Phil looked up and frowned. A small, blonde woman was lurking in his office doorway. She was wearing a tailored red skirt suit and sky-high heels, carried an armload of files and exuded waves of perkiness even from several feet away.
Apparently his silence conveyed welcome because a brilliant smile appeared on her face and she trotted forward to his desk, her hand outstretched.
"Melinda Blake," the woman said cheerfully. "Public relations."
Phil shook her hand. "I was unaware that SHIELD had a PR department, Ms Blake."
"Oh yes," she said. "We're quite new, but Director Fury is very keen on promoting a good message to the public about our work."
Phil raised an eyebrow.
The smile shrank a fraction. "Well, not SHIELD's work per se. More...your Avengers."
"They are not my Avengers, Ms Blake," Phil said mildly.
He was fairly sure that nobody wanted to claim them and they were only under his purview because Nick Fury was an evil, vindictive bastard who still hadn't forgiven him for going up against Loki alone.
"Er, yes," Blake said awkwardly. "Anyway, Director Fury wanted me to talk to you about some public relations opportunities for your...uh...the Avengers."
She began setting files out on Phil's desk, disturbing his carefully organised stacks of papers with casual abandon.
"You see, over the last six months there have been several incidents that did not put them in the best light with the media," Blake said, her cheerful tone beginning to sound a bit forced. "Take this one, when some kind of giant, acid-spitting lizard rampaged through Park Avenue."
"There were very few casualties, only one required hospital treatment, and the damage bill was under ten million," Phil said. "I thought they did well there."
"Oh, yes," Blake said. "It was quite wonderful how quickly they responded and contained the threat. The ratings were great and my department did a quick opinion poll-"
"You're polling people?"
"-a quick opinion poll," Blake repeated, her teeth gritted, "and you got ninety percent approval on it. Well done!"
Phil could feel the migraine starting just behind his right eye. "Ninety percent of people approved of the Avengers defeating an acid-spitting lizard."
"That sounds a bit low, but I don't really see the problem," Phil said.
"Well, unfortunately the channel providing TV coverage had microphones that were surprisingly powerful and they were broadcasting live. We had some complaints about the language your people used," Blake said.
"Their language," Phil repeated, although now that she mentioned it he did recall hearing Stark screaming "motherfucker" over the comm as Thor smashed the creature into a building.
"It's not the first time it's happened," Blake added.
Years of training enabled Phil not to wince.
"Director Fury and I have prepared a list," Blake said. "If you could pass it along to your...uh...the Avengers and ask them to read it and maybe try to avoid those words in public in the future, it would be a real help."
She smiled brightly and held out a slim, red file.
"Thank you, Ms Blake, I'll take it under advisement," Phil said.
"We have a naughty word list?" Stark said, outraged. "Fuck that shit."
Phil smiled slightly. "I believe you've just made my point."
"We have a PR department?" Dr. Banner asked.
Clint was busy turning his copy of the list into a paper crane. "What's the punishment if we accidentally forget the list and say ‘son of a cock loving whore’ on prime time again?"
All eyes turned to Natasha, who shrugged and said, "I was having a bad day."
"There will be fines for first offences," Phil said. "Further offences will be considered on a case by case basis."
He allowed his smile to widen slightly.
Melinda Blake was waiting in the doorway again holding a stack of files and Phil reminded himself to close and lock his door in the future.
"Do you have a moment?" Blake asked, trotting towards his desk without waiting for an answer. "I've just got a couple of teeny things we should go over."
"It's a pleasure to see you again, Ms Blake," Phil said because there was no need to be rude to her.
"Wonderful!" Blake said happily. "Firstly, I'd like to congratulate you on the latest incident. We had no complaints about the language and our polls have your approvals at eighty-eight percent!"
Clint had been knocked unconscious early in the fight and the same explosion had taken out Iron Man's speakers, which mostly explained the lack of bad language, but Phil was a wise man so he chose not to explain that.
"Eight-eight percent?" he asked instead.
Blake's happy smile faded a little. "Ah, yes. That. We lost a few in the female eighteen to forty demographic. Apparently your archer is much more popular than we realised."
