A Puzzle Unsolved

by PresentPerfect

First published

He goes to the theater to watch her play. They talk in the rain and eat in dark restaurants. He knows nothing about her, save that watching a beautiful woman play the cello is... really something else.

"...Time was, you just had to figure them out. Solving the puzzle was half the fun."

"You solve a lot of puzzles in your day?"

"A few. Some more worth it that others. One was... especially rewarding."

"Know where she is now?"

"Of course I do."

"...I'm sorry, sir."

Have you ever seen a beautiful woman play the cello? It's really something else.

A crossover with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Intended for readers familiar with the Avengers movie and S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes "The Bridge" and "The Magical Place". Contains spoilers for both. AU for S.H.I.E.L.D. as of 4/29/14. Not a ScratchTavia story.

Cover art by AphexAngel.

Approved by Twilight's Library! Rated "Masterpiece" by the Pleasant Commentator and Review Group! Featured by The Royal Guard!

A Puzzle Unsolved

View Online

A Puzzle Unsolved
by Present Perfect

After the concert, they will have drinking chocolate at a small specialty shop around the corner. She'll say that she wishes they had this sort of thing back home. He can place her Scouse accent, but she still hasn't told him where "home" is. As he looks at the burlap bags filled with cocoa beans, his suit will start to itch. They will talk about nothing, as she dodges personal questions hurled one by one like stones across a pond. She will laugh at his jokes. She always laughs at his jokes.

For now, Phil Coulson focuses on the adagio, lets the long notes roll over him like the hands of a masseuse. He imagines they're her hands, and holds the image for a moment. He adjusts his tie and glances to the side to ensure that he's still alone. From this box in the upper story of the Schnitz (she never calls it that), where he's caught more than half of her performances this year, he can hear the full symphony with more fidelity than any recording could ever hope to provide. He cannot hear her alone, as each part blends into a harmonious whole. But he watches her, the rise and fall of her bow, the shift of a page between movements, and pretends that he can. Watching a beautiful woman play the cello makes him feel the peace denied to him by his line of work.

He will be reminded of this as they drink the warm chocolate, spicy and honey-like. He'll tell her that she makes him feel content, and her music brings tranquility, and that these things are so very precious to him and he wouldn't trade them for the world. She'll smile and clasp his hand, and their cheeks will color when the twenty-two-year-old behind the counter with the barely hidden sleeve tattoo leans forward and, head held in her hands, coos at them.

After they bid one another farewell, he'll realize that once again, he has given out a piece of himself and gotten nothing in return. Yet, as he paces to his red '62 Corvette, not so much looking at his shoes as watching the rain run through the cracks in the pavement, he will think back to her smile, her movements, the way she has touched him that night. She is no less enraptured by his presence than he is by hers. Anything beyond that is simply a puzzle, and always has been. She keeps her pieces, the really intriguing ones, close to her chest, letting him have a few edges and perhaps a corner, none of which connect.

He rises with the wave of gowned and tuxedoed affluents and brings his hands together for the orchestra and their unparalleled performance. His are hands of action. These hands have touched the light of gods. They have sent men to their deaths and worse. No one has ever looked at his hands and guessed his line of work, not even her.

He realizes for the first time that he has his own pieces to guard, even if they are fewer in number.

Even now, he gets a thrill from using those hands for so mundane an action as applause. That the applause is for her gives him a different kind of thrill. None of the other theatergoers know how powerful his hands are, nor do they know that his applause is for but one. Only she knows. From the second chair back on the right side of the orchestra, she turns her head toward the box seats, and he gets a thrill from believing that she's looking at him.

She will give him the same look across the theater lobby entrance nearest to the stage, from beneath his umbrella as the evening Portland sky opens above them with thick raindrops, over her steaming mug of chocolate. Every glance she gives him will come with a smile. Every glance she gives him will come with a riddle. He wouldn't have one without the other.

Watching a beautiful woman watch him is really something else.

"Had a good time tonight, Tavi?"

"Vinyl! You... You're up late." And actually here

"I'm always up late, Tavi. Enough to know you aren't, not usually. So what gives?"

"Nothing! N-nothing at all!" Nothing I want to discuss why are you doing this Vinyl

"C'mon, I was worried about you."

