It's the redhead that does it.
That's when Clint first starts to notice.
He's pretty sure he's the only one who does, mainly because he's the only one in the vicinity when she walks out of Coulson's office. None of the others tend to come down here.
Well, Natasha does, but she's the only other agent on the team. And Cap, sometimes, when there's a question about a mission that he wants to review. And Stark, when he's had his Wheaties and whiskey chaser and wants to see if he can get Coulson to threaten to stun him again. Clint isn't sure if it's foreplay or masochism, he isn't asking even if Stark would totally tell because that's really not something that he wants to spare brain space for.
Clint's knows the analogy/metaphor/whatever the fuck the proper term is got away from him, hopped a train to Des Moines and gave him the finger in the process, but whatever. None of the others come down here to hang out, is what he meant.
Clint thinks of it as hanging out, Coulson says that it's disturbing his paperwork. Clint thinks Coulson is full of shit because he doesn't throw Clint out of his office or stun him.
So, it's not like he's stalking Coulson or anything -- though now that he thinks about it that could be entertaining -- he's just passing by on his way to the control center to see if there's anything interesting happening anywhere. Between Bruce and Jane's science geekery, Thor's obsession with coffee and the machine that Stark turned into some kind of barista's wet dream on methamphetamine -- sans the barista because that thing makes coffee all by itself -- and Steve's head fucking ability to out-bluff everyone at poker, Clint needs a break.
He's not even going to think about how Darcy has attached herself to Natasha like she's the most amazing thing Darcy's ever seen. He's not going there because the last time he'd teased her about it, Natasha had given him the look. Normally Clint loves that look, but not when it's directed at him. He likes his testicles where they are, thank you very much, and, yeah, he's not going to even think about the fact that when Natasha left earlier -- Darcy trailing behind her -- there was a decidedly cat got the canary tilt to her lips.
Okay, maybe he might, but not while he's wearing civilian clothes and fundamentally lacking in body armour when Natasha is in the immediate vicinity. He's not stupid.
Clint wonders if this is what pure psychological shock feels like. He's done the physical version -- a nasty through and through, some bleeding out, it was pretty spectacular in retrospect, but shitty to experience -- and this feels similar but not. It's like he's taken a hit to the chest and frozen to the spot at the same time.
It's the redhead that does it.
The one in the elegant suit, with the legs that go all the way to the floor.
The woman who's currently sidled up to Coulson in the office doorway and adjusting his tie, while Coulson looks on with a frown (Clint's not really sure he's seen Coulson with an expression quite so marked in the entire time they've worked together, at least not when dealing with anyone outside of the Avengers.)
The same redhead that kisses Coulson on the cheek and saunters away on surprisingly sensible heels with a wink for Clint and a drawling, "Later, darlin'," for Coulson.
Clint tries to look nonchalant while his mental jaw hits the ground (she's stunning and he's nowhere near blind) and resists watching her leave, because, well, while some things are a wonder of nature and should be appreciated as such, he's too busy watching the way that Coulson's jaw is clenched. Clint thought Stark was the only one that could do that --
"Was there something you wanted, Agent Barton?" The bland, non-assuming look is back, wiping away the distinct expression that Coulson had, but Clint's never really been fooled by it. He knows the steel that underlies it.
Clint decides that going for his best aw, shucks, I'm just a brainless Midwest hick facade is the way to go. Hell, it's served him well in the past, normally right before he takes someone out at the knees. Plus, Coulson gets this tightening around his eyes when Clint does it. He's not sure if it's amusement or irritation, but it's definitely a reaction and it makes Clint feel like he's got some points on the board.
There may be a competition going on amongst the Avengers that that bastard Stark is winning by a mile, but Clint's been sworn to secrecy and will not divulge any information about it under torture or Director Fury's glare -- which, really, are pretty much the same thing.
"Just on my way to Operations, sir." Clint can do formal with the best of them when needed, and if he can be bothered, most of the time he just doesn't see the point.
(And, one, two, three, bingo. Damn shame there's no one else around to confirm that point.)
