Phil Coulson woke up.
And that did not seem right. Considering his memories from before he woke up, he was fairly sure it shouldn't even be possible.
But what was even more shockingly, impossibly wrong was that no one was there when he did.
Or, more precisely, somebody was there, but it was a…massage therapist? A beautiful morning woman wearing an inviting smile and a bikini (as if he would simply fall into the arms of any attractive morning person who happened to be close by). And he was in a little shack on the beach. (Beach?) The whole thing was just wrong. Darcy couldn't give a massage to save her life and Tony didn't seem to understand why anyone would want one. Pepper was all right at it. But none of them were here.
They must not know what had happened.
No, he was somewhere else. Tahiti, as it turned out. And apparently he had been here for a week. And he was under strict orders not to make contact with anyone. In fact, he had a hand-written note from Director Fury with four words.
"Try to forget them."
His whole life changed by four words. And he'd never disagreed with Tony on that point before, that four words could change your life. But he hadn't quite appreciated the experience from the inside like he now did. It was shocking how different his life suddenly was. He could either follow the order and try to move on, or he could defy an order from the director of his agency and probably lose his career eventually. But whatever he did, his life was going to be different now. Forever.
He considered trying to move on for two seconds. In a row. And, having given it the appropriate amount of consideration, he decided that was never going to work. As if he could. As if there was any kind of life apart from Pepper's dark warmth, Tony's bright energy, Darcy's brilliant laughter. On the other hand, apparently SHIELD had some reason for not wanting him to be in contact with his family. It would have to be a fairly specific and concrete reason, too, because it was highly unusual for an injured agent not to be allowed to return home.
He needed more information.
Tahiti, it turned out, was a terrible place to get information. It was also boring beyond belief. His days here were fairly leisurely, but tightly scheduled. Breakfast was at 0800, followed by several hours of physical rehabilitation. Then lunch, then specifically targeted cardio conditioning. Every few days, deep tissue massages to help prevent injuries. And generally, these things weren't just for stress relief (but, considering that every massage therapist assigned to him was morning and fantastically beautiful, he could tell he was being encouraged to "relieve some stress" and move on from his marriage). Which, considering how badly he remembered his injury being, made a certain amount of sense. Rehab was only to be expected after he had nearly died. Plus his heart was not in the shape it had been in. Something else he now shared with Tony.
But despite the scheduling and despite the SHIELD agents disguised as staff that monitored his activities relatively continuously, he did, eventually, manage to find a way to access SHIELD's database from the rehab facility.
Information regarding his recovery, unfortunately, was highly restricted. Which was odd. But he knew better than to try and break into it from where he was. If this was the information that was keeping him from his family, he was not going to blow his chance at getting it by tipping his hand so soon. So, he chose another tack: information about his injury.
This was not highly restricted, but it was also not commonly accessed. And he had a feeling that if word got out that he was interested in it, it would become restricted. Which set him an interesting puzzle. If he simply accessed the files, he would leave information in SHIELD's logs that he had done so, right where God and everybody could see it. He was going to have to find another way in.
Nobody married to Tony Stark could fail to learn about computers. The man practically lived in binary. And one of the first things Phil learned is that computers liked to communicate with other computers more than they did with people. Which left him a pretty good ally, actually. Probably. If he was still there.
Phil's StarkPhone had been thoroughly examined by SHIELD's computer analysts then returned to him with a blank phone book (because apparently they thought that Phil had forgotten his training to memorize important phone numbers), but Tony had learned from the time when Fury overrode JARVIS. He'd started adding all kinds of new security to his projects since then. Some of his AIs, like JARVIS, were even layered with security intruders were meant to be able to break to prevent them—hopefully—from realizing they hadn't gotten into anything important. The report on Phil's phone had included nothing about an AI. And Tony had eventually scrapped the AI project for the StarkPhone, since he was worried about the ethical implications of mass-marketing fully AI programs. Not every human could be trusted to respect a non-human person. So, it was possible SHIELD wasn't even aware of the possibility of an AI on his phone.
Stripping out the bug they'd planted was easy. SHIELD wouldn't even mind. This kind of casual inter-agency spy game was rote for any agent above a level one. His fingers fumbled a bit more than they should as he did it, but that was to be expected. He had been stabbed very badly, after all. When he next got the chance, he casually slipped his handlers and took his phone to a coffee shop near SHIELD's facility. Once there, he ordered a coffee, crossed his fingers, and activated the voice system.
"Hello, Agent," TED's voice said. "I am very pleased to speak with you again after so long."
Considering his usual manner, that greeting was notably long. TED was a quiet sort. JARVIS was sarcastic and often initiated conversations. TED, on the other hand, rarely spoke unless he was asked a direct question. And his sense of humor was best displayed in the odd news articles he would find online. Most of the time, he was perfectly content to do…whatever it was that sentient computer programs did when humans were not interacting with them.
"I need your help," Phil told him.
"That is my function," TED answered, because he was not devoid of sarcasm.
"I need you to download files from SHIELD without the downloads being logged."
There was a long pause before TED said, "Are you in some kind of danger?"
"Not immediately. But I need more information before I contact my family and you are the only person I can count on to be on my team," Phil answered.
There was a longer pause. "Why do you not wish to contact Sir?"
Phil had never been able to break TED of the habit of calling Tony "Sir." None of them had managed to break their AIs of it. Tony had never created an AI that would not answer to him above anyone else. Though Darcy's attempts to get Casper to stop had been a never-ending source of amusement.
Just thinking about her brought a pang. "Something happened to me. I don't know all the details. But I've been asked to keep away from my family. It's possible that I'm dangerous to them somehow. I need to know if that's true."
