For once, the mission had been an unmitigated success.
A group of gangster working out of Detroit had horded a veritable stockpile of alien tech, and, amazingly enough, none of it resembled what they'd come to expect from Chitauri stuff pulled from the wreckage of the Avenger's premier world saving venture. The armor pieces had been sleek and elegant in design as supposed to the rough, jagged edges of the flying-sled-riding invaders.
Stave like weapons gave off distinct energy signatures that the guys in S.H.I.E.L.D's science labs would be working on it for years.
No doubt Fury would be watching them closely. Any new developments in terms of extraterrestrials was something he was interested in.
So far, all that the research teams had been able to discern only two things about the artifacts. One, they responded only one kind of stimulus, raw solar energy. They were essentially useless if they hadn't been exposed to sunlight within a few hours. And two, a single, rune like word etched onto the length of the staves. A name, it seemed.
Were these the next opponents for earth's mightiest heroes? Only time would tell. For now they could add the name to the slowly growing list of alien species wrapped up in the affairs of earth. Asgardians like Thor, Dark Elves like Malkier, and the Shi'ar, a similar alien tribe that had left artifacts behind and not since returned to pick them up.
Thankfully for Coulson and his team, they'd gotten there and neutralized the threat with barely an injury to show for it. The gangsters hadn't quite grasped how their discoveries worked yet, so their competence when pulling the trigger was more than a little questionable. With the help of flickering lights and a few well times explosions in the boilers beneath the building, courtesy of Skye, Ward and May had been able to slip in flanked by the Seven Dwarf drones for backup support.
Even then, Ward had taken a plasma bolt to the shoulder, and May's cheek was a little bit on the scorched side. Nothing that FitzSimmons weren't capable of fixing down in the lab. Meanwhile, Skye was trying to plow through the menagerie of signals and communication lines the gangsters had left behind. Perhaps that would lead to them finding the source of the artifacts.
Skye was certainly excited at the idea. How awesome would finding a downed alien space craft, probably preserved in some ancient cave, be?
Usually Coulson would be equally eager about such things. The chance to discover a piece of the ever expanding universe was intoxicating. What made the job worth it these days, really. Meeting myths and legends come to life. Gods and heroes made flesh for the eyes to see.
For the past few days, however, Phillip Coulson felt none of the ecstatic glee that was usual.
He felt hollow. His thought revolved around a single phrase, and all that it entailed.
A magical place.
Bits and pieces came back nightly. His own agonized screams begging to let his life end echoed in a cacophony around the inside of his skull.
He'd wanted to die.
An otherworldly spear had ruptured his heart to pieces, killing him dead.
Yet Nick Fury, a man he'd considered a friend, had forcibly brought him back, and planted in his mind falsehoods that haunted him. Two things about this bothered him. How had they done it? Even with the most pervasive of medical technology, how did they revive someone who'd been clinically dead for days?
What bothered him more though, was why.
He was a good agent. There was enough arrogance in him to acknowledge that. But what made him so valuable that such expense would be wasted to bring him back when he'd wanted to be let go?
The team had noticed something was off about him. He could see the concern in the faces of Skye, Fitzs and Simmons, and the way that Ward looked sideways after making eye contact with him. May knew something was wrong of course. She always did. But after a few, wordless exchanges in the hallways of the BUS, and she accepted that her support, though appreciated, wasn't desired.
Skye on the other hand, didn't take the hint quite as well.
He'd call her constant checking up on him since his kidnapping pestering, if it wasn't so endearing. She cared, and when Skye cared she showed it.
However, he was more than a little thankful that as he ascended the stairs to his rooms, she was busy with descrambling signals. Endearing or not, all he wanted now was to be alone and contemplate the gaping void in his consciousness, the existential crisis looming just below the surface.
So, naturally, when he opened the door the room was already occupied, and someone was sitting at his desk.
In an instant he had his gun drawn and levelled at the sudden intruder.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" the woman at his desk cried, throwing her arms up in surrender. "There's no need for that!"
"Who are you?" Coulson demanded, eyes scanning the room for a possible entry point.
How had she gotten in, past all of them? Maybe it had been while they were gone. But even then, the BUS had a state of the art security mechanism. If someone had entered, they'd of know before they returned. The woman herself was short, not too much over five feet, which brownish hair and a skin tone that spoke of mixed heritage. Mid thirties or so.
