kat8cha: (A!Movieverse - purple Hawkeye in rain)
[personal profile] kat8cha
Title: The Egg is a Metaphor (1-5/?)
Author: me
Rating: PG
Pairing: Clint/Coulson (currently pre-slash)
Summary: Noir!AU - Phil Coulson is a hard working private detective with a past as bitter as the last dregs of coffee, Clint Barton is a mysterious US Marshall tied up in Coulson's latest case.
A/N: Inspired and being written for a prompt at the Avenger's Kink Meme currently stalled because I suck. Includes cameos by Loki, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Janet Pym (nee van Dyne), and Maria Hill.

In any good film the woman would have come first. She would have entered Coulson’s dingy, ill-lit office to the beat of his hormonal drums, dressed in clinging shades of red and black. Her face would have been partially obscured, possibly by a cascade of red hair arranged to fall artfully over one eye, by the casually bent brim of a wide-brimmed hat, by a veil or by the cloudy haze of her cigarette as she worked through pack after pack. In truth, Coulson never did see her entire face, his encounters with the woman being brief, surreptitious, and often dangerous. He was sure, however, that Clint had seen her face, was possibly seeing it now as he stood between a loaded gun and Coulson’s body, Clint’s suit jacket flapping in the breeze obscuring Coulson’s possibly one clear look at his would be killer’s face.

It had all started with a woman though, two women to be exact. Jane Foster had entered his office not to the sound of beating drums but to the soft click clacking of her sensible but still stylish heels, and to the hard clack of her compatriot’s less sensible and imminently more stylish set. Foster’s hair was done up in careful curls, pinned and set in place, Darcy Lewis’ hair was cut short in the scandalous style of the day and it curled around her face to frame an expression which in the right light and mood would no doubt have been considered devilishly alluring. The lights of Coulson’s office flattered no one however, when they worked at full power they were harsh and unforgiving, but most of the time they merely flickered now and then and gave everything a grotesque yellowish cast. Coulson himself didn’t care, he often looked afflicted with scurvy due to a lack of proper diet, proper sleep, and the stress of working as a private detective in a city riddled with police corruption and mobsters.

Jane sniffled several times during their first meeting, an embroidered handkerchief making the rounds to dot at the edge of her eyes and to be sniffled into. She wanted him to find someone, not just any someone, her husband. Now, missing person’s wasn’t the kind of case Phil would pick up if he ever had the choice to be choosy, not when it was a husband involved.

“Mrs. Foster, sometimes when a husband goes missing he does not want to be found.” It was not in him to deny the truth. Husbands went missing all the time, often with a pretty house maid or cabana boy. Sometimes there were more devious plots at work, murder, embezzlement, sometimes the wife had even done the husband in, but no matter how a missing person’s case ended it was rarely pretty. “For a missing person’s case I require a retainer.”

Unfortunately, Coulson had never had the option of being choosy. Whether it was missing persons, missing pets, stalking lovers, or location the family jewels, Coulson would do just about anything to make sure he could pay the rent.

“I can pay.” Jane settled a hand on Darcy’s arm when her friend looked ready to fight Coulson over the insult of requiring a retainer. “Expenses, travel, your hourly rate and the two hundred dollar retainer you require for missing person’s cases.” Jane smiled at Coulson then, somewhat self-deprecatingly, somewhat cuttingly. Coulson barely felt the sting. “My friend Mrs. Parker informed me of your prices.”

It took him a second to remember Parker. A very pretty girl with an unfortunately intelligent and well-connected husband. Coulson had found the young man entangled in an affair of Norman Osbourn’s, it had taken some stealth to get Mr. Parker out of that without anyone becoming aware of Coulson’s involvement, it had taken some skill to make sure Parker emerged with enough blackmail to keep himself, his widowed aunt, and his wife safe. It had taken more than a little negotiation to convince Parker that the safest place for him to be would be at Four Freedoms Plaza. Parker was astoundingly well connected and could have taken refuge with a number of ‘close friends’, however Coulson didn’t trust Tony Stark as far as he could spit and he was sure that newspaper mogul J. Jonah Jameson would gladly sell someone else’s bodily organs for a news story.

