Phil discovers it's true what they say: there really is a bright light and long, long tunnel.
But first there's a moment of deep darkness, a suffocating black pit and the terrifying sensation of falling before that light catches him. When it beckons him Phil steps forward, because there's no pain and no fear and no reason not to.
Except...except he's in the middle of the operation. He still has agents in harm's way, he can't just...he's never not seen an operation through before. Clint is still compromised; if Phil takes another step he'll never know if they get him back.
Suddenly the light isn't so alluring. Phil wants to go home, and whatever the light is he knows it's not home because he knows it's not SHIELD. He needs to be back there to mix Tasha a white russian after the debriefing, their little ritual after hard missions. Phil doesn't even remember how that started, just that it stems from a terrible, now-hazy joke that nonetheless had doubled her over with laughter when he told it. She'd confessed later she hadn't laughed since she was child and thought she'd forgotten how - Phil remembers how sad that had made him, and how glad he was that Clint had defied his orders that one time and recruited her instead of killing her, and how upset he always was that he could never quite remember that joke.
He needs to be there for the next time Clint calls his private line in the middle of the night because he's had that nightmare, the one Phil's never been about to coax him into sharing. Neither of them speak during those calls; Phil holds the line open as they listen to each other breathe, sometimes for hours until Clint falls back asleep. He's never told Clint he keeps listening.
If he steps forward Clint will never back him against another wall, the stress of a near miss making his hands shake as he skates calloused fingers over Phil's hip and kisses a slow path down to his collarbone, scraping his teeth against his skin just hard enough that Phil has to make up yet another implausible paramour to explain away the bruises. He'll never again see Tasha stretched out in his bed and feel his breath catch because humans just didn't look like that, like she'd been carved out of marble by one of the old masters. He'll never see her lips curl up into that smile that comes so rarely, the true one that gives him a glimpse of the woman she would have been had men in a red room not carved her into something glittering and lethal.
He's felt so guilty for so long over this, over touching and letting himself be touched, but he's never found the will to pull away or the words to explain why he should; he tries with Clint once only to have Clint laugh at him before kissing him so hard he goes lightheaded from lack of air. "Let me get this straight," Clint says when he finally decides to let Phil breathe again. "You think you're taking advantage of us?"
His luck with Tasha's no better; she crouches over him still in her field gear, the leather already unzipped down to her navel to expose pale skin he can't stop staring at. "I've spent my whole life with men telling me my choices," she says, a touch of the accent she's learned to hide coloring her words. "Now you want to tell me my choices are wrong. I thought you said SHIELD would be different." He eventually realizes they have him outnumbered and lets them pull him under he forgets how to breathe without them.
Phil tries to take a step back but the light is everywhere now and he doesn't know which direction is the correct one. He has too much work unfinished, some missions half-planned and others ready to execute, weeks of work put on hold by a god's petulant invasion. He's been a member of SHIELD longer than it's been called that and there are days he wakes up and wonders what he ever did to be that fortunate. He may be a small cog in the giant SHIELD machine in the grand scope of things but his work is important. How many people can really say that?
With every second the light looks colder. He met Captain America because of SHIELD. What in that light is going to compete with meeting Captain America?
He's afraid to move. A step in any direction could take him away from everything, from SHIELD, from the people who count on him – but staying still is no better. The light keeps getting brighter, keeps trying to get him to come toward it but all Phil wants to do is go home.
"Agent Coulson I gave you a motherfucking order."
Trust Director Fury to shout louder than death. Phil lunges toward the voice before he can lose his bearings again, knowing there won't be a second chance. He comes to gasping on the cold floor, the astonished faces of the med unit hovering over him. "I told you that would work," he hears Fury say but when he tries to turn his head to track the voice pain spiraling through his chest whites out his vision.
"Shh," Fury says, and Phil thinks anyone who believes gentleness beyond Nick Fury should hear him now. "You just keep breathing, Coulson. You were dead over three minutes, these hacks were ready to call it."
"Loki..." Phil whispers and oh, talking is a mistake right now.
"Worrying about Loki is my job, you just need to concentrate on breathing. That is an order, and you had damn well better follow it."
Phil nods, or at least tries to. It's about all he's capable of at the moment and he immediately regrets the attempt. He feels Fury squeeze his hand once as the medics start loading him onto the gurney. "The team's about to be pretty angry with me, so you'd better be alive in a few hours to smooth that over. I'd apologize but you know I don't do that. Technically it's your idea anyway." Phil has no idea what Fury's planning but he's so good making people hate him it could be anything. He's very ready to pass out again but just before he does Fury leans close enough to whisper in his ear. "Got the report during all the CPR that Romanov recovered Barton. Figured you'd want to know."
No tunnel of heavenly light could ever compete with that. He squeezes Fury's hand once, to make sure Fury knows he heard.
Then he manages to do it one more time to let Fury know he isn't going anywhere.