesn't ever fix a problem. He offers up a shy, "Hello."

Pepper smiles at him. "Phil tells me you've been very diligent in your lessons."

Clint doesn't know the word 'diligent' but Pepper seems pleased, so he nods hesitantly. Pepper has never tricked him, but there's a first time for everything, and Clint knows all about tricks. Pepper says softly, "And Thor tells me you come and do anything you're able to with the horses."

Clint bites his cheek. He likes the horses. Horses are honest and easy to understand. She speaks up again, "But I haven't seen you at meals. And neither has Rhodey. Jane says you've lost weight."

Clint digs his toe into the carpet and doesn't respond. He's surprised when Pepper appears in front of him, on her knees so she can look up into his face. Her smile has a tremor to it. "The thing is, Clint, I don't think we're doing a very good job of making this a home."

Clint understands, he always does when he least wants to. He smiles, because she's been kind, and the months and months he's been here have been safe and warm. "Yes, ma'am."

He wonders if they still have the clothes from when he came here. He hasn't seen them. Maybe they won't mind if he takes what he's wearing. He hasn't seen anyone else his size around. Of course, they could find someone better, a kid who knows all his words and doesn't hide under the bed and drop things. He wishes he could take Story, he's gotten used to having her at his side, but he knows it's stupid to have wishes.

He doesn't know where the circus is, or where he can go from here, but he'll take the bandages off and try to find work. He's stronger now that he's been eating and he still knows how to clean all sorts of things and take care of different animals.

Pepper has tilted her head and is looking at him strangely. He winds up all his courage and leans forward to kiss her cheek. "Thanks fer…for ever'thing."

He wants to go before he does something stupid, like cry. He can cry later, where nobody will see. He knows he should probably thank the others, but he doesn't have that much energy left. Pepper frames his face with her hands and asks, "What do you mean, thanks?"

Clint wants to struggle free, to run. He makes himself breathe slowly, but his throat is still tight when he says, "This was very nice of you."

From the window, Natasha says, "You're not being turned away, Clint."

Pepper's eyes widen, and then become a bit wet. "I want to take you on a picnic. We all do. You need to eat. And to play, and do other child-like things. But first, eat."

Stupidly, because he's still not sure what is going on, Clint tells her, "It's raining."

She laughs, and her laughter is just a little soggy as well. "Indeed. It's why I made Tony get creative." Then, softly, she asks, "Why would you think I was turning you away?"

Clint doesn't want to answer, but he has learned that Pepper will have her way. He looks away as much as he can with his face still captive between her hands. "You said this wasn't a home for me."

Gently, she tilts her head until her forehead is pressed to his. "I don't believe it is, yet. But that is not your fault, and certainly not something that cannot be rectified."

"Oh," Clint says. 'Rectified' is not a familiar term either, but he knows, for the moment, that he has a second chance. That's more than he's ever been given before.

*


Tony does not come to their "picnic," which is a feast creatively nestled about the greenhouse. Clint wishes he were there, too loud in the confines of the glass and copper and sunlight. He wishes he could sit quietly and listen, in the moments when Tony stills enough for Clint to be able, to the whir and click-clack-click of Tony's heart. Pepper says someone broke Tony's heart and Tony fixed it and that's why it has a shiny silver gear guarding it. Clint imagines Tony's heart like Story's new tail: better than anything natural.

But Tony is still absent, and Clint is not going to allow himself to mope. He likes the fresh-mud smell of the greenhouse building, and the way he can see the rest of the world from safely inside of it. Story enjoys getting lost in the wilds of the ferns and finding her way back. She also finds one of the mechanical pollinators crawling from one plant bed to the next, and has to be convinced to give it up. Clint still wishes he could apologize to Tony, since this is his house as much as it is Pepper's. He does not let his disappointment show.

That night, exhausted from playing hide-n-go seek with Natasha, reading through a whole book with Phil and helping with clean-up, he decides to try to sleep in the bed again. He has tried a few more times since coming to the house. Mostly he wakes up confused as to where he is and scared by all the darkness and open space around him. It is fixed easily enough by crawling under the bed, where he has made a pile of blankets and pillows and a space entirely his.

When Clint wakes this time, however, it is not to high-pitched breaths and one or two whimpers, but the sound of his own broken pleas and Pepper saying his name, over and over. When he realizes he's the one making all the noise he attempts to stuff his hands in his mouth, forgetting they're still bandaged. He does what he can, ignoring the pain that squeezing his hands so tightly causes.

In the quiet, Pepper sparks one of the lanterns, and Clint is surprised to realize Tony is there, standing behind her. Pepper says, "There now," and cautiously reaches out to Clint, pulling him toward her. She gently removes his hands from his mouth.

