Fandom: Avengers (Earth-199999, movieverse)
Characters: Phil Coulson, The Cellist, Pepper Potts, Natasha Romanoff, Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Bruce Banner
Pairing: Phil Coulson/The Cellist
Disclaimer: So very not mine, more's the pity.
Chapter One: In which a convention is attended, the unconventional is met, suspicions are raised and a disappointing loss turns into a significant win.
Chapter Two: In which the season starts, discoveries are made, a friend gets hurt and space is shared.
Chapter Three: In which worries surface, the other shoe drops, communication becomes an issue and news comes in from the West.
Chapter Four: In which what was lost is found, preparations are made, caffeine is abused, and two people each get their heart's desire.
Chapter Five: In which the sleeper is awakened, a journey is made, patience is exhausted and a heart stops.
It should be noted that a chunk of this was written before the DVD came out, so I remembered a piece of dialogue from the movie incorrectly. It's not radical, but it does change the nuances somewhat. I've included that bit of dialogue as I remembered it, not as it actually was.
Also, the views expressed by the characters in this fic are wholly their own and not the author's. The Author would like to apologize to the residents of any major metropolitan centers who might feel slighted by the views expressed in this fic. :)
"Where am I?" asked Steve Rogers."You're in a recovery room in New York City," replied Sharon Carter.
"Where am I really?" he glared.
"I'm afraid I don't understand..." she hedged.
"The game. It's from May, 1941. I know because I was there." Rogers advanced on her menacingly. "Now I'm going to ask you again: where am I?"Coulson glanced at his watch. It took Captain Rogers less than two minutes to see through the ruse. Sitwell owed him a hundred bucks.
….As an agitated Steve Rogers made his bid for freedom, and Fury took off for the door to talk Cap down, Coulson rushed to his office. Sitwell met him there, and they went over the details one more time before Sitwell ran off to catch up with Harris and Fury. Coulson headed to Medical Security to discreetly observe Rogers' initial treatment and testing. Given the situation with the Council, he wanted to maintain the lowest of low profiles, but he'd intervene if he had to.
Fury swept into the Medbay, shepherding in their new star patient, with Harris tagging behind. The staff had all been briefed, but even that couldn't keep anyone from staring. It's not like Coulson could blame them. Captain America had just walked into the room, larger than life. Coulson had always imagined seeing him in person – brave and tall and strong.
But not terrified. Never terrified. And the man was obviously panicking.
"Doctor, I need to get out of here. I've spent enough time in hospitals for one lifetime," said Rogers.
"For the time being, Captain, we're going to need you to stay in quarantine. The world has changed quite a bit since you were last awake," replied Harris.
"For the general public's protection." Fury interjected. "Everyone working here has been inoculated against everything imaginable and we've got the best decontamination systems on the planet, but we don't know what caught a ride with you into the ice and we can't risk anything getting out. The last thing we need is a new outbreak of smallpox or the Spanish Flu – people don't have the same immunities they used to."
Steve nodded slowly. "I... I didn't think of that. Yes, sir. I understand. I just... I want to go home," he said.
"All in good time, Captain," answered Harris. "For now, come this way..."
Sitwell joined Coulson at his post behind the one-way glass to watch as the doctors started the examination."He's got no memories at all since he went into the ice?" asked Coulson.
"I'm not sure whether that's a mercy or not."
"He keeps going on about his date with Agent Carter," said Sitwell. You didn't have to be a Captain America nerd to know that story – every documentary and biopic ever made had included that scene.
"A date they made less than two hours ago, from his point of view. And, as far as he's concerned, Bucky Barnes died last week. Don't let anyone forget that."
Sitwell nodded. "You should be running this."
"I had a longer talk with Fury yesterday – there will be problems if I get anywhere near it. Turns out that this is retribution."
"Retribution? For what?"
"They figured out who sent Stark to Ross to get Blonsky." None of them had wanted Blonsky (aka The Abomination) on the Avengers roster, but the WSC had disagreed, and had ordered SHIELD to send a liaison to talk General Ross – Blonsky's keeper – into securing his cooperation. Coulson had given the job to Tony Stark, counting on Stark to aggravate the General to the point that SHIELD would never be allowed within ten miles of Blonsky ever again.
Stark surpassed all expectations.
"They're still pissed about that? Shit. Fuckers never let go of a grudge," said Sitwell.
"If this is the cost of not having to work with Blonsky, then -" He tried to say, "Then I'm all right with it," but his tongue tripped on the magnitude of the lie. "Then I am resigned to it."
"Did you practice saying that in front of the mirror?"
Coulson shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Let's just get this done right." He pointed as Fury and Harris turned to leave Medical. "Get going. You've got an appointment with the Director."
