Matt kept his face as neutral as possible as he said, “Colonel Talbot, if you have read my Index profile, you are no doubt aware I can tell when you’re lying.” Maybe he thought Matt was thrown enough by the number of high-strength painkillers he was still on. He wasn’t entirely wrong there, but Matt was nonetheless completely lucid, and also, Glenn Talbot was a man who might have taught himself to lie very well, but his heart would always be awful at it.
“So you’ve told my people already,” said the Colonel. “I’ve also read you’ve learned more than enough about the law to know that polygraphs are not court admissible, and I think your ears count as one for purposes of what has legal weight.”
“Well, what can we say to you anyway?” sighed Karen. “I can’t even understand why you would think we were Hydra in the first place. Why would we have turned on the organization that saved us both?”
Matt wondered if Talbot realized he could hear his eyes narrow. “Agent Page, I think anyone who knows your story could point out that if a different Agent had confronted you that day, you’d be one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s casualties instead of one of its agents.”
“But I wasn’t,” said Karen, a response she’d given to people who’d said that to her before.
“That doesn’t mean you necessarily forgot that. Didn’t maybe come to resent it? Thought S.H.I.E.L.D. was using you, wondered what would’ve happened to you if maybe you hadn’t proved so useful to them? You did more than enough when you were eighteen and nineteen that they could’ve brought you up on legal charges any time they wanted to, and I’m sure they made you aware of that some time in your life. We still could, theoretically, though I don’t think anyone plans to right now.” Steady heartbeat there, thankfully. “Can I be sure that never made you resentful?”
“If she had,” Matt pointed out, keeping his voice steady, hoping Karen wouldn’t insist on yelling at the man, “do you think she would have saved the family of one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s older and by-the-book alumni?”
“Well, I know you two are close, Agent Murdock. I could see a Hydra agent with slightly torn feelings deciding she doesn’t want her allies to kill the family of a close friend, and thinking maybe stopping them from doing so would make it easy for her to fool people.” The smirk was in his voice, as if he believed them to be more than just close friends. Or maybe just that they’d had sex. Which they had done, on and off since their Academy days, but that was common enough among S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, especially ones like them that hadn’t mixed much with the outside world. Talbot had probably interrogated enough agents by now that he may well have known that was one regulation honored very much in the breach.
But that wasn’t a conversation Matt at all felt like having with this man, and he was pretty sure Karen felt the same, so he cut the whole thing off with, “But I can tell perfectly well you don’t think that at all, sir, so this discussion is fairly pointless.”
“Oh really? Why do you think I would waste time, then, Agent Murdock? Do you realize how many S.H.I.E.L.D. agents we’ve had to talk to, and most of them we’re not having meet with anyone who has less than a Top Secret clearance? What do you think I’d be doing here if I was ready to clear your two and get you out of my hair?”
“Trying to intimidate us into giving you information we might not otherwise, of course,” said Matt, and when he heard Talbot’s breathing, he knew he’d guessed right. “For the record, by now you probably know more about who those men on the motorcycles were than we do. We had no idea who they were and we haven’t really felt any urge to find out so far.”
Talbot had recovered enough to chuckle, “I know you had plans for your life that involved law school, Agent Murdock; I suppose you’ll do well there.” But then his voice turned rough again, as he said, “If you get the opportunity to now, of course. And all right, I’ll cut to the chase. I want to know about Phil Coulson.”
Karen let out a shocked laugh. “Phil Coulson?! Colonel Talbot, surely you know he’s dead. That’s not even classified; you can go down to the cemetery here in DC and see his grave. Matt and I have visited it, and so have the Connellys.”
There was a pause, something odd, Matt couldn’t quite put his finger on what. Then he said, “You two were Level 6.”
“That is correct,” said Matt, then, after giving it some thought, said, “and yes, that means we know how Agent Coulson was killed, but believe me, the chances of *that* having anything to do with Hydra are pretty low. I’m surprised noone’s told you already.”
Just then there was a knock on the door, and when Talbot called for them to come in, a military woman came in and said, “Maria Hill just contacted us, sir. She wants to talk to you.”
Matt was glad for that for more than one reason. With Director Fury dead she was probably the best authority the organization had left, and he trusted her to judge how much Talbot and the US government should be allowed to take authority and what, perhaps, should not be put into their hands just yet. Besides, Talbot definitely wouldn’t have any more time to waste of the two of them now.
Sure enough, Talbot stood up and said, “Tell here I’m headed for my office here; I’ll take the call there. On the proper line, of course. Your lucky day, Agents Murdock, Page; you’re free to go for tonight. The reminder not to leave DC until further notice stands.”
