Clinic days are the worst.
Clint knows better than to risk accidental contact with dominants even when he's at his best. But days like this, when the craving eclipses every thought, he can’t resist the lure of a crowded subway car, the thrill of knowing that there are doms in the sea of anonymous bodies around him.
Not that taking a taxi would be any safer in his current condition. At least the subway boasts the relative safety of a public space. To be alone with a stranger—even today, Clint's not stupid enough to risk that.
So he takes the A-Train to Bed-Stuy and keeps his head down, keeps his distance from the other passengers despite the way it feels like he'll vibrate out of his skin if he doesn't get something now now now.
It won't be long.
Stepping into the noon sunlight partially shakes him from his daze, and Clint hurries on his way. Sidewalks in this neighborhood are mostly empty on a week day, making it the safest time for him to be out and about. But the handful of blocks to the clinic feels like a dozen miles in his eagerness to be safely inside.
He curses under his breath when he sees a woman walking his way. Clint's radar for identifying dynamics even at a distance is pretty good, but he doesn't need any special skills to recognize this domme; her confident stride and aggressively fashionable attire make his mouth dry.
Clint catches himself arranging his hair, gripped by a nearly unbearable urge to put himself in her path, to feign an accidental collision to earn brief seconds of her attention. Instead he bites his tongue hard enough to make his eyes water and sidles aside until his shoulder brushes against the building on his left, and carefully keeps his gaze averted.
She passes by—kinky hair glinting, gold acrylic nails he longs to feel on his throat—speaking angrily into her phone, and Clint chokes as the forcefulness in her voice rakes down his spine, fanning the hunger. He allows himself only a second to listen, then forces his feet to move again.
He's so close to his destination—just a couple blocks left. He has to keep himself together—or at least, as close to normal as he gets on clinic days. But his control is already stretched from the long trip. He thinks for the hundredth time that he should find somewhere closer to his apartment.
Clint’s been to this particular clinic a few times now. He’s still a new enough client that the staff haven't commented to his face about the frequency of his visits. They'll start soon, though—they always do. He'll look for somewhere closer then. For now, he reminds himself, the remote location is the main appeal, dramatically reducing the odds of encountering anyone he knows.
He regrets that thought mere seconds later when his phone rings.
"Nat," he answers, shoulders already up around his ears.
- "Clint." -
They wait each other out until Clint caves. Putting his back against a storefront, he sighs, "What?"
- "Did I call at a bad time?" - The sweetness in her voice is never a good sign.
"Nah, it's fine. What are you up to?"
- "Lunch with a friend." -
"Uh huh?" Clint says absently, scanning the sidewalks for her distinctive red hair. Has she tracked him here? The fact that he sees no sign of her doesn't mean she isn't watching, even in Brooklyn. "Who's that?"
- "For god's sake, Clint. Sam." -
There's a rushing sound in his ears. Lunch. Nat had wanted to introduce him to her new friend from California, Sam Wilson. Shit.
"That was today?" He wouldn't have agreed to lunch on clinic day, would he? He goes every Wednesday, like clockwork. He would have said no.
- "I told you he could only do today. You said you would meet him, but instead you're all the way across town—" -
Fuck fuck fuck, does she know where he is? He looks guiltily down the street; the clinic is both too far and damningly near.
"It must have slipped my mind! Shit, I'm really sorry."
The way she sighs his name makes Clint feel more like a disappointing child than a hard-lived 28-year-old.
"I didn't mean to forget, honest! I totally want to meet him!" Her perfect, responsible, not-at-all-fucked-up new best friend. Sure.
- "You've been keeping yourself scarce." -
The carefully worded accusation stings. "I'm not the one who moved to the other side of the continent," he blurts before he can catch himself.
In the pause that follows, he'd swear he can hear her eyes narrow. - "I've been back in Manhattan for months now, and I've barely seen you. Bucky says he hasn't seen you much, either." -
That hurts, learning that she and Bucky are talking about him behind his back, probably asking themselves what they ever saw in his pathetic ass. Clint shrinks back into the bricks, trying to disappear.
- "He thinks he did something to piss you off. I could sic him on you—you know how sincere his apologies are." -
"It's just a scheduling thing!"
- "You've been hiding. From our doms." -
There it is, out in the open.
She'd never used to judge his predilections beyond a raised eyebrow, but when she'd come back from California with her perfect, poised, terrifying new domme, Nat had tried to pull him aside and actually broach the topic of dynamics. He’d known what lecture she was going to give him, and had been avoiding her ever since.
"Just cuz I’m choosing to live alone for once in my life doesn't mean everything's about your doms," he argues desperately.
It's a lie, of course, and one that deserves her snort of disbelief. He'd been desperate to move out of Stark Tower. Especially after Natasha left for Malibu with Pepper Potts, leaving Clint alone with Bucky and his two doms just a few floors away. Clint'd already humiliated himself in front of Tony Stark; he hadn't needed the constant temptation.
- "You're being a coward, solnyshko. I expect better from you." -
The words hit like daggers, and Clint breaks.
He can't do this—not today. He's stretched too thin just getting himself from Point A to Point B; he can't fend off her surgically precise attacks, too.
"I've gotta go, Nat. I'm sorry about lunch. I'll text you later, okay?"
- "No. Wait. Don't shut me out—" -
He hangs up and squeezes his eyes shut, banging his head against the brick. He hates that he did that, hates the distance he's placed between them. Maybe she'd started it, running off with her newly bonded domme, but he's let it fester.
Still, it's better than admitting aloud how pathetic he is. Anything would be better than that.
Clint sighs and opens his eyes, looking around to be sure he hasn't attracted attention.
He knows he can't stay where he is. He should continue on his route—the craving still sizzles under his skin. Going any longer without would be even stupider than hanging up on Natasha Romanoff.
But he's still smarting from her words. Right now the thought of going to his knees for a stranger, no matter how professional the setting, makes him nauseous.
This location's burned, anyway. He can't convince himself she didn't know exactly where he was headed when she called. Stepping through the clinic doors right now would only prove her right about him.
With a shudder, Clint turns back the way he came.
The shadows of the underground are a relief, and Clint flings himself through the just-closing doors of a train, eager to escape the entire neighborhood as quickly as possible. But hunched in an empty stretch of seats, the enormity of what he's just done hits him. Not alienating Natasha—she'll forgive him eventually—but skipping his appointment. He'll have to find a new clinic and wait for an appointment—there's no way anyone will take him today.
Another 24 hours, at least.
The ache in his guts intensifies, leaving him shivering and rocking.
His eyes stray to the other inhabitants of the car. There are fewer on the inbound train, maybe a couple dozen, and they're all avoiding eye contact with the shaking weirdo. All but one, a reedy white guy in khakis and a bright green polo shirt with a logo Clint doesn't recognize—probably on his way to a retail job.
The guy glances toward Clint and quickly looks away. But seconds later he's looking Clint's way again, this time for a longer duration. Waves of dominance unfurl with each stolen glance.
Clint lowers his gaze despite the temptation to look every few seconds. His skin flashes hot and cold, breaking out in goosebumps as he feels the dom's attention settle on him. Even at this distance, the man's interest—his intention—is like a heavy hand on Clint's head, an intoxicating blend of promise and menace, and Clint shudders harder, sinks lower beneath the weight.
The buzz of his phone startles Clint, yanking him back into awareness of his surroundings.
His neck aches, and Clint belatedly realizes he'd tilted his head, baring his neck enticingly. The dom has moved a few steps closer, his cheeks flushed and eyes intent, while everyone else has turned away from them, disapproval on their faces.
Clint cringes at the realization of what he'd been unconsciously offering a complete stranger on the fucking subway. He shrinks back into his seat, wrapping his arms around his chest.
His phone is still vibrating. He fumbles it out of his pocket.
The screen displays an Unknown Number calling, but he knows it's Nat again, probably on a burner phone this time, still pissed about him hanging up on her. As he swipes Ignore, it belatedly occurs to him that she's probably tracking his phone. That's how she knew where he was. He curses his stupidity and powers the device off, shoving it back in his pocket angrily.
Another glance around shows the lanky dom still watching Clint from a few yards away. He's the opposite of physically intimidating, and his hopeful expression shouldn't feel so threatening, but the drop is right there, spiraling enticingly below Clint. It'd be so easy to just let go....
Clint shudders and turns his back, shaking his head emphatically. His knuckles are white where he fists the fabric of his jeans.
He has to get home.
Clint's apartment is in one of those fancy high-rises in Midtown. It's nauseatingly upper-crust, with doormen hailing cabs for aging socialites with designer purses, and expensively dressed lawyers snarling orders into their phones as they stalk through the lobby.
Clint hates just about everything about it—so thank god he's not the one paying for it.
When Clint had announced he was tired of playing the fourth wheel to Bucky and his doms, Tony Stark had moved Clint to a nearby building faster than Clint cared to think about. Stark had overruled Clint's half-formed protests about picking his own place, declaring that since Stark Industries owned the building, and the apartment was just sitting empty, obviously Clint was meant to have it.
Bucky'd been furious with Clint for moving out of Stark Tower, but that was Bucky: always wanting things to be just so. He'd been happiest knowing Clint was mere floors away in the Tower, oblivious to how Clint had been drowning.
One good thing about Clint's new place, for all Bucky's worries, is that it's plenty safe. There are four locks on his apartment door: two for show, one retinal, and one breath. But best of all, it's private.
After climbing the 18 floors up the back stairway—after his near-miss on the subway, there's no way he can risk an encounter in an enclosed elevator—Clint pants, "Iron Man sucks," into the breath lock and hears the system release the unseen seals.
He pushes his way inside, finally switching his phone back on now that it can't incriminate him. The phone chimes to life, reporting multiple missed calls from the unknown number and one new voicemail; he scowls and hits Play while he pries off his boots and drops his keys in the bowl some decorator had placed in the foyer.
Clint double checks, but the 28-second message is indeed playing, the volume all the way up. He backs up the message and tries again, but it's still silent.