No sooner than his lips are free do apologies start falling from them, but she settles herself further onto the bed and says, "Shush. If you want to speak of what has frightened you, please do. Otherwise, be quiet, little one."

He is being rocked by her, now. A big boy would move away, would be fine on his own. Clint finds himself burying his face against her shoulder, and then, without even realizing he needs to, sobbing into it.

Softly, behind him, a male voice—Tony—says, "Kid," and Story is making distressed sounds. Clint wishes he could stop, he does, but Pepper's arms are warm and strangely strong without hurting him. It's the first time anyone has cared enough to even sit with him when he was afraid and Clint doesn't know if he's crying for how perfect it feels or how terrified he is of losing it again.

He stops less because he is done and more because his body cannot make any more tears. He tries to pull away—he just wants to hide—but Pepper makes a sound of disagreement and before Clint knows what has happened, he's lying down on his bed, but this time, between Pepper and Tony.

Clint blinks in shock at Tony, his eyes stinging and tired, his lashes still wet. "I messed up your..." Clint thinks hard about the word Phil taught him, "sperry-mint."

Tony blinks back at him, then sighs, wiping at Clint's eyelids with his thumb. "No you didn't. We'll talk about it in the morning."

But Clint hasn't seen Tony since that day, and he's sure if he gives him the chance, he'll slip away again. All the same, his eyes don't want to stay open, so he tries a desperate, "Promise?"

"Solemn oath," Tony tells him. Clint learned that word from one of the books Pepper and Phil read him, knows an oath is something a prince gives to his friend. Clint doesn't hide his smile.

*


Tony really is there when Clint awakens. He's tinkering with Story, who's making questioning noises at him. Clint doesn't think he's supposed to hear Tony tell her, "Just making you a little faster is all. You did good work there, coming to get us."

She makes the half-miaow she manages when happy. Tony smiles a little. Clint notices that Tony smiles much more with machines than he does with people. Well, everyone but Pepper, at least. Rhodey comes close, but Pepper is by far Tony's favorite.

Clint slips quietly out of the bed, but he hasn't even reached the edge before Tony is looking over at him. "About time, squirt."

Clint glances out the window. The sun is already pretty high. He whispers, "Sorry," because he did make Tony promise.

Tony sighs a bit. "It was a joke. You and I are going to have to work on…probably everything."

Clint is still thinking of a response for that when Tony starts speaking again. "Pepp takes care of me, you know?"

As far as Clint can tell, Pepper takes care of everyone. He nods. Tony sets Story on the ground, watching her prowl off. "And, um, she's the first person to…care. To do that for me. I mean, Jarvis, but I pay Jarvis and it's just different."

Clint nods again, even though it's not easy for him to see the difference. Kindness is still a little too new.

"I've never been good at sharing, not with the things I need. Other things I…I don't care at all, but I need Pepp and I was so sure, that is, you're a kid. People are supposed to take care of kids and I just," Tony tilts his head, and then, after a second, laughs. "I just completely underestimated my wife and then didn't know how to fix the situation."

Clint tries smiling at Tony, since that seems to make most people in this house pleased. Tony laughs again, but it's not mean. He says, "We're a pair, it seems, kid."

Clint doubts this. For one thing, he's figured out the reason the house is so big is because Tony makes things, all the time, that people cannot live without. But hearing it makes his stomach warm in a way he's unused to. "I'll be better, if—if you let me help again."

Tony makes a face. "No deal. Pepper forbid it, and she'd skin me if you got hurt again."

Clint's eyes go wide and Tony pauses. "You thought that was punishment?"

Clint shrugs. Tony runs a hand over his face. "You have to be the only kid in the world who thinks getting sent away from me is punishment."

His voice holds a mixture of bemusement and contentedness Clint is used to hearing when Tony and Pepper are arguing about something unimportant. After a moment he refocuses on Clint and says, "I guess we're just going to have to find some other kind of trouble to get into together."

*


As it turns out, Tony is the best at getting into trouble. Sometimes he gets Bruce or Thor to play along. Rhodey and Steve are harder, but Clint notices Tony can manage. And Jane is pretty much always up for anything so long as she can take the medicine bag with her. She smiles at Clint and says, "Just in case."

It's a good idea, because something usually happens. The difference between these times and the lab, though, is that the injuries are minor and Clint is generally having too much fun to care when they occur. Pepper always cares, but she just talks sharply at them for a while before making them wash up and eat vegetables and have storytime, sometimes with lullabies, even.

Clint's been sleeping in their room. At first he'd just curled himself up outside their door, because it made him feel better, the closeness. But then someone tattled on him and Tony and Pepper put a smaller bed in the corner of their room. On the nights when he tossed, one of them would come pluck him out of the bed and tuck him in between the two of them. That always worked.