Sitwell nodded and headed for the elevator.
"I think it's fairly clear, Director, that this has been a disaster," said Sitwell.Fury raised an eyebrow and templed his fingers, staring impassively at the two men across his desk. Before he could make a reply, however, Dr. Evan Harris cut in. "Oh, that's a blatant overreaction! The subject is simply in shock. We need to keep him here, in a controlled environment, where he can be monitored."
Sitwell rolled his eyes. "No. It's too late for that. You had your chance to start him out in a controlled environment, and you blew it! Now we need to do damage control."
"We need more time. That's all," said Harris.
"Time which will do nothing to help Rogers' stability, and give him even less reason to trust us in the long run."
"With proper treatment, I'm confident that we can make the subject understand the necessity of our actions!"
"I'm almost afraid to ask what constitutes 'proper treatment' in your mind..." snarked Sitwell."Enough," said Fury, with quiet menace. The men ceased arguing. "What are your suggestions, Agent Sitwell?"
"Once medical has cleared him, make his care strictly outpatient."
Harris burst out. "How can you possibly think –" Fury held up his hand, and the doctor stopped.
"Look, we'll get the DoD to cough up everything he's owed, but that's going to take time. For now, put him on the payroll – make him another consultant. Get him an apartment, give him a living allowance, and make it conditional on him seeing one of the regular psychiatric staff on a daily basis. Offer any other support he could possibly want: briefings on the last seventy years, physical training, medical services, you name it, but let him choose."
"And what on Earth makes you think he won't run for the hills? How do you propose we keep track of him?" scoffed Harris.
"We've kept close tabs on Banner, and Banner has friends, resources and a complete understanding of how the 21st century works," said Sitwell. "I'm not saying that this is an ideal scenario – hell, this is the polar opposite of the ideal scenario – but it's the only realistic way forward from this point."
"Banner is not of any use to us! You're talking about taking the chance of losing an incredibly valuable asset!"
Fury slowly turned his head to face Harris. In lethally icy tones, he replied, "He's a man, Doctor, not an asset. I suggest you remember that."
"Let him out, Director," said Sitwell.
Fury shifted in his chair. "Dr. Harris?"
"Thank you, but your services will no longer be required. Agent Sitwell will be handling this from here on out."
"I am here on the highest authority, Director, and I have barely had time to work. My plan has been reviewed at the highest levels. If you throw me over like this, there will be repercussions!"
"I imagine there will. Now get out."
Harris stalked out the door.
Fury eyed Sitwell. "Well? What have you got for me?"
"Funny you should mention." He opened his briefcase and pulled out a folder. "Actually, I have all the paperwork ready to go. Just needs your signature. Well, multiple signatures."
Fury looked over the forms and pursed his lips to hide a smile. "Why, this is amazing, Agent Sitwell. Your handwriting has certainly improved."
"Been taking lessons from Agent Coulson, sir."
"I can see that." He tapped the folder on the table. "You've got your work cut out for you. Get on it." Sitwell nodded and headed for the door. "And, Agent Sitwell?"
"Good work. To both of you."
"Thank you, sir." Sitwell hurried off.
Now they just had to set everything in motion.
She'd gone out with the two of them a number of times, and he'd seemed nice enough – bland and affable. (Mariasol knew right away that that was a mask: he couldn't possibly be as bland as he appeared, or he would never have kept Alys' attention.) He just didn't strike her as the sort of man that would frequent a massive comic book convention. Alys, at first, was treating this as she ought – something casual with a kindred spirit, the rare bit of fun who could put up with both her cellos and her comic book habit – but it got awfully serious awfully quickly. To be sure, Mariasol would have probably approved of him wholeheartedly had anything else about the man had come across as even remotely normal. Alys had admitted that she'd met absolutely none of Phil's friends, family or coworkers. The man had no Internet presence at all, none whatsoever: Internet searches on "Philip Coulson" brought up a photographer in England, a preacher in Mumbai and a deceased New Zealand horse-race driver. The man said he worked for SHIELD? The only time Mariasol ever heard anyone talk about SHIELD was when Cassie was off on a rant about killer robots from outer space and rampaging gamma radiation monsters. She hadn't even been sure that the agency wasn't a product of Cassie's fevered imagination until she'd finally found a link to their webpage. (Not through a search engine – she'd only found it after burrowing through Homeland Security's sub-pages.) Mariasol didn't get a creepy serial-killer vibe from Phil, but then, if creepy serial-killers gave off a creepy serial-killer vibe, they wouldn't be very successful with the serial-killing, now would they? As it became clear that this was turning into something very serious indeed, Mariasol began to make her worries known.
