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Under Pressure

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*

Thursday, October 2, 1986

*

Barney wakes up. He doesn’t move, doesn’t change his breathing, just listens.

He’d fallen asleep on the couch in George and Jim’s trailer, wrapped in the knitted afghan that’s been there for as long as he’s been at the circus. He fell asleep, waiting for Carson to bring Josh back from the hospital with an answer to what’s wrong with him, why he keeps getting sicker and sicker no matter what they do for him. Josh hasn’t been able to work for weeks, hasn’t been able to get up off this couch for days.

Carson had said this afternoon that he’d drive Josh to the hospital in town, and Barney had settled in to wait for news.

The trailer door swings shut; whoever just came in catches it with their body so that it doesn’t slam, and quietly latches it. Probably trying not to disturb him. It doesn’t matter — Barney woke up the moment their foot hit the bottom step. Old habits die hard.

“They back?” Jim asks, his voice quiet and coming from somewhere above Barney’s head. He keeps his eyes closed.

“Just Carson,” George replies, and Barney strains to hear the rest, desperate for news. Josh had been so frail, so pale when they took him away. “Hospital wouldn’t take him, said they were ‘ill-equipped,’ the fucking—”

“Shh!”

George continues, voice low. “Fucking bastards, so Carson just left him on the front steps, said it was fine, they’d have to let him in eventually.”

“Jesus,” Jim whispers, voice low but harsh. “This isn’t 1981 anymore, what’s he gonna—”

“Carson said it was the kid’s idea, to protest—”

“He expects us to believe that? Josh could barely talk when he left here, he was in no condition to—”

Someone scoffs; probably George. “Asshole didn’t want to fight for the kid, make a stink and get people thinking the whole circus is infected.”

Jim sighs. “We should'a kept him here for the last of it.”

“And bury him in a field on our way out of town?”

“Better than him dying on a park bench,” Jim shoots back. Barney feels bile in the back of his throat, and swallows it down as hard as he can. He doesn’t want to believe it. Doesn’t want to think about it. Josh can’t be... He can’t...

“Fucking hell,” George swears again. There’s a pause, then, “How’s our boy, here?”

“Still thinks Josh is coming back.”

“Fucking hell. Fucking Carson. Fucking hospital.”

Jim and George move to the other end of the trailer at that point, and Barney hears them settle down into bed. Their whispers continue for a long while after, but he can’t make any of it out.

Barney spends the rest of the night wide awake on the couch, chest aching, mind spinning with questions. Why hadn’t the hospital taken Josh? Did they not think he had the money to pay for it? Weren’t hospitals supposed to treat people, anyway? Why couldn’t George just take a truck and go find him, bring him back home? Why didn’t Carson bring Josh back?

In the morning, the men smile and lie. They say the hospital kept Josh for treatment, and they’ll check in on him next time they’re in the area. They lie, and Barney plays along. He knows they won’t give him answers.

And he knows how bad Josh looked when they carefully tucked him into the cab of Carson’s truck.

When the circus took Barney and Clint in four years ago — when they ran like hell from their last foster home — Carson was the one who agreed to let them stay, a ten- and a twelve-year-old desperate for escape. But it was a 24-year-old Josh who helped Barney clean up. Who pushed him into a tiny trailer shower and told him to take as much time as he needed to get rid of the blood and the tears and the... the stench, the everything. Who talked to him, in the months afterward — quiet, careful conversations about monsters and men, shame and guilt, violence and recovery. About feeling right in his body again. About finding safety. Finding love.

Clint flinched away from every man on the circus lot, preferring to spend time with the younger kids, helping them with their chores and keeping them out of trouble. Barney stuck to Josh’s side, and learned everything he could. Maybe Carson was the one who took them in, but Josh was the one — with Jim, with George, with others — who made it safe for them to stay.

Barney listens to George and Jim’s platitudes. He leaves the trailer, tracks down Clint helping Jackie do her work rather than his own, opens his mouth to scream the truth... and finds himself repeating those same lies to his little brother.

Clint’s got to perform tonight. He can’t be more distracted than he already is, with Jackie on his mind and Trick on his back. Barney will tell him later.

People die. No use getting upset about it.

He rubs his chest, tries to dispel its odd ache, and gets to work.

*

Tuesday, March 1, 1988

*

All he wants is to make a little money.

Enough to pay for doctor visits for Jackie, whose pregnancy is not going as well or as safely as other girls in the circus had experienced. Gestational hypertension, the last doctor had called it, with high risk for preeclampsia.