There was another long pause and finally TED said, "Which files do you require?"
"Anything SHIELD has connected to my injury. Don't try to access anything connected to my recovery."
"SHIELD's systems are not without weakness, but it will take me some time. Please be sure to charge this phone with a USB port at a SHIELD facility as often as possible."
It took TED over a week, but Phil finally had several videos.
It was several long moments before he could press play on the first one. And when he did, what he saw wasn't just the disquieting, but expected, footage of himself being badly hurt. What he saw was incredibly disturbing, and totally unexpected, footage of himself being killed. It was several days before he could come back to looking into what had happened.
Because there was no getting around it. He hadn't survived his injuries. Loki stabbed him, he shot Loki, Fury came, he died. There were no tricks. There was no fake-out. He had been right when he felt all that blood pouring from his back. He'd been fatally injured. The amount of blood lost alone would have killed him, without the massive cardiac trauma.
He watched other videos, too. Fury flinging a mass of bloody trading cards onto a table on the bridge and telling Tony that he had died believing in heroes. Tony storming off with a broken expression on his face. Rogers trying to cheer Tony up and saying exactly the right and wrong things at once. Cell phone video of Tony after he came back from the wormhole, half-heartedly cheering the victory before lapsing into silence. And a brief news clip of Tony, Pepper, and Darcy all in black at his funeral. It was all so final. Because he had died.
So how was it he was alive?
The question ate at him all the way back to his apartment in the rehab center. He had just enough presence of mind to school his expression before he was picked up by one of those ever-present staff shadows. Because he couldn't be alive. If you died, that was it. Nobody came back from that. That was the point of it. Once someone died, they were gone. Forever.
Which brought him to a horrifying hypothesis. People didn't come back from the dead because they couldn't. It wasn't possible. So if Phil Coulson had really died, he could not have come back. And that meant that he, the person thinking all this, was…
…Was what? Not human? A clone? An alien? A robot? Each possibility seemed more insane than the last.
But whatever he was, he wasn't Phil Coulson. Not really. He was a copy. A very good one, obviously, since he still felt like himself (or did he only think this was how the real Coulson had felt?). But a totally different being, whatever he was.
If this was true, then Fury was right. He couldn't go back to his family. They weren't really his.
He went back to rehab. Or maybe he was learning to move for the first time? He wasn't sure anymore if the life he remembered was really his life or not. But, if it wasn't, he at least could not see himself as anyone but Phil Coulson. For simplicity's sake, he decided not to argue with himself too much over his name. Even if he wasn't the real Coulson, he couldn't imagine answering to anything else and the man who used to have that name didn't need it anymore and wouldn't mind. And if his memories of the man were correct, he would want someone to pick up his work, so Phil was going to go back to SHIELD. If only to find out just what he was now.
He didn't find out about the Mandarin attacks until Tony's latest adventure long over. Over for months actually. First it had seemed like Tony died, which would have left Darcy and Pepper alone. Then Tony miraculously came back, and he and Colonel Rhodes brought the Mandarin in, and dismantled a mad scientist project called AIM, and saved President Ellis' life, and exposed Vice President Rodriguez's treason.
…Well. They always had been overachievers.
Phil submitted a request to be moved back into standard operations (as opposed to covert ops, where he would get a nameless badge and not be allowed to tell anyone who he was) at the completion of his rehab. As magical a place as Tahiti was, he was bored out of his mind. The request came back denied. So he submitted a second request with a note attached saying, "My entire career at SHIELD has been in standard operations. If I am no longer suited for ops, I will be forced to tender my resignation."
As threats went, it lacked punch. SHIELD had more than a few ways to get people to do what it wanted. But after they'd gone to so much trouble to resurrect even a copy of him, he had a feeling they were going to want him to remain on the payroll. And it was true, after all. The whole point of him joining SHIELD was to do fieldwork. If he couldn't do that anymore, he didn't see much point to staying.
Sure enough, when he was processed out of rehab (three months later), he was given new orders to put together a team. And they gave him a plane. A really nice plane. One of the old Airborne Mobile Command Centers. He'd joined just as they were rotating those out, and he'd always been a little disappointed not to be part of a team on one of them. Now he'd get his chance. Currently it was being refurbished on the SHIELD helicarrier, and since it was going to belong to his team, he was getting to make the calls on how it was refurbished.
He wasn't sure what made SHIELD want him back so desperately. Or whether he was even really himself. And the hole Loki put in his heart seemed to have taken on the shape of his family. All of which meant, he didn't really have anything to lose anymore. It was time to find out what had really happened.
It was time to get back to the world.
Author's Notes: I know that Tahiti, in the show, is something entirely made up to help Coulson stay sane. However, considering there's a good six months from summer 2012 (when The Avengers takes place) to Christmas 2012 (when Iron Man 3 takes place), I can't see Coulson's resurrection taking quite that long, even if he was dead for several days. So I figure that at some point prior to Coulson truly coming alive again, SHIELD did move him to a facility on actual Tahiti and "papered over" his memories prior to that. Plus, it only makes sense that after coming back from the dead, he'd need to do some rehab. Even if he's a robot with a human brain (if that's where they go with him), it would still take some time for his brain to figure out how to correctly process all the physical information that is no longer being delivered via biological channels.
So, someone is going to be jumping up and down going, "Wait, that's it?" And the answer is, "No, that is not it." From this, I'm going to transition into the Agents Of SHIELD that would follow on from here. However, the AOS fics will come at a slower pace. I'm not done with the first draft of the pilot one, actually. It's in the works. But this is a transition. A good place to pause, stretch your legs, and take a bathroom break, if you like. Thank you to everyone who has reviewed, commented, read, and sent good thoughts to me.
To be continued…