Clint is seventeen years, four months, and 13 days old when Pepper "discovers" him. He's been working at the convenience store under one of his various identities (William Brandt, 22, musician) when she walks in the dingy little gas station, looking wholly out of place, chattering away on a cell phone. Clint tries not to stare, but she's gorgeous - tall and willowy, with an upper class gait.
"Tony," she's saying into the phone, as if her life could not possibly be harder than it is. "Tony, it is not my fault Brady left, okay? Yes, I know I set him up with that Argentinean, but I had no idea they'd run away together! Shut up. No. No. Just shut up." Clint tries not to crack a smile as she sighs heavily and deposits her giant foam cup of soda and baked chips on the counter. "We will find someone else to walk in the show. Will you please calm down? Yes. Thank you. Goodbye."
She snaps her phone closed with a decisive click and scowls as she digs through her purse. Clint clears his throat quietly, trying to hide the amusement in his voice.
"Will this be all for you?" he asks, ringing out her purchases.
"Yeah," she replies. When she looks up to hand Clint her card, she stops, examining his face for a moment. Clint doesn't fidget, but he wants to. It's like she can see right through him - into his soul, seeing all of his indiscretions, his dirty past, his heartbreak and sorrow and-
"Have you ever modeled?"
Clint cocks his head a bit, taking in her well manicured appearance, heels far too high to be comfortable, and decides she probably isn't going to trick him into gay porn. Not that he wouldn't consider it, but he'd like to be informed of it up front.
"No, not really," he replies, shrugging.
Her gaze is almost unsettling for a few moments before she grins. It lights up her whole face, softens the lines.
"I'm assistant to Tony Stark of Stark Industries Designs. Our runway model just quit rather unexpectedly and we're looking for someone to replace him. Interested?"
It's nearly a non-sequitur and Clint's knocked a bit off his feet for a moment as he considers her offer.
"I've never modeled before, let alone walked a runway," he replies slowly, not sure what to do with this new information.
Tony Stark? The man's easily worth billions. His father, Howard, was at the forefront of fashion design, working with Coco Chanel before her death and building a multi-nation company. Word on the street (though not that Clint really kept up with such things, not really) was that Tony was trying to make a name for himself in the industry, starting from the ground up. It was an interesting proposition. He wouldn't have to work at this shithole of a gas station anymore.
"I'm not asking you to build a rocket to the moon here….William," she says, reaching out to tap his name tag. "Just saying you're pretty enough to pull off walking down a walkway, scowl, and walk back. Do you think you can handle that or is that too complicated for you?"
She's giving him the Disney eyes, but her tone is decidedly mocking. Clint kinda likes this woman. They stare each other down a moment longer before he holds out his hand.
"It's Clint, actually. Clint Barton."
She takes it with a smile. "Pepper Potts. Welcome to the team, Mr. Barton."
Runway shows are a hive of activity. Natasha's sitting primly on her chair next to Clint, Pepper putting the finishing touches on her smoky eye makeup. Clint is taken aback, not for the first time, by Natasha's natural grace. She'd told him once she'd danced ballet at home in Russia.
Of course, that was right after she'd kicked his ass in the boxing ring and just before they'd first slept together.
Clint flips another page in his copy of the most recent issue of Green Arrow and chuckles as Tony flies by, a flurry of feathers and sparkles. It's Fashion Week in New York and everyone who matters is here to judge and be judged. Clint's been steadfastly ignoring the gnawing anxiety in the pit of his stomach all day. He adjusts the silvery gray jacket Tony had thrust at him earlier and smooths out an imaginary crease in his linen pants. Tony is an amazing artist, not just when it comes to fashion, but in everything he does. Clint has no doubt he'll be fine. But try telling Tony that today and you'll get hit. Hard.
That doesn't mean Clint can resist a little poke at his expense.
"Your boyfriend here?" he says as Tony hurries by again, throwing a pair of sunglasses in Clint's lap.