“Then I’m all yours.” Foster was well dressed, modest and expensive while her companion was much flashier (although slightly less expensive). “Do you have a photograph of your husband?”

Instead of the tentative opening of a locket, as Coulson had face with other missing husbands, Foster reached into her handbag and pulled out a silver picture frame. She set it on Coulson’s desk and opened it up, inside were two charming photos, on the left a picture of Jane and the man who must be her husband and to the right a bust of her husband. He was a handsome man, taller than Jane and about twice as wide as his slim wife. His hair was some pale shade and was pulled back from his face in both pictures. His smile was wide and unfeigned, and considering how long taking a picture could take he must have been a cheerful man indeed.

“This is Thor.” Jane said, her hand lingering on the frame. Coulson nodded absentmindedly and made a note in his case booklet before he snapped his attention back to his client. She had let go of the frame and now held her hands crossed in her lap and her shoulders were pulled back in a defensive posture. “Thor Odinnson.”

Thor Odinnson, the name echoed inside of Coulson’s head, thankfully he managed to keep his cool and was sure that very little of is emotions showed on his face. Hopefully, anyway. “And you are...”

“We decided to keep my maiden name.” A small smile pulled at her lips and Jane ducked her head to stare at her hands. “He took it as his own to avoid... trouble.”

A few years ago there had been trouble in the ranks of the Aesir gang. Odin Borrson (and despite is heritage Coulson would never understand the generational name changing of some cultures) had been the ‘All-Father’ of the Aesir family for nearly sixty years, while everyone had known that someday he would pass one no one had truly expected it when it happened, and certainly no one believed that Odin would pass away calmly in his sleep. Unfortunately he had left control of the crime family contested due to a recent argument with Thor, the favorite for the All-Father position. Thor had been absent at the time of Odin’s death and indeed, many thought that Thor had been killed by his brother Loki when Loki sprung his coup for leadership. There had been a bloody gang battle in the streets and many Aesir had left (or die, or both) the ‘Warriors Three’ and the ‘Lady’ Sif had left in search of Thor and if they had found him (for apparently he was alive) it was too late to take back the Aesir gang.

“I suppose he was alive after all.” Coulson cleared his throat and adjusted his loose tie. “I’ll take your case, Mrs. Foster.” The police would never take it seriously or would easily write it off as being Loki’s doing or some other gang warfare and Coulson knew that most of the local private eyes could (and probably would) be bought off. Foster had clearly stumbled into a spot of luck when her friend Mrs. Parker had recommended him.

He considered himself neither incorruptible nor fearless, but money was not his vice and egregious bodily harm was not one of his fears.

--

When you were a detective on the police force, you learned the right places to find a snitch or a bit of gossip, when you quit the police force to become a private detective you learned to find the right laces to make friends. That was why, after Mrs. Foster and Ms. Lewis had left the building Coulson tossed on his jacket and left the office, just outside of his building, shadowed by an overhang, Coulson passed a man lighting a cigarette. While he waited for the cab Coulson resolutely did not stare but instead categorized what he could of the man from the corner of his eye. He was an inch or so shorter than Coulson, possibly around 5’9, he was a few years younger as well but not by much, Coulson would have placed the man somewhere in his thirties. A lifelong smoker, if the wrinkles on his forehead that had been highlighted by the flash of his lighter were to be believed. He was dressed in a suit (dark grey) underneath a large flapping overcoat, the kind popularized by a certain type of movie and that some people, for some reason, believed to be ‘cool’. The mild wind blew smoke in Coulson’s direction (not the cheapest cigarettes but not the most expensive either) and caused the ends of the coat to flap around the man’s ankles. Coulson did his best not to take too deep a breath.

