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The Bounty

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Barton is late.

Phil's not particularly surprised by this.

Barton is a good man, a good agent, but he's still hyper and obnoxious and a pain in the ass sometimes. Immature – that's a good word for it. He's often late for things – meetings, classes, appointments – but when it matters, when it's important, he can be counted on to be professional and prompt.

Having heard Phil's schpeel the day before, knowing what today's meeting is all about, exactly what is going to be said, it's not surprising that the archer hadn't felt it too important to be punctual.

That doesn't particularly bother Phil either.

Barton has had an indirect part in at least three missions to make contact with the Black Widow, and knows exactly how much Director Fury wants to add her to their little collection of incredible assets. He knows that thus far all attempts have been unsuccessful, and that this most recent plan is SHIELD's last ditch effort at shaking the tree in the hope that some fruit will drop out. He knows the details, knows the strategy, knows who came up with the plan and exactly how stupid Phil thinks it is, and knowing all this it's really not necessary for him to be here at all.

No, the only thing that irks Phil about the whole situation is that he's noticed Barton's absence at all.

He's getting far too personally attached to the man.

As he listens to Fury drone on, detailing all known information they possess on the Black Widow to a roomful of Level Fours, Phil briefly reflects on Clint Barton's history with SHIELD, his history with Phil himself. He'd been the one to recruit the cocky young archer when so many others had failed to even get close to the elusive Hawkeye, but hadn't been assigned as his handler for several months after that. The kid had a very blatant problem with authority but it had practically disappeared when Phil had finally picked him up, shown him the barest modicum of respect and common decency. From that day forward his rise had been meteoric, promoted faster than any agent in history. His aim was legendary, his marksmanship unbeatable, but he was far more than good eyes and good aim.

He was smart and he was clever and he was funny, and...

And Phil is waxing poetic again.

He really ought to cut that shit out.

Barton's pretty enough to be miles out of his league and besides, Phil is his direct supervisor. He shouldn't even be thinking about his asset that way.

That doesn't stop him from being quietly jealous when, three minutes after Fury has turned the presentation over to him, Barton comes waltzing in with his arm slung around another female agent's shoulders, a Freshens smoothie cup in his free hand.

"Agent Barton, nice of you to join us," he deadpans, his gaze skating over the unfamiliar agent tucked in against the man's side.

He doesn't recognize her – not hugely surprising – but he still feels that flash of green warmth in the pit of his belly that she must recognize on his face, because she lifts one perfectly manicured eyebrow sardonically before taking a noisy suck on her own smoothie. He manages not to sneer. She's small, petite, trim with a still-feminine figure, her short, dark hair sleek and glossy, and the way she curls an arm around Barton's waist is shockingly proprietary.

Clint laughs at his sarcastic reprimand, hands the female agent down into the last remaining empty chair, and that tickles at an alarm bell in the back of his mind because they'd counted the number of agents who would be here today exactly. There's something rubbing him wrong about this woman, about the way she moves, about the strange sense of danger that seems to be rolling off of her, but he puts it down as more jealousy, a stupid reaction because of a stupid crush so he pushes it aside.

"As I was saying," he continues, speaking up to project his voice across the room, to address the fifty or so Level Fours present. "This is not an open invitation for any and all of you to go running off after the Black Widow. You all know how dangerous she is – don't go and do something stupid that will get you killed. This is only to let you know that there will be compensation made to any agent who has a hand in helping to establish contact with her."

"So SHIELD is putting a price on the Widow's head?" an agent near the back calls out, Agent Rivers unless Phil is very much mistaken. "Dead or alive?"

"Absolutely not," Phil answers, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice. Hadn't he been listening? "We want to speak with her, recruit her if at all possible. We're not asking you to head off on a wolf hunt, in fact, we highly suggest you don't actively seek her out."

"Then what are you suggesting?"

This from Agent Shelby, a much more sensible question, quite nearly gives Phil a damned migraine.

