Williams is a problem.
Phil determined this ten minutes after the man was given control of the Black Widow operation back in Kyiv three weeks ago and promptly decided that he was going to throw out nearly six months’ worth of careful, detailed surveillance by his predecessor and try to predict the Widow’s movements on his own, relying on his superior field instincts and tactical knowledge of the target.
In other words, he’d decided he was going to outsmart the single most accomplished spy the world had ever known, beat her at her own game of cat-and-mouse, cloak-and-dagger espionage and assassination, and he was going to do it with six years of Marine combat training and three years of SHIELD field agent experience with routing out drug runners and arms dealers in South America.
Phil wants to weep.
The operation’s only saving grace is it’s support staff, the three junior agents tasked with the actual surveillance and intelligence-gathering itself. Bendis, Pearson, and Macally are all highly competent, managing to turn their findings into comprehensive reports to send back to Phil and his team back at base, despite Williams’ efforts to get them to “stop wasting time with their wiretaps and get some real fieldwork done.”
All three agents were hoping to use this assignment towards their qualification for full field agent status; Phil was inclined to grant it to them each wholesale simply for the excellent quality of their work thus far, despite having to work with a moron like Williams. Phil was going to have words with the Director when he got back stateside, that was for certain.
Williams ran the team like a Marine combat unit, barking out orders and expecting them to be obeyed without pause or question. His limited experience with any sort of intelligence operation meant his orders were often impractical or just outright stupid, and the agents under his command knew it, and often called him on it, albeit quietly and with a level of tact and careful manipulation that Phil found himself quite impressed with, so that Williams rarely realised he was quietly and efficiently being micromanaged.
Williams’ disapproval of his junior agents was nothing, however to his thinly-veiled disdain for Specialist Barton.
Barton was the sniper who’d been assigned to the team two months ago after the Widow narrowly escaped the team in Kharkiv. Barton had something of a history with this part of the world, Phil had been told; certainly his file listed him as having been in several places in and around the former Soviet Union in the past, and Phil couldn’t deny that things had gone a lot smoother since Barton joined the team.
Or, at least, they’d gone a lot smoother until Williams took over, and then things had quickly gotten rocky.
Barton’s file included several notes about his penchant for improvisation, for ignoring orders which he thought were stupid, his inability to remain silent on comms, even during covert operations. He’d worked with nearly every handler and team leader in the agency, and he’d pissed off nearly every single one of them in some way, despite his almost astronomical clearance rate and his frankly insane proficiency with just about any weapon he could get his hands on.
It’d been inevitable that he and Williams would butt heads, but that didn’t make it any less irritating when Phil had gotten his orders stating that he was to tag along in a minimal capacity to monitor the situation and intervene or issue other orders as needed to oversee the completion of the mission.
Nearly a month before, the Widow had been set to return to Moscow. Williams had opted to try to bring her in by force; instead of the grand shoot-em-up victory Williams had envisioned, the Widow had run, vanishing without a trace until a week later when one of SHIELD’s contacts, by way of Barton’s old connections, had gotten hold of some solid intel that put the Widow in Minsk, laying low in hopes of throwing them off her trail.
The report of Williams’ failure had made it all the way to the director’s desk the next day, and he in turn had called Phil.
“We can’t pull Barton, we need him there, and it’ll be even more of a headache if we try to pull Williams now,” Fury had said, hands on his hips and glaring daggers at the mission file on his desk before looking up and fixing his irritated gaze on Phil. “Do not let him fuck this up.”
It had almost been worth the headache of twenty-plus hours of non-stop travel immediately followed by mission briefings and setup just to watch Williams dismiss him as just another pencil-pusher junior agent. Apparently Williams didn’t believe in reading official briefings, even when they came directly from the Director himself. Phil was looking forward to the inevitable moment when Williams realised he’d spent the whole mission snubbing and ignoring the Department Head of Field and Covert Operations.