There was no conclusive tie-in between black lungs, cancer, and smoking, at least no conclusive tie-in that the tobacco companies would allow to see the light of day. Still there were too many potential connections for anyone with a lick of sense to ignore them. Coulson had quit smoking three years ago and it had been an extremely unpleasant experience all around. It was the reminder of this experience that kept him from going back more than anything else, and although he did feel healthier (also richer buying cigarettes added up) since quitting smoking there were times when a whiff of cigarette, cigar, or pipe smoke would fill him with cravings.

When a cab finally pulled up Coulson slipped into the back and instructed the driver to take him to Pym’s, all thoughts of smoking men vanishing from his thoughts. Hank Pym had been a bootlegger back during prohibition, it had amassed him quite a bit of money and quite a bit of connections although he had never sought either. In truth, Pym was a scientist who just couldn’t hack it. He was a jack of all trades and a master of none, which meant he could have made good money working for someone but never on his own, which unfortunately went against Pym’s very nature. Fortunately for him Janet van Dyne had made his acquaintance and the young socialite had turned a possible pauper into an underground dispenser of all things alcoholic. Janet was really the master behind Pym’s rise and when the dispensation of alcohol became legal again Janet (a new woman if there ever was one) married Hank and set about running the man’s life.

Pym’s was no longer the hole in the wall it once was, hidden behind Janet van Dyne’s clothing shop, but instead a thriving well-lit watering hole with a bouncer and a line, Coulson easily bypassed the line and bouncer.

He, after all, was on the list.

Even as young as the afternoon was the line was long and the bar was full, men and women sat at tables chatting, dressed in their best. Some of them had obviously been out all night before and were only just finishing up, a few were just as obviously only now starting to party. Coulson didn’t meet anyone’s eyes as he passed socialites and businessmen on his way to the back room. A few of the wait staff stared at him curiously, which he ignored, just as many gave him a nod of recognition, those he returned. He took the set of stairs carefully hidden just inside of the kitchen up to Janet Pym’s office, and then he knocked, and then he waited.

While the name on all the bills might say ‘Henry’ everyone knew that the person in the head office was ‘Janet’.

“Phil!” Janet’s harried expression morphed into a smile the minute the door was open enough to see Coulson’s face. He returned her smile with a small one of his own and nodded his head in greeting. “Come in, what brings you around today?”

Janet’s smile was as wide and sparkling as the ring on her finger and the jewels around her neck. Coulson took the seat across from her desk when she motioned to it and waited for her to sit as well. She did so elegantly, her shoulders dwarfed by the large armchair in which she set and her legs crossed delicately at the ankle under the desk. “You’re not here to warn me about another gang war, are you?” An action that had indebted Coulson to Janet and had given him a reputation among the Olympian family.

Coulson shook his head. “Not yet at least, I’m looking for information. Have you heard anything about Thor Odinson?”

“Heard anything?” Janet swirled one hand in the air her fingers slightly curled. “Phil, no one’s heard anything about Thor since his brother took over the family business. Everyone believes he’s dead.” Coulson didn’t say anything, he knew the trick here was to wait. “Although, there have been rumors that Loki has been a little…” Janet leaned forward, her elbows hit the desk and she knit her fingers together neatly under her chin. “Unhinged?”

His lips twitched slightly with his deadpan rebuttal. “Loki was always unhinged.”

Janet laughed and sat back in her seat. “Too true. Still, from the rumors that have passed through these doors,” and only the most authentic rumors ever did pass those doors, “something has upset Loki a great deal, also,” and this was the reason he came to Janet, Jan always knew, “Sif is back in town.”

Involuntarily, Coulson raised an eyebrow. “The Lady Sif?” Sif had been one of the Aesir gang’s most heavy hitting and most underestimated enforcers. She was mean with a knife, meaner with her fists, and had a good steady hand with a gun. She and Thor had been an on-again-off-again item in the underworld, although how much of that was rumor and supposition and how much of that was truth was debatable, never –the-less, Sif had been close to Thor, close enough to go after him when Loki had become All-father. “She wasn’t arrested, was she?”