He spins, dropping into a crouch, phone poised to throw.
A familiar figure in a black trench coat steps around the corner of Clint's living room.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Clint spits, free hand slipping into his discarded boot.
"At ease, Barton. I'm no threat," Fury announces.
"Yeah, of course not. This is totally normal. The Director of SHIELD broke into my place and laid in wait so we could open a six-pack together, is that it?" The doorknob is only two steps behind him; turning it without disengaging the locks would trigger an alert—unless Fury'd already disabled his security system. Dammit, how had the man gotten in?
"This isn't a social call. But I'm not here to fight, so why don't you drop the knife, and we'll have a conversation like grownups." Fury turns his back and wanders over to the floor-to-ceiling windows, his silhouette against the daylight an easy target.
Clint's brow is damp with cold sweat, all of his instincts clamoring wildly, but anger wins out. He pockets the boot knife and strides forward. "Get out."
"Good view, expensive furniture. Looks like you've landed on your feet," Fury says with a gesture, the sweep of his leather coat out of place in the luxury apartment. "You're sitting awfully pretty for a mass murderer who, not 10 months ago, had half the world after him."
"We were cleared—"
"We both know you’re not innocent, Barton. You’re only free because I persuaded the WSC and multiple governments to drop their charges against you and your friends. Every breath of fresh air you draw is thanks to me."
Clint falls back a step, crossing his arms and surreptitiously rubbing the suddenly chilled skin with his calloused palms. Of course Fury would play that card, reminding Clint of the weeks of house arrest, of wondering when he'd be handed over to the World Security Council to be sentenced for his crimes.
"You got what you wanted out of that deal," he finally says.
"I got the Starks back in the field; that squared Barnes's debt," Fury allows. "But you and Romanoff—you owe me. I'm here to collect."
Clint snorts despite his unease. "How'd that line work on her?"
"I don't need her chit yet. Yours, however...." His voice deepens as he advances, his silhouette seeming to tower over Clint.
It's enough for Clint's knees to go distressingly weak, his breath to catch in his chest. The posturing shouldn't work—the manipulation is obvious—but Clint still shivers, acutely aware that he's isolated, alone with a dominant in what should be his private space.
"What do you want?" Clint asks faintly.
He's not sure he could resist any command at the moment. He once again curses himself for skipping his clinic appointment; the need to please wouldn't be so strong if he'd already had a drop today.
"Submissives are disappearing. Vulnerable ones—no family or close connections—but all of them US military trained. That description remind you of anyone?"
Clint holds very still, makes himself ask, "Are you going to disappear me next?"
"They've been turning up dead," Fury continues, ignoring Clint's question. "Not all of them, but enough to attract our attention to the pattern. Someone's been abducting and experimenting on trained subs. I think we can both guess who."
Clint shudders hard, fingers digging into his biceps.
"I need your help stopping them."
"No!" He backs away; his legs hit the coffee table before he manages to clamp down on the fear.
"More than a dozen have been taken, Barton. All of them just like you. Imagine what HYDRA could do with them."
Clint doesn't have to imagine it; he'd lived it for five long years. He'll never be that powerless again. Whatever Fury's gearing up to ask him for, it's already out of the question.
"Not my problem."
"Not your problem?" Fury echoes incredulously, moving closer.
The dominant's disapproval makes Clint's guts cramp and his vision go gray around the edges. It would feel so good to simply agree to whatever Fury wants and deal with the consequences later—but Clint doesn't give in like that anymore.
It's harder than ever on clinic day, when he's gone his longest without a fix, but Clint can do this; he has to. Doms can never have that power over him again, let alone HYDRA.
He pulls himself up to his full height and sets his jaw, even if he can't quite bring himself to meet the dominant's glare. His voice shakes when he says, "Whatever they got themselves into, it's not my business. Nuh uh."
"You should leave. Now," Clint grits out. Before I lose my nerve.
Director Fury's expression turns thunderous, and Clint reminds himself of the proximity of the door, the presence of JARVIS, which he can invoke if absolutely necessary.
"Now," Clint says again, forcing himself to stare Fury right in the eye, every muscle locked against the urge to fall to his knees.
Eventually Fury's eye narrows. "This isn't over," he says, and stalks past Clint, slamming the door on his way out.
Clint's legs go wobbly the moment the door shuts, but he manages to stumble to a sofa before collapsing. His breathing is labored, the boot knife digging into his hip, and Clint clenches his hands into fists.
Goddamn Fury. Goddamn clinic day.
Goddamn his fucking life.
solnyshko = little sun
Clint wakes on the floor between the bed and the wall, in the pile of blankets he'd apparently dragged off the mattress during the night. There are two loaded pistols in reach, and he has a clear vantage point on the bedroom doorway in the morning light.
He's had a few bad nights since moving in, but never quite this bad.
He doesn’t remember making the decision to hide behind the bed last night, but he’s not entirely surprised. The ease with which Fury had come and gone yesterday had shaken Clint more than he could've predicted. The locks Clint has relied on for the past six months now seem like window dressing, his front door no better than the canvas flap of a circus tent. Retreating to his bedroom last night, the feeling of exposure had only intensified, the expansive, empty bed hearkening back to his unlocked HYDRA cell, where the officers could walk in at any time.
The paranoia isn't as intense in the daylight, but Clint still carries the weapons with him to the bathroom and then the kitchen.
His apartment is no longer secure.
Fixing the problem means involving Stark. Clint wouldn't even have to lift a finger; just speak JARVIS's name and report the breach. But Clint's never wanted the AI in his home, determined to prove he could live alone—without a babysitter. He'd resented Bucky's insistence that JARVIS be installed at least in listening-only mode as a backup in case of emergency.
Involving JARVIS would disclose the contents of Fury's visit to Tony Stark. And knowing the man, word would immediately reach Bucky and Natasha. Once they heard about Fury's missing submissives, they'd insist on moving Clint back into the Tower, a weak link to be pitied and protected. After all, look at the mess he'd made of his entire life on his own.
Nat had called Clint a coward yesterday. What would she say when she found out he'd been too scared to even hear Fury out, had turned him down like a terrified child? She's grown so much stronger and more settled in the past year, while he's devolved into a sniveling coward.
No, he can't let her find out.
Unable to immediately solve his crisis, Clint makes coffee and eats his breakfast on autopilot, hoping inspiration will strike.
He finds himself already dressed for the archery range and putting on his sneakers by the time he remembers that he still hasn't had a drop. The moment the thought occurs to him, the itch explodes across his skin, and his hands shake. He can't leave his apartment in this condition; what if he runs into a dominant at the range?
Clint has to find a new clinic and schedule an appointment. If he's very, very lucky, he'll find one that can squeeze him in today.
His phone is off when he reaches for it; another precaution he doesn't remember taking last night. Powering it up, he receives belated notifications of a handful of missed calls from that same mystery number during the night—no voicemails this time. It can't possibly be Natasha, despite her fondness for burner phones; she'd have broken down his door by now. Clint frowns, debating whether to block the number or wait to see if he can intercept the next call.
There's also a new text alert from a couple hours ago, though the message takes a moment to download. It's a different unknown number, this time from an NYC area code.
The image loads, revealing a close up of an unfamiliar face. The man's hair is brown, but his skin is unhealthily pale—unsurprising considering both his eyes are swollen shut, with a nasty contusion on his left jaw and black stitches along a cut on the right temple. Clint flinches away from the unsettling image before noticing the text across the bottom of the picture:
Bklyn Hosp Ctr, Room 406--Fury
Fucking Fury. Is this supposed to be one of the abducted submissives? Is the message meant to guilt Clint into signing up for a suicide mission? Fat chance.
Clint's briefly tempted to march to the location listed to give Fury a piece of his mind, but has to remind himself that he still hasn't had a clinic session. It'd be folly to put himself in a room with an angry dom today. He's liable to succumb to his old habits and goad Fury into—
He cuts off that train of thought and finds himself staring at the image on the screen in his hand. Remembering what Fury had said about their similar training, he pulls his phone closer and tries to make out any recognizable features beneath the swelling. Had he met this person in his Army days? There's something familiar about the brows, maybe. The nose looks intact at the moment, but it has clearly been broken sometime in the past.
It's when he gets to the man's mouth, to the small white scar below the lower lip, that his blood runs cold.
He jams his pistols into the waistband of his sweats as he bolts out the door.
Clint's too hyped on adrenaline to note the dynamic of the cab driver who takes him to Brooklyn. He doesn't speak to anyone as he races through the halls, bumping into nurses and visitors and making several wrong turns before he locates the right room.
Plainclothes security stands oh-so-casually outside of Room 406, but Clint is expected; the guard gives him the briefest look before stepping out of the way, careless of whether Clint is armed beneath his white tee shirt.
He reads the name beside the door as he enters: John Doe. An obvious lie, since Fury had known to contact Clint.
The man from the picture lies unconscious in the lone bed. In addition to the facial wounds, his right arm is in a cast, and there's telltale padding around his torso beneath the thin blanket. He's connected to an IV line and several monitors, but none of the more invasive equipment that would suggest life support. His skin still has that sickly pallor, but he'll obviously live.
All the air rushes out of Clint's lungs at once.
Clint hasn't seen his brother in...13 years. Not since Clint was 15, watching his older brother turn his back and enlist. Clint had tried once in the following years to contact Barney; the silence had been a clear rejection. He'd never expected to see him again.
A noise behind him has Clint wheeling to discover Fury rising from the chair in the corner of the room. The Director of SHIELD is clearly trying to be incognito, having foregone the leather coat in favor of an unnervingly casual zip-front sweater.
Clint would be impressed that the man has successfully ambushed him twice in as many days, if he weren't so furious.
"What the hell did you do to him? Just because I wouldn't play ball?"
"Would it surprise you to learn, Mr. Barton, that of the subs that have gone missing in the past year, nearly all of them had participated in a top-secret, DoD psychodynamics program?"
"Fuck you, get to the point."
"Project Concordance was shut down in 2006 when the right people started asking questions about the more unsavory aspects of the program. Do you recognize the name Flumm?"
