Favor for Favor

November 06, 2017:

In the middle of SHIELD's investigation of the gala attacks, Phil Coulson personally touches base with Emma Frost.

The Remains of Stark Expo

Characters

NPCs: Cross-Org CSI Folk

Mentions:

Mood Music: None.


Fade In…

The attack at the gala is the sort of thing that attracted the attention of multiple agencies. Homeland Security, the police, the FBI, the ATF, and, of course, SHIELD.

Phil Coulson has been overseeing SHIELD’s efforts in the affair. Even as late as a week later there are still people combing over the crime scene, picking out bits of shrapnel from walls, cataloging the entire mess. If he’d had his way SHIELD would be the only agency on the ground for a multitude of reasons, starting with the fact that it was a mutant rights act of terror, and ending with the fact that it took place at Stark Industries, an organization which is, after all rather tightly intertwined with SHIELD.

Taking statements from all the guests and checking in with them is S.O.P., and Phil has left most of said S.O.P. to other agents. But some contacts require a bit of a personal touch.

No restaurants today; no surprise visits either. He called, from the crime scene, to make an appointment with one Emma Frost. He is dressed in a rumpled suit smushed down by a Kevlar vest, sporting the very fashionable ‘I’m a government agent in the middle of a crisis and I’ve been up for 36 hours straight’ look. Up for 36 hours straight, running on coffee and fumes, with lines in his normally amiable face and a hardness in his eyes that suggests he’s pretty pissed off by everything he knows to have transpired there.

The attack ultimately, after all, damn near wiped out the whole city. That probably wasn’t anybody’s direct aim, but it still damn near happened.

The weather has turned bitter cold, and the wind is fierce and sharp outside. Sympathetic weather.

Emma is summoned officially, through her official gatekeeper—the curt and efficient Ms. Beaumont. The appointment made. The appointment kept.

Ten minutes prior, the CEO is deposited at the entrance of the place by her regular driver who, despite several threats, did not actually quit. Emma does not know how much she owes Emery Papsworth for that; she just knows that it's a new sedan he’s driving after the last one got crunched under a flying chunk of debris.

She is the picture of unhappiness herself, although she wears it much differently. Her own unhappiness is wrapped in a white suit of wool gabardine, although presently only the pleated skirt is visible as its folded hem swishes about her knees beneath a thick white fur coat.

The dark circles and pale complexion that come of stealing sleep in small and irregularly spaced collections of hours are lost beneath a masterful application of cosmetics. The redness of her eyes treated as best she can.

She has a latté in one hand when she comes in, and she’ll keep it in one crimson-taloned hand like the lifeline it is unless someone straight up demands she relinquish it.

Her T-Strap heels with their stiletto points are perhaps not the best for picking over the debris-covered green towards where she’s supposed to go—wherever that is—but she manages with most of her grace intact.

She won’t have to do too much guessing, Phil appears at her side within seconds. “I’d have come to you,” he says gently, a minor protest. And he did offer to.

Nevertheless, he appreciates not having to. Leaving this spot until the job is done would not have been ideal in the slightest. He takes in her appearance, but whatever subtle signs of strain he sees he responds to not one whit, if he sees any at all. It might be a bit too much he doesn’t observe at least a few.

“We have a command center over that way if you’d like a place to sit down out of the action.” But if she wants to stand, drink her coffee, and oversee the processing of this massive crime scene he certainly won’t try to herd her out of doing that.

There are a hundred reasons why here, rather than there. And when he appears, Phil is given a tight smile.

“Wherever you like,” Emma says, her tone carefully neutral as she takes in the remains of months of planning, shattered in under twenty minutes. Years of less measurable effort hanging from an invisible but nonetheless fraying thread. “It’s all gone to hell anyway, Agent Coulson.”

A hand sweeps out as an indication that he should lead where he thinks is best. She’ll trust him in that much.

He chooses to take her to the command center for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that he simply thinks it might be less of a strain for her. He pulls a chair out for her, and if it’s a folding aluminum chair he still does it with the same habitual gallantry he would use if they really were on one of their outings.

He pulls another one up to sit across from her, waving everyone else out of there. He doesn’t start in with the questions right away. Instead, he leans forward a bit. “How are you holding up, Miss Frost? I know this had to have been a harrowing experience.”

Though he chooses to use formal address, though his soft tones sound about like they always do, he’s genuine in this concern. It reflects out of his eyes if nothing else, empathy-filled as they are. He doesn’t push it much more than that. He doesn’t want to ask in a way that makes her feel too terribly vulnerable.

