The Sound of Silence
An Avengers fic by Lywinis
Dying hurt a lot more than they let on.
Phil could feel the blood draining from his chest, even as he tried to keep Director Fury in his blurring sight. He knew he had to hold on for the medics, and for the rest of them. They weren't going to be able to do this without him. He took a bubbling breath, his words tinny in his ears. He was so tired. His eyelids drooped, and he fell silent.
The voice woke him, and he stretched. Summer sun hit his face, and he blinked the spots from his eyes as he looked around him. Bees buzzed in the garden, and he saw the small figure bent over the flowerbed, digging in the moist, rich earth.
"Good morning, sleepyhead," she said, turning to smile at him. Holly. His Holly. Blond hair pulled back in a messy bun, her fair skin burnt a bright pink by the sun even under her large garden hat, she knelt in a long t-shirt (one of his old school shirts, he saw, go Irish) and a pair of overalls, dirt smudged across her forehead.
He looked around again, remembering...but no, this was her house in Portland, he was here for the weekend.
"Holly," he said. She smiled, picking up a trowel. "Did I sleep long?"
"Not too long," she said. "You want to help?"
"Sure," he said, and then looked down at himself. He was still wearing his work suit, name badge and all. That wasn't right. He always changed out of his uniform before visiting. He never let on to Holly what he did.
"Oh, don't worry about it now," she said. "Just come and help me get these planted, before their roots dry out."
He didn't have much of anywhere to be, after all. It was the weekend. He could get it dry cleaned. He shrugged, and squatted next to her in the garden. She handed him a spare pair of gloves and a trowel. He drew them on, flexing his fingers in the sturdy leather, and dug a hole for the first potted flower.
She pulled the temporary pot off of a marigold, and handed the small plant to him. It was bright red, with streaks of yellow throughout, and Phil was reminded of Tony Stark's armor as he looked at the delicate petals.
"The truth is...I am Iron Man."
He could see him then, brash and full of his own kind of fierce defiance. Tony Stark was a headache, it was true, and Phil would never admit it to the man's face, but he respected him a lot more for the questioning of authority and the defiance that led to him joining the Initiative with SHIELD, if only on a consultant basis. He gave a faint smile and placed the marigold in the hole he had dug, smoothing the soft earth around the roots and giving it a fond pat before he turned to dig the next hole.
"They're beautiful, aren't they?" Holly asked.
He hummed in agreement, digging in the earth again. Holly handed him a delphinium, the dark purple blooms rich as a thundercloud that was pregnant with the sort of rolling strikes of lightning that heralded either heavy storms, denizens of Asgard, or both. His lips quirked in a faint grin as he remembered the first time he'd seen Thor for what he truly was.
"Know this, son of Coul. You and I, we fight for the same cause – the protection of this world. From this day forward you can count me as your ally."
And an ally he had been. He'd found his way back from Asgard when the Initiative had needed him the most. He was a fighter, true, but he was also the most noble man that Phil had the pleasure of knowing. Thor fought his hardest to protect, using his great strength and speed to protect Earth – Midgard, and Jane Foster.
He smoothed the earth over the delphinium's roots, digging another hole where Holly pointed.
His head wasn't as fuzzy as before, and the air was full of the sound of fat buzzing bees as they sampled the fruits of his labor as they dug more holes for the plants. She handed him a geranium, the lush pink with the deep red center reminding him very much of Pepper.
She'd called him Phil, much to Stark's dismay; it was a small victory in a string of battles waged with the billionaire's ego, and it made him just the tiniest bit smug. Still, he was glad she was happy. She kept Stark grounded, kept him fighting for the right things, and she was just as much responsible for Stark doing the right thing as he was. Phil smoothed the dirt around the roots and smiled. He liked Pepper.
"Next one," she said, and handed him a gladiolus. The large cup of the flower was a deep, rich red, tapering out to sharp points at the base and on the petals. It was a delightful little flower, and as he placed it in the ground, Natasha's face swam into view. Sharp and foreboding on the outside, but with a fierce protective streak for those she cared about, the spy had defected to the United States, and then to SHIELD, when it seemed that she could do the most good. She still thought her past deeds needed avenging, though. He smoothed the dirt over the roots of the plant.
She was doing her best, and that was what mattered the most right now. She'd wipe that red from her ledger yet.
A snapdragon was placed in his hands next, along with one of Holly's sunny smiles.
"Be careful, this one's delicate."
It was, he could see. It was fragile, and almost as defiant as Stark in some ways, but it wasn't Stark he saw in the bright purple bloom. It was touched with jagged streaks of red, and he placed it in the ground, wondering if a pot on a balcony wouldn't suit it better. Clint would approve, he thought. Something solitary and brash about the little flower, just like the archer.
Clint might have been closed-mouthed about a lot of things, but as his handler, Phil was privy to a lot of them. He'd helped Clint work through a lot of them, and in some ways, he felt a little like the father Clint had never known. He didn't know if the assassin felt the same, but he was proud of the kid regardless.
The next plant placed in his hands was one he didn't recognize. Beautiful and a delicate purple that darkened to black at the tips, it curled in on its center as if to protect it.
"It's a rare one," Holly said, sitting back on her heels and working a kink from her back. "It's called a Protea flower."
Phil placed it in the ground, smoothing over the roots as his mind wandered to Dr. Banner and his exploits. A good man, although with the dash of the unknown that made him dangerous. He and Stark made unusual colleagues, he and Pepper made unusual friends, and he and the rest of them made a phenomenal team. His fingers brushed the flower petals, a small gesture of respect, and he turned for the next one.
