sparsenicjade
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AN: Okay, so, here we are at the last of the Dickens blackout. (And there's a LOT of "because Dickens" in this particular chapter.) Thank you to ihearttwojacks for all her beta work on this, remaining mistakes are mine. Obviously a big thank you to chibifukurou for sponsoring this by supporting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Huge thanks to everyone who read this as it went along and let me know they were enjoying, and in general to all the people who have been sweet about this 'verse. Saved the best for last: this fulfills my "learning to be loved" square on hc_bingo.

***


Clint was a very good thief. He chose his targets wisely. Nearly everything of value in his life was something he'd stolen. Tasha had been his best steal ever. After her he hadn't really even bothered stealing anymore, unless it was for her.

The problem with stolen goods was that they never actually belonged to the thief, possession or no.

*


The first thing Clint ever stole was food. He was five and so, so hungry. His parents hadn't filled out the paperwork for free lunches, so when everyone was in line, Clint used the commotion to sneak a banana, and then hid under one of the tables to eat it. He was good at hiding. Barney said it was the most important thing a person could know how to do.

When Clint was older he would put together the pieces: his father drinking away grocery money, his work salary just enough that they didn't qualify for foodstamps. At five, though, he thought it was punishment. Or maybe that food was a reward and he wasn't usually good enough to get any.

He tried super hard at school to be good enough for the reward. He was pretty good at his alphabet and adding. He caught on quickly to most things. He didn't talk a lot, because you couldn't hide and talk at the same time, and Clint always wanted the first option open. But he answered questions when asked and did all his work.

It didn't matter, though. Evidently in school, food wasn't given as a reward, just smiles and some praise. Clint would take what he could get—it was nice, someone telling him he was smart, instead of yelling at him about all the things he did wrong—but he really would have liked a peanut butter sandwich, as well.

*


Upon arrival, the orphanage kind of seemed like a good deal. The food wasn't delicious or plentiful, but it was served three times a day, which was definitely better. And the adults never hit Clint or Barney.

The adults didn't notice much, either. Clint became accustomed to having his blanket stolen, even in the dead of winter, because one of the bigger kids wasn't warm enough. He got used to being beaten up in the backyard for crimes he couldn't predict. He'd tried learning the rules, but every time he figured one out they all changed again.

When Barney told him they were leaving, Clint said, "There's food here."

Barney said, "We'll find somewhere else with food. Somewhere better."

Because Clint still believed Barney understood the world better than he did, he went along with the plan.

*


Clint didn't know if Barney had actually planned to hop the circus train, or if he'd just decided to do so upon reaching the tracks. It didn't matter much. When they were found they were almost thrown off the moving train, but Barney was able to convince the roustabouts they'd be helpful.

The work was hard, and despite Barney's assertion, there wasn't much food. Clint and Barney weren't on the official payroll, so they were consigned to leftovers. Some nights that meant trying to sneak into the kitchen-car before cook cleaned the plates and steal whatever someone else hadn't eaten.

A little over a year into their circus life, Barney disappeared with one of the younger daughters of the couple who performed the juggling act and a few thousand dollars of the circus' money. Clint found out when Carson had him dragged into the big tent for "questioning." Clint really didn't know anything, though, so it was just hours upon hours of being hit with a horsewhip, with a shock from the electric prod used on the elephants every now and then, to see if that might shake something loose.

The third or fourth time he passed out they gave up, and threw him in one of the cargo cars. The skin of his back was torn up and it was cold in the car, fall giving in to winter. He was thirsty from blood-loss, and scared. Even if Barney hadn't always been a great older brother, he'd at least always been a presence.

Clint fell in and out of sleep that was more a mix of delirium and nightmares, waking to his own screams and the feel of hands pinning him down as something that burned like fire rolled over his back. The barker, who had kids of his own around Clint's age, took Clint's face between his hands and said, "We've got to clean and stitch your back."

Clint bit through both sides of his cheek, his lower lip and very nearly his tongue working to stay quiet and still as the needle was pushed in and pulled out, over and over and over. He spent a week fevered and barely able to walk, receiving food only when the barker or one of his friends thought to bring some to Clint.

For a long time—even after Natasha, though it was disloyal to admit that to himself—he was pretty sure it would have been better if the fever and bloodloss had ended things. But it didn't, and Clint was left to make himself useful enough to keep on, having nowhere else to go, and none of Barney's overtly criminal leanings.