Nevertheless, it bears asking.

The habits of a gentleman are afforded a small gentling of Frost’s smile, more in one corner than another. But how is she holding up?

“I’ve lived through worse,” the blonde tells him flatly, sipping from her cup once she’s settled into that chair. And that might be true. Her pale eyes watch as people leave, and she takes her time sucking down a measure of the caffeinated ambrosia in her hands.

It’s not until they’re completely alone that she heaves a long breath and then sinks down lower into the curve of the metal folding chair and crosses her legs. “But I do think it did manage to find its own little place in the top 25 or so. But, I suppose, the fun’s only just beginning, so maybe it’ll manage to scale the standings.”

“The fun’s only beginning? What makes you say that?”

Phil Coulson has his own thoughts on the matter, of course. He might even agree. But it was an unexpected sentiment from her mouth, and he doesn’t want to assume. It might even be the start of a thread he needs to tug on, one he wouldn’t have considered.

So he starts there. He wanted her perspective as much as anything else. The raw facts of the matter are pretty well nailed down at this point. Now it’s time to dig deeper, and if anyone can help him do that?

He’s pretty sure it’s the white-clad woman in the chair across from him, one who sees and hears more than most.

“Do you have them in custody?”

Emma sips, as she answers question with question. Her smile fades and eyebrows lift as she drapes her one forearm across her lifted knee. It’s quite possibly the most annoying non-answer one can give in these kinds of situations, but it has a point.

She assumes his organization does not. And if they do not, that means that there are two very angry young people out there who clearly have no compunction about a body count.

“Ah. No. We do not.”

Phil isn’t happy about it either, but even he has to admit SHIELD is going to have to look for some serious solutions they don’t have today to say, slow the speedster down enough to even have a shot at capturing him. There is plenty of work to be done.

But he hadn’t wanted to assume what Emma meant, either.

“Did you get anything off of them mentally that might help?”

As grey of an area telepathy can be, Phil Coulson is again perfectly willing to get whatever intel he can off of it. “Or was it too chaotic, with the female getting into people’s head?”


Emma looks down to her coffee, not really happy to admit what she must.

“There was a lot going on,” and heroes enough that she had fully intended to not get involved at all. “And I was focused on trying to keep people calm to get them out of the Expo.”

She sips without looking up.

“And when the woman decided to make that job harder with the mind games, I let her know how I felt about it.” With pain. With a whole barrel full of pain, targeting neural pain receptors with glorious precision.

“I can’t give you a lot, I’m afraid, Agent Coulson. I’m sorry for that.”

“Quite alright, Miss Frost. It sounds like you did exactly the right thing.” Phil means that. Keeping civilians calm so they could get out seems like the right priority to him, as does finally attacking the woman with psionic power.

She says she can’t give him much and so he takes her at her word; if she had more she’d give him more, he knows. Instead he asks, quietly: “Is there anything I can do for you, Emma?” Dropping to the more familiar name because it just seems right, in this moment, to do so.

And despite the moments where he’s been caught up in her beauty, right now what she’s getting is the same fatherly gaze any of his agents might get; the same impulse to take care of his people, the list of his people, apparently, being one more quite exclusive list that Emma Frost has worked her way onto.

“Yes, actually,” Emma says, still not looking up. She closes pale eyes instead and savors the heat in her cup.

“If you would keep an ear to the ground and let me know if someone starts earnestly trying to resurrect the mutant registration cause, I would appreciate it. And also, please make very certain that my records are…” She looks for the right word. The right request. What she finds is a shrug and a single syllable that signals her abandonment of the course. “Well.” She’d have them disappear entirely if she could. She’d bury every last mutant in mundane living until this passes if she could.

She can’t.

And it’s not reasonable to make the request.

So she doesn't.

She swirls her cup slowly and sips again. Her mind drifts, briefly, to the crews working outside. Not for all of the deep secrets that they carry, although they are likely numerous and valuable collectively. No, for today anyway, she simply uses her vast psychic ability to preserve her own hide. Her name will sing like a captain’s bell; and catching the wrong sentiment will sound the alarm.

“A crowd at the Expo, I can manage,” she continues, voice soft as she continues to avoid eye contact. Regardless of what she finds in the course of her psychic snooping, there is a truth to confess: “Keeping the whole world calm is a little beyond me.”