Mariasol Trujillo had serious misgivings about her dearest friend's lover.
The two of them had a titanic fight about Phil after Alys gave him her key. This argument had gone back and forth for days, until their mutual friend Finn intervened. Finn worked in the records office for the Department of Veterans Affairs: a highly illegal file system search had turned up that, in fact, one Philip James Coulson had served in the Air Force as a pararescue jumper during the timeframe he'd given Alys, but all other personal information – date of birth, next of kin, home town – had been scrubbed. Finn had never seen anything like it. Both women took this as vindication – Alys because the details matched up, and Mariasol because there was still something weird going on with the files. The argument subsided to a low-grade trench warfare – static and sporadic, with neither side really gaining any ground.
However, as time passed without any further warning bells going off, Mariasol had very reluctantly come around. (To a limited extent. She'd still made a point of telling the man about all the terrifying characters who owed her favors, and how these formidable bravos would consider an injury to Alys as an injury to their little sister. To Mariasol's consternation, Phil had just looked vaguely amused and somewhat touched.)
This particular night, Mariasol had come over to Alys' apartment to help pack up the valuables Alys didn't want to entrust to the movers, but as the evening went on, packing started to give way to drinking up the bottles of wine that hadn't already been marked to make the trip. In the quarter-century they'd known each other, Mariasol had only ever seen Alys really drunk a handful of times, and while they weren't quite there yet, the wine was definitely having an effect.
"I can't believe he had so much stuff over here," said Mariasol, gesturing to the neat stack of boxes marked as Phil's.
Alys shrugged. "It just sort of happened."
"Hm," said Mariasol. The pause was so pregnant it was minutes from going into labor.
"Am I going to get another philippic on why this relationship is a bad idea?" Alys face screwed up and she gave a really unladylike, snorting laugh. "HA! A PHILIPpic!"
"I can't believe you just said that," Mariasol groaned. "That may actually be the worst pun you've ever made, and that's really saying something." She paused. "How did he take it?"
"He congratulated me. He said he never had any doubt about the outcome of the audition."
"What are you two going to do?"
"Rack up the frequent flyer miles, I guess. I've never used Skype, but it can't be that hard to figure out."
"This is really something you want to try to do? You feel like it's worth it? You've barely even seen him since you got back from Portland."
"He's been busy at work."
"And what is it that he does?"
"Mariasol, please let's not start this again."
"It's a valid question! I mean, you still haven't even met his family, have you."
"I hardly have room to talk when it comes to questions of familial estrangement."
(Alys' mother had reacted to the news of her divorce badly: she had told her daughter that she'd brought this on herself, that if she'd been a better wife the man would never have "turned queer," and that it was a good thing her father hadn't lived to see this day. Her aunts and uncle were of much the same opinion: Alys had not shown any restraint at all when it came to telling them what she thought of their interpretation, and as a result, Alys and her mother were not on speaking terms at the time of her mother's death. Alys had burned the remaining bridges when her mother's siblings refused to let her attend the funeral.)
"That's different," replied Mariasol.
"You only think it's different because you had a ringside seat," said Alys, taking another pull on her wine.
"I still think he looks like an accountant."
"Not when he's naked."
Mariasol rolled her eyes. "So the guy works out. There are a lot of gyms in New York."
Alys suddenly became very interested in her wineglass. "I'm not referring to his musculature. It's the scars."
"The scars?" This hadn't come up in the previous iterations of this argument.
"Three bullet wounds in his torso, two through-and-through; a series of what I think are cigarette burns; some clearly surgical incisions; I think
his left leg might have been in skeletal traction at one point; and he's got lash marks on his back – I don't mean like David's last performance art piece, I mean like someone was trying to hurt him."
"That's creepy, Alys, that's really, really creepy. And when did you become an expert on scar tissue?"
"I attended the Google School of Medicine. Were you aware that there are some absolutely revolting pictures on the Internet?"
"You didn't mention all this before!"
"I didn't think it would help bolster my 'he's really not a serial killer' argument."
"It wouldn't have! You can't tell me you don't have questions about this! That you're not curious at all!?"
"Of course I'm curious."
"Then make him explain it to you! That's not unreasonable!"
"I don't want to make him lie to me. Pop was the same way. Don't ask where he'd been, don't ask where he's going, and really don't ask why he sometimes can't sleep at night. At least Phil doesn't have nightmares."
"For the life of me, I cannot understand why you're letting all this slide."
"That's a Facebook status, not an explanation!"
"You know, the lot of you wanted to see the Ice Queen melt, and now that it's actually happened..." said Alys, quietly sarcastic.
