Dobroye Utro

May 18, 2017:

In which Isa Reichert reveals to Phil Coulson that she is a great deal more vulnerable and wounded than she lets on, and manages to stop herself from doing anything foolish.

New York City - The Triskelion

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.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions:

Mood Music: Sting - The Windmills of Your Mind


Fade In…

She's up with the dawn. Phil sleeps for several hours more.

It might look like the world's most cramped, uncomfortable position. But the nature of his work means that he has slept all manner of places. In the cramped back seats of cars. In haybales. In a closet, once, when he was behind enemy lines and so pinned down inside of a facility that hiding for hours on end was his only option until his extraction team finally showed up to create the distraction that would allow him to dart out and make his way to the Exfil point. That one was nearly 15 years ago. And he'd caught the sleep because there was little else to do, and because one catches it as one can in this line of work.

Isa's loveseat is an exercise in luxury really, and if it's not the same as the cot that's sized to fit him in his office, or the very nice bed in his apartment that's definitely sized to fit him, neither does it hinder him. He had not in fact checked in on her really; once he'd dozed off he was soon out like a lamp. Only the sound of the door opening or some other sign of impending danger might have roused him. But there is no danger here, not today.

Except, of course, the emotional dangers, perhaps. The undercurrents swirling between them, beneath otherwise still waters. He wakes up with the sensation that he has done something he shouldn't.

But he doesn't entirely acknowledge that. He gives a sheepish smile. "I must have been a bit more tired than I thought," he says, by way of greeting, as if this is nothing at all. As if he routinely falls asleep on the sofas of friends and agents alike, because he's just too gosh darn goofy to take care of himself properly.

There is a small commons area in the heart of this apartment cluster's courtyard. Isa Reichert's window overlooks a little bit of greenery, though direct sun is a rarity for the height of the tower, enough to soften the edges of impersonal lodgings. Enough to lend the illusion of home.

The pilot herself is still standing in the kitchen, a mug of coffee cradled in her hands. The morning light and the hint of greenery behind her seems to soften all the hard edges to her appearance and personality. So often she spends her time trying to push people away and wield her gruffness like armour – but one would hardly know it this morning.

In answer to his greeting, she only tilts her head slightly to one side, red hair spilling over her shoulder. The scarring is a bright stripe against her skin; vivid against the soft grey of her tank top where it traces down her right arm. The skin of her right fingers are visibly lighter than the left.

Those scarred fingers are tapping againt the mug, and her expression is almost thoughtful. The unscarred side of her face is almost suggestive of a smile, almost; but if it is one, it is an enigma, subtle as a cat.

She shifts her weight to lean her hip against the counter, eye closing a moment as she shrugs. It's her left shoulder that she moves, this time, and the gesture shows she's been healing well.

For the moment she seems content to let him have his interpretation; too goofy to take care of himself, falling asleep on friends' and agents' sofas, even though he had been the one to escort her home; even though she had been the one nearly unconscious from her fatigue.

"Dobroye utro." Good morning. As though she made coffee at the break of dawn for friends and agents any day of the week. As though she were the kind of person to let people into her home on a whim.

Isa decides the tension in the air is so thick she could pour her coffee over it, but maybe that's just her. Part of her hopes it's just her. Her own foolishness, she could accept; could deal with. She knows she does foolish things; behaves in foolish ways.

She speaks in English this morning, but proper English; not the broken, laconic type she so often uses. Her voice is a bit softer than it usually is, the rough edges smoothed out. "Phillip Coulson. Would you like a cup of coffee?" Her mouth twitches, here. Almost a smile. "I promise it is not poisoned."

"I don't even know why you'd make such a promise," he also adds dryly. "It wouldn't cross my mind that you'd poison me. I don't snore that loudly."

He does snore though. 15 years ago he could fall asleep in a closet and remain undiscovered. Now he's in his 50s. He snores. He'd die if he tried that trick again. But he makes a joke of it, a show of it, allowing more of a grin than those toothless smiles he normally gives.

"Do I?"

Whatever he can do to diffuse the tension, to make this less than it is, to slip out and to allow a married woman to get on with her day, to assemble her armor, to get back on the job while he in fact gets back on his, and coordinates the raid that should bring her rightful husband back into her life so that they can sort out what's salvagable in the flaming wreckage of their long association, their short but passionate marriage.

Coffee it is. The pilot moves to set her own cup down, fetching a clean one from the cupboard and pouring from her small but efficient coffeemaker. It's not the most luxurious model on the market, but it's still a fair sight better than the kind of thing she had gotten used to using in Moscow. There is no doubt that SHIELD takes care of its own – not just in the critical matters, but in the little touches, like the furnishings in their quarters.

"Because you are too trusting, Phillip Coulson, and you do not hear how loudly you snore from across an apartment." Isa's half-smile turns a little sly.

But she's lying. It hadn't bothered her in the least, in the few instances she had been awake enough to register the rasping sound coming from her living room. It had been comforting, in an odd sort of way, even for those few moments it had kept her awake.

She hadn't expected him to stay until the dawn. Much as in Barcelona, she had expected him to slip away through the door the instant she'd lost consciousness.

That he didn't was quite a shock to her this morning.

