Touching Base
Roleplaying Log: Touching Base
Participants
IC Details
Synopsis:

Agents Coulson and 13 walk and talk. Topics include registration, moles, and a good place to play pool.

Other Characters Referenced: Sloane Albright, Superman, Nick Fury, Peggy Carter, Michael Carter, Jean Grey, Steve Rogers, Foggy Nelson, Matt Murdock
IC Date: January 01, 2019
IC Location: The Triskelion
OOC Notes & Details
Posted On: 02 Jan 2019 04:42
Rating & Warnings:
NPC & GM Credits:
Associated Plots

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Once upon a time one hardly ever would have found Phil Coulson in the firing range unless he was recertifying. He simply had too many other things to do. But one of the great ironies of the exorbitant amount of money SHIELD spent getting him back is this: there's less for him to do these days. People have moved on. The gears have kept grinding. The elaborate and increasingly complex conspiracies surrounding the organization have ramped up paranoia to the point where people are less willing to delegate than ever. Phil has been trying to sort through it, but no clear pattern is emerging, no straight series of actionable steps that tell him how he can begin to help solve this problem.

Then there's the man himself, who is still trying to grapple with how to speak to people who buried him months ago. Who literally sat at his funeral, said good-bye, and watched a body outwardly identical to his in every way be lowered into the earth. He has made no effort to take charge of his former team once more. Fury seems content to let Phil do whatever it is Phil thinks he ought to be doing right now. And so while he has taken some steps, had some meetings, pulled some information, and even dealt with a crisis or two with the same old Coulson aplomb, he has also taken a fair amount of time tossing his baseball up in the air and catching it again behind the closed doors of his office.

Or at the firing range.

He reloads his clip. He's not SHIELD's best shot by any stretch of the imagination. He certifies, but he's nothing to write home about. And as of right now he in fact would not certify. His muscle memory is completely lacking, and while he has in fact fired a weapon in the field since coming back to life he can't look at his current scores and objectively say he doesn't require the practice. He hits the button to bring the target up to him, pulls it down, loads a new one, sends it back.

His new habit of absolutely refusing to dress in Government Suit Standard holds. It's a little warm inside the range for the understated brown leather jacket he often wears now, the thing which takes a stab at sort of kind of attempting to look professional. So he's just wearing black slacks and a black SHIELD t-shirt with the logo on the breast, as if putting the t-shirt on will somehow convince him that he still belongs here. How this look sits on him depends on how charitable one is feeling, and, perhaps, how one views Phil himself.

An uncharitable mind might see an agent in his fifties, a member of the brass, at that, trying to dress like an operative in his twenties, couple that with the mere existence of Lola, and conclude Phil Coulson is having a midlife.

A more charitable mind might note that if nothing else, the t-shirt strips certain illusions away. The well-defined muscles that are utterly hidden in a suit are easy to see in a t-shirt. That mind may see someone who looks more like an old military sergeant, a greying wolfhound who is still as dangerous as ever.

And anyone who really knows him would know there's a lot more to it than that.

Sharon changed a bit when Phil died. And he did die; there's no two ways about it. Sure, SHIELD kept him, even buried a fake body, but Sharon was there when he was killed. It wasn't subtle. It wasn't something you bounce back from. And while she hasn't been informed of what exactly happened to her CO, she knows that whatever it was, SHIELD isn't likely to pull it out much. And presumably it was SHIELD who did it.

Oh yeah, there were circumstances. Something Dani Moonstar said about his soul. Sharon's not altogether clear on that, but she's decided it's above her paygrade, literally and figuratively. So she's been taking care of his team while he was gone, but it's… changed her. She had to step up. She had to do a lot of things she wasn't ready for. She did a few things she's not totally proud of. And when Phil came back…

She's been a little afraid to see him. She doesn't worship Coulson, but she respects him and trusts him, and those are both rare coin these days with Sharon Carter. That respect and trust are and were deep enough that her mourning, even when she knew something of SHIELD's plans, was as intense as jet fuel — and that's how she used it.

One of the ways she's gotten out her many frustrations is, unsurprisingly, the range. And when she looked to her right to see a familiar face, if unfamiliarly dressed, she didn't speak: she carried on silently, or as silently as one can in a firing range.

