|Coulson, Cabe, Coffee, Cupcakes Redux|
|What: Agent Coulson pops down to the city for coffee and a walk, brings Bethany her usual--coffee and cupcakes--while he's at it.|
A sunny Monday afternoon finds Bethany somewhere she hasn't been in ages--the sunshine and fresh air (for some value of fresh) of Central Park. She's carrying a messenger bag that contains several heavy, dire-looking tomes, a battered Moleskine notebook filled with sketch after sketch of maps and castle layouts, her pencil case, and her computer. She's got her earbud in but everyone is under warning not to open the channel unless she opens it first.
Her dull grey jacket-of-many-pockets makes an excellent place to lie in the grass, she unzips her beat-up boots and pries them off, stuffing her socks inside. The fatigue pants get rolled up, the CMS T-shirt gets rucked up in the fashion of teenaged girls since the invention of the T-shirt--front hem yanked up through the collar and down to be knotted fast.
Getting sun on her skin also reveals layers of bruises from intensive training with Stark's new agents but she's forgotten about that. Flopped on her belly with her feet in the air, she hauls out a book that looks like it's covered in black lizard skin and a layer of dried blood, carefully opens it to the black ribbon marker, and starts to read.
A shadow passes over her light, just before a familiar, nondescript man in a neat black suit settles down to the left and slightly in front of her, seating himself cross legged on the grass in an unbothered fashion with a full drink carrier that smells of coffee and a pair of bakery bags. Agent Coulson offers her a smile and one of the bags, and turns the drinks so two of them are aimed her way. "For you," he says simply.
Bethany's face lights up and she pushes the book aside to take what's offered. Coffee and, whee, cupcake. "You're brilliant, thanks." There's a good chance she forgot to eat what with all the paperwork and interviews and then her scramble for freedom for the first time in days.
"How are you?" Bethany takes a sip of coffee and wriggles happily in spite of her aches and pains. Coffee is good, and so is Coulson. She doesn't bother asking how he knew this, that, or the other. It's Coulson. She's not going to question the mystique.
He'd just tell her not to ruin the magic, anyway. Coffee, and a pair of cupcakes in her bag, a muffin and a small data tablet from his jacket for him. He smiles at the question, shrugs. Fought robots in a nuclear plant, contained a breakout of zombie semi-ninja cyborg... things on the helicarrier... "Same as it ever was, I suppose. You look like you've been keeping entertained, though."
"Fast tracking Stark's new eyecandy," Bethany says. She dips her finger in the icing of one cupcake, then licks it off. Her usual habit, tasting it carefully at first. "Don't get me wrong, they're all incredibly competent, otherwise I wouldn't look so bad. It's just that they also had to be very hot, which was a pain in my ass. Man couldn't do me the courtesy of being gay," she grumps without any heat behind it. How can you be grumpy when you have a cupcake?
Coulson chuckles at the thought. "Then he'd insist on unreasonably attractive men at all times, and you'd either be out a client or have to change your schtick," he notes with a light air, then sobers. "But actually I meant the light reading." Not that books that look like the one she has are ever 'light reading' in his experience.
"Magic." Bethany doesn't mind if he knows--she'd be an idiot not to be studying it, given the company she keeps. "Working on some... less conventional strategies and, possibly, weaponry. This city's lousy with magic users of one kind or another, it seems. Demons, pseudo-gods, hedge witches, all that. A girl needs to keep on top of things. At the least I need to know what I'm asking for when I try and hire a few alternative agents."
Coulson gives a low whistle, and nods. "Makes sense," he replies in a neutral sort of way. "Just be careful with it-- magic has this way of sneaking surprises past the careful." He drinks some thoughtful coffee. "Once we were called in on an incident. Turns out this kid got his hands on a book that was dangerous to even read. Real Lovecraft stuff," he notes, and breaks off a piece of muffin to chew on like he's discussing the weather.
"I'm relatively sure I'm going to hell," Bethany says, in all seriousness. "At least now I'll know some of the residents when I get there. Right now, I'm mostly reading about principles. Not even trying anything small. There's simply no logic behind most of it. Half the people who do it don't even know how. Like asking a fish how to swim." She takes a sip of coffee before continuing. "But it was dangerous for me to jump into the field when I was a kid, too. I paid for that in spades and yet, I'd do it again. I'm going to be marginally more careful this time. I promise I haven't traded my soul for anything yet."