Clint shakes his head impatiently.
"Well, in addition to the submissives who participated in Concordance, more than one of the original researchers has also disappeared. It seems HYDRA has been trying to recreate the Three using the same methods that conditioned you so successfully."
It's a backhanded slap, and Clint grits his teeth against the scalding humiliation, refocusing on his anger.
"What does any of that have to do with Barney being beat to hell? He had nothing to do with Concordance, and he's a neutral besides; they couldn't have been after him."
"Special Agent Barton interfered with their plans."
"After two tours in the US Army, Charles Barton put a lot of work into becoming an agent of the FBI. But it seems something more than zeal for his country has been driving him. For the past year, he's spent all his free time investigating the same string of disappeared submissives."
Clint wants to punch Fury and call him a liar—Barney'd never cared about submissives—but instead he looks at his brother lying still in the hospital bed, searching the unconscious face for what could have changed him. Barney had been 18 and spitting mad when he'd left. Maybe the years that had broadened his shoulders had mellowed him.
"Last night HYDRA tried to take him out. I'm going to allow them to believe they've succeeded. Until this matter is resolved, Special Agent Barton will stay dead."
A hand lands heavily on Clint's shoulder, and Clint jumps out of reach, appalled to realize how close Fury had come while he'd been lost in memories.
Fuck fuck fuck, he's effectively alone with a dominant again, isn't he?
"Well, uh, thanks for letting me know, I guess," he fumbles, gesturing to Barney's bed. "I'll be sure to keep an eye on him."
Fury ignores his words and steps closer. "I have a man on the inside, a double agent who's infiltrated HYDRA to root out their experiments on submissives. He has a lead on where this project is being conducted, but he hasn't been able to get into a position to bring it down. We know they've gotten close to success in brainwashing subs; we need to put their work to an end right now."
Fury's gaze burns, and Clint finds himself rooted in place despite himself.
"I need something my man can use to get close to the project. An opportunity HYDRA can't possibly refuse. You're my golden ticket."
"Bait," Clint corrects him.
Fury acknowledges the term with a mean smile. "You owe me. But more than just me—you owe the world. You did a lot of bad shit for HYDRA, Barton. It's time you started working off that debt."
Clint wrenches his gaze away, but there's nothing to look at in the room besides Barney.
"You'll leave out the southeast exit within the hour," Fury tells him. "You'll allow yourself to be captured by the men waiting outside. My man will use you as bait to get close to HYDRA's project. Get him access—that's all I'm asking you to do."
"That's it, huh?" Clint says, but he hears himself fall short of sarcasm. He shakes himself. What Fury's asking of him is ludicrous. There's no way he could even consider—
"His name is Coulson. He'll be dressed as an officer and will identify himself with the words ‘It's a magical place.’ Do not kill him."
Clint doesn't respond, his eyes caught by the personal effects on the bedside table: a ring of keys, what look like crumpled receipts, and a banged up cell phone. He touches the phone in his sweatpants pocket. That unknown number hasn’t called since the middle of the night.
From the doorway, Fury repeats, "The southeast exit, Barton. Don't let it look easy."
"Wait—" he hears himself say. He takes a moment to put his suspicion into words. "How did you know what Barney was investigating?"
He hears Fury pause behind him.
"We've had him bugged since he started asking about the sealed Project Concordance file last summer."
Last summer. Clint'd been listed as Killed in Action for years, but the Army'd changed his status to a general discharge once they were exonerated in May. He hadn't bothered to think whether they'd notify anyone, such as his next of kin....
There's bile in Clint’s throat. His tongue feels numb when he asks, "Did he read it?"
Fury doesn't answer, just closes the door on his way out. It's answer enough.
Not only had Barney learned that his fuckup little brother was alive, he'd read up on the sick, sad story of Clint's life.
From their childhood together to Clint's foolhardy, far-too-late decision to follow Barney into the Army. Barney knows about Project Concordance's twisted experiments on submissives. As a Fed, he'd have had access to reports on The Three's terrorist actions—maybe even read Clint's testimony about the years he spent as a lapdog for one of the most evil men in the world.
And after reading all the shit Clint’d done, that he’d let be done to him, Barney had apparently spent the last year trying to prevent it happening to more subs...instead of making contact with Clint.
Clint continues staring at Barney’s phone, thinking of the long, silent voicemail. Why had he finally reached out? Had he needed help?
Or was he trying to warn Clint?
He could check the phone to confirm, know once and for all whether Barney was taking surveillance photos of him or of other HYDRA quarry.
He shivers and backs away, settling into the chair without touching the cell phone. It's better not knowing.
Clint can't be responsible for Barney's condition if he doesn't know for sure.
It's already too much that Barney'd been on a mission to stop HYDRA and whatever they had planned for those missing subs. That he'd seen those submissives as people worth protecting.... Even the thought of talking about it with Barney makes Clint's heart slam against his ribcage like a trapped bird.
Barney will wake up and want to know the status of his investigation. And Clint will have to say—what—that SHIELD had a lead, but Clint was too chickenshit to do his part?
Fury's pitch sounded straightforward: Allow himself to be captured by a SHIELD agent and taken somewhere. It couldn't take more than 48 hours, probably less than 24, right? HYDRA couldn't make him do much in that time.
And he would have this Agent Coulson as an ally to watch his back.
Piece of cake.
Far less terrifying than hanging around this hospital room, waiting for Barney's eyes to open, all condemnation and anger again.
Clint's hands tremble as he pulls the pistols from his waistband and lays them on the side table.
Nothing to be worried about. Falling into HYDRA's hands had been simple enough the first time. At least this time he’ll actually see it coming.
Jesus Christ, what is he doing?
He listens to the phone ring as he strides down the hall, dodging patients in wheelchairs with his cell pressed to his ear.
- "Clint?" - Natasha's cool answer is surreally normal. He'd forgotten that he'd hung up on her last time.
"Hey, hi, Nat! How's it going?"
She must pick up on his manic energy, because she immediately demands, - "What have you done?" -
"Done? Who, me? Nothing! I haven't done anything." Yet, he adds silently as he comes to a halt in sight of the hospital's rear exit.
- "Clint!" -
"So, I'm going to do something stupid. So stupid, Nat. I'm sorry in advance, okay, but you have to promise not to look for me."
- "What the fuck are you talking about—" -
"Brooklyn Hospital Center, Room 406. You have to look after Barney, okay? Promise you'll make Potts look after Barney."
- "I will kill you with my bare hands if you disappear on us—" -
"I love you, too. Shit, I really love you guys so much. Tell Bucky. And don't look for me. It's just for a little while. Fuck, bye."
Clint hangs up and tosses his cell in the hallway trash can, his stride lengthening as he hits the double glass doors.
HYDRA is waiting for him outside.
It's a shallow lot—more of an emergency drop-off and pull-through drive. At a glance, Clint counts at least three soldiers in basic uniforms—two behind the closest dumpster to the left, one behind an illegally parked van on his right.
Clint heads left, looking down at his hands as though still holding a phone. Sure enough, the first soldier lunges for him with a taser.
Clint yelps in fake alarm but catches the man's wrist before he can deploy the electrodes, taking the taser in one hand while throwing the man over his hip with the other. He quickly turns the taser on the second soldier, who gives a muffled cry and drops.
The first soldier grabs at his ankle even as Clint's spinning to anticipate an attack from behind the van. Instinct takes over, and Clint forgets to go down, instead kicking the downed man in the face and leaping out of reach.
"Fuck, fuck," Clint breathes, half theatrics and half misgivings as he backs toward the fence that separates the drive from the park. Would jumping the fence ruin Fury's plans?
A noise from behind gives him a split-second to avoid the slide tackle of a HYDRA officer. Clint fires his taser down at the officer, but the man's surprisingly quick, rolling behind a parked car before Clint can get him.
The soldier from the van finally makes it to the fight. Clint manages to drag out their grappling for several blows, but the man's glass jaw drops him far quicker than Clint had intended.
A gunshot from the mouth of the alley distracts Clint for a moment—
Every muscle in his body seizes as pain pumps into his lower back, his thin shirt no defense against the taser's vicious probes.
The electric charge doesn't let up until Clint's face down. He's still seizing and half-numb as his wrists are cuffed behind his back.
A heavy-soled boot steps on his face, pressing Clint's cheek into the asphalt, and a voice above him orders, "Bring the van. You, check the exit's still clear."
A couple of Yes, sirs!, followed by the sound of running feet—at least two soldiers following orders, and Clint can hear three pairs of feet still close by. Only a five-man squad to take him down; he's mildly insulted, even if this is just a set up.
God, please let this be a set up.
The boot lifts, and the officer's uniform bends over Clint in his peripheral vision. He gets the vaguest impression of white male, a flash of blue eyes.
"Clint Barton," the voice says coolly.
"No, that's my name," Clint gasps, panting through the reek of asphalt. "What's yours?"
"If you know what's good for you, you'll call me Sir." The officer's voice is all amused confidence, that smooth, smug tone that lands like a hand on the back of his neck, and oh shit, there's the other shoe Clint had forgotten to watch for.
HYDRA only promotes dominants.
Fuck, what's he done to himself now?
Clint finally struggles for real, instinctive and desperate, but the taser lights up his spine once more, and the darkness roars up, inescapable.
His arm hurts.
At first, it's his only thought. Full consciousness is slow to arrive; by the time he can assess his circumstances, he's been focused on the ache so single-mindedly that it's become agonizing. He shifts to take the weight off his left arm—only to find that changing position is impossible.
Clint catches his breath before he can make a sound, his predicament snapping into focus.
He's lying on what feels like corrugated metal; his left triceps aches from the ridge beneath it. And now that he thinks about them, both his shoulders flare to life, aching from the way his arms are pulled behind his back. He wiggles his fingers slightly, pleased to feel all 10 digits and to have some range of motion. Twisting his wrists results in the distinct sensation of metal rubbing the knobby bones, and the prickle of tape pulling on his arm hair.
