Title: We’re Gonna Drown Every Doubt
Rating: PG-13 to be safe.
Genre and/or Pairing: Gen, with a side of Clint/Coulson.
Spoilers: The Avengers.
Word count: 2,698
Disclaimer: I don't own it.
Summary: He wakes up in hospital with years of his life missing.
Notes: Honestly, I have no idea what this is. I was writing something else when I ended up opening a doc and writing this as well. Needless to say, the other thing wasn’t finished. The title is from Close Every Valve To Your Bleeding Heart by Ha Ha Tonka.
Phil Coulson dies.
This is not a lie.
One month after Phil Coulson dies, he wakes up in hospital with years of his life missing.
A car crash, a doctor says. They say a lot of things. His family is dead, he quit his job the day before the crash because he came into money (no one will tell him specifics, just that he’ll never have to work a day in his life again).
None of this explains the man who talks to the doctors every single day that he’s there, but never gives his name.
The nurses nickname him Eyepatch.
Clint takes to spending more time than he should in the ceilings and ventilation system at Stark Tower. Bruce knows that he should tell Tony but, somehow, it doesn’t seem fair. Tony has his workshop, Bruce has his lab, Natasha and Steve have separate gyms: Clint deserves his own space as well. He has the firing range, but he goes there to think and train.
“Tony’s trying to introduce Steve to takeout,” Bruce says. He’s taken to assuming that Clint’s listening at all times since he usually is. “I think it’s Thai food tonight. Do you want some?”
He hears more than sees Clint remove the grate and drop down onto one of the lab benches below.
“We spent a few months in Thailand a couple of years ago,” he says, and Bruce doesn’t need to ask who we is. “We practically lived on Thai food because we couldn’t go too far away from the target. I put an arrow through the guy’s head when he went to a burger joint.” Clint sits down on the edge of the bench. “I don’t like Thai food.”
Next door, Thor says something and Jane laughs.
Bruce orders pizza and plots with JARVIS to sneak it in.
The house doesn’t feel like a home. A woman – tall, dark hair, sounds annoyed when she talks to someone on the phone – gets him to sign for his belongings, but tells him to make sure that everything’s there. There isn’t very much in the boxes: clothes, a few plates that he vaguely recognises as having belonged to his parents. There’s an old wooden box that Phil kept on the desk in his bedroom when he was a child. He tries and fails to remember what it contained. He can hardly remember what his bedroom looked like.
Blue and red. A poster on one of the walls. Something in the box that his parents had given him for his birthday. Photos? Cards? Something he loved.
“You’ll get used to it,” she offers as she leaves, her phone still buzzing against her hip. “Everyone does.”
It’s not until she’s gone that Phil wonders what her name is.
Tony notices that Pepper was friends with Phil a lot more now. She’ll plan an event or want to blow off steam about something or someone (it’s usually Tony) and she’ll pick up her phone and press one of the buttons before it seems to hit her, before she remembers that she’s gone, and she drops the phone like it’s red hot.
In the end, it’s JARVIS who tells him that Pepper called Phil almost every week, that they went to dinner every couple of months and that Pepper got him a gift for his birthday.
It’s when he stops thinking of him as Pepper’s friend and ends up thinking of him as Phil, who was sort of Tony’s friend in a messed up way that involved threats about tasers, that Tony walks down to Bruce’s lab, knocks on the door and uses a broom – Bruce must have brought that one with him or bought in after he moved in – to push up one of the ceiling tiles.
“I’ve got an idea,” he says. Pepper sighs in that I’m going to spend the rest of the week cleaning up after your idea after it breaks or blows something up or attacks someone (and that AI wasn’t supposed to attack all the SHIELD agents who came to try and take over Phil’s job, it was just luck that they did).
By the time he’s lived in his new house – three bedrooms, an attic that could easily be converted to a fourth, a large yard, flowerbeds which apparently won prizes for the last owner and a birdhouse that has its own welcome sign – for four months, it still feels like it belongs to someone else. It’s like Phil’s wearing clothes three sizes too big; the house doesn’t belong to him and he doesn’t want it to.
There’s a taser in the bottom of one of the boxes, right beside something small and made of crystal that has a sticker saying Happy birthday, Phil. It’s from someone called Pepper. He doesn’t think he’s ever met anyone called Pepper.
