"Hey, AC! I need to talk to you," said Skye. "I'm glad I managed to catch you before you left for Portland."
"What is it?" said Coulson, suppressing his impatience to leave. "Skye, I'm sorry, but can't it wait?"
Fitz, Simmons, and Triplett were standing at the end of the hallway, ready to enter the hangar. Skye thought again about what she had realized, and shook her head, pulling Coulson into an empty meeting room to their left. She locked the door behind them, and double-checked to make sure it was secure.
"There's something wrong with Grant," said Skye urgently. "His story doesn't add up."
"Listen. He was taking Garrett to the Fridge with Agent Hand. He gets there to find HYDRA there looting the place and fights his way out. Then he went on the run, until I called him telling him where to go. When did he find the time to shave his chest?"
"He's got stubble all over his chin like he hasn't shaved in a while. But you were there when Jemma was patching him up, you saw him with his shirt off. I only wish my legs were that smooth. If he hasn't had the chance to shave, when would he have had the chance to shave his chest? I mean, it's a nice chest, but there's something wrong.”
This was more than Coulson had ever wanted, or cared, to know about Ward's depilatory practices. Speculation about body hair had not been in Maria's profile of Ward back when he was recruiting. Nor was it in his level 7 contract. (But that's what you get when the one who wrote that contract is bald, thought some treacherous part of Coulson's mind. I wonder if Fury — )
“Why would he decide to shave his chest and not his face? Before today, I don't think I've ever seen him with stubble. He'd never admit it, but honestly, he's kind of vain, you've never had to fight him for the bathroom in the morning.”
Coulson decided, for the sake of his own sanity, to call in reinforcements. He wasn't paid enough for this. Time for the Cavalry.
Unfortunately for Coulson's sanity, May failed to immediately shoot down the idea.
“That's a good point, Skye,” she said slowly. “I hadn't noticed that.”
Coulson wondered if this was May's revenge for his not letting her join their mission to Portland. If so, it was working.
“I don't blame you. He does have a nice chest, doesn't he?” said Skye companionably, before remembering that a) until recently, May had been sleeping with Ward, b) their relationship had not ended well, and c) May was still fucking terrifying. She had chosen to imitate May when intimidating Rathman for a reason. May was probably the scariest woman she knew, and that included Sister Agatha back at the orphanage. She coughed. “I mean, Agent May, as the one who's gotten closest to that chest” — not that she was jealous at all, no — “what do you think?”
“It was a big point of pride with Ward that he shaved and moisturized every day. He never waxed, he hates waxing. Shaving better displays his muscles, or something. He even asked me to help a few times.” The tone of May's voice left no doubt as to what she thought about that proposal. “He shaved his chest before coming here, I'm absolutely sure of it. If I had to judge, it couldn't have happened more than four hours ago, at the latest.”
Coulson realized with a wash of horror just how May had gotten this information, and immediately tried to tune it out by remembering his proudest moment, when Nick Fury had accepted his oath swearing loyalty to SHIELD. Unfortunately, the thought of Fury only made a bad situation worse. I wonder what he would look like with a toupée—
“According to Ward — and that's a big according — he was on the run from the HYDRA forces at the Fridge,” said Skye. “The first time I called, he said Agent Hand had decided to take the long way around to the Fridge. Speaking of which, sir, have you heard from her confirming that?”
The pointed question mercifully pulled Coulson out of his horrified musings about Fury's personal hygiene routine. He fumbled in his pockets to pull out the encrypted communicator – fine, it was a glorified pager – that Hand had given him before they parted ways at the Hub the last time. There were no new messages, and when he checked the network (he still had reception, which was quite impressive considering they were in the middle of the forest in Canada), Hand's device had gone permanently offline. This was not promising.
“The second time I called, he was on the run after somehow managing to steal a plane, which he flew here after I gave him our coordinates. So unless he, I don't know, decided to put the plane on autopilot and shave his chest en route — if there were even supplies on that plane — where did he find the time and space to do it? He couldn't have checked into a hotel, none of his accounts would have worked after I wiped his identity.”
