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My Tale of Woe

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Clint was confused, he was always confused or scared these days. Mommy and Daddy and Barney and all the grown ups were using words he didn’t know like ‘dyslexia’ and ‘retarded’ and other words that he did know, like ‘stupid’. When they got home from meeting the teachers, daddy got mad and shouted and when he ran and hid he heard crashing noises and crying. He huddled tighter into a ball under his bed. The door creaked open and Clint scooted backwards away from the now bright doorway. “Clint?” whispered Barney. “Where are you hiding?” Clint shuffled out from under the bed, peeking out from under the slats. “Barney?” he whispered back. “Why is daddy so mad? What do they mean about dyslexsica? Why is mommy so sad?”
“You ask too many questions,” Barney muttered as he wiggled to get under the bed with Clint. It was a tight squeeze for the now 9 year old boy, still plenty of room for Clint, but he’d always been small for his age. “Dads mad because everything is different now he’s back from the army. I dunno what dyslexsica is, but don’t worry, you may be stupid but I’m gonna look after you. Mom is sad because dad is mad, you know that, stupid,” he affectionately ruffled his brother’s hair as Clint processed his words. As the words registered he shoved his brother. “’m not stupid,” he mumbled. “Jus’ that sometimes the letters get all messed up and the words are weird…” he trailed off to silence with a large yawn. Barney wrapped an arm around Clint’s shoulder causing Clint to snuggle in and use his brother’s shoulder as a pillow. “Will you wake me up when they’ve stopped shouting?” he asked innocently enough. Barney snorted. “In that case, I’ll wake you up after dad’s gone to sleep, or when he dies,”
“No! Don’t say that!” Clint shouted, covering his ears. “Don’t say that, God might hear you and if he does and he kills daddy what are we gonna do? You can’t kill daddy!” Clint began wailing as he struggled to pull out of Barney’s grasp. “Shhhh!” he whispered in earnest, trying to quiet his distraught younger brother. “Do you want him to come up here and smack you? Because if you keep your yelling he-“ he cut himself off as they heard a loud stomping of boots on wood.
“Which one of you brats was screaming?” he slurred, throwing open the door as he staggered into their room. He saw a foot sticking out from under the bed and lunged for it, grabbing it and dragging Clint out from his little hidey hole. Clint went quiet when his father held him up by his collar in front of his face, his breath stank like whiskey and his eyes were bloodshot. He raised a fist, blood spattered and bruised, and shook it in front of Clint’s face, he squirmed and whimpered, trying to get out of the iron grip his father had him in. “It was you weren’t it?” he demanded, shaking him roughly. “No more screaming, no more shouting, and no more hiding under the bed. Boys don’t hide, they fight! I didn’t raise no coward. Then again, I didn’t think I raised an idiot and that’s what you are,” he dropped Clint hard onto the floor with distain. “Can’t even read or write properly,” he scoffed, swaying where he stood. “Now fuck off and go grab your mamas apron strings or something just as babyish,” he turned and stumbled out. Clint sat up from where he was dumped on the floor, watching as Barney crawl out from under the bed. He looked solemnly at his brother. “You were right Barney, I shouldn’t have cried. I’ll try not to cry as much because it makes daddy mad. I’ll never cry again,” he swore with determination, wiping tears and snot onto his shirt, looking older than his 5 year old face should. And little did he know that he’d keep that promise for years and years to come until one day a man with an eye patch told him his husband was dead. And on that day, Clint broke his promise never to cry again as his floor was ripped from under him and he fell into the abyss of loneliness. But that’s not a story for now. Now we focus on the past, the distant past when Clint still thought people were generally pretty decent and if you were nice to folks they’d be nice back. So, let’s look at the story as it unfolds, let’s look at the next few years…

Chapter Text

Clint was in the tree out the back of their house, hiding from his dad. He knew he was only little but he was always climbing trees despite his mother’s warnings not to. He knew all the best places to hide and most of them were up in the branches where big people couldn’t get to. He’d had lots of practice at finding the best spots that were out of sight and tucked away, they were his safe places and he never felt safer than he did up high. He’d gotten better at hiding other things too, good at hiding the flinches and the bruises and the sniffles. Good at hiding how hungry he was, how much he hurt and how scared he was. But his mother, he never hid from her. She protected him from his father’s flying fists and Barney’s cruel words, she was his saviour, his saving grace from his daddy’s temper and Barney’s scorn. “Clint,” she called quietly from the base of the tree. “Clint baby, it’s all right to come down now, your daddy’s asleep and Barney is out at a friend’s house. It’s just you and me tonight sweetheart,” she murmured, reaching her arms up to catch him. “Come down now baby,” she whispered. She was always quiet these days, it was her way of hiding from her husbands temper. Barney stayed away from the house as often as he could, Clint climbed up high and sat quietly for hours, and she, well, she just shrunk into herself, creating a smaller and silent target for his