Chasing Ghosts

April 16, 2017:

In which Isa Reichert does some piloting for Agent Coulson, and comes to understand a little more of how his mind works.

The Triskelion - New York City

The Headquarters, Armory and Fortress of the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics division is, for the most part, an unassailable tower in the midst of the diplomatic sprawl that is Midtown East. The primary intelligence clearing houses and most of SHIELD's senior leadership are all housed hear, along with a veritable army of agents and staff to keep the place running, the world spinning and the weirdness at bay.


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Rusalka Stojespal, Sloane Albright

Mood Music: None.

Fade In…

He'd wanted to be in Paris by 1300; she said she could have him wheels up by noon. And so at noon he was ready. Inscrutable and mysterious, with his little smile, telling her nothing about his reasons for going. When they'd reached the landing zone he'd said simply, "Keep it warm for me, would you?"

He'd gone whistling the Spring part of Vivaldi's Four Seasons on his way out, leaving her behind. She might have heard him enthusiastically great someone in French on his way, but other than that…nothing.

He had, in fact, gone to visit a specific hotel room that had pinged for him, and had come back with quite a bit, though nothing he lets her in on as he straps himself in. A Molnija pocket watch with a Mikoyan jet on the cover, with a wedding photo featuring Makarov and his Raisa; his initials on the back in Cyrillic. His credit card number and the pseudonym he checked in under. And SHIELD's ability to track that credit card in use. As he straps in, he checks his watch as a little 'ping' tells him he has a message. He swipes up on the screen, nods to himself, and says, "Short flight, Raisa, we need to go to the French Riviera now. Sooner the better."

Another inscrutable little smile. Though someone who is getting to know Phil might start to notice those little times when the smile and the eyes don't quite add up. His eyes reflect a bit of softness, a bit of worry, though not for long. He turns his attention firmly to whatever he's got going on with his watch; perhaps even more than one thing, given the way he runs around from case to case and crisis to crisis. He was all taciturn smiles on the way to Paris, too.

It had been a quiet trip, with the redheaded pilot offering little in the way of conversation. When she does, it's in her customary broken English, laconic almost to a fault. She's spent most of the time in the company of her own thoughts. As usual, she's impeccably clean, with a crisp flight suit and freshly scrubbed down. It doesn't do much for the shadows under her eye, but that seems to be a permanent feature.

Coulson has an eye for detail. He might notice that she's taken to wearing her wedding band around her neck, to one side of her old military dogtags. It won't fit on her finger without resizing; the scars over them are just awkward enough that the band doesn't fit.

Keep it warm for me, would you?

It's a simple enough request, and one she's gotten used to following. Any competent pilot would be able to do that. Keeping the engines warm is no problem for her.

Once upon a time, she'd gotten used to unexpected delays, mistakes in timing, and other such nuissances. She'd learned to catnap in the cockpit, or just about anywhere; especially before she'd begun test piloting, when sorties lived on irregular time. It's like riding a bicycle, and it comes back to her easily enough.

She's leaned back in her seat, eye half-closed, when he gets back. No sooner does she hear his foot on the deck than she's upright and alert again, gloved hands already easing familiarly over the controls. A quinjet is not a high-speed fighter, but they have their own kind of charm. Having vertical capabilities is a definite plus.

"French Riviera?" The redhead arches her brow at the location. "Must get around. Friend in high place; something like that." The engines roar to life as the quinjet ascends smoothly, straight up from the helipad she'd commandeered. Shuddering slightly as the thrusters balance out, the pressure of ascension gradually eases, replaced by the sensation of being pushed back in one's seat as she turns the nose southeast toward the coast.

Half a glance is thrown at the unassuming agent, studying him with a silence that almost borders on suspicious. Those inscrutable little smiles are unsettling to her. Much of the time the eyes and the smile are too incongruous, and the depth to which he hoards secrets and information almost reminds her of her own former superiors.

She shakes her head, straightening the quinjet's heading with a faint touch on the yoke. "Fine. French Rivera. Only, if not on deadline, would like to stay a few minutes. Wait outside quinjet, maybe. Is warm. Am sick of winter."

He puts his watch into a dark-screened sleep mode before he answers it, as if concerned that one of those secrets will spill out with a casual flick of his wrist. He contemplates her request, and says, "Of course." Slowly, though, "I actually know a great place with a private room. They make fantastic mixed drinks. Stuffed mushrooms, too, if you like stuffed mushrooms. You could enjoy quite a few comforts without being bothered by anyone at all."

Reading between the lines: for some reason, he does not want her out in the open, but he's willing to make her comfortable while he does whatever it is he intends to do there. "It'll be right across the street from where I want to go, we'll just take Lola over there." Lola, currently parked in the belly of the Quinjet; he'd needed to get around. He'd had a driver in Paris, but not here, apparently. Or maybe he needs or wants to go faster than the driver can go. Either way, the bright red car that nobody is allowed to touch is here.

"I don't know how long this will take me," he adds, of course not rising to the bait about friends in high places. "For which I apologize."

His face just seems to settle into that inscrutable little smile if there's no better expression to occupy it. It does so yet again now, though it grows into something a little more genuine as he looks over at her. Whatever is going on, she's not being left behind to catch catnaps or eat mushrooms because he's out of sorts with her, or because he doesn't trust her. Of course, why does he do anything? Because he believes the needs of the op, so to speak, demand it.

A place with a private room? Isa finds herself arching an eyebrow in skepticism, but she doesn't comment on it. It almost sounds as though he's trying to sweep her off to the side, somewhere, out of sight and out of mind.

It's not really insulting, because she seems to enjoy her privacy, but it's still puzzling. Then again, trying to figure out why he does anything that he does is an exercise in futility. There are too many variables and causal relationships that she simply doesn't have access to. She knows they're there, but he's cunning, and not even a whiff of what ever gets out. He's warm and well-mannered, but nothing ever gets past those brown eyes.