Phil’s eyes sober greatly. He hadn’t really thought about the long-term political consequences of this act, too caught up in the short-term of processing and dealing with it.

He looks in her eyes for a moment, a sign he’s going to try to…well. Think at her.

«I can at least bury it in a misfile. I will tell you nobody at SHIELD is talking about registration. Powers don’t make someone dangerous. Being willing to do this sort of thing is what makes someone dangerous. Human terrorists could wreak as much havoc with one dirty bomb.»

He frowns faintly, thoughtfully. One of his younger Agents got herself caught on camera during the Barnes trial, making what the world had taken as an official statement. He had severely reprimanded her at the time, but he might be able to get her to make a statement like that again, this time on purpose. If he can keep her hide out of the fire for it with his own higher-ups.

Maybe he can get an ‘official’ statement out that SHIELD does not support any such thing. They do keep a registry, it’s true, of metahumans proven to be dangerous or out of control, but having different genetics isn’t an automatic write onto that registry. He has mutant agents, Inhuman agents, agents that aren’t so neatly classified.

So really, it ought to be the no-brainer, but SHIELD is always so reluctant to take an official stance on anything at all.

The crews, for the most part, are thinking things like ‘residue’ and ‘Sentex’ and ‘what a goddamned mess.’

Emma feels the pull of Phil’s attention the moment before his effort, and pale eyes lift to meet his with the sort of intensity that is likely only disconcerting if one knows her capability.

Which he does, sooo…

She allows a very small, grateful smile to curl her lips as a mark that she appreciates the value of the offering he’s giving her. The gift is a precious one.

In the silence of the command center, she hears him offer it very clearly. And, he will hear her, a murmur nestled among his own thoughts. « Thank you. » Heaving a deep breath of some relief, she allows the smile to fade once more from view and attends once to the matter of her ever-cooling coffee.

But even as she drinks, she continues to “talk” to him. « Someday, Mister Coulson, I really do owe you a lesson or two. Getting a little bit of mental training from a telepath—if you’ve never— is… a little more practical than you might get elsewhere. On all fronts, I could be borrowing trouble, I know. But best prepared and not need than need and not have prepared, hm? »

—-

His mind is flashing on the doctors who were in on that operation, but they’re all good people. And distracted. They might remember ‘some woman Coulson brought in’, but that’s about it. His habit of keeping everyone about 10% in the loop is going to pay off in that regard.

He has an intense listening face on, as usual he looks slightly delighted when she can hear him and answer back in a way that he, too, can hear. That part of him that never stopped being a boy who was endlessly impressed by all the wonders and secrets that exist in the whole world.

«That would be most appreciated,» he admits. «SHIELD has some standard training, but…it’s not from telepaths.»

It’s probably the reason his mind is such a file cabinet. It’s probably all a trick of focusing and compartmentalizing to keep one’s surface thoughts neat, clean, and orderly. Even with that trick he has certainly allowed some things to bleed from time to time.

Even as it does now, with a worried surface thought bubbling beneath the more focused one.

There’s no time left. Those traitors have to be found and rooted out. ‘Order from chaos’ is practically the *other* Hydra mantra, damn it. They’re going to try to take advantage of this somehow, which means they’ll fan the flames. Not in MY SHIELD, though.

« A favor for a favor, » the blonde mind witch tells him. « It’s how we survive. »

Because that is what she is preparing for. How to survive. How to thrive. In shadows and backroom deals and necessary compromises.

As he revisits the day of their meeting—perhaps without his knowing, as he counts down the list—Emma gets a refresher on the liabilities that know her. Those faces that could know her, the telepath tries to convince herself. She remembers how much she’d hated him that day, dragging her—a wild thing—out of her comfortable den to perform tricks.

It had worked out in its own peculiar way, despite the odds of it. And here they are now.

The thought passes and moves to another. Or, rather, one intrudes on the space where she has allowed her mind to encompass his to listen.

It’s not eavesdropping when she was invited in, is it?

Emma could hide that she’d heard the thought. She’s certainly hidden the discovery of greater revelations from view with the self-awareness that comes regular practice in deception. She decides, ultimately, to consider a different track.

Because he invited her in.

An eyebrow pricks upwards, and her head cants curiously to one side a brief moment later. « What traitors? » she asks, eyes narrowing with a sentiment difficult to discern. He might not even be aware of what she’s asking, should he be unaware of even his own thoughts where they pass — like something caught in the current beneath the icy surface of a frozen river and flashing itself visible briefly. She asks it anyway.