rage. As she caught her youngest son round his waist and propped him on one bony hip, she thought about her boys’ personalities. Clint was so much like her, but Barney, she could see so much of Harold in Barney and that frightened her somewhat. But Barney was hers and she wouldn’t let Harold take them away, no matter how much vitriol he poured into their ears, she was there with soothing caresses and kind words, trying to stem the anger and resentment she so feared they would start to harbour. She loved both her boys so much she would do anything for them, even protect them with her life if necessary and she had on many occasions had to do so, Harold often lashed out a heavy-booted foot in their direction and Edith always made sure he hit nothing but her. She wrapped her arms tighter around Clint as he clung to her like a little monkey, clutching him to her chest as she walked back to their small house. Clint cuddled into her, folding his small 6 year old body impossibly closer, his ma always brought out the softer, more vulnerable side he kept hidden at school and home. “What’s for dinner ma?” he asked, not looking up from her shoulder, as if he were hiding from the world. He was curled so small he didn’t see how his mother’s face fell when she thought of the empty cupboards and how the fridge didn’t have anything except beer in it. “PB&J sandwich again tonight Clint,” she mumbled into his soft hair, glad that Barney was being fed well at his friend’s house, it meant that Clint could have a bit more food compared to other nights. She made it back inside the house without having to take a break to rest her ribs or leg, despite the injuries screaming at her with every step carrying Clint, though by the end of the short trip she was limping and breathing heavily. She put him down on the counter when they arrived in the kitchen. She got the makings of the sandwich out of the cupboards and bread bin and proceeded to make a single sandwich with what was left. “Ma, where’s your dinner?” Clint asked inquisitively. “Are you not hungry again?”
“No baby,” she said quietly. “I’m not hungry, but it means a lot that you asked sweetheart, never lose that kindness you have inside ok?” she placed a thin finger under his chin, gently guiding him to meet her eyes. “You may not be the smartest person in the world, but the size of your heart more than makes up for it. You keep loving as much as you do and you’ll be ok, yeah?”
“Yeah,” he replied before launching himself into a bearhug. “I love you mama,”
“And I love you too Clint,” she wheezed back at him. “Now, it’s time to eat!” she picked up Clint again and placed him at the table, leaving for a moment to return carrying his sandwich and a glass of water. “Here you are baby,” she gave him the plate and cup and sat down next to him, glad to be off her bad leg and resting her ribs by breathing shallowly. “After dinner I’ll help you with your homework and then it’s bed time. What’s tonight’s homework?” she asked.
“Spelling,” Clint replied, his cheeks stuffed like a hamster. “And math but I already did that on the bus,” he took another giant bite of his dinner, swallowing the first easily though it looked like he might choke at any moment.
“Clint, I told you not to take the calculator out the house,” his mother admonished. “We’ve only got one and I need it for our taxes and Barney needs it for his homework too, it’s not fair of you to take it to school, what if you lost it?”
“But ma!” he objected. “I didn’t take it to school! I swear I didn’t! I did it in my head I promise!” he continued, getting louder and more upset as he felt accused of stealing. His mother hushed him quickly, fearing to wake her husband.
“Shhh, ok Clint, I believe you. Did you also manage to do your spellings?” she asked, trying to change the subject. Clint shifted sulkily. “No, reading and spellings and stuff is hard,” he mumbled, pushing the last of his dinner around on his plate before offering it to his mother. “I know you said you’re not hungry ma, but I’m full,” he lied. “Do you want the rest of my sandwich?” he asked, pushing the plate to where she sat. “Oh Clint, thank you so much sweetheart but I’m ok really-“ she was cut off by her stomach making a rumbling noise. “Are you sure you’re full baby?” she asked, practically salivating at the thought of less than half a sandwich, but not willing to starve her youngest son even if she was starving herself. “I’m full I promise,” he replied, crossing small fingers under the table. “You can have it ma,” he hopped down from the table and scampered off to his school bag, dragging a sheet of paper out from the depths. He brought it and a pencil back to the table and sat down again, sticking his tongue out as he tried to read the words without them jumbling up as he read. Eventually he got fed up and angrily threw his pencil across the room. It was only poor luck which sent the pencil careening towards an old china lamp balanced on a side table. Both Clint and his mother froze as the lamp teetered for a second before falling to the floor with an almighty crash of broken china and glass. They sat there in stunned silence before hearing movement from upstairs and then footsteps on the stair case. “Run,” whispered his mother. “Run outside and hide you hear me Clint? Don’t come back until I find you ok?” she pushed him towards the back door. Sadly, Harold Barton had descended the stairs faster than either of them thought and caught Clint in one meaty fist. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he roared. “Breaking shit in my house and then running away like a coward? Stay and face the consequences like a real man, not some stupid kid!”
