I. Tha mo chridhe goirt
Clint is four years old when his father throws him into a wall. His head cracks against the patterned wallpaper, hard, and he doesn't want to cry, he doesn't, but he knows by now that if he looks like he's been broken enough, his father will stop. The tears that trace along his cheekbones and soak his shirt front are for a purpose, but they're real.
Barney takes his handkerchief to Clint's face to wipe it clean, but pauses with his hands in Clint's hair, says "oh," and presses the handkerchief to the side of Clint's scalp instead. It comes away red-stained, and Barney guides his hand to hold it against his head, says, "Keep this here, okay, Clint? I'll be right back."
He can hear them screaming at each other and he has to work to drown out the words, hands over his ears and Barney's handkerchief forgotten at his side. There's the dull sound of his father's fist hitting something, and then a new sound; Clint hasn't heard it before, but his father roars and he doesn't try to hear any more, just scrambles under his bed (not safe, but then, he knows nowhere is) and hides.
Barney comes back to him a little while later, and when he steps into the room, Clint can see that he's limping. Moments later, his face appears under the edge of the bed.
"It's safe to come out now," he says, and he's been crying. His voice is shaky and raw, and there are tear tracks down his face from reddened eyes.
Clint slides out and the blood from his head is dripping on the carpet, but Barney just grabs him up and holds him. His brother's grip is so tight it hurts, but even though he can't take a full breath, Clint doesn't try to move or wiggle out.
"I hit him, Clint. I hit him back," Barney whispers, and he's crying again, like he's done something wrong, like it's some kind of sin to raise a hand against this man who is not, and never was, a father.
Clint rests his hands on Barney's back, his head against Barney's chest, and whispers, "It's okay. It's okay."
And it is, because it's always okay when Clint says it is.
Barney stops crying, slowly and with deep, shuddering breaths that shake them both. He stops and Clint tells him, again and again, it's okay, it's okay, because Barney looks after him and keeps him safe and does everything for him, and this is the only thing Clint knows how to do in return; the only thing that Clint can do that Barney can't.
When things are wrong, Clint makes them right again.
II. 's tha e ruidhinn mo chridhe
"Fix it," Barney says, and pushes Clint forward. Clint's shoes catch against the carpet, spark of static as he stumbles and flings his hands out to either side so that he doesn't fall.
"Fix it, Clint."
Barney stares at him, anger – or anguish, Clint isn't sure – sparking deep in his eyes. "You have to, Clint. You have to."
"Why do I have to? You hated him."
"That doesn't matter, he's dead and you have to do something. Make it… make it so he wasn't a bad person."
"He was a bad person."
"But he's dead. Dead people aren't allowed to be bad. They go to hell."
"I don't care. I want him to go to hell. Forever."
There's a tug at his shirt collar and Barney is pulling him up the aisle of the church, dragging him to the coffin Clint doesn't want to go anywhere near, forcing him to look into it, breathe in musty air that smells too strongly of flowers and something sharp and unfamiliar that makes Clint gag – and then he's jerking away, running down the aisle, flinging open the heavy double doors at the far end as he races through them and out into the open churchyard, onto the street without stopping until he gets to the end of the block and curls up behind the corner of a brownstone house.
That's where he finally starts breathing again, drawing in air and releasing it in sobs that claw their way out of his chest and shiver in the still air around him. He's not crying for his father, no, not for the loss he isn't suffering; he's not crying for himself, though he's alone in the world now except for Barney; he's crying because he's the only person who could make his father right, and he didn't, and that means his father is going to hell.
Clint doesn't care if his father goes to hell. He's bad, and he deserves to be there. But Clint didn't fix him when he could have, and that makes Clint bad, too, and there's no one who can fix him.
Clint doesn't care if his father goes to hell, but he's terrified of going there with him.
III. Och, ochone, misc 'n diugh
Clint learns that he's not normal when he is ten years old. Barney, of course, has known for a long time, but never told him.
They're being bullied on the playground, like they are every day. Weirdos, charity cases, freaks, they've heard it all, because they live in an orphanage and their parents are dead and Barney spends too much time daydreaming and Clint's not good at school.
Clint's used to it by now, and he's used to seeing the ugly blackness that hangs around the older kids, the way it darkens their eyes and stains their words and stoops their shoulders just a little. He sees it, and he could make it better, but he doesn't. They don't deserve it.