(“Why is this happening to her?” Clint had asked, nosy as always.

“There are a few things that put her at higher risk,” the doctor had apparently said, according to Clint’s retelling. “This is her first pregnancy. It’s an adolescent pregnancy. And it’s more common in African American women. Do you have a family history of hypertension or preeclampsia?”

“No idea,” Jackie had said, and then wouldn’t say anything more.)

Being on the road, they can’t take her to the same doctor every time, nor manage to stop off at as many free clinics as they probably should. Barney and Clint both learn how to use the blood pressure cuff, and they all memorize the warning signs that’d mean it was time to drop everything and get Jackie to a hospital.

But hospitals are expensive. And all three of them know that Carson won’t pay when the time comes.

Clint deals with it by working harder than ever on his act, convinced if he’s good enough, prove himself valuable enough, then things will work out. Jackie takes on every sewing, mending, and repair job in the caravan that she could do while sitting down. She’s got a reputation for having an eye for detail and being good with her hands. It brings them a few extra dollars.

Barney figures it’ll be easy to skim a little off the circus’s ticket sales, the food and game vendors, everything. The tills are always off by a few bucks, after all. What were a few more?

He does the math. He makes sure to take odd amounts, never an even twenty or fifty. He’ll take a stack of dollars from one till and put half of them back in another. Some nights he’ll even dip back into his stash and set every cash bag a few dollars over. It’s the circus, after all. Money is difficult to track. And Carson isn’t that great with numbers (except when it comes to paying out).

Barney justifies it to himself that it isn’t stealing — it’s simply making sure his family is getting paid what they’re worth. It’s to take care of Jackie and Clint and their baby. The newest Barton.

(And maybe, maybe it’s to punish Carson for what he did to Josh all those years ago. But Barney doesn’t think about that anymore. He can’t. He refuses.)

*

Friday, July 1, 1988

*

Barney has a little more than two thousand dollars saved when Trickshot catches him. That’s when everything goes to hell.

“I’m doing some business in town tonight, and I need a set of helping hands,” Trick says, staring down at Barney from the doorway of Carson’s trailer with a gleam in his eye that Barney doesn’t like. No one was supposed to have been around. No one should have seen Barney in there, picking the lock to the cashbox. “Meet me at midnight on the north end of Main Street. Don’t tell anyone what you’re up to, and I won’t tell Carson about... this.”

Barney looks down at the cashbox and chews on the inside of his cheek, trying not to curse. He’d gotten sloppy, and complacent, and stupid. Who the fuck knew what Trick was going to drag him into? But what’s done is done, and there’s no getting out of this except to give a short nod. “Fine. Midnight.”

“You want to bring your brother along?” Trick asks, and Barney hates him. Hates him for the power her has over Clint, for the things he could make Clint do if he wanted. Clint’s just a kid. “Could make a helluva lot of money, the three of us.”

Barney jerks his head up and glares, warning Trick off. “Fuck, no. This is between us. Keep the kid out of it.”

Trick snorts. “Have it your way,” he says, and steps out of the doorway and back out into the lot.

Barney leaves the cash the way he found it and locks the box back up. There’s no sense courting more bad luck.

He walks back to his own trailer, being extra careful not to be seen. Inside, Clint is dressed in that stupid, sparkly leotard and taking Jackie’s blood pressure one last time before the evening show begins. Purple sequins and a stethoscope. Ridiculous.

Barney jerks open the mini-fridge and pulls out a beer, popping the top and taking a few massive gulps. Trying to get his equilibrium back. He turns to find Clint and Jackie staring at him, Clint’s shaggy blond strands contrasting with Jackie’s tight black curls. “What?”

“Everything okay?” Clint asks carefully, pulling the ends of the stethoscope out of his ears to dangle around his neck. Always so fucking careful, this kid.

“Hurry up and turn eighteen so we can get the fuck out of here,” Barney says, turning away. He takes his beer back outside and sits on the back bumper of the truck, and waits.

A few minutes later, he hears Clint laugh, and the screen door slam shut. Seconds pass, and then Clint walks around the back and sits down next to him. He’s got peanut shells in his hair, and he looks like an idiot.

Barney passes him the can. He takes a sip and hands it back.

“Bailey’s kicking, if you want to go feel,” Clint offers, even though he knows Barney has never had any interest in doing shit like that.

“Fucking stupid name,” Barney mutters, instead.

