Captain Jack Harkness, the man known as the Deathless, looked around, an involuntary shudder passing through him at the sight of the bright banners and flapping ribbons that decorated the traveling show. It had been set up in an open field outside Starling-Town, the main city for Barony Starling, one of the middle Baronies of the Western Lands. The weather was warm and bright and perfect for being outdoors.
He knew there was nothing to be worried about. This traveling show wasn’t part of the Night Travelers, it was a perfectly ordinary group, as well as the one most familiar to one of his companions. Still, he couldn’t help the slight superstitious tingle that swept down his spine as they paid for their entry onto the grounds and merged with the press of townsfolk who were excited about the entertainment they were about to witness.
Clint Barton walked ahead of himself and Toshiko, leading the way under the banner that proclaimed this as being Carson’s Traveling Show of Wonders and Delights. The booths that had been set up had been converted from the wagons themselves, their sides or backs opened to reveal games, food stalls, and other attractions to draw in the people, to get them to spend their money in whatever way that struck their fancy. As they walked by, there was a sudden shout as someone won a prize at one of the stalls.
Colorfully dressed employees mingled with the crowds, hawking souvenirs and being a living advertisement for the various attractions beyond the wagons. A woman escorted an elephant along the way, using a bamboo stick to touch the large animal and guide it in the direction she wanted it to go. Children were gathering around the woman and her ‘friend’, laughing and shouting questions; the woman answered them cheerfully, even going so far as to direct the elephant to pick one of the kids up with its trunk. The child giggled and squealed in sheer joy.
Carson’s Traveling Show seemed just like any other, but Jack was still tense. He couldn’t help himself.
When Clint had suggested putting the word out amongst the traveling shows for any word of Hydra, it had seemed like a good idea at the time. However, with all but two members of the Void Cabal now under lock and key, Jack had thought they wouldn’t have to make this particular trip.
However, it had been two weeks since Pierce’s ignominious demise at the proverbial mercy of the Void, personified in its Champion, Phil Coulson, and there was still no sign of Catherine Hale and her daughter, Ruby, to be had anywhere. It was as if they’d dropped off the face of the world.
So, they were now attempting to get any sort of word on the pair, because two Hydras on the loose was two too many. Which meant they were enacting Clint’s idea to get the word out to the traveling shows, since they went everywhere and saw everything. And, according to the Elf, at this particular one he had contacts, albeit ones he hadn’t really talked to in years. He’d also once performed there as the Amazing Hawkeye, although Jack didn’t exactly know what had caused Clint to leave and become a mercenary…and to eventually fall into the orbit of the Dark One and Marcus Johnson.
There were other areas of inquiry they were pursuing, but Jack and Toshiko had volunteered to go with Clint…and Jack was beginning to think he’d been a little too naïve in assuming this wasn’t going to affect him in some way. The Night Travelers had long been a personal bogeyman of his, but even with the knowledge that Carson’s wasn’t even tangentially affiliated with those horrific ghosts it wasn’t easy for Jack to step under that colorful banner and into the crowd that had filled the large open space beyond, which in turn was lined with all sorts of booths and tents, ready to take whatever coin the unwitting and innocent public would drop on the games and exhibits within.
Jack felt a hand touch his; looking down, he noticed Toshiko threading her fingers through his, her clasp comforting. He’d known Toshiko Sato for a long time, and she could read him like a book by now. His nervousness must have been visible at least to her.
He smiled at her gratefully. She smiled back at him, giving him a small nod in return.
The noise of the crowds surrounded them, laughter and shouting and gasps of awe. There was also a smattering of dragons around, betraying the presence of Wizards among the spectators; Clint’s dragon, Lucky, landed just in front of the Elf leading them, chattering excitedly at the sight of the new dragons in the throng. Clint laughed, then made a gesture; Lucky hopped about, laughing his own dragon-y laugh, and darted into the press of visitors in order to greet those dragons he did see, to make new friends with them.
Knowing that the Elf had his own dragon, and wasn’t a Wizard himself, made Jack grin.