Tony halts his action, turning on his heel and looking pissed. Clint briefly considers that he may have gone too far, but considering he's wearing Tony's design and it's less than 5 minutes before he has to go strut his stuff, he's not too worried about whatever empty threats Tony's about to throw his way.
"He is NOT my boyfriend," Tony spits, clenching his fist around what Clint suspects are black ostrich feathers (again? he thinks).
"Tony's right," Natasha says mildly, smoothing her hands over the cream colored bodice of her dress.
"Thank you, Tasha." Tony lifts his chin defiantly and goes to move away when Natasha pipes up again.
"He just wants in Steve's pants and has yet to succeed."
Tony freezes and drops his head to his chest.
"I hate you both."
Natasha holds her fist out to Clint for a small bump as Tony slinks away. Pepper just laughs and dabs on lipgloss.
Minutes later, Clint and Natasha are lining up for their turn in the parade of good-looking people in expensive clothes. It's something they've done a million times before, but the butterflies never really go away.
Tony is hovering, making adjustments here and there as they take their turns down the catwalk. His eyes are wild, his hair more disheveled than usual when Clint makes his way to him. Clint pats his arm calmly and tries to smile.
"Just," Tony starts, unbuttoning and then rebuttoning Clint's jacket. "Just fucking shine, okay? FUCKING. SHINE."
Natasha's still glaring as she steps out onto the lighted walk. Sometimes Clint really does love his job.
He was sure Pepper was just fucking with him when she'd asked if he wanted to go to Paris for Fashion Week. Clint is 22 years old; his only experience out of the country was to bum around Mexico for a few months in his mid-teens. There is nothing he wants to do more than go to Paris for a few weeks. It's not an easy feat to hold in his excitement when Pepper asks, but she's more intuitive than she should be; he should be annoyed by her knowing smile, but then he remembers Paris and suddenly, he can't find himself to care. He's never imagined he would make it to this point in his life.
The plane is private, which isn't exactly what Clint had expected, but whatever. Tony coming from a long line of exceedingly rich assholes finally pays off, Clint thinks. At least he won't have to worry about not having enough leg room. There's a freaking couch on this plane. Clint would bet good money there's a bed somewhere, too, but he doesn't want to seem like a rube.
"Ever been to Paris?" he asks the man sitting across from him. He's older than Clint - maybe late 30's, early 40's - and wearing an incredibly well tailored suit that Clint couldn't afford in three lifetimes. He's been in the industry long enough to tell from a few feet away that the suit is of the highest quality - it must feel like a cloud against the man's skin.
The man looks up from his paper and smiles mildly at him, as if placating his silly question. Clint almost expects him not to reply.
"Once," the man says quietly, though Clint suspects that may just be how he speaks. "About twenty years ago. With my first wife."
A curl of disappointment burrows into Clint's chest and he pushes it down, deep enough to ignore for now. He just cocks his lips into a half-smile and replies, "first wife? Of how many there, cowboy?"
"Three." The man looks down at his paper again, conversation seemingly over. Disappointed, Clint goes back to looking out the window, the vast ocean beneath them going on forever.
"And it's Coulson." Clint's head snaps over to the man, still staring intently at his paper, and smiles again.
"Is that your first name or your last there, Tex?" he asks, clearly antagonizing at this point.
Coulson rolls his eyes slightly as he looks up, directly into Clint's eyes. "Phil Coulson."
Cringing slightly, Clint turns his gaze back to the beckoning Atlantic. "Good call sticking with the last-name-only schtick."
They spend the rest of the flight in relative silence, but it's not uncomfortable. Bruce informs him later, as he's fitting Clint for yet another be-feathered suit jacket (Tony really needs to slow down on the feathers, Clint thinks. There are only so many birds on this planet), that Coulson is part of Tony's new security team. Apparently they've become rather high profile in the last few years. Clint would be annoyed, but a) that's awesome and b) he could think of a worse fate than having Coulson hover around all the time.