"I see." Coulson tilts his head slightly to one side and Clint can feel an itch at the back of his neck as if he's been targeted. He trusts that instinct; it's saved him more than a few times, left the people looking for him with only an empty nest because that itch had made him shift position. He's heard stories about the gas station incident -- from Stark, of all people, who apparently thinks it's hilarious -- Clint's never really noticed before that such a seemingly simple gesture could hold such masked threat.
Clint knows there are words like anti-authoritative, antisocial personality disorder and increased risk taking behaviour in his jacket -- he's had them quoted to him on more than one occasion, but in the end, they are the same things that make him so good at his job -- so he's playing to his strengths when he smirks at Coulson and asks, "So, girlfriend?"
Clint doesn't look away as Coulson raises his eyebrows. He doesn't even break a sweat as the silence lengthens. This is what he does, still, silent and lethal and not willing to back down unless he wants to.
"Barton," Coulson slips back into bland and amused like putting on his suit jacket and Clint mentally steps down a notch. "Don't you have something better to do?"
Sometimes, retreat is the better part of valor and Clint lazily salutes Coulson with a smirk and two fingers and starts walking again. "Yes, Agent Coulson, sir."
Clint can't stop thinking about the whole thing. They finally get some downtime on the whole let's save the world thing and Clint is stuck for things to entertain himself. He's more than familiar with the hurry up and wait mentality of military organisations and S.H.I.E.L.D really isn't that different from any of them. The problem is that it's also the time when he gets into the most trouble because he tends to get lost in his own head instead of concentrating on what's happening around him.
It's so much easier to focus when he has a mission. There's a calmness to letting most thought go, to concentrating only on body, on sight, to feel the trigger or string under his finger, hypervigilant and still. It's peaceful, but there's only so much time focusing on training targets that Clint can stand. And then there's item 3 on the standing orders of 47 things the Avenger team members are not allowed to do in the mansion, on the helicarrier or any place that may involve collateral damage to S.H.I.E.L.D or civilian property or personnel under: 1) Make Dr Banner lose his temper because they're bored, and 2) Create new isotopes, elements, Einstein-Rosen bridges or explosives in the kitchen. Who the hell would have thought that Canadian Prime Minister would take it so personally and that Coulson would come down so hard. It wasn't like Clint had hurt anyone -- the PM pissing himself doesn't count.
But Clint's itching in his own skin, bored, still kind of flummoxed and intrigued, and that idea of stalking Coulson has gained a whole new shine. Clint likes mysteries and the idea of the beige enigma that is Agent Phil Coulson having a life outside of S.H.I.E.L.D is really screwing with his head.
Also, Clint knows that he's been hanging around the scientists too much when the sentence finding the evidence to support his theory comes frighteningly easily to mind.
Besides, if anyone finds out about this he can explain it away as training because, seriously, if he can get the drop on Coulson then he deserves a medal to add to the collection he already has. (They're stored in an old ammo case in the back of his closet and he doesn't like to talk about them because most of them are like the greatest hits versions of the times he fucked up. And there's more metal in there than the clusters on his Purple Heart.)
So, Clint does his thing. Finding the best vantage point, sometimes even lurking in plain sight. Taking the time to watch and wait.
He's multi-talented and his job is not all cloak and dagger sniper nests and seemingly impossible shots from a mile away. There's much more to his training than just the marksmanship. It's one of the reasons that he can fight Natasha to a standstill one time out of three. Of course, she wipes the floor with him the other two, but that's her main skill set, so he's not bitter.
But, anyway, Coulson.
Or, more specifically, Coulson's harem.
The more that Clint looks -- well, watches, maybe even stalks -- the more he notices the way that Coulson works, the way that there's an irregular trickle of stunning women flowing in and out of Coulson's life.
Women outside of the S.H.I.E.L.D rank and file, who occasionally have access to the inner sanctum (i.e. Coulson's office) and even to the helicarrier. From what Clint's been able to work out they may (or may not) be employees of S.H.I.E.L.D's sister agencies, but that's about all he can find. Details are slim at best about those particular women.
Then there's the women that visit Coulson at his home the rare times that Coulson leaves the office. Not many, less than a handful, really, but still there.
It's an eye-opener for Clint. He's used to Coulson and his black suit of armor -- even when it's covered in blood and dirt -- tie girded around his neck and armed with his standard issue sidearm.