In any case, it had been an entertaining three weeks watching Williams bark orders that the junior agents rolled their eyes at and largely ignored and which Barton mocked, loudly, and often with a litany of witty banter that Phil hadn’t honestly expected from the man.
Actually, there’s a fair amount about Barton that Phil wasn’t expecting. Most snipers he’s worked with are thinner guys, rangy, more compact than other soldiers; they’re built for lying in wait from hundreds of yards away, not up-front combat. Barton’s built similarly, compact frame and average height, but the way he moves is all muscle and grace. He’s clearly a man who can more than handle himself in personal combat.
He’s sharp, too, and not just his eyesight, which is already off the charts. He’s a natural observer; his attention to detail is something Phil wishes, more than once during those three weeks, that he could somehow bottle and take back with him to use on some of the other agents he’s tasked with overseeing. Nearly half of their intel comes from Barton’s observations, instinct and training and natural ability leading him to notice things they otherwise would have missed, patterns and interactions and clues that seem so obvious once Barton’s pointed them out, but which Phil knows he never would have seen on his own.
He’s funny, too, wisecracking down the comm channel when he’s on watch, providing a comical running commentary on everything he’s seeing. He cheerfully refuses William’s orders to maintain radio silence, a protocol which Phil himself generally enforces, but which is generally useless in this case. This entire mission has been one big, dragging three-week-long stakeout; if they’d tried to maintain silence the entire time, every one of them would have gone crazy.
Besides, the radio silence protocol is really only meant for situations where the target might be able to intercept their transmissions or when agents might be overheard, or when a situation is highly unstable and there’s a chance that their orders might change at any moment.
None of these applies to their current situation, however; although the situation with the Black Widow is changeable, they’re always enough steps behind that the sudden changes only get noticed after the fact, never in the moment. And if the Widow is close enough to overhear an agent’s conversation or intercepts their radio frequency, they’re in more danger of losing their lives very suddenly than they are of tipping her off.
So Phil doesn’t bother stepping in when Barton can’t keep his mouth shut, trading jokes back and forth with Bendis and Pearson, the two of them snickering into their ever-present coffee when Williams’ back in turned. It’s relaxing, almost, the sound of their voices in the background and the way they roll their eyes at Barton’s more ridiculous comments, and Phil finds himself thinking that he could get used to this.
Their intel on the Black Widow’s movements puts her in the city for another three days, but unlikely to move from her safe house, a mile and a half away, until that time is nearly up.
Their intel is wrong.
To be fair, it’s not so much wrong as it is incomplete, a failure to anticipate that even the Black Widow occasionally suffers from cabin fever, and she’s been in this particular house for three weeks now, waiting them out. She’s fast and sneaky and at least half a dozen steps ahead of them even on a bad day. She honestly doesn’t have much to fear from them if she decides to take a stroll one afternoon.
It’s Barton who spots her, and it’s honest chance that he catches sight of her down the road, although given the hat and the heavy coat and the rain making everything blurry and indistinct, Phil isn’t actually sure how Barton knows it’s her.
(“It’s the way she moves, man,” Barton says, much later, when Phil finally thinks to ask. “It’s like a trademark. It’s really distinctive.”
“You were more than half a mile away, and she was wearing a coat,” Phil points out. “Even with your eyes, I very seriously doubt you could tell her apart by the way her hips moved.”
“No really,” Barton says, gesturing expansively and incomprehensibly with one hand. “Ain’t no one else moves the way she does.”)
Phil’s going over the mission file again, just to have something to do, when Barton’s voice goes suddenly from joking to serious across the comm channel.
“Widow’s moving, half a mile and closing.”
“You’ve got eyes on her?” Pearson asks, scooting closer to the screen where their video surveillance is running.
“She’ll be in camera range in probably ten minutes,” Barton says, “unless she turns off a side street.”
“How likely is that?” Bendis asks, turning to pull up a street map.
“Who knows?” Barton responds. There’s a pause and then a muffled curse. “Permission to redeploy. I need a better position. If she leaves this street at all I’m gonna lose her entirely.”