"That was their crack, not mine, and you know it. You know I know better than that. But I can't just ignore the fact that there are so many unanswered questions!"
"When I'm with him, I don't care."
"You're really that far gone!"
"I am perfectly aware how irrational this seems, and were I in your shoes, I'd be reacting the same way. When it comes to his character, I can offer you nothing except my own judgment." Alys' voice dropped to a whisper. "And I know that my judgment has hardly been infallible. But I feel how I feel, and all I can do is I hope to God I'm not mistaken."
This took the wind out of Mariasol's sails. She put her arm around Alys. "I want you to be right about him. You know that, don't you?"
"I know." Alys hugged her in return.
"I'm not nearly drunk enough for this conversation." Mariasol got up and split the remainder of the bottle between them. "Women always end up with their fathers, don't they..."
"I wouldn't go that far. But you'll still kill me if I start turning into my mother though, right?"
"Only if you promise to reciprocate."
"It's a pact." Alys held up her pinky.
Mariasol hooked her pinky around Alys'. "Done. I think your boyfriend might have some objections, though."
"Just tell him all about my mother and he'll understand that it serves the greater good." Alys giggled. "He is very strong, though. He does this one thing – oh God, it's so hot – he does this one thing where he picks me up and -"
"Yeah, okay, thanks, Alys, I got the picture." Mariasol drained her glass: she really wasn't drunk enough for this conversation. She looked over at her friend. "But you hate being picked up."
"Not by him." Alys slumped back against the couch. "You know, it's just not fair. It really isn't. I spent the last decade scrambling for gigs and generally failing at relationships, and then all this has to happen at once."
"That's the way it goes, isn't it. Feast or famine. In the meantime, us single people with day jobs will completely fail to overflow with sympathy."
Coulson couldn't remember the last time he'd been this exhausted.Had this been a normal assignment, he could have gone home on time every night, simply working the usual sixty hours out of a forty hour week, but this wasn't anywhere close to normal. For the two weeks of quarantine, every agent even remotely connected to Rogers' awakening stayed at HQ twenty-four/seven. Rogers' physical condition had been thoroughly assessed while he was still asleep, so all the tests and evaluations were concentrating on his mental status. Despite his seven-decade nap, Rogers' mind seemed sharp, but he was displaying – quite understandably – classic symptoms of depression and shock. Rogers seemed to be responding better to Jepsen than to Harris, not that that was saying much, but still quite expertly evaded the psychiatrist's questions. He was fine, everything was fine, no problems here, ma'am.
Coulson was not exactly surprised (and not entirely displeased) to learn that his boyhood hero was a really lousy liar.
When the two weeks were up, Rogers (unsurprisingly) jumped at the chance to get the hell out of SHIELD HQ, and, when presented with a list of SHIELD-owned properties in New York, he chose the apartment in Park Slope. Sitwell and Jepsen helped him get moved in, and started to arrange for his few remaining possessions to be brought out of storage.
Coulson and Sitwell were keeping the surveillance to an absolute minimum – no listening devices, no wiretaps, no cameras, no IR imaging – but still had to track Rogers' comings and goings, for his own protection as much as anything else. They limited SHIELD's presence on-site to a long-range monitoring team (all of whom had been threatened with permanent assignments to a listening post in Northern Greenland if they got made), and, well, what was more quintessentially New York than a busybody little old lady in the first-floor apartment?
Rogers had already helped her with her groceries twice.
The reports of Rogers' outer perimeter had initially been very promising: he seemed to be exploring the city, checking out old haunts and generally investigating the changes seventy years had wrought. Unfortunately, the progress ground to a screeching halt when Rogers asked to see SHIELD's files on his old comrades. They'd supplied them, of course, but after that his trips out into modern New York stopped. According to Mrs. Andropovitch, he started spending his days with his sketchbook, drawing people and places as he'd known them before the war. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing – Jepsen assured Coulson that it was part of the process: after all, he had to come to terms with his losses – but it was worrisome, especially if he didn't start showing signs of snapping out of it. (It really didn't help that, while Elsa Andropovitch might be a SHIELD agent of five decades' seniority and had, in her day, been one of the most feared assassins in the Western hemisphere, she was also a grandmother twelve times over, and the fastest way to her heart was to appreciate her cooking. Coulson was getting nearly daily e-mails castigating him for not taking better care of the young man.)
Jepsen's recommendation was clear: "Get him an assignment. He needs something constructive to do. He needs a purpose."
