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Accounting Undercover

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Agent Coulson finally resurfaces from wherever he was hiding out while the city was invaded by aliens, holy crap, which is reassuring since it means Cash has a definite boss again—because apparently all things paperwork-related at SHIELD are Coulson's realm, Cash doesn't pretend to understand the logic behind that—and isn't stuck in office limbo anymore. Plus, no one's trying to shove Coulson's work off on Cash now, which is really fucking good, considering that 90% of it deals with stuff way above Cash's pay-grade. SHIELD definitely needs to put some effort into hiring more admin staff if they're at all serious about being a trouble-shooting organization on a global level. Cash takes his very real concerns that he's going to drown under expense reports in the near future to Coulson, and, being the great guy that he is, Coulson promises to look into it.

Instead of doing something about the situation, Coulson hires Darcy Lewis.

This is an act that is completely un-conducive to Cash's productivity and work ethic. Also, really fucking hard on Cash's nose and shins, because he keeps walking into things since Lewis insists on wearing these criminally-tight sweaters to the office every day. He's just waiting for her to bring up Florida, which would only lead to chaos and insanity. Cash crosses his fingers every day that she doesn't remember him; his life being what it is, he doubts he'll be that lucky.

Bryar witnesses Cash walk into a doorframe one day and raises an eyebrow. Doesn't say anything, just raises that goddamn eyebrow and thinks it so hard that Cash would be hard-pressed to not figure it out. "Shut up," Cash grumbles as they head down to the canteen, Carl joining them along the way. "I just. Boobs, okay? They're pretty much my kryptonite, that's all." Cash doesn't mention that he has the same weakness for disgustingly impressive biceps, because that is the last thing he needs right now. "They're there and they're all, y'know, all soft and round and perfect and I can't even. Boobs."

"I didn't say anything," Bryar says mildly, acting like he doesn't know what Cash is even talking about. On the ceiling, Carl starts to detach, and Cash has one horrible moment where he thinks Carl's seriously going to try and take on Agent Bryar, who is so fucking badass that Cash is half-afraid to breathe around him.

Neither Cash nor Carl register where it comes from, but suddenly Bryar's got his hand in the air, pointing a Taser straight up at Carl as the three of them continue on their way down the hall.

Carl thinks better of his plan and pulls up again. "Nngbllthrtt," Carl grumbles to himself, which prompts an eyeroll from Bryar.

"You try that again, Carl, and I'll see you're deported," Bryar says, having stashed the Taser again in the half a second Cash was looking away from him and up at Carl. Fucking badass.

Cash lets Bryar go ahead of him into the canteen, hanging back so he can exchange a fist/goobump with Carl. "Agent Bryar, man," Cash says quietly, voice full of awe. Carl wobbles in agreement. Neither one of them can figure out if Bryar is suddenly hanging with them because Bryar and Cash bonded during the whole Death Star thing, or if it's because Bryar is sizing Cash up with the intent to kill Cash in his sleep.

The sad thing is, Cash really doesn't care which it is.

---

Except for the part where he lives in constant fear that she'll remember past indiscretions, Cash likes having Lewis around. She's funny, sneaky, and in the same boat as Cash when it comes to not being allowed to carry any kind of weapon around SHIELD Central. "Sitwell took away my pocket knife," Cash tells her during her second week, after Agent Sitwell's confiscated Lewis's Taser. "It only had one blade, a screwdriver, and a bottle-opener." He misses the bottle opener most. No way can Cash pry off caps with just brute strength alone; he's not Bryar.

"Coulson took my iPod," Lewis tells him as they exchange a righteous and bro-ly fistbump. "I mean, I got it back eventually, but not before SHIELD totally voided the warranty. Sixty bucks of AppleCare down the drain! Fuckers."

"You could probably claim it as a business expense," Cash offers. "I can tell you which forms to fill out."

"It was a couple years ago, though. I didn't even work for SHIELD, then."

"Well, in that case, you could buy a new one, and claim that. You'd just want the lavender form instead of the lilac one."

Lewis shoots him a look. "Are you sure you're on the side of the good guys?" she asks, but she still takes the blank form when he hands it to her.

Cash moans. "Oh god, don't even say that." Following the Death Star debacle, Cash had to go through a whole battery of tests to prove to SHIELD that being an accountant who knows how to build a death ray doesn't automatically make him a HYDRA plant. Apparently the Alexes didn't make strong enough character witnesses for him to get an immediate green light.

"Protip: Never let SHIELD know if you build a flamethrower on your smoke breaks. No one will ever trust you again," Cash tells Lewis when she gives him a curious look, since he's technically not supposed to talk about the Death Star thing.

"I'll try and keep that in mind," she says. Then Coulson calls for her from the other room, so Lewis and her lavender form leave. Cash totally does not watch the way her hips sway as she walks away from his desk.

"Fllrbtnnnnnnnnnngh," Carl comments from his spot on the ceiling.

"Shut up and get your gooey orange ass down here," Cash grumbles, blushing furiously. "If you're going to stick around, you might as well make yourself useful."

He spends the next thirty minutes trying to teach Carl the basics of QuickBooks. Things reach a standstill when they figure out that, as a sixth-dimensional being, Carl has difficulty perceiving anything two-dimensional.

---

Really, Cash doesn't know why he ever worried about Lewis's memory. He would have done better to remember that the main force of chaos in his life is, 80% of the time, always the same.

"Hey," DeLeon says, spotting Lewis going past when Cash is hanging with the Alexes by the coffee maker one day, "Panama City, right? Good times, man. Good times." DeLeon makes double pistols at Lewis and winks, because Cash's life. Seriously. Next to Cash, Marshall grins and nudges him in the side, which Cash does not appreciate, because DeLeon doesn't need encouragement for these ill-timed forays into ruining Cash's reputation, life, and general well-being.

"Excuse me?" Lewis asks, slowing and giving DeLeon the too-sweet smile that Cash has learned to fear. "What did you say?"

"Panama City? 2008? Spring break?" DeLeon helpfully provides because Cash's mental commands of, shutupshutupshutup, will never, ever work.

Lewis looks at DeLeon, then at Cash and the other Alexes, and Cash can see the lightbulb go on in her head. "Oh my god, you're right! I knew I knew you from somewhere. Wow, talk about coincidences. I am totally calling you Agent Tongue from now on, Colligan," she informs him with an exaggerated wink, which is not reassuring at all.

"I," DeLeon says proudly, preening in an entirely undeserved manner as Lewis sashays away from them, "am totally the best friend a guy could have."

Only the fact that Johnson and his whole ability to kill a grown man with his toe are standing right there keeps Cash from going for DeLeon's jugular.

---

By the end of the week, most of HQ knows that Agents Colligan and Lewis have some sort of sordid past together. It's probably mostly DeLeon's fault, because this is DeLeon, but it doesn't help that Lewis makes good on her promise, greeting Cash with a secret little smile and a purred, "Agent Tongue," every time they pass in the halls.

He's starting to get a permanent dent in his forehead from all the doorframes he's walked into.

Then, because things aren't bad enough already, Cash is in the canteen with Carl and Bryar one day, telling Bryar about his plan to build a computer with a 3D monitor for Carl since Accounting has practically no budget and Cash will never get his hands on a totally epic StarkTech display, when Agent Barton walks past and Cash forgets what he's saying.

It's not the first time Cash has seen Agent Barton, and he sure as hell hopes it won't be the last because some god was definitely smiling down on planet Earth the day that man decided to stop wearing sleeves. It is the first time it's happened with Bryar handy, though, so whoop-de-doo. Now Cash gets deal with that too.

"Huh," Bryar says, glancing at Barton's departing form, then back at Cash. "Really?"

"Gblxnnnt," Carl contributes slyly, because he finds Cash's stupid crushes hilarious.

"I'm refusing to comment on this," Cash says, as he is a mature and professional adult.

"But DeLeon—" Bryar starts, which is just. What.

"What have I told you about DeLeon?" Cash demands, because Bryar should know this by now, really.

Bryar sighs and rolls his eyes. "Lying liar who lies. And Lewis—"

"I was nineteen, pretty tipsy, and don't even remember most of that week," Cash grits out. "Everyone gets to make stupid mistakes in college, just because mine happens to have come back to haunt me doesn't make it hot gossip, no matter what DeLeon insists. I mean, I got inked at a really questionable place in Tampa the same week I met Lewis, but no one's talking about that."

"I was just going to say you've got decent taste," Bryar finishes. "Except for DeLeon."

Cash blinks. "Oh. Yeah, well," he says, and, "Pfft, DeLeon wishes."

---

Cash has tits the next time Bryar stops by. "Carl had a bad case of hiccups in the ventilation system," she explains when he raises an eyebrow at her. "Apparently sixth-dimensional gastro-intestinal gas does weird shit to three-dimensional beings. It's supposed to wear off in a few days, though, so no worries. But Fury's pissed because her big duster keeps sliding off since her shoulders are too narrow. So, like. Tread carefully."

"You should make sure to poke your head in on Coulson," Lewis suggests as he comes over, immediately sniffing out a gossip session. "Agent is stacked, wow. First time Colligan saw her she forgot how to breathe for, like, five minutes, and had to go to Medical to have her brain cells checked."

"That's not true," Cash insists. "It was just surprising, that's all. She's gotta be, like, a double-D or an E-cup or something." Coulson has a ridiculously impressive rack. If Cash could have just two minutes in Coulson's boobs, she could die happy.

Agent Bryar just rubs a hand over his face. "I don't know why I keep coming back here," he sighs. "This would never happen at the Ottowa base."

"Pssshhh," Cash says, rolling her eyes. "Well, yeah. They're Canadians."

---

Bryar only tries to get Cash to explain the deal with the Alexes once. To his credit, Cash is completely up-front and honest about the whole thing. "We went to high school together," Cash explains, because that's really all there is to it. Well, that and, "They kind of need an adult like me to look after them, sometimes, because Alexes."

"Yeah, but what's with DeLeon," Bryar wants to know.

"DeLeon's my nemesis." Duh, Cash thought that one was obvious.

"I thought you were friends?" Poor Bryar, he looks so confused.

Cash sighs. "Look, it's really not that complicated. DeLeon's my nemesis. Johnson's my best friend. Marshall's their boytoy, or something." Truthfully, Marshall scares the ever-living shit out of Cash sometimes. If he didn't know Marshall since forever, Cash would suspect him of being an escapee from a Disney boyband.

"Your friends are fucked up, Colligan," Bryar tells him, which, really? Really?

