Buck Chisholm is not a fool. He has his faults. He drinks and he gambles and sometimes he does both at the same time, which is why he owes a lot of people a lot of money. But he's not a fool, which is why he always has a backup plan.
He decides to try his plan A on a Friday night, after he performs with Clint. The kid is getting good, better than Buck, really, and he gets drunk on the cheering crowd. Clint's always wired after a show, lapping up praise and looking genuinely happy.
When they get back to the trailer, Buck unlaces his boots and says, "Guys like you and me, we got dealt a raw hand in life."
Clint grabs a beer from the mini-fridge and passes one to Buck. "Speaking of raw hands, you should ice those fingers or they're gonna swell."
Buck tilts his head gratefully and he takes Clint's advice – he holds the beer against the inside of his knuckles where the string has rubbed them raw. "You know what I mean, Clint. We work hard, we're not idiots. How many hours do you think we work in a week?"
"I dunno, I never thought about it."
"Well, I have, and it's a lot. And we're still poor as fuck. Meanwhile, there's guys in the cities who had it all handed to them who shuffle papers for forty hours a week in some air-conditioned office building who make enough money to buy and sell this circus twice over."
"I don't think I'd like working in an office," says Clint. "Bet you have to be all polite and stuff."
"That's not the point. The point is about fairness, justice even."
Clint's taking off his shirt and sliding down his leggings at the same time, that weird purple getup he inherited when Blinking Mikey retired and went back to Alaska. "I hear you," he says absently.
"What if we could make things right, even the score a bit?"
"What, you want to rob a bank? I'll tell you right now, I call Clyde, you have to be Bonnie."
"No, what if we could do it without hurting anybody? We wouldn't even be doing anything wrong."
"Is this gonna be about Amway? Or Jesus?"
"God, you're a smart ass. You're lucky you're good in bed." Buck stops to take a long sip of his beer. "We find some houses that look real nice. Nobody ever locks their second-story windows, and you still got all that acrobat skill. You get us in when nobody's home, we take a few things and hock 'em. People like that, they've got insurance that'll pay them back for what got stolen so it all evens out. Everybody wins."
Clint looks skeptical, even though he's not exactly sure what's wrong with Buck's logic. "You want to break into people's houses and rifle through their stuff? That's kind of creepy."
Buck flicks Clint's ear. "I don't want to take their photo albums and underwear, just some jewelry, maybe a TV. Remember, they'll get it all back from the insurance company."
"It still don't seem right to me," says Clint, stripped down to his underwear and starting in on his second beer.
"Whatever," says Buck. He's leaning back, enjoying the view. "Forget about it."
"I think we should push up the timeline, sir," said Barton. "The longer we wait, the more time we give Srivastava's people to plant more land mines around the perimeter."
Coulson grinned slightly from across the room. Despite his exceedingly lowbrow manner, Barton's expertise had finally won him some respect and senior officers now accepted his input. Barton had, in turn, responded by rising to meet their expectations.
Fury shook his head. "We still don't know what's going on in there and I want to find out where they're getting their arms from."
"Then we dig serial numbers out of the rubble," answered Hill. "We're fast approaching the point at which a land assault just isn't feasible."
Fury rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Can we get at the compound another way?"
Hill shook her head. "Tactical says the terrain and the cloud cover make an aerial landing impossible. The Kashmir terrain doesn't do us any favors."
"You don't have to land," said Barton. "Take a helicopter, get inside the cloud layer. I can shoot from there."
Hill looked skeptical. "How are you going to aim?"
Barton scoffed. "Infrared imaging and awesomeness."
Buck is no idiot. He knew that just asking Clint might not work because that boy could be awfully stubborn sometimes. He waits a few weeks and lets Clint forget about the whole thing, but Buck has a backup plan and it means bringing in somebody he's got a lot in common with.
Clint is doing handsprings, back and forth in a small clearing, when he hears a loud, deliberate cough. He looks up and there's Barney.
"You're pretty good at that," says Barney.
Clint's not sure what to say, so he spits on the ground and takes a long drink of water.