“Negative, Barton,” and there’s Williams, climbing into the back of the van, Macally trailing behind looking harried. There’s a half-eaten sandwich in Williams’ hand and he’s glaring like he’s trying to find someone to blame for the fact that the Widow happened to time her unexpected stroll for Williams’ lunch break.
“You are to maintain position,” Williams continues, turning his glare on the little blue tracker icon that shows where Barton’s lurking on top of a building halfway down the block.
“If I maintain position,” Barton snaps, “I’m not gonna be able to see her, and if I can see her I can’t tell you where she is, and if I don’t know where she is, I can’t take her out, mission over, we fail.”
“You will maintain your position, Specialist,” Williams roars, “or I will bust your ass back down so far all you’ll be cleared for is serving my lunch in the mess hall!”
The expressiveness of the collective eyerolling that follows is both rather incredible and also clearly born of far too many times when verbal communication was impossible. The junior agents have turned it into a whole language; Phil’s not sure whether to be amused or worried that he’s apparently spent enough time with them to be able to decipher it.
Right now, they’re saying, Seriously, dude, this is not the military, rank doesn’t work like that here, and also, you’re seriously going to jeapordise this entire mission just because you can’t stand the thought that someone else might have a better idea?
“With all due respect, sir,” Barton says, disgust evident in his tone, “you can go fuck yourself. I’m moving, and you can either back me up and then steal the credit when this mission goes off just fine, or you can try to stop me and I’ll personally hand Fury your ass when he asks me why this whole thing went up in flames.”
Williams sputters, mouth opening and closing wordlessly, staring at the radio in his hand.
“Moving now,” Barton says into Williams’ glaring silence, and Phil doesn’t think he’s imagining the hint of smugness in his voice.
“Fine!” Williams yells suddenly. “Fine, change position! You fuck this up, maybe I can finally get rid of you.”
The filthy looks the junior agents throw him would be enough to strip paint, Phil thinks, and has to turn away slightly and bite his lip to stifle his laughter. The junior agents have all been very good about not outright rousting Williams from his commande position, but they’re all rather fond of Barton and Phil thinks one more undeserved remark about the sniper and Williams might find himself on the receiving end of a very quiet, very efficient mutiny.
Williams turns around and jumps back out the back of them van, muttering curses and insults under his breath.
“Well,” Phil says. “Now that that’s cleared up, let’s see if we can figure out where Barton’s gone.”
Pearson beams. “I knew there was a reason I liked you, sir,” he says cheerfully, turning back to his monitor. “Looks like he’s crossed the street and gone up closer to the end of the block,” he says, watching Barton’s blue tracker dot move slowly across the screen.
“It’s a taller building,” Macally says, leaning around Bendis to peer at a 3D schematic of the nearby area. “Looks like an apartment building,” he goes on. “Lot of windows, all sorts of junk on the roof. He’ll be hidden pretty damn well,” he concludes.
There’s a grunt and a faint clang of metal over the comm and then Barton’s voice, “Okay, in position in twenty seconds.”
“Acknowledged,” Bendis says. “You got eyes on Widow?”
“Yeah, she’s gotten a block further since I moved, but she’s still moving on the same path. I’ll be able to see if she changes her mind, though.”
“Well, keep her in your sights,” Bendis says, smiling faintly. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“Yeah, right,” Barton mutters.
He falls silent then, finally focused on his target, and Phil half-wishes Williams was around to hear it, Barton quiet and professional for once, but for as much as he yells at Barton about it, Williams never quite shuts up either, so Phil doubts he’d even notice. Besides, it’s kind of nice, sitting in the van with the junior agents, all of them quiet, waiting for Barton’s voice to tell them what’s going on. It reminds Phil of his early days as a field agent, back when he was out on missions more than he was back at base, back before he had an office and a department to run and his continuous piles of paperwork.
“She’s stopped,” Barton says, finally, voice quiet. “She’s just down the block, stopped on the corner by the alley.”
“Maybe she’s meeting someone?” Macally suggests, squinting at the video screen.
