Fake Tennis Partners

September 19, 2017:

Phil Coulson may have vetted Maria Hill, but Maria isn't too terribly sure about Phil yet.

New York City

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Darcy Lewis, Natasha Romanova, Clint Barton, Melinda May, Sally Stojespal, Rin Nakano, Peggy Carter

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

Good spy-work takes calculation, planning, and the ability to disavow all knowledge of action. Agent Maria Hill did that well. She always plays her role well. As a woman driven by business, a-by-the-book attitude, and Nick Fury's constant need for action, she had read the information given her and moved on it. Quickly.

The request for a meeting with Roscoe Grenon allowed opportunity for a bait and switch on his day timer. She'd brought a day timer with her and switched his for the other. She wouldn't be able to return it, but she'd hoped that it would be enough. She'd waited. And then the opportunity happened. He'd look away for a phone call, and she'd taken it, leaving behind an identical book in its stead.

She's smiled, thanked him for the meeting and career advice and then went about her day.

But she hadn't gone somewhere to rally. She'd arranged a drop.

The empty warehouse where she asked Phil Coulson to meet her is one of Fury's safe houses. It's not on SHIELD's radar. But it's certainly on Maria and Nick's. She knows all of them. If ever anyone wanted to know the skeletons in Fury's closet, they could put the pressure on her. Maybe. If she'd give him up.

There's no furniture. Just the dusty emptiness of a warehouse long out of operation.

*

Phil arrives, though whether he knew about this one or not is a fact he will keep close to his own chest, as he always does. He slips in through the backdoor and heads over to her. "Man. Some spy should launch a safehouse maid service. They'd make a killing," he quips. And then he winces at his own words, though there's no telling whether it's a genuine wince or all part of his lightly-spoken joke. "Though I suppose that would be the whole problem."

Never unable to give up on the chance for a joke, is Phil. In a black suit with a grey dress shirt and no tie, he's more forgettable than ever. Just a guy like a thousand other guys out there, probably with the world's most forgettable and boring job. He does get down to business quickly though. There's something hard and driven in him right now, something that won't even allow the respite of a joke for long. His expression makes the imperceptible shifts from something that invites her to have a laugh with him to something serious, focused.

"What do you have for me?"

*

Maria isn't nearly as nondescript as Phil. She'd dressed the part today. Her black bodysuit, her flight suit, makes her obviously an agent of SHIELD. The tight ponytail, her boots, even the way she walks is different when she wears this. She commands presence. And she's damned good at it.

Her eyebrows lift at the joke, a silent /really/, behind the action. But unlike some in SHIELD's employ, he does earn the faintest smirk in response. She may not laugh or lose the attitude, but it's what got her this far. "Grenon's journal," she states blandly. "I haven't gotten to look through it yet. I can't exactly leave this lying around the office. He'll know his was replaced soon enough." As the new one will have no memos, notes, or calendar appointments at all.

"I traded it for another. He's smart though," her tone flattens. "The one I left had notes in it. Plenty of appointments. While it's deniable that he just misplaced it for someone else's on the subway, it's not likely he'll believe it. If he's involved, he's going to start his own mole hunt."

She holds out the journal for Phil to take. In her opposite hand though, she hides the syringe. It's small. Tiny. Easily concealed in her palm. When Phil takes the journal, she aims to stab him with the needle. It should be enough to both sedate him enough that he won't immediately go on the defensive and give him an ample dose of the truth serum.

Maria Hill doesn't like surprises. She aims to not have any.

*

"Were you able to forge his handwriting? That might hold him off a little longer."

He reaches for the journal, and then…

He feels a syringe sliding into his arm muscles. Now it is totally Maria's turn to get the really?? look. And he gives it. He gives it so well. It's all in the area around the eyes; his smile almost doesn't even falter, though it turns into something that is about 33% amused, 33% pained, and 33% exasperated. 1% is just the 'damn it' look, embarrassed that she got the better of him. But then, as spies go, he can be a little too trusting. The eyes might betray a little concern, too. What if he was wrong about her?

He finds a nearby wall. Slides down to sit with his back to it. Rests his elbows between his knees and says, "I confess, I am totally your Secret Santa this year. I'm torn though. I'm not sure if you really need another pair of cool sunglasses."

