Phil Coulson was having a bad day. He had been assigned to investigate three possible new recruits. One was a demolitions specialist who swore he had gotten over his cocaine addiction (he hadn't), one was a satellite engineer who had said she wasn't interested in government work (she still wasn't), and one was a sharpshooter by the name of Clinton Francis Barton (goddamnit).
Everything about this guy screamed problems. He was career military, having joined up with the army at eighteen – or rather, he tried to enlist then, but his Armed Forces Qualification Test scores were too low. The reality was that there were men who were brave and honorable and hardworking who made fine soldiers despite not being the smartest guys around. But there was a limit. The army didn't want soldiers who were going to have a lot of trouble learning new skills, remembering orders, or solving the simplest of problems, so they set AFQT minimum scores below which you couldn't even enlist.
Barton apparently took the test again, six months later (they weren't really supposed to let people do that, but oh well) and passed, just barely. His profile of scores was strange. Paragraph Comprehension was awful and so was Word Knowledge. General Science, Arithmetic Reasoning, and Electronics Information were poor but not terrible. His scores on Mathematics Knowledge, Auto and Shop Information, and Mechanical Comprehension were pretty good, and his score on Assembling Objects was the maximum possible on the test. Maybe an uncorrected learning disability? Was he some kind of firearms savant?
Phil sighed. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s policy of seeking the absolute best person for a given job meant that he had often had to approach people with extremely lopsided ability profiles. It varied, of course, but most of those people ended up needing a lot of hand-holding, a task which inevitably fell to him.
If it were the scores alone, that wouldn't have been such an issue – he had served for 15 years, he was obviously capable of military service – but his file included a long list of disciplinary actions and lukewarm performance reviews.
Phil dialed up Barton's CO.
"So tell me what he's like."
"He's full of talk, big time. Loves to tell us all that we need him, wouldn't last five minutes without him."
"Is it true?"
"Yeah, probably is, but you're not supposed to say it. He loves to lord it over everyone. Makes the other guys in the unit want to kick the crap out of him."
"Nah, not that I'm aware of."
So either, Barton drew less animosity than his CO believed, or he wasn't a whiner. Either of those was good. "You ever get the impression that he's slow?"
"No, but I make a point of talking to him as little as possible." The man snorted.
"I'd like to ask you about some of these citations."
"Aw god, he runs them up. If he wasn't a miracle with a rifle, he would've been dishonorabled years ago."
"Is he overly aggressive?"
The man seemed to consider the question for a moment. "Nah, I wouldn't say so. He'll celebrate a good shot, but he doesn't overkill or take trophies or ignore civilian risks. He's only fired his piece three times without authorization, and all three were hajis with vests – you know, suicide bombers – that he saw before anyone else."
"Is he a risk-taker?"
"Aw yeah, big-time adrenaline junkie."
"Tell me about the AWOLs."
"Yeah, they're pretty short. It's a tough job, I get that, and if he'd asked for permission to go off base and blow off some steam, I probably would've given it, but he doesn't ask."
"And what exactly is 'inappropriate materials ordinance'? I've never seen that one before."
"Yeah," the CO snorted again, sounding annoyed. "We had to make up a new category for him."
"He's been written up for it over a dozen times."
"Yeah, that sounds about right. It's the weirdest damn thing. The guy thinks he's Robin Hood or something. You take your eyes off of him for two damn minutes, he puts his rifle away and takes out a bow and arrow. Command's a little mixed on how to deal with it, because he's just as accurate with the thing as he is with a gun, but…"
"Let me ask you one last question. If we were to transfer him out of your unit, would you say you'd be relieved?"
There was silence for a few moments. "He's not a bad man. But he is a bad soldier. I think that's all I have to say on the matter."
Coulson landed in Basra two days later, looking ridiculously out-of-place in his pressed suit. At least the dark sunglasses were a hit. He walked past the vendors who set up shop on the fringes of the base to the long aluminum barracks where he had been told he would find Barton. He thanked his escort, who pointed to a blonde man reclining on a bunk.
The man had headphones on, but the volume was high enough that Judas Priest's Hell Bent for Leather could clearly be heard from across the room. His bunk lacked the posters and tacked-up letters that surrounded most of the others' living spaces. There were no books, no magazines, though Coulson could see a battered cardboard box labeled "The Bear Went Over the Mountain". The man was tapping away on a laptop, playing some kind of first-person shooter, pausing occasionally to play air guitar. He gave a whoop as some sort of in-game objective was achieved and hissed, "Yeah, well your mom's a Nazi spawn camper, bitch. Suck my balls!"
"Sargent Barton," said Coulson.
To his credit, the man put his headphones and his game aside, before standing to greet Coulson. He didn't exactly stand at attention, nor did he salute, but to be fair, Coulson's status in the military hierarchy was far from obvious.
"I'm Agent Coulson, from the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division."
"Clint Barton," the man extended his hand. "Are you part of Homeland Security?"
"We're an independent agency under the U.S. government."
Barton nodded vaguely, clearly unimpressed.
"I've heard that you have some extraordinary skills."
"I don't put out unless you buy me dinner first."