Two of the cameras have apparently caught her, although without Barton’s eyes they probably would have missed her. The coat she’s wearing looks like it’s a size or two too big, plain and unremarkable, and with her equally plain hat pulled low, hair tucked up under it, they can’t quite see her face. But she’s the only person standing at the mouth of the alley, right where Barton says she should be.
“Doesn’t look like it,” Barton mutters, and then, “Wait, she’s got a phone.”
“Who would she be calling?” Phil asks, frowning, and Pearson has just opened his mouth to answer when Williams rejoins them.
“We got anything yet?” he barks, staring at them like he’d expected not to have to ask.
“Target in sight,” Barton says across the line, and Williams grins, looking rather self-satisfied; Phil resists the urge to roll his eyes.
“Fire at will, Specialist,” Williams says, rather more cheerfully than needed.
“Acknowledged,” Barton mutters.
It’s quiet for a moment, everyone waiting; Pearson’s quiet typing echoes slightly in the small space as he tries to re-position the cameras to get a better view of the Widow.
“Son of a bitch,” Barton says suddenly, surprise colouring his words.
“Problem, Specialist?” Williams barks, looking peeved.
“She’s calling me, sir.” Barton sounds baffled, and Phil’s moving before he even realises it, finally pressing the override button on his comm link, cutting over Williams’ cursing about idiot junior agents who don’t know their place. Phil rolls his eyes and ignores him.
“Put it on speaker,” he says, eyes on the grainy camera image of the Widow and ignoring Williams’ cursing and the way his face has begun to turn a rather alarming shade of red as he storms out of the van, setting it rocking on it’s wheels.
Barton doesn’t hesitate for a moment, just says, “Sir,” and there are a few muffled clicks and then the Widow is speaking, voice tinny through the phone speaker and the comm line.
“So,” she’s saying, “I see you finally got ahead of me.”
“For what it’s worth,” Barton says, “I don’t really want to have to do this,” and Phil can hear the honesty in his voice.
Phil himself has been not-quite regretting this mission for a while now. The Widow is the single most highly-trained individual Phil has ever heard of, and for all that she’s only ever worked for certain factions, she appears to hold no true loyalty towards any of them. If there was a way to turn her, to make her into an asset, PHil would absolutely support it. But it’s not his call to make.
“Got any last words you’d like to share with the universe?” Barton’s asking, and Phil’s surprised at the warmth in the words. It doesn’t sound mocking, although to someone who isn’t versed in the way Barton speaks, it might come off as such. It sounds, Phil thinks, a lot like how he talks to Bendis or Pearson, joking and friendly underneath the sarcasm.
The Widow must pick up on some of that, because she laughs. “Yes, actually,” she says, and then, “You remind me of someone. Someone I once knew.”
Barton is silent for a moment, and in that moment Phil looks around at the other agents; all three of them are looking back at him, Pearson and Macally confused, Bendis frowning.
“That right?” Barton says, and Phil can practically see the raised eyebrow.
“Yes. You are much like him.”
“Someone you knew pretty well, clearly,” Barton says, and he’s fishing, it’s so obvious, but there’s something so strange about this whole conversation that Phil almost doesn’t care.
“Friend?” Barton asks, “Colleague?”
“A lover,” the Widow says, and even with the distortion on the line, Phil can hear the smile in her voice, the sudden warmth. She sounds like a different person.
Pearson is muttering to himself, flipping through the file Phil set aside earlier, even though they all know what the file says: that the Widow has never been known to have a lover, or even a friend. She lives and works alone, always.
Barton is strangely silent across the line, but Phil can still hear his soft, even breaths, so he’s guessing that Barton’s also reeling from the bombshell the Widow just dropped on them, trying to reconcile the new information with everything he knows about her and finding it a nearly-impossible task.
“Was he handsome?” Barton asks finally, and the Widow’s laughter across the line is so bright and genuine that Phil can’t do anything but stare at her image on the screen.
“Yes,” she says, still laughing, “yes, he was.”
