When the lady cop says, "We're going to take you boys-" Barney doesn't let her finish. He grabs Daddy's gun and points it at them and says, "You ain't gonna put us in jail! I won't let you!" And Clint is glad he's got Barney, because Clint feels too sick to do any shooting right now.
"Nobody's going to jail," says the policeman. "We're going to take you to a nice woman's house. Her name is Barbara and she's going to look after you for a little while, like a babysitter. Okay?"
Barney fingers tighten on the gun, but he nods.
"Now, I need you to put that gun down on the floor."
The cops tell Barney and Clint that they have to pack up their stuff. The lady cop gets some trash bags from their car and she gives one to Clint and one to Barney and says to put their clothes and toothbrushes and stuff in there.
Clint is still sitting under the table with his chest curled over his knees, so Barney packs up his stuff for him. There isn't much to pack. Even though he knows they're not, Clint thinks it looks like they're throwing all of his things in the trash.
Barney wants to pack Daddy's gun, but the policeman says no.
"It's ours," says Barney, "and you ain't got no right to take it away from us."
"It's not even a legal piece," says the policeman. "Nobody living here had a license for it, and look, the serial number's filed off." And he takes Daddy's gun and hands it to the lady cop who puts it in their car.
"Bastards don't know how to treat a man," grumbles Barney.
They take the boys to Miss Barbara's house and Clint's still not talking at all. He's not being willful and doing it on purpose, it's just hard for his brain to think of words and even harder for his voice to say them. There are three kids already at her house, but they're all in bed. She doesn't get mad at Clint for not talking and she doesn't get mad at Barney for cussing. She says all of that can wait until morning.
She wants Clint to sleep in a room that has a little boy in it who's practically a baby and she wants Barney to sleep in a room that has a teenage boy in it. She says she doesn't have any empty rooms and she says business is booming and she's laughing and Clint doesn't see what's funny.
Barney pads into the room he was assigned and Clint follows him.
"No, dear, you're going to sleep in the room across the hall." Barbara puts a hand on Clint's shoulder but Clint plants his feet on the ground and puts on his stubborn face.
"We always got the same bed, ma'am," says Barney.
Barbara sighs. "All right," she says, "just for tonight."
Clint looked back at his schedule. He was definitely in the right place. The door was mostly shut, but he knocked anyway – see, he had manners.
An elderly woman answered, leaning on a cane. She had a long grey braid and she was wearing civilian clothes. She looked Clint over before smiling and saying, "You must be Sargent Barton." She held out a hand. "I'm Isabel Gutierrez."
Clint shook her hand. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am."
"Call me Izzy." She smiled warmly. "I've been contracted to bring you up to speed on academics. We'll do some formal tests today, but first I'd like a quick rundown of your education."
"Everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten. Also watched a lot of Star Trek and spent a lot of time around sentimental middle aged ladies and their life-lesson spewing cats."
"Now, we'll have none of your sass," said Izzy blandly. Her voice was almost patronizing, but in a way that suggested she used this tone with all people in all situations.
Clint sighed. He was funny. Just because no one appreciated it lately, didn't mean he wasn't. "I went to regular schools up through the fifth grade. Then I ran away to join the circus."
Unlike virtually everyone, Izzy completely ignored the circus bit. "Regular schools," she repeated. "Plural. You a military brat?"
"I grew up in a series of foster homes. Pretty much every time I switched homes, I switched schools, and then they'd be teaching something different. So I just didn't give a damn," he concluded in a tone that made clear (he hoped) he still didn't give a damn.
"Of course, dear." Izzy was rummaging through a small wheeled suitcase. She lifted a heavy, hard-bound blue binder out and put it on the table. She balanced the binder open like an easel and flipped through the pages. "Now read this sentence to yourself and tell me one word that best fits in the blank."
They switched over to math problems and spelling and reading long lists of real and made-up words.
"I'm not going to give you much homework to start; I don't want you practicing bad habits."
"Oh, I don't need any practice," interrupted Clint. "I've got all my bad habits down pat." He wore his best shit-eating grin.
Izzy handed him a paperback book. A kids' book. "They gave me a little information about you. Give this a try. I think you'll like it."
Clint flipped backward through the pages before he looked at the cover. The print was huge and there were little line-drawing illustrations scattered throughout. It was clearly made for eight-year-olds. He read the title out loud. "My Side of the Mou – tane, uh, I guess that's Mountain."
"It's about a young man who decides to live alone in the woods. He trains a falcon to hunt for him. Read a couple chapters tonight; tomorrow, you can tell me what you think."