“Hey,” Clint says, not for the first time. “We already had a Barnum. We needed a Bailey.”

“What we needed was for you to keep it in your fucking pants,” he snaps. “We would’a been out of here already.”

He could have pulled Clint out of the circus months ago. Could have enlisted, found a halfway-decent place to live and put Clint back in school where he belonged. That’d been his plan for the past few years, before something like what happened to Josh could happen to them.

Except Clint went and fucked it up by adding one — and pretty soon, two — more people to their little family, two more mouths to feed, and Barney’s done the math. One enlisted man’s salary can’t support two teenagers and an infant, especially not his first year in. Not if they all want to eat.

So here they are, stuck in Carson’s Circus. Working. Performing. Waiting. Having patience these days is hard enough, and now with Trick pulling shit and throwing a wrench in everything....

He’s not looking at Clint, but he can still sense the way his shoulders tighten and his head drops down. God, it’s frustrating. Barney’s not their dad. He’s not going to hurt the damn kid. Just... growl a bit.

“Whole world’s pissing me off today, feels like,” Barney says, finally. It’s not an apology. He passes Clint the beer again. That’s not an apology, either.

Clint takes the can and rolls it between his palms nervously. “Need me to do anything?”

Barney sighs. This kid. “Just... keep yourself out of trouble ‘till we can get out of here. Eleven more months, and we’re done.”

“But if I’m headlining—” Clint offers, and Barney has to shut him down. Why can’t Clint understand this?

“Headliners don’t last more than a few seasons in this business, and you should fucking know that.”

“My act is better than all the others, though,” Clint says. As if that matters. Even if it’s true. Clint’s got more talent than any other performance Barney’s ever seen. But that won’t matter.

“It’s not that great,” Barney says, elbowing him. “It’s got your ugly face in it.”

Clint laughs at the jest, like he was supposed to, and his face brightens as he says, “Carson says that next year—”

And now Barney’s done, because whatever Carson says today has no bearing on what Carson does tomorrow, and Clint’s an idiot for believing otherwise. “Forget next year. The minute you’re eighteen, the four of us are fucking gone, Clint. That’s the plan. Get it through your thick skull.”

He grabs the beer back, finishes it, and throws the empty can on the ground, stomping it till it’s flat. Clint shoots him a dirty look he’s had perfected since he was thirteen and walks away, back toward the big top.

Barney lets out another sigh, but doesn’t relax.

At eighteen, Clint can enlist with him in whatever branch of the military will let them stay together. Get training, get paid, get out of this hellhole where you get dumped the minute you become a liability. Eighteen, and Child Protective Services can’t sink their claws into them, pull the Barton brothers apart. Eighteen, and it won’t matter anymore where they come from, because in the eyes of the law, they’ll be free adults.

Jackie will still be underage, but she’ll be a mother, and the law gives her more wiggle room to do as she pleases. Especially if she marries Clint, they’ll be able to take her and the baby with them.

Clint just has to make it to eighteen.

*

There’s blood on his face.

Barney can taste it in his mouth, feel it on his lips and cheeks.

Clint is falling, rolling down the stairs, and every crack of his bones against the concrete echoes through Barney’s brain, mixing with the sound of the gunshot until his mind fills with thunder and chaos.

There’s blood on his face. He was standing right next to Clint, arguing with him, telling him to go back to the circus, and not to follow any further. It’s not safe to get involved with whatever Trickshot’s planning.

“I’m going to tell—” Clint had said. Clint, fucking stupid Clint, and he hadn’t even managed to say who he was going to tell, what he was going to tell them, before Trick took aim and pulled the trigger.

There’s blood on his face, and he was standing right next to Clint, and there was a hole in Clint’s chest and red blood spraying out onto his white t-shirt, and he’s lying face-down at the bottom of the concrete stairs, and he’s not moving.

Barney hears thunder. It’s a cloudless night, but he hears thunder echo across the sky and inside his head.

Then he hears a click. Barney swings his head around to find the source of the sound. Trick. Trick, still holding the gun. There’s a drop of blood on his hand. He’s ten feet away. He killed Clint from ten feet away, but there’s still blood on his hands.

“You want to join him down there?” Trick asks, like he’s expecting Barney to lunge at him at any moment.

Fucking idiot. Like Barney could win against him right now, no weapon, air locked up tight in his lungs and a distant roaring in his ears. A roaring, a crashing, and a wailing.