*


He stole his first bow, too. Well, he grabbed it from the trash pile when Trickshot finally gave up on his old bow to purchase a slightly-less used one. Clint sneaked into a few different libraries over several towns and figured out how to fix it up. It was too big for him, the draw more than he could handle, but he worked at that, too. He watched Trickshot from up high and mimicked his body position.

He'd always been good about throwing things to exactly the right spot. He couldn't explain why he wanted to be able to shoot so badly. Being his size, throwing was easier, and there were almost always projectiles to be found. But when he got the bow all fixed up, it was as if he'd found a friend; one that couldn't run away.

*


The first thing Clint noticed about Tasha was how small she was. Which would seem strange, later, when she filled his world. But something about her size, and how nobody else really noticed her, made him want her like nothing he'd ever wanted before. Because the only things Clint had to offer other human beings were stolen, he swiped popcorn from the stand and lured her away with it. Popcorn was hard to inventory. If candy went missing, Clint would probably be blamed even if he hadn't been the one to take it. He'd learned that lesson more than a few times.

Tasha wasn't really his, he understood that fact, but he was hers. He would have taken the beating for bringing her on board without complaint. But from the moment she pulled him to his feet, carefully supported him to the horse car, where he would be warmer, and then found water and bandages to clean and cover his ribs and the worst of the cuts, he'd belonged to her, plain and simple.

She didn't know about bows and arrows, but she had lots of experience with guns, and taught him tricks for focusing and finding the shot. She talked to him about things like wind that could throw a shot off and the ways she'd learned to compensate.

The first time Clint ever managed to draw the bow, he hit the target dead-on. It wasn't a hard one, they'd marked an X on a tree no more than thirty feet away, but it was a precise shot. He loaded another arrow to see if it was beginner's luck and nearly split the first arrow, embedding the second within centimeters of the first.

Tasha looked at the tree for a long moment and said, "Well, shit," in what Clint had only just figured out was her pleased tone.

*


Eliot—he was Kane, then—was the first person the fight-owners put Clint in a cage with to go up against. Eliot was older than Clint, had been in the cages long enough to learn some technique, and was just plain bigger. Clint was pretty strong from the work and the shooting he'd done in the circus, and he was good at evasion and absorbing a blow when it managed to catch him, but he had almost no offensive skills.

He was surprised to wake up from that fight, and not entirely happy about it. He was tired of his pain being used for someone else's needs or pleasure. Tasha was with him, though, and she stroked her fingers through his hair and promised, "I'll teach you tricks. Next time will be better."

It wasn't, nor was the time after that, but around his fifth fight, things improved a bit. Weirdly, no matter who he ended up in a cell with after a fight, usually there were one or two of the others who would help him if he needed it. It kind of freaked Clint out. He wasn't used to affection and care coming without strings, unless it was from Tasha, and that was different. He'd had something she'd needed and Tasha was loyal. It was nothing to do with Clint.

But Duo and Eliot, Dory and Jamie, John and Finn, Pavel and 'Karu, any of them would take care of the kids who were hurt the worst, and rouse the others into doing the same. After a while, Clint began returning the favor, because it felt cruel not to. He reminded himself daily that he knew better than to depend on any of them, but just now, when none of them could go anywhere, it seemed okay.

*


Clint barely remembered being picked up and taken out of the cells, into the fresh air. The fight with Tasha a few days before, and the follow up one with Heero, had caused something inside his stomach to hurt fiercely, worse than anything he'd ever felt before. He'd cuddled up to Tasha, scared and wanting the only person he could even pretend was really his own. But Tasha had taken some serious damage in her fight with Kat, who sometimes panicked when cornered. Her skin was cold and her breathing wasn't quite right and it was all Clint could do to hang on, try to warm her up.

When Clint first saw Coulson, he shied away, his stomach heaving in terror, bringing up blood. Coulson had lowered himself to his haunches and brought his hands up in a gesture of surrender. But Clint knew all about games. Then Coulson said, "Please."

Clint blinked at that. It was a word he'd only heard from the other kids. Coulson took a breath and said, "Both of you need medical attention and food and blankets, but I can't bring them here. I have to take you to them."

Clint wanted to say they could walk, but Tasha was only partially conscious, and just sitting up had made Clint's head spin out of control. He weighed his options, tried to come up with a third. Tasha was always able to find solutions, but Clint wasn't clever like her.

