It's mid-day when theâ€¦thing happens to him, when he gets so angry he growls and it sounds like a real growl, not like a little boy. That's when he notices the paws, and the way everything smells different, sounds different, more. It's sheer instinct to swipe out at his dad, try and keep him away from his mom, but it's the first time Clint remembers it actually working. He hisses and claws and even bites at his dad, who strikes him over the top of the head with a bottle that breaks, one of the pieces lodging itself right over where Clint thinks his ear must be.
Things get a little woozy after that.
He comes to with hands again, hands and feet and all his human parts. He's naked and it's cold. He touches the side of his head, remembering what happened, but there doesn't seem to be any glass there, and while it's a bit tender, it doesn't hurt.
He's in a square space that's big enough to lie down in, but not much else. There are bars on two sides, one of rows of bars supporting a door, the other separating his pen from the one next to it. The other two sides have walls. The floor is wooden and splintery, covered in a little bit of hay, but otherwise barren.
From a pen the same size as his, a boy around Clint's own ageâ€”eight or nine, maybeâ€”is watching him with the one green eye visible behind a mess of brown hair falling into his face. Cautiously, Clint says, "Hello."
The boy asks, "Are you a panther?"
Clint frowns. He's not sure what a panther is. "What's a panther?"
The other boy appears to think this over. "I never seen one. But Cat read me a book once with one in it. His name was Bagheera."
"My name is Clint." Clint personally thinks Bagheera would be cooler, but the fact remains, he's Clint.
"Bagheera was a cat like Katana and Ronin, Cat said, big like them, but black. Katana and Ronin have stripes." The boy pauses to think. "You were all black when you came in, but not as big as Katana and Ronin."
Clint's not sure who Katana and Ronin are, but he wishes he was big like them. Then maybe he could have fought his dad. Barney says Clint spends too much time dreaming. "Where are we?"
The other boy blinks, the action somehow slow. "Carson's Traveling Circus and Freak Show. They buy freaks like us."
Clint's father definitely called him "freak" the last time he'd seen him. But had he really sold Clint? "How long have I been here?"
The boy shrugs. "It got dark while you were here."
Clint frowns. A few hours, at the very least. He has a nasty, achy feeling at the pit of his stomach, and he already misses him mom and Barney. To distract himself, he asks, "How long have you been here?"
For several long moments, Clint doesn't think the other boy is going to answer. Finally, he says, "Two years, I think. That's what Cat says."
"And you'reâ€¦like me? A freak?"
The boy chews his lower lip. "Cat says not to call myself that. She saysâ€¦she says my fox is beautiful."
Clint can't help but notice he doesn't seem as sure about this as the other stuff this Cat person has told him. "But you change."
A tiny nod is his only answer. Clint asks, "How does it work?"
After a long pause, the boy admits. "I dunno." Then, quietly, he adds, "But they do."
It sounds like a warning. Clint takes it to heart.
Clint screams and then whimpers. They throw him back in the cage with a laugh and a sneered, "You'll heal," and a kick to his ribs. He barely hears the, "Filthy animal," that one of them spits at him, but he does hear it.
When they're gone, the other boy comes out of the corner he's pressed himself into, to the bars that adjoin their two cells. He says, "I'm sorry."
Clint crawls over to where the boy is, because maybe he doesn't really know this boy, but he's better than being alone. Now that Clint's paying attention, he sees the dull metal encircling the boy's throat. "Why'd they do that?"
The boy touches his collar. "It's how they make us change."
"They hurt us. Hurt us until we get angry. Iâ€”I tried not to get angry, but if you don't, if you don't change, it's worse." The boy shivers. It's cold in the cages, but Clint can tell that has nothing to do with this.
Clint thinks about that and decides he doesn't want to know anymore. Instead he asks, "Hey, what's your name?"
The boy is silent for a beat. "Nanashi."
Clint tries the name out on his tongue. "Nanashi."
"It means No Name," the boy informs him, eyes as flat as his voice.
Clint frowns. "That's notâ€”of course you have a name."
"Cat says so, too."
"Two against one," Clint points out.
Nanashi turns away and curls up into a ball. "Tell me when you find out what it is."
It's not just that, though. It's the audience.
They put him in an exposed cage, bars on every side, still naked. And the crowds throw things: apple cores, rocks, beer bottles. He tries to protect himself as best he can, but invariably things make it through the bars, straight to him, stinging and cutting and bruising.
They call him things, too. 'Freak' is one of the nicer words for someone like him, Clint learns.
He doesn't remember the change hurting the first time, but it definitely does when it's forced. Bones break and reform, muscles pull and snap and reshape themselves. It's easily as bad as the collar. After a while, Clint learns to use his anger at his keepers, at the people who come to watch him, to effect the change.
He heals while he's changed, which makes for a more pleasant waking up. It becomes a game, seeing how quickly and easily he can make himself change, even if itâ€™s a game Clint that has higher stakes than just winning. He counts any shift that doesn't hurt as a win. Clint tells Nanashi this. Nanashi looks thoughtful and after a moment, tilts his head so that Clint can just barely see his smile, hidden behind his hair. Quietly, he tells Clint, "There should be points. For each time we win."
"What happens when you get a certain number of points?" Clint asks.
Nanashi shrugs. Good enough for Clint.
He returns the favor, of course, digging his fingers into the soft fur of Nanashi's red fox form. It's the only time Nanashi will come close enough to the bars to touch. He doesn't exactly blame the boy: they're both much more vulnerable in their human forms.
Cat, as he has learned from what he can pull out of Nanashi, throws knives for the circus. She's one of the youngest performers, and one of the few women, and doesn't get much respect, but unlike the others, who either hurt them or ignore them, Cat will come and smuggle them food, or tell them stories.
The food is particularly appreciated. They're kept on the same waste that the other animals are given, and it makes both of them sick more often than not. Cat brings bread and other things that are easily transportable and soft on the stomach. Clint has known for a long time about not eating too quickly after not eating for a whileâ€”he never got food when locked in the basement, or when there was just nothing in the house to eatâ€”but there are times he has to remind himself.
The first time he meets her, Cat rubs a hand through his hair and says, "Well aren't you handsome? Two dapper looking boys I have myself here."
She tells them the story of Jack and the beanstalk. Clint's mom told him it once, but she told him it quietly, afraid of waking Clint's dad. Cat waves her hands, makes different voices for Jack and the giants, and stomps around being silly when she's imitating the giants. Clint giggles, and for a little bit, he forgets that they'll be in a new town that night, and that it's his turn to be shown.
He looks forward to Cat's visits, and to the way Nanashi will pet him if he's shifted, and those things are unpredictable, so there's no point in keeping track of time.
Which is why he has no idea how long he's been with the circus, been on display, when he can't manage to turn one day. He's just so tired. His head has been hurting for a while, and his throat is sore, and he's so terribly cold, even worse than usual. It hasn't been a problem the few times he's shifted, but when he's back in human form, it's still there. It turns into a cough and problems breathing, and Clint spends all his time sleeping. He's not even hungry anymore.
They come to get him and he goes easily enough. This is his life, he gets it, he's not fighting. That would be stupid. They use the collar and Clint screams, goes down to his hands and knees. The scream turns into a cough, though, and he can't stop. Even the pain does nothing. Something hits him in the head, and the dizziness from lack of air gets worse.
He's too tired, too sick, to get angry, or to do whatever it is that really causes the change. Clint has never figured it out. Sometimes it happens in the cage, when one of them is overly upset about something, or too excited, although he's only seen that once, when Cat was telling them a story. Whatever makes it happen, Clint hasn't got it in him. He coughs and coughs and tries to breathe. He can't.
The wind, when the train starts, cuts into him. His face, which was painful before from the pressure on his sinuses, bursts into agony and it's impossible to think, to do anything other than tryâ€”and failâ€”to breathe. He has no idea how long he stays tied there. It gets dark at some point, and when he claws his way up to consciousness the third or fourth time, he's back in his cage.
He still can't breathe and everything hurts. He wishes he could just stop breathing, really stop.
Nanashi whispers, "Clint?"
Clint wants to answer, he does. The only thing that will come up is coughs, tearing at his lungs. He puts his hands to his mouth and they come away with blood on them. Nanashi is on all fours, and Clint can tell he's fighting a change. Maybe he's mad at Clint? Clint wishes he could think.