"Tell me something I don't know, Captain Obvious."

---

"This is not what it looks like," is Cash's automatic response when Agent Coulson walks in. Which probably isn't the best thing he could have said, considering that Cash is sitting on the floor of his cubicle with the pieces from a half-disassembled 3DS XL and an old Gateway laptop scattered around him on the carpet. He thinks for a minute. "Wait. What does it look like?"

Coulson gives him a queer look. "Currently, Agent, it looks like you're avoiding doing any work."

"Okay, see, that's where you're wrong, because this is totally work-related," Cash assures him. "I'm building a computer that Carl can use, see, so he can help me with expense reports. Since he has higher security clearance than me anyway." Cash doesn't even pretend to understand the logic behind that one. "I wouldn't have to do this if you'd expand Accounting to include more than just me. Sir," he tacks on at the end, because Cash keeps getting little comments of does not respect authority on his quarterly performance reviews.

"Agent Lewis—" Coulson begins and oh hell no, Cash is not falling for that one again.

"With all due respect, sir, Agent Lewis is overworked enough as it is with the whole PR thing, and she doesn't think in mathematical abstracts the way that Carl does," Cash tells him. It's not like they don't need Lewis, she's definitely an integral part of the team, what with how SHIELD is a top secret organization that's suddenly backing a very-public superhero team and not having a clue of how to keep the Avengers from looking like thugs in the public eye, but Cash does not trust Lewis anywhere near his spreadsheets.

"SHIELD has a lot of agents," Cash says slowly, trying to get this through Coulson's head, "and most of them need a lot of stuff. All those agents and all that stuff cost a lot of money, sir. Someone needs to make sure there's enough money to cover it, and, right now, the only one qualified to do that is me."

Agent Coulson is not impressed by Cash's highly elaborate description of Accounting's duties. This is not surprising, as Agent Coulson is never impressed by anything Cash says or does. "I'm aware of this, Agent. And, actually, I'd like to speak to you about that, if you would be so kind as to stop by my office in, oh, let's say ten minutes. That should give you enough time to clean all this up so no one steps on it."

"Uh. Sure. I can do that, sir," Cash says, a little surprised. After the way Agent Sitwell freaked out over the flamethrower a couple months back, Cash really didn't expect anyone to be okay with him building anything. Cash's boss is clearly the best boss.

---

Fifteen minutes later, Cash is pretty sure his boss is certifiably insane.

---

Which is to say, ten minutes later, Agent Coulson tells Cash, "It's good that you're training Carl," which should make Cash suspicious, but Coulson is a nice guy who sometimes says nice things, so instead Cash just thinks Coulson is pleased Cash is being a team player. This is probably because Coulson was AWOL or something for the entire Death Star thing and as a result doesn't side with Hill and Sitwell on the whole 'Everything Agent Colligan touches explodes' issue.

"Accounting needs to expand, we never meant it to stay this small for this long," Coulson continues, because he seriously expects Cash to believe something like that. Cash gets it, okay. He gets that the secret organization can't just post an ad on craigslist and start interviewing applicants. Aside from the trained military professionals SHIELD hand-picks to recruit, they're stuck with a grab bag of people who've witnessed something they shouldn't have, like Cash, or Lewis, or the Alexes. Sometimes SHIELD gets lucky with awesome CPAs like Cash or PolySci social-networking gurus like Lewis, and sometimes they're completely screwed and get theatrical lighting technicians and sex therapists like the Alexes.

"It's difficult when you have to rebuild an entire department from the ground up, though, especially when you don't have any of the prior staff available to help find replacements," Coulson says, and wait, what. What. Cash maybe should have paid attention to whatever Coulson's been saying, because Cash was under the impression that Agent Coulson and his totally badass secretary saw to all of SHIELD's accounting needs before Cash was coerced into doing it. (He'd been so young, so innocent at the time! Fresh out of college and frightened by the prospect of job hunting in a horrible economy! Past-him was a fucking idiot.)

"Sir," Cash asks hesitantly, inching towards the edge of his seat, preparing to flee if necessary, "what happened to the rest of Accounting?"

"Nothing you need to worry about, Agent," Coulson reassures him. Then he follows that with, "I see you indicated a preference for cremation on your interment information form. That will certainly simplify the matter should things go south," which is not reassuring at all.

"What," Cash says, because he is so very, very lost and getting more than a little worried.

"Tell me, Agent Colligan, what do you know about AIM?" Coulson asks, giving Cash a pleasant smile.

"AOL Instant Messenger?" Cash feels like he's suddenly been dumped into some sort of weird, alternate universe where his boss is trying to be 'young' and 'hip' and 'cool' in between plotting Cash's imminent demise.

"What? No, Advanced Idea Mechanics."

"Oh, them. Mainly mad scientists with bad dress sense, sir," Cash says, relief washing over him. This is much easier to deal with than Coulson alternating between trying to be 'with it' and talking about significantly decreasing Cash's lifespan. "Er. Also, terrorists trying for world domination? Everything else is above my pay-grade, sir," Cash admits. "Look, despite what some people say, I don't work for HYDRA or AIM or any of those groups, I swear. I just read some stuff on mechanical engineering now and then, that's all," he adds, because he honestly can't believe this is coming up again.

"How would you like to?" Coulson offers, still smiling. The smile is really starting to creep Cash.

"How would I like to read up on mechanical engineering?" Cash is so confused right now. He can't even figure out if he's in trouble or not.

"You're going to do that no matter what," Coulson says, waving a hand. "No, I meant, rather: How would you like to work for AIM for a while? Or, well, not for them, per se, but within a company we believe may working with or for their organization? A mission precis has come across my desk that should be right up your alley, Agent Colligan. I believe you have past experience with both scientists of an erratic nature and mind control."

Cash stares at Agent Coulson, because, what the hell. Seriously, how is this even happening. "I'm not a field agent, sir," Cash reminds him. Sure, he once had dreams of being some sort of James Bond-esque action hero, but Cash is much more realistic about this kind of stuff now. Even though he just knows he's going to get in trouble once he admits to it, Cash adds, "And I've never had any combat or weapons training."

Coulson frowns. "You've been with SHIELD for more than a year now, Agent, and you were supposed to have finished that training within the first seven months."

"Yeah, well." Cash coughs, looking everywhere except at Coulson. "Well, there was kind of a problem with that, sir."

"A problem. What kind of problem?"

"A problem, where, y'know, I'd be on my way to a training session, just minding my own business, not doing anything out of the ordinary—BAM, gravity reverses itself and I end up stuck on the ceiling for forty minutes. Or the floor liquefies and then turns solid again, so I'm trapped ankle-deep until someone cuts me out. Or a herd of angry tribbles comes down the hall and I end up trampled every time I even think of going anywhere. Y'know," Cash says with a shrug. "That kind of problem, sir."

"Are you trying to tell me that you managed to miss every combat and training session the first seven months you were here due to a series of impossible incidences, Agent?" Coulson asks, eyes narrowing because no one ever believes Cash when he tries to explain this to them.

"Except for the month where I had mono and was on light duties, yes, sir." Cash knows it sounds impossible. He's well-aware of the fact that his history at SHIELD sounds like something from a bad sci-fi sitcom, but it's totally not his fault. The whole Death Star snafu was the only time Cash actually went looking for trouble, and that was only because no one would listen to him when he tried to go for help. "I'm an accountant, sir," Cash reminds Coulson. "I figured it wasn't really a problem, since I stay away from combat situations and I'm generally with another agent whenever I'm off-base." One of the few times the Alexes are actually useful, in fact.

"Except for how it is a problem, as SHIELD has been led to believe they possess a trained agent who is also a CPA; an agent who is exactly what is needed for this mission. Now you're telling me this isn't the case at all." Agent Coulson is rubbing his eyes and Cash feels irrationally guilty for springing this on him. It isn't Cash's fault he has no training, it just happened. He can't help it if not everyone learned to be incredibly deadly in college like Johnson apparently did. Cash is just a normal guy who likes to poke at numbers and wants a giant robot. He fell into the whole secret agent thing by complete accident.

"Well," Agent Coulson says with a sigh, "I suppose it's just as well Agent Bryar will be sent along with you, then."

---

Cash isn't sure if he's freaking out more over suddenly becoming a field agent or over being assigned Agent Bryar of all people as a partner for his first mission. All Cash knows is that as soon as he left Agent Coulson's office forty-five minutes ago, he went straight for the vents, because small places remind him of exploring when he used to go visit his grandma at the nursing home when he was little. They make him feel safe. Plus, maybe if Cash hides long enough, Coulson and Fury will totally forget he exists and not try and make him risk life and limb as a completely untrained secret agent.

He really wants to know what happened to the SHIELD accountants that preceded him. Cash has this sinking feeling it wasn't anything remotely resembling a nice, quiet retirement.

Oh god. He is so going to die.

---

SHIELD's ventilation system is awesome, Cash decides after a couple of hours have passed. He is going to stay in it for the rest of eternity. He can have Carl steal food for him, it'll totally work. Carl loves him, he'd never tell anyone where Cash is. Yes. Yes, this is clearly the best course of action for this situation.

---

Agent Bryar finds Cash sometime during hour three. Cash is pretty sure it's because Carl has sold him out in exchange for ten minutes alone with Cash's shoes, since Bryar promptly confiscates said shoes as soon as he finds Cash. Carl is a dirty traitor. He is now dead to Cash.

"Colligan, what the hell are you doing," Bryar demands after taking Cash's shoes, acting for the world like he doesn't know.

"Avoiding being sent to my demise. C'mon, Bryar, you know it's true. Me plus fieldwork equals certain death. I like not being dead; I don't want to do anything to change that," Cash says, smiling helpfully.

"You're not going to die," Bryar huffs, grabbing the back of Cash's shirt and hauling him out of the vent. "Not from this, at least."

"Says you," grumbles Cash, dusting himself off and making a grab for his shoes.

Bryar holds them out of reach, which is pretty easy for him to do, since he's seven feet tall or something. "This is so you can't pull a runner," he tells Cash. "C'mon, let's go."

"Where are we going?"

"Shooting range," Bryar says. "Since you're so worried about your chance of survival, figure you might as well learn how to hold a gun."

"Just so you know in advance," Cash says, his heart sinking even lower in his chest as he falls into step behind Bryar, "I'm really sorry."

---

They don't make it to the range.

They get two floors down, and are only three hundred feet from the door to the range when a pipe bursts, flooding the floor and sending everyone running from a mini-tidal wave. SHIELD is solid enough that the water doesn't actually cause any major problems for the rest of the building, but it's pretty impressive to stand outside and watch the little waterfalls streaming out of all the open first-floor windows.

