The first time the teachers send a note home with Clint, about his problems, about how he’s dumber than the other kids, his dad’s not angry. He just laughs, which, Clint realizes, isn’t actually better.
“You sure are your mother’s son,” his dad says, ruffling his hair. “Dumb as a doorknob.”
Clint gives his mom the second note. She asks him if he’s okay, if he’s having problems at school, if he needs glasses to read. He tries to tell her how the words just slip out of order sometimes, how letters flip backward and forward coming out of his pencil. Lower case ‘b’ and ‘d’ should make a bed when you spell the word; ‘s’ and ‘z’ are supposed to touch at the knees and forehead like they’re praying, if you put them side by side. Clint knows all the tricks. He doesn’t know why he keeps screwing it up.
He tries to explain it to his mom, but his words come through the maze of his mind mumbled and mangled, like the clay bowl he made when he was four. She tells him to try harder.
A few weeks later his mom takes him to school on a weekend to take a test. She says that it doesn’t mean anything, that there’s nothing wrong with him, but he knows that being the only kid at school at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning isn’t something to be proud of. The test has words that he’s supposed to match to pictures, stories that he’s supposed to put in the right order, numbers that--when other people put them together--are always supposed to equal the same thing.
She says that there’s no grades on this kind of test but he knows he failed it. A week later they move him to a classroom with two other kids who can barely even talk. The teacher in that class gives him workbooks to do and leaves him alone. Barney makes fun of him for being in the retard class, and, since it’s true, Clint has no comeback.
Every time his mom gets his report card, she asks him why he isn’t trying harder. His dad just laughs.
Their parents die in May, right after Clint gets held back a grade for the second time.
At the orphanage they get mad. Clint understands. There are too many kids; they can’t afford to give Clint special treatment.
He tries, and they tell him to try harder. He does. Nothing happens. He gets to the end of a sentence and can’t remember what he saw at the beginning. He adds ‘e’ to pretty much every word that doesn’t have one, and forgets it on all the words that do. He turns scarlet red and stammers every time they tell him to read out loud. He sounds each word out, but they fall apart on his tongue, escaping like fish trying to get back to the ocean. Pretty quickly the teachers learn not to call on him.
He is nine and does not know how to read, and then he is ten, and then he is eleven, and at some point, they stop expecting him to ever learn.
He’s the oldest, dumbest kid in his class when Barney gets tired of the orphanage and breaks them both out. Clint takes a book with him, one that’s mostly pictures of knights and castles and horses wearing armor. Barney laughs at him when he sees it so Clint throws it away.
At the circus, no one even notices. It’s one of the reasons why he loves it there. His least favorite thing is that there are no doors for him to lock and Barney won’t stay with him at night.
Once Trickshot notices him hiding in the supports on the big top and throwing popcorn at kids in the crowd, Clint doesn’t have to spend the nights alone. Clint’s twelve now, almost thirteen, old enough to take care of himself, but it’s still nice to have someone to watch his back.
When Clint’s arms finally grow long enough to use one of Trickshot’s old bows, he gives Clint a book as a present to celebrate. It’s got a brown broken spine and the pages are yellow with age and painted gold on the edges. It has pictures inside of men in tight pants with funny hats, holding bows that are almost as tall as they are. They look strong and rich and cool; they look like Clint wants to look when he grows up. The pictures are protected with thin filmy pages that keep them from rubbing against the ink of the text, and Clint is very careful not to touch them. He hides out by the horse stalls and gets through three pages in two nights, squinting and swearing and sounding everything out, before he realizes that he has no idea what he’s been reading.
He pretends to be lazy because he doesn’t want Trickshot to know that he’s retarded. Trickshot keeps trying to get Clint to read the book—says it’s important, says Clint can learn things from reading it—but he refuses. Trickshot tries bribes, tries withholding food, tries withholding his time and attention, but Clint keeps his mouth shut and the book closed.
Trickshot gives in after a few weeks, says “There’s something wrong with you, kid.” Clint keeps the book and doesn’t disagree. He learns as much from the pictures as he can, and vows that when he’s older, when he’s older and smarter and has his own bow, he’ll read the whole book from start to finish.
The fortune teller, Old Mary—Old Mary who had named her kid Jesus, Jesus who died a couple of years ago in Alabama, which she says is a sign—says that there’s something special about Clint. He loves her for it. She lets him hide in her tent when there are things or people that he cannot escape on his own. He’ll watch her put on her act for the rubes who wander in, and laugh as she makes fun of them after they leave. She says he’s her favorite audience. He figures she probably gets pretty lonely without Jesus. He stays hidden in the corner of her tent as long as he can, wrapping himself up in the velvet drapes, making himself a nest out of pillows that smell like dust and incense.