Finding out that Clint had gained a dragon from the Queen of Air and Fire herself had been a revelation. Jack had met Idris before, back when Genosha had first reemerged from its pocket of space where it had hidden from what they’d believed had been a war that would have destroyed the world. That war had been averted, thanks to Jack’s old friend, Master John Smith, the man who’d called himself the Doctor, so it hadn’t been necessary for Genosha to hide, and its losing its magical barrier had caused a mess that, in some places, was still being cleaned up even after nearly a hundred years. The tsunami that had been kicked up had killed thousands, and had destroyed cities all along the coastlines of the countries along the ocean basin. One of those had been Cardiff Town, and Jack had been on the frontlines of aiding the survivors there.
Ianto had been the one who’d used his magic in an attempt to save the town, helped by his friend, Charles Xavier…who’d been an exile from Genosha, and the Royal Wizard there to boot. Together, they’d done everything possible to mitigate the disaster, but other cities and towns hadn’t been so lucky.
Idris had been a marvel, and some day Jack hoped to meet her again, under perhaps better circumstances.
“This place has changed,” the Elf observed, dropping back a little in order to walk with Jack and Tosh. “But then, it’s been almost twenty years since I…since I left.”
There was a story behind that pause, one that Clint hadn’t shared with them yet. It was a pause filled with bad memories and pain, and Jack was beginning to wonder if it had been such a good idea to come here, after all. Not if it was putting their friend through the wringer.
“We don’t have to do this,” Jack murmured. “We can get the word out in other ways.”
Clint shrugged. “It was my idea. Be kinda shitty to let someone else do it. Besides, this place I know… and it knows me. I’m more likely to get information than a total stranger would.”
Understanding the insular nature of the traveling shows, Jack couldn’t argue with that.
“How long were you with Carson’s?” Toshiko asked. Clint hadn’t exactly explained a lot about his time with the traveling show, only saying that it had been him and his brother at the time, and there’d been also something about running away from an orphanage.
“Twelve years,” Clint answered, nostalgia coloring his words. “I was eight and Barney was twelve when we ran away.” He glanced around, the small smile on his face one of fond remembrance. “Old Man Carson was a good sort. He gladly took us in, although at the time he said it was because the place needed the help, and not because he happened to notice the bruises and the fact that we were both skinny and underfed. He could’ve gotten into serious trouble with the authorities in every single one of the baronies we played in if it had gotten out that we were orphans and didn’t belong to anyone here.”
That was an understatement. While Jack didn’t know the laws of the Western Lands as well as those of the United Kingdom, child labor rules were pretty much universal: it didn’t happen. And, if it did and the person was caught, it would have meant a lengthy prison term.
“It was good for a while,” Clint went on, as they passed beyond the games and food stalls and toward the immense tent that took up most of the space that the traveling show had been allowed to set up in. “Barney learned all about knife throwing, and of course I turned out to be Hawkeye, the Greatest Marksman in the World. But Barney got jealous of my success, and that led to a lot of shit I’d just as soon not remember.” He shrugged as if it all didn’t matter, but Jack could tell that it did. I totally mattered. “Let’s just say that Hawkeye ended up retiring, and the Hawk was born. Haven’t been back since, but Carson will remember me and he’ll be happy to help out.”
Jack and Toshiko followed Clint as he skirted the big tent, heading around it toward what looked like the wagons that were the living quarters for the traveling show had been set up. A regular camp had been put together, the wagons circling a main firepit, the area almost deserted as most of the employees were busy working the attractions. The ones who were staring at them as they approached must have been some of the headlining performers who would be in the main tent later on, in whatever capacity they entertained the masses who’d come to see the show.
Clint had once been one of those performing under the big tent. There was a part of Jack who wished he’d been able to see him as a youngster, in whatever costume he’d worn, trick-shooting and never missing. It must have been magnificent.
Lucky rejoined them as they neared the wagons, the dragon landing next to Clint and staying by his side. Jack could tell the Elf’s mood by his dragon, having learned that useful skill from about a hundred years of exposure to Myfanwy, and it was obvious that Clint was nervous about the coming meeting. Jack, who didn’t know the whole story, felt as if he couldn’t blame his friend for feeling that way.
One of the performers got up from where he’d been seated at the firepit, heading toward the rear door of the larger of the wagons, knocking on the door to announce their approach. Clint didn’t pause; he strode right up to the circular space, Jack keeping just behind the mercenary’s left shoulder, while Toshiko flanked Clint on the right. They were there as back-up, as this was Clint’s mission. Jack would trust him to handle it, but he would be there to lend emotional or physical support as needed.