Silence falls as she goes about pouring a mug of coffee for her fellow agent, wearing his rumpled suit, standing in her living room. It's hard to think of him as the cold and impersonal cog in SHIELD's bureaucratic wheel like this; hard to think of him as anything but human and personal with that stupid grin and those bad jokes. It's hard to dehumanise him when he stayed for her sake. That much she knows, completely and absolutely. He stayed for her.

The knowledge is enough to burn in her gut, like a knife drawn and not yet twisted. She tries not to let it show in her own half-smile as she presents him with a cup of coffee. Perhaps surprisingly, to him, Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva remembers exactly how Phillip Coulson takes his coffee. She remembers those details as much as he remembered her preference.

Maybe she doesn't have an interest in repairing the flaming wreckage of her life. Maybe she's just frightened, as she has confided to him before. Maybe—

The hint of a smile fades from her face, fleeting as snow in summer. She looks vulnerable for an instant, and while it passes, it doesn't fully pass.

"Phillip Coulson, I would like to say something. And I would ask that you not try to laugh it off, or explain it away as nervousness, because I do not think that it is."

"I have a terrible premonition. Something does not feel right, even in the midst of such a beautiful dawn." She shakes her head, finally reaching for a lighter to flick against her half-forgotten cigarette. Isa takes a moment to draw deeply, exhaling a wreath of smoke. "I feel like something terrible is going to happen, but I do not know what, or how, or when."

"Maybe it is just the fact that terrible things have been happening to me for many years now… but this feels somehow different." She twists the ring over her finger, frowning around her cigarette, single eye hooding. "I woke up this morning, and my ring did not fit. It took me a good five minutes to make it fit. I have never had that problem before."

Her blue eye is worried when she looks to him. "I had hoped a night's sleep would clear my judgement, but I still feel a terrible premonition. I thought that seeing Mikhail Nikolayevich would be all that I wanted, but… I wonder now if I even want to see him. Something is wrong."

The fact that she remembers his mess of cream, sugar, and coffee as well as he'd remembered her own preferences does not go unnoticed. He inclines his head to her, a sort of 'ahh, touche and thank you' motion that manages to convey both sentiments in body language without requiring him to speak a word. He sips it with a deep breath; the first taste of coffee in the morning is something of a sacred thing to him, a bit of ritual that this morning is shared with someone else for the first time in a long time.

"I would never laugh at you." Phil says, but then he shuts up so that he can hear the rest of what she has to say. She speaks of a premonition, of something in her gut. He nods gravely, as if this is every bit as valuable of a piece of intel as a sat photo might be. "I have told you before to trust your gut, and I mean it," he says quietly. "If you think something is wrong, it probably is. You've saturated yourself in the intel on this case. You know something even if you don't know what you know. You spotted something in all those records, and it wasn't enough to tip you off consciously, but it was enough to tip you off unconsciously."

He sighs. "It doesn't change our next move though. We have to find out what Icarus is hiding, and that facility is certainly our next step."

He returns to the love seat and pulls his shoes over, sliding his feet into them. He'd never taken off his socks. He needs a shower, and a change, but at least he's been Rumpled Phil on any number of occasions. This shouldn't raise too many eyebrows.

"Whatever is going on, we're going to get to the bottom of it. And whatever is wrong? We'll make it right. Not like it was, because time marches on. But right. That's what we do."

When Coulson concedes the point of the coffee, Isa allows herself the faintest hint of a smirk. Did you think you were the only one who can remember details? But this isn't just a case of details. She remembers details because her vocation demands the ability to do so. Her own life rides on the balance of being able to quickly and accurately remember complex engineering concepts and the ability to improvise in her handling of aircraft.

This is not that, and there is just a thread of awkwardness behind that smirk that suggests she knows. She feels the tension, the awkwardness, but where Coulson tries to hide it, she simply… accepts it, it seems. Coulson is someone she can feel comfortable around, someone she can let down her guard near, and there are vanishingly few people she can say that about. Selfish as it may be, Isa is not inclined to push that away.

He has also proven that he's willing to go the distance for her. There is a very real core of gratitude in her loyalty, and in letting down her armour in his presence.

The hint of good humour fades from her features as the topic circles back around to her discomfort; her premonition. "I am… not always accustomed to doing that. Often it was better to ignore such things, and rely on hard data. Often I was required to do that. My superiors in Moscow would not listen to any ridiculous stories of 'gut' or 'omen' and take them seriously."

"But this is serious, to me." She turns, leaning her hip agains the counter and looking out to the dawn. Something in her posture, in the way she cradles her coffee cup close to her heart, seems strangely vulnerable. "I have been feeling this way for weeks. I had tried to ignore it, but it would not be ignored."

"This morning is when it felt strongest. When I could not put my ring back on. That has not happened before, not this badly, and I do not know what it means. No… I do know what it means," she corrects herself, softly, head tilting to one side as though to lay on the shoulder of someone who isn't there. Red hair spills over her shoulder, lit by the indirect light of a distant sun. "It means change."

"But how, and in what way, I do not know. Phillip Coulson, I do not like not knowing things. I do not like surprises. I think I have had enough of them for a lifetime." Her eye closes. "I cannot stop thinking – what took him so long? Why did he not try to contact me? Why is it now, so suddenly? The only thing that I can think of is that this is only happening now that I have joined SHIELD… but what does that mean?"