Her plan was to greet him quite calmly. Casually. But the "Hey, Phil" that comes out of her throat is a little choked. She clears her throat, sniffing as though the acrid tang of gunpowder somehow got to her. Still, her face is placid, and she even gives him a slight smile.

"Nice jacket," she adds. It's hard to know what to say.

Coulson looks over. He'd been focused, too focused to know who was around him. Or perhaps he was just shutting it out.

"I think it brings out my James Dean vibe," he quips. If he has no idea what to say either, a joke and a Cheshire Cat's smile will always carry the day. More or less.

He puts the safety on his sidearm and lays the piece down on the counter, pulling the clip again for the moment so he can turn to face her. Gun safety is second nature to him, and while many agents, people who handle weapons every single day, might cut corners on something as tame as a range, Phil just doesn't.

"It's good to see you, Sharon."

Which is true, even if he, like she, has not exactly raced to the approach.

It's not unlike when she had to meet the new Peggy, Sharon realizes. In both cases, the same person. In Peggy's case, ever so slightly not — without the memories, without the experience that would turn her into the Aunt Peggy who had mentored both Sharon and Phil. In both cases, though, definitely not supposed to be walking around. And few Carters were really great at talking about uncomfortable situations.

"It's… really good to see you," she returns, and with some feeling. It's not untrue. It's good, like running to the point of real pain and exhaustion. It's as good as the pain and the glass of water.

"The team's good," she adds. Nowhere-conversation. Small talk. "How were your holidays?" Even worse. But it's like a dog turning endless circles before lying down. She has to ease her way in.

"My team won the game, so I can't complain." Which team? Which game? Phil doesn't specify. It's likely he did watch a game though. Or two. Or ten. It's also just one of those things that one can say, easily, when doing the whole small talk thing. It steers clear of every touchy or difficult subject. Watching the game, an All-American Thing to Do, and It Went Well. No complaints.

"How was yours? You didn't work clear through them, did you? I hope you got at least a little time to relax, to spend with people you wanted to spend time with."

As if Phil, any year before now, has ever relaxed on the holidays, or even remembered the holidays were a thing, half the time.

This is in fact the first year he watched 'the game.'

Or multiples thereof.

The Thanksgiving Game, the Christmas Game, the New Years Game, all the Games Inbetween have been duly watched.

But his face shows none of this. His avuncular smile seems to almost make fun of this entire situation. Hazel eyes gone to pale green today almost invite them both to laugh about it. And if the sparkle in them is an illusion: a spy's trick of making the laugh lines around them do all the work, rather than something that at all banishes the purely haunted look that lives inside them now, it's still a pretty decent effort, all things considered.

Phil, being Phil, wants everyone at SHIELD to know he's fine. Even if he finds himself moping in the presence of not-raccoons, teenaged trees, and young heroines out of Jersey City.

"You know me, Phil. I escaped the Carter family reunion soon as I could. It's been a busy time. Besides, I don't need the time off yet." Though Sharon knows how much Phil did. Even if he hadn't been forced to take a — well, a 'breather' seems the wrong word, but 'time off' would do — he certainly needed it.

Of course, they'd needed him, but others stepped up. And every time Sharon tried to take a night off, something came up. Meeting Warren Worthington. Spending Christmas with the family.

"There was a New Year's party, though. Champagne and stuff." She didn't go. She really should have — it's good for the team's morale — but she'd spent the night staring up at her ceiling trying to come to terms with her own plans.

A slight nod to the door: "Feel like a walk? I know you're still technically on leave, and I'm not asking you to take anything on. But I was hoping for some advice." And maybe, possibly, to find out how Phil's really doing.

"For the love of God," Phil says dryly, "give me something to take on. I can only reorganize my paperclip collection so many times. I'm not so much on leave, officially, as…" He clears his throat. How to put this? "Standing on an island in a sea of eggshells."

He gives another one of those avuncular smiles as he says it, and this time there's a bit more genuine humor behind the dry words. Sometimes it is funny, all so absurd there's nothing to do about it but laugh.