"Clint," Nanashi says, "Clint, you have to change, you have to. You'll die if you don't."
"Can't," Clint manages.
"Yes," Nanashi hisses. "Yes, you can. Thinkâ€¦think of what they just did to you."
Clint does, but he already knows what they did, thinking about it doesn't really change anything. Then he remembers something, remembers Nanashi's warning, that Nanashi knew. They'd done this to Nanashi. The rage builds up behind his eyes, in what's left of his lungs and between one cough and the next his body remolds itself, none of the pain of the forced changes interfering.
And then Clint has four paws and a tail that's lashing in his anger and, best of all, he can breathe. He can smell Nanashi's fox without even looking up. The fox comes to the bars and whines, pushing a paw through. Clint approaches the bars and puts his own paw through, resting it on the fox's shoulder. After a few minutes, reassured that they are each all right, they curl up against the bars, each of them pressed as much against each other as possible, and go to sleep.
Their keepers return to force him into his human skin, but now he gets it, he knows that making his heart beat so hard it hurts in his chest will trigger the change, so he's able to get there more easily. It makes the pain stop sooner.
A few weeks or so after his failure to shift, Clint starts to notice just how tight the collar is getting. It's always rubbed a bit, but now it rubs constantly, wearing away at the skin, and when he shifts, he can barely breathe through it. Pretty soon he thinks he won't be able to at all.
He asks Nanashi how his is fitting. Nanashi just swipes a finger near the bottom of the collar and holds it out. There's blood on the finger.
Clint tries telling one of the roustabouts. He starts speaking quickly as soon as they come in, but of course they don't listen. Nanashi's on show that day, and when he comes back already having shifted out of the fox, breathing heavily. Clint says, "Did youâ€”did you lose your form?"
He's not sure, but he's more than a little afraid they might do something horrible to Nanashi if he turned back into a human in front of the audience. Nanashi shakes his head. "Held just long enough."
They share a look. Sooner rather than later, one of them's not going to be able to hold the shift, or is going to asphyxiate while holding it. Clint's been human for enough days in a row that the sores beneath the collar are feeling hot, swollen. It hurts to swallow. Shifting will heal it, but he's more afraid of that feeling of being robbed of all air than he is of the fever.
Clint pokes his hand through the bars and Nanashi takes it. He doesn't say it'll be okay. They've promised not to tell each other lies.
They take him behind the tents and tie him to a tree before taking the ringmasters' whip to him. The first hit throws him against the tree, the shock of the impact and the reverberating pain from the forced changes almost cushioning the pain of the hit. Almost.
The second drives a scream from him. It's not worse than the collar, exactly, but it's different, more intense, and Clint is already tired from lack of air. It just gets worse, lash after lash, until his vision clouds over and goes black.
He wakes up feeling nothing but pain, agony centered in his back and radiating out. He wants to shift, make it hurt less, but he knows he'll just change back. He's too cold and the only thing that sounds good is to fall back asleep, but the pain is stopping him.
Nanashi says, "Clint?"
Clint knows he's not supposed to lie, but he says, "'M'okay."
"Cat says you need to drink. We've got water."
That means Clint will have to move. The thought makes him cry. Nanashi says, "Okay, okay, just. It's okay. You don't have to."
Crying hurts, so Clint does his best to stop, to slow his tears and breathe regularly. Nanashi asks, "Wanna hear a story?"
Clint closes his eyes and whispers, "Please."
Nanashi doesn't have Cat's liveliness, but his voice is calming, soft and clear. It reaches through the pain, and rocks Clint back to sleep.
He comes up from a nightmare about being on fire being pinned down, something burning into his neck. He whimpers, says, "Please, please, I'll be good."
In the background, Nanashi is shouting, but Clint can't really focus on what he's saying. Thenâ€¦then there's air on his neck where there hasn't been for so long. He struggles more, desperate to shift while he can.
It's only then that Nanashi's yelling manages to penetrate. "Clint! They're changing the collar!"
One of the handlers grabs Clint's head, but Clint has subsided, the effort of struggling having taken everything out of him. The new collar comes around his neck, but it's loose, much looser than the last one. The sparks from the welder hit his neck and his back. It's barely noticeable over the pain in his back.
As soon as the collar is on, Clint lets his pain, his fear around the pain getting worse, everything take over until he shifts. He stumbles on all four legs to the corner near to the bars, where Nanashi can reach him, touch him for the first time since he was whipped. The moment Nanashi's fingers sink into his fur, Clint falls asleep.
Nanashi shakes his head, his new collar loose enough that his skin doesn't seem to stretch, the way it did with the old one. "You needed to. Theyâ€¦you were hurt."
Clint puts a hand to the new collar. It's heavier than the last one, but he'll take what he's been given. There's no choice. He speaks up, starting a story without being asked, because he owes Nanashi one, probably more, really.
Nanashi peeks out from behind his bangs to smile at Clint, settling one shoulder against the bars so they can lean into each other.
Clint thinks maybe it's his fault when they get sold. That maybe allowing himself to think things were all right, a little safe, is what causes it. He knows to some extent that's ridiculous, but he can't help thinking it.
The sale itself goes down in front of them, actual money crossing hands from men with weird octopus logos embroidered on the pockets of their matching shirts to Carson, before Nanashi and Clint are both given a shot that knocks them out. Clint wakes up in dark space. He calls out, "Nanashi?"
There's no answer. Whatever he's in, it's small. He can't sit up or uncurl his legs. He's not bound, even the collar is gone, and when he tries, he can shift just fine, but it makes the space even smaller. His claws are of no use against whatever's holding him. It must be a type of metal, or something.
He curls up and tries to fall asleep again. It seems like the only way to keep from panicking. He manages after a while, but when he wakes he's still in the box. He can't fall asleep this time, and the dark and silence begin to get to him. For a little bit he thinks his father has somehow gotten hold of him, has put him in this box to die. He sleeps and when he wakes he hears things, hears Nanashi begging for his help, hears the laughter of the crowds. He sleeps and when he wakes he panics, shifting and clawing, shifting back and pounding until his fists bleed.
He sleeps and when he wakes it's to movement, to the box shifting and bouncing. Clint has no idea how long it is before the box stills again. He hears something, like the clicking of a lock only softer, and light pours into the box. He bites his lip and closes his eyes, shielding them with one hand.
He sits there until the red fades from behind his lids. Then he opens them and stands, the top of the box now lying open. He's in a white room. That's the only way to describe it. It's square, and he can pace maybe ten steps in every direction. He can't see a door or a window. Just white.
He calls, "Nanashi? Nanashi!"
There is no answer.
When they start cutting into him, he screams, the pain a deep burn, but the drugs keep even that from making him shift. He hurts, oh, he hurts, but his heart stays slow, if not steady.
He begs, asks them what they want to know, but none of them talk to him, just cut and prod and poke as if he were dead or a thing.
They patch him back together at some pointâ€”it hurts almost as much as being opened upâ€”and drag him back to his cell. He whispers stories to himself until the gas wears off enough that he can shift and heal, but it's not the same.
He paces, trying to keep an eye on the not-fox. The not-fox stays stock still, but watches him. Clintâ€”Clint isn't certain what happens. One second he's trying to figure out if he can shift, can maybe get this other animal to shiftâ€”if it's even a shifter, he can't smell any human, but that might be his own faultâ€”and the next all he feels is rage, like lightning and acid inside his skin, boiling through him.
Rage and the need to maim, to kill. The not-fox fights back. Clint has a vague awareness of its claws raking down his side, but he barely notices. He's too angry, too tired of everything hurting him, of why, why, why don't I ever get to hurt something? His heart is beating so fast he can't tell the difference between hearing it and feeling it, and he goes at the not-fox with his teeth, his claws, anything and everything. He goes and goes and does not stop.
There's shouting that he ignores. He's so angry that at first the bolt of electricity that hits him just feels like more anger. Then it shocks him straight through, and he loses consciousness.
He's covered in blood, and he's pretty sure most of it's not his. Clint heaves until he brings up his own blood. Even then, he can't stop.
He barely even feels himself move when they release the white wolf into the room. He's got his claws in her back before he knows what's happening. The feel of blood on his paws strikes some sense of clarity in him, and he's able, for just a moment, to pull back, to stop.