*

The syringe gets disposed. Relegated to the floor. Evidently sharps containers aren't in high demand at the moment. Maria's lips twitch upwards at the remark. "Oh, come on, Phil." There's a pause as her hands clasp behind her back. "Everyone needs a pair of cool sunglasses." She allows her head to drop towards her shoulder and she shrugs at him lightly. "Especially in our line of work. The eyes always give it away. Well, if anything does."

She treads towards him and inhales a long breath. "Yes. I forged his handwriting. It took some skill, but it's not easy to spot. He will catch on though." She's not dumb. She's actually painfully good at her job. Sometimes too good. At times it makes her doubt herself.

"So." Her eyebrows lift. "Is it true?" There's a long pause that follows. "Has one of the Level 9 agents betrayed SHIELD?" Her eyes hone in on him. "Or is this another bullshit Fury training exercise? Because frankly I'm tired of them." Her eyes lid and she actually cringes. In a way it's telling of her own hand. "The constant 'snake in SHIELD' motif is starting to really piss me off. He can at least grow an imagination."

*

"It's true," Phil says. The serum is good stuff. In this case he hadn't lied to her at all, but he has held a lot back to his chest.

"I found out during the trial of James Buchanan Barnes." He had intended to keep that Barnes connection way under the radar, but everything is taking on a dreamlike quality. She is good at her job, as evidenced by this very scenario, but Phil, Dad-like, can't help but double check. It's the spy equivalent of 'did you brush your teeth.' It's further evidence by her willingness to play along with his joke, putting him at his ease for this interrogation, relaxing him, helping the serum to work faster before he might think to fight it.

"Paranoid old bastard was on to something." He grimaces. "Don't get me wrong, I love the guy. Not trying to say I don't. And paranoia's good. I mean obviously. Because here we are. With a snake in SHIELD. Hey, we should get snake stickers. Whenever we dig one out and arrest them we can stick one right on their forehead."

A pause.

"They should be the shiny kind."

*

Maria's fingers rake through her hair, tugging at the elastic holding her ponytail in place before letting it wrap around her wrist and allowing it all to fall to her shoulders. "Oh, we all love Fury," she replies. "But he is a paranoid old bastard," there's easy agreement there. Her eyebrows draw together, "Why stop at shiny? Get those damned holographic ones that kids are so fascinated by. How is it 3D? The miracles of science." Her eyes narrow, "I bet SHIELD R&D could make a gun out of that stuff. Fitz would probably call it the Distract-a-Gun." She's used to SHIELD antics.

"Are you involved?" she finally asks. "And I don't mean in the resolution of the thing, but with the mole? Did you make me? Hendricks lost his life. I like you, Phil. But I swear if you got Hendricks killed on my watch…" her lips thin into a grim solid line.

*

"That's why Fitz isn't allowed to name anything. Clearly a gun like that should be called the Disco Boomer."

And this is why Phil isn't allowed to name anything either.

"I'm not a traitor, Maria." Phil says, levity fading entirely. "I realized the mole had sold you out and I came to the rescue. I'm sorry I didn't make it in time to save Steven." The pain etches into his face; he takes it personally, blames himself. If he weren't under the influence, he'd never let it show, but he is, and it does. It ages him, this man who usually has a youthful quality in some respects in spite of his years. "I didn't betray him, but I did get him killed, because I wasn't fast enough."

He closes his eyes. No matter how many times he tells himself: this is the job, his people know the risks— losing an agent never ceases to bother him. They take the risks, becoming the shield that defends the world. He's supposed to be their shield.

*

"I prefer the Flash Bang," Maria offers in return.

She follows suit when Phil becomes serious. And her chin drops into a nod of ascent. She can buy all of that. "I'm sorry, Phil. I had to know." And trust is hard to come by. "And if Nick had pulled this off," her eyebrows lift, "I had to know that too."

Her tongue rolls over her lips. Maria finally closes the remaining distance between them and sits next to him against the wall. "Steven was my friend," she says. "He had family still," so few agents do. Orphans are easy to recruit. "A sister in Montague. I was supposed to call her. I took a Quinjet and we had face-to-face instead." The memory, however recent, weighs on her. But as far as Phil's involvement, "I just… had to know." Her jaw tightens.

Resolve causes her hands to ball into tight fists. "So. We need to cross-reference the day timer with his whereabouts. And check his future meetings."

*

It would be a dark thing indeed if Fury got an Agent killed for the sake of running a training exercise. Phil gets it.

He opens his eyes and looks over at her, hazel eyes reflecting quiet compassion as she talks about her friend. Their mutual friend. "It was good of you to do that," he said, meaning Maria's commitment to making the notification herself. He waves off the apology. He'd rather she feel sure than not sure. It's also something he might have done himself.