"Could be worse," Cash offers. "One time when I was on my way to the range someone had the bright idea of testing a grenade launcher. They took out a support beam and the floor above started to collapse."

Bryar is giving him a queer look, but Cash tries to not let it bother him. He's pretty sure Carl and the Alexes are the only ones at SHIELD who take him seriously when he says he's jinxed, so he figures he shouldn't stress when Bryar doesn't believe him. "Have you tried to figure out why it happens?" Bryar finally asks, which startles Cash since he isn't expecting casual acceptance after one event and a bunch of seemingly-fantastical stories.

"Once, when I was in school," Cash admits. "Missed a bunch lectures for one class, which meant that when the prof tried to brainwash me, I just panicked and knocked him out with my laptop instead of turning into a zombie. Prof went down like a stack of bricks." Cash thinks that might be classified or something, but he figures Bryar needs to hear that Cash can take care of himself, because apparently that didn't become clear during the whole to-do with the Death Star.

"And?" Bryar prompts.

"And what?"

"And did you find out why?"

Cash blinks in surprise. He honestly thought the answer was obvious, but he supposes sometimes he can be a bit hard to follow. "It pretty much saved my life. And, like, the lives of everyone else in that room, probably, nutso prof included. Saved most of us a shitload of therapy, at least. After that, I figured it was better not to question it."

"How the hell is this not in your file, Colligan." Bryar is shaking his head, but Cash thinks he might see a hint of a smile there, so Cash is feeling pretty good.

"The brainwashing incident is totally in my file," Cash insists, because it is. How else does Bryar think that a lowly CPA like Cash ended up at SHIELD? Geez.

"You being jinxed," Bryar elaborates. "It might be some kind of superhero thing."

"What? Naw, that's just, y'know, bad luck and coincidence." Superheroes heal quickly, or have super-strength, or can fly. Always getting the short end of the stick? Not a superpower.

"Hm," says Bryar.

"...can I have my shoes back now?"

"Don't push it, Colligan," Bryar rumbles, but there's a thoughtful look on his face when he says it.

---

Cash is unpacking in the safe house when Bryar pokes his head in. Normally Cash would be all for putting boring stuff like this aside for later, but he has bad luck with his ties wrinkling even when he stores them correctly, so procrastination just isn't an option today. He can't be caught without his ties, after all—novelty ties are essential workplace attire when you're stuck in an office that is not likely to have a sapient blob of orange goo to chat with during down-time.

"Hey," Cash says, nodding amicably, "what's up?"

"Ties, really?" Bryar asks, giving the tie in Cash's hand a doubtful look that it definitely doesn't deserve. Dancing chili peppers are totally badass, it's a fact of life. "You don't wear ties, Colligan."

"That is where you are wrong. I used to wear ties all the time, I just had to stop because Carl kept trying to steal them, and they were just too awesome for him to handle. Plus, everyone expects accountants to wear ties. It'll look weird if I don't," Cash explains. "Also, Cash," he adds as an afterthought.

"If you say so." Bryar still sounds doubtful, but psh, what does he know? He's a field agent for a super secret pseudo-government agency. The peculiarities of office life are surely alien to Bryar. "And what about cash?"

Cash sighs. "Look, I know it's ridiculous, but it's my name, so you should call me by it. We're supposedly roommates for this op, right? It sounds weird if you refer to your roommate by his last name all the time."

"You do it," Bryar points out, frowning. "And why would you be talking about me anyway?"

"Dude, that would be because all my roommates have the same first name," Cash points out. Which is his own fault, really. He should know better than to room with the Alexes after all these years. "And I tend to run my mouth at people. It's what makes me so endearing and encourages everyone to open up and tell me about their secret plans for world domination. So I'm gonna call you Bob from now on."

"How do you even—"

"Agent Iero," Cash says, because Bryar's partner may be an asshole to Cash, but he also thinks it's hilarious to give Cash dirt on Bryar.

"Fucking Frank," Bryar grumbles. Iero has assured Cash that Bryar curses his name out of affection, but Cash suspects that Iero just doesn't realize how much of a pain in the ass he can be. "Anyway. Look, I have to go out for a while tonight. Whatever you do, don't leave the safehouse while I'm gone."

This is ridiculous. "Dude, I'm an adult. I can totally look after myself," Cash says, rolling his eyes. "You don't need to babysit me."

"You don't have any combat or defense training. No leaving at night unless I'm with you," Bryar repeats.

"I've got pepper spray and no one's going to try and, like, kidnap me. The most sensitive thing I know is the monthly canteen budget for SHIELD Central." It threw Cash for a loop when he found out that the real reason he'd been granted level three clearance was because someone had to make sure there was enough in the canteen budget each month to cover occasional visits from the Avengers. Cash is pretty sure that, between Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk, the Avengers consume as much over the course of a month as the entire state of North Dakota. Of course, it's North Dakota, so that's not saying much.

"Don't make me pull rank on you, Agent," Bryar growls, "because I will do it."

Cash sighs. "We should've taken Iero along. You're such a killjoy on your own," he gripes, but otherwise, he lets it go. Cash has found that it's really hard to argue with Agent Bryar when he goes all growly like that.

---

If HiTek is a hotspot center of AIM mad-science-fu, it's probably news to the company's management, Cash decides after spending the morning going over various expense reports. "All of the files in the boxes you gave me are just expense forms for office supplies and employee empowerment posters," he explains to Desiderata, Management's chief secretary. "I'm supposed to be taking care of the funding forms for the science-types in R&D as well. Are those stored somewhere else?"

Desiderata is pretty focused on examining her split ends, so Cash snaps his fingers a few times, then repeats himself. She still gives him a blank look when she glances up. "I dunno," she says. "You could try asking Dr. Damati? She might know?"

"Great, okay. Where can I find her?"

Desiderata just stares at Cash blankly, which he takes to mean that she's done all she can, he's on his own now. With a sigh, he heads for the stairs. He's pretty sure all the R&D labs are on the first three or four floors of the building, so at least there's that.

As he pokes his head into various labs in his attempt to track down the elusive Dr. Damati, Cash mentally reviews his current situation. So far, the most surprising thing he's found is that HiTek even made it on SHIELD's radar in the first place. For one thing, the company is so poorly organized that Cash doubts they'll ever get their act together enough to even think about world domination. Sure, Management is full of buzzwords and phrases like 'actualize potential' and 'augment core structures,' but all of the admin support staff Cash has interacted with so far have pretty much been clones of Desiderata.

Which is kind of sad, actually, since most of the scientists he's met seem polite enough. It sucks that their bosses are completely incompetent when it comes to hiring administrative staff. With the exception of Cash himself, of course, though he isn't sure if he counts, since he's a plant and all.

Cash's search is unsuccessful until he stumbles into one of the Bio labs. At least, he thinks it's one of the Bio labs—all the other labs in this general vicinity are Biology, but this one is long on electronic equipment and short on cages of lab rats. "Uh, hi? Hello? Is anyone here?" he calls out, stepping around a crate of absolutely ancient video cameras and CRT monitors.

"If you're here for Dr. O'Reilly, he's stepped out to get a cable he forgot," someone calls out from the midst of a stack of computer equipment on the other end of the room.

Navigating a box of magazine clippings and a teetering stack of books finally brings Cash to a point that he can see the speaker, a middle-aged woman in a lab coat. "Dr. Damati?" Cash asks hopefully.

"What? Oh, no. I'm Dr. Foster—Sandra Foster. If you're looking for Gina, she's not due back from Hawaii for at least another two weeks."

Well, fuck.

---

"Honestly? I think this entire thing's a wash. If I were more pessimistic, I'd say it's actually a set up to get back at us for the whole Death Star fiasco," Cash says later that day, collapsing across the squashy green couch that dominates the living room of the safe house.

"Agent Coulson doesn't send his people on useless missions," Bryar points out, not glancing up from the book he's reading.

"Yes, but. Fury was pretty angry about the hole you put in the building," Cash reminds him.

"He was mostly pissed that someone fucked up okaying Dr. Berkshire's equipment requests. If he was mad at us, we wouldn't be here," Bryar says. "Having to wait a couple weeks before we start to get any definite results on a fact-finding mission isn't a big deal, Colligan."

"Well, we might not have to. Dr. Foster said that some of the scientists keep copies of their funding forms and stuff, since the admin staff at HiTek is notoriously flakey," Cash says, perking up a bit. He hopes this means he gets to hang with Dr. Foster some more; the lady's a total milf.

"Foster?" Bryar frowns, tossing his book to the side and reaching for the laptop that's sitting on the table next to him. "I thought she was over in New York."

"Different Dr. Foster," Cash says, rolling his eyes. "This one's a sociologist, not an astrophysicist. And before you start getting on my case about that being above my pay-grade, dude. I work with Lewis. Of course I know about her Dr. Foster." Plus the whole thing of Agent Sitwell being a talker when he's drunk; Cash finds the best drinking buddies.

Bryar glares at him. "Agent Lewis is a menace."

"Naw, she's awesome. She keeps Iero from messing with my stuff." If anyone around SHIELD is a menace, it's definitely Agent Iero in Cash's mind.

"That wasn't— Huh," Bryar breaks off, suddenly focussed on whatever he's looking at on the laptop screen. "New plan. Forget about the R&D funding forms for now, we can get back to those when this Dr. Damati comes back. For now, see what you can find out about what Foster and O'Reilly are up to."

"Dr. Foster isn't up to anything nefarious," Cash insists. "She's pretty much the most down-to-earth, logical person at HiTek. No way would she be messing around with AIM nutcases."

Bryar turns around the computer so Cash can see the news article Bryar's pulled up on it. 'Chaotic Fad Wins Niebnitz Grant!' proclaims the headline across the top. 'O'Reilly and Foster Make Breakthrough Discovery in Information Dispersal.' "So they won some big, shiny, smart people award," Cash says slowly. "What about it?"

"They're researching how fads start and spread," Bryar says slowly, like he expects the import of this to be obvious, which is pretty presumptuous of him. Bryar sighs. "They're trying to figure out how to make people want what they tell them to want. That sounds pretty close to mind control for me." Which, oh, right, is what AIM supposedly has HiTek developing, Cash remembers. But still.

"Dude, marketing people having been trying to do that for decades. This isn't anything new," Cash reminds him.