She nodded enthusiastically. "Whoever designed his costume is a genius! It highlights all his best assets. So, if you could try to keep him in the game for a bit longer next time that would be awesome."
"I'll keep that under advisement," Phil said, already planning to make sure that Clint never, ever found out about that. "Was there anything else, Ms Blake?"
She held out a slim file. "We should probably discuss a couple of stories about y-uh, the Avengers' newspaper presence."
"It was the bunny ears, wasn't it?" Clint said, examining the newspaper page carefully.
"They certainly didn't help," Phil said, "but I think the point that Ms Blake was making included everything else that's happening in that picture."
A selection of newspaper clippings littered the table and the sheepish superhero team were picking them up, wincing, and passing them around. Steve's face was a faint shade of pink and he was the only one not featured in any of the photos. Natasha, thankfully, was only in one photo and it was a legitimate mission-aftermath photo that only looked bad taken out of context.
"We were very drunk at the time," Stark said.
"That doesn't actually make it better," Phil said. "I have to ask, though - the bunny ears?"
"Bachelorette party in the same club," Clint said. "It's a bit of a blur."
"Ms Blake is concerned about the message that this kind of thing sends out," Phil said. "In future, she would appreciate it if you didn't get drunk anywhere near photographers."
"They're everywhere!" Stark complained. "Can't we just-"
"No, absolutely not," Phil said. "Whatever plan you were about to suggest, no."
"Fine, we promise," Clint said. "No drinking outside the Tower."
"What? No. I'm not agreeing to that," Stark said.
Natasha picked up a particularly ridiculous photo of Stark outside a club from a couple of months back.
"What did Pepper say when she saw this one?" Natasha asked.
"She didn't...well, okay, she went to DC for two weeks afterwards," Stark said, wincing.
"I'll keep them in line," Steve promised.
Phil suppressed a wince and looked up. Melinda Blake's suit was pale green today and her blonde curls seemed to have some extra bounce in them, although her stack of files were a little taller than normal.
"Is this a bad time?" she asked, already trotting towards his desk.
"Not at all, Ms Blake," Phil said. "My door is always open, apparently."
"Call me Melinda." She dropped her files onto his desk and pulled up a chair. "Ms Blake always seems so formal!"
Phil smiled pleasantly and waited.
"Right, yes," Blake said, looking slightly flustered. "I just have a couple of things to go through with you. Well done, by the way, on last week. Your team's approvals are up to ninety-two percent now and the eighteen to forties really appreciated the screen time that your archer got."
"Yes, well, Hawkeye did fall-"
"However," Blake continued, talking over him, "we did get a couple of concerns from some parents about the giant hamsters. A few children got a bit...disturbed. Pet shops are reporting a drop-off in hamster sales."
"I really don't think we can dictate the diabolical plans of the mad scientists," Phil said.
"I understand," Blake said, "and that's why I've got some ideas for some counter-publicity for you to look at."
"School visits?" Clint said incredulously. "Kids are actually going to enter essay competitions to get us to visit their schools?"
"No, Barton," Phil said, "they're going to enter essay competitions to win the chance for Black Widow, Captain America and Thor to visit their schools."
"Hey, why them?" Stark said indignantly. "OK, I understand why Steve, who wouldn't want Captain America influencing their kids, but why the god of thunder and the super-assassin and not the rest of us?"
Phil resisted the temptation to pinch the bridge of his nose because it never helped with the headaches.
"According to Ms Blake, Thor is a popular icon for the under twelves," Phil said. "She also feels that younger girls need a good female role model."
Natasha smirked, which was a truly terrifying sight.
"And she thinks that the super-assassin is the best role model?" Stark asked.
"Obviously Ms Blake won't be emphasising that in her marketing," Phil said mildly, "and Agent Romanov has saved your life a few times now."
"Still, if she can do it, why not the rest of us?" Stark insisted.
"Because I wouldn't trust you or Barton around a group of impressionable children unless they were at the centre of a global emergency and you were both gagged," Phil said. "For once, I agree with Ms Blake."