Seconds pass (maybe hours, maybe days). The wailing turns into sirens. Trick tilts his head to the side, takes a few steps back. The gun doesn’t waver. “You tell the cops what I did, and I’ll come back for that pretty little girl of his. You hear me?”

Barney believes the threat. Trick hated Jackie and anyone else who took Clint’s attention away from his act. Trick has a gun, and Jackie can’t run far these days. He nods.

“See you around, kid,” Trick says, and then the goddamn bastard salutes him with the fucking gun he killed Clint with, before turning on his heel and running down the street to where his truck is parked.

The sirens get louder as Trick peels off down the street. Barney doesn’t look down at the base of the stairs again, at the body. He runs.

It’s just under three miles to the field where the circus is set up, and Barney doesn’t stop until he’s crashing up Carson’s trailer steps and pounding on the door, heaving air into his aching chest. Somewhere in those three miles, the thunder faded away and resolve set in. He’s gotta be fucking smart about this. He’s gotta protect what he has left.

“The hell, Barton?” Carson asks, opening the door and pulling Barney inside. “What are you doing causing a ruckus this time of—”

Barney winces as the light from the lamps hits his eyes, and he sits blindly when Carson pushes him into a chair. He wipes his hand across his face, and that’s when he remembers the blood. He looks down at his hand. A wet dishrag is placed on his palm.

“Y’get in a fight, son?” Carson asks. “I hope you won.”

He shakes his head and brings the cloth up to his face. Once he gets his lungs back, he begins, “I was with Trick. He wanted me to help him rob some houses in town.”

“Why the hell did you agree to such a stupid idea?” Carson asks heatedly.

“Because he said if I didn’t do it, he’d make Clint do it,” Barney lies. He’ll just... he’ll lie just enough to keep them all safe. He’ll do what he has to do. “I had to do it. Clint can’t— couldn’t— couldn’t get caught up with that sort of shit. Clint came anyway, followed me or something, tried to warn me off, and Trick— he—”

He catches his breath and stares down at the now-stained rag. Can’t look at Carson when he says, “Clint’s dead. Trick shot him. Said he’d go after circus folk if I told the cops what he did. So I ran back here.”

He risks a glance back up. Carson’s face is set, his jaw tight, and after a moment he shakes his head. “Should’a known he’d kill somebody someday. Didn’t ever think it’d be one of the kids.”

Carson stand and leans out the trailer door to holler, “George! Jim! Tyrone! Get in here!”

He turns back to Barney, “We’re bugging out. Can’t have the cops crawling all over the lot lookin’ for someone to blame. It’d be the end of us. Get your shit packed up and get ready to move out with the first group in twenty minutes.”

Barney nods and stands. He brushes past Carson as he steps through the door, and Carson stops him with a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry about your brother. He was a good kid.”

The gesture burns, and Barney shrugs his hand off. “People die. It happens.”

He storms away, passing George, Jim and Tyrone as they head into Carson’s trailer, shooting him curious looks on the way. They can have the tents and stalls and stands packed away in under three hours if the situation calls for it, and this one certainly does.

Barney gets to their camper and starts grabbing up all the detritus of their lives that’s been sitting outside for the week they’ve been in this town. Shoes, buckets, Clint’s costume hanging on a line, useless and sparkly and still, still smelling like him. He pulls the door open and deposits an armload just inside, then heads back out for the rest.

Jackie sits up in the folding bed she shares — shared — with Clint. She calls out, sleepily, “Clint? Barney? What are you doing? What’s going on?”

Barney steps back inside with the three folding lawn chairs and throws them on his bed in the loft. He won’t be sleeping tonight, anyway. He can clean things up later.

“Barney? What’s up?”

“We’re bugging out,” Barney tells her, slamming cabinets closed and locking them for the drive. “Put your shit away, we gotta go.”

She sits up all the way and turns to dangle her feet over the side of the bed. She’s wearing one of Clint’s t-shirts, with the extra panels she sewed into the sides to make room for her belly. Clint won’t be needing it back, now.

“Where’s Clint?” she asks, looking around and behind him toward the door.

“Come on Jack, get your fuckin’— put your fuckin’ shoes on—”

“They’re too small, my feet are too swollen, now where is Clint?”

Barney spins to face her. She’s standing now, feet planted on the floor, both hands fisted on her hips, and even without the scowl he could tell she’s getting pissed. She hates being kept in the dark, not knowing things. “Barney Barton, where the hell is your brother?”