"Too trusting, leaving quinjet alone." Isa frowns.

A slight touch of the controls adjusts the quinjet's direction again, just slightly, the sense of gravity shifting so smoothly it could almost be missed. Even in non-threatening situations she has an uncommonly light touch on the quinjet's controls. Not so much with the experimental prototype he had brought her to pilot, of course; she had shown her claws, a little, and her rough treatment of the aircraft had hearkened back to her combat piloting days. When she's ferrying him from major city to major city, though, the ride is as smooth as a first-class airline.

Even so, she shrugs. "If you think quinjet is fine, is your choice, I guess. Da, will go to room. Haven't eaten yet anyway. Shouldn't be telling me they have drink, though." Isa taps the name stitched into her flight suit ('REICHERT' in block letters), head tilting to eye him. "Am still on duty, technically."

His study of her almost seems to make her uncomfortable, though, flicking another puzzled glance at him and shifting in her seat. Why is he looking at her like that? What is he thinking?

What business could he possibly have that takes him playing connect-the-dots at major French destinations?

Briefly, she wonders if maybe he's seeing mistresses, but no, he's too much of a straight arrow for that. Her left hand rises to rub at the side of her jaw in unconscious gesture. It's a sure sign she's thinking something over, worrying at it like a mastiff with a bone.

There's also that tingling sensation between her shoulder blades; the same one that had always told her when someone was on her six o'clock. The radar is clean, though, and she can see nothing through the canopy. Isa settles for a frown.

"You know feeling of being watched? Have it now. Nothing in sky, nothing on radar." She shakes her head, the frown deepening. "Something not right." Maybe it's just her own attempts to make sense of Phil Coulson failing to tally up. Sometimes people creep her out when their motives are inscrutable. And that smile… "Stop smiling like that. Is creepy," she mutters, eyeing him again. "Or tell me what in Hell you are smiling like that for. Making my skin crawl, and I don't scare easy."

"I just have resting creepy face," Phil quips, though he's watching her. "You can lock down the Quinjet and land at our facility on the Riviera. Our own people will take care of her until you get back. It would be good to experience at least a little bit of the world while you can."

He doesn't smile when she says she gets the feeling she's being watched. If anything, his face goes more neutral, more expressionless, his hazel eyes a flat grey, reflecting the light, or his suit, or his mood. His are the hazel that shift from blue to green to grey again, rather than the brown-green end of the spectrum, and their colors aren't really a reliable indicator of anything he's thinking or feeling, but…it's not as though there are not correlations, perhaps brought on by the very slight ways he holds his eyes in response to his moods, changing how they catch the light.

He certainly doesn't look like a man who is off to see mistresses. Sometimes his suit is uber-sharp, tailored perfectly, wrinkle free. Sometimes it's an ill-fitting thing that matches a beleagured man on a government salary who sleeps at his desk, something off the rack from JC Penny's or somewhere similar. He wears those when he really wants to be underestimated, when he really doesn't want to communicate that he's anyone of importance at all. It's probably not what he'd wear to see a date by any stretch of the imagination. It's not so bad that he can't look Official; it in fact looks pretty much Uber Bureacrat, someone just important enough.

He is unhurried, unruffled, as he decides what he will and will not share with her. At last he says, "That's a feeling you should cultivate. Typically when the itenerary looks like this we're in the middle of something dangerous and delicate. What did you say before? It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you?"

Normally he's so courteous, going with Russian, but today he apparently feels she can stand to practice her English.

"If you like you can just rest up at the SHIELD facility too, stay close to the Quinjet. The food isn't as good, but…if you feel like catching some television in the lounge, or working out, or something like that the option is there. And you won't have to be quite as watchful. Just let me know which you'll be doing."

"Resting creepy face." Isa repeats the phrase back in deadpan. That isn't even a thing that exists, is it? He probably just made that up on the spot. Coulson seems like the kind of person who does that, especially if it happens to be the dorkiest possible answer to a situation. "You just make that up."

Checking the instruments again and frowning at how blandly normal the radar looks, Isa risks a quick glance out the side of the cockpit glass, leaning way over in her seat. She does the same on Coulson's side, one hand keeping the yoke straight while the other braces against the console in front of him, nonchalantly leaning into his personal space to look past him, scanning the sky, eye like steel.

Her blood is up. Now that her suspicions are there, it's going to be a nightmare to soothe them. Isa is tremendously paranoid, albeit with good reason, and she'll run herself ragged trying to figure out what has her feeling so unsettled.

It's not just Coulson's creepy smile doing it. Something's itching between her shoulder blades.

"Haven't stopped cultivating it from Moscow, Coulson." Isa narrows her eye, and eyes him almost suspiciously. Why is he telling her that? It's a matter of course that just about anything SHIELD touches is going to be dangerous in some way or another. She wasn't expecting a cushy desk job.

That wasn't why she brought collateral to them. She wanted the dangerous job; subconsciously, if not consciously. As she explained to Coulson, she lives to fly. It's the only place left to her that she feels alive.

As far as danger goes, he's preaching to the choir. "Why say this now? In some deep shit, aren't you? Went and poke sleeping dragon with stick, didn't you. Ugh," she sighs, shaking her head. "Politics. Is why I am pilot and not politician. Wouldn't have patience for that."

"Hunh." She considers her options. Working out sounds pretty good, if nothing else than for the opportunity to keep herself sharp. "Have training facilities? Will work out, then." One hand keeps the yoke steady. The other hand flicks in careless gesture. "You decide you need to leave in hurry; can have quinjet ready in five minute."

The ocean shows on the horizon, a bright strip of brilliant blue. Presently, the tall casinos and resorts of the French Riviera are also visible, and the winding road that follows the ocean and connects them. Not far is their SHIELD facility, with its welcoming helipad.