"And big green?" Stark asked.
Banner held up both hands. "No, no, I understand why I'm not on the list. It's fine."
"Thank you, Doctor Banner," Phil said. "Stark, do you have any further objections?"
Stark rolled his eyes. "Fine, fine. I'm just saying, I could arrange a fucking awesome day for the brats who won."
Phil was a trained SHIELD agent which meant that he did not beat his head on his desk no matter how much he might want to. Melinda Blake's suit was mismatched - a yellow jacket and a navy skirt hadn't been an acceptable fashion pairing since the eighties - and her curly hair looked a little frizzy.
"Yes, Ms Blake?" Phil said pleasantly, sensing that she might just be having a worse day than he was.
"Do you have a minute?" Blake asked, closing the door behind her and trotting towards his desk.
Her stack of files had grown again and at least five of the files wore red covers.
"I have a minute," Phil confirmed.
"Right," Blake said, frowning. "Uh."
"What did they do this time?" Phil asked, sighing.
"Well, it's not so much 'them' this time," Blake said slowly, "more, 'we'. Someone released some mission files that I think were supposed to be sealed and I'm tracing the leak and Director Fury is promising that appropriate action will taken as soon as we know who did it and-"
"Which files, Ms Blake?" Phil asked, getting a horrible sinking feeling.
She winced. "Something about a targeted hormone disruptor? I am so terribly sorry."
Phil resisted the temptation to groan. "How many papers?"
"Only the tabloids," Blake said. "And, er, Huff Post. Maybe the New York Times as well, they called for a comment."
"Do they have-"
"They have everything," Blake said mournfully.
All six of the Avengers stared at the newspapers scattered across the table with expressions of mingled horror and outrage.
"There was no orgy!" Stark protested, pointing at the Examiner. "I know orgies, that wasn't one. I've got to call Pepper."
"Ms Blake sends her apologies," Phil said. "The source has been dealt with. Tasha, please put the knives away."
Steve's face was bright red. "But I wasn't...I didn't...I..."
"Believe me, I know," Phil said sympathetically.
"Hey!" Clint objected. "I resemble that remark."
“Does anyone find it weird that that was the only thing they got right?” Bruce asked.
"Ms Blake," Phil said, unable to hide his irritation at the interruption.
She looked a little less frazzled than the last time - her suit actually matched - but she was carrying a large cardboard box that she could barely see over.
"Melinda, please," she said, hurrying forward. "Do you have some time? Great! I wanted to talk to you about some merchandise that the marketing department is putting together."
As the media furore over the 'targeted hormone disruptor' incident was only just starting to die down, Phil was not keep on having any attention drawn to the Avengers for a while.
"I know what you're going to say, action figures seem a little inappropriate in light of recent, ah, events," Blake said quickly, putting the box on his desk. "However, we did a couple of quick polls and it looks like you're still doing well with the under twelves and we'd like to consolidate that a bit before...well...anything else can happen. The marketing team has been working with focus groups for a couple of months, now, and I think you'll be pleased with what they've come up with."
"Hey, mine's got a swappable head!" Stark crowed.
Steve was just staring at the small pile of Captain America figures, stickers, trading cards and costumes.
"I thought it was bad the first time," he said, poking at twelve inch model with detachable shield.
"I'm...not entirely sure how I'm supposed to react," Banner said, holding up the Hulk plushie.
"OK, this?" Clint said, holding up the plastic Hawkeye-themed bow and arrow set. "Officially better than everyone else's."
Despite the bow's size, weak string and dubious aerodynamics, he managed to get Phil on the forehead with his first shot. Phil peeled off the sucker and tried to look stern, but the delighted expression on Clint's face was hard to resist.
"Is this a joke?" Natasha asked, holding up the Barbie Black Widow.
"Unfortunately, no," Phil said. "I've raised my concerns with Ms Blake."
"The T-shirts are good," Clint said, trying to be supportive. "I like the grey one."
Natasha just glared at the ridiculous Barbie. Steve waved his Captain Ken in solidarity.