“I’m sorry Harold I broke the lamp, I slipped and knocked into it,” Edith babbled as she ran closer to her husband. “Shut up you whore!” he shouted in her face, backhanding her hard and sending her staggering into a wall. He lifted Clint up by the front of his shirt and shook him enough to make his teeth rattle, he expected tears, he always expected tears and was angered by not seeing any in his son’s eyes. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!” he bellowed, shaking him again. “Can’t even fucking cry, you’re so stupid you can’t even cry. Stupid fuck,” and with his last swear he threw the boy to the ground, uncaring that Clint hit his head hard on a stool as he fell. Little did anyone know that those words would be the last Clint would ever hear clearly without the help of hearing aids.

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Shortly after Clint’s eighth birthday they came. The tall people in scary suits. For Clint though, everyone was much taller than him, some people who drove them to the new place threw around words like ‘malnourished’ and ‘underdeveloped’. He didn’t really know what they meant, he still didn’t know what the word ‘dyslexic’ meant, but it was being said with the other scary sounding words. But he didn’t go there anymore, not since mommy and daddy died and the suit people moved them to a foster home away from Waverly. Clint had prayed to the angels and God that mommy had told him existed in the sky, he prayed for his daddy to go away and never come back, he never thought God would take his mommy too. They were sitting in the living room, watching some cartoons through the fuzzy static of their ancient TV when lights swung into their drive. Both Clint and Barney scrambled to their shared room, fighting each other to press as far under the bed as they could. They could hear footsteps and murmuring voices approaching the door through the paper thin walls and the broken open window. “You sure this is the place?” asked one lady to the man she was with. “This isn’t exactly the best place for children…” she trailed off at her companions frown.
“I know,” he muttered angrily. “But it’s just about suitable according to the council and neither the kids nor Mrs Barton said anything so we could never put the kids into the system even though they used to be regulars at the clinic apparently,” he rubbed the sweat off his forehead under the setting August sun. He raised his hand and rapped sharply on the door, the blows ringing out through the small house. Neither of the boys moved from their position under the bed. “Be extra quiet dummy,” whispered Barney. “If they find us they’re gonna take us away from mom and dad. Dad gets mad now, imagine what he’d be like if they took us away,” he shoved Clint closer to the wall, stopping him from moving to answer the door. “Hello? Anyone at home?” called out the male voice. “My name is Sergeant Babb and this is Ms Beade from the CPS, is there anyone in?” he questioned again.
“Barney it sounds important,” murmured Clint from behind his brothers form. “What if they bust in here?” he asked, afraid. Barney scrambled out from under the bed and quietly crawled out of their room and upstairs. He grabbed their fathers gun from his bedside draw and ran downstairs, holding the gun out in front of him, held tightly in thin, small arms. “Go away! We don’t want nothing to do with the police! We ain’t done anything wrong!” he called out, waving the old revolver at the front door which had swung open on old and broken hinges. “Whoa, look kid, we just want a word ok? Why don’t you put the gun down and we can have a proper chat ok?” asked the cop, looking a little nervously at the gun wavering between knee and head height. Clint came out their room and ran to the newcomers, causing him to drop the empty gun to catch him before he could get to the door. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he whispered angrily, shaking his younger brother by the neck of his shirt as the cop scooped up the gun and checked it was empty. “You never go running to strangers, you know that! Dad’d have your hide if he saw you doing that!”
“Actually boys,” interrupted the cop gravely. “Its your momma and dad we want to talk to you about. I’m afraid to say they passed away when your daddy crashed the car early tonight,” he winced as Jane Beade from CPS elbowed him in the side with a scowl. “What? I broke it as easily as I could!”
“How would you boys like to have a sleepover with one of your family? Do you have any grandparents? Any cousins?” Barney shook his head mutely while Clint stared with round eyes at the 2 people filling the doorway. The lady and Barney carried on talking while he stood in shock, the words washing over him like the surf on a beach. He allowed Barney to force his feet into his too small shoes after he thrust a garbage sack of clothes into his arms. He let the lady take him by the hand and lead him to the car, a cop car. He hesitated at this, his daddy hated the cops, he always sneered when he saw them go by, he’d be real mad if he saw him and Barney in a cop car. Except, he wouldn’t be mad, because he was dead. He prayed that daddy would go away and die. He never thought he’d take mommy with him. As Clint sat down and distantly heard the door slam next to him, he curled up, hugging his knees and burying his face in the garbage sack. While they drove, Clint looked out the window at the town he knew whizzing by. He felt numb, unhearing of the words being tossed around in the car, uncaring of the hurried and whispered conversations of the cop and social worker in the front. He just sat there and watched the world spin by in a blur of sunset hues.