Miss Barbara tells Clint that his Mama and Daddy are watching him from heaven and Clint thinks he doesn't like any part of that.
He doesn't like the idea of his Daddy being in heaven. What's the point of having a heaven if people like Daddy get in?
He doesn't like the idea of them watching him. He doesn't like his Daddy watching him because it makes him feel like he's gonna be in trouble. He doesn't like his Mama watching him because she's probably real mad at him for praying to god and making her die.
And he really doesn't like the idea of his Mama and his Daddy ending up in the same place. Even if Daddy didn't go to hell, maybe they could have sent him to a different part of heaven or something instead, so Mama doesn't have to see him anymore and they don't have to fight any more and she won't have to do that pushing thing, that fucking, and she won't cry.
Clint doesn't tell Miss Barbara any of that. In fact, he hardly talks at all when he's at her house. He talks a lot at school, though. He and Barney are going to a different school than before, because they have to go to the school near Miss Barbara's house. In the new school, they're doing weird stuff and they want Clint to write his letters a different way and do something with triangles and pennies to make his alphabet sounds and he's never seen anything like it, so he burps real loud and all the kids laugh.
Miss Barbara takes them to the doctor and Clint gets a whole bunch of shots. They keep trying to do stuff to fix Barney's hands, so they send him to another doctor and another doctor and Barney gets really angry and he says his hands are fine and everybody should stop it stop it stop it.
The social worker says they can't stay with Miss Barbara forever, but they stay until almost Christmas. Miss Barbara gives them duffle bags for a Christmas present, so they won't have to use trash bags for packing. Then the social worker shows up and she says, "No, I'm just taking Barney. Clint is going to a different home."
Clint is mad because nobody told him that could happen. Barney is his and he doesn't want to share. Being sad makes him quiet, but being angry makes him loud. He calls the social worker a liar and a cheater and Barney just smirks.
Clint goes to live with Miss Jolene and Mister Marcus. They have a little house with a leaky roof and a cellar that's all full of interesting things. Mister Marcus is deaf and Miss Jolene says she heard that Clint doesn't talk too much, so that's serendipity.
They're old and they're Black. Clint doesn't know too many Black people, but Miss Jolene and Mister Marcus are wonderful. Miss Jolene cooks real good and she teaches Clint how to tell which grapes are going to be sour and how fix up a leaky pipe. Mister Marcus doesn't hear, but he talks sign language and he teaches some to Clint. They help him build a snowman and when his school (his third school) has a talent show, Miss Jolene makes him an Elvis costume and her and Mister Marcus come and cheer him on even though Mister Marcus can't hear Clint sing.
Clint has a secret thought, a guilty thought: he's glad Barney's not there. Miss Jolene and Mister Marcus are so nice and it's all for Clint. He's like a sponge, soaking up all the niceness, and he doesn't think he will ever be full.
Barney's must not like his new house, Clint thinks, because he keeps running away and trying to get over to Miss Jolene's and Mister Marcus's, where Clint lives. Two times he actually makes it, too. The other times he always gets caught first. The two times he makes it, he sneaks into the cellar where Clint's bed is and sleeps there until the morning, until he gets found out and they come and take him away.
The first few weeks after Barton joined up with SHIELD were the worst in Phil Coulson's career. Well, no. Not the worst. The worst weeks were the ones when agents came home in body bags, or were recovered from the enemy as unrecognizable shells of their former selves. If Phil wanted to be perfectly accurate (and quite often, that was exactly what Phil wanted), he would have said that the first few weeks after Barton joined up with SHIELD were the most annoying in his career.
He prided himself of being able to manage difficult personalities and difficult circumstances, often at the same time, but he was having a hell of a time figuring out what made Barton tick. The psych report was, predictably, no help at all. He "uses humor as a defense mechanism"? Thanks. What insight. (Phil was going to take a long, hard look at their budget.)
After two weeks as an initiate, Barton ekes his way through Principles and takes his oath, so they finally let him out on the shooting range, which is when people finally stop questioning Phil's decision to bring him on.
Barton, rather than reinforce people's vague beginnings of respect, was now dividing his waking hours into perfectly irritating thirds. He spent one third of his time in physical training, at the range or the gym. He spent one third of his time studying alone or with Izzy. He spent the final third being an absolutely unbearable pain in the ass, a category which included such activities as gradually mapping the base's ventilation system, perching on a cabinet in the corner of the cafeteria while staring dead-eyed at a random assortment of SHIELD staff, and alienating his new co-workers with comments like, "You took five shots to kill three guys? Amateur." and "You look just like a stripper I met in a Missouri truck stop."
