Free Fall

March 22, 2017:

Phil Coulson puts Isa Reichert at the helm of a highly experimental Quinjet. They share a long conversation over the skies of New York City.

The skies above NYC.

We love to fly, and it shows.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Melinda May, Nick Fury, Superman

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Isa Reichart receives a message.

"Meet me on the tarmac. -Phil Coulson."

All very understated. It had contained a time, but the date was apparently 'today.'

At the appointed time, the man himself stands with his hands behind his back, wearing sunglasses against the glare of the early spring afternoon. Nothing about him says he's a man with any authority. He looks bureaucratic and unimpressive as he stands there, immenently forgettable and easily overshadowed by other, more colorful personalities. Yet anyone can point him out to her; everyone knows exactly who he is.

He stands before a jet she hasn't even seen before. It looks like a sleeker, sharper version of the Quinjet, all angles and lines where the Quinjet is round. He's studying it thoughtfully, not even looking to see if she'll arrive, perhaps unconcerned simply because he assumes with every fiber of his being that she will.

It had taken several long moments of staring at her smartphone to understand what the message written on it meant, and who it had been received from. After a few seconds of blank staring, she had shrugged, pocketed her phone, and turned away from her route to the grocery store, filing for the nearest subway station that would get her across town faster.

So it is that one of the newer recruits comes stalking across the airfield in a lanky, loose-limbed gait that seems better suited to somebody about four to six inches taller. She's only five foot seven, built in the way of someone who works out regularly. Her attire is simple; a white tee-shirt belted into dark blue jeans, scuffed combat boots, and an old Soviet leather bomber jacket thrown over that, with faded service patches and a blank spot where a name might be embroidered.

Approaching from Coulson's right, she looks like a pretty woman; someone who could still turn heads if she really wanted to. Her features are strong and angular without being too much so, almost hinting at Oriental blood somewhere in her ancestry – strong cheekbones, and distinctly almond-shaped eyes, though her complexion is all wrong. Her eyes are the crisp blue of a winter afternoon's sky, deep but also somehow brittle.

That illusion of 'pretty, slightly timeworn woman' fades the instant she turns to face Coulson. The blank white of heavy burn scarring ravages the entirety of the right side of her face. A dove-grey patch rests where her right eye should be. The entire right side of her face is immobile, locked in a stone-faced expression of neutrality.

She's a ways off, still, and asks someone on the tarmac about where to find Coulson. Someone helpfully points to where Phil stands with his hands dfolded behind his back. Isa follows that pointing arm, her lone eyebrow quirking in bafflement. Even from so far away, the translation is clear – 'that guy?'

Her hands are in her pockets, and she slows to a halt a comfortable distance from Coulson, which means she's about five feet away. She straightens just a hair, abruptly standing in military posture, slipping her hands to fold them behind her back at-attention.

That blue eye still watches Coulson, though… and she's looking past him, at the hardware; as she does, something seems to flicker to life in the depths of that eye – where there had been a guarded wariness before, and a certain emptiness, the sight of those wings seems to bring her alive gain. It's like spring coming over the city.

He doesn't turn around. She slackens her posture somewhat, and then steps up closer to stand beside him, eyeing the jet with a scowl – although it seems less an expression of malice and more a natural set of her face, with the damage done to it.

Isa glances over, single eye hooded as she studies the man.

"You are Phil Coulson?" Her voice is low, for a woman's, and grizzled enough to suggest two or so decades of heavy drinking and heavier smoking. It's heavily accented in Russian. She dips her chin in a nod, though her regard snaps back to Phil, wary once more. "Isa Reichert. Am here, as requested. What is this about?"

Part of her, it seems, is really hoping he'll tell her about that gorgeous thing sitting on the tarmac. It's pretty obvious, too, because her eye keeps wandering back to the Not-Quinjet.

Phil Coulson takes the appearance of this woman entirely in stride, as well as her grizzled greeting. "I am," he says, turning to face her with the slightest of smiles. Even a hint of a smile on his face transforms it from something imminently forgettable into something else again; warm and impish, wise and irreverent all at once.

"And what this is about is this jet, something our techs have put together that is so gosh darn bleeding edge we don't even have a name for it yet. It's supposed to be twice as fast and a great deal more agile, all while supporting better weapons and armor. They told me all sorts of really cool statistics about it but I honestly forgot every single one of them. Lots of words I didn't really know the meaning to."

He passes over a folder with all the specs, slim and black with the SHIELD logo inscribed boldly on the front, and gets to what he figures is the more important part of what he has to say: "Nobody's taken her up before."

He starts walking for the ramp that will take them into the plane, adding, "I never did learn how to fly, but I'm going to sit up front like a dork and pretend I'm your co-pilot while you put her through its paces. Sound good?"

He apparently is 150% sure that it will sound good, because he's already disappearing inside, hands in his pockets, looking for all the world like someone who ought to be doing someone's taxes instead of strolling into multi-billion-dollar planes.

The unscarred half of Isa's mouth twitches, but whether meant as a smile or a scowl, it's hard to say. Her face is just inflexible enough to make her expressions different from those of ordinary people. She seems to be the type to wear her scars and her gruff attitude like a suit of armour.