Coulson certainly agreed, but it was easier said than done! Covert activities were right out, hell; public activities were right out – the last thing Steve Rogers needed at this stage was to be subjected to the full-court press of the 21st-century media. Anything that resembled a milk run would be too obviously an attempt to draw him out, and therefore liable to backfire. Coulson didn't dare send him on anything too risky unless there was no other choice – they had no really firm grip on how a post-ice Rogers would react in a life-or-death situation at this point, and, while Coulson was 99.9% certain the Captain would acquit himself honorably, until he knew for sure he wouldn't risk any of his agents unnecessarily. Coulson spent hours poring over cases, trying to find something suitable. What a pity he couldn't have been with them in New Mexico last year!
Coulson dropped the files down on his desk, and rubbed his face. He was getting nowhere. It was time to get the hell out of here and get a decent night's sleep on something that wasn't the couch in his office.
The company would be much better there, too, assuming Alys hadn't given up on him.
It was late by the time he actually made it out of the building. He hadn't expected her to still be awake when he got home, but, to his surprise, he found her in her nightgown and bathrobe in the kitchen, heating something in a small pot. "You do live here. I was starting to wonder," she teased gently.
"Very funny." He came in and kissed her. "What are you making?"
"Hot milk, your recipe. I couldn't sleep." She smiled. "You see? I didn't burn the kitchen down or anything. Aren't you impressed?"
"I am." Hot milk with honey and nutmeg – his mother's recipe, actually.
"Julia Child didn't learn to cook until she was in her forties, so there's hope for me yet. Grandmamma used to swear by brandied milk before bed, but I like this better."
"I'm guessing the brandy-to-milk ratio was somewhat suspect."
"The milk was really more of a coloring agent." She got a second mug from the cabinet, split the liquid between them and handed one mug to him. She wrapped both hands around hers and leaned against the counter.
He sipped the hot drink gratefully; she'd gotten the recipe exactly right. His spirits began to rise, but, then again, that had very little to do with the milk. "What's keeping you up? Is everything all right?"
"Just the jitters." She gave him a rueful smile. "Remember I told you that it was a miracle they gave my resumé a second look?"
"It wasn't a miracle, it was an accident. I got shuffled into the wrong pile. By the time they realized it, I'd already made it to the final three."
He smiled. "Not an accident, then. A correction." Seriously, his girlfriend was moving away because someone screwed up the paperwork? Hill would laugh her ass off.
She shrugged. "So now I'm going to be the section leader for nine people who, one, I beat to get there, and two, doubtlessly all know that I shouldn't have even been in the running. It's terrifying." She grinned. "In a good sort of way, if that makes any sense. Like I'm waiting at the top of the first big hill on the roller coaster."
"It does." He kissed her forehead. "You'll do well."
"Thanks, I hope so. Oh! And I'm going to have to miss DiegoCon this year, can you believe it? First time in a decade..."
"I hope they appreciate the enormity of the sacrifice," he teased. "When is your going-away party again?"
She stared down into her cup. "Phil, I think the battery on your personal cell may have run down."
Huh? "Can't be, I just charged it –" He pulled the phone out of his pocket – the screen was black. It was dead as the proverbial doornail. "Oh, Christ." His shoulders slumped a little lower as his good mood evaporated. "When was the party?"
"Yesterday. I didn't have any other way to get ahold of you. I e-mailed, but..."
"I rarely check it anywhere but my phone. Oh Alys, I'm so sorry." He took her hand.
She twined her fingers in his and looked up at him. "Things haven't been going so well for you lately, have they," she said quietly.
"No, they have not."
She nodded. "Let's hope they improve, then."
"Look, I'm not even sure how much vacation time I have built up, but it's at least a couple of months – HR has given up complaining to me about it. I'll be out to visit as soon as I can get away."
"That doesn't seem to happen very frequently." she said, flatly but without rancor.
"The last few months have been..." It was time for the understatement of the year. "Atypical."
"Phil, just don't make me any promises you can't keep."
That hurt like the twist of a knife in his chest, but it's not like he could blame her. "I won't. Not ever. I am so sorry."
She gave him a half-smile and took his hand. "Come to bed. I bet your back feels like macramé."
On the day she was due to fly out, Mariasol drove Alys to the airport, and Phil promised to meet them there. He was (big surprise) late, and it broke Mariasol's heart to see the way Alys kept scanning the crowds, looking for him. Nevertheless, someone who had to get through security and past the gate attendants with a large musical instrument couldn't wait until the last minute (even if Alys' precious performance cello was a ticketed passenger) and so, at the inspection line, Alys and Mariasol tearfully parted.
Mariasol stayed until Alys was clear, and then headed back out, stopping briefly at the bathroom to splash some water on her face. She was on the people-mover headed back towards the escalators when she saw Phil headed (at a pretty good clip) in the opposite direction. She got off the conveyor and turned around to chase him, ready to give the son of a bitch a big piece of her mind.