"What's his very next meeting?" he asks, gesturing to the day planner. He might be a little woozy still, but he's sharp enough to dive into next steps with her, to try to come up with a plan in regards to Roscoe. "That's probably the only one we're going to be able to verify, because it's the only one that he might get to before he figures out what's happened. Mole or innocent he's going to get paranoid and change everything after that. Also— any patterns out of the ordinary in there?"

He's gonna make her check. Someone went and caught him off guard with a needle and all.

*

Maria opens the book and begins to skim the pages. Her fingers trail the pages and she very quickly scans each—eyes flitting across pages upon pages for anything that stands out. She's good at this. Sussing through data to find patterns is imminently important.

"Next appointment is in… Syracuse." Her nose wrinkles. "I can probably get there without rousing suspicion." At least it's in the USA. That should help her find reason to be in the area. But as she looks through the book her lips purse. "Do you know if he has a girlfriend? When the hell do all these people have time for a relationship?" She reads the notes aloud. "Get Andrea flowers. Andrea, dinner at six." She frowns. "Seriously. Maybe at Level 9 life becomes cushy, but all of these Agents seem to have the gift of time. At least based on that file. And I'm not talking about sex. I'm talking about a relationship. You don't buy flowers for your fake tennis partner."

She frowns. "I'll look into this woman. See if anything shakes loose."

*

"You do if you have any class," Phil says mildly. "I buy flowers for all my fake tennis partners."

A discussion about fake tennis partners while someone is on truth serum. Dangerous territory! Could veer off into TMI land any minute! But fortunately, other than revealing that he tries to at least be sweet to his casual hookups, he manages to keep anything too unprofessional from slipping out. Unless one is freaked out by the admission that Phil Coulson still has a few of those.

"Roscoe and I aren't close," he adds, "so I don't know. "The only one on the suspect list I could tell you much about is Lionel. He was my mentor. He's one of my closest friends. He's the other reason I recused myself from the actual investigation. Because all I can think is that all we have are three suspects: Hand, Grenon, and Christianson. And we have to put them all under a microscope. And it sucks."

*

"It's so nice that you buy yourself flowers, Phil," Maria's tone takes on a saccharine edge. She's like this. She's always been like this. But it's hard to get this version of her. Very few receive anything but her professional nearly-stilted self. Yet underneath that, she's more good humoured. It just takes a lot to work through those layers.

"So you feel good about Shepherd." A long pause follows. "I'll look into him myself. I'm going to put some of the others on track." She pinches the bridge of her nose. "It's not just phone records either. Email is good. Appointments are useful. Tracking is good. But we taught these people to be invisible. If they won't want us knowing, they won't make it easy. In fact, the cleaner the exterior, the more likely they are hiding their tracks."

She looks pointedly at Coulson, "You know that, Phil. If it looks too clean, then it's time to stop the tech and start the follows. But it's a risk."

*

Coulson smirks at the harsh jab and claps a hand to his heart. "Ouch, Maria. Ouch. If you are mad I haven't asked you to play tennis yet all you had to do was ask."

Well, that was unprofessional. Whoops. It's her fault. She's the one who mixed the drugs. At least it's unprofessionalism that can be taken as just another joke. Phil is in all actuality an incurable flirt, but he tends to restrain himself around his agents.

He feels good about Shepherd? "Maybe. I feel good about him and bad about him. I can't imagine him as the mole, but now I have to imagine him as the mole. I don't love it. He taught me everything I know. Recommended my shift from data to operations after the stunt I pulled in Bucharest."

Stop the tech, start the follows. He nods. "Yeah. Well. Good opportunity to teach those ladies team shadowing. I mean Melinda already knows team shadowing. The other ladies. Actually I'm not really sure about Darcy. She's really whacky. I'm not sure she can be serious long enough to do work like this. I almost didn't bring her in, just because I'm afraid she's going to get shot. And I have no idea what to make of all the nonsense with the roller-skates. But I agree, electronic records are only going to produce so much. I think they've given some good starting points. Rin seemed to have some decent ideas. But I mentored Rin myself. I think she's going to be an asset to you."

A thoughtful pause. "Don't overlook Stojespal. She will tell you she's just an engineer, but she's got the goods. She just needs them refined."