If Barney were a better person — if he knew how to say the right things, say them the right way — he’d be sensitive about this. He’d be kind. But he’s not any of those things. So he just picks up his sweatshirt, shrugs it on, and doesn’t look Jackie in the eye when he says, “Clint’s dead.”

He sees her sit back down on the bed. “What do you mean, Clint’s not—”

“Trick killed him,” Barney explains, wishing he could lie to her just this once. She’s never let him get away with it, she knows him too well. “Shot him in the chest. He’s dead. Cops have his body, now.”

She sucks in a sharp breath and raises her hand to cover her mouth. “Clint’s...”

Barney shakes his head. It’s almost twenty minutes. It’s time to go. “I know, Jack, I know, but—”

“Barney...” she starts, hand dropping. He can hear her breath getting tight, and he has to stop it, he doesn’t have time for this.

I know, but there’ll be cops crawling all over the place if we don’t go now. You want them to find you? You want them to take you? You want them to send you back?

“No,” Jackie says faintly, chin trembling.

“Then get in the fucking cab!” He knows he’ll pay for this later. When the shock wears off. When Jackie recovers enough to start asking questions, he knows he’ll be in for it, like he has every time they’ve clashed (over Clint, always Clint, never again Clint).

They buckle in and join the caravan of trucks, trailers, and campers heading south. Jackie sits in the passenger seat (Clint’s seat), seat belt tucked down underneath her belly, and glares out the window at the darkness. Every few minutes, she raises her hand to wipe at her eyes and nose. Barney ignores her tears and concentrates on driving.

They drive through the night and into the morning, and they don’t stop until they reach Lexington, with Akron and Clint and the stairway stained with blood hundreds of miles behind them.

Jackie doesn’t speak to him. The sky is blue and the sun is shining, and all Barney can hear is thunder.

*

Early July is hot and humid, with few clouds and little rainfall to beat the heat. The hotter-than-average weather makes everyone sticky and miserable. Jackie, going on nine months pregnant now, spends the days sitting on a folding chair in the shade of the camper’s awning, with a metal fan propped up on a cement block at her feet. She spends a lot of time staring at the fan, work forgotten in her lap. One of the acrobats, Missy, rips the sleeve nearly completely off her costume — intentionally, Barney suspects — and it takes Jackie nearly two days to fix it. Missy doesn’t complain. Everyone is worried.

Barney tells Jackie what happened — the full truth, not the half-lies he told Carson and the rest of the circus — and after two hours of screaming at him, she stops speaking to him entirely.

Barney throws himself into his work: setting up tents and platforms, hauling supplies, clearing trash, anything physical that will keep his mind in the here and now where it belongs. He takes Jackie’s blood pressure twice a day, still, and lets her silent judgment sit on him every time. He knows she has every right to it.

He resented her for months, but Clint had loved her. Wouldn’t shut up about her eyes, her hair, her soft skin, her delicate hands. Begged Barney to change the plan to include her. And Barney did, grudgingly, under protest. Because it made Clint happy.

His plan is ruined, and he doesn’t know what to do. He was waiting for Clint to turn eighteen, but that’s never going to happen. He’ll be seventeen forever, an unclaimed John Doe in a morgue, buried somewhere in a nameless grave.

Bailey will be born without a father.

God, Clint had been so excited about that baby. Barney thought he’d been a damned idiot, and told him so. But Clint wanted it so badly. Was ready to pour his heart and soul into being a father, a far better father than the ones they’d been given by birth and by the state.

Barney can’t do that. He can’t marry Jackie (for so, so many reasons). He can’t be a father for Bailey. He had just barely come around to the idea of being an uncle. But he also can’t leave either of them alone. Not now that Clint is... gone.

His chest hurts, and he rubs it absently. He doesn’t know what to do.

*

Saturday, July 23, 1988

*

Jackie makes it three more weeks. After so much silence, the first words she says to Barney come at four in the morning. She calls his name, and when he finally emerges from exhausted, restless sleep, she says, “We gotta go. I think... I think it’s happening. I think it’s time.”

Barney rolls out of the loft and barely lands on his feet, staggering a bit until he gets his balance. “Now? You’re in labor?”

Jackie hisses a breath out between her teeth and clenches her hand in the blankets. She’s still lying down, curled up on her side. He can barely see her in the dark. “Yeah. I think this is it.”

“Okay,” Barney says. He rubs his face with his hands to try and wake himself up. Jackie... Labor... Preeclampsia— right. “Lemme get your blood pressure, and then we’ll go.”