She had to run to try to catch up – he was moving deceptively fast for someone who wasn't breaking his stride. She slowed down, assuming he'd stop once he got to the security checkpoint and saw that Alys was nowhere in evidence, but he didn't: he walked right up to the head TSA agent with a commanding demeanor, held up what Mariasol assumed was some form of ID and said something to the guard.
Mariasol skidded to a halt when, to her very great surprise, the TSA agent straightened up slightly, nodded, and waved Phil through. She watched as he vanished into the crowds.
Well. That was very interesting.
Maybe it was time to go have coffee with Cassie and ask her some questions about SHIELD.
Captain Rogers' holding pattern intensified. He now seemed to be living in a rut between his apartment, the grocery, SHIELD HQ and the gym. Jepsen (as was understood) gave no details of her sessions with Rogers, but could report no progress. Off the record, she told Coulson, she'd be willing to bet a year's salary he'd been in psychotherapy before – he was too good at dodging questions to be a newbie. They didn't dare wait any more. Finding the perfect mission was no longer on the table: the next milk-run that came up, they'd offer it to the Captain.
Of course, they hadn't counted on the universe's sense of irony: the last ten days had been exceptionally quiet, a lull that had started the day he'd seen Alys off. (Flashing his badge at airport security like that hadn't been entirely kosher, but once he saw the way her face lit up when she spotted him at the gate, he couldn't bring himself to care. They'd held hands until boarding was called – he tried to think of something to tell her, but what couldn't be whispered in a darkened bedroom certainly couldn't be spoken aloud at an airport departure gate.)
He'd barely been home since she'd gone. Being at work made it easier to pretend she wasn't on the other side of the continent.
He received a letter from her – an actual, physical, postal-service letter – almost two weeks after she'd left. (He'd long since set it up so that any personal mail was forwarded to SHIELD.) There was no return address on the envelope, but he'd know her elegant handwriting anywhere. (It smelled of her, too. She'd found a perfume that managed to sweetly replicate the smell of a library – he really liked the scent, he really, really liked the scent of it on her, and what that said about the pair of them was nothing he wanted to examine too closely.) It was a pleasant surprise: he got it in the middle of a rough day, but he was a bit confused. It wasn't as if she'd dropped off the face of the earth – she hadn't even changed her phone number, and he was much more careful these days about keeping his cell phone up and running. They still texted and talked, when they could; she'd even given him a virtual tour of her new apartment, once they got Skype working, so why the snail mail?
He opened the short end of the envelope, pulled out the letter and unfolded the thick, smooth paper. It was much like any e-mail she'd sent him – news about settling in, a comic-book shop she wanted to take him to, several paragraphs gushing about the Portland Cello Project – but no less welcome for that, even if most of the information had already been overtaken by events. He reread the letter, unable to suppress a smile.
"I'm going to have to learn how to drive – living here without a car is simply untenable. I can't find a decent bagel for love nor money, and the hipsters, Phil, the hipsters! I thought Brooklyn was insufferable, but my God! I am a stranger in a strange land.
And I miss you so terribly.
The last sentence wrapped itself around his heart. There was still a weight in the envelope – he tipped it out, and a key fell into his hand. For one panicked second, he thought she was returning the key to his apartment, but no, like the other one she'd given him, it was shiny and new.He curled his hand around the key tightly, until the sharp edges started to bite into his palm.
A chime from his computer alerted him to his next appointment. He slid the new key onto his key ring and started to open the desk drawer to put the letter in, but stopped half-way. Instead, he tucked it in his breast pocket.
Good God, he was getting soppy.
He actually did go home that night. He didn't bother cooking anything, even after his vending-machine dinner, but just slumped down on the couch. He turned on the TV and not-watched it for an hour or two.He took the letter from his jacket pocket and read it yet again. He'd have it memorized, soon. Getting her key in the mail had really thrown him for an unexpected loop. They'd both been avoiding the topic of her departure and what that actually meant: it was so much easier, that way, but now he wasn't sure what to do, how to react, and nothing could be avoided forever. She'd asked him, that time, what he wanted out of the relationship, and the question still held, more so now than ever:
What did he want?
He wanted things to be as they had been, but obviously that wasn't an option. So what now? Unable to sleep, he turned the question over and over in his mind. She didn't want to end it – she'd always been clear on that point, and never more so than today. So what did he want?
In the wee hours of the night, when he was staring up at the ceiling, he was struck by a memory: months ago, he'd flown into New York from Moscow on a filthy, raw February night, complete with a raging storm that couldn't decide whether it was the last blast of winter or the first blow of spring. He'd gotten out of the debrief at 0230 and really should've gone to his own apartment – it was closer to SHIELD HQ than hers, and he could've used the extra sleep, but he didn't. He'd gone to her apartment instead.