"Will leave it to them. Don't trust landing closer to…" He never said where he needed to be, did he? Isa shrugs. "Well. Are driving anyway. Have fun."

Half a glance is cast at him, frowning a little. She doesn't comment. His squirrelly behaviour is almost alarming, but he's like this all the time, so all she can do is shrug. That feeling of being watched is still there, though. He might read that in the tension of her shoulders, or the set of her eye and mouth.

Just as smoothly as takeoff, the quinjet is set down, touching without even bouncing. Its engines power down gradually, and with a series of controls, Isa unlocks the cargo hatch. Leaning forward and resting her elbow against the back of her own seat, she glances over to Coulson. "You need help, getting Lola out of cargo hold…? Is tight fit in there, sometimes."

"I did not. People talk about resting faces all the time," Coulson says, ever so placidly. Of course, they usually do not talk about resting creepy face, it's very true.

He watches her masterful handling of the plane, noting how she keeps it perfectly under her control even when her own anxieties are ramping up. It's like watching the red line slowly increase on the temperature gauge.

She begins making guesses at what he's doing, suggests it may be political. He doesn't correct her. He even inclines his head slightly, just as if she's figured it out at last. At the end of the day, every move SHIELD makes is ultimately political. It usually requires some manner of work out of the State Department. Taking high tech alien toys away from nations tends to make them angry. Having to pursue 0-8-4s across borders requires a delicate touch. And the myriad of other things the organization is ultimately called upon to do. There's a reason he has a back channel to the Secretary of State's office, enough to be able to pass an oblique warning on to the likes of Bucky Barnes that the undercurrents are growing more dangerous for him than he can imagine.

"They do have training facilities," he agrees. "I'll keep my finger close to your number on the speed dial."

He smiles at the ocean (a genuine smile this time). It's wistful. This is all the view he's really going to have time for. He will enjoy it while he can. The world is a beautiful place; worth protecting.

She is still tense, even as she tells him to have fun. He tears his gaze away from the majestic ocean view and says gently, "It's going to be okay, Isa." Squirrelly is definitely part of his make-up, but so is a deep seated desire to take care of his people. He tries to take care of her now, if only by offering that tiny bit of reassurance.

But she offers to help with Lola and his smile deepens. "A kind offer. But I can handle it. Promise. I've driven her out of cargo holds a thousand times before." And he has. He puts on his sunglasses, making him look more Agent-y than ever, waits for her to drop the hatch, and then reverses out of there with the aplomb of a highly seasoned driver capable of pulling high speed car chases when the need arises, though he isn't really ramping up the speed till he hits the streets. He effortlessly drives the European side of them without even having to make a conscious adjustment, the way a typical American would.

He does make haste though. If he reaches Makarov's (or "Makarov's," depending on what's going on here) last known location fast enough he might just catch up with the man who is leaving these tantalizing breadcrumbs. Whether he's the bona fide item or not…Phil Coulson has questions.

Isa is still leaning back against her seat when he says everything is going to be okay. That, somehow, is even more unsettling; for him to specifically call out her unease and reassure her like that seems almost like a premonition. If he has to admit it's bad, it must be bad. Whatever it is.

Her single eye narrows almost imperceptibly, but it's a thoughtful expression more than a hostile one. He's proven he can be trusted, at least for the moment. Even if he hasn't offered enough proof to satisfy her suspicions, she has no choice, and it's in her best interests to trust him right now.

After all, who do you trust when you have no one left to turn to?

It's with a quiet snort that she finally shakes her head, letting him dispense with his reassurances and back Lola out of the cargo hold. She herself takes a few more minutes, mostly owing to the fact that she takes time to change into something less conspicuous – her bomber jacket, which by the breadth of the shoulders and the specific patches on it, probably belonged to Mikhail Nikolayevich Makarov. A white shirt tucked into beige slacks, combat boots, and a pair of mirrored aviator shades balanced precariously over her eyepatch complete the ensemble.

The pilot could totally be here on vacation. No one but Coulson would know the difference.

Climbing into the red sports car once he's gotten it out, she buckles her seatbelt first and foremost, because she is nothing if not a conscientious adrenaline jockey. The flight suit and helmet are left behind. She leans back in the seat. Lola is much more comfortable than appearances might indicate.

"See why you're so defensive of this car." A hand runs through her hair, which she's still kept loose; the better for the coastal wind to whip through it once they get going on the famously windy French Riviera roads. "Comfortable."

There's a short pause.

"You look like… like…" Isa struggles to find the proper acronym, wrinkling her nose. "Like FBI agent. Don't think you could have picked less obvious thing to wear."

She's silent again for a few minutes, something in her silence almost distracted. Maybe she's noticed that Coulson himself is distracted.

"Are not late for top of hour." She lifts a brow, eyeing him from the side, though it necessitates turning her head a little further. "In a hurry…?"

"Time waits for no man," Phil quips. If she's going to the SHIELD facility to work out, her need to be driven won't be very long or far from where she parked the plane, but he's happy to give her the lift all the same. Still, he drives her to the part of the campus closest to the workout facility.

Her attempts to get information out of him are no doubt like trying to pry a very old window apart with a broken crowbar. It's just a very difficult and frustrating exercise.

"I should be back in one to six hours," he says, a window of time that means absolutely nothing at all. "I'll call if it's going to be more than that."

And then he zooms off, leaving her behind.

It in fact takes just one hour for him to enter the seedy casino hotel on the uglier side of the Riviera, the place that people with very little money go on vacation when they finally scrape together enough money to do so. The place where locals have affairs. He enters the room cautiously, having gone up to the front desk and basically pretexted a keycard out of them. It's remarkably easy at hotels like this to just say, "I'm in room 146 and I forgot my key." A lot of times they don't check.

