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A Minute To Learn, A Lifetime To Master

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For some reason, what's pissing Clint off the most is that his collar locks with a fucking Allen wrench, like he's a piece of cheap furniture.

Then again, it isn't far off from the truth. The only difference is that he's a little more mobile, and that he'd essentially been free of charge.


Clint could tell there were too many eyes on him when he walked towards Director Fury's office, but he had no idea why. He'd learned that glaring back was nothing but a sign of weakness. It was better to seem like you either didn't notice or didn't care- if they thought you didn't care, they didn't get the satisfaction of intimidating you, and if they thought you didn't notice, it was the perfect time to take them out.

He rapped on the door of the Director's office, and it slid open. Fury was standing across the room, looking out of the window, his hands behind his back. It was a gesture of trust, Clint knew; he also knew that the Director wore more Kevlar than a SWAT team and wouldn't have the slightest problem dodging anything Clint could throw at him, short of an explosive.

"Sir," Clint said, as the door shut behind him.

Fury sighed, his shoulders slumping slightly, and Clint knew something was very wrong. "You could have come to me first."

"Sir?" Clint said again, confused.

"You could have come to me, and I could have made it go away. Instead you lied to me and planted falsified records." Fury turned, looking at him. "You should have let us do it. We're better at it than you are."


There are people gawking at him again as he follows Coulson down the hallway, some who must have heard already, some who are clearly shocked. Clint guesses he's going to have to get used to it. He was never actually in the freak show, but he's known since he was a kid what it's like to be singled out, to have people paying attention to him, marking his movements. He kind of hates it sometimes, really, but here he is, stuck in it again, at least until he starts being old news.


Clint furrowed his brow. "Sir, I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Your birth records," Fury said. "You weren't born free." Clint stared at him, his eyes wide in shock. "The history as a runaway should have been a tip-off, but I chose not to question it."

"I ran away because my dad beat us," Clint told him. "I was born free."

"That's not what the records say," Fury said. He held up a hand. "You're going to ask why I can't just replace the records now. It won't do you any good when the entire ship knows."

It clicked in Clint's head. "Romanov."

Fury nodded. "Romanov made the discovery, and she wasn't quiet about it."

"You mean that Romanov planted the information," Clint said, crossing his arms. Not for the first time he found himself wishing he'd obeyed orders and taken the shot, not captured Romanov and brought her in. No matter how useful she was for SHIELD, she deserved to be dead for this, or worse.

Clint was going to try for worse.

"It's her against you," Fury said. "You bring me the proof she's wrong, all this goes away."

Clint snorted. "Sir, you know as well as I do that she didn't leave a single track."

"That sounds to me like a personal problem," Fury told him.


Clint knows what he's expected to do is keep his head down, be deferent; he also knows that no one actually expects him to do that. They expect him to fight back, to lash out against what he's been hit with, but so far he hasn't. If he's going to be honest with himself, Clint has no idea what to do, torn between wanting to follow his fighting instincts and wanting to prove how unpredictable he really is.

Coulson rounds a corner. Every time they turn, Clint expects to see Romanov's face, to see her waiting to mock him. He knows that she's too good, though; she's not the type of killer who comes back to visit the body.


"So now what?" Clint asked, hiding the fear lancing through him with a mask of annoyance.

"I like you, Barton, so I'm going to give you three options," Fury said. "You can be claimed immediately by SHIELD and remain as a subordinate agent, or you can go to auction."

"That's only two," Clint pointed out, "and thank you, sir, but fuck both of them."

"Alternately, I can shoot you in the head right now," Fury said, not unkindly. "Clean shot. I'll even say you went down fighting."

A bullet sounded pretty damn good in that moment. He'd thought the threat of being knocked down to slave class was behind him once he joined SHIELD. Before, Clint had always kinda ended up in situations where getting snatched and sold was a job hazard, and he'd lived in fear of the moment when it would actually happen, when he'd lose himself. But even as horrible as it sounded, Clint had spent his entire life trying not to die, and fuck if he was going to roll over and do it now.

Fury looked Clint in the eye. "Pick one. I didn't have to give you any options at all."

Clint opened his hands. "You break it, you bought it."

Fury nodded. "Good choice," he said.

"You were also going to shoot me if I'd said I wanted to go to auction, weren't you, sir?" Clint said.

Fury smiled grimly. "Got it in one."

"So since murder's not in my future, what do I have to look forward to?" Clint asked.

"Not much," a voice said, as a figure detached itself from the darkness in the corner and stepped forward.


Coulson reaches a door, leaning forward to activate the retinal scan and the thumbprint lock. Clint wants to slam Coulson's head against the wall while he's not paying attention, make a break for it, but where the fuck would he go? What the fuck would he do when he got there?

He almost does it anyway.

Coulson leads him through the door into a nondescript set of living quarters. Nothing fancy at all; the only thing that indicates that the room might belong to a senior agent is that there's an extra door on the wall, next to the bathroom. Coulson walks over and opens it with his thumb, and Clint knows very well that it's keyed to Coulson and Coulson alone, accessible to no one except him, barring the Director's supposedly secret remote overrides. Clint also knows that there's no lock on the inside, no way out without the door being deliberately left open for him.

"You'll be staying here," Coulson tells him, showing him the tiny, bare, windowless room, and Clint's just glad Coulson's seen fit to give him some sheets and a pillow.

"Do I get turndown service? Continental breakfast?" Clint says, but Coulson doesn't seem to find it very funny.

"This doesn't have to be hard, Barton," Coulson says.

"I think we both know it's gonna be," Clint says, and Coulson just shrugs.


Clint had his sidearm drawn in a fraction of a second; it was only through an intense amount of training that he resisted the urge to fire. "For fuck's sake, Coulson," he sighed, holstering his weapon. "You're gonna give somebody a fucking heart attack doing that shit."

Coulson walked towards him, smiling the bland, vaguely unpleasant smile that he always did, and all at once Clint knew what was happening, his stomach rolling. Coulson slapped him sharply in the face. "I don't think you should talk to me like that, do you?" Clint was speechless for a moment- a moment too long, because then Coulson's fingers were around his throat. "I asked you a question."

Of course it was Coulson, who the fuck else would it be but Coulson, Fury's good eye, who was only not in the Director's position because of his fierce loyalty to Fury. Coulson, Clint's handler, who kept it strictly on the level but who had wandering, less than comforting eyes. Coulson, SHIELD's dark horse, who hid his capacity for brutality well enough that most people didn't know about it until it was far too late.


"No," Clint said. Coulson's hand tightened in warning, and Clint shut his eyes. "No, Master."

Coulson let him go. "Smart boy."

"Thank you for shortening what would have been a very awkward conversation, Agent Coulson," Fury said dryly.

"My pleasure, Director," Coulson said, smirking at Clint.

"Get him settled," Fury told Coulson. "I don't need this bullshit taking up any more of my valuable time."

Coulson let Clint go, and Clint rubbed his throat, wondering how much longer he'd be able to touch his own skin without meeting the cold band of a collar. "Yes, Director," Coulson said. "With me," he snapped at Clint, walking out of the office.


"Range time in twenty," Coulson tells him. "Your new uniform is in the closet," he adds, walking out and leaving Clint alone.

Except for the addition of a red badge on his sleeve, Clint's subordinate uniform doesn't actually look that different than the one he's been wearing since he got here. It doesn't have to for everyone to know what's happened to him- the collar is doing that very well all on its own. What's different about it is inside, the fine mesh connected to the tiny transponder in the pocket, the thing Coulson can light up with electricity whenever he thinks it's necessary.

Clint puts it on. What the fuck else is he supposed to do?