"You call me out here to show me jet—" Isa growls and flicks her right hand, which carries the same mottled scarring as the right side of her face, "—and you can't even remember anything about jet? What is point of coming across town? Could have finished picking up grocer—"

There is rather abruptly a folder passed into her hands, with the sigil of SHIELD emblazoned on it, and her single eye widens, looking down. No sooner has she recognised what it is than she's hastily flipping it open, skimming over its contents like her life depends on it. The pilot might not have heard anything he said after that.

Consequently, she might not have heard the part where he said nobody else had ever flown her before. By the time she realises there were words, Coulson is gone, already climbing up into the forward part of the cockpit. Isa blinks once or twice, owlishly, looking around to confirm that he's not still on the tarmac.

Isa has to jog to catch up, heavy combat boots clunking on the deck, looking at everything as she makes her way in. It's familiar in the way the basic quinjet plan is, but this is somehow sleeker and more… predatory. It reminds her of the things she used to fly when she still wore her country's rank insignia; when she would touch down and greet a throng of the press and the aircraft's designers after a solitary death-dance through the clouds—

Coulson might have to wait a minute for Isa to pull herself out of reverie and memory, coughing as she swings herself around and into the cockpit.

A glare is given to him, but it seems more wary than actually angry.

"You sure…?" There's a short pause, and she studies him almost in concern. She seems to consider for a moment, shaking her head, before looking to Coulson again. She's still wearing Russian military dogtags around her neck. They clink quietly as she shakes her head. "Why me…?"

Coulson is busy adjusting a headset and getting comfortable in the #2 chair when she finally comes in and demands to know why her. That slight little smile deepens the lines on his face once more. It's got a Cheshire Cat quality to it, that smile, though it also has a fatherly quality to it. He buckles in and says, "Wow, the seats are like 200% more comfortable too. Kudos to the designers on this one." As if this. This is the most important part of the entire thing.

He sinks back into them and says, "Wow, maybe a little too comfortable. We don't want people falling asleep while they fly this thing."

And then he circles back around to why. "May says you're good at your craft. If May is even acknowledging your skill then you are exceptional. You don't hand an intricately crafted precision tool like this to just any pilot. You hand it to a master pilot. Besides. She also said you saluted her. I'm hoping if I get on your good side I won't have to be on the receiving end of any of that. I mean it's good when orders are followed, but really it would just make me feel a little goofy. Like I'm still 10 and playing with my Army men."

His tone is easy-going and soft-spoken, never really crossing the threshold into anything serious, for all that there are serious things buried deep in his eyes, well-hidden but present if one knows what to look for. He settles his hands easily on the arm-rests and says, "So. In the hands of a Master we'll see what this thing can really do…I like knowing what the things I might have to deploy can really do. In a real way. Not in a numbers way. And if you get us both killed, I won't be around to listen to everyone talk about my unfortunate lack of judgment. It's one of those sorts of Win-Win scenarios I really love!"

The only thing Isa has to comment on about the seats is an extremely distracted-sounding 'uh huh.' She's busily inspecting the control panels with the wide-eyed rapture of a kid in a candy store, running her fingers over the assorted levers, clutches, buttons, toggles, and the sleek, brand new control yoke. It still has that brand new jet smell, alloys fresh-milled and upholstery freshly installed.

She even takes a second to inhale, deeply, while Coulson blathers about the seats.

"Only amateur fall asleep in seat while flying," she states, almost reflexively. Her eye turns forward again, investigating the HUD with interest. "Would not fall asleep." Isa herself wouldn't fall asleep while flying, that is. The pilot has a bizarre way of speaking, omitting both implicit subjects and certain grammatical features, as well as occasionally mangling tenses.

She's paying closer attention than it looks like, though; her single eye snaps over to him when he circles back around to why she was chosen. Her half-scarred mouth compresses into a thin line, as though she were genuinely considering the reasons given to her.

"Nyet. No," she corrects herself, in English. "Do not hand machine like this to just anyone. Is why I ask."

Saluting. She snorts, looking away. "Because she is my superior. Am guessing this means you are, too. Am not sure where you stand in SHIELD. Is not like Air Force." Slowly, she looks down to the controls again, running her thumb over the ignition sequence, as though weighing the temptation against the possibility that this may still be some kind of trap. Trust apparently doesn't come easily to this woman.

"Will not salute if that is not what you want. SHIELD does… not work same way, not as where I come from." She casts him another measured look, almost wary. "Will take your word, for now."

Her scarred forefinger hovers over the ignition sequence.

"Restraint buckled?" In other words, are you ready? Because she's going to take this thing up, and take it up fast. It would be unfortunate if she accidentally concussed a direct superior. Also, it would be pretty much her luck anyway. "Am going up fast," she adds, unnecessarily. "Will wait until you are ready."

There's a short pause, and she makes a thoughtful sound in the back of her throat, glancing back to the mild-mannered not-an-accountant.

"You speak Russian, any…?"

He simply smiles a second time when she asks if he's her superior, and nods once, not bothering to elaborate any more than that. "Not like the Air Force, no."