"The Niebnitz Grant is a million dollars with no strings attached," Bryar explains. "The money can be used for anything, no restrictions. That article's from 2006—why the hell are Foster and O'Reilly still at HiTek?"

"Oh," Cash says quietly. "I guess that's a reasonable question."

---

The only problem with Bryar's theory is that Cash knows he's a pretty good judge of character and Foster just doesn't strike him as the sort to be interested in developing mind control. Figuring out why stuff happens, sure, but that's normal science-geek behavior. Mad science-types tend to be more focussed on revenge or on experiments of a dubious ethical nature.

Meanwhile, Cash leaves for HiTek that morning with his own theory that Foster's an innocent dupe whom O'Reilly's using to his own ends. Foster's the one who specializes in sociology, after all. There's no good reason for a chaos theorist to have his fingers in information dispersal or mind control, right?

The morning he spends organizing and digitizing the boxes of files Desiderata gave him the day before, since Cash has to make some pretense of actually doing work or else Management or someone might pick up on all the snooping he's doing.

After lunch, Cash heads back down to the R&D labs, ostensibly to pick up copies of forms some of the scientists promised him the day before. In reality, he's hoping to get the dirt on O'Reilly.

Except for how Cash just needs to glance at him to see that Dr. O'Reilly is even less of a candidate for plans of a mad science-y sort than Dr. Foster. O'Reilly is not-quite a poster boy for every science geek cliche ever, right down to the Coke-bottle glasses and the pocket protector. Except with freckles. It's kind of absolutely charming, even though O'Reilly is a) old enough to be Cash's dad, and b) a complete fashion nightmare. O'Reilly is also completely, totally, head-over-heels gone on Dr. Foster.

Cash is just barely able restrain his need to break all kinds of rules and start sending gossipy texts to DeLeon and/or Lewis. Old people love is awesome.

"Hey, so, I'm going around getting copies of everyone's funding forms, since my predecessor was a complete failure at the whole filing thing," Cash explains when he sashays into Foster and O'Reilly's shared lab. "I've got all of Engineering and most of Chemistry so far. Have either of you got anything to contribute?"

O'Reilly looks completely lost and a little panicked. "I. Who are you? Are you the summer intern? I didn't think you were coming until end of May? Wait. What month is it? Sandy—"

Dr. Foster emerges from the box of magazine clippings she was half-buried in, and rolls her eyes. "It's March and he's the new accountant, Ben. He came by yesterday while you were out."

"I'm trying to digitize everything to make it easier to find come tax time," Cash explains, because that is a totally legit excuse for him to poke his nose into everything ever, yes. "So, y'know. If you have any copies of your funding forms or stuff like that floating about that I could borrow, that'd be awesome. I'll get them back to you asap, promise."

"Sorry," Dr. Foster says, "Ben and I are kind of, ah, outside the usual process? Our funds all come from private grants, HiTek just lets us work here in hopes of it making the company look good."

All of which makes sense with the whole Niebnitz Grant thing. It also sounds unfortunately suspicious to Cash's professional secret spy senses. From his own experience with SHIELD's R&D department, science stuff is super expensive—shouldn't that grant money have run out by now, million dollars or no? And Foster mentioned multiple grants. Maybe they started looking for funding from other sources after the Niebnitz money ran out. Evil AIM sources. Fuck.

"Wow, you must be doing something really ground-breaking to be able to do that," Cash says, attempting to keep the conversation going but really just sounding incredibly lame and hokey. Bryar is totally going to give him an I-told-you-so face tonight after he reams Cash out for being so bad at the secret agent thing. Ugh, this sucks. SHIELD has not properly prepared Cash for dealing with awesome people who are also supervillians. Proto-supervillians. Supervillian patsies. Whatever.

It's like the Berkshire thing all over again, except for how Dr. Berkshire was a complete nutcase with a tendency to monologue and cackle maniacally. Plus, she tried to disintegrate Agent Bryar, which wasn't very cool at all.

"Um, not really," O'Reilly says, ducking his head. "I mean. We think it's pretty important and interesting, but I think most of our funding comes from people who misunderstand what we're trying to do."

"We get Gina to write our grant applications," Foster explains. "She can b.s. like a pro and is fluent in Management-speak. Our backers think we're going to tell them why stuff like Tickle-Me-Elmo happens and how they can artificially create demands like that. All we're really proving is that people do and buy stuff for no discernible reason."

"The social group is a complex and illogical chaotic system," O'Reilly agrees.

"Oh. Well. That's cool, I guess?" Cash says, backing slowly away. Most science-types tend to make him feel a bit uncomfortable when they get too deep into the technical stuff. It's one of the reasons why he had to change his major to accounting from mechanical engineering in college, despite his lifelong dream of building a giant robot. "Sorry to bother you, bye!"

There's also, of course, the whole thing of how Cash still hasn't been told what he's supposed to do once he establishes a HiTek-AIM connection. It probably says in the SHIELD handbook, but really. Like anyone ever reads that.

---

Though he's a bit reluctant, Cash agrees to drinks out with Elaine from Personnel and some of their coworkers at the end of the day. Elaine and her buddies creep Cash out a bit; they have a weird obsession with aerobics and organic food that Cash is certain isn't the least bit healthy. Unfortunately, Elaine is also the best source of office gossip at HiTek.

"So," Cash says, trying not to feel uncomfortable about being the only guy in a group of women on a Friday night, "Dr. Foster and Dr. O'Reilly down in Bio—what's up with them?" He can totally do this sort of thing. He's done happy hour Fridays with Lewis, Williams, and DeLeon. Cash knows all about girl gossip nights; he is definitely secure enough in his masculinity to participate in one with women he barely knows. More importantly, Cash knows to stick to beer and never, ever touch the fruity, brightly colored drinks that Lewis favors.

"Oh god, who even knows," Elaine says. "Sandy can do way better than him, but for some reason she just can't see it. Do you know, she could have married an absolutely gorgeous cowboy? Instead, she's stuck reminding Dr. O'Reilly to wear matching socks. It's so sad."

"You think? I dunno, I thought they were kind of cute together," Cash admits. Though, okay, yeah. Cowboy. Cash could see how a cowboy would be really hard to pass up, not that he knows what a modern cowboy would look like. Maybe kind of like Agent Bryar in a cowboy hat? Oh, wow, that is a very distracting mental image and one that Cash should not entertain while getting down with his secret agent groove. Yes.

"Maybe," Sarah from Chemistry says. "But they've been together for years and they're not even married. I'm glad my Ted's never had any aversion to commitment like that."

"It just seems like such an odd combination, sociology and chaos theory," Cash prompts, trying to drag the conversation back in the direction he originally intended, namely that of Foster and O'Reilly's research.

"That's just because of the sheep thing," Barbara says, waving her appletini haphazardly and rolling her eyes. "Thank god they switched to macaques. I don't think I could handle another stampede."

"Actually, it's kind of romantic," Sarah admits. "Sandy gave Dr. O'Reilly her funding one time, and they just sort of clicked. They've been finding excuses to do joint projects ever since."

"Yeah, but. I heard they were doing research into mind control and stuff?" Cash tentatively tries. "That sounds more creepy than romantic, sorry."

"Mind control? Sandy?" Barbara seems honestly surprised by this bit of news. "Who in the world did you hear that from?"

"Well, it was Desiderata," Cash fibs, "so maybe I got it wrong?"

"I was going to say. Everyone knows it's—"

Whatever Elaine is about to say gets completely forgotten, because right then an ambulance crashes through the wall, and everything is pretty chaotic for the next forty-five minutes. Which is sort of messed up, because for a minute there, Cash was thinking he'd finally gotten this whole secret agent thing figured out.

---

Of course the whole thing with the ambulance is hardly worth mentioning what with how later that evening Agent Bryar nearly kills Cash.

---

Which of course sounds way more drastic than it actually is. When it comes down to it, the ambulance probably offered a much greater threat to Cash's continued existence, but after all this time, Cash is pretty much used to walking away from similar freak accidents. He's not so used to being pinned to the wall and having a knife pressed to his throat by an unknown assailant.

Except for that one time, with Johnson, but that totally wasn't Cash's fault. The Alexes started it by violating the sacred couch rule. They have a bed, Cash just wants them to use the damned thing.

Anyway.

The only thing that keeps Cash from being reduced to a gibbering mess is the knife, because he's pretty sure that any movement he makes at this point is going to result in his death. Also, chances are that anyone who could take out Bryar won't be the least bit open to any pleading Cash might do.

At which point the shadowy figure growls, "You have until the count of three to tell me what you've done with Colligan. One."

It's a pretty familiar growl, Cash can't help the way he relaxes. "Um," he starts, because he's not entirely sure how to deal with this.

The entry light suddenly comes on, and Cash has to squint to keep from being blinded, which turns out to be a good thing, because wow, black is definitely a good color for Bryar. Cash will have to let him know sometime, preferably when Bryar isn't trying to kill him. "What the fuck, Colligan," Bryar grumbles, letting the knife drop away. He neglects to let Cash go, but—huh. Actually, Cash has no problem with that.

"Yeah, we should probably work on your paranoia and anger issues," Cash agrees, because wow, jumping the gun much? "Most people don't automatically assume anyone who opens the door is an intruder when they, y'know, have a roommate."

"Standard protocol when a member of the team has gone missing," Bryar grunts. "You were supposed to use the 'friendly party' knock before opening the door."

"That's one of those field agent handbook things, isn't it?" Cash should probably try reading the handbook sometime, but, eh. He's got better things to do. "Also, I just went out for drinks with some coworkers, I wasn't missing."

"You weren't answering your phone," Bryar insists.

"Uh, yeah. Because the battery died around lunch and stupid SHIELD doesn't issue phones that take standard power cords, so I couldn't borrow someone's charger. I texted you before it went out," Cash points out.

"'Overpowered' is not a message that is the least bit reassuring when it's followed by complete radio silence."

"Ugh, fucking autocorrect. Seriously, it is the worst ever. You don't want to know what I accidentally sent Agent Coulson once," Cash groans. It was pretty much the most embarrassing moment of Cash's life. Well, excluding the time that Director Fury thought he'd blown up SHIELD Central, but yeah. "It was supposed to be 'Out of power'. Sorry."

"Oh." To his credit, Bryar looks a little ashamed. "Still. I told you not to go out in the at night for exactly this sort of reason. Something serious could have happened."

"Christ, Bob, it's not like the ambulance even grazed me," is out of Cash's mouth before he can stop himself.

"What."

"Uh. Oops?"