“For breathing?” Jan made another of those curled fingers hand waves; Coulson tracked it by the glitter of her large diamond ring. The wedding band was a simple gold in comparison to the glittering diamond of her engagement ring, but Coulson was sure that Hank Pym had spared no expense on that either. “No. I saw her two nights ago, she came in with a group of Olympians.”

Years of working as a PI had numbed Phil to the local mob, but numb was not ignorant. The Aesir and Olympians had been cagey allies decades ago but there had been hope that the strange friendship between Hercules (heir apparent) and Thor would bridge that gap in years to come. Loki’s ascension to leadership had put the kibosh on such plans and had actually driven an even larger wedge between the two groups. If Sif was working for or with the Olympians it could mean many things, foremost of which was trouble.

“Thank you, Jan.” Coulson stood and offered Janet his hand, she shook it gracefully, “This is why I will always come to you.”

“For you, Phil,” Janet gestured around her office, “my door is always open.”

Coulson smiled, murmured a few pleasantries, and saw himself out.

--

He wasn’t terribly surprised when half a block from the club he spotted an expensive black car. Like he’d said earlier, years of working as a detective had numbed him to the local mob scene but there was no way he thought he could work this case and not run into one of them. He already knew that Sif was in town and running with the Greeks and then there was the fact that he was chasing the lost Aesir heir… Not to mention the fact that he and Loki had a standing arrangement. Their arrangement went a little like this; Loki didn’t go after he and his and he didn’t go after Loki. Not like one man against the Aesir would have done too much damage but Coulson had accrued enough favors and information that taking down Loki would at least not be a problem. Oddly, Coulson would never have considered such actions against Odin or even Thor.

Then again, he’d never met Odin or Thor.

The car rolled to a stop and the back door opened, Coulson was utterly unsurprised to see Loki sitting there dressed in his usual three piece suit with a scarf wrapped around his neck. The long green scarf might be sartorially applicable but the weather was beginning to get too warm for it. “Detective, would you care for a ride?”

If Coulson was honest the reason he had taken a walk instead of immediately hailing a cab was because he wanted to speak with the All-father of the Aesir. “I don’t accept rides from strange men, Mister Odinnson, but thank you for the offer.” A thug pushed open the front passenger door and stepped out, his bulk was meant to be threatening as was the ‘subtle’ way he flashed his gun.

“Phil, I think we know each other too well for you to consider me strange and really, I insist.” Loki patted the seat next to him and the muscle took a step closer. Phil sighed, as if he was being entirely too put upon, and climbed into the car. As soon as the car began moving again Loki focused his intense gaze on Coulson’s face. “I hear you’re looking for my brother.”

“I hear your brother’s missing.” He countered blandly. He got no reaction from Loki, no widening of eyes or even a shift in his posture, again, Coulson was not surprised. Loki no doubt knew more about Thor’s disappearance than Coulson did although Coulson doubted Loki himself was behind it. The man could be subtle when he wanted but when it came to his brother he had a tendency to go overboard.

If he had found out that Thor was married Mrs. Foster would never have set foot in Coulson’s office, she would have been dead. “I do hope Mrs. Foster is alright.”

A twitch appeared in Loki’s cheek. “My brother’s wife is… fine, but it’s not her health I wish to discuss with you detective. I want to hire your services.” Before, Loki had offered Coulson money to back off of a case. Coulson had turned him down and set about exposing a prostitution ring that Loki had actually had nothing to do with but was instead run by a rival faction that Loki had wanted out of his city, the bribe had been a means to push Coulson even further into the case and it had worked. It had made Coulson wary of any attempt from Loki to bribe him. “Not like that, detective, I want you to continue working this case but I want you to report to me and not…” The twitch got worse and Loki’s mouth twisted into a sneer, “my brother’s wife.”