Chapter Text

It had been years. Well 2 years, but it felt like so much longer. He and Barney had been switched between foster home and orphanage for the last 2 years, constantly moving as no one wanted 2 boys, especially one as stupid and deaf as he was. They wanted his brother, but his brother refused to leave him for which Clint was grateful. Clint had tried to be adoptable. He’d learnt sign language quickly when one of the schools had a teacher that could show him how. He learnt to read lips quickly, as not understanding just wasn’t an option if he didn’t want to get hit. He could hear a little, but not enough to look clever or easy to look after. So no one wanted Clint. This was their 8th foster home and they weren’t too bad Clint thought. Yeah they didn’t treat him like they did their actual kids, their kids got cake, they got bread, their kids got to go on all the school trips, but there never seemed to be enough money to send him and Barney on the trips too. “We should just run away,” whispered Barney one night. “We should run away and join the circus, change our names so no one can ever find us,”
“But Barney, Mrs Johnson isn’t too bad! Mr Johnson is a little creepy but they’re not too bad,” protested Clint. “We get food here and there ain’t anyone who hits us unless we’ve been real bad…” he trailed off looking at Barney’s face. He’d gone pale, almost white when Clint finished speaking. “What do you mean Mr Johnson is creepy Clint?” he demanded. “Did he do anything? Did he touch you?” he knelt down to get on Clint’s level, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. “Has he done anything to you?”
“No Barn,” Clint replied a little shakily. “He just looks at me weirdly that’s all I swear,” and Clint was telling the truth, or at least most of the truth. The looks were intense and scary, but Mr Johnson hadn’t done anything more, at least not yet. “That’s it,” hissed Barney furiously. “We’re leaving tonight, pack a bag and hide it under the bed,” he ordered as he angrily shoved clothes into a rucksack they’d got cheaply for Christmas one year in one of the other foster homes. “No freak is gonna touch my brother, no one touches my brother,” he muttered under his breath. “Get a move on idiot!” he waved at Clint to pack as well. “And when we get to the circus your name is I dunno, ummm, Kenneth and my name is Scott ok? And our surname is,” he looked thoughtful for a second. “Kitson, like Ms Kitson your teacher ok?” Clint looked confused, why did they need to change names? He asked his brother. “Because if CPS comes looking for us, they won’t know our names so we’ve got more of a chance to run idiot,” Barney sneered. “God, still an idiot after all these years. Still, you wouldn’t survive without me so I guess I gotta look after your sorry ass. Now what’s your name?”
“Clint Barton,” Clint replied, still not fully understanding what was going on, it was all happening too fast. Barney slapped him sharply on the cheek, not hard enough to mark but hard enough to smart. “No! What’s your name? What did I just tell you? What’s your name and what’s my name?” he raised his hand to smack Clint again. “You’re Barney and I’m Clint,” stuttered Clint as he shied away from Barney’s raised hand. “No!” shouted Barney, slapping him again. “What’s our names?!” he curled his open palm into a fist and raised it again, trying to drum their new names into his younger brother. “Kenneth!” Clint babbled. “Kenneth and Scott!” he stumbled and fell as he tried to back away from his brother. “Surname!” roared Barney, walking closer and looming over his fallen brother. He’d never looked more like their father in that moment Clint thought. “Kitson!” he yelped, bringing his hands up to cover his face and bracing for the next hit. “Good,” said Barney calmly. “Now pack your shit, we leave when everyone is asleep,”
“What’s going on up there boys?” called Mrs Johnson from downstairs. “You two had better not be fighting again!”
“Nothing Mrs Johnson,” shouted Barney downstairs. “Everything is fine sorry we were being loud!”
“Keep it down all right? And do your homework, it may be the weekend but that doesn’t mean you don’t have stuff to do ok?”
“Yes Mrs Johnson,” chorused the boys, Clint a little more shakily and quietly than his brother, still reeling in shock about everything. “Remember,” muttered Barney as he left the room. “Tonight, 1am we’re leaving,”
“Ok Barn,” whispered Clint. “I’ll be ready.”

It was 1am. Time to run. He hefted his bag, though it wasn’t very heavy his still small 10 year old body struggled to compensate for the weight. He met Barney by the back door and saw him stuff money into his pockets and bag. “Barney!” hissed Clint. “That’s stealing!”