Clint likes his lessons, even the ones he's bad at, and both Phil and Pepper praise him any time he gets right answers, or tries something on his own.

Everything is perfect. Clint knows it can't last, but he lies to himself all the same.

*


Pepper rides one of the horses every morning. Never the mechanical ones: Tony is the only person who gets up on them, and even then, usually only because he needs to fix something. They're evidently designed for pulling, but not so much for riding. Clint likes them anyhow, because they whir at him when he comes to the barn and One, the slightly smaller 'horse' likes to follow him around and ward off potential annoyances.

Pepper likes Chemistry best. Chemistry is of mixed-breed, but what kinds nobody is entirely sure. Sometimes, Thor likes to argue with Pepper about it in sport.

The weather is too hot to do much outside during the day, so she's been taking him out practically at dawn. Clint, whether he's still in his small bed or in theirs, wakes with her, and she lets him help with the saddling and other preparations. She's offered to teach him to ride, and Clint wants to, but at the moment, he's not big enough for any of the horses. She keeps telling him that will change.

He waits in the stables. She's never gone for more than an hour, and he doesn't want to have breakfast without her. He works on the writing exercise Phil wants him to have done by his lesson that morning, sitting with Soteria, who is unusually twitchy. He's already tried all the normal stuff to get her to calm down: a treat, a brushing, and even just telling her a story. He imagines there's a storm on the way; sometimes she gets upset about them.

When he's finished with the exercise, he realizes something is wrong. Pepper should have been back by this time; he's very slow at writing. He looks between Soteria, who is still looking anxious, and Story, who's chittering, but that could mean a number of things. He tells Story, "Go back to the house. Find one of the adults. I'm going to look for Pepper."

On an instinct, he takes Soteria out with him, and she noses at him. She trots slowly, but he still has a hard time keeping up with her. She's careful to make sure he's still behind her. Clint has no idea how far they go, only that it is long past when his feet begin blistering and his legs start to ache.

Soteria stops, nosing at something on the ground and when Clint catches up he sees that it is Pepper, lying on the ground. There's blood on her forehead and she looks as white as the linens they put on their beds. One wrist is at the completely wrong angle. Clint gulps down his fear two or three times before he can think.

He gets to his knees and puts a hand under her nose. After a moment, he's reassured she's breathing. He doesn't know any more, except that she needs help. He wants to know where Chemistry is, what happened. Chemistry is a little wild, but never mean, and he's seen Pepper ride War, who is mean. Pepper can handle some rebellion from her mount.

The thought of trying to make it back to the house is daunting, but he's got no other choice. He says, "Please, please stay here," to Soteria, who seems to understand, because she doesn't follow him. His pace is slower returning and he's so tired he pretty much stumbles into Thor.

He blinks up at the man, who's got Story in one hand. Clint says, "You—How—"

"He has experience with tracking," Jane says. She takes Story from Thor and says, "Take him, he's barely on his feet."

"Pepper's hurt!" he tells them, rushing the words so they won't make him to back to the house. "She fell."

Thor's face darkens at this, but he simply picks Clint up and says, "Take us to her."

*


Once Jane has begun figuring out what's wrong with Pepper, Thor takes Clint and Story back to the house. Thor tells him, "You must find Tony. I shall go to seek Chemistry and learn why this has occurred."

Left to himself, for a moment, the fear that comes over Clint is so blindingly intense and complete he cannot remember to breathe. He wants this morning not to have happened, for Pepper to be safe and to know she will probably keep him, at least for a bit, and everything to be like it was. It isn't, though, and Clint has been given a task, so he sets off for Tony's lab.

He knocks loudly, frantically on the door until Tony opens it with an annoyed, "I'm incredibly busy with actual real important things."

Clint hugs his arms around himself and means to say, "Sorry," but only manages, "Pepper. Pepper."

Tony changes in an instant. "What about Pepper?"

"Hurt," Clint tells him. "She—"

"Where is she?"

Clint doesn't know how to describe the spot. Instead he tries, "With Thor and Jane."

"Jane," Tony says, "good." He rushes past Clint, his hands still in his work gloves, goggles still covering his eyes. Clint runs to keep up with him.

He goes to the kitchen, where Bruce turns around and says, "Tony—"

"Pepper was hurt. Jane's with her now, but she might need one of your concoctions."

"Of course," Bruce says. "Anything, you know that."

Tony turns to Clint and says, "Take me to her."

And although walking is agonizing at this point, Clint doesn't say a word, just heads toward where he left Pepper and Jane.