As for his paperclip collection? Yes. He has one. They're from every era dating back to the invention of the paperclip. History can be really weird.

He collects his sidearm and holsters it, then collects the leather jacket from the hook and slides it on. His shoes are the same as they ever were. Polished dress shoes with great soles for running. "But advice I can do, too."

A wry little lift of the corner of Sharon's mouth. "You know I'd be thrilled to have you take back over leading the team. Being the CO is a pain in the ass I never even imagined. Yeah, if you'd just walked in and claimed it I'd have been a little cheesed, but I want you — I need you. Now more than ever."

She, too, looks much as she ever did: hair in a ponytail, grey suit pants, a white dress shirt. She collects her own suit jacket from the hook and joins Phil on the way out. Instead of heading for the offices, though, she's directing her steps toward one of the doors out of the building. There are walking trails a short distance from the building, and though the weather is brisk, it's weather for leather and wool jackets rather than overcoats and scarves.

"At some point soon," she says, "we really need to go out and have — seriously, a couple of beers and a few games of pool. Something. But right now, SHIELD…" She's having trouble putting the words around it. Finally, though, after a few minutes of walking, after they're stepping under the trees, she comes out with it:

"Registration needs to fail." Stated pretty damn baldly. Still, there it is, all out in the open.

Sharon's words produce, for half a moment, just the barest hint of a rakish smile. The fact that Phil can be an incurable flirt is downplayed almost always, but sometimes a man or a woman just goes right ahead and opens the door, and it takes lots of effort not to walk through. The expression on his face is something akin to sticking a toe through the door before deciding to leave be. But it's there, for just half a second.

Which is what he does, say, instead of immediately addressing the issue of whether he should take over the team once more.

He's glad she chose outdoors. There is less need for subterfuge out there, for white noise generators, for record players or iPods or any of the other bits of artifice everyone he seems to talk to seems to employ for even the simplest of conversations within the Triskelion these days. Out here, simply keeping one's tone modulated and giving away little through facial or bodily expressions ought to be enough.

She says SHIELD. And trails off.

Phil, with a bluntness that is somewhat new, offers: "SHIELD is a mess. I know you and Peggy have done the best you could, it's not your fault, I don't want to make either of you think I think that. I honestly don't think my being here would have made a huge difference. But it is, and we've got to do something about it."

But then she's taking a turn to another issue. He half nods his head in response. "I'm still shocked Fury got behind it. I'm shocked the bulk of the organization is behind it. Though I knew he was behind it. We had a big fight when I wanted to denounce it to the press."

In some other reality, Phil might have given a press conference where he set SHIELD's stance in an entirely different direction. In this one, Nick Fury won the argument, and Phil was all but bodily prevented from doing so.

"Though I have to admit I have no idea how to make that happen, Sharon. Do you have thoughts?"

"Plenty. And SHIELD is going to have to be instrumental."

She doesn't go for the park bench. Why? Because she'd bug a park bench, and she's not as devious as SHIELD. She takes them on a circuitous walk instead, though she does give Phil a sidelong glance or two. Did he just — he did just — well, the reasons her cheeks are pink is because they're outside and not because her twice-her-age sort-of-boss gave her a saucy look. The thought drifts through her head:

Girl, you have GOT to go on a date.

"The only reason I can think of for SHIELD to be a part of this is if we want to become the world's police really, really quickly. And we just can't. We don't have the resources and there's no guarantee we'd get them. SHIELD's already stretched thin dealing with actual problems. If we have to address New York's desire to turn into a fascist state, we'll either end up doing it for everyone or dozens, hundreds of mini-SHIELDs will crop up, and all of various levels of competence, funding, and corruption. Other people have started coming to me. I know I have your support, and I thought I would have Peggy's, and then I found out she asked my uncle to register, and now I'm not sure I want to discuss this with her at all. We need someone to lay out the logistical argument to Fury, although I'm certain he's thought of it and I doubt it'll do much good. The man wouldn't budge for a freight train. I find it pretty unbelievable that he's submitting other SHIELD agents for registration. How the hell is that going to work out?"