"And the bills I have sifted through; the trail he has left… that does not seem right, either. I cannot put my finger on why. But something is wrong with those, too." Isa sighs, shoulders slumping. "It is almost as though he has made it too easy to follow him. As though he wants to be found, to be tracked. What is the truth, I wonder?"

"What has he gotten himself into? I am afraid to answer that question. But I am more afraid to answer a different one – what he has become, after these long years. The Mikhail Nikolayevich that I knew would not have hesitated so to seek contact with me, even if it put himself at risk. I would not have hesitated, in his position," she murmurs. "I would not have put him through such torment."

"What did he find…?"

"We'll know soon enough," Phil repeats, very gently indeed. "Let your feelings put you on your guard. They're useful for nothing else. Speculation is going to snarl you up. Data is a good thing to rely on. Just because I take you seriously does not mean I don't also think that our ultimate task is to nail down hard facts."

His watch pings; he brings up the e-mail that comes with it, and looks grimly at it. "As it is, our time table has moved up. Intel says there's some sort of activity at that base. We're going to have to strike tomorrow. That's 4 days sooner than I wanted to do this, but it is what it is."

That seems to be a great good deal of his mantra. It is what it is. In this business, one has to learn to accept and roll with the punches. That's something he excels at. He excels at that, and at adapting on the fly to the things that happen. It's a skill in line with his nature though. He knows it's not in line with Raisa's. "Eat a good breakfast this morning," he advises, rubbing his hand over his balding head. Then he drains his coffee. "Good lunch, good dinner, good night's sleep, because we're going to leave at dawn tomorrow."

"Soon, Raisa Ivanovna, we will know more."

"Yes, that is what I am doing." The pilot sighs, transferring her coffee mug to one hand and wrapping her other arm around herself, with a little awkwardness. It is at this point a blatantly vulnerable gesture.

Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva has never been very good at patience. Hers is a much more impulsive nature than that of the agent sharing her coffee. While it's true that she can be spectacularly patient in the air, she has never been able to transfer that skill to the ground. So much of her life has been wiped away by disaster. It's probably no surprise that the only place she can truly feel at ease any more is in the air.

All that to say, this is not really her happy place, waiting in her apartment for a major operational strike less than twenty-four hours' time from now. But she will endure, because survival is what she does, against all odds, to the point where it might seem like so much an easier option to give up.

But Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva does not know the meaning of giving up, even when it would sometimes be easier on herself. She is much too stubborn, too willful. She is bright white fire to Coulson's more agreeable and insidious water; a flash of heat and light and life that seems to burn, and in so doing, say, I exist. But that flame gutters tonight. Hesitation does not suit her too well.

Eat a good breakfast this morning, he cautions her. She tilts her head, turning around to eye him from the kitchen, blue eye backlit by a rare shaft of sun from the window. It's a pretty effect – when she's not busy scowling at people, they're a surprisingly delicate colour, icy blue as a winter's afternoon sky, but not half as cold as winter.

Isa manages a faint and wan smile. "I will try, Phillip Coulson, but I cannot guarantee that." She gestures with one hand as though to indicate her stomach. "I am not so certain I could eat anything right now. The waiting has always been the worst part, you know. When I was still in active service, still a combat pilot – knowing you were going on sortie, knowing that you were only waiting for the call to scramble."

"Those were interesting days," she reflects, softly. "You will be glad to know I have not forgotten that training, even if I have flown for so long as a test pilot. It is like… what is that American expression? Like riding a bicycle. You do not so soon forget it."

Her eye settles back on Coulson as he rubs a hand over his receding hairline; finishes the last of the coffee she'd made for him. Isa's regard seems almost hesitant as she watches him sort his thoughts out.

For a long moment she almost seems like she might say something, but instead only smiles at him – unguarded, almost melancholy.

"I am sorry, Phillip Coulson." For what, she doesn't specify. But maybe she's not talking about the inconvenience of having to sleep on a loveseat he doesn't fit on, or the hassle of tracking a husband that she suspects may not necessarily want to be found. No. She's talking about the tension that still hangs thick in the air between them; the tension that makes something cold turn in her stomach, the tension that wonders what it would feel like for his arm settled over her shoulder—

Her nostrils flare, and she abruptly looks away from him, the unscarred half of her face flushing. "I am sorry," she only repeats, softly, half her face still red. "There are things I want to say to you, but I do not know if I have the courage to say them. I do not know if it is right. And I do not know if it would be fair to you," she adds, so softly it could be missed.

Phil is no fool.

And sometimes it's kinder to pretend. Sometimes it's kinder to ignore undercurrents. Sometimes that's right.

Sometimes, it isn't. "You've done nothing worthy of an apology," he says gently. "If anything, I should be offering an apology of my own. I am your superior in this organization, you are a married woman, I have a duty to do right by you, and I have allowed something to happen that should not be happening."

She looks so vulnerable. He reaches out and puts a tentative hand on her shoulder. "You are a married woman. Ideally? We will bring your idiot husband home, and you will find he is merely an idiot who you still love. You and he will rebuild what you had, and you will be happy. You deserve to be happy, Raya, and ultimately that's what I want for you."

He lets the hand fall away and says, "That any of this is complicated is only to my discredit. You are a remarkable woman, beautiful and fierce. I cannot help but admire everything that you are, but I should have managed my emotions better. I should have been more professional than I have been. Once you find him, if you need to gain distance from me to preserve your marriage, I will understand."