*


By the time they reach Pepper, Jane has finished the basics of what she can do to help. Thor has returned and is holding Chemistry's bridle. When Tony approaches, the first thing Jane does is to hold up her hands and say, "She'll recover, Tony. The wrist is broken and must be set and she's going to have a terrible headache for a few days, not to mention bruises from head to toe, but she held on long enough to break her fall in a fairly soft spot."

Tony nods distractedly, turning to Thor. "Put the horse down."

"Nay, sir. 'Twas not his fault. I found this." Thor hands something over to Tony, who turns it over a few times.

"'Twould have worked itself free from its hiding place when she began to gallop. This was no accident," Thor explains.

Clint looks up at the spur Tony is still examining. Softly he says, "It's my fault."

Tony looks at him, confusion all over his face. "You put this in the saddle?"

Clint's eyes widen. "No! No. But I—she let me help saddle Chemistry this morning. I didn't find nothing."

"Anything," Jane corrects, and then focuses on Tony, "and you would have had no good reason to look."

Tony clenches his fist around the piece of metal. "Is it safe for me to take her back to the house?"

Jane nods. "Just be careful."

Tony picks her up with more care than he ever shows toward explosive substances.

*


When nobody is watching, Clint sneaks under Pepper and Tony's bed. If they don't know where he is, they can't make him leave. Story curls up next to him, obligingly silent. Of course, it takes Natasha all of less than a second to find him when Rhodey asks, "Has anyone seen Clint?"

She lies down on her stomach, her chin pillowed on her forearms and just raises an eyebrow at him. Clint rocks a little, his arms wrapped tightly around his knees. Even knowing it doesn't mean anything, Clint tells her, "I'm sorry."

"That Pepper was hurt or that you're hiding from her?"

"I…she gots hurt because of the saddle. Because I wern't careful enough."

Natasha gives him a look that he's pretty sure means she thinks he's being stupid. "She got hurt because she's one of the only women in the world with roughly as much power as the President of the United States. By that reasoning, Tony is guilty in this for granting her the position as head of his company."

Clint frowns. "Why?"

"I'm not explaining this to you lying on the floor," Natasha says. "You can come out and talk with me, or you can hide here."

Clint considers his options, but in the end he crawls out from underneath the bed. Natasha nods once. "Have you eaten today?"

"Not hungry."

Natasha simply looks over at Jarvis, who nods at her and leaves the room. She herds Clint to the window seat, where Rhodey is already sitting, but there's room for two. Clint clambers up, trying not to disturb Rhodey, but the man draws Clint into his side and Clint can't help burrowing, not sure if he'll ever get this kind of comfort again. He'd never been hugged or cuddled before Pepper and Tony had taken him home, and now that he's probably going to lose it, he kind of wishes he never had. He was better off not knowing what he'd been missing.

That doesn't mean he won't take what he can get for as long as he can get it. Clint might be stupid, but he knows that much. When Bruce shows up with a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of orange juice, it is Tony, still lying beside Pepper in their bed, who says, "Eat."

Clint doesn't want to cause Tony any more trouble, so he does. After the first few bites the worst of the nausea fades and he realizes he is hungry. Now that he's doing as told, Natasha says, "Did a woman run your circus?"

Clint shakes his head. He can't even imagine what that would have been like. Natasha continues, "Was there a female mayor in any of the towns where you stopped?"

"I don't think so."

She nods. "How about the people who ran the businesses that sold the circus its treats or even the cleaning supplies? Women?"

Clint doesn't know about all of them, he's pretty sure he was only seeing the salesman for a few, but none of the smaller ones had any women working for them. "No."

"And yet, Pepper runs a company worth billions of dollars. She is different, you see? And people do not like difference." Natasha's eyes are dark with something that feels familiar to Clint, but that he does not have a name for. The closest he can come is 'loneliness' and that does not do the emotion justice.

Clint understands this. He's been called a circus freak by townies often enough to have some idea that he's not like others, there's a reason nobody really wants him. "What's a billion?"

Natasha purses her lips. After a second she asks, "How many stars do you think there are in the sky? How many clouds?"

"I can't count that high," he admits. There's a lot of those things.

"That's what a billion means."

"Oh." Clint yawns, suddenly feeling exhausted now that he's finished his breakfast. "People shouldn't hurt her because of that," but of the few things Clint learned early on, the difference between should, would and could is worlds apart, and the first one never matters.

Tony makes a sound of aborted, bitter laughter, and Natasha's lips twist slightly. Rhodey ruffles his hair and says, "You're right, kid. Sometimes people are awful."

And really, Clint knows that, too.

*


When Pepper wakes up, Tony threads his fingers in hers and says, "Hey there, sleepyhead."

She opens her mouth a few times before managing, "Tony?"