"I approve of my selection," Thor said cheerfully. "They are most life-like."
"I'm sure Ms Blake will be pleased," Phil said.
"Son of Coul, do you not have any toys?" Thor said.
Phil glared at Clint before he could say anything unfortunate or incriminating.
Phil was a trained SHIELD agent, which was why he did not hide under the desk when Blake appeared in his doorway. Her perfectly tailored suit, perfectly arranged hair and relatively small stack of files were surprising. He had more or less expected a complete breakdown after the most recent incident.
"Ms Blake," he said faintly.
She smiled happily and trotted into the office.
"Melinda, please," she said. "How is Agent Barton?"
"He was released from medical this morning," Phil said. "It looked worse than it was. I'd like to apologize. What I did, well, it was inappropriate."
For a moment it was like someone had cut Blake's strings. Her face went blank, she sagged slightly in the middle and her stack of files tilted. Phil felt a pang of guilt.
Then she straightened up, her smile was wide and perky again and she waved away his apology.
"Don't apologise!" Blake said. "You obviously felt very strong. Very strongly. That was quite the...er..."
Phil coughed uncomfortably.
"Well, moving on," Blake said, "it's not all bad news. Actually, there's a lot of good news. Shall I lead with the bad news, get it over with?"
"If you'd like," Phil said.
"You probably already know that the footage of you and, ah, Hawkeye made the evening headlines on every major news outlet," Blake said.
"I'd spotted that, yes," Phil said.
"It was quite the kiss," Blake continued. "and it went viral on YouTube shortly after it was broadcast."
As Stark had spent the last two days gleefully texting links to every news article, video and photoset on the Internet, Phil was unsurprised. It was a miracle that Stark did not get tased more often.
"Now, on the negative side we've had a few complaints registered and One Million Moms have promised to boycott all the Avengers merchandise," Blake said. "As there are so few of them, though, we don't see that impacting the sales figures. We've also had a few teeny threats from some of the more right-wing religious groups. You may be getting a few protest signs over the next few weeks but don't worry, most of them are harmless."
"Most of them?"
Blake waved that away. "On the more positive side of the ledger, your approvals are at ninety-five percent. And the reaction from the female twenties to sixties demographic was amazing."
Phil raised his eyebrows.
"Oh, yes, it was a surprise to me too," Blake continued cheerfully. "It's usually a good policy to maintain the appearance of availability for individuals like Hawkeye. We find that it's a better marketing strategy if women think they stand a chance. It looks like you two are the exception, though."
"Now, we need to talk interviews," Blake went on, rather like a steam-roller. "I've got requests from three different magazines and the Washington Post. They want the usual thing - how you two met, how long you've been together, what it's like working together, that kind of thing."
"That could be a problem," Phil said, hoping his face was not as red as it felt. "A lot of it is classified."
"Oh," Blake said, looking a little troubled.
"It would also bring up the 'targeted hormone disruptor’ incident again," Phil added, just because it was fun to watch Blake squirm.
"Oh," Blake said. "So, er, that part was true?"
Phil said nothing.
"OK, we may have to put some fairly strict parameters on the interview questions," Blake said weakly. "I've also had requests for a few appearances at Pride parades. Would that be a problem?"
"Can I just remind you who kissed who?" Clint said. "I was definitely the kissee, not the kisser."
"You didn't seem to mind," Stark said cheerfully. "In fact, if you really zoom in it looks like your hand is on-"
"Stark!" Phil said sharply.
He really did not know why this was a team meeting. It was force of habit: meet with Ms Blake, meet with the Avengers to ream them out for whatever infraction Ms Blake had focused on this time. Steve looked torn between being professional and slinking out quietly and Thor wore that slightly confused expression he pulled whenever any of Earth's more inexplicable customs came up.
Bruce and Natasha were sharing a bowl of popcorn.
"No, really, that footage is burned into my retinas and may never be removed," Stark said. “I hate you both so much.”
Clint flipped him off with a smug grin.