He hesitates, then. Hesitates a lot, because he has things he wants to say, and saying them is all kinds of wrong. But, in an uncharacteristic display of recklessness, he chooses to say them anyway. His features harden. "But if he lets you down…if he proves to be something other than what he seems…or if he has the incredibly poor taste to die a second time because he can't take reasonable shelter when it is offered to him…" Hazel eyes harden. "Know that I'll be damned before I let him drag you down with him. And know, Raya, that I will be here. In whatever capacity you want me."

Isa looks halfway toward her fellow agent, but she can't quite bring herself to meet his gaze directly. Her own lingers at the floor near his feet; the wall somewhere behind him.

When he places a hand on her shoulder, he might feel her flinch; more than that, he might feel that she makes a conscious effort to restrain her instinctive reaction. He might also feel her trembling, like a frightened deer ready to spring.

"I am married in name only." Her statement is soft, given along with a wreath of smoke from the cigarette she still holds in her lips. "I have not seen my husband in five years, and I am beginning to wonder if he is still the same man that I had left behind. They say the brightest stars burn out most quickly… our star was bright, and swift as a flash in a pan. I wonder if there is anything left."

She looks away, and for a moment she hesitates, frozen in place as the hand settles over her bare shoulder. It's warm; heartbreakingly warm, and against her better judgement she finds herself leaning into it – so subtly it could be missed.

But this is Phillip Coulson. Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva expects him to notice everything. It is why he is such a skilled agent, and most probably why he is still alive.

She shifts the cigarette in her mouth, drawing almost fiercely on the smoke, puffing it through her nose as though smoking like a bellows might calm her.

It doesn't.

You are a remarkable woman, he tells her, beautiful and fierce. For just an instant she can feel something frozen around her heart start to crack; it brings with it a fresh upwelling of pain.

She had confided to him once that loneliness is the thing that she fears above all else – even over fire – and that the idea of a living hell is for her to be alone. Her life is one riddled with loss. That confession was probably no surprise to Coulson.

He has been here for her through some of the worst stresses of her life, short of the accident that robbed her of her eye. Throughout it all, he has established calm, patience, and loyalty – something she's otherwise felt a lack for.

"No." Her answer to his concession is sudden, almost fierce; the blue eye that looks back around to him could well come from an eagle for all its blazing intensity. In fact, his concession seems to upset her so much that she forgets to use English, instead responding in rapid-fire Russian. "<No. You will not leave me like everyone else I have cared about has left me, Phillip Coulson, so help me God! Do you understand? I will endure many things, but I will not…>"

She seems to realise the harshness of her own words a half-second later, trailing off awkwardly.

Coulson withdraws his hand. Before he can fully withdraw it, though, she reaches up, scarred fingers settling around his wrist with a grip of iron. That eye still bores into him, looking right through him, this time with undercurrents of fear, and pain; bleakness and despair. She draws in a breath before trying to speak again, exhaling smoke through her nose.

"I—I am sorry. Please do not go. You have been nothing but professional. You have risked yourself for me. You have risked yourself for what tatters remain of my life. I—I cannot ignore that." Her voice is so soft it borders on a whisper, chiefly because she doesn't trust her voice to carry; doesn't trust that it won't crack and break. She loathes weakness, but there is nothing she hates to see weakness in more than herself. "If Mikhail Nikolayevich Makarov is not what he seems to be, if he is not what I remember him to be… and I do not know that he is; these things that I am finding simply do not add up to what I remember of him… than I…"

Than what?

Her hand tightens around his wrist, clinging mutely.

"I do not have any words to express myself, Phillip Coulson," she whispers, but her hand doesn't relax around his wrist. "I… cannot say 'thank you.' It is no more than an empty platitude from me."

For a brief second she hesitates, seems to weigh something; then, suddenly, fiercely, she takes his wrist and yanks him close. Not to do anything completely ill-advised – only to cling to him like a drowning person seeking a life raft, burying her face in his shoulder. Her fingers clutch at the material of his still-rumpled shirt like iron, and the whole of her shakes like a leaf.

There is a brief, hoarse sound from the back of her throat. It isn't a sound she gives voice to very often.

But Phillip Coulson would recognise it as a broken-hearted sob.

She grabs his wrist.

He does not fight it.

Indeed, instead he swallows. Before he can stop himself he winds one gentle arm around her waist. He doesn't quite pull her closer, but he could. The ability is right there.

<"I don't want to be professional right now,"> he grumbles in frustration, because what he wants to do, in that moment, is to kiss her. Then and there, and to hell with her stupid, stupid rabbit of a husband. He has never in his life been so tempted to be so downright dirty and dishonorable as he is in this moment. There has been no moment of ruthless calculus in the field that has tested him as he is being tested right now.

He resists the urge, and after a moment he is nothing but glad. Because seconds later she is sobbing, and that would have been awful.

He does pull her close then, but he merely holds her. His other hand comes up to stroke her firey hair, offering silent comfort. He is as solid and centered as he ever is in that moment, though his heart aches for her and her pain. He would like nothing more than to guide her safely into the hangar, to make sure she never has to feel this pain and lonliness again. Instead, in this moment, he can do nothing but serve as her lean-to. But he's a good lean-to, finally just letting all of her rest against his larger, broader frame.