Tony shudders minutely, but then seems to straighten his posture, even though he's lying next to Pepper. He says, "No more horse riding for you, young lady."

Pepper reaches over with her free hand and pats in his general direction. "Whatever you say, dear."

Tony frowns. "Pepp—"

"I'll take Thor or Rhodey or Natasha with me next time, promise." She tries to sit up, then, but immediately closes her eyes and lowers herself back down.

Clint, who has been watching from the edge of the bed, his eyes barely clearing the mattress, asks, "Can I gets you water? And Jane?"

"Get," Tony says, but he's not really paying attention, all his focus is on Pepper.

Without opening her eyes, she gestures for Clint to come up onto the bed, murmuring, "Come here, Clint."

Clint peers at Tony, but Tony seems to be waiting for him, so Clint scrambles up, very careful not to jostle Pepper. Because he can't help himself he says, "I'm sorry."

Pepper smiles, her eyes still closed. "Riding a horse involves falling off some of the time."

Clint looks over at Tony, who says, "Someone put something under your saddle."

She does open her eyes at that. Slowly, she says, "Well, that explains Chemistry's odd behavior. Did Thor find her? Is she all right?"

Clint nods. Tony looks exasperated. "Missing the point."

Pepper squeezes Tony's hand. "This isn't the first time something like this has happened. I sincerely doubt it will be the last. Even if Rhodey catches the miscreant in this instance, there will be others."

"I could fire you," Tony tells her, sounding like he's considering it.

"And I could divorce you," she says, "but honestly, aren't our lives scandalous enough?"

Tony grumbles at that, and Pepper's eyes slide shut again. She murmurs, "Clint, sweetie?"

Clint asks, "Water?"

"Tea, please. And Jane."

Clint is cautious about getting off the bed, but once he's free, he sprints to the kitchen.

*


When Pepper has fallen asleep again, and Jane has gone off to do house calls in the nearby town, Tony looks over at Clint and says, "It's you and me against the world, kid."

Clint is used to being alone, so having someone on his side seems pretty great, but he doesn't think Tony's happy about it. He offers, "I'm sorry?"

"Why?" Tony asks. "Because your mom's stubborn and always getting herself in trouble?"

Clint's heard Pepper say exactly the same thing about Tony. He doesn't think he's supposed to tell him though. Besides, he's got bigger things on his mind. "M-mom?"

Tony shrugs. "Big sis? My parents didn't like me that much, and Pepp's died before I ever met her. Family's a mystery to me."

Clint blinks and says, "Family," slowly.

"I'm a good deal, little man," Tony tells him. "I make better toys than anyone in the world, and have more money than G-d."

Clint has no doubts about Tony, other than how long he'll find it fun to play family. But Clint's also starting to think he should take what he can get while he can get it. He's learning to read and speak better, and way more about the care of horses, and maybe, when they get tired of him, he can find a different job, where people mostly leave him alone. Unsure of what to tell Tony, he tries, "Never had no family."

"Any," Tony corrects. "We can be a starter kit, then."

Clint's not sure what that means. "Does that mean, uh, d'you want to be my dad?"

He can barely breathe. Tony looks surprised, as though it hasn't occurred to him that Pepper being the mom might relate to him in some way. There's a cautiousness about his features as he tells Clint, "Ah, probably not that good a deal as a dad, kiddo."

Clint has a moment where all he can hear is the rejection. Then he notices the careful way Tony is sitting, like someone might hit him, even though nobody ever tries to hit Tony. Suddenly, Clint sort of understands. He doesn't like letting people hurt him, either. It doesn't matter, Clint decides. He inches a little closer to him. Tony can be his dad because Clint's, "Not much good as a son."

Tony reaches over to tussle Clint's hair. "Oh yeah. We're gonna be a pair."

*


While Natasha and Rhodey hunt down whoever has dared to touch Pepper, she goes back to work as though nothing has happened. From the reactions of those around her, Clint thinks this probably isn't the first time. A couple of days later, she asks, "Do you know your birthday, Clint?"

Clint doesn't quite understand the question at first. He knows what birthdays are. People had them in the circus, sometimes taking a night off, if they were a big enough star that they could get away with it. Usually it just meant someone might get a treat from the cook staff, or a small present, if he had friends.

Tony's birthday had involved a loud party with lots of music and people and more presents than Clint had known existed. On Pepper's, she and Tony had disappeared together for a few days on a birthday trip. Tony had thrown small dinner parties for Bruce, Rhodey, Thor and Jane, even though Bruce and Jane kept telling him not to do so.

Tony had gone out to see Steve wherever Steve lived when he wasn't here, arguing with Tony. Birthdays are someone's special day, Clint understands that. It's just never occurred to him that he has one. Clint shakes his head. "Dunno."