Behind Coulson, in the hallway, a policeman was holding tightly, carefully, to Ezra, the new kid, whispering softly to him and clearly intent on never letting go. Clint had vaguely understood that the new kids had family, people who cared about them, but it was an alien concept for him. Finally, he asked, "Why?"

Patiently, Coulson said, "Because this place is too damp and there's no—"

"Why bother?" Clint interrupted, clarifying.

Clint couldn't read the expression on Coulson's face. After a pause, he said, "Because right now, it's the only thing I can do to make things better."

That didn't really answer Clint's questions, but Tasha's breathing pattern was scaring the hell out of him and he could see the others being herded out. He was low on options. Hopefully, if he was fucking up, Tasha would be able to get them out of it when she woke.

*


The second both he and Tasha could remove the needles in themselves and make it to an air shaft, they did so. Clint was grateful nobody had hurt them so far, that to all evidences they'd fixed most of what was wrong, but for all he knew this group of people just needed them healthier for whatever their plans with the kids involved.

Once in the vents they discussed strategy. Or, well, Clint said, "You should go."

And Tasha looked at him like he'd been dropped on his head. "What?"

But Clint just kept on. "Get away from here. I'll find you if I can, once I've gotten the others out."

Tasha raised both her eyebrows. "Seriously, asshole?"

"If I hadn't hidden you that day—"

"I'd be dead," she said flatly.

"Maybe. But you wouldn't have been kept in a cell and thrown in cages."

Tasha's face was carefully blank. Slowly, she said, "You were in those cells and cages."

Clint wasn't sure what that had to do with the argument they were having. "Yes."

The muscle in Tasha's jaw ticked, a sure sign she was frustrated. All she said was, "You're an idiot. And nobody's leaving until everyone's out. If you try anything, Clint, I swear I will hunt you down and kill you myself."

Clint couldn't even pretend to understand, but he didn't need to. Tasha had decided on a plan, so that was what they would do.

*


Jamie found them and said, "You've got, like, half the hospital looking for you." Then, as if he wasn't certain whether his next words were a joke or not, "Evidently you guys missed lunch and at least one dose of pain meds."

The three of them stared between each other and Jamie said, "Eliot's part of a real family."

Clint frowned. "Bullshit."

Jamie shook his head. "They were freaking out over Neal and him. And they sneaked good food to Eliot and none of them will leave, at least not until Neal wakes up. If they're acting, they're like an honest to goodness professional group of performers."

"So?" Tasha challenged.

"The people who came and got us haven't left either. They're Vin and Ezra's parents."

Clint was starting to see where Jamie was going with this. "So those four are safe. Doesn't mean anything."

Jamie looked down for a moment. "Look, I get it, I do. Trust isn't something I'm good at, either. But whatever else, Neal came within, like, an inch of dying to get us all out of there. I might not trust the adults, but…I trust Neal and Eliot and Vin and Ezra. And that they'll convince their adults to get us somewhere safe. Maybe not fun, or anything, but safe."

It made sense, but even so, Clint agreed when Tasha sighed and said, "This is the worst idea we've ever had."

*


Coulson—who kept asking to be called Phil—mentioned his interest in taking the two of them home, casually, about twelve days after the rescue. He'd stopped in every single one of those days, checking to see how they were feeling, sometimes sneaking in food that was way better than what the hospital had. The hospital fed them whenever they wanted, though, so Clint wasn't too fussed about the quality. Still, the extra, tastier food was nice.

When Coulson said, "I would like to foster you guys, if you like the idea," Clint bared his teeth in a growl and asked, "You think a couple of treats makes us yours?"

Coulson frowned. "What?"

The question caught Clint off-guard. He'd expected protestations of innocence or threats. Tasha's hand found its way into Clint's and she asked, "What do you want with us?"

Coulson spread his hands, palms up and open. "To give you a home."

Clint was fluent in English and could understand Russian. It was still like Coulson was speaking a language previously undiscovered by the human race.

*


Coulson didn’t even pressure them. He just continued coming each day, bringing games and blankets and plushies and anything else he could think of to give to them. Clint was wary of the gifts, but at the same time, the plushie was an owl. Clint loved owls. And the blanket was very warm. Clint was pretty sure he was easily bought.

Clint held out, though, until Tasha said, "Jamie, Nyota and 'Karu are going home with that doctor, the one Jamie calls Bones."

"Oh," Clint responded, surprised, and not sure how to feel.

"Vin and Ez's parents, they made it clear they're gonna check in," she continued slowly.

"Tasha?"