He's not used to seeing it on Barney, and he has to shake his head and look again when he sees his brother push a girl off a swing and shout something at her, too far away to hear, but the sneer on his face and the shadow that creeps over him make him look like their father.
He shudders, but this is Barney, who was once Clint's saviour, and now Clint has a way to return the favour. "Barney!" he shouts, waving his brother over, because he knows what to do now.
Barney looks up, sees him and comes over. "What do you want?"
Clint tries to put a hand on his arm, tries to tell him it'll be okay, tries to take the shadow from him, but Barney shakes him off and looks around wildly to make sure no one's seen them. "Don't do that!" he hisses, and Clint stares, wide-eyed, because why, why doesn't Barney want his help this time, when he's always wanted it so badly before now?
"Clint," and Barney drags him roughly off to one corner of the playground and kneels in front of him, and Clint rubs his sore arm and glares at Barney, who is still carrying the weight of what he's done, but who seems completely unaware of it. "You never, ever, ever do that here again, you understand? Not in front of people, not ever."
"Wh–" he breaks off, tries again. "Why not?"
"Don't you think we're different enough already? Why do you always have to cause trouble?"
"I'm not different!"
"Yes, you damn well are!" Barney has started to use curse words, at school as well as on their own, and it's just one more thing that scares Clint, because it's one more way Barney is starting to be like their father. "You know nobody else does that… that thing you do."
"I don't do anything! I just fix things!"
Barney slaps a hand over his mouth. "Not here you don't," he hisses, and Clint's eyes are huge and terrified behind his brother's fingers. "Just shut up, okay? Just be normal for once!"
He shoves Clint away again, gets up to leave, then stops and looks back over his shoulder. His expression is gentler than it has been, and that might be because Barney is a good person, or it might just be because Clint is standing very still, face closed off and eyes distant, the way he used to stand in front of their father.
"Just… try, Clint, okay?" Barney says, and he sounds almost like he used to when Clint was very small. "It's the only way we're going to make it."
Clint nods, because it's Barney and the only time he ever said no to Barney still haunts him. He nods, and promises to try, and swallows down everything else because he doesn't know anymore what's normal and what isn't.
He doesn't offer to help Barney again, but that night when they're supposed to be asleep in their bunks, he crawls out of bed and goes to lay a hand on his brother.
Barney sleeps easier when the darkness goes, but it feels different this time, and Clint thinks that it's maybe getting harder to put things right for him.
It's never been hard to do for anyone before, and that scares him.
IV. Thoir dhomh do ciontachd
It's been six years when Barney decides they've lived in the orphanage long enough, takes Clint out and climbs the wrought-iron fence with him. He's got grand plans, circus plans, Barney-Barton-takes-on-the-world plans, and Clint is not entirely sure why he's a part of them, but he goes along anyway, because Barney said, no one wants us, and it's true.
Barney's too old for adoption and Clint is a freak, and so they leave.
Planning to take on the world doesn't mean it happens, though, and Clint likes to needle Barney about it while they shovel manure, clean up the circus rings after the acts, scrub down caravans, and do all the work that's fit for two no-account boys with nothing to their names and nowhere else to go. It's no great thing, this world they live in now, but it's their world and no one can take it from them.
Barney likes it because he says it's going to give them both a future. They can learn here, he says, and does his schoolwork at night by candlelight because they have no electricity. The letters he scratches onto the page are too big and go in too many different directions, but the answers he writes on the workbook pages are the same as the ones in the back of the book, so Clint thinks he must be learning something. Barney tries to give him work to do as well, but Clint isn't interested. School is boring and pointless and it's never gotten either of them anywhere, and Barney's not the boss of him, so he crumples the papers up and throws them into the corner of the caravan, and then he leaves.
Clint likes the circus for different reasons. He loves the smell of it at night, warm scents of food and animals and tired, busy people. He loves the lights strung up all around so that the glow suffuses everything he sees. He loves hard work, because it makes him tired and gives him a way to quiet his racing brain. He loves the unconcern of everything; some of the people here carry a weight of darkness far beyond what Clint has ever seen, and some have none at all, but here in the circus, everyone has their own secrets, and no one ever seems to want to know or care.
He loves that it's okay to have secrets here.
He loves that, for once, he isn't the only one who has them.