“You have smart eyes,” she says, laying his tarot cards out on her table on a slow afternoon, running her fingers over them. Clint’s due in the big tent in less than an hour, but he’ll—it’ll be easier for him if he shows up with no time to spare.
“You never been wrong before,” he says tentatively, prodding her to continue, “but you sure got it backwards this time.” He wants her to lay out the last card; like all the dumb rubes, he wants to know his future.
“You’ve got special sight,” she says. “You see things in ways that other people can’t.” She saw snakes in his tea leaves one time and said that his mind twists its own paths. He was just happy to have something warm to drink.
(She never does tell him what his future holds.)
When they finally upgrade him from ‘suspected terrorist threat’ to ‘probationary agent,’ Coulson gives him a tour of SHIELD. After walking him through a building that’s big enough to make Clint’s head spin—identical hallway after identical hallway, which means he never gets anywhere on time, he gets lost just trying to get to the bathroom—Coulson sits Clint down in his office and goes over the forms he’ll need to be familiar with.
“The form you’ll be using the most is the IH-24. You’ll fill out one of those after every mission. After successful missions, you’ll also need the IH-24B; for missions where the objectives were not achieved, you’ll need the IH-25. To requisition furniture or any other personal items—and you’ll want to, the personal quarters here are pretty Spartan—you’ll give HR a T-5. You can pick up those forms from them; I’ll supply you with the IHs as necessary. For replacement weapons or new ammunition, you’ll need to talk to Weapons R&D. I think they’re using R-19s still, but I haven’t needed a new firearm in some time. It may have changed. Do you have any questions?”
“No,” he says, staring at the duffel bag at his feet. It’s mostly empty. The only stuff it’s got in it are clothes that SHIELD had given him and one set of torn up civvies with bloodstains all down one leg. Coulson had stitched up the bullet hole in the denim for him. Said he was trying to set Clint an example about how to clean up your own mess.
The wound in Clint’s thigh has almost mended. The twinges it sends now are mostly imaginary; sometimes his body reminds him of things his brain is too slow to remember. Like the fact that Coulson is a threat, and Clint can’t afford to sit still while he heals.
He doesn’t fill out any of the forms. His room has a bed and a toilet in the corner, so he doesn’t requisition anything else. It reminds Clint of a jail cell, which is okay; at least there isn’t anyone else in it. He’s lived a significant portion of his life with no bed and no reliable source of food, he’s not about to test his luck asking for more now. The door doesn’t have a lock on the inside, but it doesn’t have one on the outside either; he’ll take it as a mark of trust. It’s still hard to sleep at night, knowing that the entrance is unguarded, no one here has his back.
The first two times he runs out of arrows, he steals more. When he needs personal items—deodorant and shampoo and more socks—he sweet talks the guy in HR into slipping them to him on the sly.
He’s practicing on the range with his black-market arrows (trying to figure out a way to shoot three at once) when Coulson finds him.
He stiffens, his hands freezing, arrow shafts trapped between his fingers. He waits for Coulson to walk towards him, away from the one door in the room. Coulson stays where he is, blocking Clint’s only exit. He has to force himself to lower his bow. “Yes, sir?”
“A red flag came up today with your name on it.”
“The system wanted to make sure you were still on SHIELD property, and not on an unscheduled leave. Do you know why that is, Agent?”
“It’s because we have yet to receive a single piece of paper with your signature on it since you arrived here. Why is that, Agent Barton?”
“Come on,” he says, trying for a friendly grin, “It’s not like I actually did anything wrong. I just saved everybody some time, and a lot of paperwork.”
“You stole SHIELD property.”
Coulson looks pissed. Clint shuffles his feet and tries to look cute.
“You do have the necessary forms, do you not?”
He does, actually; there are three half-completed I-9s on the floor of his room, asking for more arrows. There’s a T-5 requisition form which is almost finished. He’d been about to turn it in when he realized that, in classic Barton style, he’d managed to misspell both ‘ammunition’ and ‘SHIELD.’ Double vowels always screw him up.
“I lost them,” he says, which is a ridiculous lie, since they’re the only things in his rooms that aren’t clothes or weapons. If he could figure out the paperwork he needs to fill out to release his paychecks, he’d try to go shopping. He’s never gone shopping for home stuff before; he’d been thinking about asking Coulson to go with him
“Then I’ll get you new forms.”
Clint smirks at him. “You sure I don’t have to fill out a form to get more forms?”