“It is odd he decided to shave his chest, but not his face. With his shirt on, he does look like he's been lying low for the last few days. But with his shirt off...” Coulson noted that May had, quite impressively, managed to say this without sounding like she was a middle-school girl at a sleepover playing Truth or Dare. (His mental image of Fury, eyepatch, toupée, and all, sat down next to the mental image of May in pigtails. Coulson really wasn't paid enough for this.)
“Assuming he wasn't on the run,” said Skye. “Then what? Wherever he was, he obviously had enough time to shave his chest to his specifications like the robot he is. Hm, can robots feel vanity? Isn't that an emotion? I'll have to think about that later. But anyway, he doesn't shave his face, to make his whole story more believable to us, but he had to take his shirt off, and here we are now.”
“There's only one way to find out,” said Coulson. “Eric is taking him through Orientation now. Romanov beat Fury's lie detector, sure, but I saw Ward's scores, he's not that good. We can ask him a few extra questions while he's hooked up to the machine.”
The three of them headed back out of the hangar into the central base, picking up Simmons, Fitz, and Triplett (who Coulson noted had miraculously managed to avoid coming to blows) for backup. They burst into the examination room like the hounds of hell coming after one of Fitz's prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella sandwiches with just a hint of pesto aïoli.
The tableau inside brought them all up short.
“Can't this wait?” said Koenig, unknowingly echoing Coulson's earlier complaint. “Now I'm going to have to calibrate his readings again, and I just got to the good part.” He cleared his throat. “Agent Ward, are you associated with HYDRA?”
“Yes —” Ward began. Skye and May exchanged looks. Coulson frowned.
“I'll take it from here, Eric, thank you,” he said. “Agent Ward, I have just one more question for you. Did you shave your chest before coming here?”
Ward sent a look at the rest of the team, now filling up the doorway. He swallowed. “No, sir. I, uh, waxed my chest last week and haven't had to shave since.”
All ninety-six alarms on the lie detector started going off. Koenig cocked his gun ominously.
Coulson wished he had never left Tahiti.
Chapter 2: Strip-search
In light of recent events, the women ask Agent Triplett to take his shirt off. All for the sake of security, of course.
I said I wasn't going to write a sequel, but then I thought of this, so here we are.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I’m going to need you to take your shirt off.”
“What?” said Triplett.
Simmons looked back at her fellow womenfolk for support. “We wanted to ask you a few questions—”
“Yeah, I get that,” said Triplett. “You wanted to ask me about my time with Garrett. That’s one thing. Why do you need to do it with my shirt off?”
“… security,” said Skye. “Definitely security.”
May nodded, showing a little more enthusiasm than she usually did.
“And I also want to – to check on your wounds!” Simmons added, perhaps a little overexcitedly. “To make sure they’re healing properly, you know. It’s very important to ensure that wounds stay clean to prevent infection and scarring.”
“You just finished putting the bandages on,” said Triplett. This was his first experience with Simmons’ trying to lie. (It was certainly an experience.)
Skye decided to step in. “You know what happened with Ward. He was a part of our team – he was our friend – and he betrayed us. He was my SO, and I mean that in both senses of the word. He kissed me. We were going to have a drink together.” She thought about the time Sister Agatha from the orphanage had taken away her toy pony, and sniffed experimentally. “I thought we had something special!”
Simmons nodded vigorously. “He jumped off a plane without me. Saved my life. I wouldn’t be here without him, if he hadn’t decided to make that noble and selfless decision to risk his own life for mine—”
“What Simmons is saying,” said Skye loudly, “is that we really trusted Ward. He was one of us. So it really hurt when it turned out that Ward had been working for Garrett and HYDRA this whole time. That’s why we want to make sure that you’re really one of the good guys, so we don’t have to suffer that again. And it would save us a lot of gas if we didn’t have to chase you down in the plane after you kidnapped me. Like Ward did, you know. Imagine all the extra carbon emissions, ugh.”
She paused, and noticed everyone staring at her blankly. “I was an environmentalist before I joined the Rising Tide, okay?” she said defensively. “Someone has to think of the polar bears! And the monkeys. You like monkeys.”
“Monkeys?” said Fitz, entering the room. “Did I hear something about those cute little primates?” He looked around. “Wait, what are you all doing in here? Simmons, you’re not … making him a sandwich, are you?”
Now it was Fitz’s turn to get stared at.
“They want me to take off my shirt,” said Triplett.