Coulson ignored that remark. "Grab your rifle. Your CO has agreed to a demonstration."
Clint smirked. "I'm as good as you've heard."
Due to the base's set up, Coulson couldn't actually see Barton's distance skills in action, just speed and accuracy, but he had to reluctantly admit that the man was as good as Fury had heard. He was dead center, and he could fire from odd angles without sacrificing accuracy. Coulson tried launching multiple targets (okay, ping-pong balls) into the air. Barton could paint them all before they hit the ground, up to seven targets. With eight, he was iffy – sometimes got them all, sometimes not.
Still, he looked pleased with himself. He obviously knew that three, maybe four would be the max even for an unusually skilled gunman.
He turned his head from side to side as if stretching. "I can do more with my bow. Let me go get my bow and I'll peg eight – hell, I'll peg ten before they hit the ground."
"With a bow and arrow?" asked Coulson, obviously skeptical. How would that even work? Did he fire ten arrows at once? He couldn't possibly reload that fast, could he?
"Well, a bow and ten arrows. I have my limits."
Coulson looked back at the CO who shrugged as if to say, 'your call.' "Okay, show me what you've got."
They were back in a bunker, on opposite sides of a table.
"I understand you worked in a circus?" asked Coulson.
"Yeah." There was a little defiance in Barton's tone. Maybe he was used to it being a point of mockery?
"With your brother," continued Coulson.
"Where is he now?"
"Dead, sir. Botched robbery, shot by the police." Barton's tone was clipped, but not defensive. Not very attached to the brother? Or maybe just used to the question.
"Do you have a criminal record, soldier?"
"You obviously ran a pretty thorough background check on me. There's no way you don't already have that information unless you get your intel from the same place you get your haircuts."
"You learned how to shoot in the circus?" asked Coulson, not rising to the bait.
"You learned how to dress from Men's Warehouse commercials?"
Coulson reached into his briefcase and pulled out a tattered old flier, preserved in a plastic laminate. It showed a teenager dressed in weird, winged purple leotard cocking back an arrow from atop a trapeze. "I don't think I'll be taking fashion advice from 'The Amazing Hawkeye' anytime soon."
Barton glared, but held his tongue.
"I have some paperwork we need you to fill out."
"I don't do paperwork." Now his tone was flippant, but challenging. If this man was going to be remotely useful to them, Coulson was going to have to set some kind of limits and that started now.
"Listen to me, Sargent Barton. I have clearances you wouldn't believe. I could drug you to the gills and subject you enough brainwashing that you spend the rest of your days pining for a squirrel you met once on Mars. You're a damn good sniper and you work well alone. You're not cut out for this place," he gestured around himself to the communal barracks. "I am offering you the opportunity to do what you're good at and save the world, but if you don't want it, don't really want it, then you're not the best man for the job. And S.H.I.E.L.D. only wants the best."
Barton was silent for a moment, clenching and unclenching his fists. Then, "All right. Give me the papers."
Barton was slowly, laboriously filling out paperwork while Coulson was mentally composing his status report for Fury, trying to find a way to convey the asset's archery skill without using an unprofessional term like "un-fucking-believable". He often amused himself in this fashion, mixing crude and business language, though he kept this wordplay to himself.
He looked back at Barton, who was slowly printing his AFO address on the wrong line.
Then something clicked.
Coulson was not an extraordinary genius, but he had an eye for detail, and those details would simmer in the back of his mind until they all came together in a flash.
His test scores. The box in Barton's bunk, it was a book on tape. He grew up in the circus; he was uneducated. And now the paperwork.
"You're illiterate," blurted Coulson, surprising himself by speaking without thinking first. "You can't read, can you?"
"I know what illiterate means."
"You can't read."
"I can read."
Of every barb he had thrown at Barton today, testing his temper, his compliance, this was apparently the one that stuck. The man defiantly kept his face straight ahead, but his eyes pointed down and to the right.
"How far did you go in school? Really." Barton must have lied on his enlistment papers.
"Fifth grade." Still no eye contact. "I still learned stuff after that, I just…" He trailed off. "You know what? Fuck you. Fuck you and your fucking job. They need me here. There's at least two dozen guys here who would be dead if it weren't for me."
"Ah," said Coulson, "there's the attitude." He gave his blandest, most aggravating smile; he needed to see how Barton handled this, whether he could pull himself together and move on. "What makes you think we still want you? S.H.I.E.L.D. is an elite force."
"You know why you want me in your secret spy games club?" asked Barton, the arrogant smirk starting to re-emerge, "Because I've been in the army for fifteen years, and you're the first person to figure out that I can't read."
Coulson was reluctantly forced to admit that was a very good argument. He stood. "As soon as your papers are processed, you'll be on the next transport back to the states. You'll be assigned a tutor to catch you up on academics. Minimum four hours a day. Don't give her any grief or I'll hear about it." He clipped his briefcase shut and walked toward the door, but he stopped, turned back, found himself liking this guy despite the knowledge that Barton was probably going to be the number one headache in his department for years to come.
Coulson held out his hand. "And Barton, welcome aboard."