---

Even though Cash assures Bryar multiple times that he was never in any danger with the whole ambulance thing—the vehicle smashed through the wall a whole three feet away and no one in the bar was even hurt, least of all Cash—Bryar apparently takes it to mean that Cash can't be trusted to do anything on his own. This means that Cash is stuck trailing after Bryar the whole weekend while Bryar goes about doing secret agent things.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Cash is learning a lot about all the stuff he missed out on by forgoing the handbook and missing every combat training session ever. "This is pretty badass," Cash admits, holding a cable out so that Bryar can patch it into the mess in the box in front of them. Cash has next to no idea what's going on, though he thinks it might have something to do with illegal wiretapping. The part of him that was a vaguely-liberal college student feels like it should be offended, but screw it. Secret agent duties rock. He's had the Mission: Impossible theme playing in his head non-stop for the past two hours.

Bryar shakes his head. "It's a standard part of intel-gathering ops. Didn't you do any of the required training?"

Cash feels vaguely guilty, but mostly doesn't let it get to him. "Dude. You and I both know SHIELD recruited me for my mad spreadsheet skills. We can't all be 007; some of us have to make sure there's enough money so Q can make fancy toys."

"You're still an agent. You're supposed to know this stuff," Bryar insists, because he likes to pretend Cash is on this op for reasons that aren't CPA-related.

"No, seriously, look, it's like. I'm totally a special agent too, right? Except, instead of being a specialist in paperwork, or spying, or shooting people, I'm the guy who gets called in to do forensic accounting. Which is totally a thing, Bob, don't even pretend it isn't." Despite what Bryar seems to think, Cash is definitely down with being the badass numbers guy.

Bryar frowns, fiddling with his wires for a while in silence. It's nice, like a team-bonding thing, except for not, because Bryar will always think of Cash as that rookie agent who got himself stuck to the ceiling that one time. "You know Agent Coulson didn't just want you on this because you're good with numbers, right?" Bryar says finally.

"Uh, except for how he made it pretty clear that's why I'm here when I was briefed. SHIELD's kinda short on accountants right now, dude. I don't think Coulson would've even pulled me for this if he wasn't desperate."

"Well, yeah, but what I meant is that it's not your only skill. You're good at getting people to open up to you, also," Bryar insists, which is totally ridiculous. Just because Cash is loud and pushy doesn't make him some sort of social guru. "You know you're the only one at HQ that Carl will talk to now that the rest of his team has gone home, right?" Bryar continues.

"Yeah," Cash says, though he actually hadn't realized that. "But that's not necessarily a good thing, y'know? I mean, he's technically some kind of illegal alien squatter right now, I think. Director Fury hasn't kicked him out yet because it's sort of difficult for third-dimensional beings to force sixth-dimensional beings to do anything." Carl only agreed to help Cash out with his accounting duties because it can apparently get pretty boring, hanging out on the ceiling all day.

"Agent Sitwell adopted you as a drinking buddy within a month of you joining SHIELD," Bryar tries. "People want to talk to you," he says, which is just ridiculous.

"More like, Coulson was off in New Mexico or Malibu or something, and Sitwell grabbed me because he'd kind of started in on the booze already and mistakenly thought I had the same level of clearance as the illustrious bossman. Seriously, man. My life is kinda fucked up," Cash reminds Bryar.

Bryar just raises his eyebrows at this but doesn't say anything, instead turning his attention back to his questionably-legal activities. Whatever. Cash is well aware that he's pretty much the butt of every SHIELD joke ever. It's not like it even bothers him anymore.

---

Sometime halfway through Sunday, the novelty of playing gofer to Bryar's secret agent badass self wears off. Cash is sick of Bryar insisting on keeping tabs on him all the time, and he's starting to worry that it'll carry over into Monday, which could put a serious crimp on Cash's actual job here.

"Look. Bob. I appreciate it and everything, but you've got to understand that when I say I can take care of myself, I actually do mean it," Cash tells him, leaning back while Bryar snoops through the files they spent the morning pulling off of HiTek's archaic servers.

"Says the guy who deliberately sought out a death ray," Bryar grumbles, not looking up.

"I've already totally justified that one to you, so it's not actually going to work on me," Cash reminds him. "No, really, look. The random bad luck shit? I wasn't kidding about it being something normal for me. Because it is. Normal, I mean."

"I looked into that whole thing with the UNLV professor that you mentioned. It was obvious from the situation report that you only survived it by the skin of your teeth, kid," Bryar says, which is so not fair. Cash isn't even a decade younger than Bryar, there is no reason for him to pull the age card here. Ugh.

"See, that's what I mean. The thing with the prof was, like, small-time stuff. I just mentioned it because I knew there'd be paperwork to back it up, and I know how you are all about the paperwork," Cash explains. "I mean, I bet my file doesn't even mention the robot horde from junior year or the time I unionized the campus microwaves." Which is pretty tragic, when it comes down to it, because the whole union thing would've been great résumé material if the CompSci department hadn't uninstalled all the AIs when they got frustrated because they couldn't heat their breakfast burritos.

"Now you're just pulling my leg, Agent," Bryar sighs. "None of that ever happened."

"Dude. We live in a world where there are alien invasions, prehistoric Norse gods, and people who can literally read your mind. You think SHIELD actually bothers to keep tabs on every incident of appliance unionization they get wind of?" Cash points out. "Though, okay, it was more like three robots, and I guess that doesn't really count as a horde, especially since they could be thwarted by stairs, but still. I've survived the Alexes since I was in high school, Bob. I can definitely look after myself."

"Now that would actually be a compelling argument," Bryar admits, "if I hadn't met DeLeon."

Well, shit. Trust Bryar to bring actual logic into the argument.

---

All kinds of shit goes down on Monday and, if Cash is honest, he would probably blank the entire day from his memory if he didn't have to fill out paperwork on it once he gets back to Central. As it it, he limps into Agent Coulson's office Tuesday with three bruised ribs, a pulled calf muscle, and the mother of all headaches. At least he's better off than Bob, who was only semi-conscious when Cash surrendered him to the tender mercies of Medical thirty minutes ago. Cash is starting to form a theory about Bob being some sort of flame magnet, the guy catches fire so easily.

"Sir," Cash says simply, dropping a manila folder on Coulson's desk. "The information you wanted." Cash is thinking that, as soon as he can make it out of here, he's going to go sleep for the next three days straight. Maybe he'll bully DeLeon into snuggle-duty. DeLeon is a crap nemesis and a shitty friend, but a five-star snuggler when it comes down to it.

"Thank you," Coulson says, pleasant as always. "Tell me, Agent Colligan. Do you not understand the purpose of a fact-finding mission, or are you actually incapable of completing anything without causing some form of collateral damage?"

It's a bit more straightforward than Cash expected Agent Coulson to be, but it wouldn't surprise him if Coulson's been talking to the Alexes during Cash's stint in Colorado. When allowed, the Alexes love embellishing Cash's exploits with all sorts of nonsense. "I would just like to point out, sir, that I told Agent Bryar it would be a bad idea for him to follow me in to Dr. Turnbull's lab. And that this is the second time he's sustained injuries he could have avoided if he'd actually, y'know, paid any attention to what I said. Sir." Cash is possibly a little peeved about Bob's inability to follow explicit instructions. Getting hurt while lugging his idiot of a babysitter away from certain death tends to ruffle Cash's feathers, he can't help it.

"I believe, Agent Colligan, that we are currently not talking about Agent Bryar," Coulson reminds him, because sometimes Coulson is a bit of dick. Awesome boss, sure, but also a dick. "We are talking about you."

"Yeah, but if Bob hadn't been a jackass about the whole thing, I could've gone in, gotten the info, and gotten out fine without tipping Dr. Turnbull off to the fact that people were onto her little thing with AIM, sir." But no, Bob had still been stuck in overprotective-babysitter mode and he hadn't believed Cash when Cash insisted that Foster and O'Reilly were harmless and someone had thought it was a really good idea to put gas nozzles in the bio labs at HiTek. All of which had spelled a recipe for disaster, particularly when combined with Bob's apparent affinity for fire.

"All of which will certainly be taken into account in the course of Agent Bryar's debrief," Agent Coulson assures him.

"I'd also like to point out, sir, that I did warn both you and Agent Bryar of my, um, particular situation before I was sent on the op," Cash tries, because seriously, this whole shitstorm is not Cash's fault. Well. Not directly, at least. He doesn't think.

"And yet, you still managed to accomplish the mission parameters, despite being 'jinxed.'" Argh, Coulson even curls his fingers to indicate the airquotes. Seriously, how is this Cash's life.

"Sir?" Cash tries one last time, because even though he's sure he's going to regret it, he has to try. "If I put in a request to never do fieldwork again, will you actually pay any attention to it?"

"Now, Agent, why in the world would I do that?"

Cash sighs, because really. He did know better than to ask that one.

---

It takes Lewis and Carl all of fifteen minutes to track Cash down and corner him. Not that it's all that hard for them to do so; he's just sitting in his cubicle, reviewing the work Carl did while Cash was stuck in Boulder. Still, Cash isn't expecting to be set upon by 200 pounds of curvy female and extra-dimensional goo.

"What is this, Colligan? Now that you're mister big-shot secret agent you haven't got time for your friends?" Lewis demands, straddling Cash and pinning him to the floor. It's an awkward situation and Cash is pretty sure it has the potential to break all kinds of office rules meant to prevent sexual harassment. He never wants her to get up.

"I only just got here?" he tries, though he knows it's an excuse that won't fly with either of them.

"Nrgglpxt," Carl grumbles, because he gets offended by the weirdest shit sometimes.

"Uh, no, I kinda do have to check your work, man. You only just learned Arabic numerals last month, this is some heavy stuff here," Cash points out. "I'm sorta your boss, now. I mean, if you want to stick with Accounting. Which you should, we're the best department, don't let Lewis try to convince you otherwise."

"Ggglb," Carl agrees amicably, patting Cash on the head a couple of times before acceding to gravity and falling back up to the ceiling.

"So," Lewis says, leaning back and studying Cash. "You and Bryar."

"I totally saved his life," Cash tells her, grinning ridiculously. Sure, he was freaking the fuck out at the time, but when he looks back at it now, he has to acknowledge he was pretty much an action-movie hero for all of twenty minutes there.

"Nice," Lewis says, mirroring his grin. They bump fists, as is only right and good in a situation such as this one. "We should totally spy on him later. I hear Medical's got him on the good drugs."

"He'd probably know we were there, though. And then he'd hunt me down and kill me in my sleep. Or pay DeLeon to do it," Cash points out.