No signs of gunfire today, no more bullets. The place is remarkably clean, if empty now. Makarov hasn't checked out yet. He paid up for three days, but he's clearly no longer here.

Phil finds a hotel pad with impressions on it. He uses the old low-tech trick of rubbing his pencil up and down the thing until he gets words. An address and a time. He has to look up the address on his phone. "Barcelona. We're doing quite a bit of bouncing lately, aren't we, Mr. Makarov?"

He folds the paper carefully and adds it to a growing body of evidence in his inner pockets, then steps outside. He looks up and down the street, looking for traffic cameras. He finds none. But the hotel lobby may have had a security camera. He goes back in, flashes his badge, asks for the footage from the day Makarov would have checked in. He wants to see a face, he wants to see what he's looking at. He asks them to forward it to his e-mail address, to his phone. He says his people will follow up, if he does not receive it within the hour.

He says it ominously.

Then he's back in his little red car, zooming back to pick up Isa as if nothing at all has happened, pulling up in front of the SHIELD facility where he dropped her off.

While Isa isn't exactly kicked out of the car, Coulson does leave in an awful hurry, red hair fluttering in his red car's wake. She has a slightly bemused expression on her face, as though not quite sure what to think about his odd behaviour.

He's an odd man. What can you do? Shrugging, she stuffs her hands into the bomber jacket's pockets. It's just a hair too big, and if he's done his homework, the service patches are wrong for her branch of aviation. They aren't test projects, they're military operation patches. To go by the breadth of the shoulders it was probably Mikhail's.

More than that, it was probably one of the few reminders of him she was able to seize on her way out of Moscow.

She settles her hands in her pockets, frowning after the sleek little roadster.

"<I still wonder what in the Hell you're hiding,>" she mutters, finally shaking her head and turning towards the SHIELD facility. A flash of her identification is enough to get her into the building.

Navigating her way through the maze of hallways and corridors that seem part of any governmental or pseudogovernmental agency, Isa sighs, letting her eye hood a little. The feeling of being watched is still there but being among associates helps.

She offers no chitchat as she passes by, or even much in the way of greeting. It takes only minutes to shrug out of her jacket and secure herself a punching bag. With the ferocity that she attacks it, nobody bothers to hail her once she's gotten down to brass tacks.

Who the hell gives a window of 'one to six hours,' anyway? That's absurd!

But whether it's half an hour or seven hours, she's ready when the call comes.

It takes five minutes for her to change, and maybe five more to backtrack to where the car is waiting. It takes about five minutes more for her to retrieve her flight suit and find a nice private corner of the quinjet to change. She's even managed to freshen up once she plunks back down into the pilot's seat, automatically buckling the restraint on pure reflex.

Harnesses are a necessity when she's flying.

"Do everything you need to do?" She arches a brow at him, glancing his way nonchalantly. Isa doesn't expect an answer of any consequence. Double agents are probably more forthcoming than this man.

Checking the instruments, she frowns again at the empty radar, which is still very much empty. Her eye lingers on it for just long enough to suggest to Coulson that she's still uneasy.

She blows out a breath and brings the quinjet up, though, just as butter-smooth as the landing had been. Even in such ordinary piloting, her skill shows; in absolute control of her machine no matter what's happening. It's the kind of laser-focus that had made her such a well-loved test pilot, combined with her natural inclination toward analysis. She knows her machines – and she knows when they're behaving normally or abnormally.

As the quinjet picks up speed, she falls into a holding course over the French Riviera.

"Forgot to tell me something," she adds, looking over to Coulson and staring at him for a moment. It's almost a long enough pause to suggest she might have come up with something; gotten some kind of damning information out of what he's doing—

"Triskelion? Or somewhere else?"

—nope, just directions.

He almost tells her to just drop him off at the next destination. "Barcelona," Phil says thoughtfully.

In the end, he decides to keep her close. This is too delicate, and there could be a severe 'rope-a-dope' that happens if he sends her back to New York without her. He's got a feeling this entire thing is so much more complicated then he understands as of yet. Years of experience, vibrating at his brain, whispering insights that have no backing as of yet.

"We're going to be there for a couple of days. I hope you bought enough clothes, but if you didn't, I'll get you an allowance."

Being in Barcelona days before the meeting gives him time to begin looking into other avenues. Maybe trying to figure out who Makarov is trying to meet with. Maybe getting a ping on his newest hotel before he gets there. Though he suspects he's dumped the credit card by now. It's what he, Phil, would have done, opting to steal another one at this point. He didn't expect to get much more intel out of that thing.

But what is he going to have her do during that time, so that she stays close, so that she doesn't get into trouble, and so that she doesn't suspect what's going on?

He leans back thoughtfully. If he drops the bomb on this watch and Makarov is dead he could destroy her by giving her false hope. If he keeps it from her and she finds out, he could lose her trust.

He drums his fingers slowly across the arm of the seat, trying to decide how much to tell her. It's always a delicate balance, deciding which cards to show, which cards to hide.

The Agent looks out the window as he contemplates it. At last he decides to be very quietly circumspect. "I told you I would look into things in Russia and I have. I got a couple of pings. They're not conclusive. Something's going on. I don't understand what yet. But Paris, the Riviera, and Barcelona are all connected to your case. I'm chasing a specific man. I don't have any idea who he is right now, only that he's connected to all of this. This means I don't want you far from me in case you are needed, or in case someone chooses the moment you're vulnerable to harm you. But I also do not want you too close, because you could be recognized. And I don't want to tell you a bunch of information now, because it is mostly just a scent in the air. It could look like one thing and be another thing entirely. Now is not the time for coming to conclusions. Now is the time for remaining on the hunt, and seeing what that scent resolves itself into."