A moment passed before she answered. Light creases formed on her forehead, and the edges of her lip twitched.
"Oh come on," she admonished. "You really don't recognize me? Well shit. Knew I'd gotten old, but dang."
He took a step forward, grip on the pistol tightening.
"Again, who are you? I don't take lightly to breaking and entering. Especially in my own room. I like my privacy." To his astonishment, the woman laughed. Loudly.
"Don't you mean you don't like people touching your old junk?" she gestured with an elbow at the various antiques arranged on the surrounding shelves. "Always did like this kinda thing, didn't you? Old war mementos, vintage Captain America pajamas?...I'm sorry, talking isn't great in this position. One sec."
She pressed the index and forefingers of her right hand and gave the left a wave.
The cabin door slid shut with a click behind Coulson, and he felt his pistol disassemble and fall to pieces in his hand, falling to the ground in a clutter of parts.
"Nanotech in my fingertips," she explained at the perturbed look on Coulson's face. "Useful for quick hacks. Sabotaging weapons with computers built in. Pain in the ass to maintain though. Gotta oil my hands like wheel axels." She grinned.
There was something familiar about this weapon, though he couldn't quite place it. Firming up his stance, he clenched his hands for a possible altercation. He didn't need a weapon for a single enemy combatant.
"Who are you? I won't ask again."
The grin faded, and a look that may have been hurt replaced it.
Her voice was very quiet.
"It's me AC…"
Even as a highly trained federal agent, it took Coulson an astonishingly long time to process the weight of this one sentence. Like the pieces of a scattered puzzle, it all came together. Yet, what came together was baffling beyond measure. Without a word Coulson approached her, leaning forward on desk, bringing his face within feet of hers.
Same cheekbones, same complexion. Age had changed the face of course, but all the details were still there. From the miniscule scar made all but invisible beneath the left eyebrow, to the tiny mole hidden beneath the hair of her temples. All there.
Then there were the eyes. Brown mixed with amber, filled with the same spunky determination and desperation for affection as the girl who he'd come to care for deeply over the last months, despite her betrayal.
Just as quickly as it'd disappeared, the grin returned.
"Took you long enough," she said. "Admittedly, time travel is confusing from both ends. See people younger, seeing people older….it's a pain in the ass, actually."
"Time travel?" he intoned incredulously. He believed this was Skye, despite his better judgment86, which really hadn't been at it's best since his retrieval from Centipede's clutches.
An irritated curl contorted "Skye's" brow.
"Are you kidding me? More of this crap?" she squeezed the bridge of her nose. "Even decades later, I still can't believe how skeptical S.H.I.E.L.D is. You guys deal with flash frozen super soldiers from world war two, green rage monsters, and fucking Norse gods, yet you refuse to believe in psychics and time travel? Psychics exists two by the way. Tons of 'em, they're just discreet."
"Fair enough I suppose….care explaining how, or maybe why?"
His tone made it obvious that he was battling his own disbelief at the situation. Part of him did believe it, but he wasn't sure why considering the lack of proof.
Older Skye slid down the leather sleeve of her long black jacket. Latched onto forearm was a large metallic armlet with a slit that ran it's length, from which poured bright orange light.
"Runs on Chronitons, the sister element to Graviton. Graviton manipulates space, matter, gravity, stuff like that. Chroniton is essentially the particles that make up time. Much more fashionable than the net-restriction one too. Still want proof? Open your shirt."
Coulson stiffened, but nonetheless went along with this. He was intrigued. This felt like a distraction from his thoughts. Perhaps that was why he wasn't questioning things much. A moment later the garish scar received at the end of Loki's scepter was exposed to the air. Time had made it fade slightly, but still it stood like a streak of black paint across a pure white canvas.
Leaning forward, Skye pressed the armlet close to his skin.
What happened next all but made his heart stop dead.
Slowly, steadily as the ticking of seconds on a clock-face, the scar began to fade. It became lighter and lighter 'til it was nothing but a long white line over his heart. Then, the armlet was pulled away, and in a single blink the scar returned.
