Pepper slid the brown folder across her desk to rest within reach of Clint. "As you requested," she said.
The archer tentatively reached out, his hand brushing the thick file and drumming his fingers over it before picking it up. It was one thing to speculate the fate of the individual whose life story thus far had been summed up on four dozen 8x11 pages; it was another to know for sure. Barton was an excellent liar, but the best lies were the ones he told himself and this threatened to blow one of them wide open. He had made the decision because it seemed like the best option at the time. He had never stopped to let himself question or regret it since. He flipped open the first page, eager to learn whether the hardest decision he had ever made had turned out as well as he had hoped it could or if it was another mistake in a past shrouded in mistakes and missed opportunities.
Pepper gave him a few minutes to get through the condensed summary before offering her thoughts. "He seems like a remarkable kid."
"Yeah," he replied. He didn't the contents of the file to tell him that.
The sheer oddness of the request had thrown Potts when Clint had approached her with it, but the warm smile that crinkled around his eyes as he flipped through the pages warmed her heart. Barton wasn't someone that trusted easily, keeping even the team at a distance in regards to some things. They had worked for every shred of faith Clint had put in them, but being given such a personal glimpse into the archer's past was an honor.
"Tell me about him?" she asked.
Barton swallowed. The story had never been revealed to anyone, not even Natasha and Coulson. It wasn't that he didn't trust them. He felt completely comfortable putting his life in their hands, but that conviction hadn't come overnight and when Clint had personally vowed to never give the universe a way to hurt the kid through him, he had truly believed that two people could only keep a secret if one of them was dead. It had been too painful to think about anyway and by the time he was sure he could share the story without it being used against him, it was just easier to put it out of his mind and focus on what was, not what could have been.
"We were in a small town in Indiana. Not one of our usual stops but a couple of trucks had broken down and, while we were waiting for parts, Carson insisted we try and make some money off the locals. So we set up shop for the week, ran three shows a day and didn't do too badly. I guess when attractions never come to your town, you overindulge in the circus that happened to break down in your area." Clint put the file on the desk, tapping his fingers along the edge. It was a twitch of discomfort born from the spotlight being shone on his life.
"Anyways, I was fifteen years old and had just made the move from warm-up act and afternoon show to an actual attraction during our night show. I still viewed Barney and I as close, and the rest of the crew were like family. It was the best out of a less than ideal situation and I loved it. More important to this story, I loved Katya."
Potts smiled, a small blush creeping into her cheeks as she tried to imagine a young Barton with a teenage crush.
"Her family had been with Carson for forever, like generations. Katya's father and brother worked with the lions, her mother read fortunes, her two older sisters did trapeze work, and Katya was a contortionist." Barton smiled fondly. "I had it bad for her. If there was one thing that could make me miss a shot, it was a smile from Katya. She knew it too but, at seventeen, a love-sick fifteen year old wasn't going to be the thing that swept her off her feet."
Pepper leaned back in her chair trying not to make Clint nervous with her eagerness to hear his tale of youthful love.
"We had been working so hard that week that a bunch of younger performers decided to sneak into town that night and blow off some steam. I had practice at dawn and god help me if I was late for that, so I stayed behind. She didn't get back in time for her afternoon show. Her parents were livid when she showed up doing the walk of shame later that evening."
"She met a boy?" asked Pepper.
"Her and one of the local boys spent the night together but, what with being in a traveling circus, that was that, or so we all thought. Turns out, the innocent night of wild passion yielded some long-lasting repercussions."
"She was pregnant." Pepper had seen and heard it all while in Tony's employ, but it was quite the guilty pleasure to learn that soap opera complications happened in other people's lives too.
"Yep. Her parents were very traditional and, while they might have been able to overlook the one night stand, they weren't willing to overlook a baby so they disowned her. It wasn't like any of us had skills for the real world or money to survive for more than a minute outside of Carson's reach, so she had to stick with the circus. Only problem was she didn't bring in enough revenue to warrant a trailer of her own and those willing to go against her parents didn't have the money or room to support her. More importantly, she needed someone who could help support the baby and her until she could get back to work."
Her voice barely a whisper, she asked, "What did Katya do?"
Clint let out a sigh. "Enter the lovesick fool. Like I said, I was finally starting to climb the ranks of the performance scene, so Barney and I had gone from depending on scraps up to poverty level. Katya stayed with us and, between the three of us, we were barely skimming by, but we were doing it. I was in love enough that if she wanted me to marry her and run away from the circus, I would have done it, but not naive enough to know she wasn't in love with me, not the way she loved that guy anyways. Pretty soon, I found myself playing the role of a fifteen-year-old father, juggling three shows a day and a family. Barney wanted no part of it, so it was just me, Katya, and Alexander. It was hard, but we made it work and I let myself believe we could be a family."