Coulson has no reason to doubt her or her competence. So he just nods and takes her at it. "Good. Usually when that happens people end up on the other side of the job. And that would be a shame," he notes, and frowns at his tablet. He's still giving her his attention, just multitasking with his own reading. Which seems less than appealing. "So I expect this means you're still finding yourself in the company of our decidedly Nordic friends?"
"The wayward one, yes. I've been spending time off-world when I'm with his people, though there is cell service now. It can be patchy, but it works. Politics is hairy in some of those realms, as you'd expect. Less civilized than over here," she says in a tone that drips just the right amount of sarcasm. "I've had little contact with the others. A brief chat with Thor's intended. Poor kid, she really deserves for him to put a ring on it or send her back to Asgard. She's been waiting centuries, though, not like that's changing any time soon. Going to have to watch that their trade in Asgardian gold doesn't hit a point where it tips the local market. It's exceptionally pure."
The sound Coulson makes in the back of his throat sounds vaguely exasperated more than anything, and he taps, swipes, and then taps at his tablet. "Of course," he murmurs, quite obviously entering a note about the gold. "She wouldn't go," he says absently. "Not that I disagree with the sentiment."
"I'm not one to talk, but I got myself into my own mess. It wasn't something decided by someone else and laid on me." Bethany frowns and then takes a vengeful bite of her cupcake, teeth snapping like a little wolf. "It's loathsome. And so... operatic. At least one of them has, at least mostly, gotten over himself." Loki, which is why she's still happy to be his friend. "I have a low tolerance for drama, which I know sounds hypocritical... especially since..." She pauses to giggle. "...this is good. Apparently," she says conspiratorially, "I've embarked on a torrid affair with Sebastian Shaw. The internet says so. But, then again, it says I'm having an affair with Tony Stark and another with Justin Hammer. I only wish I had so much free time."
That all gets a reaction-- Coulson looks amused. "The internet also says cats live in the ceiling and rabbits wear pancakes for hats," he notes with a mild deadpan. "I'm not sure it's a credible source. I assume they're all your clients at this point. Cult of Celebrity. Where would we be without it?" Probably colonizing Mars already.
"They are, clients, yes. And I'd have Sal take me out back and shoot me before I had an affair with any of them. Not that the rumour mill doesn't make life at home... interesting." Bethany isn't going to hide that from Coulson and he's probably the only one she's willing to disclose it to, mostly because if he wanted to know it he would. Funny that Shaw's the one who really winds Alex up. "It's been good to be busy."
Coulson shakes his head, half sympathy, half a little sad. "I won't lecture you on that," he promises supportively. "You know what you're doing where your home life is concerned." He gestures with his coffee. "But let me know if you need anything and I'll see what I can do."
"Have you ever had to give up on someone?" Bethany sits up with a wince and crosses her legs before she picks up her second cupcake. "Just... cut them loose? Because, I'll be honest, I could deal with the coke, but coke and meth? The paranoia is over the top and the whoring is... he's getting sloppy. Public." She shakes her head. "All the rehab in the world didn't do jack about the coke and the booze, and now this. I feel like a failure. I feel old. And I'm distracted. If I don't do something, I'm going to get killed by someone, somewhere, and best case scenario is it's not Alex," she says bluntly.
He shakes his head. "Not in the way you mean," Coulson replies. "Let them go, yes. The job isn't very gentle on personal life." He shrugs, then frowns while he listens to the rest, and takes a moment to frame his reply. "Don't take his failures as your own, Bethany. It doesn't help him any, and it's not fair to you, either. Don't be afraid to let your people run the leg work for a while if you're worried you've been compromised. Take a vacation, stick to the office... whatever. Good agents know when to stay home-- getting killed doesn't help anyone." She's not one of his agents, but. Still.
Bethany takes a drink of coffee, thinking about it. "I like the job," she says at last. "That sounds horrible, but it is a job, being Mrs. van Tilburg, and I'm really good at it. I got used to applying the same standards to being Mrs. van Tilburg as I do to being an agent on the job. No permanent injuries, no one the wiser--that's not really the right criteria for a night at home. Can't just take a vacation from marriage, though. I'll need to put things together and then try and get him reassigned to Germany when I'm ready. Just... for efficiency."
