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Title: Abel Had It Easy
Fandom: Avengers
Series: Dyslexia!Verse. Chronologically this comes first, but it also works fine as a standalone.
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Child abuse and neglect, minor canon character violence and deaths (not Coulson’s!), and a character with dyslexia being treated insensitively. If you need more information about potential triggers, please PM me and I’ll be happy to help.
Pairing: Gen (later in the ‘verse, Clint/Coulson)
Notes: This is Barney’s side of the backstory, drawing heavily from Jim McCann’s series, Hawkeye: Blindspot, where he makes all the abusive backstory canon.

Summary: A lot of Barney’s stories started pretty much the same way. Dad was drunk, and then… And then, and then, and then.

“You learn also that life has a sick sense of humor. Everything it gives you can explode in your face. And like that, you learn you can be orphaned, over and over again.”
—Clint, from Hawkeye: Blindspot
Dad was drunk, and then realized he was about out of whiskey, and then he was angry. Clint—as usual—got in his way trying to calm him down. Barney was smart enough to stand behind Mom, since she was sober tonight and usually had better luck than Clint calming Dad down. Dad caught Clint a pretty good one across the face, and there was a thud but not a crack when Clint’s head hit the counter as he went down. Concussion, maybe, but probably not anything serious.

A lot of Barney’s stories started pretty much the same way. Dad was drunk, and then… And then, and then, and then.

Sometimes the stories ended funny, with Dad passed out somewhere improbable, or with him sitting them all down and telling them about the adventures he got into when he was a kid. Sometimes Dad was a happy drunk and would hug them and mess up their hair and try to cook them food, while their mom heaved giant sighs and followed him around, catching the lamps and pictures that he knocked over, keeping the kitchen from catching on fire.

Dad was a butcher, so a lot of times the stories started with ‘Dad was drunk,’ and ended with Dad grabbing a cleaver and doing something stupid with it. Sometimes he’d just grab a meat tenderizer. Most times he settled for his belt since that was always close, and he’d chase them—whoever was closest, whoever he could get to first—with his pants sagging down around his thighs, the buckle end swinging in the air.

When Clint wasn’t trying to distract Dad from going after the rest of them, he was good at hiding, at making sure he wasn’t seen. Barney had always been better at running away. Their mom sometimes matched their dad drink for drink, so by the time he whipped out a weapon, she’d be too smashed to run. Clint, who didn’t seem to understand that it was the parents’ job to take care of their kids, would try to protect her, and Dad always preferred moving targets.

*

Barney was expecting the knock that came on the door. Dad had been yelling at Clint, Mom had been yelling at Dad, and the neighbors had been calling in noise complaints almost every other night the past two weeks. Barney had the TV and radio turned up to full-blast to explain away the noise complaints to the cops.

Part of him was worried that it would be social services, because Clint had been going to school with a lot of bruises lately. When he opened the door there were two cops in full uniform and a guy wearing normal clothes and a sad expression.

Shit.

“How can I help you?” He leaned against the door frame and tried to look casual. He’d cleaned up the blood and spilled whiskey and sent Clint (his eye already swollen almost shut) to hide under the bed. He’d thought he’d taken care of everything, but when he glanced outside he saw the shattered whiskey bottle on the sidewalk; it glittered in the flashing red and blue lights.

“Are you Barney Barton?” The small guy in the ill-fitting suit was the one asking the questions.

“Maybe,” he said.

“Is there anyone else in the house?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Are there any adults here, son? A babysitter?”

“Don’t fucking need one,” he said, backing inside and slowly inching the door closed. There was something wrong here. He wasn’t familiar with this routine.

One of the cops stuck his foot in the door to keep it from closing. “Is your brother home?” The cop flipped through his little notebook and Barney smirked; the cop’s handwriting was worse than Clint’s, and Clint was seven and stupid. “Clint Barton?”

“I know my brother’s name, dipshit,” Barney said, pushing harder against the door.

“Son,” the social worker said, “I think you better let us come inside.”