Barney settles cross-legged on the ground. He picks up dead leaves and crushes them, watching the bits flutter to the ground. "I've seen you in some of your shows. It's impressive. A little scary, actually, how good you are." Barney looks up, but he's still not actually looking at Clint, more like looking near him or past him. "Trick Shot teach you all that shooting stuff?"
"Some of it."
"He treating you right?"
"What's it to you?"
"You're my brother," says Barney, "nobody's allowed to pick on you but me."
Clint's still not sure what's going on, if this is some kind of trick. "He treats me fine," says Clint.
"That's good," says Barney. He takes a deep breath and then, "I- look, I've been too hard on you. Maybe I get jealous because it seems like you've got it made and I, well…You got your act and I ought to just be happy for you." He mutters something to himself that Clint can't make out. "I just, I don't want to live like this. I want to sleep in an actual bed and have a real heater in the winter. I want to get my teeth pulled by an actual dentist when they're rotten, not just by whoever's got pliers and a steady hand. That's not crazy, is it?"
"No," says Clint, "a lot of people want that stuff." Clint thinks, it was crazy for you to flip out at me about it, though. And then not talk to me for months and months. Clint sits down on the grass.
"You know what I think I want to do?" asks Barney. "I want to go to the city and get an apartment and work as a cook. Not a fancy chef like in some snooty restaurant, but like a line cook in a diner. I think I'd be good at that."
"You want to move to the city?" asks Clint. "Which one?"
"Milwaukee, maybe. I'd have to think it over. You could come too, if you wanted, but I understand you've got your act and your…uh, boyfriend. But I wouldn't be too far if you wanted to come visit, maybe stay over in the off season."
Clint's not really hearing exactly what his brother is saying. What he's hearing is, 'We're brothers again, we're brothers again' and he never knew how much he wanted to hear that.
Barney stands up. "I know you've got to practice," he says. "I don't want to take up too much of your time."
"It's okay," says Clint. Then he adds, "Are you thinking about leaving soon?"
Barney sighs and shakes his head. "Thinking about it, sure, but it's not going to happen. It takes money to move on like that. Can't get a job without an address, but nobody'll rent to you if you don't have a job, unless you can pay a lot upfront."
"Well that ain't fair," says Clint.
"Tell me about it," says Barney. "Your friend Buck had an idea for making some money quick, but I guess it fell through." He shrugs. "I guess he needs an acrobat to pull it off."
They were on a train, a freight train, not a passenger vehicle, and would be for another ten hours. The James Bond movies left out all the boredom and the waiting.
Barton edged away from the walls of shipping container. "Canada smells funny," he decreed.
"I'm pretty sure that's just you."
"It smells like moose balls."
"You've never been close enough to a moose to smell it. No moose in the circus."
Barton glared. "I could have been to a zoo."
"I know you didn't."
"You know everything."
Coulson shrugged humbly.
"I don't know much about you." Barton sounded philosophical.
"You don't need to know much about me. What more do you want to know?"
Barton squinted. He evidently hadn't really thought that far ahead. "How much can you bench press?"
"Usually about 250. Up to 270 on a good day."
"That's not bad."
"I'm glad my weightlifting regimen meets with your approval."
"I mean, it's not bad for a desk jockey."
"A desk jockey who saved your ass twice this week."
"The second one doesn't count. I could've taken her on my own."
"Barton, it was a grizzly bear."
"Your mom's a grizzly bear."
Here's how it works.
Buck drives them up to a house that he scouted earlier that day. Sometimes they have to check two or three houses to find one where nobody's home, but it's really not too hard to figure out. Clint makes his way up to a second-story window and Buck is right, they're never locked. Clint shimmies in and makes his way down to the side door or the back door and he unlocks it. He carries cheeseburgers just in case there are dogs.
Once Clint unlocks a door on the ground floor, Buck and Barney come inside and get looking for valuable stuff while Clint plays lookout. Buck smiles fondly and says, "Your hawk eyes come in handy." They take anything valuable and small because Buck's only got a station wagon, not a truck and because if they try to carry a huge stereo or a big screen TV, they're a lot more likely to get caught. They take jewelry, cash, smaller electronic things like Gameboys and Walkmans. They take pills that have a street value. Sometimes collected stuff if it's easy to find, like fancy coins that are worth something. They take guns, nice shoes, full bottles of fancy perfume, cameras, and power tools.