Phil was running out of things to make Barton alphabetize.
Sometimes Barney and Clint get put in the same foster home. They spend almost two years together with the Gunthers, who aren't real mean or anything, they just treat the boys like a job. They get two checks every month, one for each boy, and they figure if they can keep the boys for less money than is in the checks, then that's easy profit.
The Gunthers' real kids get peanut butter and jelly; Clint and Barney just get peanut butter. The Gunthers' real kids get to go to the movies; Clint and Barney get to go to the park. The Gunthers' real kids get bedtime stories; Clint and Barney get beds.
What's weird is that it's way better than what they had with Mama and Daddy – they have enough food and nobody's trying to beat anybody up – but instead of being happy about it, they're jealous of the Gunthers' real kids. When Barney gets jealous, he gets mad. Clint gets mad too, but he tries really hard to be good. He sort of hopes (maybe, not really, a little) that if he's really, really good, Mr. and Mrs. Gunther will decide to make him one of their real kids.
One of Barton's more annoying quirks was his tendency to wear earbuds everywhere. Coulson understood this to be a sign of protracted adolescence and supposed that if he told Barton to take them out, they would be replaced with black eyeliner or an elaborate and impractical piercing.
Phil went down to the range to get in some of his required hours. There was Barton, ear protection on, his dictaphone and earbuds lying on the bench behind him. Phil didn't have to sneak if he wanted to know what Barton was listening to; Barton was still probationary, which meant senior agents had nearly unlimited rights to his life.
But then, Phil was allowed some idle curiosity, wasn't he?
He settled silently on the bench and held an earbud to his ear.
"Wednesday." It was Barton's voice. "Wed-ness-day. Wednesday. Beautiful. Bee-uh-you-tih-full. Beautiful. Function. Fun-kuh-tie-on. Function."
Phil put down the earbud and watched Barton shoot for a few minutes before heading back to his office; he'd get his hours in later.
The thing of it was, Izzy had worked for SHIELD many times before, most often to improve a foreign operative's English. She had a particular gift for making the peculiarities of English spelling accessible to her students, but Barton was clearly still struggling.
Case-in-point: Coulson couldn't figure out what Barton had meant on some of his advance orders forms. In the space marked Religious Preference, Barton had printed LOUTHERN. Barton hadn't shown any signs of religiosity since coming to SHIELD, so Phil couldn't guess on that basis either. He summoned Barton to his office.
"Do you have a religion, Barton?"
"I'm a Lutheran." Clint wore his broadest smirk.
Ah. Spelling mystery solved. As for the mystery of why Barton couldn't answer a simple question without making up a ridiculous lie, Phil was normally willing go forth in ignorance, but his tolerance was in a waning phase.
"No, you're not," said Phil. "You're not a Lutheran. Do you realize what this question is for? It's so in the rare case that you're dying slowly enough for it to matter, we can get someone to give you last rites."
"I am a Lutheran," answered Barton. "I got baptized a Lutheran and as far as I know, they never kicked me out, so that makes me a Lutheran. You can tell them I don't care about any last rites crap, though. I only got baptized 'cause I figured out that you got a party and people gave you money."
The next time they're in the same foster home, they end up living with Revered Mike and Miss Nancy. They're very religious and they talk about god all the time. Clint's got a smart mouth and he spends a lot of time copying verses out of the Bible about wicked tongues and obedience and one time about an ass, which – really, come on – how do they expect Clint to react? Barney gets into a different sort of trouble (mainly kissing their daughter) and when their oldest son comes home from being a doctor in Africa, they send Barney off someplace else.
By now, Clint's figured out that Miss Barbara was just wrong and his Daddy's not in heaven. Reverend Mike talks about the kingdom of heaven a lot and how it's full of the best people, the saints and they're all nice to each other all the time and there's no fighting or sinning or cussing and there's no way Daddy could be like that.
He asks Reverend Mike, "How do you be sure you go to heaven?"
"It's all up to God, son," says Reverend Mike, "but you have to do your part, too. You have to live right by the Bible and get baptized."
Every once in a while, Clint wakes up before anybody else, and he wonders if Mama could be a saint. She cussed too and she fought sometimes. Her being in hell with Daddy is even worse than her being in heaven with Daddy. It's bad for her, and it's bad for Clint, too, because it means he can't see Mama without seeing Daddy besides, and Clint never, ever wants to see Daddy again.
