“You think she’ll cooperate?” Sitwell asked, his voice muffled from the ice pack he was holding to his bruised nose. Phil made a noncommittal noise and folded his arms over the file pressed against his chest as he studied the person currently cuffed to the chair in the interrogation room.
Francis Clinton Barton was not what he’d been expecting. For one thing, she was taller, more muscled in the shoulders, though still narrow and wiry in build. Her sandy blonde hair was cut short and wild around her head, and her features were too strong to ever be called pretty. She was wearing a pair of Army issue camo pants, a black muscle shirt and, if Coulson didn’t miss his guess, she was wearing a binder. Her skin was sallow and there were dark circles under her eyes. She hadn’t stopped moving since they brought her in: her eyes flickering over the room, her hands flexing against the cuffs, and her leg jiggling under the table. She had the unmistakable look of a person who was operating on too little sleep, not enough food, and no time to stand down.
Watching closely Phil tapped a finger against the mirrored glass that separated them. She flinched, hard, jerking against her bonds and her eyes snapped up in search of the threat. Phil remembered that feeling from the Army. No matter where they were, walking patrols in rural towns or bunked down at base camp, he always felt like there was a rifle trained on his back, or a landmine under his feet. Barton had the unmistakable signs of hyper-vigilance that came from too much time spent watching her own back without a chance to stand down.
Coulson tapped his fingers against the file pressed against his chest, a thoughtful frown on his face. The Director wanted whatever intelligence she had on her last employer. Recruitment was not a priority. After reading the reports Coulson had suspected she would be a good SHIELD agent. Now, after observing her, he knew that she would do well with SHIELD. She was a highly skilled marksman, intelligent enough to evade SHIELD custody for two years, and, if his hunch was right, in desperate need of someone to watch her back.
He took a second look at the short hair, the binder that flattened her chest, and her clothes. Maybe he was reading too much into it, maybe she was a woman who simply preferred a more masculine presentation. Or maybe his hunch was right and she was not a she at all. There were no visible signs of hormone treatment, but then it was entirely possible that Barton simply didn’t have access to them. If that was the case, it was more incentive for Barton to join SHIELD. Their health insurance coverage was very inclusive.
Coulson straightened his tie and settled his expression into a blank mask as he planned his approach. He had enough information to know that Barton wasn’t the kind of person who would react well to veiled threats, and paternal concern would only make her angry. Honesty would be the fastest way to get everyone what they needed.
“I think she’ll cooperate,” he said to Sitwell. “You’re all set?”
Jasper nodded and gestured to the monitoring equipment in front of him. “Already recording.”
Phil felt the intensity of Barton’s gaze the minute he walked into the room and a shiver went down his spine. Her eyes burned through him, like she was peeling back every layer of fabric and skin to see to the heart of him. He tucked the discomfort away and gave her a cordial not-smile as he closed the door behind him.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard but I’m really not into bondage on a first date,” she sneered, before he could speak. She rattled the cuffs that kept her locked to the chair. “You could at least buy me dinner first, or something.” She was grinning like a wolf baring her fangs, but her body language was tense and uncertain.
Coulson didn’t react, but he was secretly pleased by the bravado. He set her files down on the table and slid into the seat opposite hers. “Ms. Barton--.”
“Just Barton,” she snapped. “I ain’t ‘Ms’ anything.”
“Barton, then,” he said amicably. Maybe he hadn’t been reading too much into things after all. “What are your preferred pronouns?”
She scowled at him. “You fucking with me?” she demanded.
Coulson shook his head. “I don’t like to make assumptions.”
Her eyebrows shot up, incredulous. “You’re serious.”
“I have it on good authority that I’m rarely anything but serious.”
“Fine. He and him.” His narrowed eyes dared Coulson to make a comment on it.
Coulson only nodded and made a note on Barton’s file. “Mr. Barton, my name is Agent Coulson of SHIELD. We have a proposition for you.”
“Yeah? Let me guess, I tell you everything I know and you don’t have me disappeared?”
“Only half correct.” Coulson flipped open the file and slid a photograph of a large, brown haired, white man in a very expensive suit over for his inspection. “You tell us everything you know about James Gregson and his organization, and we give you a job.”