All three of them always wear gloves.
They hang onto the stuff for a little while until the circus moves on to the next town. Then they mix up stuff from a couple of jobs and Buck takes it to a pawn shop to hock.
Buck brings them back the money and they split it three ways. Barney tells Clint that he thinks Buck might be trying to cheat them, lying about how much he actually got from the pawn broker, but Clint's starting to suspect that Barney always think's somebody's cheating him.
Clint thinks it's maybe wrong what they're doing, but insurance will replace the stuff, like Buck said, and some people like Barney really do need the money and it's hard for Clint to think about anything except for the fact that he and Barney are brothers again.
Honestly, the op hadn't been that difficult. Most of the guards were hired muscle who had no interest in dying for a job that had refused to pay up front. But now, they were in the middle of a swamp in a collapsing building full of terrified girls and women who spoke no English and had no idea what was happening.
SHIELD had a Thai interpreter along for the mission, which covered about a third of the women, some of whom could then translate into other local languages, but at least a dozen remained cut off. Even those who could understand the interpreted message of peace obviously distrusted it, huddling close to one another and keeping a watchful eye on the invading foreigners.
Barton was still scouring the corridors to ensure that they hadn't missed any of the guards or traffickers.
"Second floor west is clear," he said."
"Acknowledged," answered Coulson. He was hanging back to the greatest extent possible. In sex trafficking cases, female agents tended to elicit a better response from victims than their male counterparts.
"This place is disgusting," said Barton as he cleared another claustrophobic room. "Remind me to never complain about another Estonian bedsit again."
"I'll put it on your calendar next time you go to Estonia," said Coulson. The action portion of the op was over. A little chatter was fine.
"I never look at my calendar."
"I never expected you to stop complaining."
There was another thud as Barton opened another door. "Aw shit," he said, "there's a kid in here. She's trying to hide under her little blanket."
"Is she injured? Can you just carry her downstairs?"
"Yeah, uh, wait a minute." Barton pulled out his earpiece and knelt down on the floor. He didn't mind dirt and grime. He did mind sewage, but he'd scrambled through more than one sewer in his brief career at SHIELD. He had really been hoping not to touch this floor.
He opened up a pouch in his belt and pulled out some flash cubes; they wouldn't activate without the starter. "Hey," he said, knowing full well she probably didn't speak any English. "Hey, look at this." She still didn't emerge from under the blanket, but Barton took the cubes and started to juggle them. He could be patient, he could juggle three objects for a very long time.
Twenty minutes later, he rejoined the crew on the first floor, a little girl walking behind him.
"What took you so long?" asked Hill.
Barton tipped his head toward the little girl.
"Yes, I'm sure forty pounds of extra weight slowed you down."
"I was waiting for her to come along on her own," said Barton. "I didn't want to be one more guy pushing her around."
Hill looked like she was about to say something, but she nodded instead. "Lead her over to Agent Anantasu. Let's hope she speaks Thai. And put your goddamn communicator back in."
They pull up to a yellow house with dark red trim and no cars. Clint slips in through a guestroom upstairs and then unlocks the side door to let Buck and Barney inside.
Clint crouches just outside the door to keep watch.
He's only there for a moment before he hears the beginning of a scream, cut off into muffled noise. He hesitates and wonders why he hesitates, but then he decides that wondering if for sissies and runs right into the house.
He runs up the stairs and he sees Buck and Barney in the master bedroom with an old woman, wrapping tape around her mouth and her hands. They look back at him.
Buck speaks first. "Go back downstairs, kid. We've got this."
Clint doesn't move. The old woman is crying, making little whimpering noises.
"Move it," says Barney. "You've got a job. Go do it."
"Let her go," says Clint. "We can just find a different house."
"Are you nuts?" asks Barney. "She's seen our faces! We can't let her go."
The next moment feels very long to Clint, as he figures out what 'can't let her go' means and the old woman's face gets long and deep and Clint is beginning to see how this is going to end.
"No," says Clint. "Leave her alone. Or I'll call the police." He's surprised by the words coming out of his mouth, but that doesn't mean he wants to take them back.