“So what?” replied Barney, quietly unlocking the door and waiting for Clint to leave before closing the door after them. “They deserve it, that paedo deserves more than just having less money for a week,” he swiftly smacked Clint across the face and quickly slapped a hand over his mouth as he yelped. “And my name’s not Barney anymore. My name is Scott. And yours is Kenneth, don’t fucking forget or I’ll ditch your ass,” he took his hand away and shoved Clint in the shoulder to get him moving. He boosted Clint over the Johnson’s fence and they were off down a small path leaving their old life and names behind. “We’re heading to the bus station,” Barney pointed left as they got to a split in the path. “From there we’ll get the last bus to the next town and join Carson’s carnival. They’re always looking for more people I’m sure,” he said confidently, striding down the path and leaving Clint to scamper to keep up. They reached the bus station with time to spare where Barney bought the tickets as Clint hid, Barney at least looked old enough to do so, whereas Clint was young, too young for there not to be questions, especially at 1am. The bus pulled up with a hissing of hydraulics and a creaking of doors, not that Clint could hear it, he could barely hear his brother when he spoke loudly, heavily relying on lip reading and what little he could hear. They hopped on the bus with little problem, at 1am though there weren’t many people, most people didn’t care, not even about 2 boys as young as the Barton brothers. “Here we are little brother,” said Barney excitedly. “We’re gonna be adventurers now, going to different places and travelling with the circus,” Clint nodded, though less enthusiastically than Barney was speaking. He was scared. Clint was scared of what was going to happen, of what was going to happen in the circus and what was going to happen in the future. But he’d sworn to himself a long time ago that he would never cry again, so he swallowed the tears and replied. “Yeah Scott, it’s gonna be great.”

Chapter Text

Barney and Clint made it to the circus by about 3am, they curled up in one of the tents until dawn then crept out and round to the fanciest looking caravan. They lurked outside the front of the caravan , waiting out the occupant. When Carson himself emerged he saw 2 boys, both fairly young looking, nervously fidgeting by the door. “Well?” he asked brusquely. “What the hell do you two want? Shows are over and we’re packing up soon, and no gillies allowed back here,”
“We aren’t gillies,” replied Barney, puffing his chest out and trying to seem bigger and older than his 14 years. “We want to join the circus, we can carry stuff and move stuff and do anything!”
“Nope, not interested,” replied Carson, though in reality he was. He wanted to know how far these boys were willing to go in order to join his circus. “Please mister,” lisped Clint, looking his most angelic. “We can work and we won’t be any trouble,” Clint’s small face turned up towards Carson’s and his bottom lip trembled, eyes tearing up. Carson had a hard time resisting one of the most effective puppy-dog expressions he’d ever seen. “The answer is still no.” Barney folded his arms and scowled at the man. “I’ll beat up my brother and we’ll go to the police and say you guys mugged us if you don’t let us join,” he said stubbornly, though Clint looked shocked at Barney’s idea, the watering eyes and trembling lip disappearing quickly. Carson laughed. “Blackmail? I’m impressed boy! It takes a certain type of bastard to blackmail a man on his own turf. Tell you what, you get food and a place to sleep but you work for free doing whatever I tell you, and in return you won’t rat to the police and you stay with the circus for at least 4 years. Deal?” he asked, holding his hand out for Barney to shake. Barney shook his hand quickly before he could change his mind and kick them out. “Deal Mr Carson, we won’t let you down sir!” he replied eagerly.
“So what’s your names?” Carson looked at Clint, expecting him to answer as he had been almost silent the whole conversation. “M’name’s Kenneth and this is m’brother Scott,” mumbled Clint, suddenly self-conscious in front of the intense looking man. “I won’t ask your story as frankly I don’t give a shit, as long as you ain’t gonna bring trouble to this carnival I don’t care where you came from. You ain’t gonna cause trouble are you kid?” he asked Barney.
“No sir,” he elbowed Clint sharply and Clint nodded, agreeing with whatever was said, he hadn’t been looking at Carson’s face and they had been speaking fairly quietly so he didn’t know what he was agreeing to but he did so anyway. “Now go away and find something to do, Jacques and Buck are both looking for roustabouts to help pack up their shit, go find them,” he headed back into his caravan to secure everything and to get rid of the boys quicker. He heard them leave and sighed out loud. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered to himself. “These runaways get younger every year I swear…”

“You go find Buck I’m gonna go find Jacques,” shouted Barney as they ran off.
“How’m I gonna find him?” called Clint as they split up.