Duct tape over handcuffs. Nice to see someone still respects his skills.
Pulling his arms away from his body proves inadvisable—the gesture immediately tugs on his ankles, which Clint realizes are hog tied behind him. He's well and truly incapacitated.
At least there's no gag, he concludes, parting his lips just enough to inhale the stale taste of pressurized air.
An airplane, then—the vibration of the engines and the icy touch of the floor on his bare arm complete the picture. He must have been unconscious for the move from the van to this aircraft. He should have expected air travel would be involved; HYDRA had few North American locations as of two years ago—none he knew of in easy driving distance of Manhattan.
He cracks open his left eye, then risks opening both in the dim cabin. No windows means the jet must be used for personnel or materiel transport—it also means he can't judge the time of day or direction of their travel. He's adrift.
Clint gradually becomes aware of a weight on his right hip, rocking him with the slight turbulence. Concentrating, he realizes it's the ankle of a boot, and he twitches involuntarily.
He's being used as a fucking footrest!
His movement must give him away, because the boot lifts from his side. Above him, he hears, "Re-confirm our ETA. It won't do to keep the doctor waiting."
"Sir," another voice says, harder to hear over the white noise of the cabin, and Clint watches a pair of legs in HYDRA foot-soldier uniform walk past his face. The flash of daylight as the cockpit opens obliterates Clint's night vision, but he makes out a single silhouette in the pilot's cabin.
Something hard nudges Clint's lower back, just to the side of his bound wrists. It takes him a moment to guess it's the toe of the officer's boot.
Clint debates how to reply. The officer's tone is bland, giving Clint no sign whether it's safe to talk. Hell, he hasn't even confirmed that this is Fury's man.
Rather than waste energy cursing his captors, Clint quips, "Is this about that timeshare lecture I skipped? Because I totally meant to attend the next one—"
A tsk stops Clint, who'd just started to twist his neck so he could look up at the man. Clint resigns himself not to look, but he shimmies forward an inch until the ridges in the floor press against different spots on his arm.
"I'm very invested in the tropics," Clint continues inanely. "The sun and sand and—"
"And little umbrellas in the cocktails, yes. I think you'll find our destination an equally magical place," the officer—Coulson—says. "In fact, I know you'll learn to enjoy it...even if I have to teach you myself."
The impatient delivery doesn't give the code words any special significance, but Clint's bound shoulders relax a fraction in spite of the accompanying threat.
"Fuck you, HYDRA scum," he grits out for the sake of anyone listening.
"That's not a very nice thing to say. I've already told you to address me as Sir. If you must, you can use my title, Lieutenant Coulson."
"I won't be here long enough to need your name," Clint vows, fishing for more information from Fury's undercover agent. "I'll be rescued in no time."
Coulson's hum is difficult to hear over the sound of the engines. "Stubborn. I'd heard that about you. Good. I like my subs mouthy. The more you resist, the better it'll be for me."
"Be careful what you wish for," Clint warns on autopilot, his mind racing. Are those his marching orders? Be rebellious and bratty? It's hard to separate the double talk from the menacing-dom vibe.
The cockpit door opens once more, and Clint goes back to feigning unconsciousness.
"35 minutes, sir," the guard reports, returning to his seat on the far side of Coulson. "She wants to know what our mystery cargo is."
"She'll have to wait and see for herself."
"Her boys are gonna shit themselves when they see what we've brought 'em."
"I'm sure they'll make him feel right at home."
There's a pause before the guard works up the courage to suggest, "Shame to let them have all the fun. Sir." When there's no audible response, he continues, "She wouldn't even have to know. We could break him in a little first. They're so pretty when they beg for it."
Coulson's boot lands on Clint's hip, treads-down this time in an unmistakable claim. The guard falls silent, leaving Clint to imagine the quelling look the barely glimpsed Agent Coulson is giving his underling.
He silently curses himself for the warmth that's ignited in his chest. He's always been a slut for dominants—especially the ones that were bad for him. But having this dominant stake a claim on him, protect him from the greedy gaze of the HYDRA soldier....
Clint squeezes his hands into fists behind his back and tries not to think about the feel of the treads sinking into his skin, bruising like marks from a possessive hand.
It's the safest he's felt in forever.
Coulson's boot finally lifts at touchdown.
When the jet stops, three men board and exchange low words with Coulson in the dim interior of the craft. They cut the bindings around Clint's ankles and haul him to his feet before he has time to get full circulation back. Extra clumsy with his hands still chained behind his back, he nearly topples them all on the steep staircase down.
He emerges to warm, moist air, and a sun just sinking to the horizon. Across an empty parking lot, a sprawling, two-story industrial building sits nestled in acres of moss-dripping trees. They've apparently flown south for at least a couple hours.
"Shit, guys, I just remembered—I forgot to pack my Claritin," Clint snarks. "My mold allergy is gonna be—"
A fist to the gut steals his breath, but he makes sure to stomp on the foot of the offending guard as he folds over.
Before the man can retaliate, Coulson barks, "Careful with the merchandise. He's worth more than you."
Clint can’t help catching the subtle praise implied in the warning, and his cheeks flush.
When he's yanked upright, he takes the opportunity to observe the men around him. They're all HYDRA, of course, but none of them look like the guys from the hospital. Coulson seems to be the only member of the original squad to deplane. Coulson's back is to him, preventing Clint from getting any useful information beyond light-brown hair, so Clint studies the ranking guard.
The insignia on his uniform identifies him as a corporal, the lowest officer rank, with barely enough authority to oversee a small team. Likely a neutral, then, stuck at the highest rank HYDRA would offer a non-dominant.
If a corporal is the welcoming committee, there must not be a dominant officer assigned to this facility. It also implies there's not much manpower on site. Clint's not sure what to make of this development, but he allows himself a brief moment to be relieved he won't be surrounded by HYDRA dominants.
Coulson's already gotten too far under his skin, and he's on Clint's side.
The corporal is properly deferential to Coulson's rank, directing one of his men back aboard to retrieve Coulson's duffle. But his expression is openly suspicious of the strange officer that's invaded his command. His wariness changes when he gets a good look at Clint, however, and he recoils a full step in alarm.
Clint's not surprised to be recognized. Even if Coulson's kept Clint's identity a secret so far, the appearances of The Three were common knowledge among HYDRA—especially with the bounty on their heads after their escape.
The corporal regains confidence after a moment, and his face darkens with anger. He spits at Clint, spittle landing on his gray sweatpants, then nods at Coulson with real respect.
"Corporal Geerts, sir. It's a privilege."
Clint rolls his eyes, but he allows Coulson to take credit for capturing him—as though Clint couldn't have taken out the entire five-man team alone and unarmed if he'd wanted to.
"Let's get moving," Coulson orders.
Geerts gestures Coulson to walk beside him, and the two guards flank Clint, their hands digging into his elbows.
The parking lot pavement is cracked with neglect and misuse; it was clearly never meant to support the weight of an aircraft. The glass-doored entryway and the institutional hallway beyond reveal the location to be an office building built in the early 1970s.
The hallway is only dimly lit, much of the illumination provided by the waning daylight filtering through the partially glass doors that line the hall. Clint spies empty offices and meeting rooms beyond, and, through the windows, dense foliage pressing against the glass. He doesn't spot any broken windows, but the dank air, overgrown vegetation, and grit under his shoes tell the story of a disused building giving in to the humid climate.
They come to a set of double doors leading to a different wing of the facility, and one of the guards buzzes them through a state-of-the-art security system that Bucky would’ve admired...before he shacked up with the Starks.
On the other side, the halls are fully lit. The linoleum floors are still dirty here, but less gritty, suggesting the occasional pass of a broom. The air is fresher, too—climate control evidently a priority for Geerts or the mysterious she who runs this location. Clint glances into as many rooms as he can while they walk; unlike those glimpsed in the other hallway, these offices all have bars on the outside windows.
He blames the chill that runs up his spine on the air conditioning.
"Let me guess: The maid doesn't come til Monday?"
Coulson spins on his heel to glare, finally giving Clint a clear look at him. He's just about Clint's height, with a high forehead and a squared-off chin. Average looks, maybe verging on handsome if it weren't for that ferocious scowl—not that that's a turn off, when mixed with dominant outrage.
Clint looks away, surprised by his own thoughts. He makes accidental eye contact with Geerts instead, and shies away from the malice in the corporal's gaze. He falls back on babbling to cover for his unease.
"I'm just saying, you bring me all this way, they can't even sweep the floors—"
Coulson steps right into Clint's space, his hand coming up to grab Clint high on the throat, thumb and index fingers squeezing just under Clint's jaw.
"Look at me." An order—not in the dominant voice that would send Clint under, but compelling nonetheless.
The guards' hold is steady, not letting him move an inch. After a moment Clint meets Coulson's eyes.
"What did I say about that mouth of yours?"
Clint shivers and blurts, "That it was the best head you'd ever had?"
Coulson tightens his grip, fingers digging in cruelly. He leans in close, staring Clint down.
Clint blinks fast, his mind a snarl of confused observations. He knows this is Fury's man, but Coulson sure as hell seems like a real HYDRA dominant: icy arrogance, crackling blue eyes that cut right through Clint like he's vermin. He'd seen that same look on the face of dozens of HYDRA officers over the years, and familiarity has his instincts going haywire, telling him to submit in hopes of appeasing the dom's anger, maybe even earning something pleasurable.
He has to break the moment, but he can't think of anything to say. "Uhh..." he gasps past the constriction.
"'Sir,'" Coulson prompts, not loosening his hold at all.
"Sir," Clint repeats helplessly.
Coulson smiles coolly and pats his cheek before turning away, leaving Clint trembling as blood rushes to the abused flesh of his throat.
The guards resume dragging Clint down the hall before he can process his reaction to the confrontation. It's been a long time since he faced off with an aggressive dominant, but his knees still remember the urge to drop to the floor, and his steps are faltering.
"She's waiting for you in her office, sir," Corporal Geerts says, leading them to a wooden door at the end of the hall. He knocks but doesn't wait for an answer before opening the door.