Like anyone privileged to watch a Master in action, he is paying close attention to the way she handles the pre-flight checks, the way she gets to know the machine she's been handed. He seems to approve, though he doesn't bother saying anything about it.

In Russian, Coulson says, "I speak it fluently, and am happy to chat in your home tongue. Buckled and ready, take her away." And he is. His grammar is picture perfect, unlike many Americans who attempt the language. However, he has not conquered the American tendency to allow his intonation to move up and down, nor has he conquered using the softer sounds. It makes his Russian slightly sing-song, a little bit like it's being spoken by the the 10-year old kid he just referenced. He'd never pass for a native, not really, with that intonation, but…he's not hard to understand, either.

He continues to speak in her native tongue as he adds: "And you are welcome to do anything you have fuel for. Just don't blow anything up. I'm told the weapons are live, but we don't have any dummy targets for you to play with today I'm afraid. So! Even though it is not the Air Force, how are you settling in? Are you content here at SHIELD? Pleased with your decision to join us?"

He pauses, then adds, "If your impulse is to stoically tell me it's fine even if it isn't, just remember…I'm a spy. I'll totally know."

Isa arches a brow, very slightly, when it's clear that Phil From Accounting understands her native tongue. Not just that he understands it, but speaks it with enough fluency to satisfy her standards.

By the way she stares flatly at Coulson, it's pretty obvious that she wasn't actually expecting a positive answer.

The pilot finally blinks once or twice, accepting this with a faint shake of the head.

This country is weird.

The people in it are even weirder.

With a dry sound in the back of her throat that might be half a dozen different things, most of which boil down to bemusement, Isa fastens her own restraints, checks them twice, and then returns to her pre-flight check of the Not-Quinjet's systems. By the way she casts a critical eye to the machine, she's perfectly aware of what she's doing. This is no novice to aircraft.

"<I wasn't expecting that.>" Isa's statement is delivered in Russian. Her dialect and intonation place her to somewhere in Moscow, rather than the surrounding countryside. "<It looks like you're full of surprises, Agent Coulson. You wouldn't fool me for a native speaker, but you're better than most Americans I've heard. The tendency to butcher the language borders on abhorrent.>"

Finally, she reaches up and keys in the initiation sequence. The quinjet's engines leap at the command, thundering to life under her critical eye. She takes a moment to… do nothing, apparently, half-closing her eye. Did she just zone out like she said she wasn't going to do? No, she's listening, and very carefully, head cocking like a dog that just heard a distant sound.

Apparently satisfied, she pulls up on the yoke, and the aircraft responds, with enough butter-smoothness in its controls that she actually lets out a pleased little sigh. It seems like there's still some kind of life left in this scarred wreckage, and it lives to be in the air.

Up the quinjet hovers, before she levels off at a safe distance over the city, setting a steady course to tour Manhattan from above. She's playing it safe, apparently, while she gets a feel for the control and response. Or maybe she just doesn't want to freak Coulson out too badly just yet.

"<Then I'll put her through her paces… sir,>" she adds, with a bland little look at Coulson that suggests it might just be a joke. "<No. I wouldn't touch the weapons. Not outside of an established weapons exercise. I trust they're there. More than the average quinjet, if I'm reading my mechanics right. I'd say… more forward armament, and better armouring. She feels a little heavier, but she has more thrust.>" Isa frowns, looking up through her long red hair; studying the lines of the cockpit in a brief glance. Her eye flicks forward again. "<A lot more thrust. I would guess moderate reinforcement of the cockpit, as well. Nothing too heavy, or she'd be unbalanced…>"

Most of her musings seem half to herself, and his question pulls her out of it. She studies him for about half a second, which is all she can spare for a significant look. Her gaze soon returns to the forward canopy and instruments.

"<It's not the Air Force, but that isn't such a bad thing.>" She speaks slowly, as though she were uncertain, or choosing her words with care. As she does, she guides the quinjet into a gentle banking turn, affording an excellent view of the island below. "<It is not so formal, and many things are unfamiliar to me. This country is confusing and its people are even more so. There is room to breathe, even in this city, with so many more people than Moscow…>"

There's a tightness around her eyes. "<How much of my information have you read, Agent Coulson?>"

She tells him he wouldn't pass for a native speaker; the laugh-lines around his eyes crinkle marginally. "<Probably the reason why I'm usually told to stand over there and look pretty when we have to pretend to be Russian,>" Phil remarks. He says this like it has happened more than once.

As she listens, he shuts up, letting her. He understands the concept of what she's doing, even though he can't hear anything in particular. It just sounds like a plane to him. But this is the kind of thing one does, when one is a master of her craft. He is relaxed as she gets it into the air, watching them gain height through the expansive windows, enjoying the sight of the city from above. He's also content to listen to her read of the aircraft, saying, <"If you have suggestions for the engineers when it's done I'll make sure they hear and respond to them. Me, I love a model that's a little obsolete these days, but this may be one of those cases where the improvements actually do make things better.">

She asks how much he's read about her. <"This time I decided I'd get to know the person first and the file second. Dossiers have their place, but they create assumptions, depersonalize. For this exercise, May's assessment of your abilities was enough for me. Due dilligence demands that I read it eventually, of course, but…why take the human element out of the process if I don't strictly have to?">

He had absorbed every last word as she talked about her culture shock, noting it but not offering any kind of verbal prescription for it. Instead, he simply chooses to transition to her question.