They didn’t give him a choice. They were bigger than him, stronger than him, and they pushed their way through the butcher shop storefront.

The cops made him lead them into the back of the store, which turned into their apartment: living room and kitchen all in one, Clint and Barney’s bed in one tiny room, a shared bathroom that all of them used, and Mom and Dad’s room. It wasn’t big, but it wasn’t terrible. Clint or Mom usually cleaned up the spills and stains before too long, so unless you looked real close, the couch and carpet and counters didn’t tell any unusual stories. There were some holes in the walls the size of fists that they hadn’t gotten around to covering yet, but nobody’s home was perfect.

There was only one couch in the room and the cops and social worker, “Call me Mark,” squished uncomfortably onto it. They told him to get his brother, and Barney loudly refused; Clint would be able to hear him and would stay hidden. They sat Barney down on the armchair, and the cop with the dumbass handwriting said, “I have some bad news, son.”

“I’m not your son,” Barney spat.

“It’s about your parents.”

Barney wasn't quite sure what happened after that.

At some point they told him that Mom and Dad were dead. Car accident.

Clint came out of his room and one of the cops grunted in surprise. Clint’s face did look pretty bad. Dad's ring had torn through some skin when he smacked Clint across the face for being a smartass.

Clint went and stood by where Barney was sitting in Dad’s armchair. (The armchair that used to be Dad’s.) Barney felt like Mom, felt like Clint was protecting him when he shouldn’t be, but he didn’t protest. The TV and radio were still turned up too loud. Clint was silent. The cops and social worker kept talking but all Barney heard was late night jazz and reruns of Jeopardy and the imagined sound of his father’s fists through the wall; his mother’s long-suffering sighs.

*

They were brought to the police station, and they sat there all night. Mark brought them food from the vending machines and Barney divided it up between them. Clint’s eyes were kind of glassy, maybe a concussion, so Barney kept him from napping and made sure he ate. He knew the drill by now.

Through the wall Barney could hear Mark talking on the phone, trying to track down any relatives. Barney had never met any; Clint certainly hadn’t. He was pretty sure his mom was an only child and his Dad had scared his whole damn family away.

In the morning Mark came back. He crouched down to be on eye level with Clint, so he was looking up at Barney when he explained again, as if Barney was stupid, that their parents were dead. Barney said, “Duh,” and Clint grabbed the back of Barney’s shirt tight in one small hand and didn’t let go even when the social worker led them out to his car.

They were brought to a nice house in the suburbs. Barney hated it even before they got out of the car.

He ignored Clint, who was whispering urgent questions at him. Clint always asked too many questions. (Their mom had said Clint was special, not stupid, but their mom lied a lot.)

Clint had been too young to remember the last time they were taken away from their parents and put into foster care. They’d been separated then. Barney had escaped twice trying to get back to their parents. He’d ended up with skinned knees, hungry and scared. Clint had come back in clean clothes, toddling around their apartment and speaking in short but coherent sentences for the first time. When he looked back on it Barney was pretty sure that that was when his resentment had begun to build, like a collection of memories turning into kindling, with a spark hidden underneath, waiting to ignite.

The social worker had packed their clothes into garbage bags and they smelled like plastic when they unpacked them into dressers. Their new caretaker, a foster mom named fucking Betty, as in Crocker, as in stupid, folded them carefully while talking about the basketball court on the driveway and mashed potatoes and roast for dinner.

Clint sat on the bed a few feet away from her and stared at her hands as she folded their clothes faster than Barney thought was possible. He’d folded their clothes a few times, he wanted to remind Clint; he’d been a good caretaker sometimes, too.

Later that day Betty took them shopping for black suits. They fit perfectly and made Barney feel uncomfortable. He had to yell at Clint to get him to stop holding onto the back of Barney’s clothes like a sweaty, silent burr.

They wore the new suits to the funeral. Betty tore the tags off on the drive.

At least they would smell like the mall instead of plastic.

