So I decided to make a new account. I did so to review a story and figured, what the hell, may as well post some of my AO3 stuff over here, too. This one's from a prompt on avengerkink that I sort of fell in love with and decided to muck about with. As for the genre, I selected 'Family' as the second because the Avengers are basically a family and I tried to emphasize that a bit here. However, there is a romantic aspect also, in that there is eventual Capsicoul (that's Steve/Phil for all you cats out there who are unaware) and mentions of Pepperony (I'm sorry but this is the greatest ship name ever). It's not too heavy on that, I don't believe, but it's there!
As a second note: Boston. I chose this as Phil's hometown because a) Clark Gregg is from Boston, b) I'm a Boston girl myself so I've decided to be selfish and claim him in the name of our fair city, and c) Boston is awesome. And there's all my reasoning, haha.
And that should be it! Thanks for reading. :)
DISCLAIMER: I don't own The Avengers, quite obviously. I just write for fun.
Steve somehow managed to keep himself in check. Fury had called an emergency meeting at Stark Tower—away from the prying eyes of the Council—and had told them, essentially, that he'd lied to them. Needless to say, this caused something of an uproar among those present. After they had quieted down (mostly), the tone of the conversation shifted from threats of violence upon Fury's person to inquiries of when, where, and why.
As it turns out, anyone who bats for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s team long enough manages to make more than a few enemies; even a man as inconspicuous as Phil Coulson. Especially a man as inconspicuous as Phil Coulson.
"You needed the push. He agreed," Fury informed them, his single eye finding each of them in turn. "The lie needed to be maintained. It was as much for uniting you as it was for his own protection."
Eventually it was determined that, yes, he was awake and, yes, they could go see him, yes, right now Mr. Stark, and the discussion of the things Fury had coming to him came to a temporary cease fire. As they began filing out of the tower, Steve halted, turning to face Fury while the others were out of earshot.
"We're not through here, Director Fury," he said, his tone carefully neutral, a paper thin mask to cover the anger he felt.
"No, Captain, I don't believe we are," Fury replied, seeming somehow willing to accept that fact.
"Later, we will be having a very long discussion about ethics," Steve said. "But for now… I have a man to see about some trading cards."
When Phil had first woken up—or rather, the first time he remembered waking up—Nick Fury had been at his bedside. Everything hurt. Moving. Breathing. Living. But he was living. He was alive. Somehow.
"I gave you an order, didn't I?" Fury said, folding up the newspaper he'd been reading and putting it aside. "Granted, you disobeyed it for a minute or two, but you clocked back in. With a little help."
Phil closed his eyes, trying to process that information. Thoughts came to him slowly, connections forming sluggishly in his mind.
His voice was hoarse, his throat dry and sore. He coughed and winced, feeling fire in his side that brought tears to his eyes, and didn't question the source when a paper cup filled with water appeared in his line of sight, but drank gratefully. Getting his breathing back under control was a tiring chore, but he managed, turning his head to look to Fury once again. The Director sat forward in his chair, elbows resting on his knees with the half-empty paper cup in one hand.
"Did they win?"
Fury smirked a bit at that. "Yeah. We won. Turns out you were just the push they needed to work together."
Phil didn't know whether to feel honored or confused. He settled on both. But he had more questions. A lot of them.
"Back on our side. Got a nasty bruise and a concussion from some 'cognitive recalibration' on Romanoff's part, but I can safely say that the next time he's shooting arrows, it won't be at us," Fury assured him.
He didn't bother holding back his sigh of relief at that news. When Clint had been compromised, it had been difficult. Of course, he'd been professional about the matter, as ever, but when you were someone's handler for as long as he'd been Clint and Natasha's, complete emotional override was not possible.
He blinked rapidly when he felt a hand on his arm. He hadn't even realized he'd been falling asleep. The hand retracted and he struggled to meet Fury's gaze again.
"I need you to stay awake for another minute and listen. Can you do that, Agent?" Fury asked.
"I can, sir," Phil answered softly.
"Good," Fury responded, pausing briefly as though to gather his thoughts. "You've been in a coma for three weeks. You just came out of it this morning, but you probably don't remember that. Thing is, everyone thinks you're dead. That's my doing. Remember how I said you clocked out for a bit? Clinically speaking, you were dead for two minutes and nine seconds. I saw an opportunity and I told everyone the medics called it."
Fury paused, looking to gauge Phil's reaction, but the injured man merely waited for him to continue.