The smell of blood, her blood, is filling the air, and the copper taste of it is making it harder to hold onto control. Clint tries to dig his claws into the ground, tries to bite through his own lips. Something hits him from the side. He's not expecting it, his eyes on the wolf, trying to remind himself that there's a girl or a woman or someone inside there, he can smell her. He's not expecting it and it hurts, it hurts and in that second, where Clint is just pain and fear, he loses himself to the induced rage.
Sooner rather than later there's the intense heat of electricity and the smell of burnt fur, and he wakes up unable to smell his own skin through all the blood. He's not even sure if the wolf is still alive or not. He's not sure of anything.
The fourth time, he "wins" again. The fifth time, they put him in with Nanashi.
Nanashi, of course, not knowing any better, not understanding, shifts back into human form. Clint yells, "No, no, no, no," even as he loses the fight against transformation. It takes a long time, he fights it even as it's happening, and Nanashi is frozen, his expression horrified.
Clint fights the drug so hard he rips most of his own chest apart. Nanashi is screaming his name, screaming at him to stop, but Clint has to get the anger out somehow, he has to, and he won't take it out on Nanashi, he won't, he doesn't care if he kills himself first. He'd rather.
They shoot Clint, the bullet ripping through the bone in his shoulder, and he howls, the anger intensifying, making it hard to think, to remember, but Nanashi is screaming at them to stop, stop, and Clint would rather that be the last thing he hears, between that, and the sound of his teeth in Nanashi's flesh. There's a second bullet, this one to one of his legs, and his thought process grays out, but he has one thought, and only one: no.
He swipes a claw through his own intestines, and that does the trick, takes him down.
He wakes up while they're patching him up, again. If he had the energy, he would cry about it.
He sleeps, mostly, when they haven't got him on a table or in a cell, pitted against some other animal or shifter who's no better off than he is. His sleep is filled with nightmares of his inability to find Nanashi, but at least in the nightmares he has the ability to look. At least in the nightmares, he's almost certain Nanashi is still alive. In his waking hours, he's nowhere near certain. He spends more time as a cat, only changing back when forced, or when they come to get him, like he thinks he has some chance of staying human once the drugs take their hold.
He tries to tell himself stories, but he's beginning to forget the words. He wonders if maybe he really is just an animal. He wonders if maybe that's better than being part of the species that keeps hurting him, keeps forcing him to hurt others.
Small House Man blinks and then holsters both guns before slowly going to his knees. One of his arms is mechanical, something Clint has never seen before, but he's not stupid enough to go check it out. The man says, "Hey there, handsome," voice quiet and even, and he doesn't reach out or come any closer to Clint. Clint, in turn, stays tucked in his corner.
Small House Man says, "I know you've got no reason to believe me, but I'm here to take you somewhere safe."
It's not just that Clint doesn't believe him, it's that Clint doesn't even know what that means. Clint just stays where he is. Small House Man looks down at the floor for a moment, and when he looks up he says, "There are others, like you. If you come with me, you can meet them."
Clint does have to wonder how it could be worse than here. First things first, though. He shifts back to human form. "Not going anywhere without Nanashi."
Granted, he has no idea if Nanashi is even still here, or alive, or if he'll want to see Clint again, or anything, but if he is alive and here, well. Clint's not budging. Small House Man doesn't even blink, either at the transformation, or Clint's words. Instead he asks, "Nanashi, is she like you?"
Clint frowns. "He. He'sâ€”" He swallows, but the man already knows about him, so he hedges with, "Kinda."
"He?" Small House Man seems confused. Then, after a second, he taps on his ear and asks, "Anyone found another boy?"
There's no response that Clint can tell, but Small House Man looks to be listening to something. After a moment he nods. "Your friend a fox, by any chance?"
After a second of indecision, Clint nods, once. Small House Man asks, "Think you could come with me? He's refusing to budge, and we need to get all of you out of here."
Clint just nods again, carefully not thinking about who the others might be, if he's hurt them. He slips back into his cat form, and follows the man cautiously past a number of other cells. They're a few feet down the hall when another cat, much larger than Clint, full-grown, he thinks, pads up. It's not one of the cats he's fought. There's the tell-tale underlying scent of human that betrays her as a shifter. The cat, a she-cat, has long legs, and a tawny coat, with sharp ears that seem to extend even further due to tufts that stand out from them. She's very elegant.
Small House Man says to her, "I don't smell any others in this wing, you?"
The she-cat shakes her head, and continues loping beside them. They walk a bit further until Clint picks up Nanashi's scent and starts to run toward it. He skids, nearly colliding with Nanashi's fox, who is peeking out of his cell, tucked behind a gigantic dog-wolf creature that Clint doesn't know the name for. Its coloring is similar to the she-cat. Clint does his best to ignore how easily it could eat him, and noses Nanashi, checking to make sure he's all right. He doesn't know how long he has before Nanashi remembers what he's done, pushes him away.
A man who's not as large as Small House Man comes around the corner, a small white wolf Clint recognizes with a flash of sickness in his belly, trailing in his wake. The wolf snarls at him, but stays well clear. Clint doesn't move, not until Nanashi snarls back, and he has to get in between them, herd Nanashi away a bit.
Small House Man says, "Hey Rhodey, this everyone?"
Rhodey nods. "We think so. Maria's doing a sweep, but neither she nor I smelled anything else in the other two wings."
Small House Man gives a nod. "All right, let's get them loaded on the jet and back to the estate."
The dog thing trots over to walk on the other side of Small House Man, herding Clint and Nanashi in front of all three of them. Clint thinks he needn't bother. Sure, he has no idea where the hell he's going, but he's got to take the chance it's better than here. If notâ€¦well, at least he has Nanashi again. Even if it's just for now, he has him. They'll figure out a plan together.
The wolfâ€¦the wolf turns around and bites Small House Man, then runs under a long panel with lots of buttons and refuses to come out. Rhodey sighs. "Okay, we'll work on this when we get home." He looks at Small House Man. "You should probably shift before that gets infected, or whatever."
Small House Man disappears into what Clint thinks might be a bathroom, and a black bear with white markings on its face and neck and only one arm comes out. Clint's got no idea what is going on, but he thinks everyone on the jet is a shifter. Rhodey smells like salt water and something not quite human, and the woman sitting next to him, who must be Maria, smells like something Clint recognizes from the circus, even if he's not completely sure what.
He hooks his tail around one of Nanashi's legs and pulls slightly, toward a space under a bench. There's no padding to get dirty, and it won't put them in the path of the wolf, who clearly has no problem lashing out. Nanashi comes easily enough and they curl up around each other. It's the first time in all the years they've been together that they've been able to do this, no bars between them. It's the first time since the last hug from Barney that Clint can remember being touched in a way that wasn't meant to hurt. He doesn't deserve it, he knows that, not after the anger and the blood, but he can't help wanting it, he can't.
Clint means to stay awake, to make sure nobody comes at them, but the thrum of the jet beneath him and the heat of Nanashi, safe and near and seemingly not mad, all combine with months of barely eating and being tested on, being pitched into fights and barely patched up afterward, and his eyes slip closed. He falls asleep between one breath and the next.
From there he herds them through a large, cold room with lots of different cars and planes, and out intoâ€¦Clint's not actually sure. The word park comes to mind, from back when Barney would take him to the one a few blocks over, in the better neighborhood. There's almost endless land, and what seems to be a pond sparkling in the distance. It's so much space to just run. He thinks about trying to communicate to Nanashi that they should run, just try their luck, but Nanashi is cautiously following the bear toward the biggest building Clint has ever seen, and Clint hardly has the right to tell Nanashi what to do. For now, he'll follow, keep Nanashi safe. He owes him that.
The building seems too wide for one person to ever walk the entire length, and from the height, Clint suspects there might be two or even three floors. It's pretty, though, like the kind of homes in the neighborhood with the park. There's brick and stone and big sets of windows shining in the sun. It scares the fuck out of Clint, who runs in front of Nanashi and stops, halting them in their tracks. He shifts, in the middle of everything, too used to being shown off naked to have any thought for his lack of clothing.
It's a little cold out, but not too bad, nothing Clint hasn't lived through before. He tucks his hands under his armpits, arms crossed over his chest and asks, "Where are you taking us?"
Nanashi's shifted by this point, too, probably more for solidarity than anything. He stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Clint.