Sharon shakes her head. "No. If necessary, SHIELD will have to fail at enforcing registration in New York. The only way registration will die permanently is through legal challenge, so some incredibly squeaky-clean mutant or metahuman who's materially affected by the law will need to go to court. There's a firm ready and willing to take on that case. There will be and should be peaceful protests. And there's some other people who have ideas, though as well-meaning as they are, they don't always have the best ones. Still, we need to listen to the community."

Another brief pause, then: "I've spoken to Jean Grey. I'm wondering how much I should entrust her with."

"New York and the other 33 states who went there," Phil agrees. Sharon's not wrong. The resources and policing argument is one he made. He had wanted SHIELD to put out a statement that they'd refuse to enforce any registration issues at all. Not their problem. Not their area. But that, too, had gone nowhere.

His eyebrows tick up when he heard Peggy asked Michael to register. He makes no comment on it other than this clear expression of surprise, such a departure from his normal poker face.

What he does ask, out loud, is, "What did Jean Grey have to say? I've found the X-Men to be a little…"

His hands cut through the air as he seeks a tactful way to put this.

"Hit and miss when it comes to handling things with delicacy and nuance. Always idealistic. Always good people. Sometimes very prone to forgetting they're supposed to be a school, not an NGO. Hell, sometimes they seem to forget they're not an independent city-state."

"Yeah," Sharon murmurs when she sees Phil's look of surprise. "That's how I felt."

She nods again when he explains his experience with the X-Men. "Miss Grey was not entirely trusting, but she trusts that I want to help the meta community. If not specifically Xavier's Island of Misfit Vigilantes. Still, if I'm choosing between them and the Brotherhood…" Another wry twist of her lips. "At least we have some trust capital left with the others. On both sides. I'm going to be meeting with her in a few days to talk about how I can help, her and another mutant I've known for a long time. I was considering bringing Agent Albright. She's fired up. I'm trying to get her to try this subtlety thing we have in SHIELD now and again."

A deep breath: "I'm trying to decide what help I can give them. I have some resources, some safehouses and the like outside of SHIELD's purview. That's a start. I have a feeling there's going to be a meta-railroad before too long. I'm trying to think of ways to… facilitate that and monitor it at the same time, because I really don't want to see actual dangerous criminals getting off scott-free. And I'm trying to think of how I do this and don't lose my job."

A fond, fatherly smile touches Phil's lips at the mention of Sloane. "The Water Dragon wasn't really built for subtlety," he says. "She's absolutely great when you want to take down bad guys, but she is always going to be a blunt instrument. Comes with the scales. There's never been any point in training her as a spy, but ops? She's perfect. Still, for this? Sloane doesn't have to be subtle. Passion's more of an asset than a liability here."

But she gets to the nitty-gritty of where her real need for advice stands. And of course, he doesn't answer right away. He thinks it through, turning it over from every angle. "Using your own assets is a bad idea if you want to keep your job," he says. "Leveraging relationships and information, now, that's something else again. Make an introduction to person A that person B needs, in exchange for intelligence about criminals coming through the railroad. Offer to tip them off on upcoming busts and raids if they keep you tipped off about the whereabouts of people who we really need to bring in. Conversations that are unrecorded and off the record don't offer much in the way of proof. Especially if they're not always direct. You can ask John Doe to tell Jane Doe. As long as John Doe is trustworthy and true to his word it's as good as talking to Jane…with the added benefit of plausible deniability. You never talked to Jane. You were never seen anywhere near Jane. Get enough like-minded agents doing this…"

Phil spreads his hands.

Sharon gives it a ponder. She cocks her head, gazing off into space for a moment.

"The safehouses aren't traceable," she begins. "I certainly don't own them." But she's letting the rest roll through her head. "If it all gets traced back," she muses, "I need a cover story. And I have a somewhat honest one. I'm still committed to making sure that actual criminals don't use this network to escape justice. I'm going to stand by that. If we control the routes they use to leave, then we can monitor who uses those routes. Let the little fish swim. Watch where the big fish end up, then either catch them before they stir up trouble or see where they go to start stirring."

A slow nod. "It could work. Beyond that… apart from the legal challenge, the biggest thing that needs to happen is a shift in public opinion. I have no idea where to begin with that, unless Superman and Captain America want to step up on the anti-Registration train on national TV."

