Order of Importance
Roleplaying Log: Order of Importance
Participants
IC Details
Synopsis:

Phil Coulson touches base with Sloane Albright at last. Is this goodbye?

Other Characters Referenced: Peggy Carter, Dani Moonstar, Daisy Johnson
IC Date: March 08, 2019
IC Location: A Bookstore in Westchester, NY
OOC Notes & Details
Posted On: 09 Mar 2019 05:47
Rating & Warnings: PG
NPC & GM Credits:
Associated Plots

The text came in from a burner phone, and it looked, at first, like garbage. Spam, from a spam number.

Get a new *PC* for free today, just bring the winning number *3242017* to 1414 Canvas St, Westchester, NY. Only *13* left, also *444* runner up prizes, deadline 3/15/2019 *Stop By Today*

Phil is left to wonder, as he removes the SIM card from the phone and tosses it out the window of a car he literally stole, if it was a little too obtuse. His calendar and personal journal clearly marks 3/24/2017 as the day he and Sloane met, but expecting her to remember that might be a little much. 'PC' is…well why would she think it's anything other than a PC, instead of his name? The references to Warehouse 13 and Item 444 almost seem a little cruel.

But then again, he trained her. And he's the one that told her codes invite people to think there's something to hide. Spam, on the other hand, is not monitored, not even by international Intelligence agencies, unless they think it ties to some bigger thing. There's just so much of it. Who has the time?

The address is not that far from the X-Mansion either, and it is not a PC store, nor is it anything abandoned. It's a relic. An ancient used bookstore with a very deaf owner.

Phil sits in the back, flipping through a book full of trivia about building America's railroad in the 1890s that only Phil or someone like him would ever be interested in. He wears a Milwaukee Brewers t-shirt and baseball cap, and jeans. He is even more unobtrusive than usual as a result, especially given the little pair of reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. He looks like an aging professor who stopped by, who might have some sort of baseball party to attend afterward. The nod to his home state's baseball team, instead of his adopted state's one, is maybe a bit of a risk, but damn it, he's not going to cave to the Yankees fandom and he hasn't in 30 years. He's a Wisconsin boy and it's going to be the Brewers until the day he…

Well, effectively forever.

* * *

Sloane L. Albright was-slash-is a diligent agent; for two straight years she did not take much of her PTO, never took a sick day, and by god she had to be basically shoved out the door. She had a place — the Shakedown — but in recent weeks, she's stayed away for reasons, but with a capital R. Moreover, few people know the number to her personal phone; the workplace phone she used in her day to day at SHIELD left in her desk before she went on this extended period of sick-and-vacation time.

It takes her a second to parse the text; the first read leads to a hard squint, then the subsequent passes start filling in the gaps. It's a little easier to pick up on than the cryptogram Agent Carter left for her, sure, but that doesn't make the realization of what the message /means/ any easier to swallow.

She's been dreading /this/ talk.

And so it is that she arrives; a raglan t-shirt, jeans, and comfortable sneakers for running, combined with a hoodie and heavy overcoat, hair loose and down. Her favorite pair of aviators are gone, instead wearing a pair of cheap plastic shades from a gas station, wiping her feet at the door and looking around. This /was/ the address…

As she slides off the sunglasses and tucks them into the collar of her shirt, it's easy to see that she looks leagues and miles better than the last time Phil saw her — she looks rested, healing well, and even if she's got things on her mind, a lot less of a literal ball of stress and worry.

"Coulson," she says, brows scrunched up. The last time they talked, she was a little… distant. "Um. … Hi. I'm sorry I didn't call."

* * *

"You had every right not to," Coulson murmurs, gesturing towards the overstuffed chair beside him. Both chairs look like they emerged from the 70s; they're mustard yellow and some stuffing has been duct taped back into them. But they're crazy comfortable.

Morever, there is not a security camera in sight in here. There's no Wifi, and if Sloane checks her phone she'll see it gets next-to-know bars. Though he nudges an ice chest over, and opens it up. His personal phone is already in there. Phones, as it happens, are always listening, and phones, as it happens, can always be messed with, but an ice chest can block them if they're turned off. Usually nobody's actively paying attention. People mine for certain red flag statements. Phil's reasonably sure the greetings won't be a problem. Phil's personal cell certainly is in there. There's no ice; it's just the good ole' Igloo insulation they're after.

"As it stands, I was on assignment out of the country for a month."

He gives a thin, cynical smile. "Terrorists. The kind of problem I used to solve. Almost like a vacation."

And then, softly…"How are you, Sloane?"

* * *

Sloane slips the phone out of her pocket — it's not too expensive, something she can afford to lose; something that wouldn't draw a lot of attention in a crowd or be ripe for a pickpocket attempt, and navigates the lock button and power to shut it off, setting it down inside the cooler before easing down into the indicated chair.

Her right hand is still tightly wound in bandage; healing again due to her propensity to keep hitting things with it even though it needs time to rest, fingers a bit stiff. For someone that was reportedly run through by three feet of re-bar, she seems to be doing all right otherwise — at least, at a glance.

"Hm," she says, mouth bending with a small smile and closing her eyes, settling back in the chair and folding her hands. "I get that, kind of."

How is she, though? Her eyes open. "Alright, I guess."

"The Institute's been good to me. Heard my story, helped me heal up, given me some time and space. Warren Worthington of all people is stepping up and trying to get the video of me getting attacked burned out of anyplace he can."

Sloane's hand lifts from the arm of the cushy chair. "I thought it was weird enough Tony Stark brought me pizza."

Her eyes drift, from Coulson toward the floor. "I'm guessing Agent Carter probably gave you an earful about me trying to resign."

* * *

"I haven't spoken to Agent Carter since my return," Coulson admits. "So why don't you tell me how that went?"

If he's upset by Sloane trying to resign he gives no sign of it. Then again he's a tough read on the best of days. And usually pretty good at reading people, on the worst. "That stunt Carol pulled with that footage of you was despicable. I haven't had a chance to get in her face about that since my return either."

His eyes glimmer with undisguised anger though. Everything about that situation pisses him off. And he's a man who doesn't get pissed off easily. His mouth sets into a flat line; his jaw firms. It seems to be one bit of fury in a raging sea at the moment, but it's there, present and palpable.

* * *

"Oh." Sloane's eyes are a little wide. Is this the first he heard? "… Shit."

Sloane's good arm bends up from the rest so she can support the side of her head on her knuckles. "Awful," she admits, frowning.

"I'm not gonna lie, she scared the hell out of me. Talking about how it'd be dangerous for me to go because I'm gonna get the microscope put on not just me, but the Institute, and everyone I know. That I might get turned into some kind of scapegoat with that goddamn law."

"So I'm still in SHIELD right now, but I don't know what I'm gonna do."

The inhuman sighs, eyes settling on Coulson less as an agent and more like the confused, scared young lady that he met two years ago. "I had it out with her when I decided to walk out. I'm pretty sure I'm a pariah in the meta community right now." The slump down into the chair deepens a little. "I dunno what I'm gonna do."

"But she said something else. I've heard some stuff. I — Coulson, is something going on? Like … for real. Something doesn't seem right in the Triskelion."

* * *

'Is something going on?'

Coulson nods grimly. "Yes. And she might be right about the danger, but I don't want you anywhere near that pit of vipers. She put you on my team, so right now you're 'on assignment' as far as I'm concerned. 'Monitoring' the X-Men. I don't expect you to report a damn thing to me. But it's not safe for you to go anywhere near the Triskelion right now. Nor anywhere near any SHIELD agent. It's barely safe for you to be near me."

He leans forward and looks her in the eyes. "And the moment I can figure out how to get you out? I'm getting you out. The organization is full of traitors, and full of people who might as well be because they've betrayed every ideal SHIELD ever had. It's not the organization I signed on to. It's not the organization I recruited you into. Just…remember this. SHIELD is an idea. It's not a building or a badge. We became the SHIELD to defend those who could not defend themselves. Period. You hold tight to that, and don't worry about anyone else."

He brings out an envelope and holds it out to her. "Cash. You can't trust your bank account right now. The only use for your ATM card is to have someone swipe it for you at places far from where you are. If things get too dire, get over the border into Canada and get to Sokovia. Tell the Grand Duchess it's time to grow a lot less welcoming of our organization in their country. She'll keep you safe."