This close, he smells a bit like coffee. Aftershave (Old Spice, nothing particularly noteworthy). The smell of old books seems to cling to his suit and his skin. He's packing, as he nearly always is, and he shifts to make sure the ICER pistol holstered beneath his jacket doesn't dig uncomfortably into her body.

He clamps his mouth shut, and says not another word.

For a long moment all Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva can do is sob against the shoulder of Phillip Coulson, because he has been kind to her, and more loyal perhaps than she feels she deserves. All she can do is vent her emotion, because she cannot even trust what remnants are left of her old life in Moscow. That life went up in smoke in the most literal sense. She is still Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva… but she is also something more, broken shards fused by the fire of her personality into glass – scarred but more a whole than its broken pieces.

…She had, thankfully, thought to shove her cigarette into an ashtray before doing so, because cigarette burns through a button-down shirt would have been awkward to explain.

If Coulson fights temptation, so does the pilot. He's been good to her, more good than she feels she deserves. Never before had she ever been so tempted to stray from any kind of path as she does in this moment, even as her fingers dig into the material of his rumpled button-down shirt.

It's not in her nature to show vulnerability, but it seems she shows it time and again to this curiously understated man. More than once now he's seen her at her weakest, seen her when she's begged for his company for fear of being alone; seen her in her vulnerability when she no longer knows what to do with the wreckage of her life.

The poor man is stuck for several long moments as she vents her grief and, indeed, her rage; directionless but no less present for having had to endure such strain and hardship. She can do no more than bury her face in his shoulder, heedless of the blot of tears she leaves in his shirt – it's only on one side, easily explained as something spilled.

Despite her smaller size, her grip is fierce; the corded muscles of her arms and the claw-like tendons of her hands like iron. She keeps herself in respectable physical shape in spite of a profession that could have made her soft – or maybe it's her own paranoia that drives her.

This close, she smells like cigarette smoke and coffee; like the specific blend of jet fuel used by SHIELD's quinjets, and the oil that keeps their machinery running. There's a hint of something spicy, perhaps a cinnamon stick, maybe something chewed on to freshen her breath of the tobacco that she overindulges in. There's also the faint scent that is uniquely her – present in her hair, somewhere beneath the tobacco.

It's a long moment before she can master herself enough to speak, once she's finally stopped keening helplessly.

Isa swallows, though it's more a convulsion of her throat.

"<I do not want to be professional, either. I… I have not wanted to be professional for a very long time,>" she whispers into his shoulder, "<and I think I was only trying to fool myself. More the fool I, for that.>"

But she doesn't pull away.

"<Phillip Coulson, I do not want to impose. I have already imposed too much. But…>" She doesn't look up; doesn't even pull her face away from his shoulder, still trembling violently. "<Would you stay with me? Just for a little more of the morning? Until…>"

Isa doesn't finish what she means, but it seems she hopes he can pick up on the gist of it. She wants him to stay – long enough for her to banish that accursed weakness; until she can draw on her inner strength again, wherever it's abandoned her and fled to. She isn't sure she could trust herself to face the day alone right now.

"<I wish I did not have premonitions. I felt something was wrong the day before my accident, too,>" she whispers into his shoulder. "<But I could not find anything wrong that day. Not until it was far too late. Of course, perhaps I did not care, then; and perhaps I had wanted to die, but I did not.>"

She clutches him a little closer, breath suspiciously like a sob, but not quite; voiceless and without tears.

"<Phillip Coulson…>" His name is a plea; a beseechment for sanity in a life that has lost all traces of sanity to her mind. "<I do not know what to do. I only know what I want to do, and I have already done you enough damage…>"

A few brief seconds of silence pass, as she tries to master her own breathing. "<Oh, God. Your reputation. What are they going to say, seeing you leave my quarters like this, with your suit rumpled?>" She looks up, finally, bloodshot eye settled on him in an expression of anxious worry. "<At least stay long enough to let me iron that, won't you? Let me undo some of the damage…>"

<"You have not damaged me,"> Phil says, very gently. He keeps her in the circle of his arms, lets her sob as long as she likes, as long as she needs to. He is still and quiet while she does it. His heart beats through the fabric of shirt and suit jacket, hard against her person. She wants him to stay, and he swallows. He's just going to have to exercise self-control when that's pretty much the last thing he wants to do. He hasn't felt this way in awhile, and the force of it rather surprises him.

It shouldn't surprise him. But even he can be taken off guard from time to time.

He cups her face with his hands, almost like he's going to kiss her. But he doesn't. He instead brushes her tears away with the gentle pads of his thumbs. She worries over his reputation, and his mouth sets in a grim line. <"Yours is more likely to suffer than mine,"> he says, in a way that indicates that double standard, that very fact, disgusts him.

But it is that very fact that allows him to consent to let her see to his clothes. He puts his hands on both shoulders, bare and scarred, squeezes very gently, and steps away. But only so that he might remove his suit jacket. He does it efficiently, not in a way that is particularly suggestive, though he's a little bit painfully aware that he's taking off some bit of clothing in a moment where doing so is perhaps beyond ill-advised, could perhaps lead them out onto an even thinner patch of ice than the one they're already so precariously standing on.

He holds it out to her silently though, eyes troubled. To allow this to proceed when she is so emotionally vulnerable would be nothing but the actions of a true scumbag. He won't do that to her. The door is open a crack, and perhaps someday they'll walk through it.

Today is not that day.