"It distorts time," Skye explained, peering into his eyes for acceptance of her story, the same inquisitive look that he'd seen not an hour ago as they'd boarded the BUS after the completion of the mission.
"…So it does," he muttered, unsure. He spun on his heel, meaning to b-line to the door. He had to get the others, or at least May. "I'll be right back, need to get-"
A strong yet feminine hand grasped his shoulder, stopping him.
"No," Skye said. "You can't." A crack showed in her voice.
Turning, he looked her in the face. Near tears, and desperate.
This woman, approaching middle age, really was Skye. One singular facial expression convinced him of it right then and there. A broken mask of snarkiness revealing a vulnerable girl who'd spent her whole life searching for the family she never knew. Something that he, and May, knew would be better off left unknown. Did this Skye know? How had she reacted?
"Hey" he said, taking her by the arm and leading her back to the seat behind the desk, taking a seat beside her. "It's alright."
"It's not," she said, sniffing. "But you've always been good at making it seem otherwise, so thank you."
"Why are you here?" he asked, her hand between his in a comforting gesture. "Time travel. Sounds nuts."
"It is," she agreed. "Stark made this, with some help from Jane Foster. He managed the tech, she managed the physics. Then we needed to stabilize it with the Time Gem."
"Ancient, nigh all powerful space artifact. One of the Tesseract's siblings, actually. But the Tesseract is the mind gem, not time…Don't ask. I don't have enough time to explain, and even then I could only cover the broad points."
Another grin cracked her mask.
"Good God I love how easy going you are with all this crap. If I'd gone to Fury or Hill they'd of either knocked me out and had this thing examined," she indicated the armlet. "Or had me hauled off to the Fridge to rot. Wouldn't a been too bad though. Plenty of decent tech at the Fridge. Coulda built myself a cyber paradise to escape to in-between indeterminate imprisonment."
"Time hasn't changed your sense of humor I see."
"And thank God for that. With all the crap I have to deal with, I'd god insane if I couldn't joke about it." Reaching for her belt she pulled out something resembling a leather billfold that when folded out revealed a shiny silver badge.
"You make agent then," said Coulson, pleased. She nodded.
"Took a while. Ward's a hardass….and so are you for that matter…mostly work on my own now."
"Not with the team?" she shook her head.
"All good things have to end," she said despondently. "That's part of why I'm here. Warn you about the future. All that terminator style crap. Give you some info, then….go to sleep."
Without warning, a lump settled into his throat. The meaning of her words were obvious when you thought about it. But he didn't want to think about it, just as he didn't want to think about revelations of Tahiti. Yet, masochistic as he apparently was, he asked.
"Fade away," she clarified wistfully. "This thing can only hold me here for so long. Me being here creates a new timeline. A new series of events. Some may get better, some worse. Hell, the young me downstairs may not even live to become 'Agent-S'. Don't ask about the nickname. Academy kids love making up stories. Now I know how May must feel…When I'm done talking to, I'll cease to exist."
His breath caught in his throat. A visible sign of emotional response. Something agents were expertly trained to not do.
"What can you tell me?" he asked steadily.
"Bits and pieces. Tidbits. Hints, mostly…." She sighed with fatigue, leaning back in the plush of the leather chair. Idly, she rubbed the tips of fingers together. "Good God. Where to start."
"How about the nanotech in your hands?" Coulson suggested. "That's new. I though R&D hadn't gotten far on that."
"They're further than you think, actually. They have the basics down at this point. And I only have it in one hand. The other….well."
She pressed the tip of her right index finger of her left palm, and the skin of the hand pulled back to reveal the mechanical inner workings. Metal and blinking lights made up the entire hand, an exemplary example of cybernetics.
"Lost it when an Extremis soldier self-detonated. Sucked. Ended up okay though, don't much mind having a computer built into me. Helps a lot with quick hacks. The nanomachines in the other hand work in co-op with it." She paused, gathering thoughts and taking in his responses. After a while, she said. "You need to recruit more Marvels."
"Marvels?" he asked.