He’s never understood the feeling of being a stranger in your own life, of walking around and feeling like you know nothing.
If there are things that Natasha can claim to be better at than most of the people she knows. There are very few people she knows to be more skilled at lying and manipulating people, and she is grateful. If there were too many people then that could be a problem for her.
Clint knows about them as well, and she corners him at the firing range that Stark’s built on one of the floors of the tower. He’s shooting arrows through a hologram of Loki’s face: through the eye and into the bull’s eye every time. She doesn’t know if it’s supposed to be cathartic, but it makes her feel better to watch him.
“Do you remember when I first started working for SHIELD?” she asks as she cleans one of her guns, methodical and fast. “I told Fury that I was a threat and he told me that SHIELD doesn’t work with anyone who could be a threat.”
Another arrow hits the bullseye. “What’s your point?”
“We’re all on the threat list, you know that. What does that say about how much we should trust what Fury says?”
Phil Coulson is dead, or maybe he isn’t, but Natasha knows that Nicky Fury is a liar.
There’s a gas station and two men with guns and it’s entirely too easy for Phil to take them down. They leave in the ambulance with: number one has a broken wrist, serious concussion; number two has two fingers shot off, a broken leg and two black eyes. He doesn’t know how he does it: it all happens in a few minutes.
“Wow, last time I saw anything like this, some dumbass tried to jump a drunk Navy SEAL. They guy didn’t even realise that he was doing it—I think he called it muscle memory,” one of the detectives grins. “What did you do before?”
Phil honestly has no idea, but I was an accountant, doesn’t sit right on his tongue.
“I worked in security,” he says instead, and it fits, so maybe it’s true.
He thinks of doughnuts at he leaves.
Steve knows about death. He knows about the way a body falls to the ground (or falls from a great height, too far away to grab his hand, not enough time to save a life) and the way blood stains everything it touches. Some people are shot, others are blown to pieces or fall to their deaths, and the lucky few die of old age.
He knows about things that should kill you but don’t. Shrapnel and gamma radiation and crashing a plane into ice.
Four months after Coulson’s death, he breaks into a room at SHIELD headquarters. The room is full of filing cabinets, the information too sensitive to ever be recorded in any database that could be hacked. Even JARVIS takes a long time to get through the security system to get into the room (Tony complains and swears in Steve’s ear until he forces the door). Every cabinet contains over a hundred files, years of employees.
Steve picks up the first one he sees and flips through it: dates of birth, employment, death, rows of addresses.
The addresses continue after the date of death.
His name is Phil Coulson and he was in a car crash. Before he moved, he lived in an apartment in the city and worked as an accountant. His parents died years ago, and he remembers bits and pieces of his childhood and even a lot of time after that. And then it just goes blank, until sometimes it isn’t blank.
Holding a radio and waiting to give the command for Barton to shoot.
Trying to raise some kind of response from Natasha because there’s a building burning a block away and it was her last known location.
He hasn’t eaten anything but Thai food for months, and if he sees it in the next year, it’s going straight in the bin. Or maybe he’ll make allowances, because too much Thai food is always going to be attached to memories of sitting in front of a window for hours on end, waiting until he can tell Barton to take the shot.
Sharing a small bed in a run-down apartment with a man who makes a habit of jumping off of roofs. They fit together like they’ve been doing this for years.
Barton’s sitting in the visitors’ seat on the other side of Phil’s desk, smile easy and familiar, and he’s got his feet up on the desk; his boots are dirty.
Phil doesn’t tell him to move his feet, movement pushes his legs and lets his feet thump down onto the floor. He laughs, ignoring his own paperwork in favour of poking through Phil’s. In a few minutes, they fall into a companionable, comfortable silence.
Phil finds himself longing for people he’s never met. He records hours of Supernanny and ignores the little voice that says, Really, Coulson? Trashy reality TV? If I find Jersey Shore on here, you’re sleeping alone tonight.
It takes him all his time not to reply.
The house – not his house, never his house – is silent, but it’s anything but comfortable.
The house is innocuous, the area quiet. It’s definition of suburbia, complete with creepy cookie cutter houses. It even has white picket fences, which he was beginning to think only existed to films. But, no, Phil’s new address is a cookie cutter house with a white picket fence and a fucking birdhouse. Clint wonders if there’s ever been a crime around here, if SHIELD’s ever had a reason to visit here, or anywhere like it, that didn’t involve lying to someone. Probably not.