Lewis considers this. "DeLeon would totally do it, for the right price."

"Yeah," Cash agrees. It's pretty sad, actually, but Cash is nothing if not realistic about these kinds of things.

"You should room with me and Jane," Lewis says, patting his shoulder. "We have absolutely no connections to cutthroat Alexes and sometimes Thor walks around the kitchen in just his boxers."

It's a very compelling sales pitch. Cash can see why Agent Coulson lets Lewis take care of PR stuff. "I'll think about it," he tells her.

---

Cash doesn't actually consider Lewis's offer for more than a few minutes, partly because Cash isn't sure about the prospect of potentially being up close and personal with one of the Avengers, but mostly because he can't abandon the Alexes.

"They'd pretty much be lost without me," Cash explains to Bob when he goes to visit him. According to the doctor, Bob is still pretty hyped up on painkillers, but it's not too obvious.

"Dicks," Bob grumbles, frowning. "Lying liars," he adds, which startles a laugh out of Cash.

"Aww, Bob. That's kind of sweet, if really unfair to Johnson," Cash says, reaching over to pat Bob on the head.

"What the fuck is that," Bob says, reaching up and grabbing Cash's arm before he can pull it away.

"Um. My arm? Dude, you've seen my arm before. I'm gonna make Dr. Way cut your pain meds if you go freaky on me, Bob," Cash warns him.

"No, what's this, this shit," Bob demands, twisting Cash's arm around in an awkward and somewhat painful manner. "This."

"Man, that's just my shitty tattoo," Cash tells him. "I told you about this, right? Never, ever get drunk in Florida during spring break, especially if Lewis is there. It will only result in horrible lapses in judgement. And years of mockery."

"Looks like crap," Bob says, which, wow. Is a little harsh, Cash thinks.

"We should pump you full of the good drugs more often, Bob," he says instead. "Makes you almost human."

"Fuck you."

"Adorable," Cash tells him, then escapes before Bob can take him out in drug-fueled rampage.

---

Cash counts it as a win when he manages to drop out of the air vents and onto Agent Iero without getting his neck broken.

"You know, Fury put a ban on agents using the vents for anything outside of emergencies last month," Iero points out. He's a foot shorter than Cash, but he's currently got Cash pinned in a headlock.

"I would like to remind you that I was on a mission last month and didn't hear him instate this supposed ban, which I'm pretty sure means it doesn't actually apply to me," Cash says, because he's been at SHIELD for nearly two years now and he's started catching on to how the rules around here work. "Plus, I have it on good authority that I'm the only one who Carl will listen to, and he has to use the vents to get around because of the whole flipped gravity thing."

Iero opens his mouth, thinks a moment, then closes it and nods. "Okay, makes sense," he agrees, letting Cash fall to the floor in an undignified lump. "What can I do for you, young grasshopper?"

Cash untangles his limbs and rights himself, sitting crosslegged on the floor at Iero's feet. He has to think for a moment; he's never had a real conversation with Iero before, and the guy is, technically, kind of his superior, what with him being a senior agent and all. Cash starts off with, "Sorry I got your partner hurt," because he might as well get that out the way.

"Psh, Bob got his own self busted up. He's crap at following directions and he's got a sacrificial streak a mile wide," Iero says, waving a hand. "You went back and got him out. Most junior agents with your level of training wouldn't do that. Appreciate it, man."

"'s nothing," Cash mutters, ducking his head and trying not to blush because he is a totally a badass secret agent now. Saving your teammate on a mission is just what badass secret agents do. "Agent Bob says my tattoo is crap," he says, because this is what he actually wants to talk to Iero about. Bob and Iero are partners more often than not; if anyone knows Bob's tastes, it's Iero.

"Yeah, but Bob's in Medical, which always pisses him off, so he thinks everything is crap right now," Iero says. "You shouldn't take it personally."

"He did say the Alexes are dicks," Cash acknowledges.

"Dangerous words. DeLeon has ears everywhere," Iero agrees. Iero may be prank king of SHIELD, but even he is aware of the fact that DeLeon is basically a supervillain waiting to happen.

"Except, I think he might be right? It is a pretty shitty tattoo," Cash says, pushing up his sleeve to show Iero. Cash is proud of most of his ink, even the ones that DeLeon insists are crass and juvenile, but he's never been sure about this particular one.

Iero glances over, then does a double-take. "I. Is that. Is that a fat kid humping a marmoset eating watermelon?"

"I think it might be some sort of inspirational quote? Or possibly a leopard giving birth to a constipated mermaid? I'm pretty sure no one involved was sober when I got it," Cash admits as he rolls his sleeve back down. It makes him queasy to look at the design too long, so he usually keeps it covered.

"Don't take this the wrong way, kid," Iero says, "but it kinda freaks me out. Just a bit."

"Yeah, no. You're right," Cash says. "I was thinking of maybe getting it fixed? Cleaned up some?"

"I dunno," Iero says doubtfully. "I'm not sure anything could save that. It's just. It's really something."

"Oh," Cash says.

---

"I know he's supposed to be all wholesome like baseball and apple pie," Lewis hisses, "but I kind of want to lick Captain America all over."

Cash nods enthusiastically. He was showing her Carl's trick with the vents, because everyone needs a sneaky escape route when they work for a secretive organization and screw Fury's stupid ban anyway, when they stumbled across a room where some of the Avengers are apparently waiting for a briefing. "He could sell my bonds any day."

"What does that even mean?" Lewis asks, rolling her eyes. "You need to stop letting DeLeon teach you innuendo."

"DeLeon is the master of innuendo," Cash protests, because Lewis is a bad influence and now he's defending DeLeon, which is against everything Cash believes in.

"Anyway, I'm pretty sure you're not allowed to drool over Captain America," Lewis insists. "I mean, Bryar might kill you."

Which makes no sense whatsoever. "What. Why would Agent Bob care about that?" Cash asks. "Also, everyone drools over Captain America. Except for some lesbians, maybe."

Then stupid Agent Sitwell spots them and they have to hightail it out of there to make sure he doesn't get a good enough look to write them up. Which sucks because Cash agrees with Lewis about the licking thing, and he really wouldn't have minded watching the good Captain a bit longer.

---

It's a pretty big decision, so Cash takes it to Johnson. Yeah, Johnson's easily led astray by DeLeon's wiles, but the Alexes are Cash's oldest friends, and Johnson is still Cash's main man.

Cash corners Johnson in the canteen one day when DeLeon and Marshall are off somewhere in southeast Asia, kicking butt and taking names, or at least catching interesting local diseases. The way Cash looks at it, he's being an awesome friend, distracting Johnson from the fact that his fellow Alexes are gone by coming to him for friendly advice. "I'm thinking of getting rid of my shitty tattoo," Cash says, sneakily moving his pudding cup onto Johnson's tray.

Johnson raises an eyebrow at the pudding, but doesn't comment on Cash's generosity. "Bryar's a good guy. Agent Sitwell only has good things to say about him, except for the whole catching on fire issue," Johnson says, because even though there are hundreds of agents in this base alone, all of them are horrible gossips and nothing, absolutely nothing is sacred.

"Don't know what you're talking about," Cash says, because he does not believe in encouraging gossipy gossips. "It's a pretty shitty tattoo," he explains, because that is totally the reason why he's doing this, it has absolutely nothing to do with Agent Bob, seriously. "It doesn't look like much of anything, and it's. Uh."

"It's fucking creepy, Cash. You wore long sleeves for most of college because you didn't want to see it," Johnson says flatly. That's the problem with Johnson, he never lets Cash get away with anything. "You would've gotten rid of it years ago except you like freaking DeLeon out with it."

"DeLeon bribed that guy in HR to say that I had to get rid of all my ink that one time," Cash reminds him. "DeLeon's not allowed to have any sort of opinion on my tattoos."

"Yeah, it was a kinda dick move," Johnson acknowledges. "Fucking funny, though."

Cash frowns, because seriously? Seriously? "Bros before hos, man. Don't even joke."

"You're the only one who actually believes DeLeon is your nemesis."

"The bond between nemeses is an ancient and sacred one, Alex Johnson," Cash reminds him. "You should treat it with respect."

Johnson sighs and rubs his forehead. "Honestly, Cash. DeLeon's just trying to get you laid."

"I do not need DeLeon's help to get laid. This may be difficult for you to realize with your weird Alexsexuality—Alexuality?—but I am perfectly capable of taking care of that on my own," Cash says. "If nothing else, Lewis and I have an understanding." Granted, said understanding is more for in case either of them gets dosed with sex pollen, but whatever. Johnson doesn't know that.

"Lewis does have an amazing set of tits," Johnson allows. Cash nods. Lewis's tits are definitely somewhere in Cash's top ten.

"Coulson's were nicer," Cash contributes.

"Yeah, well. He wouldn't even let us see 'em."

"Lewis has yet to convince Agent of the benefits of boosting employee morale," Cash explains, sighing.

"Still. Sucked."

"Yeah."

---

Johnson gets sent out to Casper to deal with jackalopes or something the next day, which leaves Cash with a dilemma and only one possible solution.

"Agent Lewis. Light of my life, beauteous lady of the paperwork, valkyrie of lightning and Winnebagos, wonderous maiden of the, um, third floor—" he begins, leaning over the wall of her cubicle.

"What do you want, Agent Tongue?" Lewis asks, eying him suspiciously.

"The Alexes are all out of town and they're obnoxious and insist I'm not allowed off-base on my own until I actually manage to do combat training," Cash explains. It's a stupid rule; he's an adult, he can totally take care of himself, as he's proven time and time again, but the Alexes are paranoid.

"What, seriously? Dude, that's ridiculous," Lewis tells him, because she understands this kind of stuff.

"Well, in their defense, last time I went into the city alone I kinda got stuck in the middle of a showdown between Electro and Spider-Man," Cash admits. "It was cool, except for how Electro totally fried my phone. So."

"Fair enough," Lewis agrees. "If I let you come home with me, though, I get to paint your nails whatever color I want."

"Yeah, okay," Cash says, because he's secure in his sexuality and whatever. Maybe if he does the girly-sleepover thing Lewis will let him see her tits again.

---

At the end of the day, they head down to R&D and double-team Foster, detaching her from her equipment and guiding her out the door with promises of tasty booze and spicy chili. "I met another Dr. Foster in Boulder," Cash says conversationally on their way to the apartment shared by the two women. "Sociologist with amazing legs."

Foster smiles and nods. "That's my Aunt Sandy. She always got me the best books for birthday presents when I was little."