“You do, actually, but I’ll do you a favor and do that one for you. Clint—if you take any more SHIELD property without going through the proper channels, I’ll revoke your range access.” Clint looks up at him, panicked; the enormity of the threat chasing any words out of him. “If I were any other agent, you’d be looking at disciplinary action already. Have I made myself clear?”
Coulson leaves and Clint goes back to shooting one arrow at a time. They’re less likely to break, this way; they’ll buy him a little more time.
Clint gets injured on his first mission out, but it’s not his fault.
Agent Coulson disagrees.
“The next time that a building is on fire, what are you going to do?” he asks, standing at the foot of Clint’s hospital bed, looking like the human embodiment of Judgment Day.
“Get off the building. I’ll even use stairs instead of the elevator. Happy now?”
Coulson sighs and sags into the chair at Clint’s bedside. Clint feels faintly alarmed.
“Getting the shot is not worth also getting second-degree burns,” Coulson says.
“I only needed another minute; I knew I’d make it.”
“The building collapsed five seconds after you left.”
“Yeah, five whole seconds!”
“Clint. Stop talking.” Clint shuts his mouth and tries not to fidget. “I look forward to reading your report,” Coulson says, standing up with a groan. “I can’t wait to see how you’re going to try to justify your actions. You were on fire, for god’s sake.”
“Only a little,” he says quietly. His hands, unfortunately, are completely unscathed; he has no good excuse for not turning in his paperwork. “Thanks for…for stopping by. Sir.”
It feels even emptier after Coulson leaves. Clint breaks himself out after an hour.
There’s paperwork that he’s supposed to fill out to get discharged from medical. It’s one of the forms with tiny boxes for each letter, splitting up each word into its component parts. He’s yet to even spell his name correctly in one of those forms without writing it out on a cheat sheet first and copying it letter by letter.
Coulson’s office is Clint’s favorite place in the entire building (not counting the shooting range), because Coulson’s got plants. Hanging ferns dangling from the ceiling, trees that look plastic (but aren’t) bracketing the door, a bonsai on the desk. It smells like a rainforest on Fridays when Coulson waters them.
“Please,” he says, settling cross-legged into the chair in front of Coulson’s desk. “Tell me that we have a mission.” The furniture’s not SHIELD issue. It’s all from the same set, dark leather that’s soft and worn from use.
Coulson clears his throat and puts his hands down on the desk. Clint leans forward to see what Phil’s long fingers are framing. Coulson’s hands, which have put ointment on Clint’s burns, and handled Clint’s bow so gently he’d felt jealous of both of them—Coulson’s hands, which, once, had touched his face—are framing a stack of papers.
Clint looks at them and his throat closes up. A chill goes through his body. He opens his mouth, but no words—words which have always been traitors, words which never keep their meaning or their spelling or their place in his mind—come out and save him.
“It’s standard procedure,” Coulson says, “to do random spot-checks on probationary agents’ living quarters. On my last inspection, I found these.”
One day, he vows, one day he will live in a house with locks on every door, and a safe for all his secrets. Sitting in Coulson’s office, staring at his stupidity spread out on top of the mahogany desk, he feels as dumb as he had when he was seven, waiting in the principal’s office for his parents to arrive. His parents hadn’t come, so the principal (principal –al, not principle –le) had just talked to Clint, trying to use small words, already tired of explaining things to another in a long string of poor kids who’d grow up to waste everybody’s time.
Coulson’s thumb is brushing over the line where Clint had rewritten the date three times. Month, day, year. It’s not hard. It’s not rocket science. Month, day, year. He’d crossed it out with his pen so hard that it had torn through the paper. And that’s just the first line.
They papers look like they’ve been filled out by a five year old; they look ridiculous. Page after page covered in Clint’s uneven chicken scratch handwriting.
The months of the year are written on the side of the page and numbered one to twelve. Coulson’s name is spelled out on the bottom, right above Philadelphia, Philadelphia which starts with Coulson’s first name and which is in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania which has three ‘n’s total and a ‘y’ tucked into a place where, really, there’s no fucking reason to have a ‘y.’
“Well,” he says, trying for a laugh but making sure to talk slowly (because when he is afraid, his words tangle in his mouth, they are so eager to leave him), “this is awkward.”
“Clint.” Coulson almost never calls him by his first name, but Clint loves the way it sounds coming from his mouth. “Why didn’t you just tell me that you—”
“Trying to prolong the inevitable, I guess. I haven’t read the handbook,” Clint says, with a smile that makes his eyes burn (Coulson will get the joke now), “but I’m pretty sure they’ve got a regulation or two in there about reading comprehension. I didn’t…”
He stares at the carpet. It’s not just that he has nowhere else to go, although that is true. After Coulson had shot him—which was a hell of a first meeting, and the start of Clint’s infatuation with the badass under the business suit—Coulson had given Clint the sales pitch. Join the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. Make a difference. Help people.