She traced a pattern with her finger over the blanket she'd been given. "Just. I don't think it could be worse. Than where we've been."

Clint swallowed. "And if it is?"

She nodded, as if having decided something. "Then we wait until one of the other parents comes, use the distraction, and dash."

Clint looked down at his owl, crushed in his hand, and didn't allow himself to recognize how very much he wanted to not have to run again.

*


At Phil's apartment, Tasha and Clint got their very own bed. And it was way bigger than the two of them, big enough to sprawl in. It was kind of funny, because both of them slept curled very tightly. It also had some ace hiding spots—even if Phil always figured them out—and lots of windows. It was sort of like every dream Clint had never allowed himself to have.

It was terrifying.

Phil fed them delicious things all the time: warm bread from the bakery down the street, homemade butternut squash soup, baked ziti drowning in cheese from the mom and pop Italian place he liked. The first few times, when Clint ate too much—Tasha, of course, stopped, because Tasha was smart, and had self-control—and brought it back up, Phil rubbed his back through the worst of it and brought him room-temperature water to sip.

He showed them movies with kids that could fly on broomsticks, even the one kid who'd grown up in a cupboard. And he read them books about all kinds of things, every night or whenever he could. He made up stories if they were having trouble sleeping, and woke up to make them tea when they cried out in the night. He got them fluffy slippers and wrapped them in soft blankets and otherwise treated them as if they were…precious, was the only word Clint could think of. Like the highly trained show ponies.

Clint had always suspected Tasha was, so it was nice, seeing someone else realize that. He could tell when she got excited over things, and it was happening more often now, even if Phil probably didn't know. Clint had caught a real smile from her a couple of months into staying with Phil, something he hadn't seen in years.

*


Unless it was freezing out—and sometimes that didn't stop her—Tasha enjoyed spending time in their roof garden. Clint liked to perch on the end of the roof, watching down below. It had been a little over half a year since Phil had taken them home, and winter was beginning to thaw into spring.

Phil had gotten them both puffy winter coats that kept out the worst of the chill, plus hats and scarves and mittens. Tasha had pointed out, "The cells were always pretty cold in the winter. We'd do fine with sweaters."

Phil had responded by getting both of them sheepskin-lined boots.

Clint was wearing all of his winter gear, more because he had it and could than out of need, seeing as how it was nearing the fifties. Natasha, on the other hand, had conceded only to putting on her scarf and hat. She was poking her fingers in the dirt, which was still too frozen to go much of anywhere. Clint watched her when he thought he could. She probably knew, but she let him believe she didn't.

Clint looked at the curls of hair that tumbled from her knit cap, the bright red flush of her cheeks. He thought about how she was adjusting to this new world, learning to push its boundaries. She had always been the braver of the two of them; the more deserving. What was more, she had never been his to keep. He took a deep breath of sky-high air and let all this knowledge sink into his bones.

*


Clint got called to the principal's office a lot. Phil kept making it very clear Clint wasn't stupid, just behind in his schooling and not verbally oriented. Phil pointed out how Clint was coming along fine in math and science, but those were easy. Tasha picked everything up like a lint brush.

The fifth time Clint was called to the office for failing an assignment he never actually went there. The fourth time they had phoned Phil, who'd talked with him later that night over ice cream about asking for help. The principal was concerned, Phil said, as was Phil. Clint needed "proper channels of support" and when it didn't seem like Phil was providing them, social services might be notified.

But Phil didn't have time to always be helping Clint just because he was dumb. No matter what Phil said, he'd eventually get fed up. Clint wouldn't mind so much if Phil just belted him or something, but Phil might decide Tasha and he were a package, and if one of them wasn't worth the work, the other wasn't either.

Between his classroom and the office, Clint did what he was absolute best at: he disappeared.

*


Clint was still figuring out where, exactly, he was in the city, and scolding himself for not planning this better—he ought to at least have stolen some food from the cafeteria, even if he would never steal from Phil—when he got the feeling he was being watched. He peaked around to see a cop in uniform looking at him with narrowed eyes.

It didn't make a lot of sense. The one thing Clint had done absolutely right was to get on the first bus into the city proper and arrive there while a number of other kids were heading home from school. For the most part, Clint blended in completely.

He wasn’t going to tempt fate, though, so he slipped into an alleyway, up a fire escape, and used the roofs to make it a few city blocks north. When he came down there didn't seem to be any law enforcement about, so Clint set to making a plan. He needed somewhere to sleep, obviously, and some way to take care of himself in the long run. He was nearly fifteen, old enough to get a part-time job, according to Neal.