Small House Man shifts as well, rummaging around in the sackcloth to pull out a pair of pants, which he slips into. He rummages some more and brings out a couple of t-shirts, clearly sized to fit him and holds them out. "Here, put these on. They're not much, but it's too cold to be out here naked."
Clint snatches the offered t-shirts, sniffing them, just in case. There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with them, so he puts his on and gives one to Nanashi, who follows suit. Small House Man, meanwhile, has pulled a box from the sack. He presses a button on the side and it clicks and sort of unfolds to a much bigger size, until he's holding the metal arm, which he hooks into his shoulder with a series of soft clinks and hisses. He rolls the shoulder back and says, "We're going to Stark Manor. It's owned by Tony, who's a lot to take, but on our side."
"What's our side?" Clint asks.
Small House Man looks down at the earth, evidently considering the question. Finally, he says, "Tony's not one of us, much to his chagrin, but his wife, Pepper, is a shifter, and his best friend you already met, Rhodey, is another one. He's made this place a safe-haven for shifters. The last time someone tried to take one of us, Bruce, who's an unusually large African elephant when shifted, trampled them."
Clint isn't smart, or anything, but he knows one thing: something that's too good to be true always is. He combs through what he's been told, finding the problem. After a second, he hits it. "Yeah, but we're just kids."
Small House Man frowns. "So?"
Clint glances at Nanashi, who's clearly on the same page. Clint almost wonders if maybe he shouldn't have said anything, should have just taken their chances for a bit, but since Nanashi doesn't seem to be mad, he goes forward and grudgingly explains, "Your elephant friend keeps you safe. You're an adult bear. And there's the adult dog thing and the she-cat. You're useful."
Clint has the uneasy thought that he could offer to fight. He wasn't bad at it, he doesn't think. Just the thought makes him bite through his own cheek in terror, the blood he swallows settling poorly in his stomach. But if it would keep Nanashi safeâ€”
Small House Man blinks. Nanashi chooses that moment to speak up. "And you're this 'Tony's' friends."
Small House Man tilts his head and mutters, "Depends on the day." He runs his flesh hand over his face. "Iâ€¦I hear you, kids. I do. But I don't know how to make you feel better. Maybeâ€”if I told you that the people who were holding you are enemies of ours, and we don't like to let them keep anything, let alone shifters, would you at least let me take you guys inside?"
There's a moment of complete stillness. Then Nanashi sneaks his hand inside Clint's. Clint squeezes his hand and shrugs. "Yeah, okay."
Small House Man smiles, a small thing. "My name's Bucky. What's yours?"
Clint swallows. "Clint."
Nanashi whispers, "Nanashi."
Bucky says, "Nice to meet you, Clint, Nanashi. Come on. Let's go inside."
Instead Clint tries to memorize the way they are going, make sure he knows how to get out. They go through a hallway and then into a room that has carpeting so soft it feels likeâ€¦like Nanashi's fur under his feet, almost, but thicker, easier to sink into. There's the biggest bed Clint has ever seen at one end of the room, and about a million windows, all overlooking more of the park, bordered by endless trees. There's a body of water visible from the window, and an area where lots of wildflowers are overtaking the ground.
He realizes he's staring when Bucky says, "You can actually go out there later, but let's get you guys cleaned up and in some real clothes, okay? I'm not sure we have much in your size, but we'll make do until we can get something."
Clint stiffens at the mention of getting them cleaned up. Despite the harsh chemical smell pervading his own skin, he doesn't want to be hosed with cold water. He glances out the window again and says, without much hope, "We couldâ€”we could clean up in the pond."
Bucky frowns. "The pond's probably only sixty degrees right now, you'd be freezing. Also, probably covered in algae. Come on, the tub is big enough for both of you. You guys won't even have to leave each other's sight."
Nanashi mouths tub? Clint shrugs, but follows Bucky. They move into a room with more gorgeous tilesâ€”this place has them on the walls as well. It's been a long time, but Clint recognizes a bathroom, this one is just huge. Bucky is standing by the tub, which is really more of a small pool. Clint's never actually taken a bath. The house he grew up in didn't have one.
Bucky says, "Wait a couple of minutes for me to get the temperature right, then you can hop right in. There's soap and shampoo on that back ledge. It's some kind Bruce makes himself, so it doesn't smell bad."
When the water has risen to the halfway mark, Bucky says, "All right, that should be good." He walks over to a small closet and grabs two towels, both big enough to fit Clint and Nanashi with room to spare. He sets them on the side of the tub, turns off the tap, and says, "I'm gonna go find you some clothes and maybe rummage up something to eat. You two take as long as you need."
He leaves, closing the door behind him, and both Clint and Nanashi stare at the tub for a long moment. Eventually, Clint says, "Together?"
Nanashi nods. They both strip their t-shirts over their heads and go to dip one toe into the water. Upon contact, Clint blinks. "Oh."
Nanashi's quiet, "It's warm," is more than a little awe-stricken. They glance at each other, sharing a smile before scrabbling into the water, spreading out into it, letting it curl over and caress and clean them. Clint breathes in, and what comes out on the exhale is a laugh.
Bucky's sitting in one of the chairs. He smiles when he sees them, says, "Much better. C'mon, sit and eat. When Pepper and Phil found out about the three of you, they went to go get clothes. They'll be back soon."
Nanashi asks, "Three?"
"The wolf-girl," Clint guesses, digging his fingernails into the skin of his thighs. Nanashi might not tell on him, but the wolf will, and they'll make him leave. He knows that's only fair, what he deserves, really, but he doesn't know what to do. He can't leave Nanashi, but he also can't take him away from this place that so far has allowed them rest and warm water. It's nicer than anything they've ever had before.
Bucky, clearly unaware of Clint's internal struggle, nods. "Steve and Natasha managed to get her talking. Her name's Wanda."
"She's a pretty wolf," Nanashi says.
"Beautiful," Bucky agrees. "And you're quite the handsome fox and leopard."
Clint blinks. "I thought I was a panther."
Bucky smiles. "Panther's a nickname given to black leopards. You have spots, you just have to be in the right light to see them. Come on, eat something. Steve's going to fret terribly about how skinny you all are."
"Which one is Steve?" Clint asks, trying to climb into the chair without losing the towel.
"The dingo," Bucky says. Clint must look as dumb as he feels, because Bucky elaborates, "The not-dog dog."
"Oh." Clint looks at the choices on the table, now that he's gotten himself settled, and can't even imagine where to start. He doesn't recognize most of what's there. Either they were too poor to have it when he was a kid, or he just doesn't remember. After a moment he decides to just take a bit of everything. A tiny bit. That way Nanashi can eat his fill, and Bucky won't tell the others they're too expensive, or eat too much.
Nanashi must have the same thought, because he doesn't take much, either. Bucky looks at their plates and says, "If you're going slow because you're worried about getting sick, then good, take it slow. But both of you need to eat more than that. I'm not even a doctor and I can tell that you're seriously underweight. Plus, this is all for you. I've already eaten. And there's plenty more where it came from."
Clint decides he'll take it slow, and figure out what he feels safe doing when he finishes his plate. He stares at the silverware on the side of his plate and swallows back a noise of frustration. He remembers being able to use spoons and forks. It's justâ€¦been a long time.
Nanashi follows his leadâ€”Clint knows the only thing Nanashi remembers from before the circus was being kept in an even smaller cage. Both of them fumble with the spoon, but eventually, Clint manages to get some of the stuff that smells like apples onto his spoon. Apples are familiar, even if the ones Cat sometimes managed to sneak them were always bruised and kind of mushy. What he puts in his mouth, though, it's, well, it's cold and fresh, sweet and spiced, and Clint thinks he could eat it forever. He doesn't mean to wonder, "What is this?" aloud, but he must, because Bucky blinks and says, "Applesauce."
Nanashi smiles before looking back down at his plate. Bucky points to one of the plates and says, "These are eggs. I made them with butter and some cheddar and chives. I'm no good at fancy, but they should taste good. You've got milk in one glass and orange juice in the other, it's best if you drink both, they've both got nutrients you need. These," he points to funnily shaped breads, "are popovers. There's blueberry jam someone picked up from the Farmer's market to go on it."
"Thanks," Clint says softly.
Bucky's breath hitches. "Andâ€”and you can eat with your fingers, if it's more comfortable." He swallows. "I did forâ€”for a long time, after I was rescued."