"Doctor, your guests have arrived."
The guards march Clint into what was once an executive's office, with an oversized desk and a faded area rug filling the space. A ragged square has been cut out of the carpet in front of the desk, and a wooden, straight-backed chair stands in the space, its legs bolted to brackets set in the floor, legs and arms sporting metal restraints.
One guess who's going in that seat.
The guards lead Clint to stand beside the chair, and Coulson's hand lands heavily on his shoulder.
There's a blonde woman in a lab coat seated behind the desk, her head bent over a tablet. She looks up after a minute, her eyes skipping over him to glare at Coulson.
Completely missing Clint's silent, shocked recognition.
"I was surprised to receive your message, Lieutenant. I'm certain I asked HYDRA for more funds, not a new test subject." Her voice is more familiar than Clint would have imagined, even after all these years. The flat hostility is new, but he'd know her blindfolded.
Coulson's grip tightens on Clint's shoulder and shakes him gently for emphasis. "I think you'll agree that this is more than a mere test subject, Doctor."
When she finally takes a good look at Clint, the professional affect falls away. Her jaw drops, and her eyes go as round as his must be.
"Dr. Nesvik?" he manages, embarrassed by how young he suddenly sounds.
She stares at him in astonishment for several more seconds, then her eyes narrow warily, her gaze darting between Clint and Lieutenant Coulson. Her fingers tap the desk as she thinks.
"I'm glad to see you remember him," Coulson says.
"Yes, I do remember," she says curtly, all her attention on Coulson now. She points without looking. "Put him in the chair."
Clint forgets to resist when the guards drag him toward the inevitable chair, too thrown by seeing the angel from his past in a HYDRA facility, of all places. There's the flick of a knife and the sting of tape being ripped off his wrists, followed by the removal of the handcuffs, and then he's being pressed down into the hard seat, his wrists and ankles fastened into the restraints, but all he can do is stare at her slow smile.
Finished, the two guards leave the room. The corporal and Coulson remain somewhere behind Clint, making his shoulders twitch.
She stands and circles her desk.
"Well. This is a welcome sight. I didn't think I'd ever see you again, my little soldier," she says, her firm tone shifting into something sweeter, more playful. "I hear you've been quite the bad boy. But that wasn't your fault; they just didn't know how to treat you right. You were never bad for me, were you? No."
Clint strains impotently against the shackles, trying to dispel the flood of memories—daydreams, really—that her doting manner evokes.
She'd been one of the youngest researchers in Project Concordance—the only one who'd been nothing but kind to him. She'd showered him with attention and affection he hadn't known since his mom died when he was a little kid. He'd been 17 when he first met Dr. Nesvik, starved for the one-on-one connection she'd offered.
He used to fantasize about her gentle hands running through his hair, her sweet voice telling him how good he was, how proud he made her.
Watching her approach him now, he can't help but crave her touch again, her dominant voice that could so easily make the strain of the last few days fade away into oblivion.
But to encounter her here, ordering around HYDRA soldiers....
"What's going on?" he asks. "What are you doing here?"
Standing before him, she studies him silently for a long moment, looking him over thoroughly without closing the last inches between them. There's a coldness in her appraising eyes that had never been there before, and his skin crawls despite the need.
"Lieutenant Phillip Coulson," the agent interrupts, stepping into Clint’s view. "I'm a fan of your work, Dr. Nesvik."
Her gaze shifts to Coulson’s extended hand, and gratitude shoots through Clint at the reprieve.
"I heard your regular supplier has recently encountered some difficulties. I'm here to take his place."
Her expression shuts down again, clearly hostile. "What sort of difficulties?"
"Apparently he went after a target that was too difficult for him."
Her gaze flicks back to Clint, and he jerks at the realization that they're talking about whoever hurt Barney.
"But not too difficult for you?" she asks dubiously, but her eyes are devouring Clint once more.
"I happened across your old notes," Coulson explains, apparently not noticing the way her attention whips back to him, alarm written in the slope of her shoulders. "Your observations of Barton's dependency made my strategy clear. My men staked out various state clinics in the vicinity of Manhattan. We simply waited for Barton to isolate himself, and closed the trap."
Clint's cheeks flame. Had he really made himself that obvious of a target? Was he destined to bring recapture upon himself thanks to his pathetic dependency?
He's not sure how long he wallows in self-loathing, but when he finally focuses on her again, she seems to be at least humoring Coulson's explanation.
"Did he sustain any damage?"
"He was tased unconscious and tranqed, but no injuries of note. He's intact. And ready for you to go to work."
Her fingers twitch toward Clint, but she takes a step back to lean against her desk, bracing her hands on the edges of the desk at her sides. Her eyes are searing, overflowing with power and promise, and though he doesn't move, Clint can feel himself wobbling, teetering on the edge of falling into her golden gaze, until she becomes the sun, the center of his entire world, and he loses himself in—
"I know we don't have a prior relationship, but you'll find that my connections within HYDRA more than speak for themselves. I believe we'll work well together, Doctor," Coulson says, leaning one hip against the side of her desk, making himself at home.
The interruption draws her ire, and Clint wrenches his head to the side to avoid looking at the discordant blur of anger on her once-kind face. He takes in Coulson's earnest expression, the overconfidence that radiates from him, how perfectly he channels the privileged young doms HYDRA liked to promote beyond their capabilities. He blinks, startled to realize that Coulson can't be much older than himself.
"If you're so well connected, it's interesting that you'd bring him to me. I understand Supreme Hydra had issued a large reward for his capture."
"The reward he's offering is just money. I'm after something bigger."
Her eyes drift inevitably back to Clint at that.
He looks at her pointed chin.
"I'm already familiar with your current project, due to my work under Dr. Whitehall." Clint doesn't recognize the name, but Coulson says it with significance. "I've been routing your status updates to him for the past year; your recent request for more money raised some red flags. He's growing anxious for your work to be completed."
Her brows crease at that, but still her gaze stays on Clint. She appears to be staring at the sore spots below his jaw, where Coulson had grabbed him. Her fingers twitch again.
"Humor me here until your work is successful, and I'll report back to Whitehall that you're all but finished, and that your request for funds should be approved. You'll get your money, and I'll get to be a part of something...quite special."
Her attention finally flicks back to Coulson, and Clint holds his breath.
She hmms and tilts her head before her smile turns sly. "I accept your terms, Lieutenant Coulson."
"Thank you, doctor. You won't even realize I'm here. Though I will need to watch your work—for my reports back to Whitehall."
"Of course," she murmurs with a smirk. "Speaking of my work, let's get down to it." She claps her hands briskly and shoos Coulson away from her desk, leaving her as the only person in Clint's direct eye line.
"How long has it been since we've seen each other, Barton?"
Eight years, his mind supplies, but Clint's not about to give her an inch he doesn't have to. He searches for something clever to say, but all his backtalk vanished the moment he saw her again.
"Cat got your tongue? You're not scared, I hope? No, there's nothing to be scared of; you're a good, quiet sub who wants to do just what I say."
The sweet words and singsong tone make his head spin, but it's the confusion of déjà vu, not a drop. Not yet. She hasn't used her domme voice yet.
But there's time; he's chained to a chair, after all.
She studies him for a reaction, then pouts. "It's been a long time, hasn't it, my dear? Nearly a decade. Tsk. Look what's happened to your face, all rough and marked up. You were such a pretty thing when you came to me."
Clint shakes his head to clear the sudden wave of shame. Her words are empty manipulation, meant to disorient him. Sure, his features had been softer, rounder as a teen, but he'd already been marked by hard living in the circus—and by the hands of his first dominants.
Besides, if time has taken its toll on him, it's done at least as much to her looks.
He'd been half-infatuated with her when he was younger; she'd been in her mid-20s then. She'd taken her work very seriously but always had a smile for him and the other study participants. He used to dream about touching the long, blonde hair she kept in a stern ponytail. She'd had soft hands—unlike his dominants' rough hands, callused from daily performances—that had felt amazing on his face and throat when she dropped him.
Now her hair is bobbed below her chin and pinned back at the temples—middle age settling on her even as her cheekbones and jaw became more defined. But it's the scowl lines that he can't unsee, the way the default set of her jaw is different, angrier. He'd have sworn she didn't have a mean bone in her body—now she's nothing but.
"Surely in all that time you haven't forgotten everything we'd practiced. The things I could do for you with just my voice. Right, little lamb?"
Clint shudders as her voice changes, shifting just slightly lower, smoother, into the range that gives dominants a direct line into subs' neediest selves. A wave of compulsion hits like thigh-high surf, threatening to drag him under.
She leans forward, gazing into his eyes with that earnest expression he remembers so well. "You've missed me so badly. You'd do anything to be mine again, wouldn't you?"
He grits his teeth against the possessive sweetness of her domme voice and pulls frantically against the wrist shackles, desperate to plug his ears.
"Come on now. You can do it for me. Just like we used to. Just for my voice. You always were so easy for me, such a good, easy boy."
Shame burns in his chest—not the hollow humiliation she can push on him against his will, but the bitter truth in her words. He'd been incredibly easy for her. Normal submissives don't drop for just a voice. Normal submissives need a dominant's touch as well. But not Clint, her prize pupil. She'd trained him to drop for just her voice, for others' voices, and he'd squirmed like a puppy every time she praised him for it.
She's standing close now, so close, almost touching, and says in his ear, "You don't want to disappoint me. You don't want to be one of those disobedient boys who doesn't get what he needs. You remember how much it hurts to go without. I'm the only one who can give it to you."
God, Clint remembers how much it had hurt even just this morning, when he'd gone more than a week without dropping. He remembers how much it'd hurt to go weeks—months—without a drop under the watch of the Concordance doctors. The entire fucking year he'd spent on the run with his friends, when he'd felt like he'd go insane from the need as they kept him away from dominants altogether.
He'd do anything to not feel that again—
It takes Clint a moment to notice that the whimpering sound is coming from his own throat.