"That expression?" Stark said. "I did not need to know that. Can you guys get a room or something, we don't need to see this. There are innocent Captains here."
Phil put his head down on the table and tried to pretend that Stark didn't exist.
Melinda Blake's voice sounded quite shrill and when Phil looked up he had to stare for a moment. Her curly blonde hair stood on end, her jacket was missing, the camisole she wore in no way matched her skirt and she was teetering on mismatched shoes that were not even the same heel height.
"Ms Blake?" he inquired.
"Disney!" she howled. "Childhood memories! Desecrated!"
"If you could take a seat-"
"How could you...they...the screaming!" Blake said, almost wailing now.
Phil stood up and carefully escorted her to the guest chair in front of his desk, wondering whether he still had any of Dr. Banner's calming tea around.
"This was supposed to be the job," Blake said. "You know, the job. Who wouldn't want to do PR for the Avengers? They're fucking superheroes, for Christ’s sake! It should have been easy."
That was probably her first mistake, Phil reflected as he returned to his chair. Nobody who had actually paid any attention to the Avengers would have thought that.
"This was going to be the job that made my career," Blake continued. "Instead I got a bunch of foul-mouthed sexually depraved hooligans!"
"And I have to make them into fluffy, child-friendly role models!" Blake said. "It's an impossible task. I can't do it. No matter what I do, they ruin it!"
"Ms Blake, I know that you're having a bad day-"
"Cinderella's Castle, Agent Coulson," Blake said. "They did...that...to Cinderella's Castle! Little girls across the world are weeping into their pillows right now!"
"Actually, it was the Doombots who-"
"Little girls! Weeping!"
"Ms Blake!" Phil said sharply, hoping to shock her out of the hysteria.
All it did was make her burst into tears.
"I never thought...it was...how could...nobody should see that...Captain America decapitated Minnie Mouse!"
Phil winced. "That was unfortunate, I admit, but it was only a statue. Nobody got hurt."
"And you!" Blake said, pointing a shaking finger. "You! I thought you were the sensible one. I don't know why I thought that after CNN blitzed footage of you with your tongue down Hawkeye's throat for three days, but I still thought you were the sensible one!"
"Ms Blake, I apologise-"
"Didn't you think how that would look?" Blake asked.
"Ms Blake, while I know that it looked like I shot Snow White in cold blood," Phil had to pause for a moment there to re-gather his thoughts, "I assure you that it was, in fact, a very convincing holo-projection hiding a Doombot that would have-"
"I resign," Blake said abruptly, her sobs stopping. "This is it. The final straw. You and your team of...of...I can't think of anything bad enough right now but they're something awful. You and your Avengers have done it. You've broken me. My resignation will be on Director Fury's desk in half an hour."
"Good bye, Agent Coulson."
With that, she stood up and swept out of the room. It was a slightly wobbly sweeping, as she was coping with a two-inch difference in heel height, but there was an element of the dramatic to it that Phil had to admire.
"We're sorry," Clint said, sounding not at all apologetic.
"We are?" Stark said.
"We are," Steve said firmly.
"I'm not," Natasha said. "There are Barbie Black Widows out there."
"I don't think that was entirely her fault," Banner said.
"I am most sorry that the Lady Blake has departed," Thor said.
Phil looked around the meeting room table and sighed.
"How much trouble are you in with Fury?" Clint asked, perceptive as always.
"Surprisingly, not that much," Phil said with a slight smile. "I think he's more annoyed with her for not being able to cope with all of you than anything else right now."
"Does that mean we can forget the naughty word list?" Stark asked.
"No, Stark," Phil said. "Definitely not."
Stark heaved a large and very obviously fake sigh.
"It was Cinderella's Castle that broke her, wasn't it?" Clint asked.
"Actually, I think it was me," Phil said.
He paused as six pairs of incredulous eyes focused on him. Then they all remembered Snow White.
"That was a beautiful moment," Clint said wistfully. "Just fucking beautiful."
"That is way more than I ever needed to know about your relationship," Stark said.
Phil slightly pitied whoever Fury picked next to handle the Avengers’ public presence.