Agent Barton's Strictly Professional Interest
"I shouldn’t have to tell you how significant this opportunity is, Agent Barton.”
The SHIELD director leans forward, his expression dark.
Barton says nothing, but takes the file Fury hands him. Its dog-eared cover is stamped with an inky red ‘CENSORED’.
“I know who her target is and I don’t care. You’re going to let it happen, take her out, bring the body back here when you’re done. I have... questions.”
Barton raises an eyebrow at that, but Fury only scowls. “Everything you need to know is in the file. Read it, get ready. This one could get interesting.”
Coulson wanders into the rec room on Tuesday afternoon looking for a snack and a coffee. Instead, he finds Barton hunched over the table. The sandwich in the agent’s hand is hovering, forgotten, halfway between the plate and his mouth.
Barton looks up from an open file when he hears his handler come in. “You heard about this mission?”
Coulson nods as he pours himself a coffee and sits down. “What’s it say?”
Barton snorts derisively and pushes the file across the table. Coulson leafs through pages marked by more thick black lines than text. His mouth tightens to a thin line. “I see.”
“Codename: Black Widow,” Barton recites. “Origin? Redacted. Age? Redacted. First recorded activity? Redacted. Appearance? Who the hell knows. Fury ‘isn’t ready’ to hand over the pictures yet.” He reaches out to take the file back. “Is he serious about this?”
Coulson sips his coffee. “There’s gotta be something in there. Old ops reports?”
“Yeah, but can I trust what’s in here? Look at this--” Barton flicks to the top of the second page. “First of all, it lists one of her primary weapons as ‘thighs’. Seriously. And then there’s this: ‘Kill rate: 100 per cent’.” He looks up at his handler. “I’m expected to believe she’s never failed or aborted a mission? Ever?”
Coulson almost rolls his eyes at that. “Well, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to believe that, sure.”
Barton’s eyes narrow.
“What is your kill rate again, Barton?”
“You suggesting I can’t take her?”
“I’m just asking what your percentage is.”
Barton looks back down at the file, muttering.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”
“I said you know my kill rate and 97.8 per cent is still the highest in the agency. And there were mitigating weather factors involved.”
“That’s what it’s called, huh?”
Barton doesn’t answer, just scowls at the page in front of him.
Coulson allows himself the smallest of smirks as he takes another sip of coffee.
“Let me ask you a hypothetical question.”
Coulson turns in surprise at the sound of Barton’s voice. It’s 5am on Wednesday and the archer’s sitting in semi-darkness in the rec room with an open file on his lap.
“Barton, have you been here all night?”
“Hypothetically,” Barton says, ignoring him, “you’re trapped in a warehouse full of leaking oil barrels--”
“Why are there oil barrels?
“It’s a warehouse.”
“Why are they leaking?”
“Because they’ve been sabotaged, Coulson,” Barton says impatiently. “Look, you’re in the warehouse, you’ve been ambushed and knocked out. You come to and you’ve been tied to a pallet of leaking barrels. You target’s tied up, still out cold and out of reach, and tied to him is some kind of incendiary device with a timer, which is counting down and currently reads two minutes. What do you do?”
“C’mon, what do you do?”
Coulson sighs. “Well, I guess I’d have to free myself first--”
“Can’t. Not in time.”
“Ah... I would call in backup--”
“Don’t have any.”
Coulson raises an eyebrow. “If I didn’t have any backup, I wouldn’t have gone into the warehouse in the first place, Barton.”
“Let’s pretend you decided to live a little. No backup. And your only weapon within reach is,” he consults the file, “some kind of taser thing.”
“Ok... well... I can’t use my weapon without sparking the oil--”
“And I can’t free myself?”
There’s a pause while Coulson thinks.
“Well, as the target will also be killed in the blast, I guess I would be honoured to die in the service of my country.”
“Fine, Barton. What would you do?”
“We’ll never know. But if I were the Black Widow, I would use my famous thighs to drag myself within reach of the target and disarm the bomb with my feet. Then I’d free myself, kill the target and set fire to the warehouse as I leave, destroying the evidence. All within five minutes.”
Coulson’s eyebrows are dangerously close to his hairline.
“I know. And there’s pages of stuff like that,” says Barton, flipping through the file, picking out passages at random. “She’s pushed out of a plane over an unspecified body of water, somehow survives the fall, swims to shore and makes it back to base a week later with a broken leg... She’s caught trying to cross a ‘redacted’ border at ‘redacted’ checkpoint, takes out five soldiers and escapes... She cosies up to the dictator of Redactedsville, then sparks a riot and brings down his regime so a new one can be installed...”
He shakes his head in disbelief. “If only half the stuff in here is true... The woman’s got nerve, I’ll give her that.”
On Thursday, Coulson’s back in the rec room looking for lunch. He’s barely surprised to see Barton sitting at the table as he walks in.
“Afternoon Barton. Those my pre-mission briefs you’re working on there? Weapons inventory?”
Barton glances up before turning back to the file.
“Yeah, yeah. Listen to this: she once took out 27 heavily-armed assault troops in Kazakhstan, using only a nail file.”
When his handler doesn’t respond, Barton looks up to check he’s listening. “Twenty-seven heavily-armed troops, Coulson. A nail file.”