"I'm a grown mare, Vinyl Scratch. I can take care of myself!" Unlike some mares I know "I'm the one who typically worries about you, after all, what with all your... drinking and your late-night parties and... and your general irresponsible behavior!"

"Save it, mom. We're talking about you right now. You went back, didn't you?"

"Back where?" She knows "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about."

"Drop the act, Tavi, I know about the mirror."

How is that possible "...All right, so you know about the mirror. So what? You are hardly my keeper."

"Well, maybe you need one. Look, I'm not too good at this responsible adult stuff, and I don't really know what that mirror does, but..."

It isn't like I know how it works either it just does you go through it and everything becomes amazing she's waiting "Yes?"

"In my line of work, I've seen it enough times... I know what an addiction looks like, Tavi. And you can talk to me if you need somepony to talk to. I can keep a secret."

What kind of a "I'm not an addict, Vinyl!"

"Then tell me where you disappear to every week. It took me a while to notice, but I ain't dumb."

"If I tell you, will you stop pestering me? I'd like to go to bed." It's late, I need sleep, isn't that what ponies do at night do you even know anything about sleep Vinyl Scratch

"Well, that's kinda the point in asking."

What do I tell her I'm not prepared for this line of inquiry what if she wants to come with me "Very well. If you must know, the mirror takes me to another world. I play in a symphony there."

"You're kidding!"

Stop laughing why are you laughing what's funny about that "Vinyl, really, now..."

"You gotta be joking! You go to all that trouble to find that big dumb magic mirror to travel to another world, and all you do there is the exact same thing you do here? That's rich! Where's your sense of adventure, seriously? I mean, if I could go to another world, I'd be... well, doing something way different than normal!"

I am not some fossilized traditionalist miss electronic music pioneer going through the mirror is its own adventure "It's not the same! They're not like ponies there. I'm second chair, Vinyl. Second."

"...Wait, whoa."

"Exactly, you see? Here I've always been top of my class, the bright, shining star of the Canterlot Symphony, and why? A magically-enhanced talent, represented by my cutie mark." And years of parental disapproval

"So you go there because... it's a challenge?"

"Precisely. Playing here has lost its appeal." Not to mention my attempt at taking up the piano was less than successful

"Wow. I had no idea, Tavi."

"Over there, I may be recognized as talented, but I'm nothing special. I've had to work so hard, Vinyl, and it's been so rewarding." And not just because of the work

"Well, that's a load off my mind. I was just afraid you were seeing a stallion or something."

No no no why would you go and bring up something like that

"Oh Tavi, no. No, don't tell me you're actually... Didn't you just say they're not like ponies over there? That colt could be capable of anything!"

"He's not a colt, Vinyl! He-- He's very nice. And... well, I suppose I don't know much about him, but..." This is not making me look good what was I thinking

"You see? My point exactly."

"But I rather like seeing him, and I think he feels the same way, and either way it doesn't matter because I don't live there and what right have you to decide who I do or do not spend my time with? You're just my roommate!" You're impossible Vinyl

"I'm your friend."

Impossible just impossible "Yes. Well. Before one of us says something that changes that, I'll bid you good night, Vinyl."

"Tavi, wait, just... Just promise me you'll be careful?"

I suppose you have made me see I was a little rash going about all of this after all "All right, Vinyl. I'll be on my guard."

He apologizes because work has been hectic. She smiles and suggests that's why he sprung for dinner at the Richmond and he doesn't answer. They have such a lovely view of the river, the boats clustered along the marina like seeds on a pod. Besides, her rehearsal schedule has likewise been hectic, so she understands. He shares her laugh.

The ambiance of the Richmond is muted, a velvet curtain hung across a bay window. The seats are leather and plush. Soft music complements rich food and sumptuous wine. They sit across from each other, fingers brushing now and again. The same smiles are there, the same glances. Warmth blushes into their cheeks as it always does. But he is not just here for romance.

He has hunches he hasn't been able to act on. He tries not to think about them, knows he shouldn't be analyzing while on a date but can't help it. Like a piece of classic literature, he tries to read between her lines, knowing the mystery will be worth unraveling even while he enjoys the story on her surface.