The door of the wagon opened, and a human woman stepped out. Jack guessed she was in her forties, with brown hair and dark eyes, dressed in a brightly colored skirt that fell to the tops of well-worn ankle boots. Her green blouse had full sleeves that were snug at her wrists yet wide at the shoulder, flowing about her chest just as the skirt swirled about her calves. She was beautiful; Jack might have been taken for eternity but he wasn’t blind.
The woman glanced at Clint, and a brilliant smile graced her features. “Clint!” she exclaimed, practically running forward to meet the Elf and throwing her arms around him the moment he was within range.
Clint returned the embrace and, even though Jack couldn’t see his face from where he was standing, he could tell the Elf was affected by the reunion as much as the woman was.
Eventually, they stepped away from each other. “Laura,” Clint greeted her, his voice warm. “You are as beautiful as the last day I saw you.”
She slapped his shoulder teasingly. “Flatterer. And you’ve grown up.” She glanced around him, noticing Jack and Toshiko. “And you’ve brought friends for your first visit in twenty years.” Her dark eyes were curious.
Jack put on his best smile. “Captain Jack Harkness,” he introduced himself. “And this is my Second, Toshiko Sato.” He reached over and took her hand in his, gallantly kissing her knuckles. “And you are?”
“Jack, stop.” Toshiko was laughing at him.
Jack leaned forward, as if to say something in confidence to their host. “She never lets me say hello.”
The woman – Laura – shook her head. “I can understand why, if this is how you greet everyone. Not that I’m objecting, of course.” She gave him a rather saucy wink. “Although my husband might have something to say about it.”
“As would mine,” Jack confided, returning the wink. “He gets jealous.”
“No,” Toshiko corrected him. “Ianto doesn’t.” She was grinning widely, because this was an old disagreement.
She was right, though; Ianto didn’t get jealous. Jack was the jealous one, although he often denied any such thing. His friends knew him and saw through his denials easily.
“This is Laura Carson,” Clint introduced, shaking his head in what looked like disbelief. “Her father owns this traveling show.”
“I own it now,” Laura answered, her eyes turning solemn. “Dad passed away about a decade ago. I’ve been running things ever since.”
“I’m sorry,” Clint murmured. “I would have come sooner if I’d known.”
“I know, Clint. Dad spoke of you at the end. He wished things had been different. He missed you.”
“I wish they had, too.” There was regret in his words, but there was also something else, something Jack couldn’t identify. His curiosity really wanted to know exactly what had caused Clint to leave the show, but he also respected the Elf enough not to push it. Ianto would be proud of his restraint.
Lucky chose that moment to make his presence known. The dragon plopped himself down at Laura’s feet, chirping at her inquisitively.
His behavior had Clint rolling his eyes fondly. “And this is Lucky,” he chuckled, his somber expression lightening. Dragon’s objective achieved. “He’s mine, and I’m his.”
Laura’s fine brows rose in surprise. “I always knew you were a Wizard with any sort of projectile weapon, but I had no idea…”
“Oh, I’m not a Wizard, but it’s a story I’d love to tell you when we have time. But for now, is there somewhere we can speak privately?”
“Sure, we can use my wagon.”
She bustled them all into the wagon she’d emerged from. It seemed to look larger on the inside, but Jack was fairly certain that was an illusion…although he was aware that there were spells that could do that sort of thing. See Ianto’s map tube for an example.
There was a single, long bench-like sofa along one side of the wagon, covered with pillows and cushions, a variegated knitted afghan draped over the back. A tiny desk was at the front of the caravan and along the opposite wall, covered with papers and ledgers, a wooden box that Jack knew had to have been some sort of cash box on one end. Windows let in natural light; there was one in the wall behind the sofa, and two on the other wall, paisley-patterned curtains pulled aside to let the breeze blow through.
Behind it was a floor-length curtain, separating the living area from what must have been where the bed was. The place was cozy, looking well-lived in, and Jack got the impression that Laura didn’t live there alone.
In fact, he was certain of it, if just from the comment Laura had made about her husband. The man’s shirt hanging from the back of the desk’s chair was another indicator, as was the longbow in the corner, one that was much too tall for Laura to use.