"This is only to let you know that we are still actively seeking information or contact with the Black Widow, also known as Natalie Rushman," he sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Any agent who reports that, any agent that happens to be a part of any mission that brings her in will be appropriately compensated. That's all. We're not offering a bounty on her head."

Except they kind of are.

Phil's told Nick this is a bad idea.

"Yeah, about that," Clint calls, snickering behind his straw. "How much is it again that you're offering? And also, will that ten grand be available to me in cash, or will SHIELD be cutting me a check?"

Rivers scoffs derisively, an old enemy of Clint's from the days when he'd blazed past the other sniper in basic training.

"What the hell makes you think you can bring in the Widow Barton?" he sneers, tone full of hatred and disgust for the ex-circus performer.

Phil very nearly comes to his defense, very nearly calls Rivers out on the basis of being a dick, but much to his dismay Barton's friend beats him to it.

Hell Phil hadn't even known he was seeing someone.

"Oh, this is precious," the agent purrs, her accent thick and cold and heavy. "All this time and they still underestimate you."

Several seats away from her, Rivers pales and narrows his eyes, recognizing the very blatant jab.

"Eh, not all of them," Clint says easily, shrugging his massive shoulders and grinning, his eyes catching Phil's for a fraction of a second before darting away again.

"Yes," the woman says contemplatively, then, "Which one is this Coulson?"

Phil frowns.

There's not a single agent in SHIELD that doesn't know his name, certainly not a one in the room that doesn't know his face.


"You wanna meet him?"

The woman smiles, an icy, deadly smile and a sudden chill runs down Phil's spine.

"Of course," she replies, rising smoothly to her feet, and then she's reaching up and pulling off the short, dark wig, flicking a riot of thick, lush red hair free with a graceful toss of her head, the room falling dead silent. "You know how I enjoy meeting any man who captures your eye so easily Little Bird."

Clint laughs, smiles brightly and reels her in to plant a theatrical kiss to her cheek, and then he's waltzing her up the narrow aisle of agents who part before them like the Red Sea, this woman who seems to know him so well, this woman who knows Phil.

"Phillip Coulson," Clint says formally, his eyes sparkling mischievously as he comes to stand before him, "Natalia Alianova Romanova. Nat to some, Black Widow to... others. Tash, this is Phil."

The room is still, dumbfounded, hell even Fury's jaw is on the floor as they all stand there staring, but Phil somehow manages to keep his cool, extends his hand calmly.

"Miss Romanova," he says calmly, surprised by her warm, delicate touch.

"Agent Coulson," she replies. "It is a pleasure to finally meet you. I've heard... many things."

"All good I hope," he says flatly, thankful that he doesn't stammer.

What the hell does that mean? Has Barton been talking about him? And to the Black Widow of all people, the most deadly, the most efficient espionage agent that SHiELD has ever come across?

It's stupid, but that's the more distressing part of this, not that Clint knows the Black Widow in the first place, not that he's had contact with her all this time. Not that he's gone out and picked her up, brought her into SHIELD like it's nothing to get past their security measures. No it's that he's been talking to her about him, and it's vain and foolish but he wants to know, needs to know what things this woman has been told, not because he fears her wrath – though he probably should – but because it will tell him exactly what Clint thinks of him without prejudice.

"We've been looking for you for a long time Miss Romanova," Fury rumbles beside him, suddenly finding his tongue and startling Phil from his racing thoughts. "Perhaps you might consent to sitting down with us to discuss your recruitment options."

For a moment Natalia Romanova looks between him and Fury, another cold, assessing stare, but her eyes warm when her gaze flicks to Clint and he offers her a smile, touches his fingers to her elbow.

"Over dinner I think," she finally agrees, with a stiff little dip of her chin, even as Clint cheers quietly beside her and fist-pumps the air. "I have a standing reservation at Carmine's; please, Agent Coulson, join us. Clint's treat of course – I believe you owe him a bounty."

"Aw Tasha, no."