He steps back from her, folds his arms. "You're kind to do that," he says. "But once you have…I cannot stay, Raisa. Not today. Not any longer than I have. We will both have to take a step back, and refocus on the objective. That is what we're going to have to do today."

He looks away from her.

"I am sorry."

"Most probably I have damaged your reputation." That single blue eye slides half-closed, focusing on nothing in particular. The pilot seems to be calming, breathing a quiet sigh into his shoulder as she recovers her badly-shaken composure. "I… can only hope that it is not beyond repair. The work you do is by far more important than my own…"

Pain? Discomfort? Broken heart? Isa trails off uncertainly, because for once she isn't certain which word to use. It isn't a linguistic stumble, either – she knows exactly what she's talking about, and which words she's choosing, even though she's chosen to speak in English.

Another lowering of the armour, but not quite completely. She isn't ready to admit to her own vulnerability before him, not any more than she has to, even if he's already seen the pain that rends her.

Her face is held gently in his hands, and when he moves to brush her tears away with the pad of a thumb – there's no eye on the other side, and so no tears there – it only results in another brimming over. The gentleness of that getsure is enough to break her heart, but she bears the fresh upwelling of pain with as much stoicism as she can muster.

"Phillip Coulson," she whispers, unsteadily, "you are a good man, and better to me than I deserve."

Her head bows slightly as he squeezes her shoulders, skin scarred and textured under his hand, and steps away. She takes a moment to gather her composure, reaching up to swipe an arm across her red-rimmed eye. As though she could swipe away the vulnerability he just saw in her; as though she could forget how dangerously close she just came to willfully throwing away the last five years of her life.

Despite that, she finds she doesn't care. For him she would gladly cast it off; would be content to release herself from that exhausting burden.

With more care than may be strictly necessary, she accepts the jacket from him, shaking it out and eyeing it critically. For an instant it's good to have a distraction from her own pain and loneliness; good to shift her focus away from the gentle presence of Phillip Coulson. She is not dead; she can sense the undercurrents, and it's becoming a fierce struggle not to let herself be lost in them. It's tempting, so tempting, to do something completely ill-advised and potentially damaging to both of their reputations.

Isa focuses her attention on the jacket all the more.

"I will need your shirt, too. There is a bathrobe in the bathroom you may wear if you like. It is on the hook behind the door." Her advice is quiet as she takes the jacket over to the ironing board, next to the tiny laundry area, near the equally tiny bathroom. Her apartment is the kind of floor plan not meant for more than two people; too cramped to provide any kind of comfort to more than that. Having more than one guest over at a time means tripping over one another.

Laying out the ironing board, she sets to heating up the iron, glancing back over her shoulder at him. Her eye is still red-rimmed.

"I know." Her statement is in response to his gentle insistence that he can't stay, and the understanding in her voice rings true. "It was… perhaps not right of me to ask that. Selfish and foolish," she sighs, shaking her head slowly as she sets to ironing the jacket out. It's not a heavy blazer, so it responds well to her careful and precise ministrations. "But that is what I want, and I do not like to lie. No. You are right. I should be focusing on the mission."

That blue eye flicks back up toward him, red brow arching a little. "But since I do not like to lie, I will tell you the truth. You make me feel…" She trails off, long enough that he might wonder whether she were going to complete that thought. Her expression is thoughtful, even as she takes care not to burn the jacket in her care, gaze focused firmly downward on the garment. "Safe. You make me feel safe, Phillip Coulson. And I do not know when the last time was that I truly felt that way."

"And if you had kissed me, a few moments ago," she murmurs, so quiet it could be missed over the hiss of the iron, "I would not have argued."

Enough of that, even if the words nearly burn her throat with the fire of their truth.

"This facility. What have you found there? What is Icarus doing that is so dangerous? I have never even heard of them before."

True to her word, she puts her focus towards the mission.

But Phillip Coulson is no fool, and there is no doubt that he notices that her tired, red-rimmed eye will not meet his.

"I have an undershirt."

Because of course he does. He's an older man, a product of an older era. He hasn't given over to the modern trend of dressing in sloppy fashion or cutting corners. He puts on every part of the deal, including the undershirt, and when he unbuttons his shirt in the same efficient fashion it's just there, a white, v-necked, Fruit of the Loom-made thin piece of armor between them and something highly ill-advised. He puts the shirt aside and steps back from her.

He'd tried to wipe two sets of tears, because he does and does not see her scars; often he can see her just as she would be without them, expects two eyes to be there, even as he accepts the fact that she is indeed scarred, hurt in ways that strike him to his core to think about. There are men who have broken under lesser degrees of pain than the pain this woman has faced. He is in awe of her.

"A man who would have kissed you a few moments ago," Phil says regretfully, "is no kind of man to feel safe with. A man who will not do things right, who cannot wait or move aside as needed, is no one who deserves you. If we are meant to share such things, we will, but in their proper time. Not when it would mean taking advantage of you, Raisa Ivanovna. Not when it would mean adding more to a heavy load that already teeters on your shoulders."

Truth. For once, unvarnished, unhidden by smiles and inscrutibility. She's not the only one missing bits and pieces of armor this morning.