Jack was sure Clint would have noticed these things as well, although he was fairly distracted by Laura Carson, as she took a seat on the sofa. Clint curled up beside her, while Toshiko pulled out the desk chair to sit on, after she’d propped her own bow against the wall, next to the unknown one. Jack remained standing; while he wasn’t wearing his usual plate armor, he did have on a padded armor vest over his usual blue tunic, so it would have been comfortable for him to be seated, this was unknown territory and he preferred to remain on some sort of guard.
Lucky crawled up on the sofa next to Clint, resting his head on his human’s lap, looking quite content.
Laura reached over and took Clint’s hand in hers. “I take it you’re not here to catch up, are you.” It wasn’t a question; her eyes were shrewd as she watched Clint. Jack suddenly had the notion that she and Ianto would get along like a house on fire.
That may be scary, come to think of it.
“I’m sorry,” Clint apologized, distinctly uncomfortable, “but I have some particularly bad memories of how I left, and honestly didn’t want to rake them up again. But this is important, Laura, and I kinda need your help.”
She gave him a sad smile. “I do understand, but you have to know we looked for you.”
The Elf looked a little startled at that. It made Jack wonder, once again, just what had happened to Clint to make him leave this place, and what it had done to his psyche. The traveling show had obviously cared about him, but Clint was actually surprised that they’d tried to search for him.
“Tell me what you need,” she urged, “and we’ll see what can be done to help.”
So, Clint explained. He told her everything: about Hydra, and Phil – leaving out the Dark One stuff, that didn’t need to be repeated in an unsecured place – and how they’d been tracking the rogue Voids down until only Catherine and Ruby Hale were left. He told her about getting the word out to the other traveling shows, since they went everywhere and saw everything, and how most people didn’t even pay attention to someone who worked for one. And how they were hoping that Laura wouldn’t mind spreading that word, as long as they all stayed safe and out of Hydra’s way.
Jack and Toshiko didn’t have to add much; but then, they weren’t as intimately wrapped up in the Hydra shenanigans as Clint and his family were.
Laura was nodding as he finished. “I can see why you’d come to us for help,” she said. “And you don’t even have to ask. I’ll be glad to do whatever I can to locate the last two members of Hydra for you. We can’t risk them getting to your family again.”
Clint slumped. “Thanks, Laura. I don’t know if I had the right to ask…”
“You had every right. Clint…no matter what happened, you will always be family to me, as well. Dad cared about you. When you vanished…it hurt him that we couldn’t find you. This was your home. I hope someday you’ll bring your family to visit.” She gave him a sunny smile. “I’d love to hear all about them.”
It warmed Jack that Laura was so hospitable; he had the feeling that he was seeing something special, the coming home of a prodigal who hadn’t been certain of his welcome. While he didn’t know Clint all that well as yet, the immortal was aware that he hadn’t had the best of lives, which made his match with Phil Coulson so perfect: each man had gone through the hells to get where they were now, at the beginning of their lives together. Now, it seemed as if Clint had even more family than the Elf had believed.
“And you?” Clint asked. “You said you have a husband now?”
She nodded. “Yes, and two wonderful children who I think would love getting to know their uncle better.”
Jack noticed her reference immediately; she’d called Clint her kids’ uncle. Clint had mentioned he’d had a brother, and Jack had gotten the impression that things hadn’t been the best between them. They’d both come to the traveling show, but they hadn’t left together and, in fact, Clint’s leaving had apparently been pretty traumatic. He was willing to bet it had had something to do with that brother that the Elf doesn’t really talk about.
Toshiko had stiffened in her chair as well. Trust his friend to have noticed as well, and was obviously putting her own two and two together and getting the result that Jack was. She glanced up at him, and Jack nodded, silently agreeing with her assessment of the situation.
He figured Clint could be excused from picking up on it immediately but, when he did, his eyes widened almost comically. “Laura…” he gasped.
The curtain behind the desk was parted, and a man stepped into the room. He was tall, not quite as tall as Jack but taller than Clint, and Elven, the tips of his ears poking out from under shaggy reddish-brown hair. Blue-grey eyes filled with a combination of pain, worry, and hope were staring at Clint as if he was somehow seeing a miracle.
It didn’t take a genius to see the resemblance between the two Elves.
“Hey, little brother,” Barney Barton greeted softly. “Long time, no see.”