"straight black lines"
Genre: Angst, Hurt/Comfort
Time Frame: Post-Avengers
Characters: Phil Coulson, Nick Fury, Tony Stark/Pepper Potts, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanov, Steve Rogers
Summary: He never did forgive Fury for bloodying up his trading cards (vintage, nearly mint, and impossibly hard to come by cards, he'd have him know). Not for a very long time, anyway.
Notes: Because . . . NO. Thank-you-very-much, Mr. Joss for all of your wonderful wonderful work . . . but no. That's all I have to say.
Oh . . . and, there be SPOILERS here people. Lots of 'em.
Disclaimer: Nothing is mine but for the words.
"straight black lines"
The first thing Phil Coulson remembered thinking was, I should have expected that.
It was his job to expect these sorts of things; to expect every possible thing, including the impossible. His life's work revolved around the bizarre and the uncanny, and it was his job to keep a calm head and level a steady hand at the unknown, especially when the unknown came towards what he had sworn to protect as his own with harm in mind. That was the mission statement he upheld, and that was the assignment he never strayed from.
He shifted, and felt the slick slide of blood against the wall, making his suit a wet and sticky smear between him and the cool stone. The sensation was enough to make his stomach twist, even as he tried to tell himself that he had been through worse than this. A mere alien blade to the back, delivered by a god's hand? He'd gone through worse trying to get Barton to file his paperwork properly. And an un-caffeinated Fury during those early morning shifts was worse than the self-exiled princeling by far. So, clearly, by that reasoning, this wound would not be the end of him.
The god didn't even do the best good job stabbing him, Phil reflected with a smile that turned bloody at the edges. He had completely missed his heart. Loki was all eyes that flickered with storytime magic, and brows that creased with too much thought, all put together with such a vacuum of hurt that he would never be able to level a clear and concise threat. He lacked a calm and detached mind, and past that, he lacked the conviction needed to carry such a plan through to fruition. Phil had faced dozens of his kind before – and always, they would be their own worst enemies.
Even as his mind raced, he could feel his heartbeat, slow and steady, playing out a sluggish counterpoint to his thoughts. Even if it struggled, the bruised organ still beat in his chest. There was hope as long as it continued to do so. He tried to move his arms – the logical step one to stopping the bleeding, and he immediately winced when his body reminded him that – distracted god or not – it wasn't a mere paper cut that he was suffering from.
His mouth was still filling with blood, and he didn't have the strength to spit it out. He had seen enough of his men go down on the field to know that that was a Bad Sign. A very bad one.
His vision was spotting before him. Over him, like a shadow, he could hear Fury talking, and he managed to force an, "it's okay, boss," out through his bloody lips. His teeth clicked with the syllables, and he knew his grin to be pink. And it truly was okay, he willed his eyes to speak where he could not. His life for others – this had always been the death he had wanted for himself. It was always just a matter of what field he would bleed out on in the end.
Distantly, he could hear Fury call to him – telling him to stay awake. To stay with him. To stay with all of them. The concern in the Director's voice was thick, as thick as his blood, pooling on the floor. In a delirious moment, Phil hoped that Fury would find himself someone new who could operate the coffee pot with his own level of efficiency. Hill was hopeless with the brewing process, and Fury was absolutely unmanageable when operating without his fix, and the men and women of SHIELD didn't deserve to bear through that as a result of his death. That was, if any of them managed to make it through this . . .
"This was never going to work," he found himself saying on the wake of his last thought, his tongue sliding alongside the taste of copper and salt to force the syllables into sound. "Not without something for them to . . ."
Avenge, he wanted to finish the thought. Avenge, the word rolled around in his mind like a ship upon a turbulent sea. The single word seemed to anchor him, letting him hold his thoughts straight and keep his sluggish heart pumping. He tried to force that last word off of his tongue – hoping that it would hold Fury together the way it was holding him, but his mouth was too heavy to move. He was just so tired . . .
Over his skin, he could feel the cool and synthetic touch of a medic's gloves. He could smell sterile metal and that twang of medicine and coldness that he always associated with anything medical. A part of him wanted to reach up and point, to show the doctors right where he could feel red splotching on his chest, still forming to the shape of an alien blade. He could show them, he thought distantly, and then they could . . .
But first, he needed to rest . . . just for a moment.
Just for a moment.
The first thing Phil Coulson registered upon awakening was the rather remarkable pounding in his head.