"I doubt it. I believe Steve has already registered. And if Superman intends to make a statement he hasn't yet. Though sending young, likeable, scale-covered Sloane, the very face of the most vulnerable type of person impacted by this, to track Superman down and ask, couldn't hurt. And it's good plausible deniability. I like it."

He rubs a hand over his balding pate and exhales.

"I'll take back over the team. If you do this and you're the CO, you'll put the entire team in the line of fire if plausible deniability isn't enough. If I'm the CO, and I'm not directly interacting with this effort, I can protect both you and them. The meta members in particular, who would be first against the wall without that additional layer of protection."

A slight smile touches his face. "And sure, that makes my plausible deniability that I'm completely incompetent at seeing things going on right beneath my nose, but I've got both built-in excuses and a track record for that, so."

A slow smile stretches over Sharon's face. "Good God," she murmurs. "Only if I can watch. I'm sure I can get her in touch with the guy. I just want to be a fly on the wall when she sees him." The smile wanes a little: "I was considering sending her to Nelson and Murdock, but… no, it would wreck her career. I had to stop her from going straight to Fury himself to demand he stop this."

The rest brings a long, deep sigh of relief. "I don't want to get you into trouble, but you're right: I'm a lot more concerned with the team. They can say they were just doing what I told them and had no idea anything was wrong. Protect them. Sacrifice me if you have to, but protect them." A beat. "And I'd like to stay in SHIELD if I can, but, you know, you do you."

"Nothing wrong with you running into say, Nelson at the local bar and retaining him on her behalf. She might need an employment lawyer in the future, after all," Coulson says mildly. "This is what I mean. Those who can't contact one another directly should contact one another by proxy. And meeting everyone you can, talking to everyone you can, making that so this is your habit and nothing that's questioned, is crucial to this anyway. For any excuse or reason you can conceive of."

He shakes his head and shrugs about the trouble. "Trouble is the job," he says. "It's the whole job. And frankly, Sharon, I'm the last person who is going to get fired. Disciplined, maybe." A few other things, maybe. "But not fired. If only because it would make them and their recent expenditures look awfully damned stupid. So. My role will be to cover your activities with other, more legitimate activities. It's work I've done before."

"And few do it better," Sharon agrees. "You're right, though, especially about Nelson. I'd really like to find out what they're looking for, given that they are looking for clients affected by registration. I'm certainly in a good position to find the sorts of people they're looking for, or I will be soon."

Another moment passes. Sharon absently reaches out to a tree branch, running her hand over the few remaining leaves and plucking off a dry and crispy one. She crumbles it between her fingers and gives Coulson another one of those sidelong looks.

"There's so much I wanted to say. And now that you're here, I… I just want you to know how much I'm glad to see you again. I was lucky to be on your team. I'm — there's no words for what it means to me that you're back. I… didn't like what I became when you were gone."

"What did you become while I was gone?" Phil asks. Gentler, now. The work discussion was and is important. There are and will be other important work discussions to be had. But it is this, this bit about her not liking who she became, that he thinks may have been the more needful when she'd asked for this conversation. He turns to face her, brushing a few flurries out of his eyes as he does, meeting her own.

Steady, serious, ready to listen. In this he is as he ever was. That solid core that was always part of him in the past returns.

"Hard," Sharon murmurs.

There's a longer silence after that which Phil is probably wise enough not to interrupt. She's gathering her thoughts, her words.

"I wanted to tear through everything in my way. I wanted to destroy the Maximoff twins — okay, the world probably would have been better if I had, but I knew it wasn't the right thing. I lost you and Aunt Peggy so close to each other, and it was like someone destroyed the core of the Earth. I was so angry. So cold. There was nothing I wouldn't have done to bring your killer to justice or to clean SHIELD of every gram of corruption."

She shakes her head sharply. "So I know. I know what makes other people the way they are now. I know what it is to burn so hot that you start thinking maybe you should burn hotter, and wider, and longer, and everything. I didn't," she adds, raising a hand. "I mean, it came out mostly in me being a snappish bitch. And then I found out that there was some kind of Plan, and that mostly shifted my anger because you deserved a damn break, and as much as I wanted you back, I didn't and don't think we have the right to fool with that sort of thing. Though I understand there were circumstances," she adds with a thin smirk.