Strapped in, but in a SHIELD-designed chair that does swivel, he turns to face her. He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees, a genuine expression of concern deepening the worry lines in his forehead. "I hope by now you feel you can trust me enough for this to be explanation enough right now. You're very emotionally involved in this, Raisa Ivanovna. That could cloud your judgment, in ways that could be very dangerous. I'm telling you this much now only because I feel you deserve to know, and because I think you're able to understand why I don't feel like I can or should fill you in on every last detail of what I've found. I promise you that when I have answers for you, and not speculative data points, I will share them. Deal?"

"Far as I know, was only going to Paris." Isa adopts a bland expression and shrugs, even as she keeps a hand on the controls. "So. No. Did not bring spare outfit."

Her mind is whirling when he mentions Barcelona, though. If he's chasing leads on a particular issue, then it must be an incredibly bizarre, random trail. It's more likely that he's meeting different people, she surmises. But why with such haste and secrecy? There must be something delicate hanging in the balance.

While half her mind tries to cycle through potential scenarios for all of this, the rest of her is focused on piloting. The wide bowl of the sky sky spans from one end of the horizon to the other, so clear and blue, almost beckoning.

He's in a hurry, so she doesn't mind laying on the speed. She loves speed. In fact, that's probably why she gets along with that Sokovian girl, that friend of Sloane's, so well. They're cut from similar cloth, except Stojespal prefers pistons instead of turbines.

Isa looks down to the radar, the very picture of the consummate professional as she scans the instruments, then looks up to scan through the cockpit glass. Nothing appears to be out of sorts, and she looks forward again, expression stony. That doesn't explain her peculiar sensation. Maybe it's just Coulson's odd behaviour. She'd never been comfortable around people she couldn't read.

Her eye slides back over to Coulson when he speaks up, with the kind of slow nonchalance that suggests she's putting that laser-focus to use again. Every word is listened to and filed away.

In fact, she waits long enough to respond that it almost seems she may not. She doesn't even look to him at first. Her eye drops instead to regard the instrumentation thoughtfully. There's nothing to look at. The skies are clear.

"Was right." Her tone of voice is bland, so bland it's almost bleak. "Wonder what happened to him. <Oh, Misha. What did you get yourself into? Something terrible; terrible enough to be killed for…>"

But the pilot only sighs.

"Deal," she says, softly. Her hand is steel-true on the controls, and she pulls herself straight in her chair. There's no hesitation from her body language, not an ounce of doubt. But her voice, so soft and almost tentative, is unsteady.

She lowers her head, staring out the forward canopy. "Was trained as combat pilot, before flying as test pilot. Saw active duty, too. Have not lost instincts." Her single blue eye fixes on Coulson for a brief second. Are not many people I trust, after what happen. But… have given me no reason not to."

"Phillip Coulson. Let's go hunting."

He is patient as she deals with the emotional blow of being given even that much information, but…she handles it well. He is conscious of the watch in his pocket. It's like a stone, as secrets often are. But she is not ready for that burden, not yet. Because if this is just a nasty play someone is making…

No. He has to know more. And if Makarov is dead, he will later return it to her merely as recovered property. Not as proof that a dead man walks and lives.

Because it's not proof. Not yet. It's still just a data point.

He relaxes a little when she says she trusts him. Some do, some don't. He's aware that to some he radiates utter trustworthiness, but to others he radiates everything that makes dealing with Government Types a hard and stressful experience. To the latter type, he is authority, and secrets, and plots. To the former, he's someone who does what he does for a reason, and the reasons are good ones. Usually SHIELD types are in the former camp.

But. Not always.

Phillip Coulson, she says. Let's go hunting.

His smile is slight.

"Call me Phil."

Letting out a breath through her nose, Isa makes a point of checking the instrumentation every few seconds. Even without the twinge of paranoia between her shoulder blades, it's her way to do that, relying on familiar numbers and readouts to compensate for what she can't see. To some it might be unnerving, the constant looking-between-things. To others, it might be comforting, as she uses all of the tools at her disposal to do what she once was able to do, seemingly without effort.

It's a long moment before she speaks again. When she does, it's in Russian, tone soft and unlike her usual guttural, gravelly tone in English. Maybe it's just a mark of being more comfortable with the language.

"<I have no idea what you've found, but I had a bad feeling about today from the time my alarm went off this morning.>" Isa shakes her head. "<I still have a bad feeling. That itch between your shoulder blades, when you know you're being watched. Right there at the base of your neck. Every soldier knows it.>"

She eyes the forward cockpit glass again, subdued. "<I do not like secrets. I never have liked them. But growing up in Russia, you learn to make that part of your life. You live with it. You learn to adapt. You own it; you assume the other person has secrets of yours. Assuming, of course, you've done something secretive worth monitoring.>"

"<But, my Misha… we did not keep secrets, aside from things like the details of my projects, or the details of his operations. We did not need to, otherwise.>" Her head shakes, slowly. "<So I have to wonder what he had gotten himself into, right before he was killed. And whether it would reflect on me, whatever it was he did or said.>"

She twists the yoke, easing the quinjet into a gentle, banking turn. Her tone of voice is bleak. "<Whatever it was, he must have believed in it. I hope he believed in it. It killed him. I wonder what it was…?>"

"<I have no way of knowing, now. Only whatever he left behind.>" She looks up to the cockpit glass again, watching the blue sky and the green earth below. Almost boredly, she sends the quinjet into a languid roll, flashing its belly to the sun before straightening. Fortunately, Lola is securely fastened in the cargo hold, or she wouldn't have considered showing off a little.

There's a long pause.

"Miss experimental quinjet's controls," she mumbles, gravelly, in English. "Feel like steering through molasses now. And even SHIELD's standard quinjet are good. Could spoil me with prototype like that."