Thor looks curious and Steve is smiling at the birds fighting over the bread. Jesus Christ. At least Tony and Natasha aren’t as charmed as they are—and Bruce just looks a little confused, as if he can’t work out why Fury would put Phil here of all places.
Clint’s beginning to get a sinking feeling in his stomach as his suspicions build. This place isn’t Phil, who only went back to his apartment to sleep and didn’t even eat there half the time, preferring to eat with Clint in his cramped SHIELD apartment or with Clint and Natasha in the SHIELD canteen (the food was terrible and he always denied that he was there for the company, at least in the early days). It feels wrong and it gets even worse when the door opens and they find themselves right in front of Phil himself.
For one ridiculous, insane moment, Clint is really glad that Thor and Steve didn’t decide to have a closer look at the birdhouse.
“Coulson?” Tony asks, and Clint immediately realises that Tony’s right there with him, that he’s harbouring the same suspicions that he is.
Phil looks at them all, expression slowly changing from surprised to confused, and says, “Sorry, do I know any of you?”
It takes all of Clint’s self-control not to choke.
The man, the archer, introduces himself as Clint and Phil has an odd moment of realisation: shock, but it’s almost immediately pushed away by the sense of familiarity that sweeps over him because he knows that voice, and he knows those boots (with mud deep in the soles) and he almost says, oh, it’s you, before he stops himself. This is Barton, the men from the bed and the room, the one he’s always waiting to tell to take the shot.
The others introduce themselves and they’re not quite as familiar – he remembers Natasha holding a gun; he remembers watching grainy video footage of Bruce; Thor makes him want to smile and swallow a few aspirin at the same time; Steve is a memory of cards with worn edges that he thinks belong in that empty box and Tony makes him think of the taser at the bottom of that old box.
Between them all, they take over the largest booth in a diner a few blocks away from Phil’s house. He lets them explain without interrupting them. He worked for SHIELD. He was stabbed. He was killed—or maybe not: none of them are quite sure if he really died or not.
What he finds the most reassuring about this is that it means that he’s right: this life, that house, it isn’t his and it never was.
“We’ve spent a long time searching for the Son of Coul,” Thor says and drowns his second plate of pancakes in syrup.
“If we don’t get you back, we might get someone worse than you,” Tony taps away on what Phil recognises as a StarkPhone. “Pepper says hi.”
At least he knows who Pepper is now.
Beside Phil, sitting a little too close, Clint pokes at his eggs with his fork. On the other side of Clint is Natasha, who alternates slapping Clint’s fork away from her plate with suggesting food from the menu to Bruce. On the other side of Bruce, Tony tries to convince him to try ‘more exotic’ foods, gesturing at the menu with his fork, and ignores Steve’s disapproving looks when his fork gets a little too close to someone’s face.
It’s half familiar and oddly domestic. Phil doesn’t try to stop Clint when he steals a piece of toast from his plate.
The bell on the door rings as it opens – Tony and Clint both grimace – and it’s the man from the hospital.
Eyepatch, Phil remembers. That’s what the nurses called him.
“People die all the time in this job,” Fury says, and the people – the Avengers, they called themselves, and that’s another thing that seems familiar – don’t falter, still angry, still hurt. “If it’s possible, we bring them back, wipe their memories. We give them the lives that they should have.”
He remembers paperwork, pages upon pages of contracts, and he read every single one: there was no mention of having your memories wiped so that you could have a life that you chose not to have—and he chose it, he knew full well what SHIELD would mean for the rest of his life, and he never wanted anything more. He got something more, though, that much he’s sure of.
“That wasn’t your choice to make,” Phil says.
The choice belongs to him, and it’s laid out in front of him: he can come back and they’ll reverse the effects of the memory wipe, or he can walk away and no one will ever bother him again.
It’s his choice, here and now. Only... it isn’t really a choice. There was never a real decision to be made, and Phil thinks he knew that the moment he woke up in the hospital and nodded along to lies about a car crash, all while thinking, This is wrong.
He chooses the only option that feels right, that has ever felt right.
Phil Coulson dies and he really does die. There’s no ice, no shrapnel, no gamma radiation, just a blade through his body and dying on the floor of the helicarrier, hoping that the Avengers learn how to work together before everyone dies and his death means nothing.
He dies and then he comes back.