Clint isn't stupid; that is to say, he's missed a lot of formal education so he's pretty sure he doesn't know a thing about American History or Biological Sciences or anything after fractions. But he isn't stupid and he's had a lot of time to learn a hell of a lot of things. So now, halfway through his life and five years older than his father ever got to, Clint knows that when he wants something -- really, really wants it -- everything will be far better if he never tries to take it.
He doesn't go so far as to ask, doesn't want to risk hearing yes and finding himself fighting with his own desire to risk temptation. Because Clint isn't stupid and he is willing to take a lot of unnecessary risks, but cleaving his heart in two just to entertain someone else isn't high on his list of hobbies. He knows how to be subtle, and he learned at his father's feet how to figure out a person's mood without ever letting them know you're in the room. He can figure out if someone wants a fun tumble and when someone is out husband-hunting. It's easy to say yes when no one cares the next day.
The trick is to smile. Clint learned that one when he was five, meeting his teacher for the first time ever and being asked -- he remembers clearly -- about the scar on his chin. He didn't have to be told to know that his father, standing right behind him, had certain opinions about what his answer ought to be. Clint had smiled at his teacher, tall and blonde and impossibly gorgeous, and told her about being a superhero and climbing the world's tallest tree and wrestling the evil crime lords to the ground. She had him draw a picture of it and Clint remembers the unhappy look on his mother's face when he'd asked her to put it on the fridge.
Smiling is a trick that has served him well throughout his life, that has let him walk away from everything, time and again, made him able to turn the corner and just keep going. People see what they want to see, and Clint lets them fill in the edges with whatever they want. He smiles and they laugh and sometimes they walk away and sometimes they run and sometimes they just stop. Clint keeps going.
And so Clint smiles when he sees Coulson, and he makes jokes over the comms and he listens to the way Coulson's tone dips when he's tired and how it grows sharp when he thinks Clint is about to do something incredibly stupid. Clint watches from his perches, how Coulson's shoulders never relax when he's working, how underlings come and go, fetching and bringing and jumping in response to Coulson's barked commands. Clint spices them up sometimes, interjecting here and there with just enough to make Coulson roll his eyes but not so much that Coulson actually tells him to stop.
Well. Tell him to stop and mean it. Clint's heard Coulson tell him to stop messing around a million times, but never spoken in exactly those words. There is always enough of a question in his voice, always enough wiggle room in his words that Clint can press on an innocent look, cast a wondering edge to his tone and say he didn't realise that had been an order, sir. And Clint smiles afterwards, and sometimes Coulson cracks a grin and sometimes Coulson talks about trading him to the Richards in exchange for an automatic coffee maker.
Clint always makes sure to laugh when it's expected and he pokes and pulls and makes an annoying pest of himself, but he isn't stupid. He knows this won't last and he knows that sooner or later S.H.I.E.L.D. will cancel his contract and he'll walk away. Clint won't hold any grudges, he knows, and he makes sure Fury is tempted to just shoot him as he leaves, simply on principle. Not because he likes being shot, but just knowing he pushed Fury that far would be an accomplishment.
There have been times -- too many, Clint thinks, because he wasn't always quite so cynical -- when he didn't want to leave. People he wanted to hang onto, places he thought he might belong. He's come to understand that there isn't, not really, just places he stays and people he knows, and it's easier if he enjoys it when it's there and walks away when it's gone. He lets everyone set their own pace, make up their own rules. He's kissed any number of people, some who thought they'd make him stay forever and some who didn't even want to know his name. He always lets them decide, for all that he smiles and flirts and makes it entirely clear that he's willing if they want him.
And when his night in someone's bed leads to shouting and arguing and someone realising that, in fact, it wasn't Clint he wanted all along, then there's nothing really lost. It took Steve weeks to stop scowling at him and for Tony to stop apologising and Clint just moved out of the mansion for two months before Natasha told him it was safe to come back. Clint had been ready to walk away and he's still sometimes surprised that he didn't. But he went back and now Tony keeps giving him brand new trick arrows to play with and if Steve is always standing there, not glowering but making it clear it's okay then Clint -- well. He just smiles.
Because Tony isn't what he wanted, either, but Clint has learned so many times that getting what you want only makes it harder to lose. He isn't stupid. He knows exactly what he wants. He won't let himself have it, and he sometimes has to shut off his comm and breathe slowly, rest his fingers lightly on the string of his bow and force himself not to think about anything for a moment before he can switch on his comm again and find out if Coulson is yelling at him for going silent.
Which is ironic, really, but Clint is careful not to let these moments interfere with his job and sometimes he leaves the earpiece on and listens when he just wants to shut himself away and that makes it impossibly harder, but he doesn't have to bite his tongue when his mike is off. So many words tumbling around the back of his throat and sometimes he just wants to say it, say something, say anything, but he's learned his lessons the hard way and the easy way and every way in between.
Soon Coulson simply won't be there, and Clint will have to keep going. It will be easier if he never knows all the things he wishes for and accepts those things he can take with him when he goes. He keeps the sound of Coulson's voice when he snaps out orders, and he listens for the dry, amused tone when Clint is being particularly witty and there's nothing else to break up the monotony of waiting. He watches for the flash of a smile in his scope, lets his gaze linger where-ever he wants, because he has the thousand yard stare and Coulson only has a freakish intuition about what Clint might or might not be up to.
Clint laughs when Coulson cottons on and tells him to stop, and Clint smiles when Coulson shows up in the field wearing a particularly well-fitted suit. He lets his fingers wander the limbs of his bow as he settles himself in a nest, thinking how responsive Coulson might be. He glances over when they're tucked into their seats, coming and going from any manner of missions and Clint doesn't stare long enough to be noticed, but captures images and enjoys them when he can.
And sometimes it is the hardest thing he's ever done, to turn and walk away again, when all he wants is to reach. Sometimes he finds himself thinking, it cannot be the same way each time and he hears a child's voice in the back of his mind, saying that maybe, sometimes, it could be all right. Clint knows not to listen but he hears all the same, and more than once he's seen his hand come up and felt his mouth drop open and he knows the words are on his tongue, halfway out and past his teeth and he has to swallow, clench his fists and force the smile onto his face and pretend, as hard as he can, there is nothing there.
Clint isn't stupid; it only hurts more if he lets himself hope, so he spends more time in the loftiest parts of the world he can find, watching from a safe distance and listening and feeling and loving when no one can see. He prides himself on a lot of things, but knowing when to stop himself is at the top of the list.
Which is why he doesn't understand when fingers catch his. Clint looks over and Phil is laughing, softly, and smiling at him in a pale imitation of the grin Clint threw at him hours ago. Clint can't make himself move and he can't make himself smile and Phil just pushes himself closer, catches Clint's face with one hand on Clint's cheek and whispers words that Clint cannot seem to hear.
"You don't have to believe me now," Phil says, and he leans in and Clint freezes, because somewhere he's lost the thread of his thoughts and all he can feel is the pounding of his heart. He should say no, because this will only hurt more when he loses, but right now Phil's fingers are tightening on his arm and tugging him in and there's a note in Agent Coulson's voice that Clint has never heard before as he says in Clint's ear, "It's time to stop walking away."