No one moves for a moment, so Clint lets fly a few blunted rounds, enough to knock the handset off the base and hit 0 for operator. They'll figure out something's wrong if they listen long enough.
Three arrows fly from Buck's bow and Clint is pinned to the hallway wall by his clothes. He starts to struggle down but Barney comes after him with the duct tape, binding up his ankles and his wrists before he can get any traction.
"You stupid kid," says Barney. "You stupid, stupid kid."
Coulson caught up with Barton on the shooting range. Barton was blindfolded. Every few seconds, a chime would play as a target emerged and Barton would fire in the direction of the sound. "A couple of messages for you. First of all, medical says that if they have to chase you down again to make you complete your rabies vaccination series, they're going to lock you in a crate with a funny-looking raccoon and let nature take its course."
"Are we talking funny like ha-ha or the other kind?"
"You'd have to ask Medical. Preferably while they're giving you rabies shots."
"The bat wasn't rabid." The chime went off again and Barton fired without hesitating.
"This wouldn't be an issue if you had left it alone."
"That bat could've had valuable intel."
"You were trying to train it to do tricks," said Coulson. "If you think that's a goal that merits ongoing rabies prophylaxis, be my guest."
Barton scowled, then fired off another shot. "And the other message?"
Buck and Barney flee, leaving Clint to take the rap. They never taped up his mouth, so he talks to the old woman, telling her the police are coming and things are going to be okay. Clint is slow to free himself. He knows some escape tricks and he can dislocate his left thumb pretty easily, but escape tricks are different from really escaping and besides, Clint's got a lot on his mind.
He remembers what Barney told him a long time ago, that people are bastards and Clint feels like the world's biggest fool for taking so long to figure that out. Everybody's really out for themselves in the end – you can use them, you can help them, or you can stay the fuck away, but you sure as hell better stop looking for friends and brothers and daddies, because there's nobody like that in this world.
It's a lonely thought, but that doesn't bother Clint too much. He gets the tape off his hands just a minute or two before the police show up. When they take him in, he admits that he was helping rob the house, but he didn't want the old lady to get hurt. The old lady backs up Clint's story, and since he's a minor, they let him off light: juvenile detention for the next six months, until he turns eighteen.
Clint floats through juvie. He does terrible at the classes, but so does everybody else. He doesn't make friends and he doesn't make enemies. Nobody comes to visit him and he doesn't try to contact anybody. The only thing that bothers him is they take his bow, but he makes a spitball gun out of a pen barrel and practices with that. It's good enough for six months.
On his eighteenth birthday, they let him out. Clint doesn't go back to the circus. He hitchhikes into the city and finds a recruiter says he wants to join the army.
He fails the test. He fails the goddamn test.
Clint tells the recruiter how well he can shoot. Maybe the recruiter believes him. Maybe he takes pity on Clint or maybe he's just got quotas to fill. He tells Clint that he can work things out for Clint to take the test again in six months. The recruiter even gives him a book to study so he'll score better next time.
Clint can handle six months. He does odd jobs and day labor when he can. He sleeps in shelters and under bridges. He doesn't beg – it's not a pride thing, he just doesn't think of himself as the kind of person who needs that. His is a temporary situation. Begging is for the crazy people and the ones with no legs, the ones who are stuck like this forever. (It's hard to be ashamed in front of people like that, so Clint trades them money or food to help him read his army test book.) He does steal, a couple dollars or a bite to eat here and there. He's not above eating out of trash cans. He gets a P.O. box and he writes to Carson to ask for his last paycheck because he figures it can't hurt and wonder of wonders, Carson sends it to him, so that buys food for a good long while.
Six months is almost up when Clint decides to check his P.O. box. There's a note from Carson explaining that Barney got in trouble with the law running guns and drugs and it ended bad. It's 10% sympathy and 90% if-you-want-his-stuff-get-it-soon.
Clint throws the letter away and gets back to studying his army test book.
"The other message is from Information Security. They want to know why Phil Coulson is suddenly so very interested in Midwestern penitentiaries."
"Why are they asking me? Seems like they should be asking Phil Coulson." Barton lowered his bow, though the range targets kept appearing and chiming at irregular intervals.
Coulson sighed. "I know your brother is alive, Barton."