"<Sounds like something you fail at doing on a regular basis. I wasn't aware SHIELD worked so closely with Russia, but then again, I was never one to pay attention to the news very much.>" Isa doesn't shrug, but she does tip her head slightly, hair spilling in front of her face. She doesn't toss it aside. It's over her blind side, and doesn't interfere with what's left of her vision at all. "<I had my job to do, and so I did it.>"

The jet practically purrs as she guides it on another banking turn, but maybe that's just her own desire to purr, handling something that oozes performance and budget like this bird. Isa doesn't smile – that's something she seems to have forgotten how to do a long time ago. The stress lines in her face are a little more at ease, though.

"<I'll make sure to type a report for them. I have a few suggestions I can think of, but I can't think of anything serious. It looks like they've done what I would have had done.>" Without breaking conversation, she reaches up, flicking a few toggles out of that whole arcane array. A light touch on the yoke sends the quinjet into another turn, displaying New York City from a different angle. It's probably a slightly more extreme angle than her passenger might have expected, because at the same time, the quinjet is beginning to pick up speed with alarming… well… speed. Isa doesn't seem out of sorts at all about the velocity. Just another day at the office, right? "<It feels stripped down and aerodynamic like the standards aren't. The handling seems more responsive, too.>"

She shakes her head at his admission that he hasn't read her files, and her expression is just a little baffled. "<I see. I'm not sure I believe you, Agent Coulson, because a lot of people would have read that file if they had the opportunity. Especially in the circumstances under which I came to SHIELD. But let's not mince words, Agent Coulson. I wasn't joking when I said that SHIELD doesn't work like where I come from. If this were anywhere else, let alone the particular Air Force I came from, someone like me with enemy intelligence wouldn't be given a position. Their information would be taken, disseminated, and they would be watched very closely. But they would never be recruited.>"

"<This wasn't a recruitment. It wasn't a decision to join you. It was a calculated risk on my part, motivated by desperation.>" Her gaze remains forward, single eye steely. "<You'll read it sooner or later. I'd much rather you hear it from me, since you're only a step or two away from 'captive audience' anyway. The reports have this nasty habit of dehumanising their subjects, and also lying out both sides of their nonexistent mouths, too. That isn't even me those documents are describing.>"

She huffs a sigh of aggravation…

…and the quinjet neatly inverts itself, rolling on its axis as it tours over the city, almost languidly, but probably unexpected. Isa sends it into another roll, testing its agility and righting itself quickly. "<Let's see what she can do. Alright. Fine, then; I'll tell you my story while we fly. The way I see it, I don't have much more to lose from my life at this point. I was already expecting I'd be shot before I reached America.>"

There's a short pause.

"<Oh, God, I hope these controls are eventually made standard,>" she sighs, wistfully.

<"With. Against. It's a complicated dance in a brave new world, depending on who is touching things they shouldn't be touching and trying to use them to blow up other people for other purposes at the time."> Phil remarks, shrugging his shoulder. He's old enough to have been an agent through the whole Cold War period too, though, so there is that.

She displays the city from a remarkable number of angles; he can't help but lean over to look, at ease with the twists, turns, and maneuvers…even the most extreme angles. He did tell her to see what it could do. He doesn't look alarmed or ruffled. He looks like he could quite happily sip on a cup of tea during this entire affair.

He spares plenty of attention for her assessment, and says, <"You probably should start thinking about a name for her then."> He fully intends, it seems, to let her name it…and apparently has the authority to make that promise. Granted, on that count she might not care, he has no idea. But it's offered nevertheless.

She says she might not believe him. Coulson merely quirks an eyebrow, the laugh lines deepening. Not at all bothered by not being believed, not at all inclined to quibble the point, and quite a bit used to such reactions. But he listens and he listens well. Someone like her would never have been recruited, she says, and he says mildly, <"It is because our purpose is different. If you'd gone to the United States Armed Forces I imagine the response would have been what you expected. But you didn't. You came to us. An International organization dedicated to protecting all of humanity. With a job like that to do, neglecting talent would be almost criminal. Especially talent that wants to be here. You should talk to Natasha, when you get the chance, by the way.">

She tells him that the reports are inaccurate, that she'd rather him hear it from her, and he spreads his hands like 'see, this is why I didn't read them', as if she's perfectly made his point for him.

"Oh, we're upside down now," he says, accidentally in English but totally in delight. "Cool!"

But she's offering to tell her story as she sees it, and he shuts up with an apologetic half-smile. Only for her to really just geek over the controls, which make his eyes twinkle once again. <"You carry yourself like one who has lost much,"> he agrees. <"And loss is often a catalyst for drastic changes.">

"<True enough. Everything is a shade of grey, always.>" Isa rolls one shoulder very faintly in a fatalistic shrug. "<Even if they seem black and white. Especially, I think, when they most seem black and white.>"

She does flick a brief glance toward the agent, to see how he's handling those gravity changes. Better than she might have expected, but she should have suspected as much once he started speaking fluent Russian. He's full of surprises.