When he's skipping out on the work Barney tries to make him do, Clint goes to the tents for the freak show acts. During the day, they are all on display, and people point and shout and laugh and Clint remembers schoolyard bullies and wonders if, deep down, everyone is like that when they find the right people to push around. At night, though, they gather together in folding chairs and sit and talk, the Bearded Lady and the Smallest Man in the World and the Reptile Boy and Clint.
They don't ask him why he belongs with them, and he doesn't say anything about it, but they let him stay anyway. And it turns out that, underneath all the trappings of their oddities, they're no different from him.
This is what he loves most of all about the circus.
Here, Clint is not the only freak.
V. A choid do Pharas da
Clint's lost track of time at the circus by now. It's somewhat of a victory for him, because he's been trying to forget the way he and Barney are being pulled apart. Clint works for the Swordsman, who teaches him the things he wants to know; Barney still shovels and cleans and fixes broken things and needs fixing, but he won't let Clint help him anymore.
"I'm trying to help you," he says when Clint comes to him. "You're never going to get anywhere like this. You want to be a two-bit circus worker your whole life?"
Clint never wants to leave the circus, ever.
"I'm not the one that needs help," he says, and it's a lie, because lately he's been feeling the weight of his own darkness on him, and he doesn't know why. He's only doing what he's told.
"We're too old for kids' games," says Barney.
Clint knows that they both know it's not a game, but they don't talk about it anymore. There are a lot of things they don't do anymore.
There are new people at the circus now, children younger than Clint and Barney who look up to them and hate them simultaneously like they're the worst kind of older sibling, an old Welsh woman who has a calming way with animals, a Romani family who do acrobatic acts. It's the old woman Clint sees looking at him from a distance, strange expression on her face, and then he notices her again and again, hovering near him while he trains or works or tries again to persuade Barney to let him help.
"You, boy, come here," she says to him one night as he's practising a new form the Swordsman has taught him. He wants to say no, but the look she's giving him is intense and unrelenting, and he puts down his weapons, rolls his sleeves back over his wrists, and follows her.
They don't say a word until they're cached in darkness behind one of the freak show tents, and then she says, "You don't know what you are, do you?"
He looks at her, confused.
"No, I thought not. What did you think you'd been doing all these years, then? Not all those sins you carry are your own – though, mind you, you're no saint."
"Lady," says Clint, "I got no idea what you're talking about."
"I'm talking about you, boy. Taking on other people's sins. I've seen you do it."
"I…" but he trails off, because he's starting to think maybe he understands. "I fix things. People."
"Uh-huh," she says. "I'll bet you do. Just like you fixed that Swordsman of yours today. He know you're doing it?"
Clint shakes his head. No one knows he does it, no one except Barney. His brother told him, never in front of people, not ever, and Clint has learned his lesson well.
"You're a sin-eater," she tells him, and he blinks, because the word sounds like it means something and he's afraid he's supposed to know what. His uncertainty must show on his face, though, because she shakes her head. "You take away people's sins, boy! Take away what they do wrong and put it on yourself instead. Don't you know what you do?"
Another mute shake of the head, because he stopped believing in God and sins and everything years ago, right around the time his own self-declared God-fearing father decided that 'suffer the little children' was a part of the Bible he could ignore.
"Doesn't it weigh on you, don't you feel it?" she asks. "Don't you know what you carry?"
"I don't know anything, okay?" he snaps. "I didn't ask for this! I don't know what it is! Why are you talking to me? You don't even know my name!"
"I don't care what your name is," she says. "You have a gift. I want to help you."
"No one can help me! I'm a freak, no one else is like this!"
There's a rustle of fabric as she moves, quicker than he can see in the dim light; she lays her hand over his, and he just stops.
When he can speak again, he asks, "Is this what it's like?" Because he feels so light he doesn't know what to do with his limbs, like if he moves too fast he's going to float away somewhere, or maybe fall apart. There's something missing, but he doesn't know what it is, only that he doesn't miss it now it's gone.
"Boy, you have no idea. I took away a little of it, just a tiny piece of everything you've taken on since you started. That wasn't even your sin." Her face is grave in the slanting moonlight as she leans in close and says, "But I'm going to put things right for you. You're just an innocent, didn't know what you were doing, and that's not right. Something like this, you need to choose it for yourself."
"What… what do I do?"