"This… is not fair to lay on you. It's not fair for me to rest my morality on your shoulders. But I'm not built 'fair', so… forgive me?"

"There's nothing to forgive," Phil says. "It's not a matter of morality, Sharon. That's just human nature. I mean, I'm touched you had that reaction over me, but."

He had indeed not interrupted at all. And for a moment it seems he is going to leave it at that, or perhaps say something else in the manner of reassurance or direct advice. Instead he says:

"I wasn't sure I was coming back to SHIELD. I— " He hesitates. Then says, "I just wasn't. Honestly, Sharon, you might have to forgive me. My reasons may be slowly evolving back into what they were, but I wasn't in a good way when I woke up. Bringing Benjamin to justice was about all that got me here."

He frowns. Well, she has a right to know.

"We weren't just partners. We were lovers. He and I. When he faked his death. I honestly thought he loved me. I certainly loved him. I honestly thought he was dead. And I certainly never in my darkest dreams thought he'd be the one to kill me. Or Peggy Senior. Or to be orchestrating the web of moles and lies that seems to be eating SHIELD alive from the inside out."

He flushes a little. He doesn't talk about his love life as a rule. Nor his bisexuality. With Peggy the best he'd been able to do was 'we were close.' But in this moment, he feels Sharon deserves to know it all.

Maybe needs to.

"I'm the last person who can judge anyone else on their anger."

It throws Sharon for just a bit of a loop. She can read people pretty well, or so she thinks, but it never even occurred to her…

She nods slowly, though. She would have considered it as a possibility for anyone else. Few things can create hatred like that. Love is one of them.

"That clears a few things up," she murmurs. "And muddies a lot more of them. Like why he faked his death, why… why all of this from him. I hate further undermining SHIELD while he's doing it, though, and we still need to figure out how and why he's set this up."

She reaches out then, squeezing his shoulder. "I should have been there when you woke up. I've been beating myself up a little about that. Whatever I can give you to help you get through this, just ask. Really. I'm not very acquainted with counseling people through their resurrections."

"No, you don't. I promise. I attacked the two people nearest me immediately upon waking. I thought they were people from my past. One of them was Peggy. She's been remarkably forgiving about it. I'm glad you didn't have to witness that."

But on the matter of why…

"I am not sure. He was obsessed with an alien artifact. And while it would be nice to think destroying crate 444 put an end to it, I've got a notion it won't. I have a plan to see if we can't predict his next move, but at the moment I'm having to schmooze my way through certain corners of SHIELD before I can enact it."

He pats her hand and says, "Anyway, I'm fine now. I promise. I just understand, is all."

"Tch. I could have taken you down again." Sharon's making light of it because she almost has to. She doesn't like the idea of any of that, and she's just as glad she wasn't there to see it.

Shaking her head, she nods down the path back to the Triskelion. "One good thing that came out of it," she admits. "I learned that as angry as I can get, I also can run the team at need. I also learned I really don't want to. Not yet. And before you take over, and before it gets weird, James Dean, let's spend one evening hustling pool and telling stories. I could use a night not working."

Phil chuckles and murmurs, "I don't doubt it, but it might have made the pool and stories less fun."

Which is of course his way of accepting. Will it get weird? Maybe, maybe not. He isn't even sure what kind of boss he'll be these days. What he does say is this:

"I'm just surprised you were surprised. I always knew you could. Speaking of leading, you'll have to lead the way. I have no idea where to find a good pool hall these days. Or if people even still call them that."

"I know a place," Sharon confirms. Specifically the kind of place she's not likely to run into any trouble she has to deal with.

Tomorrow begins the list of people to talk to. And the people to have someone else talk to. And the connections to make, and the contacts, and the small subtle web of strings to make things just that little bit better, and in the best case scenario nobody will ever know. Just like everything else they do — if nobody ever hears about it, it means they did a good job.

All that's tomorrow, though. Today, it's one normal evening. Take them where you can.

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