"I sense a but coming."
"As fate would have it, we passed through the town again and Katya set out to find the love of her life and the father of her child."
The statement sent an ache through Pepper's gut. "That must have hurt."
Clint bit down on his lip. It still hurt as much now as it had then, but he couldn't argue with where he found himself today. "Bradley was from a good Catholic home. He wouldn't allow a scandal like that to come to light.. The bastard child of a carnie wasn't something those trying desperately to cling to high society wanted in their family lives. So Katya settled for me and the meagre existence I could offer her. It all went as well as it could until she got sick. There was nothing any of the doctors we could afford could do and, at the age of sixteen, I found myself alone raising the son of the girl I thought was the love of my life. Even losing their daughter hadn't softened Katya's family. They still wouldn't have anything to do with Alex and Barney wouldn't help either, said it served me right for picking some tramp over my own brother."
Pepper's hand came to rest upon Barton's, stilling its constant fidgeting. "I'm so sorry." The words were deeply genuine, as though there was something she could have done despite the fact that they hadn't known each other then.
"There were a few people willing to help out, though, circus folk needing to stick together and all that. The sword swallower's wife looked after the baby while I was performing or practicing, but the rest of the time it was all on me. I had no idea what I was doing or what I was going to do, but we muddled through it day by day." Despite the hardship he had faced, there was a fond smile on his face now.
"It all went to hell again the next year. Bradley tracked down the circus, having had a change of heart, looking for his family. At first, he thought I was lying to keep Katya away from him, keep him from apologizing and taking her away to live the white picket fence kind of life. When he finally got it, he was devastated. He also wanted to take his son," Clint's voice wavered slightly.
"I was stunned, like the earth beneath my feet was disappearing. Two years, two years and a guy that wanted nothing to do with either of them wanted to take my- his kid back, pretend they were some happy family. I wanted to fight for Alex, more than anything, but the long and short of it was, I was an undereducated, poverty-stricken, sixteen year old who had no claim to the kid and Bradley was the twenty-year-old son of a man of industry. What court in the world was going to give me custody?"
Clearing his throat, Barton got to his feet. He grabbed the file and turned to face the door. "It was for the best anyways," he offered, his voice quiet and more subdued than when he had started the story. "A year later, I was kicked out of the circus, laid up in a hospital from my brother and my mentor trying to kill me for trying to stop their crime spree and on my way to becoming a mercenary for hire. Alex got what he needed, what he deserved," he gestured to the file outlining all the boy's successes in school and life. The boy had been accepted to Yale on scholarship.
"Did you want to meet him? I could set something up," offered Pepper. Somehow, simply collecting the requested information didn't seem enough.
He paused at the door, playing at every possible scenario that could play out from trying to take a hold of the past. "Did you set up that trust fund?"
"Yes. A lawyer will contact him on his twenty-first birthday and tell him an aunt named Anya left him the family inheritance when she passed ten years ago. The seventy thousand dollars should give him one heck of a start," assured the CEO.
He couldn't have given it to Alex then, but Clint supposed something was better than nothing and it would at least make him feel like he had done something tangible for the kid. Keeping Alex a secret, even from SHIELD, had been what he could do then. Now, he had friends with infinite resources that would keep no record and expect no compensation for doing this for Barton. "Nah. He wouldn't remember me anyways and he has his life now. Besides, it's still my job to keep him safe, even if he doesn't know I'm doing it."
Pepper nodded, her new ring sparkling in the light of the office. "Thanks for keeping an eye on Tony and Toby."
"He did fine on his own, didn't need back up at all." He gestured to her newest piece of jewellery. "Tony will be a great father when he gets a chance. Unconventional, but great."
"Thanks," she whispered as the door closed behind Barton, leaving Pepper to daydream over her wedding magazine.
Thank you to everyone who read this story.
Thanks to all the reviewers for all your support.
Another Super BIG thanks to Red Aurora for the amazing beta job.
Next up is Uneasy lies the Head that wears the Crown. (follows the flash back events of Pound of Flesh) Summary: The list of things Fury hates is long, near the top is not knowing which of his agents is selling SHEILD secrets. Near the top of his list of suspects is the newly recruited Clint Barton. When a mission takes a turn for the worst will he finally be able to expose the mole and take them out with extreme predigest or is SHIELD's archer just another pawn in the game of lies and spies?
Then No Rest for the Wicked. Summary: Stark Industries revolutionized the weapons business. The Stark legacy was to keep the world safe and Tony had thought the days of his weapons being used against him were over. That mistake ended up costing him a team member.