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Elephant Skin

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Clint is seven and he doesn’t have a soulmark.

The other kids in the orphanage make fun of him, but he likes it. Likes the feeling that he’s free to make his own decisions and not tied down by some stranger he’s never going to meet. Who cares what some unwanted kids think anyway?

All the nut-job doctors he's seen about it say that his soulmate probably just hasn’t been born; that the words will appear soon - 'don’t worry, young man'. Barney tells him regularly that he’s lucky he won’t get stuck with some fat bitch and end up having thirty whiny brats, but what does Barney know? - he has Angie and they kiss behind the popcorn stalls when the ringleader is off fucking townies. Still, though

‘Blemish-free’ was what mom used to call him and Clint prefers that over Markless any day. He’s not less anything.

 


 

The elephants are the best people Clint knows and they’re not even people. They smell and shit a lot, sure, but Barney does too and he has no excuse.

He doesn’t like the animal tamer, though, doesn’t like the long, needle-thin whip he carries around with him. Doesn't like the look in his eyes.

Clint rubs Nala’s rough grey skin and sighs. She makes a low sound and continues eating her hay. Animals don’t have soulmarks - well, most of them don't. Clint overheard on the ringleader’s radio that certain ones do. They have distinct, identical patterning on their skin - dolphins and swans and wolves.

Elephants are like him, though; ‘blemish-free’. Lately, though, he doesn't feel so free. Despite his lack of words, he still feels caged by them.

He closes his eyes and drifts off to the sounds of the circus around him. Maybe Barney was right - maybe he is better off without a soulmate.

 


 

He’s sixteen and in a ditch. Clint stares up at the starry night sky, ignoring the blood in the back of his throat and the firey pain seeping across his ribs.

Fuck Barney, he thinks. That asshole doesn’t know nothing about me.

Clint drags himself out of the mud and leaves, stumbles his way to the nearest clinic, one that will look the other way.

“Do you have a habit of lying to medical personnel, Mister Barton?” the nurse asks.

“No,” he says. “What d’you mean?”

“Your soulmark,” she says, making a note on her clipboard. “It says here that you’re Markless, but I do have eyes. In case you're unaware - lying on government forms is a federal offence.”

Clint follows her gaze down to his chest and stares at his his ribs. Upside-down the words would be impossible to read, not that he can anyway. Grey and sort of boring looking. Like a rock, or the skin of the elephants back at the circus. Pretty uninspiring.

“Huh,” he says. Clint knocks the nurse over the head with a metal tray and steals her papers. He jumps out the window and heads off down the road, tossing the clipboard with his forms on in a nearby dumpster.

He steals a shirt from a clothesline, gets the hell out of dodge before the cops show up, and doesn’t think about elephants for a long time.

 


  

He’s nineteen and the guy at the bar is out of place. He’s wearing a suit, like the rest of people milling around, but his eyes are sharp. Wary.

Early thirties. Average-face. Average-build. Average, average, average.

But...not.

Clint doesn’t know what it is about the Suit, but he looks off. Like he’s built for more than just strutting around and looking rich.

He straightens from his position in the corner booth and strides across the room, determined to find out if the guy is following him. Halfway there some chick in a red dress pulls out a gun and starts raining bullets, screaming her head off about 'ascension'.

His bow is back in his motel room, so Clint ducks behind the bar. The average guy is there, holding a hand up to his ear.

I knew it, Clint thinks. He’s a fucking suit monkey.

“Backup required,” he says. “Target has opened fire and I am unarmed,” he turns to Clint. “Can’t say I was expecting that. You don’t happen to have a gun, do you?”

“Not gonna need one,” Clint says, amused. “Hand me that knife.”

The guy hands it over and Clint throws it over the counter and into the crazy girl’s face. She screams, dropping the gun so she can clutch her impaled eye instead.

“Nice,” Suit says, obviously impressed. “You’re very good.”

Clint shrugs. “I know.” He hops out from behind the counter and leaves a few bills on his table as a tip. “See ya, Suit.”

He hightails it out of the diner and drops by his motel only long enough to grab his bow before he’s on the road again.

A couple of weeks later the incident is forgotten.

 


 

Almost forgotten.

Clint’s twenty-four and there’s a gun pressing into the small of his back. The guy on the other end has a familiar face, and Clint is good with faces.

Has to be, so as to avoid any displeased customers.

“I’m a good guy,” he says. That seems like something you should mention when someone threatens to shoot you. Unless they’re from that Sicilian mafia cell he'd fucked over the year before. Then he’s screwed. “Please don’t kill me. I have a wife and kids.”

“No, you don’t,” Suit says, though he sounds uncertain for a moment, expression wavering a little. “We’ve been watching you.”

“I noticed,” Clint says, since he did. It’s his job, after all, to notice things. “Why?”

“S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to make you an offer. A clean-slate if you come and work for us. We’ll wipe your records clean.”

“And what makes you think I care about my records, Suit?” Clint asks curiously.

“Call it a hunch,” Suit says and he holsters his gun. “Phil Coulson.” He holds out his hand.

Clint doesn’t shake it. “Hawkeye,” he says, and that’s one of the first things that comes out of his mouth that he definitely isn’t unsure about.

 


 

There’s a girl bouncing up and down on top of him, her boobs jiggling about like water balloons.

She pouts at him when his dick goes limp for the sixth time. “What gives?”

Clint pushes her off and grabs his boxers from the ground. “I’m not feeling it,” he says, skin crawling. “Sorry, sweetcheeks.” She kicks him out and Clint goes back to S.H.I.E.L.D., where Natasha drinks vodka from the bottle and stares at him.

“How was it?” she asks.