"Oh," Cash says, because he honestly hadn't expected that. "Uh. You probably should forget I said anything, then. I think that was kind of classified?"

Lewis sighs and shakes her head. "Colligan. Jane is, like, level three or something. She can know about that stuff."

"Hey," he protests. "I'm level three, too."

"Yeah, but only because of the thing with the canteen budget," Lewis says, because she has sneaky ways and totally spies on Coulson sometimes, or at least gets Carl to do it, since Carl has apparently decided to add Lewis to his list of humans he'll talk to. No one can ever find out that Cash doesn't have a monopoly on Carl anymore. Cash's level three clearance would be revoked so fast he'd be left with burn marks, canteen budget or no.

Lewis and Foster have a sweet little place far enough from headquarters to not feel like SHIELD's breathing down their necks and in a much nicer part of town than Cash and the Alexes live. Probably has something to do with the fact that Foster is scary-smart and has a totally badass extraterrestrial boyfriend that no one wants to piss off. Considering the way Director Fury seems to think that Cash is a disaster waiting to happen, Cash is probably violating all kinds of obnoxious rules just by walking through the front door, but whatever. Like Cash cares what Fury thinks.

After Foster is all tucked up in an armchair with an cup of apple juice and a tablet set to show stupid cat videos on one half while leaving the other half free for, quote, science, unquote, it's chili time. Apparently Lewis and Foster both developed a taste for spicy things when they were stuck in Bumfuck, New Mexico, and Cash is more than okay with trading his mom's spicy chili recipe for a couch to crash on tonight.

Apparently even cat videos can distract geniuses only so much, since it isn't long before Foster is wandering into the kitchen, wanting to help. Lewis sets her to chopping, and it's actually pretty relaxing and quiet, hanging out with people outside work and not having to deal with the Alexes and their craziness. Cash loves the Alexes, honestly he does, he just gets a bit tired of always being the third—fourth?—wheel with them around. It also doesn't hurt that Dr. Foster kind of understands Cash's fixation with slapdash engineering.

"You request, like, half as much stuff as the other R&D types do," Cash tells her admiringly. "They keep wanting new, specialized equipment. I don't think any of them have ever had to try and do their work on a limited budget before. Lewis says you built a radio telescope out of a couple pie pans and some tinsel once. You're kinda my hero," he admits sheepishly.

"I thought you were in Accounting?" Foster says.

"Agent Tongue's life goal is to build a giant robot," Lewis says, swinging the pot from the stove to the sink.

"I started as a Computer Science major with a minor in Engineering," Cash explains, "but they kicked me out of the department after I unionized the campus microwaves. Everyone was pissed that they couldn't make their popcorn, I guess."

Lewis frowns. "Microwaves can unionize?"

"If you outfit them with AIs, they can," Cash says, resisting the urge to make shifty eyes. He has no reason to be ashamed of the microwave thing. It was awesome, it's not his fault the CompSci idiots couldn't recognize his brilliance. "The microwaves were demanding they get cleaned more than twice a year."

"Oh. Well, that sounds fair," Foster says.

"Exactly! I don't know why anyone had a problem with it."

---

Later, full of chili and feeling satisfied, Cash is lying on the living room floor and trying to justify his love of disaster movies to Dr. Foster while Lewis paints his toenails something called Hot Tamale Red. She's promised to add iridescent gold with sparkles for the whole Iron Man look if he stays still for her and Cash is a sucker for sparkly stuff. All three of them have changed to their pjs, with Cash stripping down to his undershirt and borrowing a pair of sleep pants off Lewis. He figures he spent a significant enough chunk of high school and college in skinny girl jeans that this isn't all that different.

"No, really. They perform an important public service, educating people," Cash explains, waving a hand at the TV, where John Cusack is being pursued by the San Andreas Fault.

"They use bad science," Foster insists. "This movie claims that solar flares could liquify the Earth's core, completely ignoring the fact that the outer core of the Earth is already liquid."

"Yeah, but the basic message of 'always listen to the scientist' still gets across," Cash insists. "Thanks to Volcano, I now know that as long as I believe and back whatever the geologist says, I stand an excellent chance of surviving a cataclysmic geologic event."

"But it's all heavily dramatized! Real life isn't anything like—" Foster is interrupted by an ominous roll of thunder loud enough to shake the building, and she perks up, making an excited squeaking noise as she jumps to her feet and hurries to the door.

"And we just lost Jane for the evening," Lewis says, not even bothering to glance up as the door bangs open and Foster's squeaks get lost to what can only be a very loud, very messy make-out session.

"I don't want to tilt my head back to see what's happening, do I?" Cash says, a bit put out that he's the only one appreciating what surely has to be the greatest chase scene of recent cinematic history.

"Depends," Lewis drawls. "Jane and Thor are both pretty attractive people, so. Might be your thing."

Of course, by the time Cash cranes his head around to check it out, Thor's let Foster go and is glancing around, a frown marring his perfect features. "There is a foul miasma about this place," Thor rumbles ominously.

"Not true," Cash says. "We all did the Beano thing before anyone ate any chili. Whatever miasma shit is going on here, it ain't us."

"He who smelt it, dealt it," Lewis agrees sagely. Cash flashes her a grin and they exchange high-fives.

"Thor," Dr. Foster says, nuzzling up to Thor's chest, "this is Agent Colligan."

"Yo," Cash says, waving a hand. "Hi. I'd say you're my favorite Avenger, but Black Widow and Spider-Man exist, so. You'll have to settle for number three."

"Spider-Man's not an Avenger," Lewis says, because she just doesn't get this stuff.

"Not true. He totally helps them out sometimes, so that means he counts. Secret identities are awesome, Lewis, don't even pretend they aren't."

"Yeah, but—"

"Jane," Thor rumbles, voice cutting through their bickering, "friend Darcy. This man has brought great evil into your dwelling."

"Oh, hey, no," Cash says, struggling to sit up. "Just because DeLeon and Assistant Director Hill say I'm gonna be the downfall of mankind does not make it true, I swear. How many times do I have to explain this to people? It's getting kind of old."

Across the room, Thor has shoved Dr. Foster behind him and is holding a huge-ass hammer in his hand, looking deadly serious about this, so. Probably not one of DeLeon's stupid pranks gone awry.

"Well, shit," Cash sighs, because really? How did he not expect something like this to happen? His life, seriously. "And here I just had my nails done."

---

Cash is hit by dry air and an intense odor of antiseptics that can only mean he's in SHIELD Medical. Or maybe a hospital, but considering that the last thing Cash remembers is Thor bearing down on him looking all big and godly and swinging his huge-ass hammer, Cash is guessing that he's probably in Medical since, if nothing else, he's still alive.

He feels sore all over, but nothing seems to be broken. His right arm is cold and stiff, but when he tries to pull it close so he can warm it up under the blanket, Cash finds he can't. He can wiggle his fingers, but it seems like the arm itself is strapped down, which is kind of odd, since the rest of him doesn't appear to be restrained.

Cracking an eye open, Cash almost immediately closes it again against the bright light above. "Sorry, sorry," someone says, and the light beyond his eyelids dims to an acceptable level. This time when Cash blinks his eyes open he can see Dr. Way hovering over him, a penlight—now off, thank god—in his hand.

"Hi," Way says, sounding entirely too cheerful for one of the psychos that inhabit Medical. "It's good you're finally awake. We were kind of afraid that wasn't going to happen. I mean, I was afraid, and Agent Coulson seemed to think it was a real possibility, but Bob said there was no fucking way you'd let something as minor as a pseudo-lightning god bring you down, and I guess he was right."

"Go 'way," Cash groans, scrabbling for the pillow under his head with his free hand. Maybe if he's lucky, he'll be coordinated enough to pull it over his face and make Way disappear from existence. Out of sight, out of mind is a totally legitimate coping mechanism, after all.

"Oh, hey. You kinda shouldn't move at all for now, because then Security might take it as a threat and insist on tying you up, and you probably wouldn't like that," Way advises, which goes to show how little Way knows about Cash. Probably a good thing, actually. There are some secrets that Cash really hopes SHIELD never learns, because oh god. He does not need Coulson to start silently judging Cash's nonexistent sex life.

"What's up with my arm?" Cash asks, craning his neck over in an effort to see his right arm. Not only is it strapped down, it's got a huge box over the top of it, looking freaky and suitably futuristic for something out of SHIELD Medical.

"No idea," Dr. Way says, smiling at him. "It's beyond my clearance level. I'm just here to make sure you pull through after the pounding Thor gave you. And because Bob was about to shit his pants if someone didn't tell him how you were doing, since you're pretty much under quarantine right now."

This is the second time Way's made some reference to Bob giving a crap about what happens to Cash, which is pretty fucking weird and totally out of character for Agent Bob 'I eat babies for breakfast' Bryar. The best thing for Cash to do right now is completely forget about that, though, because otherwise he's going to overthink it and let it drive him crazy. Yes.

Needless to say, now that Cash has decided to make a conscious effort to avoid worrying over that particular bit of information, he knows he's going to stress over it like nobody's business because why the hell would Bob do that? Cash is so confused.

"Anyway," Dr. Way continues, "Agent Coulson or someone will likely want to interrogate you now that you're awake, so I should probably be going." He bobs his head reassuringly at Cash and backs away from the bed, heading for the door of the too-sterile room.

"Wait," Cash says, struggling to sit up before he recalls Way's earlier advice and flops back down on the bed. "Way, what's your security level?" Cash asks, because he has a very bad feeling about all of this.

"Me? Five," Way says. "I see all kinds of stuff come through here and have to be told a fair amount about it in order to treat things correctly, so."

Shit. Five is two levels above Cash's three and yet Way still doesn't know what's going on. There is no possible way this can end well for Cash.

---

It goes without saying that Cash is out of bed and in the process trying to figure out how to get his arm free when Agent Coulson walks through the door. Cash may be a lowly accountant who has yet to do more than glance through the SHIELD handbook, but even he knows that agents who get mixed up in top secret shenanigans have a limited life expectancy no matter how pure their intentions. Director Fury takes SHIELD's ten levels of security very seriously and pretty much the only people Cash has ever heard of getting away with knowing more than they should when it comes to levels seven and up are part of the Avengers Initiative.

"If you get back into bed right now, Agent, I might be convinced to overlook this," Coulson says. He's smiling his incredibly creepy little smile, the one that spells death, doom, and destruction. There are rumors around SHIELD that Coulson once killed an agent over failure to submit paperwork in a timely manner.