Coulson watched the scenery whiz by then, scenery as familiar to him as the back of his hand. “I accepted the job from Mrs. Foster, Loki, and I will continue to search for her husband for her. If, after I have discovered Thor’s location, Mrs. Foster choses to share the information with you that is between the two of you.” He looked at Loki, who had stopped twitching, and did his best to make his words sink in. “And I think if she turned up dead her husband would be very upset.”

“If he’s still alive.” Loki waved a hand in the air. “Alright, detective, but don’t hesitate to ask for a favor or two. He is my brother, after all, and having you in my debt would be… pleasant.”

The smile Loki leveled him was certainly unpleasant. The car rolled up to the curb outside of his office building and the muscle from before stepped out to open Coulson’s door. First class service, all the way.

“I’ll be seeing you.” Loki nodded at him before the door closed and cut off Coulson’s view. Coulson continued to watch as the car rolled down the street until it turned a corner and disappeared from sight. With a sigh Coulson ran a hand through his thinning hair, there were reasons he was losing his hair and Loki Odinnson would certainly be one of them. He turned to head back into his building and realized, belatedly, that the smoking man from before was gone. Why he would have thought the other man would still be there Coulson could not say, especially since he had never seen the man before that morning.

The trip up to his office was short and after he checked to be sure that nothing in the office had been touched, moved, or messed with since he left he locked up and headed back downstairs. There was nothing more he could do that day except canvas the city and the sky was already growing dark, working over his other informants would have to wait until tomorrow. The walk to his apartment was short, no need for a cab, and Coulson nodded to those he knew on the street until he reached the slightly dingy door to his slightly rundown apartment building. The foyer smelled strongly of cabbage, a smell which only grew in intensity until he passed the third floor where Mrs. MacDonald was no doubt making stew… again. There had, of course, been complaints leveled against the smell but since the superintendent was very fond of the leftovers that Mrs. MacDonald would give him there was no helping it. Coulson himself did not mind the smell of cabbage.

On the fifth floor Coulson paused. His apartment was midway down the hall and there was a mysterious figure leaning to the wall next to his door, a man wearing a long overcoat with a cigarette dangling diffidently from his fingers.

“I rarely allow my work to follow me home.” Coulson said, mildly, when he had reached his door and drawn level with the other man. Slightly younger, as Coulson had guessed, and handsome in an odd way. His nose was too large and his eyes too sloe-eyed for him to be considered ‘classically’ handsome but there was still something about him that screamed ‘attractive’. Coulson could not place his finger on it.

“I’m kind of like a puppy that way, Detective Coulson.” The man dropped his cigarette onto the ground and crushed it beneath his heel before he offered Coulson a hand. “Clint Barton, U.S. Marshal. May I come in?”

Coulson considered Barton for a second, the man continued to smile and no doubt do his best to look unthreatening, before he unlocked his apartment door and waved the man inside.

--

“Do you want coffee?” Coulson asks after he closes the door behind Marshal Barton. His apartment is best described as ‘matchbook’ sized, when he had lowered his fold up bed from the wall the foot of it reached the edge of the door, to the right of the door was his tiny walk-in bathroom, more of a closet with a toilet and shower stall than a true bathroom, and his kitchen was squeezed along the far wall. He had room for a couch which, if he needed it to, would fold out into another bed. Coulson had put up guests now and again and they had always found the convenience of rolling straight out of bed into the kitchen very… well, convenient. Almost everything was a shade of beige, from the floors, to the walls, to the counter tops and the sheets on Coulson’s bed. Beige was a good color for a rundown apartment, it was the kind of color you were never sure if it was clean or dirty.

The whole apartment was spotless but you would never know it.

“Coffee?” Barton stuck his hands into the pockets of his overcoat and rocked back on his heels. He was standing in the middle of Coulson’s apartment, right where the bedroom became the living room. “Coffee sounds good, I’m probably looking at a late night.”