He had silently let himself in, undressed and crawled into bed with her. She had half-woken, muttered "Cold" with a wrinkled nose, and had draped herself over him, so that he had found himself wrapped up in 110 pounds of warm, sleeping female. He remembered it so vividly – the bed was soft, the sheets were smooth; his head rested on hers and he breathed in the scent of her hair; the only sounds were the quiet ticking of the analog clock on her dresser and the slatting of the rain and sleet on the window. As exhausted as he had been that night, he had fought sleep tooth and nail to make that moment last longer. It was the first night he thought of her place as home.
That was the answer right there. That was what he wanted: a warm shelter from the howling winds, a small refuge of normality amid the chaos, entangled in the arms of the woman he… of the woman he…
Of the woman he loved.
Even if they would have to live on opposite sides of the country for a time, even if that sanctuary existed more in potentia than in reality, he needed to know that it was at least possible. What he wanted would change almost nothing, in practical terms – it was merely a promise that, at the end of the day, neither of them would have to be alone if they didn't choose to be.
He let out the breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding.
Of course, the major drawback here was that he'd have to actually ask her. He winced. He'd just have to write it out beforehand. God only knew what words would come out of his mouth if he didn't have a script.
For once – for once! – the stars seemed to align. A few days later, she called him with the news that her apartment had sold, and that she'd be in New York in a little over a week to finish the paperwork in person. He was a bit taken aback – he thought he'd have more time to prepare, but he wasn't going to pass up this opportunity. Besides, it was probably better if he didn't have a chance to overthink it.
It did mean, however, that he was going to need a little help. He called Pepper.
"Phil! How are you? Sorry I had to reschedule lunch last week – it's been an absolute madhouse over here."
"How are the dry runs going?"
"Well... I think. Tony's hoping to take the Tower live within the next few days."
"You're positive we're not going to end up with a smoking crater in the middle of Midtown?"
"So Tony promises me."
"Somehow, that doesn't actually make me feel better."
"Listen, I need to ask a personal favor," he said.
"Well, it turns out that getting reservations for two at LeBernadin on a week's notice is beyond even SHIELD's capabilities..."
"Say no more, I'll have my PA get on it. For two? I thought your cellist was in Portland."
"She'll be back for the weekend."
"Really? Oh, how lovely! Well, consider it done. I'll even do my best to keep Tony off your back."
He smiled. "Thank you. I really appreciate it."
Hill was next – Coulson couldn't possibly guarantee that nothing would come up at work to interrupt, but he'd do what he could."Regarding next Friday – I'll be taking some personal time. It shouldn't be an issue: everything seems to be in a holding pattern right now. Blake has agreed to switch weekends with me, so he'll be the Agent On Call."
"Not a problem. What's the occasion?" asked Hill.
"Alys is back in town."
"On business – she has some loose ends to tie up."
"Is that the only thing she'll be tying up?" asked Hill with raised eyebrows and an audible leer.
Coulson kept his face straight. "Why? Are you volunteering for a threesome?"
Hill cracked up. "Dream on, Coulson. Yeah, it shouldn't be a problem. You kids have fun, I'll see to it you're not bothered for anything short of the apocalypse."
He raced home that Friday, knowing she'd be waiting."You're here," she smiled as she hurried to him. He met her half-way and held her tightly after she cast herself into his arms.
"How did the closing go?" he asked.
"Smoothly," she replied.
He ran a hand into her hair and pressed his lips to hers. She returned the kiss with equal fervor and Good God, how he'd missed her, missed this. His other hand slid down the side of her chest to rub circles up and down her hip. He was rewarded with a gasp and a shudder.
"Now, now, do we have time for this? You promised me a night on the town..." She pulled away a little, smiling.
"You'd rather go out to dinner than have sex with me?" He pressed forward, kissing down her neck and shifting his hand to her breast."At LeBernadin? I'll have to think about it," she said breathlessly. "Maybe if you give me a point of ref-... a point of ref-"
"What was that?""Nothing. Never mind. Don't stop."
He took far less time to get ready to go than she did, which left plenty of time for his nerves to start jangling. He drew in a breath, puffed it out, and ran through another check. He had the ring in his pocket and he'd already called the restaurant twice to confirm their 8:30 reservation. He pulled out the slip of paper that he'd written his speech on, and started to review.Which was when his SHIELD-issued phone started to squawk out the emergency notification. No No NO NO NO! Notnow! he seethed, and grabbed for phone. Hill, if this is your idea of a joke…. Rage was replaced by a chilling wrench of fear as he read the message.