Rather than looking disappointed with him, Pepper nods. "I thought that might be the case."

Clint smiles up at her. She never blames him for the things he can't help. She smiles back, but it's not her happy smile, it's the smile she uses when she wants to make other people happy. She scratches her fingers through his hair. "I've been thinking that we could decide on a birthday for you."

Clint ever-so-slightly moves into her touch. "Like make-believe?"

"Well, sort of. It wouldn't be the actual day you were born, because we don't know that. But we do know that you were born, and that deserves celebration. That part would be real."

Clint covers his face and laughs a little. Nobody's ever wanted to celebrate him; it's kind of silly. Pepper has him look at her again by way of putting her finger under his chin and lifting gently. "Tony and I, we'd like to have your birthday on the day we met you."

"Oh." Clint rocks on his feet a little. "I like that day."

She leans down to kiss his forehead. "It's settled, then."

*


Rhodey brings the news that Natasha has uncovered the villains behind the latest threat to Pepper. Steve shows up for a while. Clint knows Steve has to go lots of places to do his job, but he always likes it when he comes back to the mansion. Steve draws all sorts of neat things and is patient when he tries to show Clint how. Clint would think Tony and Steve hated each other, the way they are mean to each other, but Tony doesn't allow anyone he doesn't want past the gates of the estate, so he must like Steve some.

One day, Tony finds Clint in one of the highest branches of the tree nearest the house and says, "You climbed there by yourself?"

Clint clings to the bark, rough and familiar under his fingers. He means to just say 'yes,' but Tony's eyes are dark and thoughtful and Clint tells him, "Nobody can get me up here."

Tony nods. "Smart."

Sometimes Tony and Pepper and the others call him things like that. Smart and funny and good and dear. Clint is trying to believe the words, to lay them over all the others he's so used to. It doesn't always work, but he's doing his best.

Tony asks, "Mind coming down, though? I want to show you something."

Clint slinks his way back down to the ground easily, and when his feet hit the earth, Tony asks, "Are you part monkey?" but he's smiling as he says it, pulling Clint onto his back, where Clint can rest his chin on Tony's shoulder and hug him tight.

*


Two days before his birthday, Clint does something stupid. He spots a deer and, mostly just liking the way it bounds and leaps, follows it. He doesn't mean to go off the property. He certainly, certainly does not mean to get nabbed.

*


Clint blinks awake, unsure of what has happened. He was…right, he was climbing a tree. He wanted to see the deer better and it was easier from far up. Had he fallen? Clint looks around, but he's clearly not outside anymore. Also, his hands are tied behind his back and then to his feet. He's lying on the ground and there are rags stuffed in his mouth, tied there as well.

Clint wonders if maybe the kidnappers got the wrong person. He has no idea what they'd want with him. Still, he feels stupid. Now Rhodey and Pepper and Tony are going to have to worry about where he's gone, when they should be doing other things.

He tries to swallow and realizes how thirsty he is. He remembers that feeling, but he's not used to it anymore. Also stupid. The back of his head hurts and he can't go anywhere, so he forces himself to relax as much as he can in the bonds, waiting. He's not sure what he's waiting for, but right now he does know there's nothing he can do.

It's chilly and a little wet wherever he is, and there are the sounds of skittering feet. Rats, Clint knows. He's not exactly afraid of them—they were around plenty in the circus and he only ever got bitten once or twice—but he wishes his face weren't so near to the ground. He wishes—

He makes himself stop with that, too. Fears and wishes are all the same, in the end, useless. He determinedly thinks of good things, glad to have so many. He thinks of the horses, and of Story, and Phil's reading voice. He thinks of riding on Thor's shoulders and Bruce's chocolate cake. He thinks of the way he can sometimes spot Natasha, now, or how pretty Pepper's hair is when she leaves it down.

Somewhere in his stomach is the treacherous hope that Tony and Pepper will want him back badly enough to send Rhodey and Natasha. Clint doesn't think much of anything stands a chance against Natasha by herself, but definitely not with Rhodey. He tries to smother that hope, throw it far away where it can't hurt him, but no matter what he does, it seems to sit inside of him, solid and smooth and waiting to dig in and bleed him dry.

*


Two men come into the place where they have stashed Clint. One drags him by a grip on the arm, which hurts, both on his arm and his knees, which scrape against the ground, but Clint's had worse and he's not giving these people the satisfaction of making him cry. They prop him on his knees near to the wall and one of them undoes Clint's hands. Clint expects the rush of pain—he's been tied before, a few times—but can't help whimpering a little as it washes over him.

Holding on to each of Clint's wrists so tightly the bones grind together, one of the men slips a fountain pen into Clint's grip. He says, "Write what you are told, and only that."