*

"Wait. Wait, wait, wait!" Maria lifts a hand. "You brought an agent in that you think could get shot?" Her eyebrows lift. "You, Phil Coulson, brought someone in who could be an actual liability." Her head shakes slightly. "Alright. So put everyone on a tail. See what shakes out." Her lips flatten into a line. "Pay particular attention to those who seem too neat. Maybe they are squeaky clean, but like I said, we taught them to be invisible. If they don't want people knowing what they're up to, they can do that."

Her teeth play at her bottom lip. "And the Quinjet pilots. Log books will only say so much. I know we can get R&D to look over them, but not without arousing suspicion. We should tail them too. It's possible that legitimate meetings are being piggybacked with unsanctioned ones. Just a matter of who attends."

*

"The Quinjet pilots might actually tell you more. They are the ideal go-betweens, and have lots of idle time nobody bothers to log," Phil agrees.

His expression has gone pained and he says, "When I started this thing I identified four people I knew for sure I could use as assets. Four people, two fairly green. She's done some good work, ferreted out a red herring named Addy who was essentially just running his mouth too much. The Russian mob, of all things, flattered him into saying more than he should. So he's been retired, and now I gotta wonder what the Russian mob did with our information. Darcy did all that. She's got hidden depths, but she's just— so, so whacky. Now that we've started to vet some agents though…well. It might be good to use her only sparingly."

He exhales. "I'm almost 98% sure Barton's safe enough to approach with this. Natasha…"

Well, "I'll worry about Natasha."

"Still, vetting Barton and getting him on board might be a good next step too."

*

"The strategy seems sound," Maria considers a few other options and simply shakes her head. "But everyone will have their own tail." Her lips purse. "Except for the green agents. I think they need to be teamed up." She squints at Coulson. "How much of a liability is Lewis? Can I, in good conscience, leave her with another rookie? Or…" she can actually feel herself frown, "is this the kind of situation where I have to be her backup?"

Because this is how Hill is going to die. From backing up a rookie. She already has become resigned to it.

"Unless… we could get Lewis to talk to the pilots. You said she's a schmoozes. Possible she might be able to loose some threads to pull…"

*

"Yeah. I wouldn't put her on stealth. I'd put her on schmooze. Darcy schmoozing and making inappropriate jokes is nothing out of the ordinary. She can be a good distraction too. I mean that's what she does, act distracting. I don't think she can do long-term confidence games where she befriends anyone and tries to learn their deepest secrets though. I think what's going to happen is she'll start liking whomever she's with too much. But she is loyal, I'll give her that. So. Not a liability at all if managed carefully."

Which really just means no more of a liability than most. Everyone has their trouble spots, even seasoned agents like Hill and Coulson.

He gestures to the journal. "I am going to return it to Grenon," he explains. "Make it out to be a big prank. If he's the mole he won't be too surprised. If he's not he'll just think— there goes Coulson, acting like a big clown again. Gnar. Gnar. Gnar. Why can't he ever be professional. Gnar. And that might make some of those appointments more useful once you've got your copy made. Because then if you follow him and he's in exactly the right place with the same people, well, great. But any agent would scramble everything without some harmless explanation. And if he scrambles anything, well. That's not a great sign."

*

"I think we have an action plan then," Maria offers before pressing her hand to the floor. Her watch begins to beep. "And you'll be feeling like yourself in about ten minutes." She timed it in case she'd have to leave. She's not a woman who leaves much to chance anymore. "You know, as much as Agent Carter has been suspended, she could trail one of these agents."

Maria's eyebrows lift. "And we could track the Quinjets too. Get someone in tech on it." She doesn't push the issue further though. "I'll connect with the agents and give assignments." It seems like a solid strategy and steps moving forward now that she's established Coulson can be trusted.

*

"Agent Carter is in Wakanda of all places, and that's where she's needed most. If she's successful, though, she can be brought in, as can the asset she's down there protecting."

He also gives a thumbs-up. Ten minutes. Fabulous. He'll just sit here for all ten of those minutes. Maybe he'll even take a nap. He's already kind of dusty, so that's not really a concern. Except then if someone tailed either of them to this warehouse he'll get his throat slit. Damn.

But having given that information, he simply gives a firm nod. "Keep me posted," he says. "And stay safe, Maria."

Of course. He's also a smart-ass.

Her desk drawer tomorrow will have one extra pair of cool sunglasses in it. And a package of shiny stickers. They're not snakes though. Just a whole sheet of shiny, tiny little flowers.

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