When she switches to the mission he almost does a double-take; he's not there, his head isn't in that game. "There's a huge server room in the very center of the facility that we'll have to get to. We might be able to slip in like cat burglars. We'll take two quinjets. You'll be with me, May will be with her chosen backup, a man called Darkedge who isn't SHIELD but who is apparently some manner of honorable, a wetwork specialist that she trusts. The airstrip is some distance from their facilities and hopefully off their radar. We'll move from the airstrips to the facility. I'll get the data, you three will protect me, and hopefully we'll be out before anyone is the wiser. But things do get messy on missions like that, so."

He looks up, and smiles grimly. "Be prepared to fight."

For a moment the only sound that breaks the silence of the apartment is the gentle hissing of the iron as Isa guides it over the agent's jacket. Once she judges that the garment is presentable, she sets the iron up, shakng the jacket out and draping it carefully over the nearest chair. There is a very tiny kitchen table and two chairs, not quite enough of a dining area to be called a dining area.

With appropriate sobriety, Isa accepts the button-down shirt offered to her, laying it over the ironing board with a practised hand. She's no stranger to maintaining a top-notch appearance. Once upon a time, she had proudly worn her dress uniform to press meetings, after dazzling them in the air with her aerobatics, dazzling them then with her personality and her knack for distilling things down into explanations that the everyman would understand; lavishing praise and glory on the Motherland in her explanations of how these new advancements would benefit all.

How hollow those days had been, she decides, something tightening in her expression as she passes the iron over the shirt. The water reservoir gurgles, and the steam hisses softly.

"Perhaps not. But a man who would have kissed me a few moments ago would have satisfied the hole I feel in my heart. I am no stranger to heavy loads. But, no. You are right, Phillip Coulson." Her voice is soft only because she doesn't trust it to be anything louder, soft and accented in Russian, though not so heavily as she usually speaks – this is her true accent, considerably less severe than she presents it; enough to lend an exotic edge to her voice, but not enough to actually obscure words. "Please forgive my weakness. I would not drag you down with me simply because I cannot remain strong. It is not fair to you."

She watches the shirt with detached focus, moving the iron enough to keep it from burning through the fabric, but otherwise not seeing much of what's in front of her. It may be she's still thinking about how comforting it felt to be in someone else's arms, to not have to be the strong one; the stoic one. She's done that for so long, through such horrific pain, that she's grown weary of it. Part of her wonders how much strength she has left in her.

Well, he had told her that she should be focusing on the mission – and so she does, no matter how much her mind feels wrenched back to the sensation of arms around her, or the sensation of hands cupping her face gently; so gently. Her expression gives nothing away, though, stony as it ever is. Perhaps Coulson might recognise that the walls have come back down. The portcullis has slammed shut.

But there is still an edge, there. That pain and that hopeless, lost longing for comfort cannot be banished so easily.

She's been alone for too long; been hurting for too many years.

"Phillip Coulson, I have been waiting for a fight for five years. I am ready. No matter what has happened to Mikhail Nikolayevich, they have ruined my life, as surely as the Russian Air Force has taken away from me what little I had left." She studies the shirt with detached precision, eventually putting up the iron and holding it up to inspect it, frowning at her handiwork. Evidently she judges it acceptable, handing the still-warm shirt to Coulson. "I have been carrying this pain with me for five years. The chance to lash out at someone with a meaningful hand in the things I have had to endure is a welcome opportunity. You need not even order me to be there."

With undue care, she drains the electric iron's reservoir, puts up the iron, winds its cord, and folds the table. She does it with the kind of mechanical precision that suggests she's not concentrating on her task at all.

"I will be of more use to you in the air, I think, but I will defer to your suggestions or orders."

Once that's done, she offers the still-warm shirt to Coulson, finally looking up at him. It speaks to her inner strength that her eye does not wander away from his – though there's a subdued quality to her gaze that suggests she wants to look away. Humiliated, perhaps, by her own lack of judgement and fidelity. Yet even she cannot shake the sensation that something is terribly wrong in her wayward husband's behaviour. He was always a careful and precise man, and his actions are simply too blatant, too careless; too obvious. He wants to be found. Given the situation he's in, the fact that he's baiting her like this scares her half to death.

And it drives her away from him. Perhaps she really was in love with a dream; a memory. A man can change in those long years. A man would certainly change after hearing about what had happened to her. Perhaps he really had moved on, she wonders. But why would he want to seek her out? And why now, so suddenly, instead of right after she had left Moscow? Why wait until…

Expression still grim, Isa narrows her eyes. "I have had a thought, Phillip Coulson. He has only come out of the woodwork recently. Why did he not come out earlier, when I had first left Moscow? Or when I had fallen from the sky, burning? Why was he not there for me then?" Her brow furrows. "The time that he has waited… it seems to me that it coincides with when I had come to New York City. Which means that he has waited until I had joined SHIELD. Then, he began laying a trail."

"I feel as though I have been played." Something around her left eye tightens. "I do not know what it is that he is playing at, but I do not trust it."

Isa shakes her head, glancing back to Coulson.

"I have only one last matter before you leave," she says, and this time her eye does stray away from him, expression a little troubled. "I have something I would like to give to you. Probably it is not the best gift, but it is the only way I know how to express my thanks."

The shirt is still warm, and as he buttons it slowly over his body he can't help but feel it's warm not from steam, or an iron, but from her. It is a singular thing, that she has chosen to care for him in this way, as intimate, perhaps, as other things they might have gotten up to. He has had quite a few lovers over the years, though most fell by the wayside thanks to the demands of the life that he lives. He can't think of a single one who ever ironed his clothes.