“Shit,” Clint says. “I wasn’t into it at all.”

Natasha shrugged like she knew all along. Probably did, actually. “I figured you wouldn’t be. Sapphire’s very good - if anyone was going to get you excited it would’ve been her. Maybe you’re...” She trailed off. Clint had never seen her trail over before.

“Yeah, well…” Clint looks around for an insult. “Fuck you.”

Straight sex is awful, so he tries it the other way around.

Clint doesn’t know what he expected, but it was not to be bent over a dumpster whilst some douche from HQ pounds into him from behind.

He winces at a particularly painful jab and hopes that his flaccid penis isn’t noticeable to the guy behind him. He doubts it, judging by the loud grunting right next to his ear.

Do people really enjoy this? he wonders. I always hear the guys in the breakroom bragging, but this is shit.

His mind just needs to get used to the idea, that’s all. It’ll probably get better the more practice he gets.

 


 

It does not.

 


 

Clint is nearly twenty-six and Coulson is, like, pretty hot.

Not hot hot. Not like Nat. He’s...charming, in an odd way. He has grey hair growing in at the sides and he’s at the wrong side of thirty, but Clint can’t deny his attraction. The on-site psychologist would have a field day with his daddy issues.

“Hey, Coulson,” Clint says as he lounges on the floor. “Where’s your soulmark?”

Coulson stiffens like Clint has stabbed him. “Don’t,” he says. “Don’t even go there, Barton.”

Clint holds his hands up in surrender. “Sheesh, it was just a question. Not me, though,” he lies, staring at the ceiling. “I’m blemish-free.”

“Never heard that one before,” Coulson says lightly. “TV?”

“No,” he shrugs. “Just something my mom used to say. When I was little.” He doesn’t talk much about his childhood. Doesn’t even like to think about it, really.

“Hm,” Coulson says, going back to his paperwork.

Clint feels strangely disappointed, but he doesn’t bring up soulmates again.

 


 

Budapest sucks.

Natasha gets shot and Clint loses his favourite bow. They take a vote on which is worse, but Nat parlays. Leg wounds don't hurt that much.

He drops her off at a clinic as a Jane Doe and then heads off to meet Coulson at the rendezvous point.

“Where’s Widow?”

Clint collapses on the cheap motel bed he and Natasha shared the night before. Coulson had taken the couch. “Nearby hospital. Caught a bullet in the thigh; figured she’d want to keep her cover up so I played it off as a mob hit gone wrong.”

“Clint,” he says and that’s when Clint knows that things are going down. Coulson never uses his first name, especially when they’re on a long-term mission.

He props himself up on his elbows and only then realises that the other man is now much closer then he was a second ago. “Uh, sir?”

Coulson touches his chin and tilts his head up so they can kiss.

It’s wet and sticky and, well...frankly, sorta gross. Even if it is Coulson doing it to him.

Clint pushes him away. “What was that?” he asks, voice cracking a bit in the middle.

“I saw your mark,” Coulson growls, pushing him back onto the bed and climbing on top of him. “When you and Natasha were sleeping last night. I thought...you’ve lied to me this whole time?”

“No,” Clint denies quickly. “Um. What are we talking about, exactly?”

“We’re soulmates!” Coulson says, much angrier than Clint has ever seen him. “I knew years ago in that godforsaken diner, but I thought you weren’t mine!”

Clint feels like he’s falling down a very deep, very dark hole. What is -? But why -

He shoves Coulson off of him and stands up, ripping his shirt over his head. He looks down at the mark on his side. Still as boring and grey as ever. “I don’t know how to read.”

For once, Clint gets to see Coulson completely gobsmacked. It’s not as satisfying as he imagined - he just feels vaguely nauseated.

“Hey,” Coulson says, suddenly seeming to decide something. “Come here.”

Clint goes there; climbing onto the bed so he can recline on the pillows next to his handler. His soulmate. Did not see that one coming, though Natasha probably knew all along, that sneaky Russian bitch.

He peels Coulson’s shirt up and eyes the barely-legible purple writing on his hip. He reddens with embarrassment, his cheeks and neck burning. He had no idea what it says.

“You have words on your skin, permanently, because of me?” He asks, his breath hitching in the back of his throat. What must Coulson think of him, he's such an idiot -

“Hey,” Coulson says, grabbing his chin and tilting his head up so they could lock eyes. “None of that. I like the mark because it’s yours, Clint. Not the other way around.” He rubs the matching set on Clint’s side.

“What does it say?” Clint asks because he can’t remember their first meeting very well. At the time it had been far less important than the name of his next target.

“Which one?"

"Mine."

'''Can’t say I was expecting that. You don’t happen to have a gun, do you?’, which I would say is an untrue depiction of me, but -”

“You’d be lying,” Clint finishes, smiling slightly. "And your one?"

Coulson smiles crookedly. "'Not gonna need one. Pass me that knife.'"

"God, I was such a douche back then," Clint groans, ducking his head.

The other man kisses the side of his head, right above his ear. "You're still a douche. But now you're my douche."

“Sap. ...Hey, Coulson?”

“Phil.”

“Phil,” Clint amends.

“Yes?”

“Teach me how to read,” he begs. “I want to be able to understand them myself.”

Coulson - Phil - kisses him, which is something Clint will bring up. Not now, though. Later.

The door opens and Natasha staggers in, bandages wrapped tightly around her thigh. She frowns at them. “Put the kissing on hold, gentlemen. We’ve got company.”

They’re on their feet a few seconds later and Clint grabs his emergency bow from the dresser. He tosses Phil his gun. “Later?” he offers.

“Later,” Phil nods.

 


  

Clint is twenty-seven and things are looking up.