“Trust me, Colonel Talbot, I don’t think I’m going anywhere just yet,” grunted Matt as Karen helped him to his feet, taking both his old permanent and new temporary canes in his hands and leaning into both her and his brace. Even with their support his walk was ginger. He was lucky, the doctor had told him, that he wouldn’t need the brace for the rest of his life.
It seemed an unspoken agreement between him and Karen that neither of them were going to make any final decisions on what they were going to do with the rest of their lives until he was fully recovered; he wouldn’t have left DC anyway. Also that they were probably going to stick together, if they could find a plan to do so which worked for both of them. She didn’t have much left besides him, after all. And he didn’t have much more.
Although he did, at least, have other people besides her whom he called family, two of them who were waiting for him outside. He could hear his poor mother clutching her coat tightly around herself against the night’s chill. In front of her, Jessie, the youngest of his siblings, paced back and forth, phone out but not doing much on it. She hurried over when she saw the two of them come out of the building, her dress from the funeral rustling around her. “Anything new?” she asked.
“We’ve actually got them convinced, and they’ve even mostly conceded that out loud,” Matt told her. “They might not even summon us back here again, They’ll definitely at least leave us and hope we think they might for at least another week or two, but still, I’m hoping they won’t.”
Also Karen been helping him get ready for bed, but that at least he was now able to do on his own again, even if he couldn’t keep the grimace off his face when he bent down to get his socks off, and ultimately crawled between the old silk sheets naked because putting anything on meant more pain. He listened to Karen put a nightgown on-one of her own silk ones, which she’d been continually wearing, since they liked to sleep with her leaning against him, and then welcomed her into his embrace. He did his best to tune everything else out, the sound of his mother talking to Fox on the phone and the smell of the cleaning products from when Jessie had attempted to distract herself by cleaning the house and vibrations when a particularly heavy truck drove past outside. There was just the familiar smell of the room and linens that had become his home after he’d thought he’d never have one again, and the warmth and heart and breathe of a woman he had loved for years, deeply and easily and with no need for further definitions of what was between them.
Except then, softly, almost into his bare skin, she said, “I still don’t know what I’m going to do with myself now. I mean, at all. But I don’t think I want to live here in DC. Too much…”
“I know,” said Matt. He should’ve expected it, he supposed; the funeral had been a crossing point. “I do need to stay though, and maybe for longer than we get held here or I get out of this brace. At least until I know…I know that my mom’s going to be all right.”
“That’s fine.” She pressed her head into his chest so he could easily feel her nod. “I’ve got just a little work to do myself…I actually exchanged some emails with Agent Zamir. She wants to set up a fund for the Parkinsons’ children. I might need to still be here for at least a few weeks to help her with that.”
They’d attended the funeral for David and Irina Parkinson two days ago, him as her companion. Most of the funerals they’d been to or planned to attend, of which there were plenty, were ones she’d wanted to go to; she’d made friends at S.H.I.E.L.D. the way he hadn’t quite. It wasn’t that anyone had disliked him, or even been afraid of him, but still, being gifted had set him apart from that, in a way neither he nor most of his companions had been able to get past. He was lucky, he supposed, that Karen would always refuse to care about that, and would knock down barriers and shove past roadblocks she didn’t care for with extreme prejudice.
“I have been thinking,” he said, after a pause. “I’ve been thinking about Hell’s Kitchen, you know, ever since the Battle of New York. Been reading, too. The reconstruction hasn’t been too kind to my old neighborhood, I’m afraid. Crime’s way up, almost to what it was when I was a kid, and rumor has it that’s not just of the petty sort either, but that corporate corruption is making the locals suffer.”
“One would hope that would be stopped before you could finish law school,” said Karen. “But if you want to go back there anyway, I’m game.”
“You wouldn’t mind New York? Although maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you anyway. There are plenty of new purposes to find there. A few schools, too; you could go back too, if you don’t want to base your new career in your current skillset. You’ve got some money, right?”
“Not as much as you, but yeah.” Matt did have a lot of money. The Connellys had always refused to touch his inheritance, even when they’d bought him the more expensive things, such as the sheets they lay in, to help him live with his enhanced senses. He had paid for the courses with which he’d completed his Bachelor’s, but much of that had been done at the Academy. Plus he had lived in various S.H.I.E.L.D. outposts and mobile commands for a good deal of his career, during which a lot of his salary had gone unspent. Karen had done the same.
“Good, then,” she said, and she sounded very relieved, and yet her heart was beating too fast. Was it the other thing, the one they were still dancing around, about what their relationship was going to turn into now?
Neither of them had ever been a normal dating relationship, although Karen had been in an abusive mockery of one. And in fact, to go on dates with Karen Page, to take her to expensive restaurants and buy her flowers, felt like a shallow thing to Matt that they didn’t need, and would gain them nothing from each other they didn’t already have. It might even upset Karen, with what it would probably remind her of.