"You come back here tomorrow night, right here, and I'll show you what it means to be what you are. I'll take away that weight you're carrying, for real, and then you start over. Or don't. It's not my lookout what you do after that."
He starts to answer, but she waves him off, "Tomorrow night!" and won't say another word to him after that, so he goes back to his own caravan, where his brother is frowning over a few sheets of paper in the flickering firelight.
"Barney," he says, "you ever hear of a sin-eater?"
"You been reading horror stories again?" his brother asks, annoyed at the interruption and annoyed at Clint. "I told you, you want something to read, I'll give you something worth reading."
"No," he says. "Just something I heard."
He goes to sleep that night vibrating with promise and fear, whispering over and over again to himself, sin-eater.
He's not sure if the word sounds more like a beginning or an end.
VI. Gu'n gleidheadh Dia thu
It's darker than usual. Clint thinks he's imagining it at first, until he realizes that there are no strings of lights nearby, and the floodlights are angled away from the tents where he's standing, hands pushed deep into his pockets, rocking back and forth on his heels as he sucks air in through his teeth and tries to look like he's supposed to be standing here with no real purpose.
She finds him there staring over the tops of the darkened tents between where he is and where the caravan is, trying to see if the candles are still light, if Barney is still awake. She shakes her head, mutters something about 'too attached to the world,' and pulls him into one of the nondescript tents near them.
"Take off your shirt."
He makes no move to comply; there are old scars there, in his mind and on his skin, and he is not eager to share.
She sighs, rolls her eyes. "Open your shirt, then, and lie down. Here. Take this. Don't eat it."
'This' is a thick slice of bread, plain and dry with a dark, grainy crust. It's not the sort of thing most people would consider an appetizing evening meal, but then, most people have access to a few more options than Clint usually does. Tonight, all he's had for dinner is the scent of something from the carnival fryers, oil and cinnamon and powdered sugar carried down to him on the air.
When he's lying on the pallet that looks like it's supposed to serve as a bed, straw poking out through the ticking to scratch at his neck under his collar, she sits beside him.
"I'm going to show you this once, boy," she says, "and learn it well, because it's your last chance. After this, you're on your own."
She lays the bread on his chest, reaches over him for a brown glass bottle. It's familiar; looks like the beer bottles the Swordsman has in the evenings, but the label is different and the smell is sour and heady in the half-light of the tent.
"You listen to me," she says then, "and look here. Every time you touch someone, fix them, whatever you want to call it, you're taking their sins. You understand?"
"Everything they ever did wrong, everything that weighs them down like chains around their neck. You take it on yourself instead. You been doing it for a while now, I can see. Got the world on your shoulders."
This is the part where he gets up and walks away. It's the part where he starts laughing, because sins aren't real, none of that stuff is real. It's the part where he realizes he's alone in a tent with a crazy person and runs like hell.
He doesn't do any of those things.
"I can take it away," she tells him. "Just once, just this one time, because you didn't know."
She lays a hand over his mouth to keep him from answering, says a brief prayer – or at least, he thinks it's a prayer; she bows her head and folds her free hand in her lap, but he can't make out the words of what she whispers – then drinks from the bottle and offers it to him. He shakes his head no, but she pushes it at him anyway. "First, you pray," she says, "then drink, then eat."
The crust of bread disappears into her mouth.
"You see?" she says, but he can't answer, can't even think, because the world is new and bright and suddenly he can see so much farther. He breathes in, and his chest fills like it's never done before, like the air itself is different and he breathes and breathes and feels it run through him like fire and ice and lightning.
"What – " he finally chokes out, and her smile is crooked and doesn't quite have all its teeth, but it's beautiful, everything is beautiful, and he drinks it in and wants to drown in it.
"So much sin," she says from a great distance, "and hardly any of it yours."
"This," he says, and it takes everything he's got to bring himself back, "this is what I do?"
"No, but it's close enough. Get up."
He staggers when he obeys, new-born like a colt with limbs he doesn't understand and energy thrumming in his body, everything unfamiliar and bright-edged in his new eyes. This is what the world is like for other people, he tells himself, and yet somehow they manage to find hate and fear and pain and guilt and darkness in it nonetheless; they find it and he takes it and they find it again and it never ends, and why, he needs to know, why do they seek out the shadows when they can live like this forever?
"Can I…" he starts to say, but trails off, because the question was, Can I keep this? and he's already guessing at an answer he doesn't want to hear right now or ever.