He cringes and chokes off the sound, then blinks, startled to realize that her voice isn't enough for him anymore. Tempting as her command is—God knows how tempting, HYDRA and the mission be damned—it seems he's lost the trick of giving into the drop without a dom's possessive touch to guide him down.
Nesvik snorts and shifts out of her domme voice. "Someone's made a hash of my training, haven't they? All that work I put into you, and you can't drop untouched anymore."
Clint can't help the way his chin drops to his chest, neck curling in mortification. He knows what she's asking him for is wrong, but the disappointment in her tone absolutely guts him.
But her next words make him flinch in fear.
"Guess I'll have to reestablish possession manually."
He can't seem to raise his head, so he watches helplessly through his lashes as she closes in, her hands reaching. He's so close as it is, if she touches him—
Slender fingers slide into Clint's hair and tug, tilting his face up to see hers hovering above. She tips his head this way and that before her other hand strokes his cheek.
"There's my good little lamb. You want to make me happy, don't you, Barton?" she coos, and the ground below Clint starts to crumble.
A flicker of movement in his peripheral vision catches his eye, and he wrenches his gaze from hers, desperate to prevent the inevitable. He spots Coulson leaning on the desk again, brushing lint off his shoulder and looking bored—almost as though, now that he’s gotten what he wanted, he doesn’t care what happens to Clint.
Anger shoots through his veins, replacing the despair with a vigor that leaves him shaking in her hands, deaf to her continued coaxing. He wrenches his face out of her grasp and snaps, "Don't touch me!"
Nesvik frowns and tries to pet his face again, saying, "Now don't be naughty, Barton. It's so much nicer to be good."
Clint jerks his head to avoid her touch. "Don't!"
"This seems to be going well. Looks like Barton will be an excellent test of your methods, Doctor—feistier than the homeless subs you've been experimenting on," Coulson says, voice deadpan, and Clint blinks at him for a moment, caught off guard by the dry humor, particularly in this horrible situation.
"Don't interfere, Lieutenant!" she barks, but Clint finally remembers Coulson's instruction on the jet.
He blurts the first thing that comes into his head. "These the nicest digs HYDRA could find? I squatted in better dumps than this, and they didn't have walls. And what were you going for with this office? Looks like you missed shabby chic and settled for shabby."
Nesvik scowls and catches him by the hair, forcing him to face her.
Panicking, Clint keeps up the torrent of insults. If he can just keep talking, maybe he won't give in. It's a dying hope. Of course he'll give in eventually. He's always been too weak for doms—hadn't Bucky said as much?
"The lab coat's a bit much. The mad-scientist shtick is overplayed, don't you think? And wow, I thought my hair looked bad after a year on the run, but yours looks like shit. Don't they have shampoo here?"
"Shut up!" Her free hand swings back, open-palmed, and Clint can only watch, shocked by this unseen side of her.
"Here, use this. Your hands aren't strong enough for the beating he deserves," Coulson says, holding out a glove to her.
Clint darts an incredulous look at the man, but Coulson is watching her, his expression bland.
For just an instant, she reaches for the glove—then stops herself and releases Clint. She crosses her arms and huffs, glaring at Clint while the fingers of one hand move in an uneven rhythm on her bicep.
Finally she makes an angry sound and shakes out her arms. "Geerts, put him away for the night. I'll deal with him tomorrow."
Clint twitches; he'd forgotten the corporal was still in the room. Behind him, the office door opens, and he hears male voices, the sound of boots entering. Then the guards from before are at his sides, unfastening the wrist cuffs.
He braces himself to lash out, but each wrist is captured in a thick manacle the moment the chair restraints spring open.
They leave his ankles unbound. His mind races.
Even with his hands held before him, connected by a short chain, he could take out two, three guards. He could be running down the hall, making a break for it, maybe make it out into the woods and follow the roads back to civilization.
Of course, that's hoping there aren't a dozen more HYDRA soldiers on premises to hunt him down, let alone the possibility of dogs to track him.
And, fuck, would him escaping now endanger Coulson's mission?
Clint looks Coulson's way as he's led out the door, but the double agent's back is turned. He's already speaking quietly with Dr. Nesvik.
Now that Coulson's gotten what he wanted, what's next for Clint?
He follows where the guards lead, vaguely aware of shock finally setting in as they move deeper into the HYDRA facility.
It's a nightmare come to life. And his only hope is a double agent who'd rather choke him than help him.
"Wake up," he whispers to himself.
I'm so excited for you all to meet Trinity 'Verse Phil Coulson! It was a real treat to see de-aged Coulson in Captain Marvel, which put him closer to his age in this story: late 20s. Like the other characters in this AU, his backstory is slightly different from the MCU and comic versions. There's so much for Clint to discover about this Coulson as the story progresses! I can't wait!
You guys, AO3 has brought me so much joy for more than a decade, and I'm privileged to post this new chapter during the Organization for Transformative Works's semi-annual fundraiser. The thousands of stories I've read, the stories I've written, and the comments and kudos I've given and received—they've all meant so much to me! If you can say the same, I hope you'll join me in donating to the OTW this weekend, as much or as little as you can. This Hugo Award-nominated platform is a gift to all of fandom; let's keep those servers churning happily!
<3 <3 <3
The hallways in HYDRA's wing of the building twist and turn, doing nothing to dispel the sense that he's trapped in a nightmare.
Eventually Corporal Geerts stops in front of another obviously new door. In addition to an electronic keypad, this door features reinforced hinges, metal plates, and a covered horizontal slot just above waist height.
Geerts types in a 5-digit code Clint can't see, followed by a muted thunk of the lock disengaging. The heavy cell door swings open silently.
Faced with the yawning doorway, Clint balks in instinctive rejection of the inevitable, but someone kicks him in the back of the knee, and he's thrust, stumbling, into the small room.
He spins in time to watch the door shut with unnerving solidity, hear the finality of the lock being engaged.
For a full five seconds his frozen lungs try to convince him that there's no oxygen in the cell.
The slot in the door shoots open with a metallic rasp, startling him out of his nascent panic attack.
From the other side, Geerts orders, "Hands."
Clint eyes the narrow opening and then his manacled wrists. Crouching slightly, he gathers the short length of connecting chain in his fists and sticks both hands through the opening.
A guard removes the cuffs with silent efficiency—yet another sign that Clint is far from the first prisoner to be held here.
He yanks his freed hands back through the door, and the slot slams shut before he can try to peer through it. This time he presses his ear to the metal and catches the muffled sound of footsteps moving away, then silence.
There's a handle on Clint's side of the door. He can't help trying it, even though he already knows it's locked. His grip tightens involuntarily on the immovable handle until his knuckles turn white and his arms shake, but Clint closes his eyes and breathes, reminds himself that it's just for a few hours. He'll be rescued any time now.
Eventually he manages to release his grip and takes stock of his surroundings to distract himself.
The original walls, ceiling, and floor have been clad in metal sheets, welded together and reinforced in the corners with thick bolts. Everything is painted a dull, muted gray, and the only furnishings are a small metal sink, a metal toilet, and a cot with a thin pallet. There's a narrow drain in the center of the floor to keep prisoners from flooding the cell, and a couple of small vents near the ceiling. The only light is a single, overhead fixture behind a metal cage.
Clint can't shake the incongruity of finding such a room in an office building. Given the plumbing, he assumes this was once a bathroom. Whoever handled the remodeling had created a fine approximation of a 6' by 9' cell.
More to keep himself busy than out of any hope of escape, Clint knocks on all the walls and tests all the welds. He pokes at the piece of metal covering the door slot—secured from the outside—and determines that the floor drain is too narrow to fit his hand. A quick inspection reveals that the cot is bolted in place and assembled from metal slats that can't be removed from the frame without a blowtorch.
The cot is also extremely uncomfortable, which he discovers after running out of distractions.
The sound of approaching footsteps finally breaks the monotony, and Clint jumps to his feet, wondering if he'll be attacked by a HYDRA goon or rescued by a SHIELD Strike Team.
Instead the slot opens, and a tray is pushed through the door.
"Ten seconds before I drop it," a voice warns.
Clint debates letting it fall, but curiosity and boredom win out. He takes the tray, and the slot is covered quickly afterward.
He inspects the tray's contents, curious to see what passes for food at this decrepit location, then promptly gags at the familiar smell.
The vegetarian omelet, the worst MRE he'd ever eaten.
In the Concordance program, they'd fed the test subjects mass-produced food in a cafeteria. But later, when he'd been out in the field with his handler Ames, there'd been MREs. And whenever the "vomelet" came up in rotation, it'd fallen to Clint.
The vomelet stands alone on the tray, a warm, slightly wobbly, orange rectangle. It seems they've already stripped the side dishes and seasonings that had made this MRE a barely edible meal, leaving just the bare, stinking faux omelet.
He doesn't hesitate before tearing the plasticky mass to pieces and flushing it down the toilet; he even rinses the cardboard tray in the tiny sink to get rid of as much of the stench as possible. Once the refuse is gone, Clint sticks his face under the stream of water and drinks his fill from the faucet.
The excitement of dinner over, he tosses the tray into the corner and sits back on the cot, trying not to let the anxiety creep back in.
So he's locked in a HYDRA cell—it could be worse. He signed up for it this time. True, his friends don't know where he is, but he's not alone; he has an ally that HYDRA doesn't know about. Clint's done what he was supposed to: gotten Fury's man inside. Mission over. At this very moment, Coulson is getting the word to SHIELD to muster a Strike Team to take out the facility.
SHIELD will come for him any minute now.
They have to. Because he can't face her again.
He's shocked he managed to hold out for even the few minutes of her direct attention earlier. He'd felt himself giving way, but he'd been distracted by Coulson's infuriating indifference before he could let go completely. A lucky fluke, but not something he can count on again. Tomorrow he'll have gone even longer without dropping; the need will keep getting worse the longer he's here, the longer he's in her presence.
She knows where he's weakest; his pathetic need to please had been on full display for her today, the disdain in her voice slicing through him with the precision of a scalpel. He can already feel how easy it would be to give her everything she wants, how incredible it would feel to give her everything.
