He was in the circus. That is true. Once, a long, long time ago, when he still had a matka and a tata. They’d been sideshow performers. His mother stood still while his father threw knives, and he shot the bow and arrow. He never missed.
His name was never Clint. Someone else gave him that. His first name was Heike, and his second name was tajac. He would tell himself that, nights, My name is Tajac, it was my father’s name, and he gave it to me. One day I will give it to my son.
When they came, they came fast. One minute he was practicing his archery, looking at his father’s proud face, and the next, they were there, and there was blood, and screaming and he woke up in a quiet cell.
Coulson told him once that they’d been an outshoot of Hydra, that had gotten soviet funding, after the war was over. They’d called themselves, conquer in Russian, which he cannot say in cyrllic and does not remember how to spell.
He’d been ten, when they’d sent him out on his first mission, to assassinate an ambassador.
He’d been ten, but they’d broken him long before then.
He’d aimed, and fired, and he hadn’t missed, and when he’d gone back, he’d been rewarded, he’d had a full meal, and a soft bed for a whole day, until they came and took him to his handlers for his debrief, and then he’d been back in that cell until they’d called for him again.
When he wasn’t being set after people like a dog, he mostly slept. They never gave him any toys, and apart from whatever he needed to complete his mission, they kept him stupid and hungry and desperate to please. He was good at it too, one of the best, until he met Barney.
Barney was his partner, when he’d turned twelve, and he’d needed more help with missions. He’d been eighteen, and so big, Clint remembers . He’d been handsome and charming, and all the women loved him, but he didn’t sleep with anyone. He’d laughed when he’d seen Clint, but he’d been nice enough. The closest thing he ever had to a brother. He’d called Clint troche, little, and carry him sometimes, when he got tired. He’d get them extra nights in hotel rooms, and treats sometimes. The first time he’d tasted chocolate had been with Barney, and he still remembers the sweet, swiss mix, and how it had melted on his tongue.
But Barney didn’t love him, and he knew it. Barney was a creature of war, just like him, and one that didn’t have it in him to love anymore. He didn’t love him, but he was good to him, and in the place Clint lived, that was more than enough.
Barney taught him how to read too, Polish and English. He never questioned it, just accepted his friend’s attention for what it was. He was young still, and he hadn’t really lost everything. He’d learned enough to get by, and once that’d happened, Barney had told him that they were escaping.
He was supposed to meet Barney in Stockholm, once they’d gone their separate ways after the mission.
Except the mission went bad.
Except Barney got shot.
He’d looked at him with a strange sort of intensity as he’d pressed a gun and some sort of charm on a chain into his hand, and said, “Run, troche.”
He’d hesitated, and Barney had pushed him away hard, “RUN!”
He ran. They caught him before he made it to the border.
The punishment was bad. He had scars from it still, spots on his back where the skin hadn’t grown back right. They’d used some sort of acid, to burn, and it had hurt, he remembered, like nothing before or since. He’d screamed himself raw, so raw he’d coughed blood, and when they’d finished he’d been thrown into the old cell he’d been in when he’d first arrived.
He’d stayed there.
For days. Watching the water in one corner drip down the wall, watching the shadows from the one light slant. The lights flickered on and off, but that was all the acknowledgement of his life he’d been given, and he'd wondered if that was just the end of him, if he would just die in that cell.
He probably would have died there is he hadn't been very, very lucky. Lucky enough that SHIELD hit the cell before he'd succumbed to dehydration and infection and everything else. He didn't remember most of it, he was very ill at the time, but Phil's face stands out, his quiet gentle eyes, and the way he'd stroked his hair gently as the lay in the back of a helicopter, saying nice soothing things in English, most of which he didn't understand. His english was limited to small words, phrases - yes, no, can you tell me where the nearest is?" - and those calm words of comfort would probably have been beyond him even if he wasn't out of his head with fever.
The next time he wakes up he's in a soft bed, and he's covered in warm blankets. At the door there are two people talking about him in low, quiet voices, and he closes his eyes again before they notice he's awake. Better to rest now while he can.