"REPORT TO PEGASUS WITH ALL SPEED, CONDITION DELTA. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."Oh fuck. He typed in the reply. "Acknowledged. En route."
He looked up. The hairdryer had just turned off, so he'd have a few minutes before she came out. He grabbed his laptop and started typing. Would Portland be far enough away from New Mexico? New York was further still, but if anything really bad went down, the Eastern Seaboard wasn't the best place to be. Honestly, he wanted to get her to the safest safe house SHIELD had, the furthest away from any population center – could he get her to Amundsen-Scott in time?
Probably not. Portland would have to do. Really, if that wasn't far enough, no place would be."I'm ready for dinner when you are…" She came out of the bedroom and stopped short. "What is it?"
"You've got to go back to Portland," he said evenly.
"What are you talking about? I just got here.""I have to go. It's –"
"Classified," she finished shortly. "Phil, I'm sorry you've gotten called away. But I'm already set to spend the next few days in New York, and while I'd really rather spend those days with you, if I can't, I'm going to make the most of it.""No. I've booked you on a flight from LaGuardia leaving in three hours. Sorry about the red-eye, but I had them put you in First Class. I've called for a taxi – it should be coming by in 45 minutes to pick you up."
She crossed her arms and set her jaw. "You're being awfully high-handed. You've got a lot of nerve – I think I've been exceptionally patient up until now, but this is ridiculous! You can't just – ""Alys, please." He gently took her by the shoulders. "Listen to me. Some things have happened that... that I don't like, and I would feel much better if I knew you were safe. Frankly, if in two weeks' time, I look like an idiot who overreacted, I will be a very happy man. Please. Do this for me."
She pursed her lips, and her eyebrows drew together. She stared at him pensively for what felt like an eternity, then backed down. "All right. I'll go."
"I'll explain everything I can once this is over." He went to the closet and grabbed his mobility bag.She nodded. "Phil?" she asked in a quiet voice.
He turned to her. Her mouth worked a little, like she was trying on and rejecting things to say. "Be careful," she finally said."I will. Call me when you get home." He kissed her passionately, and just like that, he was gone.
It wasn't until he was on the quinjet bound for New Mexico that he remembered the small box in his pocket. Under his breath, he cursed creatively, expansively and at length. That had been it. That had been the moment. He could have poured out his heart, offered her the ring and, most importantly, run away with entirely legitimate purpose afterwards, regardless of her answer. He sighed, stuck the ring back in his pocket, and cleared his head. He'd try again when he got back."Sir, we've got Agent Barton on the comm for you."
"Thanks. Pipe it back here."….
"So any chance you're driving by LaGuardia?""I can drop you."
"Fantastic. I want to hear what happened with the cellist, is that still a thing?""She went back to Portland."
"What? Booo!" The elevator doors closed behind them. "Did you even get to make it to dinner?"
"No. Duty called, with its usual sense of timing. Thank you for getting the reservation, though.""Don't worry about it – I'm just sorry it didn't work out."
Pepper looked at him directly. "This one is bad, isn't it."
"I can't really – "
"I know. But I've never seen you this flustered."
He looked down at his feet, then back up at her. "Yes. It's bad. It's about as bad as it possibly could be."
She bit her lip. "I know better than to think that Tony won't be in the middle of it."
"I wish I could say he won't. But we're doing our best to defuse the situation before it becomes that serious."
She tried to smile. "I know you are. Thank you."
….Wow, he thought, getting stabbed through the chest really hurts.
He was dying, wasn't he. He was vaguely disappointed that he didn't see a skeleton with a scythe. He was really good at chess, maybe he could have made that work for him.
Fury was there, yelling something. He tried to explain – if he was going to die, Fury should use that. Use anything. Get the job done. That was what they did.The pain was starting to fade. He wasn't at all sure he should be happy about that. Alys was going to be pissed that he had a new scar… Oh God. He tried to reach for her letter in his breast pocket, but his arm wouldn't respond.
That wasn't good, was it.
She'll be safe, right? They'll stop him before he gets that far. She'll be safe, she has to be. It's so far away. They'll stop him by then. Thank God she's so far away. I hope she's not too upset by this. An entirely new pain welled up in his chest. He never told her he loved her. He should have told her. She knows, right? She must know. But three God damned words, was it really that hard to say three short words? And now he wasn't going to get the chance to. As if, if she loved him in return, she would have cared how badly he phrased it.
If only he hadn't been such a fucking coward.And with that, Phillip James Coulson, Agent of SHIELD, died.
Now, before y'all go light your torches and sharpen your pitchforks, remember, there's still another chapter to go. :)