“I dunno, go ask someone else!” replied Barney as he darted between 2 tents and disappeared from sight. “Aww talking no,” groaned Clint as he wandered between the pitched tents, looking for someone to talk to. He was only searching for a few minutes before a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, surprising him and causing him to grab the hand and twist away, bending the hand backwards and shoving, allowing him time to escape. He sunk into a defensive stance facing the man who had clasped his shoulder who was now holding his hands up in surrender. “Whoa there Houdini!” laughed the tall black man, taking a small step backwards. “I ain’t gonna hurt you, just wanted to know who the fuck was making such a noise at the asscrack of dawn, ain’t my fault you didn’t hear me,”
“Sorry,” muttered Clint. “I was in my head too much, didn’t hear you. M’names Kenneth, Mr Carson just hired me an’ my brother Scott as roustabouts,” he repeated what little he’d caught from their conversation. “I’m lookin’ for Buck an’ he’s looking for Jacques, Mr Carson said we could help out,”
“Nice to meet you Kenneth, my name’s Barnaby, I’m the strongman here. I can point you in the direction of Buck's tent if that would help, but everybody is going to be in the cook house soon so you can find him there. Buck doesn’t appreciate being woken up so it’s probably safer to wait for him to get some food before asking to help,” said Barnaby kindly, clapping his hand back on Clint’s shoulder and pointing him in the direction of the cook house which was really a tent with a flag affixed to the outside. “When the flag’s out, that means food is ready,” Barnaby said, answering Clint’s question before he had time to even say it. “I’ll introduce you to Jodi, she makes the best damn oatmeal you ever tasted,” Clint allowed himself to be steered towards the tent and inside where a large matronly woman stood in front of a gas burner stirring a large pot of oatmeal. “Well if it isn’t my favourite artist!” she called out after seeing Barnaby stoop to enter the tent and when her eyes came across Clint, her face lit up in surprise and joy. “And who’s this? Aren’t you just the cutest thing? Come here and get some grub honey, Barnaby, why didn’tcha bring this scrap of a lad to me sooner?” Barnaby chuckled.
“’Cause I only just met him me’self Jodi, give a man a moment!” he playfully replied, gently pushing Clint forward to get some food. “This here is Kenneth, he an’ his brother are new roustabouts that Carson hired today, they need feeding then they’re gonna help take down the tents and pack up before we head out,” he spoke as Jodi served both of them a large bowl of oatmeal. “Eat up boy, you’re gonna need your strength to actually help out, especially someone as small as you,” garbled Barnaby through a mouthful of food. Clint couldn’t make out the words as Barnaby was chewing so he cocked his head and asked, “can you say that again?” The strongman looked confused and took another mouthful of food before repeating himself, again whilst chewing. Clint got frustrated, “I can’t understand you if you’re eating. Your lips move funny when you’re eating and speaking and I can’t hear you,” he said hotly, slamming his spoon into his bowl. The man looked at him a little shocked at the outburst from such a small and previously shy boy. “Whoa there,” he said, making sure Clint could see his mouth. “I didn’t mean anything by it Kenneth, I didn’t know you couldn’t hear, though that explains earlier, I thought you was just being rude…” Jodi came up behind him and slapped the back of the man’s head with a spoon. “Ow! Damnit woman that hurt,” whined Barnaby while Clint smiled, the tension broken by the kindly lady. “Don’t matter if he’s deaf, he’s with us now and you’re gonna be nice until he decides to leave,” a couple of circus performers walked into the tent so Jodi left to attend to her pot, waving the spoon threateningly as she did. “You coulda told me from the start you know Kenneth,” grumbled the strongman good naturedly, though Clint still recoiled, afraid he’d made the large and muscled man angry. “M’sorry,” he mumbled into his oatmeal, hiding from his gaze. “Ah shit, don’t worry about it,” replied Barnaby, scratching the back of his head awkwardly. “You wouldn’ta got in trouble if you let people know, so if you want to you can tell the folks around here, they’re decent people. Oh, that’s Buck!” Barnaby quickly changed the subject as he spotted the other man entering the tent, signalling him to come over to them after he’d gotten a bowl of breakfast. “You’ll like Buck,” he carried on. “He’s a good guy and amazing with a bow and arrow, that’s his act you see, he’s Trick Shot and he’s got the best Goddamn eyes in the world.”

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A few hours later and Clint was exhausted. It wasn’t the exhaustion you got from a long day at school, or running particularly fast during track, it was the kind of tiredness you got if you’d been working hard. Despite his small stature and weak form, it wasn’t like they were starved at the foster homes, but they weren’t exactly well fed either, he still managed to help Buck take down his tent and load up his supplies for his shows. Clint stared, awestruck as he watched Buck fire off a few practice shots, showing off to the young boy before he gruffly ordered Clint to grab the arrows and load them into the large case full of archery supplies. He had staggered under the weight of the large trunks, but stubbornly continued carrying them into the large flatbed trucks used to haul the entire circus around. After loading up Buck’s stuff he spoke up, nervously approaching the almost silent man. “Mr Buck? I’m all done loading up sir, is there anything else I need to do?” he asked shifting anxiously from foot to foot, anxious about talking to the tall quiet man. “No,” replied Buck shortly. “And stop calling me ‘Mr’ it’s the fucking circus, no one is ‘Mr’ anything except for Mr Carson and that’s only ‘cause he owns the fucking joint,” he dismissed the boy with a vague wave of his hand towards one of the other tents. “Go help Rosie with her bloody tigers or something I don’t care,” he strode off away from the full truck leaving Clint to gape in his wake. Tigers?! Now this he had to see.