It alters Clint's worldview to see the man behind the bland facade.
Clint's so used to seeing the agent, used to dealing with the colleague whose skills he respects and -- maybe -- he even likes the man a little.
It's another thing to learn that Coulson has a preference for Thai food, swing music and likes to walk around barefoot.
Frankly, it kind of creeps Clint out to know that stuff, but he likes that he's the only one that does.
When he tells Natasha about it she looks at him like he's crazy, but he has the photos to prove it.
Clint thinks she's put out that he has them, because she's a little startled when he lays them out in front of her with a muttered, "I'm hurt, just so you know, that you obviously think that I can't do some simple surveillance. A camera's a lot easier than a rifle, less variables to account for."
"You're surprisingly good," Natasha replies with a shrug, tapping one of the photos. "Good composition, nice framing. Where were you? Up a telephone pole?"
"Tree, actually." It had been a surprisingly comfortable perch for all it was about forty feet in the air.
"Hey, campers." Darcy comes in from the kitchen and leans over Natasha's shoulder with a coffee in one hand. "What's with the snaps?"
"Coulson's got a girlfriend." Natasha hands off one of the photos. "Or more than one."
"Huh," Darcy says around her cup. "Well, he is kind of hot for an old guy. Good for him. Hey, Jane! Come see Coulson's women."
Jane's "what?" comes through the door before she does. "What women?"
"These women." Darcy holds up some of the photos. "Clint brought some stalkery show and tell for us."
"Stalking is bad." Thor chimes in and Clint really should have known better than to do this is one of the common areas of the Mansion. "Jane has told me that, despite the current fad of young adult fiction that purports to be liberating for young girls, breaking into your romantic interest's house to watch them sleep unknowing of your presence is, in fact, anti-feminist, illegal in most countries of this world and downright skeezy. Also, I do not believe that the Son of Coul would approve."
Clint can hear the quote marks around Thor's statement and it almost makes him smile. Jane and Darcy's chorused responses do make him smile.
"He's, like, a spy or something." Darcy adds. "Doesn't that mean that his personal life is never personal. Someone is always watching and all that?"
Clint loses the smile and wants to set the record straight, but Stark always chooses the right -- or wrong -- moment to appear and Clint knows that this whole thing has broken loose and is going to end badly. He just knows it.
"Hey, kids.You're having a party and no one invited me?" Stark grabs one of the photos and gasps in shock. "And you have pretty things. I like pretty things. I'm hurt. Who is the lovely lady, sorry, ladies? Is someone starting a collection?"
"Coulson, apparently." Natasha comments, twitching the photos from his fingers.
"Really?" Stark hums. "I never knew he had it in him."
Clint heads to the wet bar in the corner. It's the only way that he's going to survive this. He's on his second drink when Steve comes in and he's come to the conclusion that the people in this room are some of the scariest on the planet and it has nothing to do with the powers or lack there of. It's their brains and their sheer capacity for gossip that's terrifying him. Between Jane's scientific approach, Stark's lateral thinking and Natasha attacking it like a mission, there are now whiteboards next to the dining table and pens and diagrams and fluorescent fucking Post-Its. It's horrifying.
"What's going on?" Steve's at his shoulder looking faintly shell-shocked. "Or do I not want to know?"
Stark is waving him over with an demanding, "Barton, come give us the timeline for the photos. We want to get them in order."
"I think I've created a monster." Clint takes another swallow of his drink. Sure, he wanted to know, he was curious, but this is weirding him out. "Maybe you can help me stop them?"
Steve blinks, looks at Clint and then looks back at the group gathered around the whiteboards. "I think I'd rather throw myself on a live grenade. What are they doing, anyway?"
"I thought that maybe Coulson had a girlfriend and I may have been following him around for the last couple of months to confirm." Clint has to fight the flinch that makes his shoulders want to catch up to his ears. "And took pictures as proof."