She asks him about the Cobb salad, wrinkles her nose when he mentions chicken, and orders a chef's salad instead. He tells her it has ham, but the word doesn't register: she's lost in the music again. When the salad comes, she picks the ham strips off, takes a bite and makes a face: she's left the bacon on. He orders another salad and brushes off her apology with thoughts of what he is about to do.

"I wanted to show you something." He withdraws a small plastic case from his jacket pocket. Held within is a single card, faded but crisp-edged. A doughboy strides toward the camera, head turned away from a number five.

She takes the case in lithe, delicate fingers, and with mild interest, turns it over. The half smile does not leave her face.

"I'm a collector," he admits, effervescence bubbling into his chest. He feels five years old. "I've got a full set, near mint."

Her eyes meet his and she shifts forward. "Who is he?"

"Captain America." He cannot keep himself from smiling. "World War Two era. The real U.S. Army uniform, not the stage outfit." He helped design the new one.

"Oh. I see." She hands it back.

"Cap's probably not as popular across the pond."

She blinks, pauses just long enough to register as one. "No, I... suppose not." She recovers. "I take it the card is a rarity."

"It's the most common of the set." His gaze is level. "But there are only five full sets known to exist."

She smiles. "Congratulations, then, Mister Collector."

"Thanks." He returns the case to his coat, reaches for the other pocket. "I've got one other. You might find it more interesting." He peels back the cloth wrapping and passes its contents across the table.

Brown soapstone marbled with black blotches. A figure hunches, monk-like, clutching a bundle of cord, its right foot taken along with the cameo's broken edge.

She smiles at it, flipping it over as she did with the card, though she searches its surface with greater care. "Another part of your collection?"

He says, "It's Etruscan." It isn't.

"Etrusca must have a rich cultural history," she says, still smiling.

The corners of his mouth sag. "It does."

Eyes bright, she hands it back to him. "Have you been there?"

"No." He wraps it again and replaces it in his coat. "Collecting neat old stuff is just a job perk, really."

She leans forward, interlaces her fingers and rests her chin on them. "Just what is your job, Mister Coulson?"

"You know, the usual secret agent stuff." Mirth creeps back into his smile. "It's all classified."

She gives him a little pout in response. "That sounds awfully exciting. Not to mention dangerous."

He looks down at the remnants of his filet mignon. There is a scar on his hand. "Yeah. It can be."

When the bill comes, he's reminded just why they don't come here more often and says nothing.

After he pays, he will ask if he can give her a lift to her place. She'll say she's fine, if he can drop her off at the nearest trolley terminal. They will kiss. He won't ask why she's so determined to keep him out of her life. That's part of the puzzle, after all.

He will tail her to the southern end of the university campus and watch her disappear into the basement of a building. She won't reemerge that night.

Over the next three days, he finds himself pausing in front of jewelry stores, only to shake his head and continue walking.

Over the next three weeks, work once again takes priority in his life. He will miss her next performance.

And three months later, Phil Coulson will go to Tahiti.

No stop don't come in "He's gone, Vinyl, he's gone!"

"What? Who's gone, Tavi?"

"I can't..." They came the black suits I thought they were lying it's all classified

"Hey, shh, calm down, talk to me. Who's gone? Somepony you met over there?"

Not a pony Vinyl not a pony "...Yes."

"The colt you were seeing, right? What happened?"

"I hadn't seen him for months, I thought..." I thought I'd said something wrong I only wish I'd said something wrong "Vinyl... he's dead."

"Dead? As in, dead dead? Ah... I, uh... Geez, Tavi, I'm sorry..."

I'm sorry I'm sorry "They found me when I left the concert hall and they asked if I knew him and they told me he was dead!" I thought they were lying he said it was dangerous work "Vinyl... I don't know what to do."

"I... I'm really sorry, Octavia. He meant a lot to you, huh?"

"Of course he did, you idiot!" You're impossible Vinyl impossible impossible

"C'mon, just... just let it all out... I'm here for ya, Tavi, I promise."

I wish he were here I wish I were there I wish I'd said something to him "Why, Vinyl? Why did I have to go through that stupid mirror in the first place? If I hadn't, this wouldn't have..."

"Stop. Don't blame yourself."