He'd sworn to master his dynamic. If he gives into what she's offering even once, he can't be sure he'll ever dig his way back out again.
Gritting his teeth, Clint drags himself upright and tips over into a handstand. Pacing the narrow width of the cell on his hands, he eases the anxiety through his old circus trick of focusing on his body and letting his mind escape into fantasies.
He won't have to see her again, because soon his cell door will be blasted open, and SHIELD agents will escort him home. He'll ask Natasha to have Potts put him up in Malibu. And when his brother wakes up, Fury can tell Barney what a good job Clint did finishing Barney's mission for him, without Clint having to see his face.
It's a good, concrete image, and focusing on it keeps Clint successfully distracted through two patrols—automatically catalogued as pairs of footsteps walking slowly past his door. He lies down to rest after the first patrol, determined not to wear himself out before rescue. Without a clock to tell time, Clint decides to consider the patrols hourly. Factoring for sunset, the change in latitude, and the time since he arrived, he has to assume it's sometime past midnight.
Surely the call's been made. Any minute now SHIELD will bust him out.
Eventually the guards pass again, and Clint's hope sours at another uneventful hour ticking by. A suspicion he can't quash takes hold: What if Coulson hasn't called in SHIELD?
Clint doesn't have any definite reason to be suspicious. But Coulson had been disturbingly comfortable ordering around guards and name dropping the hierarchy. Clint had been distracted at the time, but now that he focuses, he recalls that Coulson had negotiated with Nesvik for a prolonged stay at her facility—on the pretense of watching her condition Clint.
Why had Coulson wanted to stay longer? There's no reason to stay longer than one night! And if he does mean to stay, does he intend to keep Clint here as well? As cover? Or for some more selfish reason?
After all, the treacherous, needy thought bubbles up, hadn't he been exquisitely possessive?
Clint rubs his jaw where the skin is tender from Coulson's grip. The sensation combines with his memory of the assault, of Coulson's hot breath and steely eyes, to send a zing of arousal down his spine.
He yanks his hand away, cursing himself. It's just the withdrawal talking—and his old instinct to seduce his way into doms' good graces. But he doesn't do that anymore. He knows better now.
And anyway, Coulson isn't HYDRA. Fury knows him; he'd know if Coulson had switched sides—or had decided to go into business for himself.
No, Fury is expecting Coulson's call tonight, and the rescue team is standing by. Any minute now.
It becomes his mantra as he fends off sleep, keeping himself alert for his imminent rescue.
Any minute now.
Finally, he hears a different set of footsteps in the hallway—too soon for a patrol—and Clint presses his ear to the door, straining to make out distant explosions or shouts of alarm. Instead he hears only the unhurried tread of a single pair of boots approaching his cell.
His mind races as he holds himself ready. Is it Coulson coming to sneak him out? A guard looking to have some fun at Clint's expense?
The keypad is loud from this side of the door as the digits are entered correctly. The lock mechanism thuds within the door.
Clint watches the handle turn on its own, his heart pounding in readiness.
The door cracks open, and an officer's uniform slips inside. Without even looking at Clint, Coulson turns his back and pulls the heavy door shut behind him.
Unprepared for this turn of events, Clint is seconds too late to stop Coulson from locking them both in—then belatedly realizes he hasn't heard the lock re-engage.
The agent turns and raises his eyebrows at Clint's proximity.
"Why'd you shut the door? Where are they? Let's go!" Clint demands, fists clenching as he shifts his weight.
"The SHIELD extraction team! To get us out of here and arrest Dr. Nesvik!"
"Calm down, Barton."
"Don't tell me to calm down!" He crowds into Coulson's space, barely keeping himself from grabbing the man. "We need to go!"
"Your agitation doesn't help anything." Clint's blood boils at the dismissal, but Coulson shows no sign of noticing, holding Clint's gaze steadily even as he lets himself be backed up one step, two, until his back is pressed to the door. In that obnoxiously unflappable voice, he says, "You need to relax. I'm on your side. Trust me."
The blithe assurance given by a stranger in a goddamn HYDRA uniform reignites Clint's banked suspicions.
"If you were on my side, we'd be out of here already! I'd be in the back of a Quinjet, headed home."
"They're not coming tonight. They never were."
"The fuck are you talking about! Fury said this would be quick, in and out!" Clint insists, but his heart is already sinking. Fury hadn't exactly said anything about the extraction plan.
That manipulative fucking bastard!
"I don't know what the Director told you. But the plan is for extraction tomorrow night. 24 more hours."
"Fuck that. I'll take my chances with the guards and the woods." He gestures for Coulson to move out of the way, but the agent doesn't budge from his spot blocking the door handle.
“Our mission's not done,” Coulson objects, as though that has any bearing on whether Clint stays or goes.
"Stay here if you want. I'm out. Get out of the way," Clint grits. He sways forward, doing his best to loom over a man of equal height, but Coulson blinks calmly at him, hands never leaving his sides.
It's a little like challenging Natasha, the way Coulson clearly doesn't consider him a threat. He even twitches an eyebrow like her, when she wants Clint to stop being an idiot and use his brain already. It takes the wind out of his sails, and he steps back, a little unnerved.
"Can we be reasonable now? I'm Coulson," he says, holding out his hand.
He's still so goddamn expressionless; Clint wants to break his nose. Instead Clint crosses his arms and glares. He hasn't given up on leaving, not by a long shot.
"Good job handling Nesvik. It can't have been easy seeing her again, but you did alright."
The lukewarm praise rings hollow, but it still worms through his defenses. Clint furrows his brows against the way they instinctively soften.
Coulson gives him a once over that lingers on his throat. "You're undamaged. That's good."
"Good? Nothing about this is good!"
"You haven't been injured, you've your wits about you, and you're unbound," Coulson points out, rapid-fire. "Optimal status for this mission."
"I am in a cell!" Clint yells, the words coming out staccato. "In a HYDRA base! This is my nightmare!"
"It was a nightmare for a lot of other subs before you," Coulson snaps. When Clint's struck silent, he continues more evenly, "That's why we're both here, Barton. To stop other submissives from ending up in this exact same position."
Clint shakes his head, refusing to be distracted. "I'm really happy I got you here, but my part is done, okay? That was my deal with Fury. If you want to hang around playing dress up, that's your business. But I'm out of here tonight."
Incredulity flickers across Coulson's face before his expression shutters, his frosty gaze cutting right through Clint. "Don't let me stop you," he says, stepping aside to clear the path to the unlocked door.
Clint itches to run, but he eyes Coulson warily. When the SHIELD agent shows no sign of stopping him, he reaches for the handle.
"Why'd you agree to this mission in the first place, Barton?"
"You were HYDRA's prisoner for what, five years? Why put yourself back here for even a few hours?"
Clint pictures Barney's battered face, the missed calls on his cell phone. The disgust in Barney's expression as he'd left, and the decade of silence that followed. Clint couldn't face him with his mission undone. Hell, his part has already been a success, but his plan to hide from Barney in Malibu is still very much on the table.
"Rumor has it you were one of HYDRA's top operatives, with nearly two dozen high-value kills to your credit—and that's even before Mentallo acquired your friends and turned The Three into their most-feared hit squad."
Clint keeps his back turned to hide his flinch, even as his shoulders tense in anger. This SHIELD agent can talk about Clint's crimes all he wants, but he doesn't know shit about Natasha and Bucky.
"They say Mentallo's telepathy was a hell of a leash. It must have been terrifying, the years you spent under his thumb. Half a decade unable to resist the worst-possible orders—"
"Stop!" Clint finally exclaims, whirling to face Coulson.
"I can only imagine how Nesvik's victims must have felt. Do you think they knew what she was conditioning them for? Could they have even imagined the fate that awaited them in HYDRA's hands? How many of them are already serving in HYDRA's army, as helpless to resist as you were?"
"Not all of them," Clint blurts, then bites his tongue. Coulson's scoring enough guilt points as it is. Clint's not going to spill about the bodies Fury'd mentioned. ...But Fury had also said many of them were Concordance participants. Clint hadn't been close to any of the other subjects, but he'd shared meals in the cafeteria, been nodding acquaintances. Which of their half-remembered faces had turned up bloated and decomposing?
"I've seen firsthand how many eager recruits are signing up to fight for HYDRA, but it's not enough for Supreme Hydra or his officers. They want to recreate the level of control Mentallo boasted over The Three—that's what Nesvik's work is about. HYDRA want slaves to their will, and—thanks to your example—they're convinced they need submissives to achieve that."
Clint's entire body cringes, until it's his back pressed to the door, pinned by Coulson's damning words.
He's always known he made it too easy for Mentallo, hadn't fought like he should have. But he'd been so hopeless, and the drops had been so sweet—
"I've been trying to get to this location for months, but I never had the clearance. Thanks to you, I finally have access to her work. I can figure out what happened to the subs she's been abducting for her experiments and stop it from happening again."
Coulson takes a step forward, so little space separating them in the cramped cell, and his eyes burn into Clint's. "But you go on and abandon them. Maybe you can sleep at night knowing others are suffering exactly the way you did, but that's not something I can live with. Unlike you, I know exactly why I'm here."
"Fuck," Clint grits out, covering his face with his hands, wishing he were invisible. He's never wanted this responsibility.
"Look," Coulson says, his tone gentler, coaxing. "Nesvik isn't interested in hurting you—she can't afford to. The Three are still HYDRA's gold standard for control; they're all trying to recreate what Mentallo had. But no one has his telepathy, so they're developing their own methods: brainwashing, control collars. Nesvik is reportedly the closest, with her focus on psychodynamics. You, Barton—you're her perfect opportunity to prove her control is every inch as good as Mentallo's."
Clint stumbles forward, blindly pushing past the man to land on the cot.
Coulson's closer to the truth than he knows.
HYDRA may credit Mentallo's telepathy with his control over The Three, but Mentallo had barely needed to exercise that control over Clint. There were a handful of permanent compulsions to keep him from fleeing or fighting back, but Clint knows himself well enough now to admit that he carried out most orders without any specific telepathic pressure.