He helps her sit up and then pulls out the equipment. Her pressure’s high, of course. It’s been high for months. But not this high. “Alright. Into the front. Let’s go.”

Jackie eases herself into the passenger seat of the camper and buckles in while Barney runs across the way to George and Jim’s trailer. He pounds on the door.

“What’s going on?” Jim calls through the window.

“Jackie’s in labor. I’m taking her to the hospital.”

“Get going then,” George yells.

“Good luck to our girl,” Jim adds, and then Barney’s running back across the grass and climbing into the driver’s seat.

“Go,” Jackie says.

It only takes them twenty minutes to get to the local hospital, because Barney’s been mapping out and memorizing the driving routes for every town the circus stops in. He guides Jackie into the ER and sits her down in the most comfortable-looking chair, expecting a lengthy wait before they’ll take her up to the labor and delivery ward.

As soon as he brings up the words “gestational hypertension” and “preeclampsia,” though, there’s a sudden rush of medical personnel surrounding Jackie. They’ve got her settled in a wheelchair and rolling through the doors in the back within two shakes.

Someone else leads him to a nicer waiting room on the second floor. “We’ll keep you updated on your girlfriend’s progress,” the L and D reception nurse, Linda, tells him.

“I’m not— She’s not—” Barney says, suddenly awkward. “I’m not the father. I’m the uncle.”

Linda blinks at him, and then just says, “Okay.”

As she turns away, Barney jumps back to his feet and says, “Wait, you should know. The father — my brother — he died. In an accident, a few weeks ago. That’s, that’s why he’s not here. Otherwise, he would be.”

Linda smiles at him more gently this time. “I’m sorry for your loss. I’ll let the doctors know, so they can be mindful with Jackie. Okay?”

Barney lets out a long breath, embarrassed by his sudden defensiveness on Clint’s behalf. “Okay. Yeah. Thanks.”

Linda leaves, and Barney settles into a chair to wait. He turns on the television mounted to the wall in the corner, and lets the early morning news wash over him. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced today that it will allow the importation of small quantities of unapproved drugs for persons with life-threatening illnesses, including HIV and AIDS... More on this story...

After 16 hours of labor, Bailey is born just after nine o’clock in the evening on the twenty-third of July. A different nurse, Pamela, comes in to let Barney know. She doesn’t give any medical details, just little facts that people seem to care about: A boy. Eighteen and a half inches. Six pounds, five ounces. Ten fingers and ten toes.

“Is he okay, though?” he asks, brushing the bullshit aside. “Is Jackie okay?”

This nurse’s smile is a little less sincere. “They’re both tired, but fine. Jackie’s asleep right now. If you want to go home and get some rest, you can come back at nine tomorrow morning for a visit.”

Barney doesn’t have a home; he has a camper parked at the far end of the hospital parking lot. But he gets the hint — he’s not the father, and they want him out of their hair.

“Thanks,” he says, and heads for the exit.

*

Sunday, July 24, 1988

*

When the nurse gently places Bailey in his arms, Barney’s glad he washed and put on a clean t-shirt. Eighteen inches and six-odd pounds is tiny. The sleeping baby squishes his face up for a moment, gives a little wiggle, and then relaxes against Barney’s chest with a sign.

He’s tiny and brown and has Clint’s nose.

Sitting there holding his day-old nephew, Barney realizes the pain in his chest over the past few weeks has been a broken heart, plain and simple. It hurts. Looking down at Bailey both makes it hurt worse, and makes it hurt... different. Not better. Not healed. But like... a broken bowl that’s had its cracks sealed up with gold.

Maybe he can do this.

Jackie wakes up and feeds Bailey, and then the nurses come and take him back to the nursery. Jackie looks rumpled and exhausted, but her eyes are clearer than they’ve been in weeks. They look resolved. Barney hopes that whatever she’s decided is a good thing.

“How’re you feeling?” he asks gruffly, arms feeling oddly empty. He wonders if she’ll go back to the silent treatment now that the crisis of labor and delivery has passed.

“Tired. Sore. But okay,” she says. Barney can’t get a read on her.

“They say when they’re gonna let you two out of here?” he asks. “Caravan’s headed to Indianapolis tomorrow.”

“Another day or so, they said.”