Clint feels his eyes go wide at that bit of information. Bucky's smile is rueful. "Eat up, kiddo."
Bucky stands and nods at the newcomers. "Pepp, Phil, this is Clint and Nanashi."
Clint scrambles to his feet at the same time as Nanashi. Pepp, who must be the Pepper Bucky mentioned earlier, says, "Nice to meet you, boys."
Phil, however, looksâ€¦not mad, exactly, maybe just upset. "Nanashi?"
Nanashi slants his face so that his hair covers even more of it. "Yes, sir?"
"Phil?" Pepper asks.
Softly, Phil says, "Nanashi is Japanese for 'no name.'"
It makes Clint's stomach hurt to hear someone who's not Nanashi say it. Wondering why he's never thought of this, he says, "You can have my name, if you want. I have three, Clint Francis Barton. Any of themâ€”"
"Barton," Nanashi says, without hesitation, like maybe he's been thinking about it for a long time.
Clint nods. "Maybeâ€¦maybe you could choose a first name too, sometime?"
Nanashi looks to the side. Clint says, "Youâ€¦is there one?"
"Trowa," Nanashi says, looking up at Clint and daring him to say anything. Clint's probably the only person in the world, even including Cat, who knows what the name means. The one good memory Nanashi has of growing up is a dog who would come to his cage and keep him company. One of the people who owned him called the dog Trowa.
Clint just says, "Trowa Barton. That's a good name."
Phil says, "It's nice to meet you, Trowa, Clint."
Pepper nods. "Now, come on, let's see if any of what we got you fits."
When Bucky sets him down, Clint sees that Pepper is hugging Naâ€”Trowa, whose body language is a little uncertain, but who's definitely trying to arch into the contact. Phil has disappeared, but he shows up again shortly, with a tray in hand. It smells good. Clint can't identify what it smells like, but it's a bit like leaves and maybe apples. The tray has cups on it, and Phil hands Clint and Trowa a cup each, cautioning, "Careful, it's hot."
The taste isâ€¦Clint doesn't know the word for it. Light, maybe. But just a touch sweet and strangely calming. When he's done, Phil asks, "Would you like more?"
Clint and Trowa both shake their heads. Out of the corner of his eye, Clint can see Trowa blinking his eyes, probably as tired as Clint feels. Bucky nods to Phil, who nods back, and then Bucky is at Clint's side asking if it's okay to pick him up. Clint frowns. "I can walk."
"I know," Bucky says. "But you're tired, and nobody's taken care of you for too damn long."
Clint glances over, to where Trowa is leaning into Phil, being scooped up. Clint holds up his arms to make it easier. Bucky's chest is broad and warm, and the arm doesn't feel as hard as he thought it would across his back. Phil and Bucky take them to the bed, and pull back the covers, tucking both boys underneath them.
"Sleep," Phil says. "We'll be here. And if we're not, one of the others will be. Nobody can take you, understand?"
Clint understands just fine. Believing, well, that's a different story. He's too tired to talk about it, though, even if he were willing to, which he's not. Instead he smiles sleepily at Phil, and for the first time in his life, is able to tuck himself completely together with Trowa, so that they fit. Trowa clings to Clint's shirt and tries to snuggle even closer. Clint falls asleep while Trowa's still snuggling in.
Clint's barely had time to transition from sleep to wakefulness before she has her paw exerting pressure on his throat. Clint doesn't fight. He just tilts his chin up a little to give her better access, make his submission clear.
She doesn't move, though, and other than the paw, her body language isn't terribly aggressive. If anything, it's a mixture of defensiveness and curiosity. Clint whispers, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Either Trowa's been awake, or Clint's apology wakes him, but he shifts in a blink and he and the wolf are suddenly a tumbling mess of yowling and scratching. Clint shouts, "No, Trowaâ€”"
Trowa pins the wolfâ€”he's smaller than she is, but, if scent is any indication, more scaredâ€”and shifts back to growl, "No. Whatever he did, they made him."
She snarls, but then shifts, too. Brown hair flies out in every direction. She's gaunt like the two of them, pale, but pretty in a way Clint can't help but notice. She says, "I know. Now. But I had to be sure."
Trowa seems to consider this. Clint says softly, "Trowa, sheâ€”I hurt her. We'd do the same."
Trowa's face twists with frustration, but he lets her up. She doesn't say anything else, just hops up and pads out of the room. Clint watches her go, still thinking about Trowa's words, his insistence that none of the things Clint did were his fault. He wants to believe it, but the words feel flat inside him. All the same, he's more grateful than he can say that Trowa believes it.
Clint bites his lip. "Think she'll tell the adults?"
Trowa stares at the path she took leaving the room. "No. I mean, maybe, butâ€¦no, I don't think so. She doesn't trust them any more than we do."
That makes sense to Clint. Quietly, he asks, "Do you think I should? Before they, um, find out?"
Trowa doesn't immediately dismiss the thought. Eventually, though, he decides, "Not yet."
Clint lets out a breath he didn't realize he was holding. It's just putting things off, but it still makes him feel slightly better. Now that the immediate worry is waning, he realizes he's hungry for the first time in, well, maybe since the circus. "Wanna see if maybe we can have scraps? They seem to make a lot of food, maybe they don't eat all of it?"
"Worth a try," Trowa agrees, and the two of them make their way to where they ate the day before.
Bucky's sitting at the table with a blond man even larger than him, and two women, one of them Maria, another with cinnamon-apple red hair who Clint's never seen. Bucky says, "Hey sleepyheads. This is Steve, Maria, and Natasha."
Clint says, "Um. Hello."
He smells Wanda come back more than he hears it, she's quiet. He turns, expecting the wolf, but instead the girl is standing there, looking uncomfortable in her own skin. Her hair is still wild, wisps flying every which way. She has big eyes and tiny everything else and Clint gives her a cautious smile before turning back to the adults.
Steve says, "You guys must be hungry."
Clint wasn't really expecting things to stay as easy as they had been last night, nothing good like that is a constant, so the question-not-question throws him for a little bit of a loop. He says, "Maybe a little," and hopes that it isn't opening up the three of them to being starved for amusement.
"Do you like yogurt and granola? We have all kinds of flavors."
After a long moment of silence, Wanda says, "Mom only ever bought vanilla. But it was pretty good."
Clint admits, "We've never had it."
For a second Steve's face goes a little blank, and Clint's not sure if he should be frightened or not. Then Bucky puts a hand on his shoulder, wrapping his other arm around Steve's waist. "Let's have them try it, then, huh? We can always move onto something else if they don't like it."
Steve shakes himself a little bit. Clint can't help thinking it reminds him of a dog. Or a dingo, evidently. The friendly smile comes back and he says, "Yeah, trying new things is always good."
Little, slightly feral Wanda, commissioned from the magnificently talented Vylla
Wanda settles on banana, and Trowa goes back and forth between pineapple and tangerine. When they've all finished eating, Bucky says, "It's nice outside, if you wanna go out and explore."
On the one hand, Clint really does. The idea of running in grass, of smelling fresh air, maybe lying beneath the sun for a bit, is so enticing he can barely stand it. On the other hand, he might not believe these people are as good as they seem, but they're the first group of humans who haven't hurt him in a long while, and leaving their sight seems like a really good way to get taken again.
Trowa and he are silently conferencing, clearly in agreement and not sure which way to go, when Steve says, "Maria's already out there."
He moves to the window and points out a gorgeous bay horse. She's not like any of the circus horses, taller and more muscled than them, but seeing her calms something in Clint, because whatever else, the horses were animals just like him in the circus.
Natasha says, "I was about to go out as well. It's beautiful out today. Bet you anything Phil's out there, too, just hiding."
Wanda voices Clint's thought. "Hiding?"
Natasha's smile is a little mischievous and a lot fond. "Phil's a raccoon. And we have all learned the value of not underestimating those fuckers."
Clint's still digesting the thought of one of the adults being something smaller than him, when Wanda says, "Pietro isâ€”was a free-tailed bat." She swallows harshly. "But he could cause so much trouble."