"<A name?>" She looks startled at that, visibly flinching. "<No. Not me. I'm just a pilot; I didn't design her.>"

The quinjet never falters, twisting into a turn as she pulls the flight stick back, ascending with dizzying speed toward the blue bowl of the sky. New York City shrinks beneath them, people soon vanishing from view, and even the cars resembling ants. The quinjet punches through a thin layer of cloud, executes a slow spin as she levels off, and plunges down with blistering speed.

Her face is hard, as though she were challenging gravity itself; even a death-drop like this is apparently nothing against her nerves. It's other things that set her off, like that funny feeling one gets when they're being watched, or a gun is levelled at them from the shadows. Just when it seems there won't be time to arrest that fall, the quinjet pulls up, to the delight of distant spectators – mostly tourists, because unless it's something to do with the superpowered, no resident of New York City looks up of their own accord.

"<Probably,>" she agrees. "<A private organisation is one thing. A formal military is another. Which is why I chose to approach SHIELD, and why I made a gamble on whether you would even accept me or not. But most people in their right minds, they will not hire a pilot with only one eye. That is like a pianist with only one hand, or only one ear… I had to bring collateral. That intelligence was my collateral.>"

She shakes her head, but she seems to decline comment on the idea of talking to Natasha. Maybe she doesn't recognise the name, and she's dismissing the idea as someone she doesn't feel like getting to know. Or, maybe she does recognise the name, and she's thinking that might not be such a good idea. It's hard to say. Between her seemingly naturally taciturn personality and the damage to her face, her emotions aren't always made clear.

"Da. Is not hard to fly upside-down, just make correction, like pitch," she answers in English, voice tense but expression easy as she guides the quinjet through its blistering dive. Just when it seems like she might leave a crater somewhere inside Central Park, the quinjet pulls up, thrusters screaming against gravity. People on the street look up and point even as she banks away, spinning from the near point of impact.

He switches back to Russian, though, which she breathes a silent 'thank God' to. Her gaze snaps back to the instruments, guiding the quinjet in another easy, upside-down turn over the city itself, affording a novel view of the twinkling lights. "<I'm sure you'll find that in the dossier, too.>" Isa's statement is resigned, and even quiet; pained. "<For the record, Agent Coulson, my husband wasn't killed because he was careless with his aircraft. He was killed because his flight crew was careless, and didn't check their aircraft thoroughly enough. My Misha… losing him was the beginning of the end.>"

She refuses to name the plane, and Phil holds up his hands with another mild smile. <"In that case, they'll probably just call it Quinjet Mark Whatever This Is."> He ponders thoughtfully. <"Though I might suggest the Screaming Cougar. This thing has a Screaming Cougar feel to it, don't you think?"> It's as if he decided to throw a bunch of things into a hat and pick out the absolute dorkiest combination he could find in that hat.

As she punches through cloud than plunges he shuts up again though; the last thing he wants to do is break her concentration at a vital moment. She hardly seems to need concentration, but…he is not a stupid man. He watches the earth whoosh towards him again, face as composed as a Zen monk's, turning his attention to her when she starts speaking again.

<"Beethoven did okay,"> he points out. <"And you're doing better than okay. But…people will assume, I agree.">

He listens with quiet, gentle gravity as she describes the loss of her husband, as she describes what really killed him. While many would say 'I'm sorry' at this point, Phil doesn't. He's just…incredibly present with her for just a second, for this moment of grief that he can hear still exists within her. He doesn't tune out when he goes silent. He rather tunes in, in a way that is imminently non-invasive. When an appropriate amount of time has passed he brings forth another offer. <"I am happy to have that file corrected for you, once I crack it open. To set the record straight.">

"<'Screaming Cougar?' Really?>" Isa squints at the agent with something caught between amusement and disgust. Ugh, what a dork this guy is, for all his mysterious benevolent act. "<Do you have any idea how stupid that sounds? Merciful God, I'd rather call it by its serial designation than that.>"

She's silent for the moment or two where someone else might have offered condolences, but she doesn't seem to mind. Or, it may be that she's silent for a moment because she needs to recover her composure. The bitterness and the grief, they simmer just beneath the surface, and it takes conscious effort not to do or say something angery. She is, for a brief second, wholly still in her moment of control.