But if the next day they went to the church and had the priest marry them, Matt couldn’t help but feel that he would be a happier man for it. In fact, as they lay there in the dark, he thought about the possibility of their sharing a home, waking up together every day, as something that might well now happen, and found it appealing. He had no idea how she felt about children, especially now, but he thought he wouldn’t mind having those with her either. He was sure she’d be an excellent mother.
Should he tell her that, now? He wanted to, to claim that future for the both of them together, make certain what was probably going to happen anyway. He thought if he said what he was thinking, she’d happily kiss him and they’d start talking about how long they should wait to marry.
But no, he thought, that wasn’t really fair. The two of them had been all they’d ever known, and now they’d be going out into the world, where either of them might find something or someone they preferred. He shouldn’t push her to make this commitment to him when she had only ever had one relationship besides him that had combined the emotional and the sexual, at least beyond general friendly affection with some of her other men, and it had been the kind of relationship that she had barely survived. Also, some part of him feared she still felt a bit of obligation towards him, though he didn’t think that too likely. They probably shouldn’t be making it either when their feelings might cloud their judgement very badly. If they didn’t find anything better for themselves besides each other, there was plenty of time to get more certain about it.
Even though he didn’t see himself getting much better than her. He didn’t deserve her anyway; he’d always known that.
So he just said, “Don’t worry, Karen. Whatever you decide to do, I’m with you. We’re with each other no matter what?”
“Yes,” she whispered back, and lifted her head enough to lightly kiss the corner of his chin.
When he made a confused noise, she shifted around, obviously looking back at him, and said, “You have anywhere to go this morning, you should probably get up too. We’ve no funerals today, thankfully.”
Matt had no plans for the day, except to be there if his mom needed him. She was up; he could hear her wandering around the kitchen, a little too listlessly, though at least she wasn’t crying. He pulled himself out of bed after his companion.
His mother had eaten breakfast already; Matt smelled the remains of it. Even so, when she heard them coming, she called to them, “Matt, Karen, want me to make anything?” As if he was eleven again. “We’ve got some eggs.”
“I’ll manage it,” said Karen. “Hard-boiled?”
So Matt sat with his one remaining parent figure in life, listening to Karen prepare eggs. “I started…” She had to pause; her voice was still weak. “I started going through your father’s things last night. He had some boxes in Mariah’s old room…I don’t even recognize most of what’s in them. I think maybe you two could help?”
“We’ll see what we can do, Mrs. Connelly,” Karen answered from the kitchen. “Though I’m not sure what we’d do with any of it now…it might have to be destroyed, if we can’t be completely sure if won’t fall into Hydra’s hands. Though then again, it might not be anything they don’t have already.”
“I don’t see why it would be,” said the older woman. “My husband was hardly one of their technological people. I could describe some of it to you right now…”
She ended up going through a lot of it as they sat and ate their eggs, and most of the descriptions were ones even Matt could recognize. There were also a couple he didn’t, but Karen did. “Sounds like one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s older kinds of communications monitors,” she said after hearing a description of a small oval-shaped black box with knobs in certain places. “The kind they hardly ever used in their final days. The big thing about them was they responded to biometric signatures when those were just coming in, were supposed to respond only to the person they were assigned to, although it wasn’t foolproof, especially if it had been programmed to somebody else before. Your husband might have never even been asked to turn it in, if S.H.I.E.L.D. had decided they had no more use for it.”
They got calls while they sat from Mariah and Stephen. Mariah also put Juliana on the phone to talk to Aunt Karen. Matt listened to Karen’s voice turn so warm as she talked to his niece, and thought again about children.
After breakfast they followed his mom upstairs. “We’re not going to turn any of this over to Colonel Talbot, right?” asked Karen.
“Not unless Hill gives the order,” said Matt. His mother made no remark; it seemed she’d trust their judgement there.
Matt zeroed in on the humming sound when the entered the room. “One of those things is still working,” he said. “Box closest by the wall. I don’t think it’s even emitting noticeable heat, but it is definitely still operating.”
“None of them seemed to be,” said his mom. “But of course none of us have your hearing.”
She opened the box, and instantly Matt knew what it was; the humming made it ridiculously easy to map the shape of the object out. “It’s the communications monitor.”
“But that shouldn’t be doing anything!” Karen protested. “When those things shut down, they shut down, and they do nothing until the right person activates them again. And they do shut down, once they haven’t been actively used for thirty days. Are you sure? It’s this thing?” She tapped the oval object.
“It’s that thing,” Matt confirmed; hearing her tap it erased any doubt.