"When it's done being experimental perhaps I'll upgrade," Phil promises. He had listened to all she had to say of course. She has good instincts, though, he's able to note that and file it away for future reference. That kind of intuition is very useful. But…he has no reassurances for her. He has no idea, as of yet, what Makarov was up to. He has a watch and a note and a bunch of bullets plucked up off the floor. He has a feeling the man is not dead, but only a feeling. He has a feeling there are at least two players in this, perhaps one more. All unidentified as of yet, though of course one of them is by necessity the Russian Government. Who were the other two?

He stays away from the topic. Despite the fact that she'll know that he's listening to every word as if she's the only thing that exists for as long as she chooses to speak on that topic. Really, he gives that kind of focus to anyone he's sharing a conversation with. It doesn't waver when she switches back to English, and the subject of Quinjets.

"I can't tell the difference," he adds. "Other than the engines not cutting out, of course. I like planes that don't threaten to send me to my death. Not that you didn't handle it beautifully when that happened. All the same, I'd like the engineers to finish with it first."

The pilot seems content to let the matter of her husband go. Whatever web of lies and secrecy he had been caught up in, it doesn't concern her. At least not yet. She has a reasonable idea of who her own pursuers are, and they're known factors. Her actions produced very predictable consequences and that's probably the only reason she's still alive. Her instincts let her chart a course out of Moscow and to New York City, and intuition kept her from stumbling into the tightening noose during her escape.

Those instincts will be valuable now more than ever now that she's in foreign territory. Her instincts stopped at the borders – she has no way to know what might be done to her, how retaliation may fall for what she had done.

But she had no choice. If she accepted their grounding, if she took a miserable desk job without ever seeing the sky the same way again, she knew it would have been condemning herself to death on the inside more surely than the alcohol or the cigarettes could do to her. It would have drained the life from her very soul.

Of course, that had already begun to happen, once she'd been told what had happened to Mikhail's aircraft. Where she went or what she did was only a trivial detail after that.

She licks her lips as though they were dry, watching the controls and the instruments with the focus of a hawk. Everything is performing normally, the airspace is normal, and in the wake of that raw wound being picked at, hse wants to do something. The safest possible answer is to get Coulson to Barcelona as quickly as possible.

"Going to shave some time off trip." Isa quirks a brow at him. "Harness buckled…?" She'll wait about three seconds for an answer, and that's all the warning he gets. She does something with the controls, hand gliding over the throttle and the yoke.

The world abruptly lurches. The sky swallows the forward cockpit glass as the quinjet noses up, afterburners kicking in with a shuddering roar that drowns all conversation. Surging higher than the cloudcover, punching through the highest in a puff of cloud and contrail, the quinjet dips a wing and spins on its axis again, lazily, before dipping down again and plummeting for the earth. It's not quite the rough handling she'd give a test aircraft, but it's still fancy flying – all the manoeuvres she'd give to a test aircraft, albeit with a slightly gentle touch. It wouldn't do to show off too much. That would attract attention.

It's hours before she comes back down. Maybe it's a little wasted fuel, but she'll gladly take it out of her stipend. It was worth it, because it managed to keep her attention all the way across the northward trip to the Spainish peninsula.

Maybe she should take up driving, too… it'd probably draw less attention than flying like that.

Only after she drops back down to a normal cruising altitude, aerobatics satisfied, does Isa speak again.

"I like planes that don't have mysterious engine failure. If this weren't SHIELD, would almost think was deliberate." The scarred woman wrinkles her nose. "Was not. Probably something faulty in engine."

She narrows her eye, gaze flicking down to the radar.

"Almost to Barcelona. Where to land?" She glances back to Coulson, impassive again. "Know of few airfields could go to. Out of way. Quiet. Unobserved." Perhaps her trip west had taken her through Spain; perhaps, like Mikhail is doing in the background, she had zig-zagged like a fleeing rabbit on her path away from Former Life.

Almost any person who is not a pilot would find these manouvres entirely nauseating. But as before, Phil sits in calm silence, simply adjusting the way he sits, locking down the chair with the push of a button so it doesn't swivel and spin all over the place in the wake of the sudden acceleration into the higher altitudes. As they're plummeting again, he simply exhales just a little bit. He's not unaffected, it seems. He's just very, very adept at remaining at center even when something terrifying is happening. The things that can inspire him to react more than this are a higher order of magnitude even than this fancy flying.

They're out there, those things. They exist. But it is what it is today. And he doesn't complain about the fuel at all. He trusts her to make sure they don't run out. SHIELD certainly has the money. For all that he looks like a bean counter, he is not one in the slightest. "Choose one of those," he agrees, when she speaks of quiet, out of the way airfields. "The one that is least likely to be found. One that would give us a good base of operations, both of us. I don't want to check into a hotel. I don't want the slightest whiff of our presence in the air."

He narrows his eyes. "I don't think anyone knows we're on the trail yet. And right now the element of surprise is our only asset."

Through the midst of her piloting, not once does the one-eyed woman lose her own centre or break her focus from what she's doing. Her focus is as absolute as anything, even as day gives way to night. Night flying doesn't seem to bother her in the least. The city lights twinkle below even as the quinjet roars through its acrobatics; even as it levels off into normal flight over them.

Isa risks a quick glance to the left, watching the city lights, before leaning over Coulson again to check the right side with an apologetically mumbled 'hold still.' Nothing is following them, yet still that feeling persists. She might not like having her personal space invaded, but it's another story when she's in the cockpit with the controls in hand. This is her realm. She's in her element.

"Maybe just…" Isa grunts in annoyance when she can't find the right words. "What is phrase. Woke up on wrong side of bed. Maybe that's it…"

Her eye rakes over the instruments when he selects his preferred landing spot. Abandoned airfield, or an actual field. Maybe she can find something away from the city, but close enough for a jaunt in Lola's plush upholstery.