The funeral was short. Mom and Dad were buried side-by-side. Mom on the right and Dad on the left, just like they would have been sitting in the car they crashed. Barney wondered if that’s why the pastor did it that way. They had headstones that read, “Loving Mother,” “Loving Father.” Barney did not cry and he did not laugh but it was a close call on both counts.

Afterwards there was a reception. Barney stood next to Betty because she told him to, and she was in charge for now. Clint snuck away when she wasn’t looking. (He’d always been the best at hiding.)

Barney was stuck shaking hands with cops who’d played poker with his father and always ended up leaving their apartment with more money than they’d come with; an aunt and uncle who ran out the door after they shook his hand; people he didn’t know. All of them said they were sorry. Some of them said nice things about his mom and dad. Most of them were lying.

Eventually he spotted Clint up in the rafters, and he’d be damned if he had any idea how the little squirt had wormed his way up there. Clint had a stack of programs (Mom and Dad’s faces and dates of birth and death on them) and he folded them into paper airplanes.

Barney made subtle signals and Clint flew them at the people Barney hated the most and Barney didn’t resent him so much then, when he was grinning a grim little smile and doing what Barney said, like they were in this together instead of Barney being alone with Clint trailing along in his shadow, needing to be taken care of.

*

They stayed with Betty for three days. Clint’s bruises faded to ugly greens and yellow. The roaring in Barney’s ears that had started with the TV and radio when the cops came and called him Son and told him that his parents were dead, the roaring that had begun to fade like Clint’s bruise when the bodies were lowered into the earth, came back.

He heard distant screaming and watched Clint’s hands clenching into empty fists and helped Mark carry their rumpling, unfolding clothes, tossed back into their garbage bags, back to the car.

It was only ever supposed to be a short-term placement, Mark explained. Clint mouthed the words silently, carefully, short-term placement, and Barney said, “They couldn’t keep us forever, dumbass. Who’d want you anyway?” The petty satisfaction at hurting someone else didn’t last very long.

Clint clamped his mouth shut tight, but when Barney grabbed his hand, he gave his older brother a little smile. Clint had always been easy to hurt and quick to forgive.

*

They stayed at three homes before they were finally brought to the orphanage. Twice it was Barney’s fault that they got kicked out (he didn’t talk back, he yelled back, and he lashed out when cornered). He refused to eat food that he didn’t steal for himself in the middle of the night, he fought with the other kids, he swore like cursing was the only way he knew how to talk.

Once it was Clint’s fault. The kid started screaming in his sleep. Barney tried to wake him up, but Clint just cried when he did, so Barney let him scream, feeling tiny and alone, like his shadow wasn’t big enough for Clint to hide in anymore, like the roaring of the TV and radio and blood pounding in his ears wouldn’t ever be loud enough.

*

Eventually they were brought to the St. Ignatius Home for Orphaned Boys. They stayed there for five years. They were almost adopted by three different families in the first year, and almost adopted by two the year after that. Once the orphanage stopped trying to make them more attractive to prospective families, the social worker gave them new labels. Barney’s were worse—ADHD, escape risk, violent, while Clint was just plain old stupid.

Clint might still have been able to get out. He had a smile that made other people smile back at him, he was cute enough when he wanted to be. Cute enough that a lot of other kids called him fag until Clint and Barney beat them up.

The orphanage never wanted to separate siblings so Clint was stuck there right alongside Barney, sleeping on the lower bunk, waking them both up on the nights that he woke up screaming. Barney tried to explain to Mark that Clint should maybe be adopted on his own. Clint had learned how to talk the first time they were separated. Maybe he’d learn to read and write and stop getting yelled at all the time if he got taken away again.

Mark had thought Barney was trying to protect Clint; a sweet but meaningless gesture. Barney wasn’t sure whether or not that was true.

St. Ignatius was the patron saint of Catholic soldiers. Barney wasn’t Catholic, but Clint, who believed what their teachers told him even when he didn’t understand what they were saying, said he was a Catholic if anyone asked.

The day before they ran away for good, Barney prayed to St. Ignatius and made Clint pray too.