“What the hell,” Pearson hisses, glaring at the file like it’s somehow betrayed him. “There’s nothing about this there!”
“She’s a super spy!” Macally hisses back. “She could hide anything!”
“How much more do we not know?” Bendis adds, looking troubled. “Do we even know anything about her?”
That’s a good question, Phil muses, thinking hard.
“He’s gone, isn’t he.” Barton says. There’s something in his voice, not quite regretful and not quite sympathetic, but something like the two combined. It isn’t a question; whoever this former lover was, if he’d still been alive she never would have told them. It would only give them leverage on her, and she would never have made it as far as she had by handing weapons to her enemies.
Still, if only there was a way to use this information...
“I may still see him someday,” the Widow says, and there’s something smug in her tone, like she’s laughing at a private joke, but Phil nearly misses it because, holy shit. Phil has never believed in wishing, never believed in praying or asking favours of God or whoever, but this right here feels like something of a blessing.
We can use this, he thinks to himself, feeling a plan forming in the back of his brain. It’s still a long shot and it may end up screwing them all over later, but Phil didn’t get as far as he did without developing some very good instincts about people, and right now all of those instincts are telling him to go for it.
“Barton,” Phil says, “Pack up. We’re aborting.”
There’s a brief silence where all three junior agents turn to stare at him and Phil takes a moment to be very, very glad that Williams is still sulking outside. There’s a click on the comm line that must be Barton muting the phone so he can respond.
“Come again?” Barton says, incredulous.
“In-field risk reassessment,” Phil says, and it’s total bullshit, there’s no such thing as risk reassessment for a target like the Widow, but they have an opportunity here to try to snag the Widow and Phil intends to take it. Besides, it’s not like there’s anyone here who can call him on his bullshit.
“We’re calling off the hit on the Black Widow,” Phil says, in case it wasn’t obvious, “pending new intel. Pack it up.”
“Right,” Barton says vaguely. “Yes sir.”
There’s a click and then Phil can hear the Widow’s breathing down the line again.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” Barton tells her, and if there’s something like a smile in his voice, well, Phil’s not going to say anything.
Down in the alley, the Widow finally turns, face angled up towards Barton and their cameras. Pearson’s turned one of the cameras until they can see Barton, lying on his stomach on the roof, rifle lying in front of him. He closes the phone, reaching back to slip it into his pocket, and then stands, rifle in hand, and slowly lowers it. On the street, the Widow just smiles.
Barton’s on his way back when Williams shows his face again, glaring through the open doors at the back of the van, and Phil realises that he still hasn’t turned off his override, that Williams has been effectively blocked from the comm line ever since Phil hit it, reduced to listening as Phil took over his operation. Strangely, Phil really can’t find it in himself to care.
There’s a clatter above them as Barton comes scrambling down the fire escape on the building they’re parked next to, dropping the last few feet to the ground.
Williams is on him in a heartbeat, voice loud and irritated and probably drawing all sorts of attention that they really don’t need.
“You do not communicate with the target!” Williams yells, red in the face and furious while Phil leans on the wall inside the van and watches. He could step in, yes, but at this point it’s almost worth it to stand back and let Williams dig his own grave even deeper, sinking further and further into the mud he doesn’t even realise he’s in.
“You broke radio protocol!” Williams is yelling now, finger pointing in Barton’s face, and Phil sees Barton’s eyebrows jump towards his hairline, expression going incredulous.
“I was just following orders,” Barton says, sweet and mocking, and there’s a grin spreading across his face.
“Following--” Williams splutters, even though he’d been listening to the whole time, had to have heard Phil gives the order himself. “I’m the senior officer in charge of this operation,” Williams snarls, and Phil can’t help the little snort of laughter at that. Next to him, the junior agents are all shaking their heads. Bendis has a hand over his face and looks like he’s trying not to laugh; Macally’s expression is close to pitying.
“So who the fuck gave you that order?” Williams finishes, and Barton has his mouth open to answer, and that’s Phil’s cue to step forward at last.