"<But that is past history,>" she says, quietly. "<Thank you. I would appreciate that, Agent Coulson. But stopping here, that would not be truthful. My parents were killed in a car accident in Moscow a week after that.>" Isa's tone is leaden, even as she focuses on guiding the jet through another series of manoeuvres above the city. "<That was when I started drinking.>"

"<Oh, I could still fly. I did not drink so much as that, yet. But the accident… it seems my family is cursed by shoddy machinery. My jet failed two weeks after my parents were taken from me. The ejection seat locked. The port engine ruptured and something sparked in the cockpit. That's how this happened.>" One hand balances the quinjet's yoke, while the other flicks briefly to indicate the scarring. "<I had to ride it down, and pray I could land without rupturing the fuselage or skipping the landing gear. I did it, somehow. But I was unconscious when the rescue crews tracked my aircraft. They told me later they pulled me out of the wreckage; and put me in the state hospital.>"

"<I think I spent a lot of that time unconscious. It felt like a third of my body was gone, and I don't remember much of it. They said I'd never fly again. But after I was out… I taught myself. I made myself. God had taken everything from me, but I wouldn't let him take this.>" As she says that, the quinjet rolls again, more quickly, heaven and earth spinning together overhead. It doesn't seem to phase her in the least. "<I taught myself to fly again. I was the jewel of the Russian Air Force's public relations, when they praised the newest innovations in hardware; when I was still the one to test them. But even after all that, even teaching myself to fly again, that wasn't enough for them.>"

"<So… I needed collateral, when I came to SHIELD. Agent Coulson, I want to fly. I must fly. If I do not fly, I am no more than a dead person. It is all I have left to me. I am not proud of what I did. But I was frightened, Agent Coulson, more frightened even than the day I lost my Mikhail. I needed something. Anything. I did not understand why SHIELD trusted me, at first. Maybe I still do not. But I could not betray SHIELD like I did my country.>"

She makes fun of his choice of names, and produces only a soft chuckle with no further comment.

He nods when she says she wants him to correct the record; there's an air about him that indicates it will be done, as promised, perhaps as soon as they're back on the ground and he's back in his office. He's listening to her again, the gentle touch of compassion on his face. It's subtle; the little ways his eyes and mouth tighten, but it's there. He holds his silence as she speaks of the loss of her parents, of her drinking problem, and her own accident. And how she nevertheless managed to land the plane anyway – an incredible feat.

She speaks of refusing to bow, to break, to let God take away the last thing from her, of teaching herself to fly with one eye, of being refused by the Russians. And he, at last, speaks, ever so softly: <"Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break; Faith in their hands shall snap in two, And the unicorn evils run them through; Split all ends up they shan't crack."> Quoted poetry; And Death Shall Have No Dominion, Dylan Thomas.

She speaks of her absolute need to fly, and he pat pats the air. She's flying right now, after all. Still, he seems intent on making sure she knows that nobody at SHIELD is interested in taking this away from her, ever. <"You trusted SHIELD first,"> he points out. <"Sometimes that's all it takes. I'm sure the extreme background investigation, psychological evaluations, your own careful choices to come with a good offer in hand and your incredible skill and fortitude didn't particularly hurt, by the way, but…sometimes it really is just about that first step.">

He pauses, then carefully offers a small part of himself. <"I've been with SHIELD for 30 years. This organization is my home. The people who devote themselves to it, and its mission, my family. We can never, ever replace what you have lost. But I hope you will find something good here all the same. We will let you fly until your soul fills to bursting, but it is my hope you'll find even a little more than that. And while you say you are not proud, I cannot hear anything in this story to be ashamed of. I hear passion. I hear grit. I hear a heart made of steel.">

For the time being, that blue eye is fixed on the controls and the instruments. Every so often her gaze flicks up to the canopy glass, gauging distance, but her concentration lies wholly on the aircraft's performance. She's listening to him as he responds, though.

<"Something like that,>" Isa murmurs, in response to the poetry. She guides the quinjet through another banking turn, finishing it with a spin and flourish that rights the aircraft back to normal orientation. From there, it's another banking wheel skyward, to go through another complicated manoeuvre… but she doesn't seem to be slowing down to do it.

Well, she was asked to put the quinjet through its paces, so she will. Hopefully there's an airsick bag for Coulson if he needs it. She's beginning to get an idea of his mettle, though, and it's probably a safe bet that he won't need it.

"<I had to make a choice. SHIELD happened to be the best candidate.>" Isa's response is gruff, but that aloof annoyance isn't real. Despite all the posturing, despite all the scowling and the walking alone, it seems like she wants to trust. All that bluster is really just bluster. It's all an act; it's all affected behaviour. "<You hear a traitor. I did steal classified schematics from the military,>" she points out, wearily. "<Most organisations usually frown on that kind of thing. And I'm all but certain that there are people looking for me. The newspaper clippings will be in your dossier, I'm sure.>"

"<Every new innovation, every experimental aircraft the Air Force revealed to the public; I was the one they chose to pilot them and represent them. They're not going to want to be associated with a public face who happens to be traitor. Better a tragic accident happens to her, no?>" Isa looks up through the canopy glass as the quinjet inverts itself, admiring for a split-second the view of the city far below. New York City is an entirely different beast from this angle, with the thunder of engines behind her and the great dark bowl of the sky at her beck and call. Night flying had never bothered her.