Barton looked out of place in the center of Coulson’s spotless, carefully arranged beige matchbox. It was not that he was a shock of color, his overcoat blended into the walls and his hair was about the same shade as Coulson’s countertops. The dark suit he wore underneath his coat could have been hung up next to Coulson’s own. It was that he was rounded. His nose was rounded with a slight upturn and his shoulders, despite being powerfully built, slumped slightly. When Barton shrugged off his coat and held it over one arm Coulson could not help but notice that his derriere was rounded as well.

Coulson cleared his throat and turned to his percolator, measuring out coffee and setting the water to boil was not a time consuming task so soon Coulson turned his attention back to Barton. “Was there anything you wanted to know, Marshal?”

Barton wandered around Coulson’s den, the length of his stride meant it took two steps for him to reach the end of Coulson’s apartment. He turned to look at Coulson, who leaned back against his beige countertops, before he grinned. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

There is an ashtray on Coulson’s small side table, a remnant of when Coulson used to smoke instead of eating, Barton nods at it and Coulson bites back a sigh. The apartment is small and he only has one widow for ventilation, the window doesn’t open more than six inches and the temperature outside is nippy. “Be my guest.”

There’s the snap and flare of a lighter, silver and engraved, before Barton takes a seat on Coulson’s couch and lets out a lung full of smoke. “That’s better. Are you going to take a seat, detective?”

There are two options of seating in the apartment, the couch or a small wooden stool that Coulson generally only uses when he feels the need to dust the corners of the ceiling. The third option of ‘the bed’ does not even enter into Coulson’s frame of mind. Coulson dragged the step stool over so he could sit in front of Barton. Barton shook his head, grin now salted with chagrin, before he tapped his cigarette against the ash tray.

“I’m looking for a woman.” Barton paused, Coulson nodded, and silence filled the apartment. Coulson’s best guess would be that Barton expected him to supply information, or at least ask a question, but Coulson merely waited. “…she calls herself Sif.”

“Marshal,” Coulson had instincts and his instincts told him that there was far more to this than a U.S. marshal investigating a mobster. Why come to him? Why his apartment instead of his office? If Barton had trailed him earlier that day he could have asked Janet these same questions (not that she would have answered them) or gathered information from Pym’s clientele (who would have provided a myriad of different answers). “All I know about Sif is that she’s back in town.”

Another tap of the cigarette, another long slow drag and smokey exhale. Barton’s eyes were a queer shade of green-blue that not even the haze of smoke could dim. “I know that, detective, I tracked her all the way from Chicago.” Barton’s grin was quick-silver and white, an abnormality for a smoker. “What I want to know is why and who she’s running with, the way I hear it, you’re the kind of guy who can tell me that.”

“There really isn’t much to tell.” Coulson unbuttoned his suit coat and let it fall open. He wanted to undo his tie and roll up his sleeves but he could not stand to be that informal in front of a man he did not know. “My sources inform me that she has had meetings with the Olympian family but one meeting does not mean she is joining them.” One meeting could mean anything, especially with Thor’s disappearance tied into this mess. He thought, briefly, about informing the Marshal of the potential trouble within the ranks of New York’s organized crime but then decided against it. Thor’s disappearance was his case, brought to him by Mrs. Foster.

Barton did not appear to buy it. He leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees, his cigarette clutched carefully with the fingers of his left hand. “That can’t be everything you know, the local P.D. would be able to give me more than that.”

Mentions of his old employer never sat well with Coulson. “They might be able to.”

The smell of coffee was what stopped Coulson from throwing Barton out of his apartment right then and there. Instead he pushed his stool back and turned to take the percolator off of the stove. The coffee cups he pulled out were plain white bone china, he had inherited them from his mother. After he poured he set two cups, and saucers, on the table between Barton and himself. Barton stubbed the last of his cigarette out into the ash tray and picked up the coffee cup with a careful grip. The mug was not the most delicate Coulson had ever seen but it seemed extremely fragile in Barton’s calloused hand.