The bright orange of nasturtium caught his eye, and he smiled. The small, sturdy flower was Captain Rogers to a tee. He remembered leading the team to find him, helping get him to land and recovered, and at long last meeting his hero. He hadn't gotten his cards signed yet, he hadn't had time. There would be time later. Captain Rogers always made time to speak with anyone who needed him, he'd just ask for a minute later.
He smoothed the earth over the plant, the orange flowers bobbing in approval. The next one, however, made him pause. Lavender wafted to his nose, and an old saying of his mother's came to mind.
"Never trust lavender, unless you're looking to kill what ails you."
He took the plant, the dark eyes and cunning face of Thor's brother swimming into view. He placed it in the ground with reluctance, almost as if killing the plant could prevent Loki from striding the earth.
It hadn't prevented it the first time.
Nor had it prevented his crippling attack on the helicarrier. Phil frowned, the memory coming back to him. It was fuzzy, but the pieces fell into place as he smoothed the rich earth over the roots. He looked down at his suit and saw the darkening bloom of red on his white dress shirt.
"Ah," said Holly. "You get it now."
He looked up. Holly stood next to him, looking down at him. In the shadow cast by the brim of her hat, she looked almost pale...skull like. He shook his head, a wry smile on his face.
"Holly was never much of one for gardening." And that was true; she'd hired landscapers as long as he'd known her.
A trill of laughter escaped not-Holly. "Ah, you always were a detail man, Phil. Walk with me?"
He stood, dusting his knees off and leaving the half-planted row. The garden stretched much farther than a small back yard in Oregon should have; he felt as if he could walk miles before seeing the end of the rich natural beauty. If he were to try, it was probably true.
"I don't understand," he said, hands in his pockets as he paced alongside the woman. "Am I...dead?"
"Very nearly," she said, and stopped to pluck a sprig of hydrangea flowers from the bush. She brought it to her nose and inhaled the scent. "You're sleeping very deeply right now, in the hospital."
"Yes," she said. "You're here because you've been valiant enough to earn a choice. Not many people get this. Most have their choice made for them when they slip into my realm, but you, and those you associate with, are on the edges of my power."
"And who are you?" he asked.
"Phil, you know." And, all of a sudden, he did.
"Death," he said, his voice quiet.
"Told you that you were a detail man." She tucked the sprig of hydrangea behind one ear. "You're so entwined with Chance and History, you've written yourself a Destiny."
The way she said it levered importance to the words, as if they were beings instead of concepts. Although, he was speaking to the embodiment of Death, so that might just be an understatement. Phil gave a mental shrug. He'd blasted a demi-god back to earth, he could deal with the embodiments of ideas manifesting themselves.
"And so, although it pains me to do so, you get a choice. You can work in my garden with me, pass on quietly in your bed, and they'll pull the plug, none the wiser. Or," she said, fixing him with eyes that were no longer Holly's blue but yawning black spheres of eternity, "you can choose to fight on, Phil Coulson. You get one chance, one more shot at life."
"No do-overs, huh?" he asked, a placid smile on his face.
"No do-overs," she agreed. "I get enough of those with a couple of others, and frankly, those boys drive me batty as it is. So, you get a second chance, as loath as I am to grant it to you. It's not entirely up to me."
"And if I choose to go back?" he asked.
"I can't guarantee you won't die in an equally horrible way," she said. They walked under the sweeping blooms of a cherry tree. Seasons didn't seem to matter in the afterlife, as the flowers fell even in the warmth of the summer. "You could wake up, only to wind up on the wrong end of your Dr. Banner."
He winced, thinking about it.
"Yes, I wouldn't be too keen on that, either." She caught a cherry blossom in her palm before puffing out her cheeks and sending it swirling down to join the others. More petals fell on his shoulders, dusted his suit, but he ignored them.
"You do have to make a choice soon, Phil," she said. "After all, time marches on, even as you sleep."
He turned to the landscape, the long vista of beautiful trees and flowers, as peaceful a place as he could manage to think of. Was that why Death had brought him here? Surrounded him in comfort, worn Holly's face? Was it to lull him into security?
"No, I didn't choose the place," she said. He slid a glance to her. "You did. Your personal heaven looks exactly as you choose."
"Didn't think I was good enough to get into heaven." he said.
"Saving almost the entire population of New York, and subsequently, the world itself, tends to balance the scales in your favor." Her smile was wry. "Even if you did it obliquely."
He chuckled. "Nice to know."
He turned to look at the view again. It was beautiful, and he inhaled the scent of green growing things, flowers and trees and the wet, rich earth. It smelled like home, but he didn't want to stay.
"Phil, are you ready?" she asked.
He tipped his head back to look at the sky.
Deep in the ICU ward, amidst the beeping of the machines marking his slow breathing, steady heartbeat, and normal functions, the words echoed.
Phil breathed in, his head turning as he let out a sigh through the respirator. His fingers twitched, spasms that jerked them against his palms. His eyes fluttered open, and he looked around, groggy from long unconsciousness.
Captain Steve Rogers stirred in his sleep, his post by the bedside in an uncomfortable chair making sleep uneasy. He snuffled, rubbed his eyes, and turned his head to a more comfortable position. There would be time in the morning for a debrief. It was the wee hours of the morning still, and even super soldiers needed their sleep.
Phil smiled and closed his eyes. He'd wake up this time, he knew.
It wasn't his time yet.
A/N: I still don't believe Coulson is gone. For one, you never, ever, ever trust anything Fury says. And another - at the end there, a guy in a suit hands him files. No one on the helicarrier wears suits other than Coulson. The normal SHIELD mooks wear uniforms.
So have a thing and enjoy, Constant Readers. More Gladius this weekend if I can.
(Also, if you can spot the SPN reference, you get a cookie.)