But Clint knew he didn't look his age, and if he had to fill out an application, they would probably think he was mentally incapable of doing anything. For the moment, he was going to have to find places where food could easily go missing, scope out good dumpsters, and locate a few hidey holes. He was working on the food situation when a plain-clothes cop caught him completely by surprise.

Clint was annoyed—he should have been paying more attention. The cop asked, "Hey, is your name Clint?"

Clint ran. He was slippery and fast and clever, but he figured out before long that he had what felt like three-quarters of the law enforcement in Manhattan seeking him out, and he was cornered. He was eventually trapped between three officers, and he brought his fists up. He wouldn't be put back in a cell.

All three officers put their hands up in a gesture of surrender, and one, a lady, said, "Relax, kid, we're definitely not trying to hurt you."

"I'm not going to jail," Clint said, pissed when his voice wavered mid-word.

All three cops looked confused at that. One, a tall man with a shaved head, said, "Of course not, kid. Your foster dad is worried sick. Pulled about eighty strings at the Bureau to organize a search team prior to the forty-eight hour mark."

Clint's fists dropped of their own accord, going slack at his side. He heard himself ask, "What?"

There was a moment where the cops all looked at each other in ways Clint didn't understand. Then the woman said, "Clint, there's someone waiting for you who's scared out of his mind that you're hurt in some way."

Clint knew he was being weak, knew he might not be able to get himself to leave again, but the thought of hugging Phil and falling asleep in his own bed, right next to Tasha, was more temptation than Clint could resist.

*


There were two aspects of Phil that Clint could count on: the first was that he would stay calm, no matter what was happening, and the second was that he would always ask before touching one of them. But when Clint arrived at the police station, Phil was already there, having been called while they were on their way. Clint noticed immediately that Phil looked wrecked, even worse than the time he'd come home with stitches closing up a bullet-hole graze on his left thigh.

Phil was in Clint's space almost immediately, picking him up, holding on, and murmuring, "Don't do that, Christ, Clint, don't ever do that again."

Tasha was standing a foot or so behind Phil, her expression a cross between pissed and scared. Sometimes Clint forgot she was ever scared, which was stupid of him. He hadn't meant to frighten her, just keep her safe. Clint found himself clinging to Phil, apologizing over and over again.

Phil was still talking. "…get you a better school, or—or if you want, someone else to take care of you—"

"No!" Clint felt frantic, unsure of how to explain.

Phil just held on more tightly. "Whatever you want, okay?"

Clint buried his face in Phil's shoulder. "I wanna go home. Please. Please, I'm sorry."

"Sh," Phil said. "Of course. Home."

*


Natasha told him he was an idiot and made it clear if he ever, ever thought about going somewhere and leaving her behind again, she would make what she'd done in the cages look like a love tap. She slid in and out of Russian, the way she did when hurt.

Clint listened until she fell silent. Then he said, "I thought he'd keep you. You'd be safe."

Tasha's eyes were wide and wet. "I don't want safe. I want us. I want…home and there isn't any if you—if you go away."

Slowly, Clint nodded. She shoved him, but not hard enough to make him move, and said, "Also, you're dumb, because Phil thinks you shit cupcakes."

Clint smiled a little at the description, which was meant to shock. He said, "I actually am kinda dumb."

She rolled her eyes. "Phil told me about your stuff at school. You have dumb teachers. All of mine find ways to help me. You just need someone who gets you."

Clint looked at Tasha and thought about how he had someone who got him; how he maybe had two people.

*


They sat in the living room that evening, eating sundaes, Phil not-so-subtly incapable of taking his eyes off Clint. After swallowing a bite, Phil said, "I think we should all play hookey tomorrow."

Natasha's surprise—which was probably only noticeable to Clint—mirrored his own. Clint ventured, "Uh, isn't your boss—"

"Sara said she'd keep Nick out of my hair. It's a Friday, let's take the weekend. There's a bird sanctuary a couple of hours from here. I'll get us reservations to stay in the town a couple of nights, we'll just…pretend like we're the only people in the world."

Clint and Tasha had actually played that game a few times in the circus. It was the kind of thing you did with someone you were desperate to keep. Clint closed his eyes and thought of how it had felt, Phil holding him so tightly he could hardly breathe.

Phil said, "We don't have—"

Clint shook his head, moved to where he could curl up against Phil and said, "I like pretending."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile