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Second Fiddles

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“Now, this is a last minute addition to the catalog, sorry for the lack of advance notice, but we’ve got an original vintage 1943 Captain America ‘Buy War Bonds!’ poster in B+ condition. A real find for the serious collector!”

Phil Coulson blinked.  Damn it.  If he’d known this was going to be on the block, he would have structured this weekend’s purchases very differently.  

“Because this wasn’t part of the preview yesterday, we’re going to take a half an hour break, so that y’all can come up and take a look.  We’ll be back here at 4:00PM on the dot.”

Looking blasé and disinterested (he was very good at that), Phil ambled up to the stand that held the framed poster.  It was from the very first series of small-format posters they did, with Cap holding the heater version of the shield and saluting.  And the auctioneer wasn’t kidding about the condition.

He knew just which wall it was going on in his apartment.

He turned and went back to his seat, and made a show of indifferently checking his cell phone.  The rest of the half-hour crawled by, but finally the auctioneer returned, and they got started.  “You’ve had your chance to gawk, now what am I going to be offered for this fine piece of militaria?  We’re going to start the bidding at $50, do I hear $75, I do, let's hear $100...”

This was not Phil Coulson's first dance. He let the dilettantes get started and waited until the action slowed down before entering the fray. “I have $350, do I hear four? It's a steal at four, folks, going once, going twice...”

He raised his paddle.  “I have four, thank you, sir, do I hear four-twenty-five, I do, yes, thank you, ma’am…”

His toes dug in as the numbers kept going up.  One by one, the bidders dropped out, until it was only him and number 216 across the room.  “Well, we’ve got a bidding war on, folks, we’re at $600, ma’am, do I hear $625?  Thank you.  Sir, are you going to let that stand?  $650 it is, over to you?  Do I hear $675?  I do indeed…”

He glanced over at 216 as he returned the bid.  The woman stared at him impassively, and then nodded at the auctioneer to up the ante again.

When the bidding hit $800, he groaned inwardly.  It was his hard-and-fast rule, after that one unfortunate incident in Atlanta: he was only allowed to spend the cash he brought with him.  And he did not have more than $800 in his wallet.  

“Do I hear $825, sir?  $825?

It absolutely killed him to do so, but he shook his head.

“Gentleman lets the lady have the final word, sold for $800 to 216, lady at the back.”

There was a smattering of applause.  He nodded to her, and she smiled at him.

Oh well, he thought philosophically, more money for the Dealers’ Room.

He sought consolation at the vintage comics tables.  

“You know, you could’ve saved me a lot of money if you’d just accepted your inevitable defeat right away,” came a voice at his shoulder while he was looking at a display case of rarities.

He straightened up, turned, and was immediately caught by the pretty brown eyes sparkling at him – there was his adversary, a large bag clutched in her hands, grinning mischievously.

“Yes, but that would've just cheapened your eventual victory,” he replied.  

“Well, yes, that's my point. And I still would have appreciated it the same amount. More, in fact, since I'd still have the cash to pay for a nicer frame.” Blushing a little, she held out her hand. “Alys Simon.”

“Phil Coulson,” he replied, and shook her hand.

The SHIELD-issued part of his brain said: caucasian female, 5'1”, slight build, approximately 45 years of age. Black hair, grey streaks, brown eyes, light complexion. A few freckles, small mole on her neck. Right-handed, fingertips on left hand heavily callused – plays a string instrument? Short, unpainted fingernails on both hands: not guitar; no discoloration on jawline: not violin or viola; build makes double bass unlikely. A cellist. Extremely successful or independently wealthy, or...

The rest of his brain said: oh, for God's sake, shut the fuck up.

His mouth said, “Well, let me make it up to you... can I buy you a drink?”

She smiled. “I'd like that, Phil. Will you come with me while I drop this off in my room?”

“Lead the way,” he replied.

He stood politely at the doorway as she went in. As he watched, she pulled the framed poster out of the bag and set it up on the bureau. She stepped back and eyed it critically. “I think it looks good there – what do you think?” she asked, looking over at him slyly.

“Now you're just being cruel,” he said.

“I am. Terrible of me, isn't it? You're still on the hook for the drink, though.”

“And I'm regretting it already,” he said, blatantly lying.

 

....

 

They found a quiet table at the bar.

“Well, I'd ask if you come here often, but...”

She smiled. “Annually, as it happens. And you?”

“I come whenever my schedule permits. My job requires a lot of travel, but I'm in New York most of the time.”

“What is it that you do?”

“I work for the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.”

“SHIELD?  Really?  So if you told me what you actually did, you’d have to kill me?”

“Something like that.”  That was a bit surprising – SHIELD wasn't on most civilians' radar at all. “What about you?”

“That's the funny thing about New York, isn't it: you have to travel three thousand miles to meet someone from home. I'm third-chair cellist with the Empire Chamber Orchestra.” Her face beamed with pride.

“Impressive. Wait, you're telling me I lost that poster to a starving artist?”

“I'm afraid you did. You see, I got together with the rest of the consumptives in the garrett, and we all pooled our money...”

 

Drinks became dinner.

 

“You're having me on,” she declared.

“Scout's honor.”

“No! I'll have to see it to believe it – how did you find number three? NOBODY has number three. Did you have to kill someone? You had to kill someone, didn't you.”

He had pictures of the trading cards on his phone (the insurance company had demanded them) so he brought them up and showed them to her. “I will say it wasn't easy...”

“Oh. My. God. The last time I saw the entire collection in one place was at the Smithsonian. That's amazing.”

He grinned.  “Thank you.”  It was really nice to talk obsessions with someone who understood.  Between the two of them, they could quote pages of dialogue from the movies, they both preferred the “717” comic book series to the “Elemental,”  they loved the old cartoons, and they commiserated about the complete abominations that were the Michael Bay remakes of the original films.  It felt weird to be talking so un-self-consciously about it, but if you couldn’t be out of this particular closet here, where could you?  “Though the guy I bought seven and five from?  His set was actually signed…”

“Well, that’s kind of a high bar to set for yourself, don’t you think?  Considering?” she laughed.

 

Dinner became dessert.

 

“Rebellion, mostly.  Mom wasn’t so keen on a girl buying comics and she thought that I should be reading more ‘elevated literature’ rather than wasting my time on science fiction and fantasy.  But that just made it all forbidden fruit…”

“Naturally.”

“Of course, Pop was no help - every time he returned from deployment, he’d bring a new stack of stuff for me to read under the covers at night.  Turns out you can really catch up on your reading while you’re out in the middle of the ocean.   What about you?”

“I was in a pretty bad car accident when I was ten.   When you spend six months flat on your back, that’s pretty much all you can do, and the habit stuck.  It was either that or watch soaps with my mother.”

“Oh yes, you strike me as a ‘General Hospital’ kind of guy.”

“It was ‘All My Children,’ thank you very much.”

And dessert became the wait staff staring at them and dropping anvil-sized hints that they would very much like to go home now. He left them a large tip for their trouble, and escorted her to the elevators. 

“Thank you for dinner,” she said.  “I had a great time.”

“It was my pleasure.”

They looked at each other for a long moment.

“So.  I bought this neat poster today at the auction, would you like to come up and see it?” she asked, arching her eyebrow slightly.

“Yes.  Yes, I would,” he answered.  

He offered her his arm, and she took it.  They were the very picture of dignity in the elevator and the hallway, but the façade shattered as soon as the door to her room closed behind them.  It was never really clear who kissed whom first, but, by the same token, it never really mattered.  He hummed approval as she reached up to run her fingers through his hair, and she made a very encouraging noise as he lifted her up to carry her to the bed.  

“Wait… wait…” she said breathlessly.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, as she squirmed out from underneath him.  She got off the bed, went to the bureau and turned the Captain America poster to the wall.  He cracked up. “Better now?” he deadpanned once he’d stopped laughing.

“Much,” she said, grinning, and shimmied out of her dress.

They spent the rest of the weekend together, even (occasionally) going to some of the convention events.  The last morning, they ordered room service and stayed in bed until the last minute.  Hers was the first flight out, and they very reluctantly parted.

“I’d like to see you again, when we’re back in New York,” he said.

“I’d like that, too,” she said.  They exchanged cards, writing their personal numbers and e-mail addresses on the back, and kissed once more.

She very nearly missed her plane.

....

He slept a bit on the flight home from San Diego, then tried to read one of the books she’d suggested he buy.  He pulled out her card from his pocket to look at it again, and smiled:  Alys Simon, Cellist For Hire.  As weekends went, that had been damn near perfect.  

His smile faded almost immediately.  It had been, hadn’t it.  A muscle worked in his jaw, and his heart suddenly felt very heavy.  He carefully held the card by the edges, so as not to smudge any potential fingerprints, and tucked it away.  He rested his head on the window, and stared unseeingly out all the way back to New York.

Some days, he hated what this job had done to his mind.

 ....

The next morning, he sat in his office, staring at an open, unmarked manila folder.  It contained a sheet with Alys' name on it, all the details she'd given him, and a scan of the fingerprint he'd been able to raise from her card.  He kept looking between the folder and his computer screen.  He had to do this before he could call her, and he relished neither potential outcome.  Either he’d had a run-in with someone trying to compromise him (there was a reason that was the oldest trick in the book), or he was about to know everything about her before he really wanted to.

An alternative solution occurred to him.  He picked up the folder and headed to Maria Hill’s office.

“How was Nerdapalooza?” Maria asked.

“It was fine. Look, I wonder if I can ask a favor.”

“Shoot.”

“I need you to run a background check on this person.” He handed Maria the thin folder. 

“One of those blue space-Indian people causing trouble? Or is she one of the Star Trek aliens with the big ridges on their forehead? It's hard to imagine that a bunch of pencil-necked geeks could merit this kind of scrutiny.”

“Is it.”

Maria began to type. “So why are we running this check? And, more to the point, why aren't you doing this yourself?”

“Because it has to be done and I don't want to be the one to have done it.”

Maria stopped typing abruptly as the realization hit. She looked up to him in surprise, her eyebrows climbing to her hairline.

The corner of his mouth raised a little. “How does that shoe leather taste?”

“With a side of crow, it's not so bad. I'm sorry about that.”

“It's all right.”

Maria went back to typing, this time taking his request seriously. “Is this her?” she asked, turning her monitor so that Coulson could see – she'd pulled up Alys' passport photo.

“Yes.”

Maria turned the screen back around. “She's pretty.”

“I thought so.”

Maria squinted a little.  “She’s got a rap sheet.”

His heart sank. “For what?”

“October of ’87, she and three accomplices were cited in Central Park for busking without a license.”  Maria grinned and turned the monitor to face him.

He managed to maintain his poker face, but it was a close-run thing.  “Well.  As the records don’t seem to indicate any tendency towards recidivism, I’ll take my chances.”

Maria chuckled, and looked back at the screen. “Other than her brief flirtation with a life of crime, she checks out. Public records, fingerprint and facial recognition databases all come back clean.” She handed him back the folder. “She is who she says she is.”

He finally relaxed. “Great. Thank you.”

“No problem.”

He turned to leave.

“Hey, Coulson?”

“Yes?”

“Good luck.  I mean that.”

He smiled in earnest.  “Thanks.”

“And don't do anything I wouldn't do.”

“Well, that leaves my options pretty open...”  He headed back to his office, shut the door and dialed.

....

“So you’re seeing her again?” asked Maria over lunch in the cafeteria.

Coulson’s subtle smug look could be discerned only by the connoisseur.  “Thursday.  There’s a ‘Buck Rogers’ marathon at the Roxy.”

“Is that the one with the be-be-de-beep robot?”

He rolled his eyes good-naturedly.  “Yes, but this isn’t that version - it’s the 1939 serial film.” 

Maria raised an eyebrow.  “Your idea, or hers?”

“Hers.”

“And these are the mating rituals of your people?  Frankly, that’s terrifying.”

“Remind me again which one of us actually has a date this week.”

“Fair point.  Okay, but here’s the thing I don’t get.  You’ve seen for-real aliens.  We’ve got every warm body in R&D trying to reverse-engineer alien technology.  You’ve actually met a real, live, sentient extraterrestrial.  Tell me again why you want to watch stories about them in your off-time?”

“The ones I watch in my off-time are somebody else’s problem.”

 ....

They both pulled back a little, once they'd returned to New York – what worked for a mad weekend fling didn't necessarily translate into the realities of daily life, even for such unusual lives as they both led.

Her schedule, as he discovered, was nearly as erratic as his – as it was the off-season for the orchestra, she was freelancing and subbing, though for the experience, as he learned, and not for the money. Her situation was made clear after their second post-return date (a somewhat more orthodox dinner out), when she invited him to her place in TriBeCa for a drink. To his surprise, her apartment was large enough – in a building with a doorman, no less - that he started to wonder if Hill hadn't screwed up the background check somehow.

“Nice place,” was all he said.

“Thanks! Make yourself comfortable, and I'll get us some wine...” She threw her purse on the chair and went into the kitchen.  “Cabernet all right with you?”

“Sure.  Do you live here by yourself?” She hadn't mentioned a roommate.

“Yes... we won't be interrupted.” She stuck her head out of the kitchen, leaning on the door frame. “Or were you expecting someplace smaller?”

He'd been caught. “Well...” he started.

“Don't be embarrassed! We're both New Yorkers here. Musicians only live in big apartments on bad sitcoms... No, I got it in the divorce.”

“Ah. I'm sorry.”

“Really? Are you sorry that I live in a nice apartment, or that I'm divorced?”

“Neither, actually, but cheering would be in bad taste.”

She laughed. “As divorces went, it was relatively civilized. Basically, he grew up and came to terms with the fact that I am not a cure for homosexuality. His family had no problem with him being gay, but were absolutely furious that he jerked me around for twelve years, so I get to live la vie Boheme in a nice apartment with good health insurance.”

Ouch.  “That must have been very hard for you.”

She shrugged. “It's been long enough now that it's more comedy than tragedy at this point. Honestly, in retrospect, it's actually a bit of a relief.”

“Really?”

“Well, the problem in that marriage pretty clearly wasn't me, except in the most generic sense. At any rate, I still talk to him sometimes – he and his husband are very happy.” She went back into the kitchen.

It was a nice place – tastefully decorated in the mid-century modern style, but comfortable. There was even a small fireplace on one end of the room and The Poster had pride-of-place above the mantel.  An open door led out into what was obviously her practice room.  He peeked in: she’d lined the walls with bookshelves (stuffed full with books, sheet music and comic book long boxes), put acoustic tiles on the ceiling and thick carpet on the floor.

She came up to him and handed him a glass of wine.  “I tend to practice at odd hours.  This cuts down on calls from the neighbors.”  She owned four cellos.  “This one, she was my first.  This one is my primary performance instrument, that one is my second-best, and the one in the blue case is my baroque.  I used to do a lot more with it, but that ensemble kind of fell apart…”

“Would you play something for me?”

She smiled.  “Gladly.”  She set down her glass of wine on a bookshelf, then pulled out the performance cello and bow, sat in the chair and started to check the tuning.  “What would you like to hear?”

“Pachelbel’s Canon?” he asked with an innocent look on his face.

She snorted, and pointed her bow at him.  “Okay, you’re not nearly as funny as you think you are.  Seriously, though…”

“Play me your favorite.”

“That changes hourly.”

“I won’t hold you to it.”

She smiled again, a softer smile this time, and began to play.  Her skill and artistry shone through clearly - the piece was nostalgic and melancholy, but not with the sharp pain of regret; merely the wistful what-might-have-been of a lazy summer Sunday afternoon.  When she finished, he blinked and cleared his throat.  “That was beautiful.” 

Her eyes met his.  She blushed, and looked away.  “Thank you.”

“What was it?”

“Tchaikovsky, String Quartet No. 1.  The  ‘Andante Cantabile.’   Yo Yo Ma plays it much better than I do… for now.”

He laughed.  “I’m not sure you’ve set your sights high enough, there.”

She grinned as she put away the instrument.  “Just trying not to shoot my foot off.  Shall we go sit down?”

....

The night was shaping up to be much more in keeping with a standard first date, with the usual slightly awkward getting-to-know-you conversations.  (The time they’d spent together previously had either involved enthusiastic geekery, or, well, not talking.)   She was an only child, and her parents had passed away: her father had been a Navy captain, and her mother was the daughter of a fairly well-off New York family. (And a fairly well-connected one at that: she never said so explicitly, but Phil was nothing if not good at reading between the lines.)  She told him about studying music at Bryn Mawr and Columbia, and about picking it up again seriously after her divorce. 

He told her about being the youngest of six brothers, growing up in Ohio, and a little bit about his time in the Air Force, before he joined SHIELD.

“You were a pararescue jumper?” she asked in awed tones.  “Well, now I am impressed.”

“It was a pretty good job, but not always as interesting as you might think.”

“Yeah, right, try again - a Navy brat knows full well what a PJ does.  Terminal modesty much?”

“Really, most of the time?  You spend the majority of your duty hours training and keeping up certifications.”

“The operative phrase there being 'most of the time' - something tells me that the paperwork didn't give you all those scars.” She eyed his torso and then looked up at him pointedly.

“Clearly you've never had any dealings with the Federal Government. Actually, the worst part is that I lost an inch.”

“What?”

“From repeated spinal compressions. I was 5'10” when I went into the service, and I was 5'9” when I outprocessed. I'm still a little annoyed about that.”

She winced. “Serve you right for jumping out of so many perfectly good airplanes!”

She seemed a bit surprised that he’d gone to college before enlisting (his father had been adamant that all his sons would graduate college before doing anything else), not so much at his major (biochemistry - he thought it would help with the medical training, which it had), but his minor had proven a bridge too far.

“French!?”  She tilted her head quizzically.  “C’est vrai?”

He replied in accentless French.  “<Absolutely.  Why would you think otherwise?”> he teased.

She answered in kind.  “<Just wondering when you found the time.  You are full of surprises, Mr. Coulson.>”

“<You’re not doing so badly yourself…>”

She shrugged.  “<Too many years in various orchestra pits.  It drives me nuts not to be able to understand what they’re singing about on the stage.>”

The conversation switched back to English, and wended its way around to his own romantic history, as he supposed it had to eventually.

“I'm afraid I’m a bad cliché.  I’m married to my job.”  Or he was a robot, or an alien, or SHIELD had replaced his cerebral cortex with training manuals and operational procedures.  He’d heard all the jokes.

“So this is an affair? How exciting!  Is your wife the jealous type?”

“Terribly.  In all seriousness, my schedule is demanding and unpredictable.  And most of what I deal with is classified to the point that I really can’t ever talk about it.”

Her teasing manner fell away.  “My ex worked for the State Department and my father was in the Navy. I know how that has to be - 'Loose Tweets Sink Fleets' and all that. And I'd be a hypocrite to criticize you for working too hard – once the season starts, I'll barely have time to breathe.”  She smiled.  “So you're an admitted workaholic with a job you can't discuss. Anything else you want to warn me about?”

“Well, I can at least assure you that I'm not gay.”

She laughed, then set her wineglass down on the coffee table, and fixed him with a gaze of no uncertain meaning.

“Oh yeah?  Prove it.”

....

Their third date was another movie - she’d mentioned she hadn’t yet seen the newest restoration of “Metropolis,” and he had the Blu-Ray. They got take-out from his favorite Indian place and headed to his apartment.

“I'll say it again, I am in awe,” she said, standing in front of the case that held his card collection.

He came in from the kitchen, a proud smile on his face.

“They're in amazing condition... how long did that take you?”

“Well, number one actually belonged to my father. My mother found it in his things, after he passed away, and gave it to me. The rest took about three years.”

“Was he a fan, too?”

“Yeah. Dad actually saw the USO show when they came through Akron, when he was a kid during the war. He said he and his buddies spent the whole next week collecting metal to turn in because Captain America told them to, but they forgot the part about how it was supposed to be scrap metal. He said that all their parents were completely mystified at the range of bits and pieces that went missing that week – hubcaps and tools and, in one case, a roasting pan – until it was time to take their stash to the collection point. My grandparents were laughing too hard to even give them hell for it, they just made them put all the stuff back.”

“That’s adorable! I'm glad they didn't get in trouble – they were just trying to do their patriotic duty!”

“Yeah, Gran then tried to sell him on the idea of giving up his allowance to buy war bonds, but that didn't go over as well.”

“Well, there are sacrifices, and then there are sacrifices.”  She laughed.  “So he got you started?”

“Yeah.  There was a theater in the town where I grew up that would show old movies on the Sunday matinee.  He and I used to go - my brothers would come too, but not as often as they got older.”

“That’s sweet.  Were you very close?”

“When I was very young. He died when I was ten.”

“I'm so sorry. What happened?”

“A car accident.”

Her forehead furrowed.  “The same car accident?”

He nodded.  “We got T-boned.  He was killed, and I spent a half-year in a Risser cast.  But we were the only two in the car, so it could have been worse.”

She drew in a breath.  “That’s just… I can’t even imagine.  I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right.  It was a long time ago.”  After a somewhat awkward pause, he tapped her arm.  “Come on, the food’s getting cold.”

They switched to happier conversational topics as they settled in to eat and watch the movie, and equilibrium was quickly restored.  They sat together on the couch, his arm around her and her head on his shoulder, keeping up a sarcastic running commentary complete with overly-dramatic readings of the title cards.

He was having a really, really good time, which is why he should have realized that an interruption was inevitable.  He winced as his pocket vibrated, and discreetly looked at the phone.  Damn.  “I’m going to have to cut this short.”  He held up the phone apologetically.  “I have to go in to work.”

She sat up.  “Oh, what a pity,” she said, disappointed.

“I’ll get you a cab.  I’m terribly sorry.”

“It’s quite all right.   Really.  But you have to promise to call me when you have time again, though - you owe me the second half of that movie.”

“Count on it.”  

She smiled, and kissed him.

....

Twelve hours later found him in St. Petersburg, sorting out the new developments in Romanoff’s arms-running investigation: former Soviet officers dealing in still-commissioned nuclear weaponry tended to grab and hold everyone’s attention.  The Black Widow had indicated at the blind drop that it was time to pick up the pace, but that the window for making significant changes to the timetable was closing quickly.  He had no doubt about Natasha’s assessment, none at all, but, given the nature and size of the case, it would be irresponsible not to review the facts in person first.   

 That, along with two other assignments, were the three largest items on his already over-filled plate.  The Avengers Initiative was still his, though for the most part right now, that consisted of tracking Banner and Stark, and continuing the ongoing search for Steve Rogers.   Steve Rogers was, of course, no more or less lost than he had been for the past sixty-seven years.  Stark was actually harder to ignore than to keep track of, even if that new tower project of his kept him out of the supermarket tabloids.  Banner was trickier - the undercities of India were more difficult to penetrate than the favelas of Brazil, but not by much.  The real challenge was proving to be waving off other interested parties.  If Banner wanted to play Mother Theresa in the slums of Kolkata, that was his business, and more power to him - it was SHIELD’s business to see to it that he could do so unmolested, at least until SHIELD had need of him.

It was the nature of his work, and he’d come to terms with it a long time ago. 

The third was the PEGASUS project - the ongoing effort to tease out the secrets of the Tesseract.  Out of the three, it was the situation in New Mexico that unnerved him the most (and if Stark ever found out that he was number two, Coulson was in a lot of trouble).  Make no mistake:  Fury’s decision to work on weaponizing the Tesseract had caused a lot of controversy amongst those at SHIELD who had the appropriate clearance level to know about it.  He couldn’t say he liked it - jumping too far ahead technologically, without the necessary intervening steps, tended not to breed respect for what that technology could, but then again, he’d also had to face down a fifteen-foot-tall fire-breathing metal automaton in the desert.  He wasn’t sure what he could possibly have thrown at it that would have made a dent; he was all too aware that if Thor hadn’t been able to stop it, things could have gone very badly.  No, his disquiet started at the biweekly VTCs they held with the New Mexico site - he kept getting a creeping feeling that something wasn’t quite right.  He pored over the reports coming from PEGASUS, sending interrogatory e-mails to clarify any discrepancy or anything at all unusual (he was sure they were cursing his name), but couldn’t quantify anything.

It didn’t matter.  He kept digging.  After Budapest, he swore he’d never ignore that nagging little voice ever again.

....

It was over a week before he made it back to the home office in New York, and nearly two before he once again made it back to his apartment.   As soon as he had a free moment, he called Alys who, to his surprise, gave no indication that she saw anything at all worth reproaching in his recent radio silence, and they set up a date to see the rest of “Metropolis.”

Actually, they still missed the end of the movie, but this time it wasn’t because he got called away.