"Clint." God, Steve's disapproval is like a weight. It's such a pain in the ass being on the same team as someone so damn honorable. That's the one thing that Clint's never had to deal with before. It's not something he knows how to deal with. It's a pretty damn steep learning curve that starts with Steve looking at him exactly like he is now. He's physically older than Steve (no one, aside from Thor, is chronologically older), so he shouldn't feel like a kid when Steve looks at him like that.
"I know, okay." Clint mutters. "I know now, so don't give me the Steve Rogers 'I'm so disappointed in you' talk."
"I'm not going to, I think you're doing a good enough job yourself." Steve bumps his shoulder against Clint's and adds, "Did I ever tell you the fondue story?"
"Now, I'm pretty sure I don't want to know." Clint replies.
"Oh," The sound of Bruce's voice brings all their heads up. He's standing in the doorway, rubbing his arm in that slightly dazed way that says he's been up for about thirty hours straight and this is the first time he's seen natural light for the length of it. "Was there a meeting I didn't know about?"
"Coulson has a harem and Clint took pictures." Darcy bounces up from her chair and proceeds to drag Bruce towards it, sit him down and give him a sandwich. "You should eat that."
Clint feels that it's unfair to assign this all to him. Sure he took the pictures, but the way that Darcy is waving her hands around explaining everything, while Jane and Natasha stick the photos to the whiteboards, just proves that this little shindig is now all theirs. He just brought the information to their notice. They're the ones that are running with it.
Whiteboards, for godsake.
"She's a courier." Bruce comments, the worlds muffled by his sandwich.
"What?" Tony looks at him.
Bruce points at one of the pictures. "She's a courier. She's picked up and delivered things for me before."
"Actually --" Clint has the sudden wish that he had the power to turn invisible or melt into the floor or something. A quick glance around confirms that everyone else is probably having the same thought -- except maybe Bruce, who's still munching on his sandwich -- as Coulson continues, "Dr Banner is partly correct. The woman in those photos is not just a courier, the woman in those photos is the Courier."
The silence lengthens painfully as Coulson carefully removes each one of the photos from the boards. When he's gathered all of them, he -- just as carefully -- taps them on the table to line up the edges.
"S.H.I.E.L.D only has one courier who can, apparently, change her appearance?" Jane looks around as if they have the answers, but Clint feels as clueless as she looks.
"No, Dr Foster. S.H.I.E.L.D does not have only one courier. As a matter of fact, we don't have any couriers on staff." Coulson lays the photos down on the table in a neat pile and Clint can feel it like nails in his coffin. "Mr. Gavin, like Mr. Stark, is a consultant, an individual with specialised skills that S.H.I.E.L.D makes use of as the need arises."
"But she's a woman." Thor points out.
"There was an accident with his powers. He doesn't like to talk about it." Coulson states, one finger resting on top of the photos.
"Ah. I did not realise that there were those in this realm that shared Loki's gift. Did he also give birth to a horse?" Clint isn't the only one that does a double-take at that -- definitely something that needs to be discussed at a later time -- even Coulson has as much of a look of consternation on his face as he ever shows.
"Your brother was pregnant?" Stark looks like he's about to explode, caught somewhere between disbelief and hysterical laughter.
Coulson looks around with a disapproving look, before his gaze lands on Clint. "I'm sure all of you have something else that you should be doing. Please feel free to pursue it while I speak with Agent Barton."
Clint fields more than one sympathetic look as they flee like rats leaving a sinking ship. Though it does take Thor and Steve together to carry Stark out of the room, complaining loudly all the while about it being a perfect popcorn moment. Clint wishes that his own extraction from this situation was as easy.
Clint's had more than his share of dressing downs, but none of them have felt like this. None of them have ever made him want to crawl into a hole and hide even before the first words are said.
"Agent Barton, I thought you were smarter than this. I find myself disappointed." Clint can feel the anger and disapproval radiating off Coulson in waves. Coulson has always felt warm to Clint before, but now he feels like ice. Frozen and hard and Clint wants the old Coulson back. "I don't think I can sanction any kind of relationship with someone who believes that novels of the tween fiction genre are some kind of seduction guide."
Clint feels like he's taken a bullet and is in that hung moment when the initial shock means it doesn't hurt. But he knows that when he looks down the blood will be flowing and the pain will crash into him like a hammer.