Clint smells the salt of tears, but she's looking down. He isn't sure who Pietro was, but he knows it's anything but all right, so instead of saying something stupid to that effect, he slowly curls his hand around hers, protectively, getting bolder when she doesn't take it and break it. Instead, she seems to take the hand as a sign that Clint's there for her needs, and she burrows herself against him. The sheer trust of it knocks Clint's breath from his chest, but he'll be damned if he won't prove himself worthy of it. If she needs his debt to her paid in comfort rather than him allowing her to express anger, that's fine. And if she needs the latter, Clint will take that too.
For now, he slides fingers through her hair gently, and rocks her a bit. When her breaths slow into little shudders against his shoulder he says, "Play outside?"
Trowa, who's stroking Wanda's back softly, nods, a smile playing at the edges of his mouth. Wanda doesn't say anything, but when he prods her toward the door, she goes without a fuss.
Wanda's wolf lopes past him, but he just laughs, letting her go. Trowa catches up and says, "The pond."
Clint nods and they both veer toward it. There's a bite in the air, but the running has warmed him up nicely, and he doesn't hesitate to toe off the shoes and socks he's been trying to get used to since putting them on. Having something on his feet is weird. The water is cold, but not frigid, and for a moment Clint holds back his shout, before remembering that he's allowed, he can make noise andâ€¦probably not get beaten for it.
He freezes for a moment, thinking he was wrong when Steve's dingo comes barreling toward them, only to practically belly flop into the water and then come nearer to the banks again, bounding happily between him and Trowa, and holding up his mouth to show them the ball in it. At first, Clint's not sure what he wants, but tentatively, he reaches his hand out, and Steve drops the ball into it. Clint stares at it before raising his arm and throwing it as far as he can. It's not very far. He never really learned how to throw and it's pitifully obvious, but Steve just goes running for it all the same, and brings it back, this time prodding at Trowa's legs until he throws.
Trowa's throw is worse than Clint's, both veering off course and not going very far, but it doesn't matter, because Wanda darts in to steal it from Steve and brings it back to them. Steve barks once at her, but then just runs toward a man Clint hasn't seen before, with slick sunglasses and a swagger to his walk, who tosses another ball to Steve.
Steve goes for the ball. Wanda stands in front of Trowa and Clint and growls. Just then a gorgeous barred owl lands directly on the man's shoulder and he says, "Hey there, hot stuff."
The owl manages to somehow roll its eyes at the man. He sits down in the grass, where Steve comes back hopefully with the ball. He takes it and mutters, "Yeah, yeah," but throws it all the same. Maria comes over and munches on his hair. He throws his arms up, swatting at her. "Hilarious, Hill."
Rhodey comes up, running a hand along Maria's flank. She nips at him playfully, and he smiles. "Tony, these are our newest housemates."
Bucky makes his way across the lawn and joins them. "Wanda, Trowa, Clint, meet Tony. Ourâ€¦benefactor and occasional chewtoy."
"Watch it, Barnes," Tony says without heat. Steve comes and settles in Bucky's lap, panting happily. A raccoon joins them from out of absolutely nowhere, the cat that Clint assumes must be Natasha following him. She licks Tony's face before going to curl up under Maria. Tony says, "You're all animals, you know that?"
For a second Clint stills, and feels the same stiffening in Trowa next to him. Then Tony smiles. "Well, mi casa es su casa. Literally, at this point."
Clint has no idea what that means, but Tony falls back to lie in the grass, the owl, who must be Pepper, fluttering onto his stomach. Phil waddles up and sits squarely on his chest, and Tony just reaches up a hand to pet him. Bucky, for his part, dislodges a mildly-grumbly Steve, taking the ball and throwing it. It goes so far Clint can't even see it anymore.
Bucky wades into the water and Clint, without thinking, asks, "Can you teach me how to throw like that?"
"Absolutely," Bucky tells him. "But the water's nice, yeah? Let's just splash around for a bit now." True to his word, Bucky flicks a bit of water toward Clint. It takes a second for Clint to recognize the interaction as harmless, but when his brain catches up to that fact, he tentatively flicks a little back.
Bucky grins. "You catch on quick, squirt."
Bucky and Rhodey, both of whom have stayed human for splishing and splashing through the pond, kneel in front of the three of them, and Rhodey says, "Let us help you guys, okay?"
Without even realizing he's touching her, Clint feels his fingers tighten in Wanda's fur. She knocks into his leg. Maria ambles over, and Bucky presses his face to her nose. He looks down at the boys, "C'mon, I'll help you up. She'll go slow."
Clint thinks it looks awfully high up, but he takes the risk, too tired to think of all the possible consequences. When he's astride her, he leans down and hugs her neck. She whickers softly. Trowa is slotted up behind him, and wraps his arms around Clint's middle.
Bucky coaxes Wanda into his arms, and they all head toward the house. Clint remembers making it there, but just barely. He falls off Maria into Rhodey's waiting arms. Steve's there, back in human shape, to catch Trowa. He has the vague impression of being put somewhere soft and having something warm tucked over him, but he falls asleep too quickly to assess much else about the situation.
Carefully, he untangles himself from Trowa, needing to find a restroom. He finds Maria, Natasha, and Pepper instead. Pepper says, "Hey there, small fry."
Clint yawns before he can get anything out, then rubs at his eyes. "Sorry. Don't know why I'm so tired."
"Bruce says it's normal, that your bodies are going to take a while to regain energy from years of deprivation and malnutrition." Maria tells him this matter-of-factly. He likes that she doesn't treat him like he's stupid, even if he really is.
"Bruce the elephant?" Clint asks.
"One and the same," Maria confirms.
"Why didn't he come outside?"
Natasha snorts, "Because Bruce's issues have issues, especially about kids."
Clint's not sure what that means, but, "Isn't this his home? Are weâ€”did we make it bad for him?"
"This is your home, too," Natasha says, quick and with an almost dark edge to it. Clint finds himself stepping back without meaning to.
Natasha scrubs a hand over her face and says, "Fuck, sorry. Bruce isn't the only who sucks with kids."
Clint thinks they're pretty awesome, all things told. Not one of them has hit any of the kids, and they keep making sure they're warm and happy. He takes a deep breath and walks toward her, putting a hand on her knee. She runs a hand softly through his hair and asks, "You hungry?"
Clint can't remember a time when he hasn't been hungry, and now's no exception. He nods. Pepper asks, "Can we get you cleaned up and in some fresh clothes, first? I don't know how you're not already itchy, but I don't want to tempt fate."
Clint looks at the floor and risks asking, "Can itâ€”can I clean up in warm water?"
A stillness comes over the room, and Clint almost backpedals, but Maria cuts in before he can manage with, "All the warm water you want, buddy. And when you get out, there'll be something hot to drink, how does that sound?"
Like heaven. Clint is starting to seriously question if maybe he died in the labs. He looks up to give all of them a smile. Natasha says, "Ugh, kid," but she presses a kiss to the crown of his head, so he's pretty sure it's not a bad thing.
He immediately decides he's staying in there forever. It's not at all like the hose, the water the perfect degree of warmth, the way it hits him rhythmic and gentle and soothing. He stays under longer than he should, only managing to get himself out because he wants to tell Trowa about it.
When he's slipped on the sweats that Natasha left for him, he goes out to find Trowa and Wanda awake but looking pretty opposed to the idea of actually getting up. He says, "You should try the shower. And they said there'd be hot food."
Clearly his logic is evident to the two, because they move slowly, but they get up, nonetheless.
Clint goes back to the kitchen area, where Rhodey's now sitting at the table with the three women. Bucky's at the stove, Steve hovering behind him. Natasha sees Clint first and says, "Promised you something warm to drink, didn't we?"
Clint looks away; he's not going to call them on it, or anything. Rhodey comes into his field of vision and says, "Come on up here," before ushering Clint into the chair Rhodey was recently inhabiting. Natasha sets a cup down in front of him. Steam curls up from it and it smells amazing. Rhodey says, "Go slow, we don't want you burning yourself."
Their concern for such tiny things is still weird, but Clint likes it way more than is safe. He sips slowly at the drink, which tastes spicy and sweet and like fall winds and apples. It's his new favorite thing, at least until the next thing they give him, as that's how it's kind of felt, like each thing is better than the last. He's terrified for the moment it stops.
Trowa sneaks in and nudges him over. The two of them share the seat, even if it means they both are falling off just a bit. Wanda crawls under the table and sits with her back to their legs. None of the adults so much as blinks at this. Instead, Natasha crawls under the table with her, and the two talk quietly under there.