“I did,” he says blandly, cutting across whatever Barton was going to say. He ignores Williams’ enraged expression entirely and turns to face Barton.
“I’m Agent Coulson,” he says, offering a hand which Barton shakes, something lighting up in his eyes and a faint smile creeping across his features. “I’m in charge of all field operations,” he explains, managing to resist smiling at the tiny, choked-off sound Williams makes behind him.
“I’m afraid I had to intercede here,” Phil goes on, without a trace of apology in his voice. “New intelligence suggested our termination of the Black Widow may have been a premature decision.”
Barton’s eyebrows jump again, and there’s something in his expression like he’s impressed, maybe, something in his eyes that looks just a little bit like gratitude.
Behind them, Williams has regained his voice, if not his composure.
“We had her! We had her and you let her get away! Now she knows we’re following her!”
Barton snorts, rolling his eyes, and Phil can’t help but smile back at him before turning back to Williams, schooling his face hard and blank.
“The Black Widow has known SHIELD was following her from the moment they picked up her trail in Vienna,” Phil says coldly. “It was sheer luck that you managed to box her in like this, and certainly due more to Specialist Barton's instincts and familiarity with the area than your tactics and planning which got her in your sights."
Williams’ face turns a splotchy purple colour as he gapes at Phil, but Phil’s more focused on the small, surprised sound Barton makes, like he hadn’t expected anyone to notice that he’d been doing most of the work on this mission. It makes something twist in Phil’s stomach, the way he seems so surprised at the acknowledgement, and Phil wonders, for a moment, how many others have passed over his accomplishments and his input, focused only on his insubordination and loud-mouthed-ness.
Phil puts his back firmly to Williams as he turns back to Barton. “That was an interesting discussion,” he says mildly, smiling slightly at the way Barton goes back to looking baffled.
“I didn’t honestly say much, sir,” he says, shrugging, and Phil feels his smile widen.
“That’s what makes it interesting.”
And it’s true. They’ve never heard of the Black Widow talking to anyone like that before, open and honest and friendly like she hadn’t known she was in their crosshairs. She’d honestly wanted to talk, and Barton had made he want to talk more, to give up things she would have hidden from anyone else. It had nothing to do with SHIELD, Phil thinks, and everything to do with Barton himself.
“Pack up your gear and head back to headquarters,” Phil says, stepping back towards the van. He can hear the junior agents shutting down and packing away the computer equipment inside, getting ready to head out. “We’ll speak more when you get back,” Phil says over his shoulder.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Barton shrug, a slash of white that’s probably a grin. “Yes sir.”
Phil pauses, one hand on the door, and looks back properly at Barton, standing a few feet away, covered in dust with his rifle still hanging idly from one hand. Phil smiles.
“I look forward to working with you, Barton.”
It’s two days of travel and debriefing with Fury before Phil sees Barton again.
Fury calls the whole team in (minus Williams; seems Phil’s report hadn’t been the only one to point out, in lengthy detail, all the things that were wrong with the man as an agent) for a group debrief, and by the end of it, all the junior agents have been promoted to full field agent status with commendation notes in their jackets, Barton’s been cleared of any accusations of improper conduct in the field, Phil’s active field agent status has been reinstated, and Williams has been demoted to security guard status on a minor SHIELD installation outside Des Moines.
If Phil walks out of that meeting with a grin and a spring in his step, well, there’s no one there to call him on.
Two days later, Fury calls him back into his office. Barton’s hovering outside when Phil arrives, looking vaguely nervous. Phil arches an eyebrow at him, but before he can say anything, Fury’s voice calls from the other side of the door.
“Gentlemen, come in.”
Fury’s standing behind his desk, hands behind his back and staring down at a file. Phil steps closer and sits down in one of the two chairs in front of the desk; out of the corner of his eye, he sees Barton hesitantly do the same.
Fury looks up and fixes his eye on both of them, looking between them like he’s searching for something. Whatever he’s looking for, Phil thinks he must find it, because he sits down, reaching out to spin the file around and push it closer so they can see it.