He tarries a bit longer than he should with those buttons. His brow furrows as she puts her fingers on the pulse of it, the real reason she's uneasy, asking out loud a question he's been asking himself for some time. Why now is always one of the important questions someone can ask when things start hitting the fan. The timing is always the timing for a reason. There's always an important reason why things are happening now, and not 4 years ago, or 2 years from now.

His lips thin as he contemplates it, because the answer that he comes to is not one that leaves him with a lot of trust for Makarov. But there are other answers. There's still room for doubt. This could have been the first, best opportunity that he had.

She needs the void in her heart filled, and he longs to fill it. Instead, he slowly reaches for his suit jacket, crisp and clean enough to see him to a shower and change now. He pulls it slowly on over his body, buttoning it up, savoring the warmth that is already fading against his skin.

"Don't draw any conclusions yet," is all he says, all he says to all of it, because that's all there really is to say. Don't draw any conclusions, because they still don't know anything worth knowing yet. It's that lack of knowing that makes him step back from her. His face falls, just a little, as she speaks of gifts to thank him; falls in something that is both touched and discomfited. Yet he can't bring herself to say no to her. He has already denied her much, much more than he wished to deny her. He could tell her, of course, that it brings him a great deal of joy to give her things, that she need not offer any thanks beyond thanks, but the words just won't come.

So his voice is merely very soft, tinged with something emotional, not quite sad, not quite concerned, but some slow dance blend between the two. "What is it?" he asks.

Ironing shirts seems like such a small and inconsequential detail, but it's one that Isa has gone out of her way to see to. For all that he's done for her, for all that he's risked for her sake, she couldn't bear to see his reputation come into question because of her own actions. The least she can do is take the time to minimize the damage. In spite of her overwhelming temptation to do something dangerously irresponsible, she has generally proven herself as a detail-oriented and responsible woman.

The way he savours the warmth doesn't escape her. She sees how he takes his time putting the freshly-ironed garments on; how he grasps at that just as she grasps at filling the terrible void in her heart.

Perhaps they're kindred spirits, in their own way, their respective hurts brought to light by circumstance.

In spite of her career and the free-wheeling lifestyle of many pilots, she herself has not had many lovers over the years. For all her insane risk-taking, Raisa Ivanovna Yakovleva is a woman of firm ethical and moral fiber; she would not dream of straying. True, she had entertained a few brief affairs before she had met Mikhail – flights of fancy fuelled by vodka, evapourating in the light of day when it became clear the relationships had lacked any real substance.

Yet Raisa pretends not to see as he takes so much time buttoning his shirt and his jacket, instead frowning and twisting at the hem of her tank top.

"I will not." Her agreement is simple, given in a gentle murmur, because that's all she has to say in response to it.

Coulson's logic is sound, but not knowing is something that has never sat well with her. There are already too many unknown variables in her life. So many times she had taken her life into her hands when she had settled into the cockpit of an unfamiliar aircraft – that kind of unknown had never bothered her in the past, and indeed she had been touted as fearless at the apex of her career. Indeed, some would still call her fearless.

But that isn't true. There are things that she fears, above all others; the quiet, grasping terror of loneliness dwarfs even her terror of fire and wreckage. Not even the sound of an engine erupting at thirty thousand feet can strike such cold panic into her heart as the prospect of spending the rest of her life alone.

Isa is left standing, twisting the hem of her tank top in her hand, not willing to meet Coulson's eye.

"Please do not move."

Her caution is soft, gentle; but there is an undercurrent of something approaching uncertainty in her voice. She steps forward to close into his personal space – his jacket is still warm under her hand as she lays a hand on his arm, as though to steady him or prevent him from moving.

It seems to be her intention to move before he has the opportunity to realise what she's doing until it's too late, before he has the opportunity to move away—

So long as Coulson doesn't shy away, their lips touch. It's a gentle kiss, fleeting and chaste, but no less warm for all that. Brief; brief enough that even he might be able to be taken unawares. Her other hand splays across the front of his chest, as though to push him away – or more accurately, to keep herself from drawing any closer, as she so desperately wants to.

It takes an effort of will to keep things brief. She doesn't meet his eyes, head bowing so she can look at anything that isn't him.

"Phillip Coulson, I am sorry for my inexcusable selfishness," she murmurs, bowing her head and slowly releasing both his arm and his chest. "But I needed to do that. Come what may, now. I will focus on the mission, and I will be ready for whatever role you feel I should fill."

He realizes.

He realizes as soon as she tells him not to move. He closes his eyes because he can't bring himself to shy away, and because he knows that he should. He allows the fleeting, chaste kiss, savoring it like he savors the warmth of the shirt. A gift in truth, one he'll keep close, though it brings a stab of shame. He should never have tempted this woman. He knows the exact moment this went irrevocably off the rails.

It was the moment he failed to walk through that door.

So it will be easy not to meet his eyes. He struggles not to put his arms around her, struggles not to sin a little more.

"Don't be sorry," he murmurs, giving her a little smile.

Then, he gently steps aside and away from her. Gentle in all that he does. His steps are quiet as he finally makes his way to the door, twelve or so hours too late. He opens his mouth as if he might say one thing more. But he does not. He slips through the door instead, closing it behind him with such little force that it hardly makes a sound as the lock clicks back into place.

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