And then Jackie levels him with that look. The one that he knows means trouble, means she knows she’s about to piss him off and she doesn’t give a shit. On one hand, it’s refreshing, and almost comforting, to be on the receiving end of that familiar glare again. On the other hand, he’s not sure what kind of trouble she could have possibly gotten into in the last day or so. She’s been kind of busy.

“What is it?” he finally asks.

“I’m not going to Indianapolis,” she states. “I’m leaving the circus.”

Barney takes that in. “You’re leaving—” he doesn’t say me, there is no me for Jackie, there is no reason for Jackie to keep him around, “—and going where?”

She keeps looking at him. “I got a cousin in Chicago. I figure I’ll look her up and see if she’s got room for me to stay a spell.”

Barney looks away. “Your cousin any good with babies?”

“Barney,” she says, like he’s an idiot. Maybe he is.

He glances back over at her. “What?”

“I’m not taking the baby with me,” she says, and her voice is resolved the same way her eyes are. “I’m giving him to the state.”

“When did you decide to do this?” Barney demands, more harshly than he should probably say anything to a woman who’d given birth not eighteen hours ago. “Was this your plan the whole time? You were gonna string Clint along and then dump everyone and run off?”

“Shut up, Barney,” Jackie snaps, delicate hands clenched in the bedcovers. “Clint is dead. Everything’s different.”

Barney collapses back into his chair, all his strings cut.

Clint is dead. Everything is different.

“I can’t stay at the circus,” she continues, obviously trying hard to keep her voice even. “He’s everywhere. I can’t look at the tents or the trailers without seeing him, or expecting him to walk by. I keep rolling over in bed at night, reaching for him. I have to... I need distance.”

“And the baby?” Barney asks.

Jackie shakes her head. “Clint was so... I knew that with him around, it was going to be okay. He was so excited. I can’t— I can’t do this without him. I can’t.”

“So you’re gonna give him to the state. The last thing Clint would’a wanted.”

The glare comes back, briefly. “Newborns get adopted, Barney. It’s the older kids like us who don’t. You know that.”

Barney does know that.

“He’ll be fine,” she says, quietly, finally looking away again. A tear leaks out the corner of her eye.

Clint gave Barney hell the last time he made Jackie cry, and he feels suddenly, overwhelmingly guilty for doing it again and again these past few weeks. Jackie doesn’t deserve this. Nobody does.

Barney doesn’t say anything. Just sits there in the chair next to the bed and stares absently out the window. He rubs his chest.

That night, he gives Jackie the two grand he had saved and drives to Indianapolis, alone, without a plan.

*

Thursday, August 11, 1988

*

It’s a joke. It’s got to be a joke. It’s got to be Trickshot, taunting him from afar.

There’s no fucking way that this letter came from Clint.

It’s made out to Carson, and comes to the post office box he keeps in St. Louis. The unfamiliar handwriting just says, “Tell Barney to come and get me. —Clint.“ It lists the address of a hospital in Cleveland.

Jesus.

Jesus.

He drives to the nearest pay phone and scours the camper for quarters. A long-distance call to the hospital in question has Barney talking to a nurse named Jessie, who can’t confirm any details except, “Yes, I have a Clint Barton here. He was brought in in the early morning of July second.”

“Jesus Christ,” Barney rasps, barely able to catch his breath. The pain in his heart is piercing in its intensity. “He was— he was shot in the chest, how the hell is— is he okay?”

Jessie’s voice is calm and even, and Barney appreciates that, even as she says, “He was hurt very badly. He has a long road ahead of him, but he’s strong.”

This stops Barney short. “Has he— has he woken up?

“Oh yes,” she says, and a smile enters her voice. “He’s a good boy. And very charming, whenever he forgets to be grumpy at us. But he’s been lonely.”

He lets out a breath, finally. “You’re sure he’s okay?”

There’s a shuffling sound, and then the nurse says, “I’m looking at him right now. He’s down at the end of the ward, sitting up in bed drinking an orange juice. He had lunch an hour ago and ate the whole thing even though he didn’t seem to care for it. Does that help, honey?”

“Yeah,” Barney says. “That helps. Thanks. I’ll— How soon can he be released?”

“That will be up to his doctors,” Jessie says. “You’ll have to talk to them when you get here.”

“I’ll get there as soon as I can,” Barney promises, and hangs up.

Jesus.

Barney staggers away from the pay phone and leans up against his camper. He rubs his face, remembering the blood, the iron taste of it, the way it stained his clothes, and how he ended up burning that t-shirt because he couldn’t get the blood out.

Clint is alive.

