Tony was 13 years old, the only son to the brilliant owner and creator of Stark Industries, smarter than any kid his age should be, more stubborn than an ox, and was currently huddling under a tree in soaking wet designer clothes wondering why he ever wanted to run away from home. But it was too late to take back - he'd left two days ago, had tracked down a traveling circus, and was now just stalking its entrance waiting for an opportune moment to approach. "And what do kids even say when they run away to a circus? Hi, I'm sick of living under a roof, with regular meals and standardized plumbing but I didn't like the restrictions my parents put on me so I decided I wanted to live in freedom? Please take me with you?" he muttered to himself.
"I don't know about most children, but my brother and I said we were sick of being lost in an overcrowded orphanage with overworked caretakers who were struggling to feed all of us and we decided we wanted to travel the world."
"Ah!" Tony shrieked, jumping up and looking all around him in a vain search for the owner of the voice.
"Look up." Tony whipped his head back and sure enough, there was a boy hanging upside down from the lowest branch of the tree. "Hi! Clint Barton, at your service!" The boy smirked and flipped his fingers out in a parody of a military salute.
Tony frowned. "Do you always just sneak up on people like this?"
Clint shrugged. "Sometimes you just need to get away from everyone. And you're the one that sat down under my tree."
"You can't claim a tree and tell people to stay away from it,"Tony proclaimed.
Clint rolled his eyes. "Says the boy wearing hundreds of dollars worth of shoes and clothes. You probably have tons of trees at home," he sneered, or at least was trying to - Tony wasn't sure but he thought there was a hint of wistfulness in his voice too.
His thoughts flashed to the orchard behind the countryside estate that his mother favored and flushed, then scowled. "Just come down already and talk like a normal person! I'm getting a crick in my neck."
"Yes, your majesty. Anything you say, your majesty," Clint snarked, then in one smooth move pulled himself up onto the branch and flipped off, executing a couple of neatly tucked tumbles through the air before landing proudly next to Tony, arms akimbo.
"Congrats," Tony said dryly. "Are you training to be one of the acrobats?"
Clint dropped his hands and scowled. "The more you learn, the better chance you have at surviving in this world. That's what Barney says."
"What, the big purple dinosaur on that kid's show? You still watch that?" Tony snickered but then stopped when Clint looked genuinely confused instead of embarrassed and ashamed like any kid their age would be when caught out still watching Barney.
"Huh? No, my brother Barney. There's a big...purple...dinosaur...?"
"Never mind," Tony said hastily, not wanting to get into a discussion about a children's show when he had other things to focus on. He gathered his courage together and stood up straighter. "So, who do I talk to about joining up?"
Clint raised an eyebrow. "You haven't even told me your name yet and you want me to bring you home?"
"Uh," Tony scrambled mentally. He couldn't believe he hadn't thought of this before but he couldn't give his real name, what if the press got wind of it? His father would kill him and Tony fully intended on living to enjoy his freedom. "It's, uh, John. John Smith." He mentally slapped himself on the forehead. John Smith? Who's gonna buy that?
Clint didn't. "Sure, it is. You can join the three other John Smiths we have." He looked disgusted.
"Let me guess. You ran away from home but since it's a decent home and your mom and dad are probably worried about you, you're thinking that you might one day go back and don't want them to hear about you joining the circus in the meantime. What, did daddy withhold allowance from you? Did mommy not hug you goodnight? Or did she send you to bed without dessert? You well-adjusted kids give me a headache." Clint scoffed and turned around, stalking towards the entrance to the circus.
"What, and you think you get to be all high and mighty just because you think you have a worse sob story? You don't know anything about me or my life!" Tony shouted back, then cursed and ran after him, unwilling to let his only chance walk away.
They maintained a stony silence as they trudged through the rain to a red and white striped tent illuminated by a lantern on a post. Clint unceremoniously swept in and Tony hesitantly followed after.
"Ringmaster Carson, I found another one." Clint announced unceremoniously gesturing with a sardonic flourish at Tony.
Tony faced the ringmaster, who was a middle-aged man with a small mustache curled at the ends. He was wearing a pair of thin wire-rimmed glasses and reading through some papers. The man looked him up and down, likely taking in the details of his clothes, shoes, and hair. He then looked back at Clint and smiled.
"Clint, you can't keep bringing home strays. How are we going to keep feeding them all?"
"But they all look so pathetic. Besides, John 3 left us at the last stop so this one can take his place," Clint argued.
"Ah, another John Smith?" The ringmaster turned a benevolent smile on Tony and Tony stiffened. "Son, the circus isn't all fun and games. There's a lot of hard work involved. Are you sure you don't want to go home?"
"No. I already made my choice. I'm not going back," Tony answered stubbornly.
"Mm-hmm. Well, then, will there be anyone looking for you?"
Tony thought of the last news clip he had seen of his father at the bus station that morning - revealing the newest Stark technology, looking completely calm and unruffled. Nothing had been mentioned of his son being missing. No doubt he thinks I'll come slinking home with my metaphorical tail between my legs and ready to act like the obedient son. Well, fuck you, dad. You can have Captain America for a son whenever you find him, Tony thought viciously. "No, sir. No one."