"I cannot believe you're making me wear this." Clint scowls down at himself - bare-chested, black fitted trousers with just a hint of shine….and fucking wings. Actual wings are strapped to his back like he's a goddamn Christmas angel. Though given that they're black and weigh about 800 pounds, maybe a Tim Burton version of a Christmas angel.
Pepper smooths a line of black dust down his chest, smirking all the while.
"Traitor," Clint murmurs under his breath.
"The wings are essential to my vision, my young Hawkish friend," Tony replies, not at all daunted by Clint's patented death glare. He's spent years working on that glare, dammit. Tony could at least pretend to quake in fear.
"Does your vision include me punching you in the nose repeatedly or…."
Clint trails off as Natasha rounds the corner. Her dress would be beautiful on anyone, but on her, Clint doesn't know that there are words to describe her beauty. Floor length, a light crystal blue that brings out her eyes, the dress was practically designed just for Nat. It's times like this that Clint can almost excuse Tony's annoying habits (like dressing him up like a fucking BIRD), because he really is a genius. Not that Clint would ever tell him that - Tony's ego is inflated quite enough, thank you very much.
Natasha does a graceful little turn as she approaches Clint and Tony, the feathers at the hem of the dress making a lovely swishing sound across the floor. Bruce materializes from nowhere and drops to one knee, making adjustments to the delicate beading dotting the edges.
"You look…" Clint's brain shorts out a bit as he watches Tony sit on the floor next to Bruce, making final adjustments. Natasha's back is open, creamy porcelain skin shaping the dress beautifully. Sometimes Clint wishes they could have made it work, but in the end, they work so much better as best friends. He doesn't want to strangle her at all times this way. And he still gets to ogle her. Win-win situation.
"I know," Natasha says with a little flick of her hair. She's blushing slightly, but Clint knows better than to call her on it.
They're making the final adjustments to the dress when Coulson comes over, spine rigid, all business.
"There's a Mr. Rogers here to see you, Mr. Stark," he says in that quiet, unassuming way of his.
"Aww, you didn't just come over here to check out my ass?" Clint teases, waggling his eyebrows.
Coulson turns to him and raises one eyebrow. "I don't mix business and pleasure, Barton."
Clint tries not to feel disappointed at that one and fails epically. He chooses to take the high road and sticks his tongue out at Coulson as he turns back to Tony.
"Oh yeah, definitely," Tony says, equal parts flustered and distracted. "Send him in. Please. Yeah. Does my hair…? You know what, never mind. Just send him in. Yeah."
Clint snorts a little laugh at Tony as Coulson turns to walk away, but the sound is caught in his throat as Coulson leans close as he passes.
"I'm more of an arm man, myself," Coulson murmurs before wandering away, back to his post.
Steve comes in and takes Tony's attention away, snapping pictures of the models and designers at work, as Clint blushes and grabs himself a drink of water. Natasha just does that annoying little half-smile, clearly reveling in Clint's pain. Clint hates her a little sometimes.
Clint spends the rest of the pre-show attempting to avoid Coulson's gaze, but that familiar itch between his shoulders tells him Coulson's watching. If he finds himself flexing his biceps a little more than usual as he heads out to the catwalk, he can hardly be blamed for that.
It's his 23rd birthday and Clint wants to do something special. They're at home for once, a break from the fashion shows and photo shoots that proliferate in the early spring. Clint missed the city while they were away - the hustle and bustle of New York is unmatched by any other city on the planet. London comes close, but it just feels so foreign. There's something comforting about being in his tiny matchbox-sized apartment for the first time in weeks.
Clint never thought he'd make it this far. If you'd told him at 16 that he would one day be 23 years old, he would have laughed in your face. But as he clenches Natasha's hands between his own, chest pressed against the vinyl tattooing bench, Clint thinks his life isn't half-bad.
The arrow on his left shoulder is black, about two inches long - a small reminder that his life is always moving forward at breakneck speeds.