Barney didn’t— Barney didn’t get him killed. He’s alive. But he’s hurt. It’s been ten weeks and he’s still in the hospital, a long road ahead of him, the nurse said.

Jackie’s disappeared, Bailey’s gone, but Clint.

Alive.

*

Saturday, August 13, 1988

*

Carson gives him fifty bucks. Missy gives him ten. George and Jim each give him a twenty. That’s enough to get him and his empty camper across five hundred miles and three states to the hospital where Clint is.

He parks in the lot. Gets directions from the receptionist. Takes the stairs rather than wait for the elevator, and then he stalls out the moment he steps into the general ward and sees Clint.

It’s just like when they were kids. When their dad would throw Clint too hard, hurt him too badly to just tuck him into bed for a few days and claim the flu. He’s laying in a bed, covered in crisp white sheets and a light blue blanket. One leg is casted, propped up on a foam pad and strapped into place so it can’t move. Both wrists are bandaged.

And Clint is so pale. His eyes are lidded and unfocused, and he’s so pale, and he’s not moving—

“Oh my god,” Barney mutters, stepping closer. This is a hospital, Clint was supposed to be on the mend, wouldn’t they have noticed—?

He gets to the foot of the bed, and that’s when Clint blinks and turns to look at him confusedly.

“Oh, fuck,” Barney says to him. “You’re alive, you’re— I, I can’t—”

He backs away, and Clint calls his name, and he freezes. Because he knows — he hasn’t heard that tone in Clint’s voice in years. Not since the last time Dad sent Clint to the hospital, when Clint had been deafened, and sent to special classes, and six months later their parents were dead in a drunk driving crash, and everything they had was lost.

(It wasn’t the deafness that was the problem — Clint adapted quickly, was brilliant at sign. It was everything else that happened afterward. That’s where it all went wrong.)

He spins around. Asks questions. Watches Clint fiddle with the hearing aids. Soaks in the sound of his brother’s voice (alive!) as they update each other, snap at each other (alive!), fight over stupid things the same way they’ve been fighting their entire lives (alive!).

The problem is...

“They said they’re going to put me back into the system if I stay here!”

(Alive!)

The problem is...

“I need to go home, find Jackie and Bailey, you gotta get me out of here!”

(Take him home!)

Barney thinks about the cramped little bed in the camper, and the narrow aisle through the center to the tiny toilet room. He thinks about the dust and the grit and the grime, and the red marks in Clint’s arms where an IV has recently been. He thinks about, He was hurt very badly. He has a long road ahead of him.

He thinks about Josh, wasting away, too sick to get up off the couch.

He thinks about Trickshot, and his easy, careless threats.

“I don’t want to stay here!” Clint shouts, pure terror in his face, because he knows what the system is like. But the system can give him medicine. Therapy. A place to stay, to recover, to heal. This time, it can help.

“Too fucking bad,” Barney shouts back, and it’s killing him, but he’s got to say it, for once he’s got to get Clint to not follow, he’s got to keep him safe. “I’m your brother and you’ll do like I tell you.”

(Alive!)

(Take him home!)

“You’re staying right where you are, and if I catch you trying to come back, I will end you.”

He stands, sees the shot hit Clint just the way it’s supposed to. His chest is burning, he hates this, he hates himself, he despises this entire fucking situation, but he’s got to keep Clint alive.

He stalks out the door, ignoring Clint’s cries for him to come back. He retraces his steps through the hospital, down the stairs, and out to the camper, slamming his way inside.

“Fuck!” he shouts, too loudly for a public parking lot in the middle of the day, but he doesn’t care. Fuck!”

He kicks the bottom door of the cupboard across from Clint’s — Jackie’s — no one’s — bed. Kicks it and kicks it until the paneling chips, and then cracks, and then his foot breaks through, and the door falls off its hinges and shatters on the floor.

Barney sits on the bed and, for the first time since Josh died, sobs.

*

There’s a Navy recruitment office in Cleveland.

George was a Navy veteran. He’d talked a little bit about it with Barney, years ago, said it was as good a place as any to go. Barney’s never seen the ocean. Never been out of the Midwest.

When his placement exam scores come back and shock the hell out of the recruiter, he offers Barney a spot. A chance.

Clint will age out of the foster system in a year. Maybe that will be enough time for the sting to fade, for him to understand what Barney was trying to do. Barney can find him again, then.

He sells the camper, drops a note in the mail to Carson, and reports to RTC Great Lakes for boot camp.

*