Tony comes in, hands waving and talking about something involving the third floor and the pool. It's loud and frenetic, but all the other adults seem used to it, and for some strange reason, all Clint finds himself able to feel is safe.
So when he wakes up to Trowa pressing a hand over his mouth, both Wanda and him desperately making hushing sounds, Clint about comes out of his skin. He won't be the one who ruins this for them, he won't. He taps Trowa's hand and Trowa pulls it away. Clint whispers, "Pretend to be asleep," before scampering out of bed and toward the door.
Sure enough, no sooner has he gotten out the door than he sees Bucky and Steve walking down the hall toward their rooms. He says, "It was me, it was all me, it wasn'tâ€”"
But then Trowa is at his back in his fox form, growling, Wanda's wolf making small angry noises. Clint feels the same helplessness of the drugs, of being the instrument of harm without any intention of it. All that manages to come out of his mouth is, "No. No!"
Bucky folds to his knees and says, "Hey, hey there, hey. Nobody's mad. With any of you. I need you guys to listen to what I'm saying."
Steve shifts then, and barks sharply three times in succession. Both Wanda and Trowa bare their teeth and Clint does his best to put himself between them and Steve, but all of them go quiet, which allows Bucky to say, "Kiddos, calm down, I promise nobody is in trouble, I promise."
There's several moments of silence, then. Clint feels like he's going to come out of his skin with fear and unspent energy. Bucky puts his hands out and says, "We heard you screaming on the monitors, we just wanted to make sure you were okay, that's all."
Clint's listening, he is, he just doesn't understand. He opens his mouth to apologize, and instead bursts into tears. Even with all the sleep they've been getting he feels worn at the edges, terrified of losing this place for himself, but definitely for Trowa and Wanda. Bucky looks stricken and uncertain, which only makes Clint cry harder. Trowa and Wanda are both whining at him, and he feels like he can't breathe.
Bucky inches closer, muttering, "Not gonna hurt you, I promise," over and over until he's pulling Clint into him, wrapping him in his arms and rocking him back and forth, telling him what a good kid he is. It just makes Clint cry harder, because he knows it's not true. He finds himself saying, "No," because he doesn't know how else to respond.
Bucky just holds him more tightly, but there's no pain, and Bucky's only response is, "Yes."
The man says, "Good morning."
Clint feels himself gripping Bucky's fur in his hand, but he can't seem to let go. "Hi."
The man smiles. "I'm Sam. I'm guessing, since there's a fox and a wolf still sleeping, that you're Clint-the-Cat."
Clint almost giggles. There's something about the way Sam says it, the cadence of his voice. Clint braves a question. "What's your animal?"
Sam makes a face. "I didn't get one. Plain-ol'-human, like Tony, when he's not in one of his transformer-suits." Sam brightens, though. "I do have wings. Tony made them. I wanted to be a falcon, so he just got on that, which was pretty cool. Don't tell him I said that."
Clint doesn't really talk much to Tony. "Okay." Then, "So you're Tony's friend?"
"I like to think he likes me well enough," Sam says. "But I was friends with Steve and Tasha first. They found me when Bucky needed help."
There's so much in that response that Clint has no idea how to understand that for a moment he considers shifting, because then he won't have to talk. Sam must see something on Clint's face, because he says softly, "You can shift is that's what you need to feel safe, but I'd rather you told me what I did to upset you."
Clint's not upset, not exactly. It's just, "Bucky's strong."
The bear moves at this, shoving his snout into Clint's stomach, which makes Clint startle and laugh, all at once. Sam smiles. "Yeah, yeah he is. But all of us, even strong guys like Bucky, need help sometimes."
Bucky makes a noise of agreement against Clint's stomach and then brings his face up to be able to cuddle Clint. Clint grabs onto handfuls of fur without thinking and finds he can't let go. He keeps his eyes on Sam. He says, "I wanna be strong."
Softly, Sam tells him, "You already are. I'm just gonna help you see it."
Clint watches surreptitiously as Trowa draws Cat's blond curls, her long legs and arms, almost too long for her body. Half in solidarity, half because he hasn't allowed himself to think about Barney in so long, Clint draws a boy with messy brown hair and freckles and a nose crooked from being broken. He knows Barney's probably grown, maybe even forgotten about Clint. But Clint hasn't forgotten about them.
Sam asks some questions about the pictures, but he doesn't push them to answer if they don't want to. When he asks, "Who's this?" Clint considers just shrugging, but he finds it feels like betrayal.
He swallows and says, "My big brother. Notâ€”not like Trowa. From home."
Sam makes a sound low in his throat and asks, "You miss him?"
Clint does shrug at that. There are some things he's unwilling to admit aloud. Sam points to Trowa's drawing and asks, "And her?"
"Cat," Trowa says simply.
Clint touches a strand of yellow hair. "She told us stories, in the circus."
Sam doesn't ask about the endless bats Wanda draws, and neither Clint nor Trowa need to.
Sam teaches them to play checkers, and hide 'n go seek, and how to jump rope. He takes them out to fly kites. And sometimes, he just sits with them, especially after a nightmare, or when one of them is having a day where it feels safer to curl up in one of the closets.
He also asks for things for them, things Clint knows he would never ask for for himself. After the first week that Sam is around, all of the adults start teaching the three of them tricks to hurt someone who's trying to hurt them, things they can do even if the person is a lot bigger than them. Natasha's the best at that kind of fighting, even if Steve and Rhodey and Maria are pretty awesome at it, too.
Wanda catches on quickly, and Trowa's pretty adept. Clint is so torn between trying to please and holding himself back, afraid of what he can do that more than half the time he ends up on the floor in knots. He can tell the adults are confused, but he knows the minute he tells them what he's done they'll see they've been helping someone who doesn't deserve it. He knows it's the right thing to do, and yet every time he tries his throat closes up and he feels like he can't breathe.
When they learn that Rhodey's animal form is a dolphin, and he can only change in the huge seawater tank Tony has constructed, and Wanda touches the water wistfully, Sam says, "You can go in with him, you know?"
They all look at the tank. Surprisingly, it's Trowa who points out the problem. "We can't stand in there."
Sam blinks, and then catches on. Fifteen minutes later, swimsuits have been put on the list of things that need to be purchased for them, and they're all three in their underclothing, Sam working on the basics of swimming with them. They all catch onto floating on their backs pretty quickly. Clint's never felt weightless before, and he kind of wants to hold onto the moment forever.
Reading, which all the adults are trying to help the kids learn, comes a lot easier for Trowa and Wanda than it does for Clint. They all tell Clint that people just come at things differently, that understanding comes in its own time. Sam's telling him it again after Bucky has spent an afternoon trying to catch Clint up on things Trowa and Wanda had down weeks ago and Clint says, "It'sâ€¦it's okay to admit that I'm stupid. I knew that even before the circus."
Sam opens his mouth, but Bucky's, "What?" comes out, flat and hard, first.
Clint flinches instinctively, but he's able to settle a moment later without any help. He knows Bucky and Sam won't hurt him, he knows that, his brain is just having trouble understanding it. Sam says this is progress. Bucky still looks unhappy whenever Clint seems afraid of him, but Clint knows that Sam has worked with him, too, about not taking it personally. Besides, now that Clint knows what to look for, he knows Bucky has automatic reactions, too, they're just different than his, or Trowa's, or Wanda's.
Clint has patches of memory of growing up before the circus. He thinks maybe he let himself forget lots of it, but still, there are things he can recall. He shrugs. "My dad told me. I was in school before, you know? The teachers said there was something wrong with me."
Bucky is tightening his flesh fist and shaking it out repetitively. Clint says, "You can be a bear, if you want."
They all feel just a little bit safer in their animal skin. Clint never wants any of them to feel trapped as human for him. Bucky shakes his head, a sharp twist. "No, because I need to say things to you, I need to tell you they were wrong. There was something wrong with them."
It's nice of Bucky to say, so Clint doesn't argue. Sam, though, Sam always knows when Clint is just keeping quiet to avoid conflict, and he says, "No, Clint, you need to listen to us. There are plenty of signs that you're not stupid. You picked up swimming quicker than either of the others, you learn the rules of any game almost immediately and remember them, up to and including chess, which a lot of adults can't do. You have a great sense of direction, you notice things other people don't, and you're sensitive to other people's needs. All of those are signs of intelligence. So it's taking you longer to have certain specific verbal skills, so what?