* * *

Coulson starts — and does not stop until he's finished.

He's always been a model agent, a man that could be depended on. She's always seen him as the calm, centered, rational one, the guy that may not always show or tell what he's thinking, but he's ten steps ahead of everyone else.

And he's this mad.

Sloane shifts from curious to uncomfortable, uncomfortable to worried. She sits upright in the chair, leaning forward as the story starts spilling out, and then he's holding out an envelope. Taking it, clutching it in both hands for a moment, Sloane starts tucking it into the inside pocket of her coat before she starts considering getaway routes — through means conventional or to see if she can leverage aid from her new friends.

"Look, Coulson — I agree. The SHIELD you recruited me in to was different. It's … changed."

Sloane nods. "I believe you. Just … be careful, okay? I know it isn't safe out there right now, but it's just …"

Her eyes drop for a second, then come back up, this time filled with the same kind of resolve as the night she was recruited. "Look. If this gets too dangerous, if you need help, I'm serious — you need me, at all, for /anything/ — you call me. I'll be there as fast as I can."

* * *

"I know," Coulson says, and now he just sounds weary.

He looks down for a moment, then looks up at her. "We've other business," he says at last, softly. "I shouldn't have…I shouldn't have waited. As long as I did. To let you know. The period where I was legitimately crazy, hallucinating, under guard, that's probably excusable, but…after…"

He frowns down again. There's no good way to talk about this.

"I was ashamed," he says. "I…everyone went to my funeral. You went to my funeral."

* * *

The important thing comes up. Is it more important than the movement and problems within one of the largest espionage organizations in the world?

Right now, yes.

Sloane lowers her gaze again, finding even approaching the topic a bit hard. Some nights, the funeral felt like it was yesterday.

Some nights, the memory wakes her, screaming. "I…"

Sloane reaches out, looking to lay her (naturally and not weather-related) cool hand on his. "I'm sorry I reacted like that. It wasn't … I just didn't know what to do. I never thought totally coming back from the dead was something people did, like, for real. I mean — yeah, I've heard stories like that in the meta community, but there was just something … I don't know. It didn't seem real."

"I tried to do everything like you taught me. I tried to be the agent you wanted me to be."

* * *

"It's not," Coulson says, shaking his head. "And I shouldn't be here. I really shouldn't. Someone tried to save me, and once they started…I don't even know how they did it. It's classified past my level. And most days I don't know how to put my life back together. There's a long list of friends I haven't been able to see. I'm sure some know by now, but…it's…"

He exhales. Smiles. Dad-fashion. But weary. He puts a hand over hers. "You've been amazing. You did very well. Don't ever doubt it.

He can't stay in that space, can't burden her with that. He has acknowledged he wronged her, apologized, explained as best he could. Anything else seems wrong.

* * *

Sloane grins, just a bit. "I couldn't have done it without your help."

"Life… sometimes, like … picking up the pieces? It doesn't need to be put back together. I know a little something about having everything smashed up. You just kind of … you have to take it a day at a time. Learn where you're going next. Find some good people that you know have your back. It may not be the same as it used to be, but you find a way to keep moving forward."

Sharpened fang-like canines flash with her grin becoming a smile. "And maybe hate bland-ass broccoli but still eat it just to keep those people happy."

* * *

That makes him laugh. "Well you're not dying of malnutrition. I feel like that's important," he says. His lips quirk. "There are other vegetables. And spices. And salt and pepper. Olive oil. You roast them. They're good. Get someone up at the Institute to show you." Yes, he's still sitting in this bookstore in the midst of a dire series of situations telling Sloane Albright to eat her vegetables.

While nodding to acknowledge that if anybody knows about a smashed up life, it's her. And now she's on to smashed up life, Part II, as far as he can see, with a big SHIELD-logo'd rug being pulled out from under her feet.

"Tell Moonstar to watch herself," he adds. "Tell her I do not believe SHIELD has her best interests at heart. That she needs to keep her distance. She might not be able to extricate herself for all the reasons you can't, but I'd suggest she start taking more of an interest in her Institute work too."