He closed his eyes upon realizing just how pointed the pounding was – as if Banner's other half was loose and running around just behind his skull. To go along with the rather impressive migraine he was sporting, he also registered a rather lovely pain in his back, a pain that seemed to travel all the way through to his chest, tracing the phantom path that Loki's scepter had taken. He breathed in deep at the sensation, and tried to shake off the feeling that he had just went ten rounds with some deity who didn't like him . . . and lost. Distantly, as if through a great fog, his brain tried to inform him that he had indeed picked a fight with a god, but there hadn't been any ten rounds about it. Just one quick round and a rather impressive knockout. Well maybe there had been two rounds, his thoughts continued to ramble – replaying the look that had bloomed on Loki's face when he had finally been able to get his stubborn fingers to launch the canon. Two rounds, he finally decided to settle on. Two.
Phil winced, trying to figure out if his body was ready for the whole idea of movement, and decided that, near death blow or not, it was a good two rounds.
When his body flatly decided not to work with him, he instead opened his eyes. Once his gaze sharpened and focused, he found himself staring at one of the helicarrier's medical rooms. Around him, the walls were all a dark shade of slate grey, lit overhead by cold blue lighting. Around him, he could smell the same synthetic scent that came with any and every hospital room. Over the top of his skin, he could feel the cool press of an IV drip, the liquids inside clear and pulsing as they ran to his body. Underneath his hands, he could feel the stiff softness of regulation bedding, as white and clean as his surroundings – sterile and impersonal and too many shades of grey for his own taste.
He blinked, and shifted his shoulders against the pile of pillows, trying to get comfortable once again. When he had finally settled, he found himself tensing as soon as he realized that he was not the only one in the room. He heard the sound of breathing, a slow in and out that skipped a beat when the other person realized that he had opened his eyes.
The shadow that fell over him was tall and long, and Phil instantly recognized the shape of it.
"Did we win, boss?" the words were the first thing to come to him – as needed to him as the IV in his veins. His voice was raspy, as if it had not been used in days. His vocal cords scratched against each other, and his tongue was thick in his mouth when he pressed it to the back of his teeth.
Fury's single eyed stare struck, and Phil knew the answer, even before he said, "Yeah, we won."
Earth: 1, Alien Badguys: 0. The thought helped the pounding in his head. Just slightly.
"Casualties?" he croaked his next question. Are they okay? He wanted to elaborate, but he couldn't manage to shape the words. Are they all okay? And Was it worth it? And Were they everything you hoped they would be – everything that we hoped they would be?
"Casualties?" Fury repeated the word, snorting in a way that radiated weariness. His broad shoulders slumped, just slightly, and later Phil would see footage of ruined buildings and smoking rubble; alien corpses that were veined with purple organic matter even when they seemingly bore steel for skin; civilians with soot stained faces and haunted eyes, but alive and standing where so many others were not.
Instead of answering right away, Fury placed a very familiar set of trading cards down, splattered with a crimson color that had dried to the shade of rust. Blood, Phil recognized, even as he felt his stomach drop when he looked upon the sight of his pride and joy maligned so – for he had distinctly remembered putting them away before the fighting had started, just for this purpose, and -
"Only you, Coulson," and when Fury spoke, he sounded so very tired. "Only you."
Two days after the incident in Manhattan, Nick Fury decided to break the news to the rest of the team.
At first, Phil told him not to – wanting the others to have something to bind them together by for a little while longer. He had always stood by the side of those holding the puppet strings, and to be one of those strings to now anchor others by – he could imagine nothing better. But Fury had spoken of trust and the bond of fighting to preserve alive what once was gone . . .
In the end, he should have known to expect a string of visitors, but he hadn't thought to have them start a mere few hours after Fury would have broken the news.
Tony Stark was the first to visit, Pepper Potts in tow, and he brought with him shawarma.
Instead of saying anything directly sentimental, the billionaire rattled on about how he had given the team a real fright, and how any more news like that could overload the reactor that was keeping him alive, before switching over to extol the glories of garlic and pita bread while his eyes said don't you ever scare us like that again, and -
"Mr. Stark, I did not know that you cared," Phil couldn't help but say, smirking, just a little. His voice was still weak, no more than a rasp, but it was enough so that the other man's tanned face flushed. Just a little bit.
Tony bounced on the balls of his feet, his hands in his pockets, as if unsure what to do with them were he to take them out. "Its simple logistics," he shrugged in explanation. "I didn't want to – no, the team didn't want to have to break in another 'man in black' handler when we already had you. It would have been too much of a hassle."
"Of course, Mr. Stark."
"Tony," he replied then, waving a hand and not quite meeting his eyes. "We saved the world in your name, so we may as well be on a first name basis."
He held his hand out. "Phil, then."
"Phil," Tony repeated the name as if it were foreign to him, popping the single syllable out experimentally on his tongue. "Pepper said something about that. Still say your parents made a mistake, you know. Super for a first name, Agent for a second." He was rambling. And he knew it. "It would have been perfect."
Phil leaned back, and tried not to smile. "It wouldn't have been very fitting for the grade school years, I'm afraid."
And Tony dropped his jaw. "What, you weren't born in a suit? You ate playdough like the rest of us?" he looked as if his view of the world had been reconstructed.
At that, Pepper stepped forward and placed a single hand on Tony's arm. "I think that Phil's had enough for one day, Tony," she said, her eyes glittering with her amusement – her relief. Her smile was warm and thankful, and Phil found himself feeling the smallest bit better after receiving it.
"Yes, of course," Tony shook his head, snapping his hands together restlessly. "The whole mending thing. Got it."
But, before he left, he pulled out a box of Captain America band-aids, complete with stars and stripes and shields, and muttered, "Get well soon, Phil," as he placed the offering down on the bedside table. He turned to the door then, not once looking back, and Phil closed his eyes to the smart click-clack of Pepper's heels following him until he could hear them no more.
On that third day, he knew that Natasha had stopped by, but he wasn't actually awake for the encounter. Which fit the woman in question, with her careful eyes and her soundless step. But he still woke up to find that the sheet that he always managed to shrug off while sleeping was tucked up around his chin, and the metallic hospital air smelled sweetly of the perfume she always wore, no matter what walk of life she was striding down.
On the bedside table, next to the Captain America band-aids, there was a tall bottle of vodka, the neck of which was tied with a bright red ribbon. Next to the bottle, there were two Korkunov chocolate bars. Because, obviously, the one could not go without the other.
He thought, just like Budapest, and tried hard not to smile.
That same day, not even hours later, he awakened to the sound of foil rustling.
The lights in the room were still at half cast, and the shadows around him were long and fuzzy. In the cold metal chair next to his bed, Clint Barton sat, still wearing SHIELD leisurewear, even while not in uniform. His sleeves were rolled up, showing a dozen new cuts and scrapes, and he was picking unrepentantly at one of the chocolate bars that Natasha had left.
"I assume that there is a reason that Nat bought two," Clint said, shrugging at the narrowed gaze Phil leveled at him. "If her memory of Budapest is the same as mine, at any rate, which is up for debate." The words were quick and meant to give and grant a grin, but the shape of his own smile was tight, bellying his easy humor.
Phil instantly found worry creeping in. He had half expected the other man to be one of the first to come by to see him, but he understood the delay as his mind replayed the events of the last few days in sick detail. Across from him, Clint's eyes were red and set deep into his face, like bruises. He looked weary, tired from more than a simple lack of sleep, and his shoulders were slumped from carrying a hard and heavy weight. Upon seeing him so, an old instinct flared in Phil – as a handler, the Hawk was one of the first agents he had taken under his protection all of those years ago, and a deep place inside of him made him want to question the other man – to make sure that he was eating properly and sleeping, right before insisting Hell, Barton, but none of this was your fault, not even me. Especially me, so don't do that to yourself . . .
Instead of saying anything more, Clint picked a callused finger against the corner of the foil, and looked at him with dark grey eyes. Lost from them was their uncanny blue glow, and Phil found relief filling him – relief that the other was alive and well, with his mind his own again.
"Its good to have you back, sir," Barton said, and Phil could hear the hitch in his voice, the way his words caught in his throat before they were forced off of his tongue. This hurt was a hurt that ached, but, like all wounds, there was time to heal.
If one let them.
"And you as well, Barton," Phil said, letting his eyes fall closed. "You let me deal with the circus without you. It was not appreciated."
A snort came from the other man. He heard the metal chair scrape a little closer to him, and he fought the full feeling that he felt rising up in him, content and trusting.
"Its good to be back, sir," Clint whispered, and he heard the depths that went unspoken there.
A moment later, he heard the foil crackle again, but he did not hear the other man leave. Not for a long, long time.
In the end, it took a little over a week before the Captain paid him a visit.
By that time, Phil was already sitting up and working on the mountain of paperwork that Hill had brought to him - the unfortunate aftermath of any saving of the world. The bedside stand next to him had doubled with its offering of gifts – the bottle of vodka was empty (but that had been a team endeavor, and not just him), and he had literally had to smack Barton away from his last chocolate bar, which was gone as well. But there were cards from a few dozen people, and flowers that Pepper had sent, and balloons that Stark had ordered by the dozen (half with obnoxious superhero themed art on them), and the chair by his bedside still had Sharron's jacket draped over her cello from where she had ran out for coffee (he was still trying to figure out whether or not Stark or Fury had flown her in from Oregon, but neither man was giving away anything). All in all, Phil couldn't imagine having any more inspiration to get better.
Steve Rogers knocked softly before coming in, clad in a brown leather jacket and a blue plaid shirt, still looking as out of place and time as ever. In his hands he had a black folder, from which Phil could distantly make out a few pages of plastic, he raised a brow, curious as the other man waved his hand awkwardly and said, "Its good to see you doing better, sir."
"Its good to be feeling better," Phil answered, as was becoming rote, and tried not to smile when Steve looked down at his shoes.
"I came to visit last week," Steve said then, as if deciding on a path of attack in his mind. "But you were sleeping, so I doubt you would remember."
Phil snorted, an old conversation playing before his mind's eye right at the same time it did for Steve it would seem. "Not that I was watching you, or anything," Steve was quick to assure, rolling his eyes as his tongue tripped over itself.
"Of course not," Phil gave in reply, his eyes glittering.
Steve shook his head, and gathered himself. "And well, I saw your old cards. Well, Fury showed us your trading cards . . ." the man's voice still flushed with an old hurt that said he didn't realize just how far Fury had played with their emotions. For the better, Phil decided against telling him. "And, well, they were pretty beat up, so . . ."
He held open a folder, and Phil was surprised to look over and see his own cards lined up in neat rows, encased in plastic. They were not his cards, he soon realized, but replacements, and a part of him hitched as he realized what he was seeing.
"Stark and Barton have been searching eBuy," Steve explained. "It took us about a week to find them all in near or better condition."
"eBay?" he asked, amused.
"Yeah, that," Steve said, the tips of his ears flushing pink. "The ones they couldn't find, I actually drew out – I know that they aren't vintage, but you had a really old hands drawing them, so . . ."
Captain America had actually drawn out his ruined trading cards by hand. The information processed dumbly in his mind, the words looping over and over upon themselves without computing. He flipped the pages, and was awed to see real honest to goodness hand drawn cards next to the ones they were able to replace. He had known that Rogers had been an artist before joining the army, and everyone knew that he all but walked around with a sketchbook in his hands when he wasn't busy saving the world, but to have a little piece of that with him, for him to keep . . .
As he looked, he saw that there were more than just the Captain America cards. In Steve's careful hand, there were pictures made from sure and straight black lines for everyone on the team. Their faces were sketched to an uncanny likeness and shaded carefully to show as close a resemblance as possible to the model they copied. Some were colored and some were left as simple granite sketches, and the play of them, one against the other, was lovely to behold. Each and every one were signed, Phil next noticed. Well, the Thor card wasn't, but something told him that that was something that he could someday rectify easily enough. Somehow, Steve's puppy eyes had even gotten Fury to sign his own likeness. Coulson touched a finger to the name, and wished that he had been a fly on the wall for that particular conversation.
"He was actually the easiest one to ask," Steve said, the tips of his ears still pink. "Especially after how sore he felt about the first set, and everything."
The first set . . . "These are better," he said, a smile leeching onto his face and slipping into his voice. "A hundred times better . . . I can't even think of where to begin in thanking you."
Steve smiled, but this time, the grin was humble and pleased. "And those new ones are one of a kind. Better than mint, sir."
"They blow away the old ones," Phil said, looking to the back pages to where the old ones still waited, still stained the color of blood. Better to keep them there, he decided, better to never forget.
"You deserve them," Steve said. "We wouldn't of . . . we were all bickering about our differences and you just walked up to the badguy in order to show us what a hero is really made of. We . . .," he faltered, unable to find his words. "You humbled us, sir, and it was an honor to fight in your name, even if you weren't . . . dead." He finished the sentence awkwardly, but the sentiment was still the same, the smile on his face contagious as he beamed at him, all that honest light that had shined on the world throughout one of its darkest points in history. "And we just wanted to say thank-you."
"I am . . . I am honored, Captain," he said, the words too simple to contain everything that he felt rising in him – stronger than the pain, stronger than the loss. "More than words can say. Thank-you, all of you."
"The pleasure was ours, sir," Steve dipped his head, and walked backwards a step. He didn't stay much longer after that, and Phil finally waved him away under the pretense of paperwork when really he just wanted to look at the cards in their glossy sleeves, and stare in wonder at the team that he was honored to help form. The vivid colors and black lines shone under his touch, and the faces there stared ahead in determination, lighting a fire that the world had needed to kindle. Heroes always rose when called, and it was this and always this that kept to the world its axis and to that axis its spin.
He placed the portfolio down with a gentle reverence, and leaned back into his pillows again, his breathing deep and even. Overhead, the canopy of superhero balloons swirled and gathered on the ceiling, taking flight. At the core of him, his wound ached, but no longer did the pain leave him weary.
This time, he simply closed his eyes and thought: it will heal.