Silence falls, broken only by the roar of the quinjet's engines and the occasional hard sound as she flicks a toggle or adjusts control mechanisms. Every so often, an electrical whine rises up above the roar, as the fly-by-wire systems direct the mechanisms to mimic Isa's controls. They used to be run by cables, in the days of the first fighters, but avionics have evolved into sleek, suave things.

The finest of those evolutions are in the humble quinjet, which in and of itself can do more than a conventional fighter – but she still misses those, sometimes. The quinjets are perhaps not quite as fast, and in some regards, not quite as manoeuvrable. They perform best at low speed and high stability, like a helicopter, but she misses the open throttle of a bleeding-edge Mikoyan or Sukhoi; the kind of thing she used to fly. Nothing could compare to that kind of speed, especially the interceptors.

Isa sighs a thoughtful sigh, breath whistling a little through her teeth. "Da. I know of place. May take you some time to get back to city, but this place; is out of way enough, I think. Can sleep on quinjet. In shift," she adds, with a pointed glance back to Coulson. "Have Stetchkin with me. Can stay with quinjet, maybe, or go with you. Will do which you think is best."

Her aptitude tests prove she's not the best shot, what with missing an eye and all, but it's better than nothing. It's a wonder she can hit any target with a handicap like that.

She opines that maybe she got up on the wrong side of the bed. It's tempting, very tempting, to let her believe that. It might produce fewer questions.

But that's not fair to her. "Trust your instincts," is what he says to that. "Something is in the air. I just don't know what yet."

He simply nods to what she says about doing what he says. That's a good policy on any day, really. He says, "I want you to keep your side arm handy and stay in our base of operations for now. You can go shopping in the local town, not Barcelona, for some clothing and supplies. I'll give you an expense card for that. But right now I really do need you both close and out of sight. I'm going to give you a panic button. Lola flies, so if I need to get back to you fast, or even into Barcelona fast, I can."

He suddenly eyes her. Maybe he shouldn't have told her Lola can fly. Oh well. She has been thoroughly briefed on not touching Lola.

He'd like some back up, but…right now this is a personal project. He's already burning a lot of SHIELD resources on it. He has the ability to do this because he's got a good nose for things that actually turn out to be very important, not just to an individual agent like Raisa, but to SHIELD, to the world. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean he can pull much more manpower than he already has.

It takes a half-second to process what Coulson says, but that's because she's busy scanning the equipment and looking for the field she had dimly remembered. Not that she had actually flown out of Russia, but she had taken to the hills and the high roads, keeping out of places that saw regular traffic.

There. The blackness below suggests empty land, or perhaps fallow fields. It'll have to do; a quick check on the quinjet's sensors reveals that there aren't any structures to trip over on the way down.

She only grunts in response to his comment on instincts. They've never failed her in the past, neither in the air nor on the ground. It sounds like a reasonable policy.

"Hold on. Doing this with as little engine as possible. Less noise."

Isa flexes stiff fingers over the yoke and drops the quinjet. Their descent is hard and fast, but never once does she let go or look away. In anybody else's hands it might be the sickening sensation that something went wrong; that awful feeling of leaving your stomach behind up at twenty-thousand feet while you're nearing the ten thousand foot mark.

In her scarred but capable hands, though, it's a shockingly smooth descent; just when it seems too late, the quinjet slowly ramps up its directional thrusters, hovering gently to a touchdown instead of dropping and roaring to counteract gravity.

She reaches up to key the shutdown sequence, and the rumble of the engines dies away. Metal ticks as it cools. Isa fights her way out of her seat restraints, linking her fingers and stretching her arms high overhead, to the uncomfortable snap-crackle-pop of several joints and parts of her back complaining loudly about sitting for too long.

Maybe she's getting just a hair too old for this, but she'd eat glass before admitting that.

Turning, she rakes a critical eye over him.

"Your car fly? When were you going to tell me that?" Squint, squint. But Isa doesn't pester him any further, nor demand to drive it as a lot of other people might. She simply takes it in and shrugs. "Useful. Maybe needed. Am hoping not, but we will see. Wait here. Will change and get Stetchkin."

With that, she files off towards where she's stowed her things, and when she comes back, it's in the same casual outfit as before. The flight suit and helmet are jammed into a nondescript duffel bag, which she has dangled over a shoulder. She heaves a sigh, frowning. "Should have packed more… have bad feeling about this, Coulson." Call me Phil, he'd said, but she doesn't. Whether because she's on her guard or because that just isn't her way, it's hard to say.

She shrugs, though, thumbing open the cargo hatch. "Take her out, when ready. Will close up and secure quinjet."

There's a pause.

"Should have probably brought less flashy car," she remarks over her shoulder, turning back to the control panels.

She'd better not be too old for this, or Phil is in real trouble.

He is a bit slower to get out of his seat as it is, namely because he is quietly recovering from another aerial trick that's designed to make him go a bit more grey or a bit more bald, depending upon how his thinning hair decides to respond to land without engines. He lets out a long, slow breath, then finally unbuckles and stands, smoothing his rumpled suit. He leans to pick up his duffle bag. He always carries one on investigations, prepared for pretty much anything.

She grumps about not knowing his car could fly, and simply spreads his hands in reply, unrepentant about not sharing that detail until he felt it worth sharing.

He doesn't correct her for calling him Coulson. Indeed, he lets the matter drop entirely. "Mmm. Should I have?" he asks. "A guy my age driving a car like that strikes most people as a mid-life crisis. The trick is dropping it out of the sky at the right point, is all."

He gets Lola out of there though. "For tonight, the only thing I'm interested in is finding a place to sleep. It's been a long day."