He would have said yes to pretty much anything at that point, since he’d been bleeding out and also starving, but he’d…“I really wanted to help people,” he whispers. What a stupid fucking fantasy.
He likes his own name. Clint Barton. It’s simple. It sounds like it’s spelled. Phil’s name—Coulson, for fuck’s sake, three vowels that could be almost any vowel—he hates. Phil Colesen of SHEILD, his mission report says, scrawled on the Supervisor line. The one person who Clint’s trusted in almost ten years, the one person who’s taken care of him and given him a chance to work and a place to sleep—Phil Colesen of SHEILD.
“You still can. This is just a—a bump in the road.” Clint laughs at him. “Okay, a pretty big bump, all things considered, but—”
“What are you going to do? Enroll me in SHIELD daycare? Give me gold stars every time I spell your name right?”
“I don’t know,” Phil says quietly. “This isn’t a problem I’ve encountered before.”
“I’m the first retard who’s snuck in, huh?”
Phil stiffens and Clint flinches. “You have a learning disability, not a mental retardation.” Clint shrugs. There’s not much of a difference from where he’s sitting. “Were you ever diagnosed or given treatment?”
“I’ll take that as a no. I’ve only had time to do preliminary research, but—”
“There’s no cure for stupid,” Clint says with a grin.
Coulson slams his fist down on his desk and Clint stops breathing for a second. “This is only going to stop you if you let it stop you,” Coulson says. “You’re a damn good agent. Don’t give up now.”
“Yeah,” Clint says, swallowing down a sickness that he’s never been able to verbalize. “All I have to do is try harder, right?” As if had ever been a matter of wanting it badly enough. The only thing Clint’s ever wanted more than he’s wanted words is Phil Coulson, whose name he cannot spell.
“Just…just try a bit longer. Please. Let me help you.”
Clint has never been helped by anyone who has not also hurt him. Trusting Coulson may be the stupidest thing he’s ever done—which is saying something, because in stupid, he’s practically got his PhD—but he’s too tired, too old, to do anything else. “I was—I was serious about those gold stars,” he says in a whisper, having to force the words out. He still hasn’t quite got his breath back. Feels like there’s not enough oxygen in the room.
“Help me finish these forms before you leave, and I’ll even get you purple stars.”
Clint forces his hands to unfurl. His knuckles are starting to ache; he wishes he had his bow. He nods, staring at the papers in Phil’s hands, the words on them eluding him in a way no other target ever has.
“We’ll start with this one,” Phil says, sliding out a form that’s almost finished. “You wanted another blanket, right? I guess it must get cold in your quarters, now that the weather’s changed.”
Clint fights to keep from standing up and walking out of the room. He hadn’t been this humiliated when he’d been begging on the streets, or waiting in line at the back of a Salvation Army at Christmas, fingers crossed, hoping for a coat. “I can go out and buy one,” he says hotly, feeling a blush creeping down his neck. “Just—fuck.”
“Ah,” Phil says, after a minute. “We’ll do your payroll forms after this.” Clint closes his eyes and hates himself.
He stutters his answers to Phil’s questions. Phil writes everything out on the forms, his handwriting light and graceful, his words in the right order, every letter tucked into its own little box. He puts Clint’s pathetic attempts on one side of the desk (by the bonsai, which Phil was—is?—going to show Clint how to trim), and his own versions on the other.
In the end there is Clint’s payroll release, three backdated requests for arrows, one request for a new blanket, a belated AMA form, and a mission report.
“You can’t do this every time I need a Band-Aid,” Clint says, shuffling the reject forms into a neat pile. Coulson’s got more important things to do.
“Actually, I can. Ready and willing. The question is—do you want me to? Or do you want to work towards filling them out yourself?”
Clint stares at his hands. Ten fingers. Eight fingers and two thumbs.
The first few years after he’d picked up the bow, Trickshot had written L and R on the back of his hands so that Clint would remember left from right. For those first few years, learning how to caress and master and love a bow, Clint had hated his hands.
“There’s no cure for stupid,” he says again.
“Who told you that?”
His dad, his brother, his teachers, his mentor. “Lots of people.”
“You’re not stupid,” Coulson says. “And, if you want, you can get better.”
Clint closes his eyes and remembers Old Mary, who had called Clint special in a way that hadn’t made it sound like stupid. He knows the beginnings of so many stories. There are lives and myths and histories that he knows only from pictures in books he could not read. There are so many things that he does not understand.
“I’ll try,” he says, the word curling up in his mouth, sour and familiar. “I’ll try.”
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