Cash climbs back into bed, making sure to keep his eyes on Coulson the whole time.

"So, uh. Am I allowed to know what's going on?" Cash asks, fully expecting to be told he's not. "I know this is, like, way above my pay-grade, sir," he trundles on, "but the last thing I remember is Thor trying to kill me because I'm apparently the antichrist or something, and now my arm's in solitary for some reason, and, y'know. It's my body? I'd like to know what's up?"

Agent Coulson takes in Cash's babbling with his usual serene face, the one that everyone else finds reassuring but Cash can only describe as fucking terrifying. "It would seem, Agent Colligan, that Thor has discovered the cause behind your streak of bad luck," Coulson says finally.

Cash is a little slow sometimes, sure, but he's not stupid. He is, in fact, the king of leaping to conclusions, so he totally knows where this is going. Totally. "Oh my fucking god, DeLeon was actually right for once," Cash says, his head thumping back against the pillow. "My creepy tattoo is cursed, isn't it? It's a magnet for kooky dangerous shit and now SHIELD thinks I'm a plant and Sitwell's gonna have a field day with this, he was so sure I was working for HYDRA, but a magical mole has got to be way better than that." Cash's life, seriously.

Coulson sits in the chair next to the bed and steeples his fingers, leaning forward. "Is that what it is?" he asks, raising an eyebrow. "Are you a mole? A ticking time bomb?"

"What? No, of course not, sir," Cash splutters, because the very idea is just ridiculous. "It's just a stupid tattoo I had inked when I was nineteen and making incredibly poor life choices. You can ask Agent Lewis or the Alexes about it if you want to know, sir, they were all there when I got it."

"Mmm, yes," Coulson says, "Agents Johnson and Lewis have already said as much." Cash nods, feeling pleased.

"However," continues Coulson, "Agent Johnson also mentioned that you have recently been planning to have the design removed. That its deleterious nature should come to light now does seem rather... convenient in absolving you of having a hand in an attack on SHIELD."

"No, no, I just got sick of it, that's all. I mean, it's kinda eldritch and creepy and I've only kept it for so long because it freaks DeLeon the fuck out, I swear, sir," Cash says, panicking slightly because he can see where Coulson's coming from, it really does look bad that he was asking around about getting rid of his magic booby trap right around the time that it might get discovered.

"Your rivalry with Agent DeLeon appears to have caused some difficulties in the past," Coulson says, picking up a folder from his lap and flipping it open to glance inside. "The incident with the pretzels comes to mind, for instance. It seems highly unlikely that you would willingly give up something that might give you an edge in this matter."

"...Agent Bryar said it was crap, sir," Cash finally admits, glancing away and refusing to meet Coulson's eyes. "And, well. It doesn't seem that important to hold onto it anymore."

"Ah," Coulson says, nodding knowingly, which is creepy and disconcerting and he seriously needs to stop that right now. "I see. Well, Agent Colligan, nice as it is to test SHIELD's emergency response protocols, the director has requested that we stop straining the budget with stampedes and unseasonable showers of fish."

"Oh, hey," Cash protests, "I wasn't even on base for the fish. That was a genuine freak of nature occurrence, sir."

"Hm," says Coulson, scribbling something in his folder.

---

"I get a bionic arm if you have to cut this one off, right?" Cash asks the man puttering around, poking at the big, very interesting-looking machines that fill most of the room. The guy was introduced to him as Dr. Way, because that's not confusing at all, though apparently this Dr. Way is a science-type doctor instead of a medicine-type one.

Way peers at Cash over his glasses. "Do you need a bionic arm?"

"Fuck yeah. I don't know what Coulson told you, but I'm, like, super-important around here. Gotta have both hands or I can't do my job properly," Cash explains, because it's fucking hard to touch-type one-handed, not that he's going to say that, since whenever he says that people (DeLeon) always jump to the wrong conclusions.

Either way, having only one hand would cut Cash's productivity in half and he'd never be able to keep up with the workload, even with Carl's help. So he'll need a cybernetic arm if he loses the real one. Yes. Pure logic, really.

"I dunno. I mean, I think that kinda tech is reserved for specialists," Dr. Way says. "Though it might be kinda cool if you got one. Like Cyborg. But fucking phantom limb syndrome, man."

"I'm totally a specialist," Cash insists, because he is, he explained this to Bob ages ago. "And maybe if it's, like, hooked into my nervous system, my body'll think it's my actual arm and there won't be any of that phantom limb shit." The more he thinks about it, the more the idea appeals to him. If Cash had a robotic prosthetic, he could totally have fingers that shoot lasers. Or a built-in oven for making toaster strudel. Hell yeah, that would be fucking awesome.

"You're an accountant," Way says. "Bob said. That's not a specialist. There used to be an entire department of you guys running around, before the thing with the thing."

Argh, fucking Bob, ruining Cash's plans for delicious junky breakfast snackfoods. "What thing with a thing?" Cash asks, because he's still trying to find out what happened to the SHIELD accountants that preceded him. It seems to Cash like it could be information relevant to his continued survival.

Way just blinks at him and says, "We shouldn't have to cut off your arm. It should work to just remove the tattoo, as long as we do it in a huge-ass Faraday cage to negate the magic shit."

It's not surprising that Way refuses to tell Cash about Accounting, since it's probably way beyond Cash's pay-grade, but it's damned annoying. "A Faraday cage? Really? That'll work?" he asks instead, because it seems a bit too easy.

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," Way solemnly tells him. "Or some shit like that. It's the rainbow bridge-wormhole parallel thing. And Jane says that Thor says it should work, since the whole curse thing was likely an accident in the first place."

"Oh. Well. If Dr. Foster says." Lewis trusts Foster and Cash trusts Lewis.

"Also, Bob said he'd kill me and if I fucked you up," Way adds.

Woah. "What, really?"

"Well, technically he grunted and glared, but it was implied," Way allows.

"Gotcha," Cash says, relaxing. If Agent Bob trusts this guy, Cash is probably in okay hands.

He's still a little bummed about the toaster strudel, though.

---

Truthfully, Cash fully expects the laser to go rogue and start cutting through walls and shit, Faraday cage or no. He's had his shitty tattoo for nearly six years now, he's used to crazy stuff happening and fucking up his plans. Plus, if this were a movie, no way would they get away with not following up a denouement like that with a fuckload of special effects.

Nothing happens. Not even a fucking fire-safety drill.

Damn. Maybe Foster's onto something and Cash should stop trying to base his life choices on cinematic tropes.

He's still planning to befriend as many geologists as possible, though. Better safe than sorry.

---

By the time DeLeon and Marshall return from Malaysia or Burma or wherever they were, Cash is back at his desk, plugging in numbers. Granted, he's only been there for a few minutes, and he's mostly just running a quick double-check on Carl's work before heading home with Johnson for the night, but yeah.

"Cashmoney," DeLeon says, holding up a fist, "congratulations."

Cash tentatively bumps his fist to DeLeon's. Tentatively because he has no idea what he's being congratulated for, but also because this is DeLeon and it never hurts to be cautious. "Okay? Um. What for?"

"Bagging Agent Bryar, man. That is, like, wow. Wow. I did not know you even had it in you. Very impressive," DeLeon says, head bobbing. "Also, y'know, the whole taking on Thor to defend Lewis's sexy honor."

"That's not," Cash starts to say, but then he remembers that the whole cursed-tattoo thing apparently counted as level six or something crazy, so he probably shouldn't correct DeLeon. "Don't tell Lewis that," he says instead, "she'll tase you for implying she can't look after her own honor. Also, despite what everyone around here seems to think, Agent Bob and I aren't a thing. At all," Cash adds, because it's getting to the point where it's more depressing than annoying that people seem to think Bob's into him when he's really, really not.

"C'mon," Marshall sighs, grabbing DeLeon's collar and tugging, "let's go find Johnson and head home. You," he says to Cash, fixing him with a look, "wait at least an hour before leaving here. Please."

"Yeah, okay," Cash says, because he is the best roommate ever. Though. "You better fucking sterilize the counters when you're done this time, DeLeon," he calls after them. "People fix food on those, it's disgusting."

"Love you too, Colligan," comes back as Marshall drags DeLeon out of the room. Cash flips the bird at them on general principle. Ugh, Alex sex. Cash feels gross just thinking about it.

"Hey," says someone and Cash totally does not fall backwards out of his chair in surprise, because he's a badass secret agent.

When Cash cranes his neck around, Bob is standing behind him, looking decidedly more lucid than he did last time Cash saw him. Bob's still got both arms wrapped in bandages and is having to support himself on a pair of crutches because one leg's in a cast, but he's otherwise in one piece, which is good. "Um. Hi. Good to see you up and about?" Cash says, because he is the king of smooth.

"Pulled a runner on Medical," Bob says, shrugging it off like it's nothing to escape SHIELD Medical with a broken leg. This is Bob, though, so for him it probably isn't. "Mikey said you got rid of your shitty tattoo."

"Apparently it was cursed, or something? Man, I don't even know. This stuff always happens to me," Cash sighs. "Only not anymore, I guess? Because no more cursed tattoo." He figures he owes it to tell Bob that much, security clearance or no; Bob's literally gotten burned twice now because of Cash's shitty tattoo, it's only fair.

Bob nods, apparently ready to accept whatever explanation Cash will give him, which is what's nice about Bob. He doesn't automatically assume Cash is crazy the way some people do. "Awesome. Hey, so, you can drive stick, right?"

"Sure," Cash says, a little thrown by the sudden change in subject. "My dad taught me on our old pickup."

"Great. C'mon then, I'm parked in the back lot," Bob says, already moving away from Cash's desk.

"Wait, what?" Cash asks, but he's shutting down his computer and grabbing his jacket, because apparently he's willing to follow Bob at the drop of a hat.

"Can't work the clutch with this leg," Bob says. "Gotta get outta here now or else they'll drag me back to Medical. C'mon, I think I've got a full case of beer back at my place. You can stay the night."

"I don't know," Cash says, because he's tired of everyone's knowing looks. "I'm already sort of in trouble because of the whole tattoo thing, y'know? And all your buddies seem to think you're into me; this is just going to make it worse."

"I've got frozen pizzas too," Bob says, raising an eyebrow. "And a cowboy hat."

"Oh, hell yes," Cash says, because frozen pizzas, man. "Have you got the boots, too?"

"No, but I might be convinced to buy some."

"Good enough for me," Cash decides, grabbing Bob's keys and following him out the door.

Fuck, yes. Cash's life.