She smiles a bleak half-smile when he talks about trust. "<Yeah. Maybe. And maybe SHIELD isn't so bad, from where I see it. Thank you for calling me to the airfield. I'm glad we had the opportunity to speak,>" she adds, even as she rolls the jet up and over, nose dipping to take another death-dive at the Big Apple below. "<Even if I was thinking your motives would be different.>"

"<My name is Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva, Agent Coulson. You won't find that in whatever papers I submitted myself, though if your people are very good, they might find it in an exhaustive background check that goes into places it is not supposed to. The pleasure is mine. But please, call me Isa. It's still not safe to use my real name.>" She smiles, but the expression is faint, almost mistaken for a scowl. "<And it feels strange. Raisa died eight years ago when her jet crashed into the taiga. She got to follow her husband.>"

"<We'll see what we will see. Maybe I'll find something here. Maybe I won't.>" Slowly, the quinjet levels off from its bleeding-edge manoeuvres, turning its nose toward the Triskelion. The facility is still distant yet, though. "<So I fly. That is what is left to me. The one thing that has not yet been taken from me.>"

<"Rest in peace, Raisa,"> Coulson says, acknowledging the gift of her name quietly. <"Isa suits you."> A tacit promise that he also will never reveal that name; that he will, in fact, note it and then continue to train his brain to think of her only by the name that she goes by on a day-to-day basis, the preferred name she asks of him. Not just because it's safer, but because she has explicitly told him that Raisa is dead, and to him that sounds like far more than a cover story.

He shows zero signs of needing a sick bag indeed. He's pensive and attentive and occasionally as appreciative of the view as she. He just makes sure to keep his own hands well free of the controls. He shows as little reaction to her commentary that she's a traitor. It's not untrue, but neither was it a malicious act. It does not seem to concern him.

She speaks of motives, and he actually cocks his head slightly to one side. <"What motives did you think I had?"> He wonders, genuinely curious. That flickers openly across his own expression. He waits until she says all of her piece to ask the question, respectful of it all, taking it all in, the gift of getting to understand her a little bit better, this person who will be at his back in the field, or keeping him safe in the air, depending upon the needs of the organization and the places the wind blows them both.

"<I miss Raisa, sometimes,>" the pilot affords, with a bland shrug. "<It's not the most common name, and not the most uncommon. I had always thought it was a pretty name and thought I was fortunate to have it. But it isn't safe to use it. Even if it were… it only reminds me of what is gone.>"

She glances back down to the city, gauging their position and considering the fuel gauge in turn. "<At best, or at worst? At best, I thought you were going to talk about the quinjet I had to call a pickup for, two days ago. Superman was kind enough to lend a hand before things got… ugly. At worst? For all I knew, you were an infiltrator come to ensure that I disappeared.>" She shrugs, shaking her head and guiding the quinjet… not to Triskelion, but up, up; up as high and as hard as she can push the engines. They thunder, deafening, as she punches through the clouds again, dragging a trail of white contrail, only to tumble backwards in a free-fall. A purposeful stall, as the engines flicker and wink out.

Something tightens around her eye, and her fingers tighten over the controls.

"<Let's see how quickly the engines respond.>" Any minute now, they should kick back in. Any minute now… aaaany minute now… Isa's brow furrows, and her eye flicks to the instrumentation, which is still noisily blaring that yes, they are in free fall and the engines are stalled out. The pilot licks dry lips. "<They should have come back by now. I hope this isn't a test, Agent Coulson…>"

<"Goodness. If an infiltrator gets as far as the tarmac with an experimental jet, we are definitely screwed,"> Phil says thoughtfully, though for a moment he actually pushes back his sleeve, touches his watch, and pulls up an AR display of the entire area, frowning as if considering whether it really would be possible for someone to get that far. He gives it up after a moment. It's not just the physical defenses, after all. A sleeper agent could indeed just be in there for years and years, waiting for their moment.

But…on this count…

<"I suspect if someone wanted to take you out they'd do it when you're at the grocery store, not right within SHIELD."> He had, after all, caught that note of her doing her shopping. <"Not that I want to alarm you so that you never go to Trader Joe's ever again. They've got really good stuff there, and that would kind of be a shame. Just change up the ones you go to and change the routes you use to go to them. And probably visit other stores too. Don't go on the same day ever. I'm sure you know the drill."> Yep, a little bit of humor about the grocery shopping and a little bit of habitual how to stay alive spy advice, all wrapped into one tidy package.

And then she cuts the engines. There is a swift intake of breath at that; clearly he has not ever been up with a test pilot who takes it this far. He coils up with adrenaline; his muscles tighten, his fingers grip the armrests hard.

He gives no other reaction. He waits as the instruments go crazy…

And then double takes as she says, they should have come back by now

His eyes flicker to where the parachutes are located.

"Ahhhh, no," he says, calm and collected under pressure but not so much that he can remember to speak her language. His eyes are only a little wide. "No, this…wasn't planned." Sabotage? Or just crappy design after all? His mind whirls through the possibilities. "What do the instruments say? Is there a loose wire we can jiggle? Can you pull some sort of amazing gliding water landing? Or do we need to be thinking about jumping as of sixty seconds ago?"