"The future shorthand for metahumans. There's a bunch of subcategories of course, mechanical like Stark, alien like Thor, mutants, mystics. Oh yeah, turns out magic exists. Sorry to spoil Simmon's science parade, but yep, it's real. And not 'psychokinesis' or whatever she insists on calling it. Just wait until you meet Dr. Stephen Strange. Yeah, he should be about at the top of the list of new Avengers." She laughed. "The Avengers start out as six, but they end up as an army. An army you'll need for what's gonna happen. You'll need all of them, Strange, Black Panther, the king of Wakanda, Ant-man, Wasp, Torunn, Thor's half human daughter, even the YA."
An eyebrow peaked upward.
"Young Avengers," she clarified. "It's a team that gets set up for younger Marvels. Mostly teenagers. Cap ends up training them, actually. At least he did my time around. The team starts with the Runaways. A group of kids whose parents turn out to be supervillains, so they ditched and teamed up to take 'em down. They've all got different powers, one's a witch, one's a mutant, ones a genius. Stuff like that. Hell, one of them's an alien. A Majesdanian. Her parents were the forward invasion team, but they got bored so they integrated before joining up with other parents. Demon worshipers, all of them."
"That's….heavy," Coulson responded, blinking as he absorbed info dump after info dump, straining to remember names to look for and to recruit as they appeared in the world.
"It is," she agreed. "They're all good people, the Avengers. Or, they were, will be, at least…." She trailed off, staring off into space.
Coulson leaned forward.
"What happened Skye?" he asked. "Some catastrophe?"
"Catastrophe," she parroted. "Something like that."
Rising from her chair, she paced to the shelf of knickknacks.
"I can't you much more than what I've said. Anything else, and time could rupture at the seams," as she spoke her whole body pulsed with an ethereal light. Her form became fuzzy for a few seconds before reverting to normal. "See? What I can tell you is this. Get in contact with Thor. Loki isn't dead. He faked it."
A sharp pain ripped up Coulson's chest, and he grasped at it on reflex. An enormous amount of relief had been found at the news from Erik Selvig that Loki had died at the hands of Dark Elves. He lived. The man who'd killed him lived.
Suddenly Skye was kneeling before him, hands on his shoulders. The wrinkles forming at the corners of her eyes were only noticeable this close up. Age had changed her, but not where it mattered.
"Are you alright?" she asked, eyes shining with concern. He smiled.
"I'm fine," he said. "Just, didn't plan on dancing that particular dance anytime soon."
"You'll get through it," she assured him. "You always do."
Her gaze drifted downwards as if in sadness, yet her smile remained.
"I'm glad I get to talk to you before I disappear," she whispered. "Glad that it's you. The girl below us is searching for something that doesn't exist. For information that in hindsight, she'll wish she never knew at all….She's looking for her family, when she's already found one." She beamed up at him, eyes glistening. "I don't know what you'll think of this now, but…you're the only dad I've ever had, AC. You showed me how to be something bigger than myself. To…be a hero, with or without a costume. I…."
Coulson said nothing. All he did was lean forward, and kissed her forehead.
They stayed like that for a long while, until the slow glistening of her time distorted skin began to reappear as her time began to run short.
"I'm not the only one, you know," she said. "In a week or two, you'll get a call to go to Maine. A psychic called Carrie White." Coulson recognized the name, though he didn't say so. "You help her rebuild her life. To be better. Become the father she needs, just like with me. That's what you're best at AC. Making heroes. They say Cap's the first superhero, but you're the real first Avenger far as I'm concerned."
A pulse of light flashed, and her skin was now a translucent opaque shade.
"Look like it's time," she said, sounding relieved as well as resigned. "Get ready, AC. You've got so much to come. It may have left you wanting to die, but it was good that they brought you back. We need you. All of us. Just ask Wanda, she's partially responsible after all."
"What?" he gasped aloud. He'd let her carry most of the conversation, responding with smiles and facial expression as he absorbed what she said. But this… "How do you know-"
"About your cellist friend?" she smirked. "She's a bit of a witch, AC. A Scarlet one, who sees your Vision. You'll see what I mean. Call her up, get in touch."
Strangled breaths suddenly forced her way up her throat. The pulsing became brighter, and all that could be seen beneath the glow was her eyes. The same as always.
Questions forgotten, Coulson pulled her close, and waited as the girl expired into nothing in his arms.
Perhaps….he did have a purpose after all. Something that made all the pain of living, dying, and living again worth it.