"I tell you what you do," she says, and he can hear the warning in her voice. "You be very, very careful about what you take on and for whom, because you know. You know what you're doing, what it costs, and there's no one going to absolve you like this anymore. You're on your own now."
He has a hundred, thousand, million questions, but even as he begins to formulate the first of them, she waves him off. "Go away, we're done."
"Got no more time for you, boy."
"Wait, do you… do you have all of those sins now? Mine and everyone's?"
"What I do is my own business. Now go away."
It's not an answer, but Clint knows it's his marching orders, and he goes.
In the morning, she's gone; her tent is empty save for the pallet and the empty beer bottle. One of the men smashes it on the ground, and Clint sits all afternoon staring at the shards.
VII. The e lamhan fuar
Living on the streets is easy, comparatively. Everything is easy, comparatively.
Clint saves people in a different way, now, and it's almost okay. He drives off the scum of the back alleys, rarely eats, sleeps in dark corners and filthy gutters and wherever he can find some shelter from the wind, and it's almost okay. It's almost enough to crush the guilt inside him.
He tells himself it's still a kind of fixing people, fixing things, and it rings hollow in his ears because it's something anyone can do (and yet no one does; Clint has long since given up on asking questions that begin with why). It's probably not what he was meant to do with his life, but meant to doesn't really have any meaning for him. Even though he's reconsidering his position on sin, he still doesn't believe in fate and happiness and love and other myths.
He's ready for someone to prove him wrong, but no one does.
VIII. An eirig m'anama
Phil Coulson wears his light like sinners wear their darkness, heavy about his shoulders as though it's dragging him down. He's stooped under it like guilt, like pain, like sins he's never had absolved, except that Phil is not a sinner.
Well, no more than any other man. Less, Clint thinks, because he can see how much Phil shines underneath his shadows, how much joy there is in him buried beneath the layers he's accumulated over years of self-doubt and mistakes and uncertainty and far, far too much responsibility.
He can see it, but he can tell Phil can't.
It's years since Clint has thought about the gift he has and never asked for, years since he touched someone with purpose, years since he gave up the weight of the world's sins and joined the ranks of the costumed ridiculous. (He loves it here. He won't admit it, and he won't stop calling all his colleagues lunatics – except Bruce, that's never a good idea – but this place feels more like home than even the circus, and Clint is starting to wonder if maybe that means it really is home, or something like it.)
No one here knows where he came from, not the deepest part of it, his father and his brother and the things he can do that he never talks about, and he likes it that way. Sometimes he wonders, though, what Phil Coulson knows that he's not letting on, because he looks at Clint funny sometimes when they're walking out of the conference room, and he's careful with his words like Clint needs some kind of kid-glove treatment, and he's got files on them all that are inches thick and scribbled all over with margin notes and annotations.
Clint wonders if there's a special S.H.I.E.L.D. code for 'sin-eater.'
He talks to Phil sometimes, more and more often as the months pass and they keep being assigned together to just about everything they do. They talk about things that don't matter, Clint's taste in explosive arrows and Phil's frustrations with IKEA furniture and how many times it's acceptable to sustain broken ribs in the line of duty (Clint's answer is, "however many times is necessary to achieve the objective, come on, Phil, it's just ribs, it's not like I use them for anything," and Phil's answer is, "if you followed orders, Hawkeye, we wouldn't be having this conversation"). They talk about everything and nothing, and Phil keeps his light to himself and hides it behind walls like other people hide their sins, and Clint tells none of either of their secrets.
The first time they touch, he has to will himself not to do what he could.
The first time they kiss, he has to break away abruptly, because Phil is full of pain and it hurts too much to do nothing about it.
The first time he watches Phil sleep, from miles away six feet away across the metal floor of a Quinjet after a mission, he has to tighten his grip on the straps of his flight harness until they dig into his hands, because if he doesn't, he's going to go over there and take it all away, and he's long since decided that's not something he will ever do again.
The first time he stops thinking about years-old promises to himself and asks himself instead what he wants now, he realizes.
There's never been anyone whose peace of mind and soul he's willing to trade for his own, not since he learned what it really meant, not since betrayal and abandonment and isolation, not since 'trust' became just one more thing Clint no longer believes in.
There's never been anyone for whom he'd pay that price.
For Phil Coulson, he would.