It’s the file on Natasha Romanov, the real one, the one with all the details that only Fury and the WSC have ever seen.
There’s a list, three pages long, of all the things they know she’s done, and another list, four pages long, of all the things she might have done, murders and assassinations and politicians and military officers and businessmen gone missing. There are six different reports assessing her suspected mental health, her loyalties, her motivations and her reasons for everything. There’s a report, nearly half an inch thick, detailing what they know of her history dating back, improbably, impossibly, to the 1940s; there are photographs to back it up.
Phil can’t help but stare at it, dumbfounded. Barton reaches out a hand, hovering over the pages before he draws it back with a muttered, “Holy shit.”
“This, gentlemen,” Fury says, tapping the folder, “is your new assignment.”
Phil stares. “Sir?”
“Your orders were to terminate the Black Widow,” Fury says, eyeing them both carefully. “You changed those orders in the field,” he nods at Phil. “You both also gave very detailed reports as to why those orders were changed. They were... compelling, let’s say.”
Phil glances over at Barton; he’s leaning forward in his seat, brows furrowed and frowning, staring at Fury.
“What exactly do you want us to do?” Phil asks.
“Bring her in,” Fury orders, and Phil can’t help feeling smug, just a little; after all, that was more or less his idea back in Minsk, and it was rather gratifying to know that the director was going along with it.
“She was willing to talk to Barton,” Fury continues, “so it’s my hope that she’ll be willing to talk again. I want you to get a message to her, let her know we’re willing to work with her, if she’s willing to work with us.”
“What to do want us to tell her?” Barton asks, looking back at the file. He’s turned to a page detailing her known loyalties and allies. “I mean,” he says, gesturing to the short list on the page, “she’s not exactly known for playing well with others.”
“No, she isn’t,” Fury admits. “But you had a gun trained on her and she knew it, and she still talked to you.”
“So you think she’ll trust me?” Barton’s voice is vaguely incredulous.
Phil takes the file from Barton, looking over it carefully. There are only a few names which appear more than once on her list of allies or accomplices, and those that do are only repeated once, maybe twice before they vanish again. Of those that are repeated, Phil is familiar with nearly every single one; they’re all mercenaries or suppliers of various sorts, and not a one of them puts any stock in loyalty to anything but money. These are not people she trusts.
And yet. She’d talked to Barton like he was a friend, like he was someone she liked. She’d given him information of her own free will and taken none for herself that he didn’t allow her to know. She’d told him things that could hurt her, and had seemed surprised when, in the end, he didn’t.
“I think,” Phil says quietly, still staring down at the file, “I think she already trusts you.”
Barton stares at him, silent, mouth open slightly like he wants to say something but doesn’t know what. He swallows after a few moments, opens his mouth again.
“You think she trusts me?”
“She told you about her lover,” Phil points out. “She didn’t need to do that. It gave her nothing, no advantage, no leverage, and it just gave you something else you could hold over her, something else you could potentially use to trace her.”
“She believed I was going to kill her,” Barton says, frowning. “She thought she was going to die, so what did it matter what she said.”
“Exactly,” Phil says, “she thought she was going to die. But this is the Black Widow we’re talking about. She’s not exactly known for being sentimental. So why did she bother telling you anything?”
Barton looks away. “I dunno. Maybe she just wanted someone to talk to.”
“And she chose to talk to you. And that’s exactly why we need you to be the one to bring her in,” Fury cuts in. “You might just be the only person who can do that.”
Barton is silent, staring down at the file, clearly thinking it over. Phil can practically see the gears in his head turning, thoughts reflecting on his face for a moment, flickering past too fast for Phil to get an idea of what Barton is thinking.
Finally he looks up, clearing his throat. “Okay. So how are we going to do this?”
Fury nods, sitting back and steepling his fingers together under his chin. “We’ve had good luck on tracking her so far. Once we get a location for her, we’re going to send you in to meet her, or talk to her in some way, and let her know that we’re interested in using her talents for our cause. She’s good, best I’ve ever seen, and if we don’t need to eliminate her, if we can get her on our side, we need to do it.”