Tony scowls at the tattoo when Clint strolls into the studio in a tank top.
"You know that's going to effectively ruin every design I have, right?" He's already at his desk, erasing and sketching, muttering about how incompetent models are.
"So dramatic, Stark," Clint replies, stretching his arms over his head, still feeling the burn in his shoulder where the tattoo is almost done healing. "They make cover-up, you know?"
"Yeah, cover-up that will end up on my designs. I'd rather just work around it," Tony replies.
Clint hears Coulson and Bruce snort laughter at the same time and tries to suppress the smile threatening to break across his face.
"Always the hard way with you," Pepper says as she clicks her way into the room, heels higher than any woman should be able to wear comfortably.
"And you love it," Tony retorts. He knocks back half the coffee Pepper hands him before hunching back over his design table.
"I like it," Pepper says to Clint conspiratorially. She winks as she walks away, and he's not sure if she means the tattoo or Tony. Pepper is the most confusing woman he's ever met. And he knows Natasha.
Focusing his attention back on Tony, Clint leans back on his elbows and smiles broadly. "You do realize I have to get one every year now, right?"
"Thank god you're on the tail-end of your prettiness, then," Tony shoots back.
"That's not what your mom said last night."
"I though that's not what Steve said last night."
Clint scurries out of arm reach, cackling loudly, before Tony can smack him.
In mid-summer Tony decides to branch out from runway and haute couture and more into print and catalogue as a challenge to himself to "scale it back," as he puts it. Clint wonders idly if it has anything to do with Steve's apple pie persona, but his butt still stings from where Tony had insisted he needed to have sequins hot glued for "the vision." Clint really hates him sometimes.
Thor joins the company as their resident print model. He's gigantic, Norwegian, and doesn't understand the basic concept of personal space.
Natasha seems equal parts amused and annoyed by him. "He's like a giant puppy," she comments, after their first meeting.
"Yeah, a giant puppy you want to take out back and shoot," Clint replies.
She snorts indelicately and walks away to threaten Tony's genitals for making her wear a sheer top yet again.
"Friend Barton," Thor booms as he strides across the room, hair flowing gently. Clint's sure he's got to be magic or something. That hair cannot be human.
"Acquaintance Odinson," Clint replies, crossing his arms in front of his chest. He likes Thor well enough, but the guy can be a lot to take.
"I wanted to thank you for your kind welcome to the family of Stark," Thor says, patting Clint on the shoulder heavily.
Clint blinks a few times, taken aback. He certainly hasn't gone out of his way to make Thor feel at home, but he figures he's been polite enough. "You're welcome?"
"Friend Coulson informs me you will be buying us a round this evening at the pub! Many thanks to you, good sir!"
Clint turns his glare to Coulson as Thor wanders away to pester someone else. Coulson doesn't seem phased at all by Clint's annoyance.
"What the actual fuck?" he asks as he approaches Coulson's post.
"Problem, Barton?" Coulson replies, genial as ever. Clint can see the smile tugging at his cheek and something inside him softens a little.
"You're such a pain in my ass," Clint scowls.
"And here I thought that was Tony. How are the burns healing?" Coulson takes a sip of his coffee, eyebrows raised, and Clint wants desperately to wipe that expression off his face. Preferably with his fist.
That thought takes him aback for a moment. He and Coulson have spent the last year or so bickering, teasing, building a friendship based on mutual respect and snark. Clint would be the first to admit, though probably not to anyone who wasn't Natasha, that he'd come in his hand to the thought of Phil Coulson's mouth on his cock. But it always takes him by surprise when the mild-mannered head of security rises to the occasion and slips under Clint's defenses.
Clint hasn't admitted it to himself yet, but he thinks maybe, someday, possibly, he might fall in love with Phil Coulson. Maybe if he played his cards right. Maybe if he wasn't a former homeless bum with a criminal record longer than his arm. Maybe if he wasn't just a model. For now, he'd take the teasing and the security - both literally and figuratively. He'd just continue to jerk himself to the image of Coulson. It was safer than admitting he wanted something more.