Living right by the Bible sounds hard, but Clint doesn't want to end up in the same place as Daddy, so he tells Reverend Mike one day, "I wanna get baptized," and Reverend Mike is so happy, Clint knows he made the right choice.
Sitwell stuck his head in the door. "I need to borrow your eagle-eyes."
A voice to his right shouted, "ISS AWKEYE! NAH EAGLE, AWKEYE!"
Sitwell turned and there was Clint Barton standing at attention, mouth covered in packing tape.
"He's still grounded by medical. Can't go offsite," said Coulson, offering no explanation for Barton's punishment.
"I don't need him offsite. I need eyes on photos, we're helping out the FBI."
"Take him." Coulson turned to Barton. "You can take the tape off your mouth. Don't give Sitwell any trouble or I'll pull you off the range for a week." Phil had been saving that threat for when it mattered.
Sitwell led Barton down three flights of stairs to a part of the building he'd never seen before. He indicated a series of photographs laid out on a card table. The same child appeared in all of them, a Black boy who was probably eight or nine years old.
"This is Trevor Lewis," said Sitwell. "He was abducted eighteen months ago while playing in the woods near his house. The FBI received a tip that he might have been used in child pornography." Sitwell pointed to a desktop computer. "If we can match him to a known photograph, it'll help them find and retrieve him."
"Don't you have face-recognition software?"
"It was developed on White adults, so it doesn't work as well on minorities or children. And it doesn't account for aging very well either." Sitwell pulled out the chair in front of the desktop. "In a case like this, the state-of-the-art is human eyes."
Barton sat down, but he swiveled in the chair to face away from the computer. "Are you telling me you want me to look at sicko pictures? That's fucked up."
"If they find the kid, it'll be worth it." Sitwell straightened. "I'll leave you to your work. Call extension 3416 if you get a hit."
Barton spent several minutes just studying the boy, looking at all the innocent pictures his family must have provided, before opening up the FBI database on the computer. Hours passed and he was almost perfectly still except for the little finger twitches that advanced the program to the next photograph. He could feel something heavy and cold and sour forming in his gut, but he kept clicking 'Next'. A few of the pictures could plausibly be innocent, but most decidedly weren't.
Barton wondered how hot water was distributed at SHIELD because he wanted to take a dozen showers in a row, but he kept clicking 'Next'.
Barton found a trash can to vomit in so he wouldn't leave his post, but he kept clicking 'Next'.
It was hours and hours later when Barton dialed 3416. "He's in photo 52-A-439. In the upper left corner."
"Good work, Agent," said Sitwell. "Thank you."
Once a week, Reverend Mike takes Clint into town to see Barney. He used to watch them real close, but he says now that Clint is baptized, he's going to trust Clint to make good choices. Then he pats Clint on the back and looks real proud.
Barney's living in a group home now and he's angry all the time, but he's got money and he won't say how he got it. He buys Clint hamburgers and french fries and milkshakes.
"I gotta get out of this shit little town," says Barney. "Doesn't matter where. Anywhere's better than here."
Clint snorts. "I got James Dean for a brother. Tell me you're not going to start slicking your hair back."
"You really want to live like this forever, somebody else always steering the ship? We could do something crazy."
"You always want to run away and it never works. You always get caught, dipshit."
"I've got that figured out. I always ran away to someplace stationary. This time, we're going to go someplace that moves."
"What, we're gonna be hoboes? You gonna be Boxcar Barney?" Clint snorts. "And who's this 'we'?"
"I'm really going, and I'm not coming back. If you don't come with me, we ain't never gonna see each other again."
Clint was silent.
"What, you think you got a good thing going now with our friend the Reverend? You're such a fucking moron, Clint. You learned the wrong lesson. You think that 'cause our Daddy was a bastard, you gotta go find yourself a new Daddy, but that ain't how it works. The lesson is, people are bastards. Mike's nice to you now, but don't forget how he threw me out when I wasn't even doing anything wrong."
"I haven't forgot about that, Barney, I haven't." Except, Clint kind of does forget about it sometimes. Barney says the group home is awful and it's a really mean place and he doesn't deserve to be there, but sometimes Clint forgets about that when he's at home and they have lasagna for dinner and he's watching boxing with Reverend Mike on TV.
"It's up to you, Clint. I don't want to make you leave, but I think we can do this and I think we should." Barney steals some of Clint's fries. "You stick with me and I'll look after you. I ain't gonna let anybody hurt my little brother."
That night, Clint throws his clothes and his hunting knife in a backpack and he meets Barney at the edge of town.