Coulson pours himself a coffee. “OK, well, be sure and ask what brand she uses. I’ll add a few to the next requisition order.”
“You’ve gotta admit that’s impressive.”
Coulson takes a sip of coffee and looks over at the archer, who’s now leaning back in his chair, arms crossed, looking at the file with something like admiration.
“She’s a highly trained assassin, Barton. That’s her job. Do I look impressed when you take out a bunch of guys with one arrow?”
“Doesn’t mean you’re not impressed though, right?”
“And even I never managed 27 people with a nail file.”
Coulson lets out a long-suffering sigh, picks up his tray and leaves the room without another word.
“Fine,” Barton calls after him. “I’m just saying it’s, y’know... above average.”
On Friday evening, Coulson has to call Barton’s name three times before the man hears him. Even then, a grunt is all the response he gets.
“Still looking at that file, huh?” he asks carefully.
Barton doesn’t look up from the file when he speaks.
“None of the stuff I really need to know is in here.”
“You’ve been giving me the highlights of that file for a week Barton, you know plenty.”
“There’s plenty I don’t: where she grew up, how old she is...”
Coulson eyes Barton warily, but says nothing.
“Fury did finally hand over some photos, though. Only three, all hard copies, and they’re... strange. This one,” he hands a photo to Coulson, “seems too old to be the right girl.”
The picture is a faded square the size of a beer coaster. The image isn’t quite in focus and seems to have been taken through a golden filter, making the girl’s auburn hair shine. The whole retro feel is compounded by her vintage 60s miniskirt and turtleneck sweater. Large, heavy-framed sunglasses obscure her face.
“Well, if Fury added it to the file...” Coulson says, squinting at it.
“Yeah, but how old would you say that girl is? Twenty-five? Twenty-eight, maybe? Now, look at this one...”
It shows a very similar-looking girl, blonde this time, in a nondescript European street glancing warily over her shoulder; the only label, a simple ‘West Berlin’.
“She looks exactly the same. Which is... whatever, but also ‘West’ Berlin? And I checked, that cafe behind her closed down seven years ago.”
“What are you saying, Barton?
Barton doesn’t answer, just keeps staring at the photograph. Eventually, he shakes his head. “Nothing that makes any sense,” he says finally, picking up the third photograph and handing it over. “This one was taken a week ago by the source for this job.”
It’s labelled ‘Intercontinental Hotel, Bucharest’ and shows the same pretty, 20-something redhead holding a martini and laughing with a fat and balding mustachioed man, her hand on his arm.
“Doin’ a real number on that guy, huh? Yeah buddy, she thinks you’re hilarious,” he snorts. “What an idiot...” Barton is craning his neck to look at the photo in Coulson’s hand, a smug smile on his lips.
When he chuckles softly to himself, Coulson decides it’s time to intervene.
“OK, that’s it - Barton, are you sure you’re in the right frame of mind for this mission?”
Barton looks up from the photograph, surprised. “Are you kidding? I’ve been going over this file for four days now.”
“Exactly. This file. No language skills, no location assessment. No weapons inventory either, which was due on my desk yesterday by the way.”
“Coulson, c’mon. You really need me to write ‘the usual’ every time I--”
“Yes, Barton, I do. It’s protocol. It exists for a reason. It forces you to prepare properly.”
The archer gestures to the file spread out in front of him. “This is preparation.”
“It’s somewhat single-minded.”
“She’s an expert assassin. A professional. You don’t think single-mindedness is a good idea?”
Coulson chooses his next words carefully. “You don’t think you’re taking more than a professional interest in this mission?”
Barton frowns, then laughs, bemused. “The hell? No.”
There’s a pause, as Coulson opens his mouth to speak, stops, closes it again. He changes tack.
“I want the weapons inventory and the location report on my desk before you leave in the morning. And I want you to do a risk assessment.”
Barton scoffs. “I can do that now. ‘Brief: take down deadly and highly effective assassin who’s been known to kill 27 troops using only a nail file. Risk category: high.’ Happy?”
“Not particularly. This woman is deadly and highly effective, Barton. And you seem to be more interested in enjoying her exploits than planning a mission to take her out.”
“Coulson, you know how this works. I need to know everything about a target: how she operates, how she’ll react, that she’s capable of killing 27 armed men with a nail file.”
“You seem unusually preoccupied with that detail--”
“Why aren’t you? You’re the one who wanted the risk assessment!”
“Listen to yourself Barton! I’ve been listening to it for a week now and to be honest, you’re starting to sound... Well, you sound...”
“What, Coulson?” Barton snaps, his temper fraying. “I sound what?”
It’s a moment before Barton can speak.
“--and I think it’s clouding your judgement.”
Barton glares across the table at his handler. Several seconds tick by before he takes a deep breath and shifts his attention back to the file.
“You’re dreaming it, Coulson. And you’re forgetting that I am also a deadly and highly effective assassin. Relax. She’ll be dead by Sunday morning.”
Coulson seems to consider speaking, but thinks better of it and gets up to leave instead.
Alone in the rec room, Barton looks again at the Bucharest photo, at the redhead smiling so convincingly at her mark, and mutters to himself.
“Doesn’t mean it’s not a waste, is all I’m saying...”