"The spots are still there, but they don't sting as much anymore," Clint replies, deflating instantly. Damn that man and his magical powers. "Wanna see?" Clint winks and moves his hands to his belt buckle.
Coulson steps around him, toward Tony's desk, places one hand at the small of Clint's back and leans in. "Maybe some other time," he whispers. Clint can't suppress the shudder that courses through his body at the warm puff of breath against his ear. Not all at the insinuation the words carry with them. That's what he'll just keep telling himself. That's what he has to keep telling himself.
Loki joins their little band of misfits not long after Thor's integration. Between him, Natasha, and Coulson, the dry wit is more prevalent than ever. His camera practically an extension of himself, Loki never stops taking pictures. He's originally brought on as Tony's print and catalogue manager, but somewhere along the way, he takes on the role of webmaster.
Clint chases him with one of Tony's pool sticks for half an hour when Loki changes his company profile to include "former exotic dancer" and "professional ass kisser."
Things settle into a comfortable pattern. Clint's hesitant to call himself happy. His life hasn't exactly been one full of joyous times. As much as he doesn't like to admit it, he's constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. How long will this last? They can only model for so long. Tony can only design so much. And Coulson….Coulson will want to move on eventually, right?
They've danced around each other for years and Clint still doesn't know how to deal with Coulson. As much as he's attracted to the man, there's still a voice in the back of his head sounding an awful lot like his father telling him he'll never be good enough. He'll never be worthy of love. And Clint believes it.
So he carries on. Until one day he doesn't.
They're in Switzerland between Christmas and New Years, showing Tony's latest collection. Clint is amazed they've all stayed together this long - their quirky little family growing little by little, ebbing and flowing like he'd never imagined.
He's been all over the world, seen sights he'd only ever dreamed of, heard of in movies. But something in him feels just slightly unfulfilled. Something's missing.
The first morning after they land, Clint is itchy to explore the city. Lucerne is small and cute, all cobbled stones and tiny shops. The lake, they're told, is crystal clear when it's not nearly frozen over. The mountains across it are stunning as they rise from the water like monuments to the gods. Of all the places Clint has been, this might be his favorite.
He tugs on the bright red hat Pepper had knitted him last year for Christmas and heads down the hotel lobby. It's a lot like the rest of the city - tiny and cute, with a charm you can only really find in Europe. A familiar individual in a long black coat is standing at the concierge desk, flipping through guidebooks and questioning the hotel staff in swift French. Clint may not want to be attracted to Coulson, but more than a little blood rushes southward as Coulson chuckles warmly, the soft vowels rolling off his tongue like second nature.
"And here I thought maybe you were actually made of marble," Clint drawls, sidling up to Coulson's side and leaning against the desk.
Coulson leans into him slightly, his grin growing even wider. "What can I say," he starts with a small shrug. "I love Switzerland." He takes in Clint's attire for a moment before thanking the concierge and slipping on his gloves. "Going out?"
Clint nods and wraps his scarf a bit more snugly around his neck. "Thought I'd do a bit of exploring. Wanna be my tour guide?"
Coulson seems to consider him for a moment before stuffing one of the guide books in his pocket and heading toward the door. "Come on, then. There's a great thrift shop just down the street."
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Clint trails after Coulson, a small grin on his face and a bounce in his step. This could be fun. Or it could be Clint's own special form of torture - getting close to Coulson when he knows he shouldn't. Knows he couldn't. This could be the worst idea he's ever had.
Clint can't bring himself to care too terribly much.
The thrift store is a dud - lots of furniture and art that honestly, should probably be burned. For the good of humanity. Clint offers to buy it and use it for their next company camping trip's bonfire. Coulson quickly rejects that idea.
A small, old music store sits next to the thrift shop that Clint manages to drag Coulson into. It doesn't take as much persuading as he expected and they're in there for all of two minutes before he realizes why.