“Do you know how we found out about Ward?” said May, entering the conversation for the first time. “Skye noticed that he had shaved his chest when he was pretending to be on the run from HYDRA. She noticed because of the visual incongruity between the stubble on his face and his bare chest.”
If he had been any less well-trained, Trip might have touched his beard self-consciously. “What are you saying? I’ve looked this way the whole time I’ve been with you guys.”
“Just take your shirt off,” said Skye. “Make it easier on all of us.”
(“He’s certainly easy on the eyes,” said Simmons, before Skye hissed at her to be quiet.)
Triplett shook his head, and obliged.
“Well!” said Simmons. “You certainly have such excellent—”
“Manscaping!” said Skye, elbowing Simmons sharply.
“Manscaping?” Simmons repeated blankly, before catching on. “Oh yes, he does, at that. Such shaping… and those well-defined lines…”
May didn’t say anything, but there was a certain gleam in her eye.
“Satisfied I’m not Ward?” Triplett said. “We had different workout styles anyway, I’m sorry.”
“And personal grooming habits,” said May. She was circling around him slowly now, casting her eyes over him hungrily, as if he were the proverbial sandwich. “Ward hated body hair, so he shaved it all off. He was consistent. But you shave your chest and grow a beard. Why?”
Thankfully for Triplett, Coulson arrived in the room then, preventing him from having to answer this question about his personal grooming habits.
“I’m not sure if I just walked into a sexual harassment case or the beginning of an adult movie,” said Coulson delicately. “What’s going on here?”
“Simmons is checking on Triplett,” said Skye.
“Updating medical records!” said Simmons, giggling.
“Double-checking our security procedures,” said May brusquely.
“Why is no one interrogating me?” said Fitz. “I’m dangerous too, I’m an engineer. I build things. If HYDRA had my Mousehole gadget, or your aïoli recipe—”
“Oh, Fitz,” said Simmons. “We don’t need to interrogate you. Everyone knows you don’t shave.”
“Monkeys don’t shave!”
“I think we’re done here,” said May, cutting off the two scientists. “Simmons, Skye, come with me. Phil, I’ll speak to you later about our fuel reserves. Agent Triplett, it was good seeing you.”
“You’re looking well,” Simmons chirped. “Now, don’t hesitate to come to me if anything on your wound changes. In my professional opinion – my completely professional opinion, that is – you should be sure to get plenty of rest to keep up your strength. It would be such a shame if you were to lose any of that muscle. You have such excellent muscle tone— and such well-defined –”
Skye kicked her.
“Don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids!” said Simmons hurriedly, before she was dragged out by Skye.
“I’d get a drink with you,” said Skye, winking, and left.
Triplett looked at Fitz. Fitz looked at Coulson. Coulson, who was having some disturbing thoughts about Fury again, looked anywhere but Triplett’s chest.
“Am I clear? Can I put my shirt back on?”
“Yeah,” said Fitz. “We wouldn’t want you to catch a cold, would you? That’d be the last thing you need with your wounds and your scrapes and all that. ”
Triplett put his shirt back on. “I’m sorry you had to see that, sir.”
“Something like that,” said Coulson vaguely. He coughed. “If you don’t mind, Agent Triplett, do you wax or shave your chest? It seems to come up a lot around here.”
“I shave. Garrett was pretty big on shaving. Every time we passed a barbershop, he’d go in to get his face done.”
Coulson could see this. Garrett had been quite vain when they had been trainees under Fury. He’d once walked into Garrett shaving his –
That train of thought inevitably led to a bad end. Coulson coughed. “There was a barbershop on the old SHIELD base in Cuba,” he said. “If HYDRA are there, we’ll know where to find him.”
“I think I’m due for a haircut,” said Triplett agreeably. “But sir, until then, if we want to keep up morale, I think we’d better get a subscription to pay-per-view.”
Coulson wondered how he was going to justify this to Maria Hill, who was now funneling resources to the Bus from her job at Stark Industries. Tony Stark himself would have been happy to sign off on that expense, but Stark still thought he was dead.
It was easier being dead, Coulson thought grumpily. He tried to remember if SHIELD had any other facilities in Polynesia. He missed Tahiti.
I apologize for this, truly.
Subject to change.