“This is good.” Barton said after one sip.

“Thank you.” The act of pouring the coffee had calmed him, Coulson took a sip himself. It was not the best cup of coffee he had ever made, it was in fact slightly over done, but it was a better cup of coffee than anything you could find at a diner. “Marshal, I’m going to say this once, anything I know about Lady Sif can be found by talking to the local police force but the last time I checked the local police force was riddled with officers who were in the pocket of one mob family or another.” The local police force had the kind of morality one found in Swiss cheese, smelly and full of holes.

Barton nodded, like he expected that. Since Barton had come to him for information and there was the insinuation that he had not yet contacted the police, Coulson had to assume the man knew just how many pies the local mobs had their fingers in. “So, are you going to give me more to go on than ‘she’s in town’, Coulson?”

Coulson hesitated. It was noticeable, Barton noticed and his eyes narrowed, but Coulson had not attempted to hide it. “I’m working on a case right now, it might be tied to Sif’s reappearance but right now it’s all circumstantial. Sif used to run with Thor, the son of the former All-father, and when Loki took over she left town. Thor and Hercules were close.”

If Barton was confused as to who Coulson was referring to he did not show it. He was not writing the information down either; Coulson wondered how he planned to retain it. “But Thor’s dead.”

Coulson nodded. “So they say.” He met Barton’s gaze.

Slowly, Barton set down his half-full cup. It clinked when it hit the fine china of its matching saucer. “Thank you for your time, detective, and for the information. If I need any more help I’ll contact you.”

Coulson stood with Barton and escorted the man to the door. “Next time, marshal, please call on me at my office instead of standing outside smoking.”

Barton touched the brim of an imaginary hat and flashed that white toothed grin. “I suppose I’ll have to find some other way to summon up my courage, then.” Coulson watched Barton walk down the hall to the stairs and disappear. Coulson shook his head and stepped back into his apartment. It was only after he closed and locked his door that he noticed Barton had forgotten his overcoat, it lay where Barton had tossed it, carelessly crumpled over the arm of Coulson’s couch.

--

The morning dawned bright and clear, the kind of morning that early risers no doubt dreamed of. Coulson was an early riser by habit, not by choice, but his apartment allowed him little light. He saw enough of the morning sky to note how cloudless and cheerful it was, but he knew better. The weather was not to last. Clouds had begun to gather by the time Coulson left the apartment, a plain black umbrella hooked on one arm, fog rolled in as well and shortly after that a steady driving rain began to hammer the city’s streets. When Coulson got out of the cab the slate sidewalks were slippery enough to kill a man. Coulson walked through the chilly rain with his umbrella held high and folded it up before he pulled the door open and slipped into the lobby.

“Nice day, isn’t it?” The receptionist greeted him with a smile, it was a small smile, slightly forced but not entirely so. It was not the kind of smile you gave to just any old stranger but rather to an acquaintance you were familiar but not terribly friendly with. Coulson, all too aware of the purpose behind his visit and the lies he lived in order to get into the building, smiled a similar smile right back. “Should I tell her you’re coming up, Phil?”

“Do you think she would appreciate the surprise?” Coulson asked after he set his umbrella in the umbrella stand. He racked his brain for the receptionist’s name since she clearly remembered his. Sally, wasn’t it? Yes, Sally Blevins. “I would appreciate if you would notify my fiancée, Ms. Blevins.”

Maneuvering his way through the building wasn’t hard. Three flights of stairs later (Coulson disdained elevators) he was standing in an unmarked hallway outside of a door that looked just like every other door. He took the time to take off his overcoat and straighten his tie. He wished, vaguely and halfheartedly, that he had brought flowers or perhaps something to set in the retiring room for the girls to all share. Chocolates. Next time, he decided, but he knew that by ‘next time’ he would have forgotten. Prepped, Coulson gripped the handle and entered mayhem.