Coulson somehow makes the next statement sound entirely non-judgemental. "You realize what you probably need is more like a new job," he says mildly. "But I meant the day job, actually. If you think you're getting sloppy with everything going on, don't court disaster. Reduce the problem where you can. Alex may not be sympathetic to such needs, but your CMS employees will be, and they can manage with minimal direction-- you've seen to that. So focus on surviving your home business for a while so you can stay sharp."
"I will, once I get Shaw settled," Bethany allows. "I have Stark's people in hand. Hammer's needs are basic. I need to do some of the work for Shaw in person. Nothing dangerous, just needs attention. Once I get that out of the way, I can put it on autopilot for a while. No new clients." Bethany polishes off her second cupcake. She's getting ribby, too much work and not enough food... well, not enough noticing being hungry.
"So, did you just come here to talk me out of my crappy marriage and give me work advice or did you want something?" After a final sip of coffee, Bethany manages to roll over on her back and stretch out all in one easy motion so that she ends looking up at Coulson from the grass rather like a puppy asking for a belly rub. Not her intention necessarily, she's just off-duty and wisely given up on having any pretences around him. "You know I'm happy to help," she says seriously, for all that she's sprawled there.
"Good," Coulson decides, and watches her roll over across a sip of his second coffee. The whole thing, plus the question and offer gets her hair tousled with a bit of a grin. "Actually, just that," he confesses. "I was on my way for morning coffee and noticed you here. If seeing behind the smoke and mirrors won't ruin the real magic for you," he says as a sort of light joke.
"Makes it better," Bethany says honestly, tucking one arm under her head and grinning at him. "After all, I am trying to learn all the magic I can, right? You know I can never resist peeking behind the curtain. I'd rather know the man than the myth any day."
"The real secret to it is there's no trick," Coulson confides with a shrug. "Just let people think what they think." He glances down at her. "Though I suppose if you really want to know something behind the curtain, I could tell you my worst-kept secret. The best-kept aren't mine."
"Okay, tell me. Since I don't seem to have any secrets from you." That's pretty much because Bethany's life is all work and what there is to know of her work is what there is to know of her--and Alex has never been subtle even if his status keeps him out of prison. Maybe she has a few secrets, but she keeps them from herself almost as well as everyone else.
He might point that out... but she probably know it as well as he does. So Instead Coulson smiles, and sips his coffee. "My prized possession. It's a full set of vintage Captain America trading cards. Mint condition. Worst-kept secret because everyone I work with knows about them. That's mostly my fault," he adds.
Bethany laughs, though not unkindly. "That's... very sweet. And you get to work with him now, which must be amazing. Kind of like me getting to have coffee with you," she adds, winking at Coulson and failing not to giggle about it. She's mostly kidding. Mostly.
Agent Coulson shrugs a shoulder, and smiles in that sort of way people do when they're trying to play off something another person's just said. So he picks the first half to respond to. "I suppose it is," he agrees, looking upwards pensively. "But you know, Cap's the reason I ended up here, so it has a neat kind of symmetry. Like a reward for going the right direction."
Bethany lets the deflection go and stores that expression under 'Coulson being adorakble' because she can, then moves on to hassling him. "So how many more years does that mean I have to wait to find out if I'm going the right direction?" She reaches out, quick-quick, and snags his tie to tug it lightly. "I'm terrible at math." No attempt not to giggle this time.
The tug gets his attention back down. It's not his fault he knows the helicarrier's up there and she doesn't, but he can hardly tell her that he wasn't just being all profoundly dramatic about it. He absently fixes his tie, and shrugs. "Couldn't tell you," he says, choosing a serious and sincere answer in the face of... giggling. "Pretty sure there isn't a standard timetable. It's more important to know when you're *not*. Harder, too," he admits.
"I think I'm getting that part down." Bethany's laughter is tempered by a sudden wave solemnity and she's looking at him in a way that's intensely deconstructive, as though she's seeing him for the first time and taking his measure all over again. "So thank you." One corner of her mouth quirks ever so slightly in a disconcertingly pensive and almost imperceptible smile.
The sudden intense scrutiny doesn't exactly bother Coulson, though he wasn't entirely expecting it-- it's something he aims at other people more often than is aimed at him. But the man works with Nick Fury, so he's quite used to some truly deconstructing gazes. He arches his eyebrow a bit, but lets her come to whatever conclusions she alights upon. There's a nod, and a simple "You're welcome."