The night that they escaped, the building was silent. The cold hallways were empty, the yard lights were off to save money on the electric bill, the gate was slick with dew, but their hands were strong enough to get them up and over. Barney didn’t thank God afterwards but in the dark he heard Clint whisper prayers—it was hard to hear whispering, since Barney’s hearing was going, slowly but surely, just like Dad’s had—and the spark under the kindling of his resentment grew again.

*

It was called Carson’s Carnival of Travelling Wonders and it took them all night to get there, running as long as they could and panting as they walked in between.

Barney had heard the priests complaining about it, and Clint—whose memory, Barney had to admit, was better than Barney’s—figured out where it was from the landmarks the priests had mentioned.

They arrived as the sun was beginning to crest over the horizon. Barney did the talking, and Clint, their two garbage bags hanging heavy in his hands, followed Barney’s directions and looked pitiful. Carson, a large man with a beard and big scarred hands, grunted at them and left them alone.

The circus was packing up to move on to the next town, so they scrambled into the trailer that held the tent, curled up in its rolls of fabric, and fell asleep until they were out of Iowa and away from St. Ignatius and its cold, empty halls.

*

Clint, who no longer had to sit in classes, read books, or answer questions, fucking loved the circus. He followed the riggers up and down the ladders and support beams like a monkey, and quickly learned which riggers would laugh and which ones would push him off.

Barney kept his head down, did every chore he was strong enough to do, and—in every town they passed through—he thought about leaving. There were ‘Help Wanted’ signs in some windows. He’d wander away from Carson’s and talk to the owners. He didn’t have a resume, didn’t have references, didn’t have an address, but he said he was eighteen and hardworking and just needed a hand.

He could maybe get a GED, if he could find the time to study. He’d always been smart. A GED could take him somewhere. Make him a person instead of That poor Barton boy or The new runty roustabout.

Clint, while Barney was busy shoveling up elephant manure, caught the Swordsman’s attention when he was feeding the lions. Clint fed the lions by climbing on top of their cage, dropping food through to them until they’d let him pet them.

The Swordsman had been charmed and offered Clint a newer, better job. Barney got stuck on elephant duty.

Barney thought that maybe there was a finite amount of luck in the universe, and Clint had gotten all of it for both of them.

The Swordsman taught Clint how to fight, and Barney bit back his pride and accepted the offer when Clint asked if Barney could train too, and the Swordsman said yes.

Barney read stolen books in his precious free time, and when Clint sat still for long enough Barney talked about maybe taking them away again, moving on one more time, finding somewhere permanent. It was summer and Barney couldn’t afford shoes for both of them so Clint was digging his toes into the dirt, staring at the patterns he was making, and quietly said, “You know I’ll go if you go.”

The Swordsman taught them showmanship. How to deflect attention; how to draw the crowd away from what was really going on. Barney’d been doing that his whole life on a smaller scale and Clint caught on pretty fast. He was also quicker with the swords, braver with the tricks (they’d stick him spread-eagled on a spinning wooden wheel and Clint would nod, and breathe slowly, and stay still while the Swordsman threw daggers between Clint’s legs and arms and around his head).

Eventually the Swordsman said he only needed one boy for his act, and it wasn't going to be Barney. He said that Clint was smaller, quicker, and braver, so he’d be the one to stay. Clint apologized; he even tried to change the Swordsman’s mind. Barney was there the first time Clint got hit. Clint fell over backwards, head hitting the soft asphalt of the big tent.

“We gonna have a problem?” the Swordsman asked, looking them both over.

Barney said, “No, sir,” for both of them.

*

The two of them shared a bed now, a bunk in the roustabouts trailer. The other men called them The Barton Boys, but when Clint moved into the Swordsman’s trailer they started calling him Barney.

Clint came to him one night, slipping into Barney’s bed like he had when they were kids and scared, and said, “The Swordsman—he, uh—he gave me this book to read.” Clint pulled out an old leather-bound book that he’d wrapped in an old pillow case. “Do you think maybe, if you have time—”

“I’m not your teacher, retard,” Barney said.