The room was filled with switchboards and switchboard operators, all of them chatting and plugging away. He received a few glances from the girl’s nearest the door, some of whom he recognized, and waited for the one woman he had come for to lift her head. Maria connected one more call before she stood and gave him a nod. Then she motioned for another young woman to take her spot, had a few words with her that Coulson didn’t hear, and headed across the room. Coulson offered Maria his arm and she linked hers lightly with his, before the door shut Coulson heard a few giggles and the word ‘engaged’.

“Where would you like to go to lunch?” Maria questioned as they walked down the hall. “And I assume this is not just a social visit.”

“Nothing I wish to discuss in public.” Coulson said before they stepped into the elevator and made small talk. What the weather was like, how Maria’s day had been, how Coulson’s parents were, Maria chatted a little about fashion which neither Coulson nor the elevator lift operator cared about (they exchanged a manly glance just before the elevator doors opened and Maria and Coulson stepped out). Coulson shrugged into his overcoat while Maria belted her own and then both of them picked up umbrellas from the umbrella stand.

Their cab ride was mostly silent. Maria stared out her rain spotted window and Coulson stared out his as well. They looked, for all intents and purposes, like a couple who had just had a spat. Not that it was purposeful but there was only so much small talk he and Maria could take.

The restaurant was nice and only half-full. Coulson slipped a few bills from his retainer into the manager’s palm and they were lead to a semi-closed off table. Coulson waited until the waiter had come around for the first round of questions (water was ordered as well as a pot of tea) before he brought up the topic at hand.

“I need to know if you have heard anything.”

Maria did not even look up from the menu; her finger lightly traced the calligraphy within. “You’ll have to be more specific than that, Phil, you know I hear a lot of things.” Maria glanced at him with a half smirk and Coulson bit back a sigh.

“Thor Odinnson has gone missing.”

Maria closed the menu and laced her fingers on top. “Odinnson went missing years ago, everyone knows that.” But her expression had turned serious.

“He just became another person.” Coulson tapped his fingers against his menu and did a quick glance around to be sure that the waiter was not arriving back quite yet. “Thor Foster.”

Maria frowned and opened her mouth to say something but then glanced to her right. The waiter appeared with their tea and water, took their order, and then vanished again. “Foster is a name I have been hearing. There has been a lot of gossip about a wife with a missing husband.”

Operators might not hear everything and they might not be supposed to listen in on certain calls but that did not mean they wouldn’t. And women, when they had a good story to tell, gossiped. It was why Coulson kept in touch with Maria and the two of them put up the ridiculous charade of being engaged. It provided Maria with a good cover story for Coulson’s visits as well as a cover for her lack of interest in getting married. One of these days either the would have to tie the fictional knot or Maria would have to break off the engagement. Coulson was sure Maria already had a reasonable reason for it, catching him cheating perhaps.

Coulson took a sip of the water and pulled out his casebook. “Loki was aware his brother was missing but did not discourage me from looking.” Except for a few near threats and the attempt to buy Coulson off anyway. “No chatter from that end?”

“The Aesir are circumspect over what is said over telephone lines.” Maria shrugged, an in-elegant movement that tugged at the starched lines of her dress. While many of the telephone operators dressed comfortably, if professionally, Maria always looked ready to step out. Coulson knew she could also lay him out if she so chose, even in heels Maria had a mean right hook. “I did hear that Sif is in town again.”

“You didn’t happen to hear where, did you?” Coulson asked just as their meal arrived. Maria gave him that half-smirk again before she picked up her knife and fork.

“Would you be paying for this steak if I didn’t?”

The answer was, of course, that yes he would because Maria was an important informant. Maria, being one of the best informants Coulson had, knew exactly where Sif was staying. They took the same cab back to the telephone exchange and Maria left Coulson a little poorer in pocket but richer in information. Coulson belatedly remembered that he had wished to ask Maria if she heard anything about the marshal from last night but as he was halfway to the Waldorf-Astoria he decided it could wait for another day. Perhaps next time he would bring flowers.

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June 2012

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