Clint can hear the threat in the words. He still isn't sure he plans to obey. Whatever these men want with him, it's probably something to do with Pepper, like how she got hurt on the horse. Clint won't be part of hurting Pepper, no matter what.

"Write: I am alive and unharmed."

Clint supposes that's all good information for them to have, so he agrees. He doesn't know how to spell 'alive' or 'unharmed' but he sounds it out and does the best he can. The guy tells him, "Now sign your name."

Clint has only worked on his first name. He puts it down. They seem to feel it's enough. His arms are wrenched behind him again and he locks his jaw against the way they pull his arms too tight, too high. They re-tie him and leave. Clint finds a new hope: that he hasn't done anything more stupid.

*


Clint makes himself go over things Phil would want him to in his mind. If he lets himself pay attention to where he is, he really wants to curl up, at least try to protect himself, and he can't. Clint thinks he should have remembered feeling helpless better so it wouldn't seem so hard, but there's nothing he can do about it now. He wants, desperately, to never have traipsed past the gate, to be hiding under his bed, Story chirping at him fondly.

He's hungry enough that his stomach is cramping with it. He wishes he could rub his arms. He's tired, but every time he starts to fall asleep something crawls over him, or he shivers too hard from the damp, or his arms pulls the wrong way. He tries to rock himself onto his side, but can't get the momentum for it.

In the back, deep back of his brain, the part he's careful not to give too much attention to, he really wants Pepper and Tony. He wants his mom and dad.

*


Clint falls asleep, waking when his left shoulder pulls out of place. He does scream at that. Once he realizes what has happened he presses his lips shut, biting on them to keep silent. He learned how to cry without making any noise long ago. He does that instead.

He feels dizzy just lying there, which doesn't make any sense. He closes his eyes again, but the feeling is still there. His breathing is so loud in his ears, it takes a while before he realizes there actually is another noise—and not one of rats scrabbling around.

He opens his eyes and, sure enough, Natasha's standing feet from him, undoing the latch of the sewer gate. She doesn't make a sound as she moves toward him. She puts her finger to her lips and flips out a knife. Clint thinks he should have the good sense to be scared, but he's just glad to see her. Quickly, she makes a few cuts, releasing him from the ropes. His arms hang lifelessly at his side, numb from the ropes and his weight. Clint doesn't like the numbness, but he's not looking forward to how much it's going to hurt when they start having feeling in them again. She frowns at his left arm and scoops him up so that his right arm slings over her shoulder.

"Rhodey and Steve are holding the door for us," she tells him quietly, and breaks into a sprint. He still can't hear her feet landing.

*


There is no door by the time they reach the exit to the building over the sewer where Clint has been stashed. Rhodey is waiting outside, though, and when Natasha looks at him, he nods. He says to Clint, "Hey there, tiger."

"Sorry," Clint tells him through a yawn.

"No apologies," Natasha says. Nobody argues with Natasha. Clint is about to try and explain when the carriage pulls up and one of the newer mechanical horses attempts to nose at Clint.

"No, Pon-E," Natasha says, even as Tony is practically falling out of the driver's seat.

He takes one look at Clint and hisses, "Leave anything for me?"

His arms raise, and for the first time, Clint notices that he's got braces on them, as well as his chest, shining red and gold and glowing blue in places.

"Your kid, Stark," Natasha says, her tone as cold as the blue of Tony's machines.

Tony blinks, as if actually noticing Clint and he does something that causes the braces to unlock and fall to the ground. Clint thinks he probably shouldn't do that, he might break them, and also, Clint's not Tony's kid, not really, but Tony just reaches out and takes him and holds so tight it hurts. Clint doesn't make a sound, he doesn't want Tony to let go.

Tony says, "I thought Story'd be enough, but kid, we are outfitting you with bells and whistles and possibly a real attack dog or two."

"Sorry," Clint says again, since Tony might understand.

Instead, Tony tells him, "You don't get to be sorry when you got hurt so people could make me pay attention."

Clint mumbles, "Went out the front gates."

"And one day, Pepp and I are going to show you the world. It's a home, Clint, not a jail. Not even necessarily a safeguard against the world."

"Home," Clint echoes tiredly.

Tony makes a sound that Clint would call a sob on anyone else. On Tony, he can't identify it. Tony says, "Let's get you home, where Pepp and Jane can fuss over you."

Clint twists the hand of his unhurt arm into the fabric of Tony's shirt. Before he can even realize he's speaking, he's begging, "Don't let go, don't—"

"I've got you," Tony tells him. "You're not going anywhere."