There’s a mental feeling that amounts to «!!» as he realizes he’s let something slip.

Then, wryly, «Yeah. Definitely need that training.»

He hesitates, letting his mind go blank for just a second. Or mostly blank. What floats through there is almost a habitual calculus. The man keeps secrets like fish swim. He keeps them even when they don’t need to be kept. From people who he trusts as often as from people who he does not.

Once a secret is out, it’s out.

But this one is out, and at last he lets out a small, audible and worried sigh. This has been weighing on him, etching the lines in his face deeper and making him lose just a little bit more of his hair. «There’s at least one. Maybe more,» he admits at last. «I discovered it during the Barnes trial. One of them outranks me. It’s not Fury, of course. I have a team hunting the mole, but it’s slow going. We’ve got to build a case. We’ve ruled at least one of them out. The traitor also knows I know, so intervening or searching directly has been impossible for me.»

The genuine surprise and muted horror of a thing revealed from Phil earns a shrug of Emma’s shoulders large enough to not be lost beneath the thick mounds of silky white fur wrapping them. ‘yeah, telepath, hi,’ it says. It’s distinctly not an apology, but it instead carries a subtle note of amusement.

Because she’s horrible like that.

But the amusement of being places she’s probably—er, definitely not supposed to be fades a few beats afterwards so that she can offer something a little more sympathetic to the subject matter. He’s got a traitor, and a traitor can mean very real and horrible things when secrets are not just a preference but a requirement.

« That is… unfortunate, » she decides to offer up at last.

To state the obvious.

Phil simply flashes a wry and understated smile to her amused reaction, his shoulders rising and falling in resignation under the rumpled fabric of his suit. He doesn’t find it horrible; he can see the humor. Maybe because he would have been able to anyway. Maybe because he’s exhausted and slightly punch drunk.

«Your penchant for understatement aside,» he thinks dryly, «I’m on it. But if you happen to ‘hear’ any of my people thinking ‘Hail Hydra’ please don’t hesitate to drop me a line.»

He can’t exactly take her for a walk around the Triskelion, nor can he make a point of getting her to shake hands with one of the 3 high-ranking suspects. Would that he could. But if she stumbles on something, he kind of won’t say no to hearing about it.

In the meantime, her own concerns: «Let’s try to work closely together to strategize about how we can keep innocent mutants safe. And innocent humans who would be caught in the crossfire. And Inhu— people. Just people.» There are just too many types of metas to sit there and list them all to make sure he doesn’t miss anyone.

“Alright.”

The words are offered aloud, marking the first in a good long while. But then, slowly, the woman uncrosses her legs, stretches her back a little, and then begins getting back up onto her feet.

“If there’s something else I can do, please just let me know?”

Emma kills the last of her coffee pretty quickly after that, and then looks for a wastebin. When she finds one, she gently tosses it inside. And then her slender hand extends towards Phil with a very small, encouraging smile. “Because it is a pleasure, as always, Agent Coulson.”

—-

Phil takes her hand, giving it a little squeeze that’s meant to be reassuring. Sure, she doesn’t entirely give off the air of needing to be reassured, that doesn’t stop him from trying.

“Of course, Miss Frost,” he says. “My line is, of course, open to you as well.” By now she’s got his direct one, the one nobody outside the agency usually gets, but there are some pretty damned good reasons for that.

“I appreciate your time today,” he says, letting her hand go after a moment more. The gentleman in him thinks he ought to walk her to the exit, the Agent in him thinks that might be a bit too familiar in front of far too many eyes and ears. So he settles for an apologetic look. “I’d walk you out, but I should see how the evidence collection is going on the south side of the scene.”

“Not to worry,” Emma tells him, and she means it on more than one level. “I’m very sure that I’ll find the way out.” She leans in to whisper, “I don’t often get lost.”

Whether that’s actually true on both of those levels or not is another story.

Her file probably has notes enough to at least hint that it’s not entirely honest.

But she says it anyway, in an attempt to afford Phil that same professional courtesy of assurance. She intends to handle herself as much as possible and be no cause for additional concern.

He has concerns enough.

“I’ll be on my way, then,” she tells him, pulling her hand back. “I hope the rest of your day goes smoothly, Agent.” Because these days, who the heck knows what the rest of the day will look like?

A final smile, and then the blonde turns to go.

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