"Okay then. Clint, show him to the children's trailer. We'll be moving out at midnight. Welcome to Carson's Carnival of Traveling Wonders, son."
Tony nodded, then followed Clint through the campground until they arrived at a trailer, already hitched to a truck. "You can't actually be John 3. It's too soon and the little ones will get confused. So you'll be John 5." Clint told him authoritatively before throwing open the door and letting a warm golden light spill out. "Home sweet home!"
Tony clambered up after him and looked around curiously as a group of young children swarmed around Clint, who laughed and picked up the littlest one, a girl of about 5, with pigtails, freckles, and a missing front tooth. A couple of older children waited in the back of the group, catching sight of Tony immediately and watching him. Tony forced himself to ignore them as he took in the rows of bunks taking up the back half of the trailer and two wooden tables with wrap-around benches on either side near the middle. In front of the entrance was what looked like a small kitchenette area, with some counters, a small fridge, and a microwave. Everything was brightly painted and well lit. If one didn't look too closely, one could miss the shabby thin throw pillows on the bench, the fact that the crayons on the table were just bare nubs, the few dolls scattered around were missing buttons and eyes, the wood on the floor and furniture were scuffed and stained.
Tony brought his focus back on Clint's group, where a little boy was jumping up and down and asking, "What'd ya find on your scouting trip, Clint? Show us, show us!"
Clint laughed. "First let's move over to the tables, everyone, so Jess and Mike can get your bedtime snacks." The kids cheered and the group shuffled over to the tables, shoving each other in their fight to claim a spot near Clint. Tony also moved over, sticking near the wall and hating that familiar feeling of hovering where he wasn't wanted or noticed. As the two older children walked by the table, Clint asked them "Where's Barney?"
The boy hesitated, then shook his head, long brown bangs flopping over his eyes. "Still with the Swordsman."
Clint frowned. "Okay. Well, we're leaving at midnight."
The other two nodded, pulling out various snacks from the cupboard and fridge.
Clint turned back to the group. "Okay, first, I found John 5!" He made a grand showman's gesture at Tony. The children ooh'ed and as one turned to look at Tony. He smiled uneasily and gave a small wave. "Make room for him so he can sit too."
After a small scramble, Tony found himself seated at the end of a bench with a little girl on his lap sucking on her thumb. Everyone turned back to Clint expectantly and he rustled around in his pockets and gradually pulled out an assortment of things, making a show of placing each one on the table - some ribbons, a small box of five little crayons, a light-up yo-yo.
"Everything's a little wet right now because of the rain, but when it dries, I can show you guys some tricks with the yo-yo. I think the lights might be broken though."
"I can fix that." Tony didn't realize he had spoken up until the kids at the table swiveled around to look at him with wide eyes.
"Really?" Clint asked dubiously.
"Yeah, shouldn't be too hard. But we'll have to wait for it to dry."
Clint gave him a small smile and nodded.
"On that note, lets set everything aside for now." Tony looked up and watched as the older girl set down a plate of sliced apples and bananas and an assortment of crackers. As everyone reached in for the food, the girl stood next to Tony. "Welcome aboard, John. I'm Jess and that's Mike," she gestured to the boy with the floppy bangs, who was currently putting away a small paring knife. "We're the oldest. I'm 16 and he's 15. Clint over there is 13. He's got the sharpest eyes so he likes to go scavenging for things for the group whenever we're stopped. His brother Barney is also 15 but he spends most of his time training with the Swordsman. Clint works with Trick Shot but he also helps out everywhere. Mike works with the animal trainers and I'm with the clowns."
She looked at him thoughtfully. "I'm sure you'll find a place here too, if you decide to stay. Most of the John Smiths we get only hang around for a week or so, then they get tired of the work or we get further away from their home and they decide they don't want to leave after all."
"I'm already far away from home," Tony said, thinking of the two days he'd spent on the Greyhound. They'd been both the most terrifying days and the most disgusting days of his life and he thought he could still smell the stink of the stations even after the rain. Jess nodded but didn't look like she believed in him. That was fine, she'll see when he's still around in a couple of weeks. "So, these kids....some of them are too young to have run away already," he brought up cautiously, not wanting to sound like he was accusing them of kidnapping but curious nonetheless.
"Some of them belong to the performers. It's just easier for the adults if all of the kids were together. That way, they can do their jobs without worrying. We watch out for each other."
Just then, a light bang sounded on the door and a rough woman's voice filtered through. "Lights out in 15!"
"Yes, Marie!" Jess called back. Looking at Tony, she explained "The fortune teller. She's sort of our mother, I guess. Makes sure we have regular bedtimes and all." Raising her voice, she announced. "Alright everyone, you heard Marie. Get ready for bed!"
As the kids ran off in a herd for the bunks, Clint slid over to him. "We usually share three or four to a bunk, with at least one of the older kids in each bunk in case any of the little ones need something at night. I hope you don't kick."
Tony shrugged. "I guess we'll find out."