*


Pepper—who has evidently been kept at home by way of Thor physically restraining her from leaving—has her arms around Clint before Tony is even fully out of the carriage. He's let Rhodey drive so as to keep hold of Clint. The impact jars him, and Clint can't help the whimper that escapes his lips. Pepper pulls back and Clint really does want to cry, then, except that she puts her hand in his hair and says, "Oh, sweetie. I—I had Bruce make you cookies."

Clint loves cookies, but right now he just wants Tony and Pepper near. They must understand, because they take him to their room. Jane is waiting there, and she has Tony set Clint on a chair so she can check and see where he's hurt. She's careful of him, like always. She has Thor fetch a spoonful of something that tastes awful, but makes everything soft and nice. Story walks in restless circles around Clint.

The pop when Jane puts his arm back makes him a little sick to his stomach, but he doesn't really feel it. He tells her, "You're much better than the horse-an'-elephant doc."

Clint hadn't been fixed up much when with the circus, largely because, after the first few times someone had bothered to drag him to the medicine tent, he'd done his best to avoid it. Simon's "cures" had often hurt worse than the original injury, and only worked about a third of the time.

She kisses his forehead and says something to Tony and Pepper that doesn't translate as words into his ears. He must miss something, because the next thing he knows he's in warm water, with someone gently washing his hair. He starts to panic, unable to see Tony or Pepper, but Pepper comes into view and squeezes his hand. "Shh, sweetheart, just relax, we've got you."

They get him out of the water and wrap him in warm things and coax him to drink some broth. When he can't manage to keep his eyes open one second longer, he droops against Pepper, and tumbles into sleep.

*


They wake him twice with soft murmurs of, "It's all right, Clint, you're safe."

The fear that was racing through his veins slows, then washes away, and he disappears into quieter dreams.

*


Nobody will let Clint out of bed for two days. He's stuffed with food (cookies and soup), read stories, poked at by Jane, chirped at by Story, brought all kinds of new toys that Tony keeps making, and cuddled to sleep. On the third day, though, Tony helps him get dressed and he has breakfast in the kitchen.

He falls asleep at the table afterward, and wakes up on the sofa in Pepper's office. He sits up slowly, rubbing at his eyes and she looks over with a smile. "Phil says to see if you can work on some of your vocabulary before you fall asleep again."

Clint nods. "Yes, ma'am." He gets to his feet to seek out where he left the vocabulary book, but at the door he turns back. "I dinnit mean to get caught. I used to be better at payin' attention."

"You shouldn't have to pay attention when you're playing, Clint. Just like I shouldn't have to suspect someone trying to hurt the horse I'm riding. It's the world that's the problem, not you."

"I dinnit want you to have to…um," Clint frowns, not sure how to say what he wants. "Caleb and Jacques and Carson and them, they said I was always trouble. Stupid and no good and lazy and wor—worthless. I dinnit mean to be, 'specially not for you. Because I knew you'd come. Because you're good."

He doesn't say how surprised he is to realize this, or how weird knowing it feels. He wants her to understand, but he has no power to explain clearly.

Pepper stands up from behind her desk and crosses to where Clint is standing. She holds out her hand. "Come with me."

Clint takes the hand and follows. They wind their way down to Tony's lab, and Pepper knocks on the door. Tony opens it with an exasperated, "The sign says—"

"You know I don't read anything you've written," Pepper says, and walks in with Clint still holding on.

Tony says, "I have science happening here. This is not a good place for small children."

"Tony," Pepper ignores him. "Was it any problem to go get Clint?"

Tony's eyes narrow before he goes back to seeming in charge of everything and everyone. "Are you kidding? Natasha hasn't had that much fun since the year I got kidnapped, and I got to try out the braces. It would have been more fun if they'd saved some of the bad guys for me, but I guess I do pay them for a reason. And house them and feed them and—"

She interrupts him. "And did it ever cross your mind to do anything else?"

Tony tilts his head. "Anything—you mean, as in, not go get monkey-boy?"

"Because it might be too much of a problem," she says evenly.

There's a moment where Clint can sense tension racing between them, but can't figure out what it means, where it comes from. Then Tony grabs him up, squeezing him like he had on the day they'd come to rescue him. He says, "You're mine. Mine and Pepp's. And nobody takes what's mine or hers, not even our damn garden gnome 'bots. And especially, especially not our kid. Anyone who tries is going to regret the day their mom whelped their moronic selves."

"Kid," Clint whispers softly into Tony's shoulder.

"Kid," Tony agrees. "Our kid."

Silently, Clint thinks, dad, thinks mom, thinks home. Aloud he asks, "Can I see the science, Tony? Please?"

Pepper groans, and Tony laughs in counterpoint with the click-clack-click of his heart. Clint clings and smiles secretly, breathing in the oil and heat smell of Tony's soft shirt. It smells of safety.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile