Something was choking me. Something was choking me, and I couldn't breathe. Something was choking me, I couldn't breathe and I couldn't move my arms. I kicked and could feel the scream of panic in my chest, but couldn't make any noise. Because something was choking me. I opened my eyes and saw ceiling tiles. I turned my head and saw a monitor, an IV pump and a big machine with a pile of tubes coming out of it. Tubes that were leading to me. An older nurse laid her hand on mine.
"Annie, honey, let the machine breathe for you. I'm going to give you a sedative to relax you, and then I'll let the doctor know you're awake. Try to stay calm." She emptied a syringe into the IV line leading into my arm. I closed my eyes and forced myself to relax my hands, stop kicking. The ventilator made a rhythmic pumping noise and I could feel my lungs inflating. Someone I couldn't see slipped my hand into theirs and squeezed. I tried to turn to see who it was, but my eyelids were already heavy from the sedation. I dropped back off to sleep.
I sat up, gasping for air. My hands flew to my head. It was pounding. My mouth felt like something had died in it. I closed my eyes and eased back down into the bed. I was in the same room. The ventilator was turned off, but the heart monitor was still beeping. I watched as it slowed back down. Something had startled me awake, but there was no one in my room. It was just me and the equipment.
"Hello?" My throat was even more hoarse than it had been. I tried to swallow. It was like razor blades. "Hello?"
I looked around the bed for a call bell. There had to be one somewhere, I didn't think they wouldn't want me to get up to find one of them. I turned my head and saw it coiled and clipped to the wall. I dropped my head to my pillow and sighed. I heard footsteps at the doorway and looked over. Phil looked like hell. He was in the same jeans and t-shirt as he'd been in when we came into the hospital. He had dark circles under his eyes, five o'clock shadow, his hair had a little wing at the side, like he'd been sleeping in the empty chair beside my bed. He was carrying a take-away coffee. I tried to smile but my head hurt so much I couldn't. I waved weakly instead. He smiled and sat down in the chair beside my bed.
"How do you feel? Has the nurse been in?" He took my hand in his and kissed it. My vision was a little blurry but I could see a gold band on my ring finger. I wiggled it at him.
"I hurt. I just woke. No nurse yet. What's with the ring?" I croaked. He held up his left hand so I could see the matching band on his finger.
"Tony." He stood and pressed the call bell. A nurse came in.
"You must have just wakened, Mrs. Coulson. Are you having pain?" She looked at the heart monitor and pulled back the sheets to look at the bandage on my side.
"I'll be back in just a minute." She slipped out the room quietly.
"Fill me in. Are we still in Fo –"
"No. Prince George," he replied. I sat up. He put a hand on my shoulder and pressed gently until I lay back down.
"We've taken care of it. You are safe." He stroked my arm.
"My mum, she – "
"Your mother is in Italy right now." Phil was using his most soothing voice on me. I wanted to roll my eyes but even thinking about rolling my eyes was painful. The nurse came in and gave me pain medication through my IV. She asked Phil to step out so she could assess me, and he gently refused. She smiled, and I suspected that Phil had refused every time while I was sleeping too.
"Your husband has barely left your side since you came to us," she offered as she listened to my chest. I wasn't the least bit surprised. She lifted the blankets at my feet and made me wiggle my toes, and point and flex. She listened to my stomach, checked my catheter, and checked my dressing again, emptying the little bulby drain that was pinned to the gauze. Phil drank his coffee, and spun the ring on this finger. The nurse finished her assessment and clipped the call bell to the bed.
"We'll try to get you up later this afternoon. If you can mobilize, we can lose the catheter." The way she said it, I knew it was a carrot that was dangled in front of reluctant patients to get them out of bed. I wasn't reluctant. I wanted out of this hospital as soon as possible. She slid the door most of the way closed as she exited. I sat the head of the bed up and looked at Phil.
"Don't try to anticipate my questions. Just listen." My voice was barely a whisper. It was probably better that way. "My mum worked here, at this hospital, until she retired after Dad died. Her best friend still works here." I looked around the room. "Shit. Am I in the ICU? Why the fuck am I in the ICU?"
"When you passed out, it wasn't because of your cheekbone. The fracture J.A.R.V.I.S saw didn't require any intervention. Barrett kicked you a couple times, didn't he?" Phil asked.
"He ruptured your spleen. The surgeon was able to repair it, but you'd lost a lot of blood, and you coded during the surgery. They induced a coma. I thought you were going to die, Annie." He looked down at his hands and took a deep breath. I saw a tear splash on the floor. I put my hand on his.
"I didn't. I'm here." I coughed and cleared my throat.
"Tony wanted you transferred to one of the SHIELD advanced care centres, but they don't exist anymore. He's been trying to track down this drug that will repair your spleen completely. I don't trust drugs like that. They've been doing a great job here. You've been safe, and after the transfusion, you started doing much better," he was rambling. He was a mess.
"How much was transfused?" I interjected, before he could start again.
"Just two units. Tony pulled some strings and there's this super-blood they've been using in mobile military hospitals. It's apparently bloodier than regular blood. It worked, your colour was better immediately, and your vitals all started to improve within about an hour. The last labs that came back on you showed your red blood count was at the bottom of the normal range. And your wound has stopped draining. They did a chest x-ray to make sure it wasn't stopped because of damage, and what is left of your spleen is in decent shape, considering." His thumb was rubbing the back of my hand rhythmically.
"I'm not going to suddenly gain some weird-ass powers, am I?"
"I've had that conversation with Tony. No. There's an accelerated healing factor in the blood, but you will remain unenhanced," he assured me. I sighed in relief.
"Phil, my mum's best friend works in this ICU," I started. He blanched.
"I'll manage it if she comes on. She's Mum's best friend. She's practically my aunt," I yawned. I was so tired. "How long was I out?"
"Six days. You didn't start to improve until your transfusion last night."
No wonder he looked like hell. I reached over and ran my hand down the side of his face.
"You need some sleep, and a hot shower. Go. I'll be fine. You said yourself I'm safe." All the talking had left me with little more than a whisper of a voice. Phil nodded and stood.
"Okay. They have my number if you need me." He leaned down and kissed my forehead. Before he could stand up, I grabbed him by the neck and pressed my mouth to his.
"I need you well-rested and healthy. Go. Sleep."
My nurse brought me a drink and some soup. It was the best soup I'd ever tasted, but I think that was just because I was starving, and it was warm. She changed my dressing after I finished eating, and sat with me while she did her charting. When she finished she came back and lowered my bed a little.
"Time to try to walk," she announced. She unplugged the IV pole, and hitched the catheter bag to it. She directed me how to push up and then stood beside me, an arm looped under my armpit. On the count of three she helped me to my feet. "We'll go to the door of your room, and then back." With her arm still under my armpit, we moved slowly toward the door. I broke out in a sweat.
"Why is this so hard?" I asked.
"The trauma. You've been unconscious for six days. Your body is spending all its energy healing you," she explained. I nodded. We turned and walked back to the bed. She assisted me back to sitting, and then helped me lift my legs into bed. "I'll bring a commode chair in before shift change. If you can get up with me just standing by, we'll take the catheter out."
She didn't have to tell me twice. I lay back and closed my eyes. When I came awake again, a new nurse was standing at my IV, hanging an antibiotic. She turned and smiled and my heart tightened. It was Carol, my mom's best friend.
"You never told your mum you got married, sweetie. She'll be heartbroken." The first thing she did was chastise me. It was no wonder I'd called her auntie growing up.
"We're not married," I clarified. "You didn't tell Mum I'm here, did you?"
"What do you mean you aren't married? You both wear wedding rings, your chart says your name is Coulson."
"It's an alias, and it's spelled wrong," I protested.
"Yes, I saw they had you as an Anne. I fixed that with records. What is going on, Annie?"
"You know how I went to work in the States?" I asked. She nodded. "Well, the agency I worked for was the one that fell apart a few weeks ago. And there are bad people after those of us who stayed loyal to the agency. Phil and Tony have been trying to keep me safe."
"Well they haven't done a very good job. A ruptured spleen from an attempted sexual assault!"
"It wasn't an attempted sexual assault. It was an attempted murder. The guy was going to kill me." I looked out the window, breaking eye contact with her.
"And they saved you?" She pressed.
"No. I took care of it."
"Took care of it? What does that mean? Took care of – oh dear god, Annie, you didn't." Carol sat down heavily in the chair beside the bed. She took my hand and ran one of hers down my face, tears glistening in her eyes. "Well, honey, you always were a fighter. More fool him for thinking he could take you on."
"Please don't tell Mum I'm here. They're still looking for me."
"You know how terrible she is about checking email. I had no intention of sending her a message until I knew what was going on with this husband of yours. Do you work with Phil then? He was very good at playing the distraught spouse." It was a question delivered with an arched eyebrow that I knew meant she didn't believe for one minute that we were merely coworkers.
"Phil and I are seeing each other," I admitted slowly. The smile lit up the room, and she clapped her hands together.
"Honey, he is so lovely. He brings coffee every shift change for us, and he's so quiet and considerate. Won't leave your side for anything. I was surprised he wasn't here when I came on shift. He's a little old for you, but I don't think that matters as much anymore, does it?" I think she intended it as a rhetorical question. "Well, sweetpea, I've got to get your next med ready. When I come back, we'll get rid of that catheter and get you out to the tub."
The last time Carol had helped me in the bath, I was about five years old. I remember the way she scrubbed my hair, strong fingers massaging my scalp, angling my head back to rinse the soap out. It was no different now, except that I was an adult and I felt weird having her see me nude. Every time she saw a bruise on my skin, she clucked her tongue and shook her head. She helped me to my feet, and toweled me dry while I stood holding the assist bar beside the tub. Finally, she sat me in a wheelchair and combed out my hair.
"Can't say I'm a fan of this red, Annie. It washes you out." I could feel her fingers slipping through my hair, and realized she was French braiding it. She snapped an elastic at the end, and opened the tub room door. I could see Phil waiting in my room, tapping his foot. He kept looking over his shoulder. He was worried. I wasn't used to seeing Phil so on edge. He'd always been the most unflappable of the agents I'd known. But since SHIELD had fallen, he'd been different. Well, since the battle of New York, he'd been different. Edgier. But since the destruction of SHIELD, he'd been more agitated. He glanced back again and saw Carol pushing me toward my room and sprang to his feet.
Once back in the room, he offered to help me into bed, and Carol took the opportunity to slip away back to her other duties.
"You still look exhausted," I chided him. He'd obviously showered and shaved, but I don't know that he'd slept much.
"I couldn't sleep. I've been catching an hour here and there in this chair. I'll be fine," he dismissed my concern. I raised an eyebrow. He clenched his jaw in return. I sighed and shook my head.
"You're no use to me broken and sleep-deprived, Phil."
"I spoke to your doctor while you were in the tub. As long as you continue to improve as you have over the last twelve hours, he's going to discharge you tomorrow," he explained.
"Really? I'm that much better?" I was surprised. As far as I could tell, I'd been extubated less than twelve hours ago.
"Your labs have done a 180. I put him in contact with Simmons, and he was quite reassured that you'll be in good hands." He put his coffee cup to his mouth and then thought better of drinking it.
"Simmons is coming to take care of me?" It didn't make any sense to me.
"I'm taking you to the new SHIELD HQ," he clarified.
"But Tony will want me to start working soon. We'd planned for me to work from the cabin until things settled," I protested.
"First, you're not in any shape to be starting work. Second, when you do start working again, it will be as the HR director of the new SHIELD. I've already worked the details out with Tony." There was the Phil I remembered. Taking charge, making decisions. I bristled at his words.
"And if I don't want to work for SHIELD? It's pretty nervy assuming you can plan my life for me, Phil." There was a warning tone in my voice. Phil smiled and took my hand.
"I could say that Tony decided you were too much of a liability and decided he wasn't going to hire you after you were directly insubordinate to him three times. Which is what he wanted me to say. Instead, I am going to tell you that we fought over you. He thinks he can keep you safer, and I think the new base is the safest place for you. So we disagreed, loudly. I only won because I played the lover card," he explained. "But you are right, in the end it is your decision. You have a job with either of us, you just need to decide where you want to go."
"How many operations does the SHIELD director go on? Will he be at the base ever, or will he always be off saving the world?" I asked. Phil smirked.
"For the first little while, he'll probably be back and forth a lot. Saving the world, recruiting clean agents, rebuilding. But he'll always be permanently stationed at HQ. As would you," he pointed out. "It's weird to talk about myself in the third person. I'm rebuilding SHIELD from the ground up. I want you there. Selfishly. But also because you're a damn fine administrator, and I think you'll be a damn fine agent too."
"Stark Industries has a much better benefits plan," I teased. Phil sat on the edge of my bed and raised the head of my bed. He leaned in and kissed me. My breath caught and I snaked my arm behind his neck, pulling him closer, and tugging on his lip with my teeth. He groaned and pulled away.
"Not all benefits are in the employee handbook, Annie." He kissed me again, soft and fast.
"I'm going with you. And you knew there was no question about it. I just didn't like you making the decision for me." My hand found his, and I lay back on the bed, all at once exhausted.
Thank you all so much for reading, and becoming engaged and loving Annie and Phil as much as I do. I'm wrapping this story here, but I am promising a sequel. The thing is, I head back to work this week after a year off, and I don't want this story to fall to the wayside because I'm suddenly significantly busier. Once I am settled into a work routine, I am going to start a sequel to Vital Signs to while the time away until I can start the part 3 to this one... And maybe finally start on my original piece.