Coulson is a music fanatic. Old guitars - some restored, some in desperate need of love - hang on one wall. As Clint rifles through the records of artists he's never heard of, he notices Coulson take a guitar down out of the corner of his eye. When he begins strumming, Clint's focus shifts quickly, taking in the sight before him - Coulson on a low stool, gleaming red cherry wood guitar in his hands, long, slender fingers flying over the strings.
Clint falls just a little bit more in love with him right then and there.
The song finishes and Coulson finally glances up at Clint, blinking quickly, unshed tears pooling in his eyes.
"That was beautiful," Clint says softly. Coulson doesn't reply, just stands and hangs the guitar back in its place. "I didn't know you could play," he ventures again.
Coulson sighs, his shoulders slumping minutely. If Clint hadn't spent the better part of the last few years observing the man, he may not have noticed it. But Coulson had been his prey and Clint is a hunter to the core. He notices those kinds of things.
"I haven't played in years," Coulson replies as he turns back to Clint, dry-eyed now. "Not since my mother passed."
Clint's fingers are twining with Coulson's before he knows what he's doing.
"I'm sorry," he whispers, squeezing lightly.
To his complete surprise, Coulson squeezes back, clinging to Clint's hand like a lifeline.
"Let's go," Coulson says, voice soft. "There's a candy shop down the street that has wine and chocolate tastings for 15 francs. Wanna spoil your dinner?"
Clint grins and releases Coulson's hand to tug his hat back on. "Let's boogie, baby." Coulson rolls his eyes, but takes his hand once more as they head out into the cold.
It's snowing in Switzerland, just between Christmas and New Years of the best year of his life, when Clint first gets to kiss Phil Coulson. Just this once, Clint allows himself to hope for something more.
Clint is 28 years, six months and 19 days old when he decides to retire from modeling.
He's travelled the world, met amazing people, managed to save up a decent amount of money. He's seen models come and go in this industry, and it's his turn to go. Clint wants to do something new in his life now - build a house, adopt a cat, kiss Phil Coulson every single day.
His tattoos have spread from that one little arrow, much to Tony's chagrin. Smooth lines wrap around his calves and thighs, tracing up and over his shoulders, down to his wrists. Each one tells a story, contains a memory. Natasha held his hand for every single one, Coulson always hovering nearby.
Steve is a mainstay of the group now, Pepper finally convincing Tony to just hit that and be done with it. Too bad Tony was madly in love with the guy - Steve stayed that night. And then every night since. They're going on three years and even though Tony drives Steve crazy with his outrageousness and complete lack of tact, and Steve still can't figure out the coffee maker in Tony's apartment, they make it work.
Pepper and Natasha have something going, but Clint's not about to speculate on that one. The last time he'd asked Natasha about her love life, he'd wound up with bruised ribs and a mild concussion. Though being mothered by Phil hadn't been terrible.
As they're dressing for their last show as a family, Pepper dabbing lip gloss on Natasha's full lips and smiling; Thor's sulking in the corner - still not allowed to do runway work, but hanging out without a shirt on because the catering staff slips him cakes if they get to see his pecs; Loki's lurking somewhere snapping pictures they'll all regret eventually; Tony and Bruce are by the clothes racks, arguing over Bruce's affinity for feathers again. Clint was sure he'd grown out of that phase, but apparently they're making a big comeback.
Coulson meanders over to Clint's dressing table and hovers for a moment before placing one hand on his shoulder, a smile barely there on his lips.
"Ready?" he asks quietly. Through it all, Coulson has been Clint's number one cheerleader. Clint doesn't know what he'd do without his secret agent man.
"As I'll ever be," Clint replies with a grin. Grabbing Coulson by his lavender silk tie, he tugs him close, rubbing their noses together for a moment before kissing him for luck one last time.
"Alright people," Tony yells, eyes crazy and hair disheveled. "It's show time."