"<I'm a pilot, not a spy.>" Isa delivers this with a grimace, even as she continues to try and coax the plane back into some kind of life. The engines haven't kicked back in yet, and pretty soon they're going to pass by the altitude at which it matters. She would really like to restart the engines before they reach that point. "<But I've learned to act like one.>"

She narrows her eyes, leaning forward in the pilot's chair and studying the controls. "<I never go to the same place, and I never take the same route. I doubt I'd still be alive, otherwise. Why the Hell isn't this engine restarting?>"

"Doesn't work like that," Isa grunts, in English. She looks thoughtful, studying the controls in front of her and flicking a glance to the canopy, gauging the altitude as best she can. "Come on. Work. Was working earlier. I pull water landing at this speed, they find pieces of us out of harbour for next six months, maybe, if they find them all."

Still looking thoughtful and way too calm for the situation (aside from the twitch of her pulse at her throat), she gives the pilot's console a hard shot with her fist, and keys the initiation sequence again. One more time, just in case; it isn't like she has much else to do but try again.

The pilot grunts again. "Too late to jump." There's a certain leaden quality to her voice, as though she were saying, 'not again.' But, just when she starts thinking about praying in earnest, the engine flickers. The quinjet jolts beneath its pilot and passenger as those turbines roar back into life – and with a shaky exultation in Russian, Isa guides the aircraft into a banking turn towards the Triskelion, listening intently to its every nuance.

Nothing cuts back out again. Evidently satisfied, she looks toward the headquarters – her headquarters – and cuts back the engines, coming in for a nice, easy landing. A slow and gentle landing, with nothing of the devil-may-care piloting she had shown above the clouds.

"Think it would be better if I land before anything else break," she mutters, checking the view out the canopy and the instruments as the quinjet gradually descends, touching the landing pad so lightly that it could be missed. Once it's touched down, she powers down the engine, leaning back in her seat and exhaling heavily.

That was pretty appropriately horrifying. For someone who sought death for so long, well… she's not ready for it. When she goes to join Mikhail, it will be on her terms.

"Well," she mutters, clutching the edge of the seat just to mask the shaking of her hands, "was fun."

Calm is good. Calm is what he wants to see. Phil Coulson does her the courtesy of similarly remaining calm. And silent. He lets her work through it with equal measures of both calm and silence, just gripping the seat, letting her figure it out. There is literally nothing he can do to help in this situation. He didn't even bring a piece of technology that can help. So he sits there, and he trusts her to do her job, or trusts that if this is how he is meant to end his life than the Good Lord knows what he's doing and he'll get the full briefing at 0800 after entering the Pearly Gates.

Then the engines decide to restart.

It seems his Heavenly Briefing has been rescheduled. He's good with that. He's very good with that.

He allows a breath to escape, long and low. Slowly he relaxes. He even goes so far as to adjust his tie, though it hardly needed adjusting.

'Well. Was fun,' she says.

<"Hey,"> he says, his hazel eyes suddenly brightening with another burst of good humor.

Mock aggrievement. <"That was gonna be my line.">

He unbuckles his seatbelt though, leans back, turns his head, looks over at her as the adrenaline drains right out of him, and just…grins.

<"We'll be seeing more of each other, Isa.">

Then he pushes up, and out he goes, just ambling towards the plane's exit like it's just another day at the office for him.

It's only hours later that she'll receive three things.

First, her meticulously corrected file.

Second, the orders which say that she is officially assigned to his team. This is when she might find out just who she had as her captive audience tonight: Nick Fury's right hand. It seems, now, that she is permanently assigned as his pilot. The paperwork doesn't preclude her getting 'borrowed' by other people for other missions, but he's earmarked her as someone who is now under his direct command all the same.

And finally, a little text message that just says: Saluting is still off the table.

Once it's clear that the engines aren't going to burst into flame and the quinjet isn't otherwise going to become a magnificently expensive lawn dart onto the skyline of New York City, Isa contents herself with gripping the edges of the seat and breathing hard, and looking pale as a sheet for a few minutes. She can panic now that the crisis is over.

Her eye flicks to Coulson when he ribs her for stealing his line, and she manages a scowl with zero animosity in it. "<What? You weren't fast enough. What's that American expression?> You snooze, you lose." She grins, but the expression is stiff; awkward. It looks like an expression she hasn't used in too many years, and so she lets it go. Even the awkwardness slides away, into an owlish look as Collins makes his way off the quinjet and into the night as though it were just another day in the office.

Of course, the Russian stays long enough to power the engines down, settle everything that needs settling, and – once she's talked to the engineers and other personnel that might stop her to chat – wobble her way back to the subway system that will take her back to her apartment.

It's not until she flops onto her cheap couch that she actually notices there's a message on her smart phone. She doesn't even get as far as turning the lights on; just locking up, putting her groceries down on the endtable, and tossing her keys in its vague direction.

Isa Reichert stares blanky at the glow of the cell phone in her dark living room, curled up on her cheap and somewhat shapeless couch. So unexpected is the news on it that she reads it twice, squinting at it in obvious disbelief.

"…What in hell?"

Assigned as the personal pilot of Nick Fury's right-hand man? That pencil-pusher guy? Seriously?

The phone beeps one more time, displaying a message.

For what feels like the first time in years, Isa Reichert's mouth twitches, and she allows herself a chuckle.

"Should do it just to spite you, you clever bastard," she mutters, setting aside the phone and throwing an arm across her face, still half-smiling.

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