His mother stumbled over to the bed and sat down hard. “He was still active,” she whispered. “He didn’t fully retire.”
It seemed likely. There were many older agents who did that, who went mostly into retirement and would swear they were done with the world of secret agenting, but in fact were still quietly involved in missions from time to time. It didn’t at all surprise Matt to learn his father had been one of them; he’d been more than dedicated enough.
“And that might be why he was killed,” Karen murmured. “And that also means you all might not be out of danger, if they think either of you two knew or were even involved, or even if….if he was involved in the secret mission I was involved in.”
There were two astonished “What?”s in response to that, but this wasn’t something that surprised Matt either. Karen had been moved to the Trisekelion two months ago, two months after he had been, and she had been pretty mum about why; that all made sense if it had been for need-to-know reasons, and the kind of mission where she didn’t even know any more about who she was working with than necessary.
“I mean,” said Karen, “I still have no real idea of who those motorcyclists were, but now I’m wondering if this was the reason they wanted the both of us, because then we’d both be connected to this.”
“Can you crack the device and find out more about what it was being used for?” asked his mom.
“Probably not without help, I think. If only there was somebody who survived the Sandbox that we could trust…I can try to ask around, though. Or we could look at the leaked files, but these missions aren’t always listed in the place they got those files from.”
“They’re often alluded too, though,” Matt mused, “if you know where to look. What was this mission about? Did you know, exactly?”
Her heart was beating way too fast as she said, “I know only that it involved the Goldsmith.”
“The Goldsmith?” His mother didn’t seem more than confused. “The man Matt rescued you from? I thought S.H.I.E.L.D. took him down around the time he did.”
“They took his operation down. He was initially arrested, but we didn’t have justification to hold him in the Fridge and the government couldn’t make any charges stick-he’s a smart man, the Goldsmith, always knew what he could and could not do…he disappeared-not literally, he was known to be living quietly under a new legal name in Burlington, where he still officially resides. I was told when I joined this mission that he actually genuinely seems to have been retired for three years. But he wasn’t going to stay out of it, not a man like him. I wasn’t told what S.H.I.E.L.D. thought he was doing, but I got the impression they thought he’d been doing it for a very, very long time. I don’t even know how long they’ve been working on doing something about that.
Really, all I know is two months ago, I’d just spent the worst week ever in Sardinia, and was spending twenty hours in our hospital facility in Rome, when Agent Jacob James-who was found dead in the rubble of the Triskelion with no way to tell which side he’d been on-dropped in and told me the Goldsmith was active again, and did I want to help to help deal with him? Well, of course I did, anything they wanted me to do, I was up for it.” There was a ferocity to Karen’s words now, the jaggedness of remembered pain, and rage never gone over what he had done to her and what he had turned her into. Matt suspected he didn’t even know the extent of it, though he knew a lot.
“So I was transferred here to DC, where I’ve been nominally been doing fancy training and some desk work, but my real purpose here has been to answer questions. Interviews at least every three days with Agent James and two other people whose names I don’t know and may be S.H.I.E.L.D. or Hydra or alive or dead, and I’d absolutely know them if I saw them, but I haven’t since the Triskelion went down. Everything I could possibly remember about the Goldsmith. And now who knows where that information went or who did what with it.”
She didn’t sound guilty, at least. Just really pissed off, as it was driven how to all three of them how much trust and faith they had put into the wrong hands. Matt wondered if any of them would ever be absolutely able to trust any organization or leader again.
She chuckled. “You know, thinking about that? Gives me purpose again. I mean, I know I should be careful about that sort of thing…”
“I understand,” he said. And he did. It had actually been thanks to S.H.I.E.L.D. that Roscoe Sweeney had been found and brought to justice; they’d come across him while after someone more dangerous. Matt had testified at the trial that had gotten him life. It hadn’t exactly been what he’d fantasized about as a teenager, when he and the Connellys had made modest efforts to find the man themselves, but in a way it had been more satisfying. Maybe, he thought, if Karen got that kind of closure, it would leave her more able to move on; it had definitely made it easier for him.
There was one thing that worried him about it, though. He knew Karen had suffered much worse at the hands of her great enemy than he had. He also knew that she didn’t necessarily have more anger and pain in her than he did(that was impossible to be sure about), but she was much more inclined to let it rule her, and not just when she let it take over during a fight. He also knew that, when it came down to it, she was much faster to pull the trigger than he was, and while he didn’t believe she’d ever killed without genuinely believing it to be necessary, well, sometimes, she’d been very fast to come to the conclusion that it was.
He hoped she didn’t kill the Goldsmith. He feared that if she did, it would be in such a way and under such circumstances that the act would haunt her for the rest of her life, and instead of being free of him, she would doom herself to never be.