"In other words, Barton, if you stalk me again I will take away every long range projectile weapon that you own and personally ensure that you will never be able beg, borrow or steal one ever again." Coulson's voice doesn't even deviate from calm and collected, yet layered over steel. "Are we clear?"
Clint can't do anything more than swallow as Coulson looks him up and down and then walks away.
And Clint's never felt so cold before.
It's not until a week later that Clint feels like doing anything more than ripping off the head of anyone who comes near him -- he's not Bruce, who totally could. Steve could probably do it as well, but wouldn't because it would be dishonourable or something. Thor would use his hammer.
But, yeah, Clint doesn't have super strength or super anything really, he's just a guy with great vision and steady hands, so instead he blows up four target dummies (arrow, different arrow, RPG, grenade launcher) and shreds a few more with bullets, arrows and flechettes to deal with his issues. He's pretty sure the team knows why he's causing mindless mayhem to inanimate objects, but they steer clear -- for which he's grateful -- only leaving a sweet miniature crossbow out to cheer him up. It almost makes Clint want to hug Stark for a second, but he shakes it off.
He doesn't know when it happened, is not really even sure how it happened (it was probably somewhere during the stalking phase which, really, now that he looks back on it, was not his best idea even if it's what he does), but now he feels adrift. There's something missing that he never realised was so important to him until it was gone.
He's seen more of Coulson's back in the last seven days than ever before. He used to love watching that man walk away, but now it just makes his chest ache because Clint knows that no matter what he does, there'll be nothing more there than a politely pleasant look and everything bland. Clint didn't realise how much he enjoyed their interplay -- almost depended on it to keep him steady -- until it dried up.
Clint's not a big fan of feelings. Especially the softer ones because you always end up being disappointed, being left grieving and alone. But somehow they crept up on him -- the team, fucking Coulson, even Fury -- and king hit him while he wasn't looking.
It hurts to lose one of them.
When he almost misses his next shot -- centre mass when he'd been aiming for a wing clip -- he almost throws his bow across the test range, but Clint knows better even though he might want to. The tech next to him looks up from his tablet when Clint lets loose with a string of invective. "Not you, that was all fucking me."
"Take it." Clint holds out the bow and unslings the quiver while the tech -- Simmons, he thinks -- jumps to comply.
"Agent Barton?" Simmons asks, as he lays them both on the table.
"We'll pick it up tomorrow." Clint takes off his arm guard and rubs at his wrist. It's not the guy's fault. Clint's the one that's off. He needs to find his centre again and that means he's going to have to fucking deal with all these feelings.
It's enough to make a grown man cry.
Or try and drown himself in booze and flesh. Which is always a valid option in circumstances like this, Clint thinks. Stark would be all over that if a wingman's needed, but Clint's sure that's not a good idea. Clint's a morose drunk who has a tendency to say shit that comes back to haunt him a later date. Natasha has more than enough on him -- it's offset by what he knows about her, so he's mostly safe -- but Stark? Not someone to show weakness to.
It's bad enough that he's having to deal with all this shit, but seeing Coulson coming the other way as he heads to the locker room to drop his gear is just fucking icing. Especially with the way that his heart beats that little bit faster when Coulson nods at him as he walks past.
Clint's torn between the tiniest hope and kicking himself for believing it possible. Was there a hint of those lines at the corner of Coulson's eyes that showed he was amused? Was there that flickering again of something in the man's eyes, that light that said to Clint that Coulson saw him, not some nameless agent for him to assign tasks? Was he turning into a teenager with his first crush? Maybe he should just shoot himself and be done with it because the next step will be Carpenters songs and public humiliation.
The to-ing and fro-ing keeps him distracted until he slams the door of his locker with his hand -- hit it right and it just pops open -- but everything grinds to a halt when he notices the book carefully placed on the bottom shelf, corners square and perfectly aligned with the walls of his locker.
Clint blinks, not sure he's seeing what he's seeing, but the smile that's actually starting to hurt his cheeks is a pretty sure sign that his brain is just being slow on the uptake. He tosses his gear to one side and picks it up.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Art of Seduction.
And it looks like the most relevant sections have been flagged.
Maybe's there hope for him yet.