Who else is there to blame "I feel horrid. So horrid, like something's twisted in my chest."

"That's okay. When you lose someone you care about, that... It's perfectly okay."

"Why..." Why did I go why did he go why are you here "Why can't you leave me alone, Vinyl? Don't you see I want to be alone right now?"

"We both know that's not what you need right now. Besides, what kind of a friend would I be if I let you cry alone in your room all night?"

You wouldn't be a friend at all you're such a good friend Vinyl I don't deserve this "...You called me by my full name. I can't remember the last time you did that."

"Hey, sometimes I can be serious and stuff."

"Thank you, Vinyl. Thank you for not letting me cry alone." You're right I don't need that

"Don't mention it."

"Vinyl, I..." I don't know if I can go back can I ever go back what if I go back "What should I do?"

"You want my advice? First, cry it out. You'll feel like a horse's ass afterward but it'll help."

You stupid mare stop making me laugh this isn't the time

"Once you're done, you and me go to a salt lick and get wasted, and you can tell me all about him. How's that sound?"

"I..." Can't believe I'm actually considering this "Normally, I would never consider such an activity--" but I am it sounds like a wonderful idea what's wrong with me "--but I think you might be on to something. Only..."


"There's not much to tell, really." I didn't know a damned thing about him I

"What? Are you telling me you fell in love with a stallion who isn't a pony in some other world, and... You don't even know anything about him?"

"Well, no, I..." I liked the mystery

Trying to figure him out

Piecing him together like a puzzle "I'm afraid I'm not in the right state of mind for conversation now, Vinyl. I'm sorry."

"No, it's okay. I understand."

You've never been so kind, Vinyl, I don't deserve "I should probably get some rest. And then... then maybe we can talk later."

"All right, if you're sure. I'm down the hall if you need me, okay? Shoulder to cry on, pillow to hit, whatever, I'm here for you, Tavi."

Thank you, Vinyl "Thank you, Vinyl."

"G'night, Tavi."

"Good night, Vinyl."

During a rare moment of peace, Ward and Skye will get him tickets to the Schnitz. Skye will be the one to deliver them, with an awkward smile and a few words about being glad to have him back. He knows there's no way she could find out what he used to do in his free time, not with all the hacking in the world. She's uncanny that way.

Since his escape from the Mojave compound, he has only wanted to see her. He will go to the concert hall, listen to the orchestra, and pretend. The box in which he sits will be uncomfortable. The view will be all wrong. The new second chair cello will be a brunette Filipina who plays with the hint of a smile. He will applaud the musicians with his powerful, scarred, dead hands, gather his coat, and walk out of the theater into the downpour.

At the specialty shop around the corner, the twenty-two-year-old with the barely hidden sleeve tattoo will ask where his ladyfriend is. He will drop his change in the tip jar and leave his drinking chocolate on the counter.

Anyone who looks at him that night will think he was spurned by a lover. No one will guess that he was kept from that lover by circumstance and necessity and life choices and willpower. The rain will soak through his jacket and run over his shoes and no one will notice that he is wet because he has come to Portland.

He will never return.

For now, Phil Coulson looks at the report in front of him, culled through months of jockeying and politicking. The effort he has expended to get his hands on it leaves a sour taste in his mouth. He's done similar things for the benefit of others: for Skye's sake, but never his own. It was still easier than finding out the truth behind what happened to him on the Helicarrier.

At the top of the file are the words that someone selected because they really wanted the acronym to spell "SHIELD". Below it are warnings about security levels and proper authorizations. Inside the folder are a few scant lines about suspicions of extradimensional incursions and unknown threat levels.

He draws his finger over the blurry image of a woman leaving a concert hall in the rain. Beneath it is a note about the subject's involvement with a high-ranking Agent. There is no mention of whether she loved him.

His hunches were right. He solved part of the puzzle, but the rest of the pieces remain scattered. The half-completed image in his head has already begun to dissolve. Even if they hadn't changed his memories, what hope could he have of ever gluing all those bits together? What hope does he have of knowing that any of this was real?

Do the answers to any of those questions matter when weighed against the peace he feels right now?

He closes his eyes and hears a single high C played on a cello. She sways to the music, her long hair splayed across her back. She's really something else.

The file flips shut.