Whatever Project Concordance had instilled in him had taken hold too well; after a single, crushed rebellion, he'd been resigned to serve as HYDRA's executioner without question or remorse. He doesn't have the inner core of resistance that Natasha and Bucky showed. Unlike the more specialized tortures and coercions Mentallo needed to bring his friends to heel, Clint followed orders because he's weak—weak for dominants, for the drop that makes him feel so unbelievably good. He served unquestioningly, and he enjoyed the rewards.
If Nesvik has recreated Project Concordance, it’s only a matter of time before her psychodynamic conditioning pays off; either by producing more subs as weak as Clint...or breaking him all over again. Coulson himself had said Clint was her ticket; he's far too susceptible to her methods. And once she succeeds, nothing will stop HYDRA from churning out an army of willing slaves.
"It's just 24 hours. Just long enough to search her files. Stay, Barton. You can get through it for 24 more hours."
Clint meets Coulson's expectant gaze, prepared to turn him down. But the agent's eyes are still bright with the same fervor with which he'd spoken of the missing submissives, and Clint can't help but picture their bodies again. He shudders.
"Fine. 24 hours. If we're not out by tomorrow night, I'm busting out myself."
"Understood," Coulson says. He studies Clint for a long moment, then asks, "Have they fed you?"
Clint blinks, thrown by the transition to such a practical matter—then puts together the true purpose of Coulson's visit.
An experienced agent like Coulson knows enough to check up on his bait. To convince Clint to play along, but mostly to make sure he can still perform as needed.
A shiver crawls up his spine once more. From the moment that Coulson had tased him, has he even once needed Clint's consent? Any communication a panicked Clint directed his way today or tomorrow could be brushed off as transference or playacting.
Still, Coulson has placed himself inside the cell with Clint and asked him to stay. That probably means something.
"Have you eaten anything?" Coulson repeats, looking around the cell with apparent interest.
"They sent me a vomelet. I flushed it."
"The psychological warfare is starting right on schedule, then," Coulson observes, straight-faced but for a twitch of his lips. "No wonder you're in a bad mood. Here." Coulson pulls a shiny wrapper out of the breast pocket of his uniform and tosses it to Clint.
It's a protein bar.
"I hope you like peanut-butter flavor."
"Yeah," Clint mutters before he can catch himself. He stares at the package in his hand and then back at Coulson, weighing the possibility it's been tampered with. Things might go smoother for Coulson if Clint was complacent for Dr. Nesvik.
Coulson's expression tells him nothing.
"Did you mess with this?"
He rolls his eyes. "I'm not about to incapacitate my only ally here."
The word brings an involuntary flush to Clint's cheeks, and he looks down, hoping Coulson will mistake the gesture for shyness and miss the way Clint's lip curls.
'Ally.' Fucking manipulative bullshit.
Coulson waits a long moment, but when Clint doesn't look up or move to open the wrapper, he huffs. "Break me off a piece. Any section you like."
Clint makes a show of deliberating, but it's a good gambit, and he is hungry. He tears the bar open and breaks it into three pieces. He holds the middle portion out in his open palm.
Coulson plucks it from his hand and pops it in his mouth, chewing vigorously around the large mouthful. After a moment he sits on the far end of the cot.
"Sure. Seat yourself," Clint mutters, fighting down the spike of anxiety in the face of a dominant helping himself to Clint's space. Coulson's seemed unthreatening since entering the cell—particularly now, with his cheeks bulging as he chews—but Clint had seen the dom turn on a dime in the hallway earlier.
Speaking of which...Clint realizes with a start that he's not at all attracted to Coulson at this moment. The man is still vaguely handsome, but he hasn't demonstrated any of the alluring dominant traits that had so turned Clint's head earlier. Instead Coulson is seated as far from Clint as possible, leaning away from him, with one shoulder pressed to the chilly metal wall.
"I brought the food for you," Coulson prompts. "But if you need me to eat another piece to prove it's safe...."
Clint turns his attention to the protein bar in his hand. He hasn't eaten since breakfast, and it smells normal. Besides, if he's going to be here another day, he'll need his strength.
"It's fine," Clint says, and shoves a piece in his mouth. It tastes like peanut butter and artificial chemicals—just as it should, and miles better than that bullshit omelet.
The bar is gone in two large bites, and Clint's stomach growls, waking after its day-long fast. Clint grimaces and glances up to discover Coulson watching him with an odd look on his face. Clint wipes his mouth self-consciously.
"Hungry, huh?" Coulson pulls a second protein bar from his pocket. He tosses it to Clint and immediately holds out his palm.
Clint has a hunger-stupid moment, then realizes Coulson's waiting for him to choose a section of the bar for him to test. Any suspicion that the appearance of the second bar might have aroused is quickly doused, but Clint still breaks off a piece of the protein bar and tosses it into Coulson's waiting hand.
Coulson kindly doesn't say anything about how much smaller the second piece is.
"So what the hell's the plan for tomorrow? Why can't you get what you need tonight?" Clint asks with his mouth full.
"Security's been on alert since our arrival. They'll let their guard down when the sun is up."
"They suspect you?"
Coulson tilts his head side to side. "It's more a territorial thing. Geerts has been the big fish in this little pond for some time. And I outrank him."
"What's the deal with this place anyway? How did Dr. Nesvik end up here?"
"That's what I need you to find out tomorrow. There are plenty of HYDRA scientists trying to recreate The Three, but Nesvik's not HYDRA; she's a contractor. And yet they've set up this facility for her and given her personnel and working capital. I don't know why Whitehall is bankrolling her work, or how much of her methods she's already divulged to him or someone else to justify the position. If anyone at HYDRA has enough information to duplicate her work, I have to know."
"I thought you read her notes."
"A bluff. Her notes are classified along with the rest of the Concordance data. I need her wondering how much of her methods I already know."
"So you can't reveal ignorance by asking those questions yourself. And you haven't read the Concordance file, either."
Not like Barney did.
When Coulson gives him a quizzical look, Clint takes another bite and mumbles, "I guess I'll try to find out."
Coulson's approving smile is like an electric blanket after a freezing stakeout.
"Tomorrow I'll slip away to search her files. That office was for show, not research; I suspect she has a second location. She won't even notice my absence. The way she was looking at you—it's safe to say she'll be preoccupied."
Clint chews mechanically, his stomach swooping at the thought of her undivided attention.
Fuck, what's he agreed to now?
He swallows with difficulty and says, "So you get to sneak around, and I'm supposed to get her monologuing?"
Coulson quirks a half smile, but he must pick up on Clint's growing unease, because he pauses and stares at Clint with unnerving intent. "This is important work, Barton. I need a partner to pull this off. I'll be counting on you."
In the middle of swallowing the last bite, Clint chokes at the ludicrous, marvelous word.
Maybe it's the lingering warmth of approval, the full stomach, or Coulson's hand frozen in mid-air, hesitating in the instinctive move to pat his back, but for some reason the earnestness of the term is easier to believe for a brief moment.
"You've rehydrated, right? You were bound a long time today," Coulson says, glancing at the sink.
Clint blinks his watering eyes and waves off Coulson's concern. He takes a shaky breath and says, "Some partnership. Ten bucks says I'll be shackled in that damn chair all day."
"Right, you have the easy job," Coulson replies in a tone so dry that Clint has to gape at him. Coulson plucks the empty wrappers from his hand, tucking them neatly away in his jacket. "My search shouldn't take long; I'll be as present as I can. Just remember to keep needling her. Keep her focused on you."
Remembering how quickly she'd lost her temper mere hours ago—and how her anger had made her even more irresistible—Clint says, "Pretty sure that's a terrible idea. I'm not going to provoke a beating."
Coulson scowls, and Clint only notices how loose his posture had become as the agent stiffens. "Like I've said, she can't afford to damage you. And I'll make sure she doesn't get carried away and do anything permanent. But this mission is bigger than you," he warns, "I won't step in if she plays rough. No matter what she does, you mustn't be too accommodating. She wouldn't believe it, and antagonism will keep her engaged with you."
"Right," Clint agrees insincerely, purely to placate Coulson's expectant look.
His dinner sits heavy in his stomach as he contemplates what Coulson's describing. Provoking dominants into dropping or hurting him had been his sole outlet while under HYDRA's thumb; back then, this assignment would have come naturally to him. But Clint has a new perspective on the behavior now; he sees how it was self-destructive and degrading. To intentionally bait Dr. Nesvik for a full day while he's completely in her power? There's no way he'll make it out unscathed.
"Look, she's going to apply a lot of pressure. That's a given. If it makes you feel better, it doesn't matter if you drop for her—or if you answer her questions while you're under."
It stings like the slap Nesvik had pulled earlier, and Clint grits his teeth while Coulson continues reassuring him.
"The only secret you need to keep is my identity, and she has no reason to ask about that. So go ahead and drop if it gets too bad, but make sure she has to work for it, okay?"
"Got it," he bites out.
No big deal. He's just a pathetic, weak-willed submissive. Wouldn't want to have too-high expectations of him. Not when he so obviously can't control himself. Poor little sub.
He imagines clawing the patronizing expression off Coulson's face. It’s a nice visual. Clint smiles.
"Barton?" Coulson asks, sounding uneasy for the first time.
"I suppose not. Get some rest tonight. I'll see you in the morning."
Coulson stands and smoothly adjusts his uniform jacket in a move Clint's seen from countless HYDRA officers. He cracks the door and listens for a moment, then slips out.
Five beeps, and Clint hears the door lock engage.
God. What the shit is he doing here?
He leans back on the cot and stares up at the dull-gray ceiling, clenching his fists. Fucking Coulson. Clint had been starting to think the dominant was alright—so much for their partnership.
Well, Clint's not going to prove the arrogant agent right. He won't drop for Nesvik. No matter what she does to him, no matter what he has to do to distract or provoke her, he won't drop.
He has no idea how he'll manage to resist her, but he'll do it.
He has to.