“There’s only one issue with your plan that I can see,” Phil puts in. It’s not an issue, so much as something he’s only just considered. “I think we should keep quiet about my part in Minsk,” he says, thinking out loud.
Barton frowns. “Why? She already knows we changed our minds about killing her.”
“No,” Phil correct, shaking his head. “She knows that you changed your mind. She doesn’t know that you were ordered to stand down.”
“I don’t get it,” Barton says, looking confused. “What difference does it make if it was my idea or yours?”
“Where she comes from,” Phil says, gesturing to the file, “the people she works for, there isn’t anyone who’d dare go against orders unless they wanted to be killed, probably in some incredibly slow, painful way to be used as an example to others.
“Now, she knows that we don’t operate the same way,” he goes on, “but she’s still going to expect that any agent who disobeys orders will face a certain kind of punishment for it. What she’s not going to be expecting is for that agent to be allowed back on the exact same assignment they previously disobeyed.”
“She’ll be expecting not to see or hear about me again,” Barton says, nodding slightly. “She might even be expecting to hear I’ve been demoted, or sent away somewhere.”
“Precisely,” Fury says. “She’s not going to be expecting for you to turn up again, and even if she does, she’ll be expecting a gun, not a job offer.”
“So we’re hoping her curiosity will be enough to make her want to at least check it out, especially since she’s already demonstrated a willingness to deal with Barton.”
Phil’s mind is whirring away. It’s not a bad plan, honestly; something about Barton has drawn her out of her shell once already, made her feel safe enough to confide in him, in a sense, made her willing to tell him about herself despite knowing that his only reason for being there at all was to kill her.
“If she thinks he went against orders to spare her life,” Phil says slowly, “she’s going to feel like she owes him. There are several notes in here about her taking or refusing jobs based on things she owes or is owed.”
Fury is staring at him, frowning contemplatively Phil continues.
“If she believes that she owes Barton for saving her life, she’ll stick around until that debt is paid off. That gives us time to convince her to stay longer.”
“It could work,” Barton says softly, almost more to himself than to the director. “It’ll be tricky, and I”ll have to convince her to meet me to talk, but I think it could actually work.”
Fury smiles, nodding. “I was hoping you’d agree,” he says. “I’ll give you two days to look over this file, see if you can’t figure out a good way to talk to her that’ll get her to play ball with us. We’ve got every eyeball and ear we can spare looking for her, and we’re running a trace on the data we got from your phone so with any luck we’ll have her location soon.”
Barton nods, looking thoughtful. “If we get a number, I can try to get a message to her, let her know we’re more interested in talking now than shooting.”
“You do that,” Fury agrees. “In the meantime, I want you both ready to go at a moment’s notice. The second we get a location or a confirmation that she’s willing to talk, I’m sending you both in.”
“Both of us, sir?” Phil asks, confused. He’d figured, when his field status had been reinstated, that Fury would be putting him back in, but he’d figured he’d just be playing wrangler for the bigger picture; he hadn’t figured he’d be going after the Widow directly.
Fury nods, expression gone serious. “Both of you,” he repeats, eye moving back and forth between them. “Barton, I’m bumping up your clearance by two more levels and making you a senior agent.”
Barton’s eyes widen almost comically. Phil would be tempted to laugh, but he’s a little surprised himself. It’s not that Barton’s not good enough to be a full agent; he’s dedicated and intelligent, and he’s certainly one of the most talented people Phil has ever worked with. It’s just that there are enough marks against him in his record that he’s never been able to make it past Specialist. Fury must want him bad if he’s willing to promote him all the way to senior agent status.
Ignoring Barton’s stunned staring, Fury continues. “I’m also putting you directly under Coulson’s command,” he says, and now it’s Phil’s turn to stare incredulously. Fury smirks at him.
“Welcome back to being a handler, Phil.”