He hurried off in the direction of Buck’s gesturing, walking past several people dismantling tents and loading crates. He carefully skirted past muscular men and women hauling poles and boxes, avoiding bumping in to anyone to keep unseen. Eventually he found a rather drab looking tent with the faded words ‘Rosie’s tigers’ written across the front in lopsided marker pen. Clint eagerly pushed aside the flap to come face to face with a tiger. A fully grown, tiger. More importantly, a fully grown angry looking tiger. He froze, remaining absolutely still in fear, as he dropped his eyes to the tiger’s giant paws, trying to breathe shallowly, lest his chest rising and falling expose him. All of a sudden the tiger was smacked on the head gently with a brush thrown from the depths of the tent. “Oh stop it you old lug,” a voice chided and the tiger, to Clint’s amazement, actually stopped snarling and baring its teeth. “Don’t worry darling, she’s harmless, all snarl and no chomp aren’t you sweetie?” the voice continued from the shadows. “Now, what might a small thing like you be doing in my tent hmm?” asked the voice. Clint however, was oblivious to this. All he’d seen was a brush come flying out from the darkness and hit the tiger which promptly stopped snarling and lay down barely 2 feet in front of Clint and a few mumbles from the back of the tent. “Hmmm,” mused the voice. “Either you can’t hear me proper or you’re ignoring me. I hope it’s not the latter,” she emerged from the inky blackness of the tent, tenderly leading another tiger with a hand tangled into the fur at its neck. She was old, very old from Clint’s perspective although to an outsider she probably looked to be in her early 60s. Her black hair was shot through with gray and her face was wrinkled, but wrinkled in the way that showed she’d spent most her life smiling under the sun rather than glowering. Clint couldn’t place where she was from, she simultaneously looked like she’d travelled everywhere in the world and that she’d never left her tent. “Hello boy, my name is Rosie, that there is Queenie and this is Duchess, and I presume you’re pretty deaf huh?” she asked. Clint hung his head.
“M’names Kenneth, and yeah, I can’t hear that good, I can see what your lips are doing but only when I can see your lips,” he mumbled, stumbling over explanations as to why he must have ignored her earlier. “Buck told me I should come help with the packing up ‘cause me an’ me brother have been hired,” he puffed his chest out a little at this admission, proud that he’d been allowed to help and stay with Barney. “Aww, well aren’t you the cutest,” said Rosie, reaching down to ruffle his hair gently, similar to the way she was stroking the tiger, Duchess’s hair. “Well, there ain’t much more to do around here except to get these 2 back in their travelling cages in the back of that truck,” she pointed out from the tent flaps towards one of the many covered trucks. “Why don’t you get to know Queenie and follow us out hm?” she asked. She felt confident that her top tigress would get along with the boy. Her tigers had an uncanny way of judging people, and although Queenie had initially snarled at the boy, Rosie knew her heart wasn’t in it, she was only growling as a show of dominance, as soon as the boy dropped his eyes, Queenie had practically adopted him. Clint stuttered and looked surprised, but not scared Rosie noted. He gulped and gently held his hand out to Queenie, knowing he could lose it if she chose to lunge and bite. She sniffed his hand with feline disdain before yawning wide and slowly getting to her feet, allowing Clint to stand next to her and place a tentative hand in her fur. “Wow,” whispered Clint. “She’s beautiful,” Rosie looked at them fondly. He’d get on well here, if he didn’t lose that childlike innocence he had about him, the awe that so regularly graced his features as he took in the hustle and bustle of the circus as they made their way to the trailer. She locked eyes with Queenie as she was settling the tigers in and knew that both she and her tigers would protect Kenneth to the best of their abilities. However, they couldn’t protect his heart which would be broken and betrayed many times before he would leave the circus for parts unknown.