He glanced down at the photo then back to him. “A job,” he stated, disbelieving. “As what? SHIELD’s personal assassin?”
Coulson shook his head. “Hardly. You’re far too skilled for that. It would be a waste of your talents. We’re offering you full agent status.”
“And all I gotta do is tell you about this guy? What makes you think I know anything about him?”
“You did contract work for him last year.”
“He has a bounty on your head. I can only assume you learned something you weren’t supposed to.”
“Maybe I just made him mad. Or maybe he doesn’t like trannies.”
“Or maybe you’re far more observant then you pretend to be. Anything you can tell us would help put him in prison for a very long time.”
“What if I don’t know anything?”
“The job offer still stands, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“What if I don’t want the job?”
“You want to take your chances on your own?”
“I’ve been fine so far.”
“So far, yes. The human body is remarkably resilient but that level of hyper-vigilance can only work for so long. Eventually you’ll slip up, or someone will get lucky. SHIELD takes care of its own.”
“Until I become inconvenient, right? Then you’ll drop me like a live grenade.”
Coulson leaned forward in his seat to meet his eyes. Barton was unblinking, his bitter skepticism clear on his face. “We don’t abandon our people, Barton. There’s a lot I can’t promise you. We’re just as human as any other organization and we make human mistakes. I can promise you that you will never be abandoned. You will never be alone. There will always, always, be someone watching out for you.”
Barton closed his eyes and dropped his head. Coulson sat back in his seat and waited. After a long moment the tension released from Barton’s shoulders like the air going out of a balloon. He slumped back in the chair and sighed. “Fine.”
Coulson refused to allow his elation to show on his face. “Thank you,” he said, sincerely. He walked around the table to release Barton’s hands, dropping the cuffs on the table as he returned to his seat.
Barton eyed him warily as he massaged his wrists. “So…what’s to stop me from killing you and making a run for it?” he asked, nonchalantly.
Coulson’s lip twitched in a smirk. “I wouldn’t try it. You won’t get far.”
Barton smirked back and slouched in his seat, languid as a cat. “So what now?”
Coulson turned to the mirrored window where Sitwell had been recording the interview. “Get Achebe from H.R. down here with a contract and intro packet.”
Coulson went straight from Barton’s debriefing to the director’s office. Nick hunched over his perpetually cluttered desk, a file opened in front of him and lines of stress etched onto his face. He didn’t bother to look up when the door opened.
“You better have good news, Cheese,” he growled, slapping the file shut and dropping it on his outbox.
Coulson dropped Barton’s file and a copy of his testimony in Fury’s inbox and settled into one of the empty chairs across from Fury. “Barton confirmed our suspicions about Gregson and Hydra. Gave us some new names, identified a few faces, and even some specs on their new prototypes.”
Nick snagged the file and flipped through it. His good eye widened, impressed despite himself. “She remembered all that?”
“Yes, he did. They don’t call him Hawkeye for nothing, it seems,” Coulson said.
Nick replaced the file and gave Coulson a look. It was a very unamused, irritated look. “You and your goddamn strays, Cheese. Swear to fuck you look for these freaks on purpose.”
Coulson met Nick’s eyes with a flat expression that managed to be both unimpressed and chiding at the same time.
Nick rolled his eyes. “Don’t give me that look, you’re the fucker who brought me a goddamn archer. What the fuck am I supposed to do with an archer?”
“An archer who remembers the specs of a gun he caught a glimpse of over a year ago. Do you need me to list all the times he’s evaded us? And INTERPOL? Not to mention the gang of mercenaries currently after the bounty on his head. He’s good, Nick. With a good team and some training he could be amazing.” Phil flinched internally at the obvious glee in his voice. He couldn’t help it, though. Barton was just… the sheer amount of potential he had in him to be a great agent and the fact that he’d agreed to join SHIELD meant he might see that potential blossom into a reality. It was Phil’s favorite part about being recruiting new agents, especially agents who needed SHIELD as much as SHIELD needed them.
Nick made a disgusted face at him. “Take that fanboy shit somewhere else,” he grumped. “Or I’m busting you back to probie.”
Phil smirked. “You know I’m right.”
“Right has nothing to do with it, it’s just obnoxious.”