No one had given Barney any presents in years, and Clint, who always had all the luck, was getting presents he couldn’t even use.

Clint didn’t get many bruises on his face once he officially joined the act but Barney was in the trailer once when he changed into his costume. Clint hadn’t ever looking that bad even when their dad had been on one of his week-long tears.

“If I still wanted to leave,” Barney said that night, tracking him down behind the ticket booth, “would you still follow?”

“You’re my family,” Clint replied, dark circles under his eyes. “Of course I would.”

*

It wasn’t too long after that that the Swordsman called Barney into his trailer. Clint was in the big tent practicing, so it was just the two of them. “You’re brother’s good,” the Swordsman said, “but he’s honest.”

“I’m not,” Barney said, with a twisted smile that felt old but familiar on his face. “What do you want me to do?”

The Swordsman had a plan, and Barney was in on it. The skills he’d been taught back when the Swordsman was deciding between the two of them came back to him; he was rusty, but he started stealing from the towns they passed through. He’d grab knick-knacks from all the stores with ‘Help Wanted’ signs, and books if he had the time.

They were on their way out of Philadelphia when the Swordsman made the call. Carson had been busy this city; something had gone wrong with their permits. (The permits were hidden behind a loose board in the Swordsman’s trailer.)

Carson hadn’t made any deposits yet for this city. Everything—all the cash, all the checks, everything, were in the safe in his office. They planned on keeping the money hidden in the Swordsman's trailer along with the permits until they were farther south and the law enforcement would be less involved.

Even with Barney's half of the take split two ways, it would get him and Clint pretty far. As long as he could get Clint (the honest brother) to come with, they'd be okay. (Even though he’d be dragging Clint along behind him again, a dead weight with tired eyes, still trying to hide in Barney’s shadow and clinging with sweaty hands to his threadbare shirts.)

Clint found them with the lock box half-open and said, “What you’re doing is wrong. Barney, you can’t—I don’t want to leave like this.”

Barney didn’t know what to say except, “Then you don’t have to leave.”

Clint went pale. “We're family," Clint said. "I’ll go too,” He put down his bow (his fingers still curled like the ghost of it remained in his hands; he had calluses now; he’d put work and love and energy into it in a way he’d never loved anything before). “But we don’t need to take the money. Put it back.”

“And if we don’t put it back?” The Swordsman's voice had a threat in it that made Barney shiver.

Clint shifted his attention and his stance Barney wondered when he got left out of the standoff.

“Then I’ll tell Carson,” Clint said.

Barney saw the Swordsman raise the bat that Carson always kept behind his desk. Saw the Swordsman swing. Once at Clint’s left leg. Once at his right.

Clint’s bow was still on the ground. He hadn’t even reached for it.

“I can’t stay here,” Barney said, not sure if it was an apology or an explanation, not sure what it meant that Clint’s left leg was twisted and that there was blood pooling under his right knee.

"We've got to leave now," the Swordsman said. "Kid fucked everything up."

Clint was already crying but Barney’d heard Clint talk while crying enough to understand him when he said, “Don’t worry. I won’t follow you anymore.”

Barney knew that Clint would be okay. He was the lucky one; he was the honest one. He knew that Clint would get back up and get that bow back in his hands and one day leave Barney behind in his dust. “You're like a cat,” Barney said, taking his half of the cash. “You’ve got a lot of lives left.”

He left with the Swordsman. He called 911 at the first payphone they came across and told them where Clint was, and to bring an ambulance.

It took him years to stop looking behind him to make sure Clint was keeping up.

*

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Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
daria234
Jan. 26th, 2014 07:44 pm (UTC)
Oh, break my heart why don't you...

I love this so much. The little heartbreaks and abandonments and hypocrisies they faced all just echoed the bigger ones. Barney's resentments and love are both realistic here. I love that Barney has a skewed view of Clint in some ways but in other ways is so entirely perceptive about him - quick to hurt but quick to forgive, for instance.

This is really painfully beautiful work.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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