It's with a certain weariness that Isa drops into the passenger seat, and there's not so much as a whisper of envy from her as she looks the car over with a closer eye. He can drive it all he wants. If it doesn't have a proper turbine-driven engine with intake and afterburners, it doesn't interest her.

Besides, she lives in New York City. Who in their right mind lives in New York City and drives a car?

After a split second's delay she remembers to buckle her seatbelt, before collapsing back with a sigh, left hand rising to rub at her eye. The gesture is one of unmistakable weariness. Aside from flying hither and yon across Europe for most of the day and night, it may be she's also staving off the emotional toll of why they've been criss-crossing across western Europe.

But she would probably eat glass before admitting that, either. If there's one thing Coulson's learned about her from personal interaction, she's a bitter, scarred, cynical, and ultimately proud woman. Her experiences may have scarred her in more ways than one, but she has more strength of personality and strength of resolve than she readily admits to.

She eyes him when he describes a mid-life crisis, propping her elbow on the door, letting the side of her face fall into her cupped hand. "K'to?" What? A mid-life what? She's puzzled enough by the term to lapse back into Russian. "<What the hell is that?>"

"Oh. Go north." As for a place to sleep, there's a short pause, and she gestures northward. "Saw place that way. Maybe tourist place, off beaten track, da? Will maybe have place we can stay. Cash deal, I think, maybe. No trace. No tourist. No crowd." Isa hoods her single eye, frowning slightly as she makes a thoughtful sound in the back of her throat. "If lucky, might not be noticed in or out. If unlucky… well." She shrugs, patting where she has her Stetchkin stowed. "Am decent shot. Also know how to break kneecap or nose, if someone get too close. Dislocate arm. That kind of thing." She grins, flatly. The expression is a little ghastly, with the shadows under her good eye and the scarring on the right side. "You spend time in bar, you learn thing like that. Especially as woman. Know how to do thing like that for long time."

Huh. Russians have no equivalent to the mid-life crisis? He opens his mouth to explain it. Then…decides he'd rather not. He's been accused of having one enough times that he just sort of smiles and shrugs and shakes his head. Instead he turns the car in the direction she indicates, more than willing to take a cash deal hotel in the middle of the Spanish countryside, somewhere that it will be extremely hard to track them or find them under any circumstances, with a secured Quinjet similarly out in the middle of nowhere.

"I don't doubt your abilities," he tells her. "It might be good to refine your fighting style just a bit. Maybe set you up with some additional training when you get home…"

He trails off, and realizes this might be the right time to address the subject.

"You know, Isa," he says slowly. "SHIELD medical tech is…quite a bit better than the Soviet Airforce's. It's possible our medics could build you a cybernetic eye, or…well I don't even know what all they're capable of. For all I know they could grow you a new one in a Petri dish, they come up with technology as impressive as the experimental Quinjets every single day. They could probably reconstruct some of your scars away too. I haven't suggested it because sometimes…our scars, our losses, the things we've pushed through…sometimes we need them and even want them, and I wasn't sure if that was the case for you. But…your depth perception problems hurt you when you're trying to go hand to hand; I can't imagine they're much help when you're shooting, and as admirable as it is that they don't impact you as a pilot at all…well. You don't necessarily have to live with things the way they are, if you don't want to."

He's very careful as he picks his way through this very sensitive subject. "Nobody will force you or order you to take advantage of that care, but it's available to you should you choose to avail yourself of it."

Maybe Russians do experience mid-life crises, but this particular Russian is evidently baffled by the concept. Aside from the direction of her life being derailed, she's been more or less satisfied by her own life. What need is there to buy a fancy sports car when you fly supersonic aircraft for a living?

Sorry, Lola, but no matter how nice you are, you just can't compare to something that can break the sound barrier for breakfast and still be hungry.

Shifting in her seat, Isa reaches up to brush her hair away from her face as the car's engine takes them up to highway speed. All that long red hair might be a nuissance, but if it bothers her, she doesn't give any sign of it.

"Can do more training easily. Find me instructor, will do it. Don't mind. Know there are thing I should know." Isa flashes a grin. "Might have slept through lesson where pilot cadet learn hand-to-hand combat."

She falls silent as he describes the medical advances available to SHIELD, and the possibilities that opens up. Neither does she answer him when he ticks off perfectly valid reasons for looking into corrective surgery or enhancement. Even cybernetics might be a viable possibility. The thought had crossed her mind, once; that if the technology were there, she could even have something that somehow hooked into an aircraft's avionics and HUD…


It's a simple enough answer, given without rancor or even inflection. When she continues, it's without the broken quality of her usual English, and without the gravelly, disused tone her voice normally adopts.

"Phillip Coulson, I will take your recommendations. I will take your courses, if that is what you think I need as an agent under your command."

There's still a soft Russian inflection to her words, but it's not nearly as thick as it usually is. In fact, even that faint vestige seems to slide into a bit of a faintly British accent. Maybe she brushed up on her English in London before striking out west to New York City.

"But I will not do that."

Her head turns aside to look out the window, away from him. "Once upon a time, I might have leapt at that offer. I thought I'd do anything to have my eye back after I woke up. It meant my career. My life. Even the burns and the scarring didn't bother me as much as the loss of my eye."

She looks back at him with that single blue eye, sharp as a hawk's. "But I sacrificed too much and fought too hard to come back from that brink to simply wave it all away." She flaps her scarred hand in curt gesture, looking forward again, expression stony in its neutrality. "This is what I am, now. I came to accept that years ago."

"Thank you for the offer, Phillip Coulson. I don't want to live like this, if I had the choice. But I don't want to throw away everything I've fought for, either." She shakes her head, and something about the gesture seems to carry more exhaustion than a day of international travel. "I will think about it, maybe, but I do not think I will accept that offer."

A faint flicker of a smile touches the unscarred side of her face. It seems a little sardonic.

"You understand, I hope."

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