* * *

It's good to hear him laugh. To that end, she just can't help herself. "Are those the things you buy in a box and microwave?"

Dani.

"I spoke with her the other day, but … it wasn't a long conversation. She said something was up, but it was pretty vague. Same goes for Agent Carter. Something about fighting 'for the soul of SHIELD,'" Sloane says. "But I'll get a message to her one way or another. What's the point of having a bunch of superhero friends now if they can't help you make one phone call, right?"

"Coulson, just … be careful. Not like, careful-careful, just whatever weird verison of careful we have. Keep an eye on Daisy Johnson. She seems like a good one."

* * *

"She's been transferred to my team," Coulson says grimly. "And sadly right now I can't just get her out the way I can get you out. A battle for the soul of SHIELD indeed, though…I'm not convinced we haven't already lost it. I'm not convinced we didn't lose it last year. Peggy thinks we've still got a shot, and for a moment…"

He smiles faintly. For a moment 'follow Peggy' had made sense of his world, and now it doesn't entirely, anymore.

"That rot has had a long time to grow," he says, softly, instead. "A very long time. It might not have been too late when we first saw the glimmers of it a couple of years ago, but now…?"

He shakes his head. "Thirty years. Thirty years, and I somehow missed every sign."

* * *

"It doesn't matter if it's thirty years or three hundred."

Sloane's hand squeezes his, firmly. "If there's anyone in SHIELD that can put a stop to whatever this is, it's you and the team. I believe in you, Coulson. Even if SHIELD fails us — not just metas, but … /us/… I believe in you. Take the idea of SHIELD and run with it, and slap it right in people's faces so they understand what the organization means to people like you and me."

"Prove it can be a good place."

* * *

He looks up at her, the weight of a thousand decisions in his eyes. She believes in him. Lots of people believe in him. From the empathetic but sad look in his eyes, though, he's not sure he believes in himself. In his convictions, perhaps, but not in his ability. Phil Coulson is not a man accustomed to feeling helpless, or backed into a corner, or uncertain of his own decisions, and here he is all of the above and then some.

"I'll do it or go down trying," he promises, because he can't look at Sloane Albright and all that faith and not give her something for it, not try to live up to it. And dryly, "All other unlikely miracles notwithstanding, I probably only have 30 more, not 230 more, so I guess I'd better get on that."

* * *

Sloane releases Coulson's hand, easing back into her seat. "Hey, none of that talk. You've got all the miracles if you believe it in your heart."

The scaly inhuman taps on her chest for emphasis, giving him the big corny nod while trying to mask how much she wants to laugh at her own stupid joke. Hopefully it disarms the gravity of the situation; that is at least part of it. She just wants this to work out.

She wants this to stop.

Rising to her feet, the scaly inhuman shifts her coat and starts closing the clasps. "But, I'm serious. Call me if you need /anything/, okay? Even if I'm out, I'm not going to turn my back on you."

* * *

This produces another soft laugh from Phil Coulson. The bit about believing it in his heart. "When Disney decides to cartoonify this script, I'll be sure to have them call you in as a consultant," he jokes back.

On a more serious note…

"I believe you. Thank you, Sloane. Just…watch your back. Be careful, and take care of yourself. And know that no matter what happens, I'm proud of you."

And if he were to rank anything said here today in order of importance, he'd probably rank that one up top.

* * *

Sloane stands there for a moment longer, looking lost, distant — wondering if this might be the last time she actually does speak to Coulson, whether or not this is an issue of paid time off, of sick leave, of an assignment, or her departure from SHIELD. Whether or not a SHIELD even exists afterwards, but —

Her eyes drift down, then back, smiling. "Thank you, Coulson. For everything you taught me. I wouldn't be here without you. It was really good to see you."

Opening the cooler, she lifts her phone out from inside, not turning it back on yet, but sliding it into her pocket. She only gets a few steps away before she stops to look back, looking at him — the shirt, the way he's sitting, the look on his face.

Her bandaged hand lifts to casually wave as she starts walking away again, hands moving into her coat pockets in the crisp late-season weather.

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