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Clint had never worked harder in his whole life. Setting up at the next campsite was exhausting and painful, pulling muscles lifting things far too heavy for his small body to carry and burning his hands when rope slipped through them. He’d helped Rosie and Buck set up their tents, longing to spend more time with the kindly older woman, but having been told to work for Buck, he didn’t want to anger Mr Carson before they’d even done one show. “Mr- I mean, Buck, what is it you do? What’s you act?” Clint asked curiously, jumping around in his eagerness to understand who did what. “Barnaby said you shoot things, what do you shoot at? How good are you?” Clint kept pestering him with questions, looking to be acknowledged, as he’d worked hard and wanted to see what he was working for. Finally, Buck snapped. “You wanna see what I do huh? You wanna see how good I am do ya? Well you stand there,” he dragged the small boy to a target and growled, “don’t move,” before walking back towards the large trunk containing his equipment. By this point Clint was starting to get a little nervous, not scared exactly, he didn’t think Buck would try to kill him and he had to be kinda good to have a whole act. He stood motionless as Buck picked up his bow and, with no apparent effort, strung it quickly. He plucked an arrow from the quiver as he swung it onto his back. “Stay still and you won’t get hurt,” he shouted over the distance to Clint who nodded, swallowing audibly. Then, with a blur which looked almost superhuman, Buck fired 3 arrows consecutively, the heads thunking into the target, one by each ear and one directly above his head. Buck then continued to fire arrows, letting them fall around his body with only inches between the sharp arrowheads and his clothes. “That,” called Buck, lowering his bow. “That is what I do. Now no more questions. And bring those arrows back to me.” Clint stood there for a minute, frozen in awe, before scrambling to complete the task the older man had set. As he reached the archer, arrows in hand, he blurted out, “teach me!”
“No,” was the abrupt answer. “I don’t have time and you’re too small,” from that day on, Clint vowed to himself that he’d get Buck to teach him, and that one day he’d be able to shoot as well as Buck could, that he’d be strong enough and good enough to match or even surpass his skills. “If I work super hard, if I do everything you ask me to and if you have time, will you teach me?” Buck snorted. “Kid, if you can string this bow,” he pulled an older looking and smaller bow from the case at his feet. “Within the next week, I’ll teach you how to shoot, how’s about that?” he asked, convinced that the young and weak kid wouldn’t be able to do it. He didn’t take into consideration that Clint was desperate to learn and would practice daily, doing push ups and forcing his ten year old body to push it’s limits just so that when Buck said, “weeks up, string the bow,” he could.

Buck stood there looking shocked and a little dismayed. “You did it,” he said, surprised.
“Yeah, and you promised, you said if I could string the bow you’d teach me how to shoot,” Clint stubbornly jutted out his chin, longing to be able to do what he could. “Fine, a deals a deal, we start small,” he pulled out a set of small but nonetheless razor sharp throwing knives. “I want you to throw this knife,” he handed Clint one. “And throw it into the target there,” he gestured to the target, setting Clint up for failure. Throwing knives was possibly even harder than shooting, as to get the knife to sink in, you had to put a large amount of force behind the throw and also get the tip into the straw target. Clint not knowing any better, believed that Buck was being fair and not trying to scare him off with failure. He took the knife and weighed it in his hand, tossing it between his hands, getting a feel for how the knife was weighted. He threw the knife back into his left hand and hurled it at the target, flipping it as it left his fingers. By some kind of miracle, or maybe Clint’s inherent ability with sharp edged weapons, it flew true, tumbling blade over hilt, before sinking an inch into the target. It hung there, sagging slightly under it’s own weight before coming to a quivering halt. They both stood there, looking shocked, before Clint jumped up and down, “did you see that? Did you see it?! I did it! I did it!” he crowed, allowing his childish enthusiasm to show for the first time in years. He quickly quietened down as he saw Buck’s customary scowl. “Do it again,” gruffly instructed Buck. “Beginners luck is all it was, do it again and I’ll train you properly,” Clint took another knife, juggling it hand to hand as before, gauging the weight and balance of the blade. He stood stock still for a moment before whipping his arm back and letting the knife fly again. He watched as it sunk in, not too far off the first one. He spun around, beaming up at Buck whose face softened a little. “Damn kid, looks like you got some raw talent there. Tell you what, we train tomorrow at 6am, don’t be fucking late or I ain’t teaching you shit,” he presented the knives to Clint. “You can practice with these, the skill you got? I want you to be hitting the inner ring within the week ok? We start with arrows tomorrow morning. Look after your blades, they won’t fail you if you look after them,” and with that he swept out of the tent. Clint grinned at the floor, strutting to collect the blades in the target. The first thing he’d earned, not out of pity or charity or necessity, but out of skill and hard work. He hoped he could make Buck proud, he hoped he could make Barney proud. Barney! Clint had to go tell him. And Rosie, and Barnaby and Jodie. He had to tell all his friends, Clint hoped they’d be proud of him. It’d been a long time since anyone had been proud of him. Too long.