"It's taking Wanda a lot longer to figure out the layout of the house and the grounds. Trowa has yet to venture away from the side of the tank unless it's on his back, and even then, he won't go far. Do those things make either of them stupid?"
Clint bares his teeth. Sam smiles. "So why does this one thing make you that way?"
Clint sees the logic, he really does. But there's something different about reading, something fundamental, and he can't shake the feeling that his shortcomings in the area make him less, somehow. Bucky seems to pick this up from his silence, because he carefully, slowly pulls Clint into his lap and asks, "How about I just read you a story for the rest of today's lesson?"
Clint rubs his face against Bucky's chest in a nod. Bucky rocks him a little and says, "Wanna let Sam pick the book? He has good taste."
Clint likes all the books the adults have introduced him to. He can't imagine not liking one. He says, "Yeah, Sam picks."
Bucky kisses the top of his head and Sam wanders off in search of a book. He's not gone long.
Bucky's in the middle of helping Clint with how to clench his fist for a punch so he won't break his own fingers, when something hits the side of Bucky's neck and he just folds. Natasha, who's helping Wanda with something, goes down at the same time. Rhodey has Trowa on the ground by that point.
Clint no more than looks at Bucky lying on the ground, helpless, and completely loses any rational train of thought. He's a cat before he's even considered changing, ripping through the clothes he was wearing, which are now just hindering his movement. Rhodey's still blocking Trowa with his body, holding a gun Clint didn't even realize he had on him, and picking off people in camouflage as they approach.
Wanda has also shifted, and the two of them run full bore for one of the men who's coming up on Rhodey's side. He gets a shot off, but misses both of them, as they're coming at him at top speed and smaller than he's probably expecting. Clint bites into the back of one of his ankles, since he can't reach the man's neck. When the man goes down, Wanda takes care of that with her teeth. Clint catches a glimpse of the skull-octopus thing from the labs on the shoulder patch of the man's uniform, and what small amount of rational thought was left goes out the window, leaving him with nothing but protectothersprotect.
Clint runs off to another person focusing on Rhodey, and this time jumps far enough to clamp his jaw around the man's firing arm. Clint goes for his feet, too, just to make sure he won't be going anywhere. There's blood in his mouth and in a small corner of his mind he knows he's going to be sick on it sooner rather than later, but Bucky and Trowa and the others are in danger, and Clint doesn't, can't care about anything beyond that.
Rhodey screams, "The house, Clint! Wanda! Get the others!"
Wanda's quick on his heels as the two of them race to the main house. Clint has barely shifted back when he starts yelling, "They're trying to take usâ€”they'reâ€”"
Maria's there in an instant, Phil and Steve on either side of her. Someone Clint has never seen is behind them. He must be Bruce. Clint had begun to think he wasn't real. Phil says, "Show us. Tony and Sam will be right there."
Clint shifts again, following Wanda out this time. It only takes a few minutes, the whole trip, but Rhodey's got one of the darts in him too, now. Clint can't see if Trowa's okay. Two of the men are dragging Bucky away and Clint finds himself jumping on one of their backs and digging in, dragging his claws down with as much force as possible, aiming for as much damage as he can cause. The guy he attacked is still coughing blood when the other one goes down with a bullet to the head.
Phil and Maria are taking care of the ones Rhodey hadn't managed to put down, and Bruce is trampling the ones trying to escape. Sam and Tony are flying overhead, making sure they don't miss anything. Clint runs to where Rhodey is unconscious and shifts back so that he can roll him gently off Trowa, who seems fine, if a little flattened and shaken. Clint just grabs onto him and doesn't let go, not even when the sounds of firing stop, and Wanda's wolf curls around them, and Sam says, "It's okay guys, we got them, everything's okay."
He holds on, and Trowa must not mind, because he clings right back. They're still clinging when Bucky wakes up and pulls all three of them into his lap and says, "Yeah, we'll just stay here for a bit."
Trowa and Wanda push and prod until Bucky makes room for them in his hold. It doesn't take long.
Pepper says, "Tea, I think."
"Hot cocoa," Steve says.
She looks at him and he shrugs. "Are any of us going back to sleep any time soon?"
"The man has a point," Maria says.
"Steve has lots of points," Bucky grumbles without really lifting his head. Sam runs a hand along his lower back and some of the tension he's carrying drains out. Clint clings more tightly, and Bucky murmurs, "Thanks for saving my life today, kid. Meant to say something earlier."
Clint frowns into Bucky's chest. "I didn'tâ€”the others came andâ€”"
"They came because you and Wanda were able to get to the house. We're a team here, all of us. And you're part of the reason I'm still here, safe, instead of in a lab. All of us are. So, yeah, you did."
Clint shifts his head so he can peer at Trowa, who seems to be in agreement with what Bucky is saying, if the roll of his eyes is any indication. Clint is still thinking it over when Phil, Pepper, and Steve come back into the room carrying trays of steaming mugs. Clint looks around and notes that Bruce has slipped away.
He finds it in himself to ask. "Is Bruce okay? Heâ€”he was part of the rescueâ€”"
"I'll go find him in a bit," Tony says. "He's not good at feeling crowded."
"Go easy," Pepper tells him, but in a tone of voice that Clint thinks means she has no expectation of actually being listened to.
"Like a Sunday morning," Tony says, and Wanda snorts, which means they can pretty much all hear the bullshit in that statement.
Tony looks like he's about to launch into an extended defense of his dignity, but Phil cuts him off with a simple, "In any case, Bucky is correct, Clint. In the seven years since Tony met Pepper and Rhodey, who were both managing to stay under the radar, and the three of them put this place together, there have been a few breaches of the security here and there, but none of us have ever been taken off of or seriously injured on the grounds, in large part due to the fact that we watch out over each other. And that was exactly what you and the others did today."
Clint likes the way Phil makes everything sound so reasonable, so easy to believe. The thought that today might have been real, that this place might offer a way to keep the others, keep himself actually safe, has begun to worm into his brain, and he is terrified of it. He also wants to never let it go. But he knows it's not real, won't be real if he doesn't say what he's thinking aloud, which is, "You don'tâ€”it doesn't bother you, how I just, um." Clint can't find the words. It's not even being stupid, which, sure, is the problem most of the time. He just can't say aloud to these people that they made him a killer. Instead he makes claws with his perfectly human hands and makes a slashing motion.
To his surprise, it's Natasha who carefully elbows her way into the cuddle pile and makes room for herself inside the shelter of Bucky's arms, curling slightly around Clint. She says, "You're not just that, Clint. You're not. Or, if you are, then Bucky and I are, too."
Clint frowns. Sam speaks up with a, "We know it's not that simple, Clint. Trust me, I've been working with these two stubborn mule-faces for years, we know. But whatever they did, and we've suspected for a whileâ€”nobody's as at ease with swimming and other tasks and so terrible at self-defense if they're not holding themselves backâ€”whatever they did, it wasn't your fault. And who you've become because of it? Is still a damn good kid."
Natasha aims a playful kick at Sam's midsection, and he takes it. Bucky just buries his face in Clint's hair.
Clint sips at his hot chocolate and thinks this over. Thinks about maybe trying to talk about what he did, and how it won't leave him. There's a silence that's not quite easy, but still somehow comfortable.
In the end it's Trowa, who's clearly thinking pretty hard, who breaks it by saying, "You saved our lives, when you came to get us. So I guessâ€¦Clint and Wanda, they're even now, right?"
Natasha raises an eyebrow. "Is that how you and Clint work? On a debt system?"
"That's different," both Clint and Trowa say at once, which inclines Clint to believe it's true.
"Because you've known each other longer?" Rhodey asks, the question even, as if 'yes' is a reasonable answer to the question. Somehow Clint knows it isn't.
Clint tries, "Because we're brothers," which is sort of related to how long they've known each other, but it's all he's got. "Even more than like Barney, because Barney had to be my brother, and he was good at it, he was, the best, but Trowa doesn't have to, and he is anyway."
There's a moment where the adults just all share looks. In the end, Steve says, "Then I guess you'll just have to give us time to become family, too."
Clint takes another sip and realizes, with a bit of shock, that nothing about that idea sounds impossible.