"Your 'death' was what finally brought them all together. You were right. The Avengers Initiative could never work without something for them to avenge, and you gave them that," Fury continued. "When I was informed that you'd survived, I considered letting them know, but ultimately made the decision to wait. You'd just come through a very risky surgery and there was no guarantee that you'd pull through all together. For the sake of the Avengers Initiative and for your protection, you died by Loki's hand."
Phil regarded the man at his bedside. Nick Fury was his oldest living friend. The experiences they'd accumulated in a quarter of a century would fill up several lifetimes for other people. But then, neither of them could really remember the last time they'd been 'other people.' Fury had worked hard to get Phil on board with S.H.I.E.L.D., which Phil had quite honestly not understood at the time. Sometimes he still didn't understand it, why someone like Fury had been so keen on acquiring him, a skinny Boston boy who'd seen the wrong side of playground fights nearly his entire life. But the way he figured it, if you'd fought side by side, worn each other's blood, and shared a drink, if you'd done those things at least once and were ready to do them again, then there was something to be said of loyalty. And of trust. And if someone was willing to face the potential wrath of a team of superheroes—because he didn't think the Avengers would take being lied to very well—for your safety, then it was safe to say that person was someone you could call a friend. Even if he was your boss.
"I trust your judgment, sir," Phil said at length.
"Good man," Fury said with a nod. Perhaps Phil was more tired than he'd thought, because Fury actually seemed almost relieved. "Now this next part might be a bit hard to swallow. Maybe you've noticed the lack of any kind of heart monitor in the room."
He hadn't but now that Fury mentioned it, the setting lacked the distinctly annoying beeping he'd grown accustomed to. He'd woken up in his fair share of hospital rooms over the years and they'd all had that much in common: the annoying, persistent beeping of the monitor. Looking around, there wasn't one to be found anywhere, but there were more than a few unfamiliar pieces of medical equipment.
"The injury caused by Loki's spear damaged your heart. Beyond repair, from what I'm told. So it had to be replaced," Fury said.
"Transplant?" Phil murmured.
"Not quite. We didn't have a donor heart readily available. In the time it would have taken to find one, you would have clocked out for good. What we did have available was an artificial heart. A prototype developed by Stark Industries," Fury said.
He felt sick. His vision greyed. It must have showed because suddenly a hand was gripping his arm again and Fury was half out of his seat.
"Agent Coulson. You still with me?"
"…still… still here, sir," he managed to say, batting at the looming threat of unconsciousness once again until his vision cleared.
"The doctors say you've responded well to it so far. So long as you take it easy, you should heal up just fine and not run into any trouble with it. The only difference it has from a natural heart is that, because it uses twin turbines and some other shit that I'm not even going to pretend to understand, it doesn't beat, which means—"
"No pulse," Phil said. He felt lightheaded.
"Right. You've got no pulse. It'll probably take some getting used to. All thing considered, I don't know about you but I'll take that over the alternative any goddamn day of the week," Fury concluded.
Phil nodded the affirmative. If he were more lucid, he might have been feeling more concerned about the matter, but as it was, the combination of pain, medication, and overall exhaustion were steadily dragging him back to the safety of sleep. When his eyes slid shut, he was still able to make out the sound of a chair scraping across the floor and the feeling of a hand on his good shoulder.
"Get some rest, Phil."
And Phil was never one to disobey orders.
It did take getting used to, Phil found. He wasn't anywhere near 'used to it' when he suddenly found his room packed with the Avengers & Co. He was annoyed to find he'd nodded off again—he never slept as much as he was sleeping now and that bothered him—but felt slightly less so at the myriad of faces that greeted him.
"Feeling up to a little company?"
Of course it was Pepper—sweet, understanding Pepper— in the seat closest to him, eyes filled to the brim with worry as she offered him a watery smile. He returned it with a tired one of his own.
"I think I can manage that," he said, clearing his throat.
There was quiet discussion, mostly concerned inquiries from Pepper and Steve, with Clint and Bruce hanging at the back of the group, Natasha providing short, concise responses now and again, and Tony flipping distractedly through a folder full of papers in his hands. Thor, as they explained, had gone back to Asgard with Loki. It was a shame, he decided, that he couldn't have seen the god of thunder off, but Thor would likely be back eventually. All in all, they were taking his sudden reappearance very well.
Ten minutes had passed before Tony made a slight hum of discovery.
"Never thought you'd be the first, Phil."
Phil stared the other man down. It wasn't a conversation he wanted to have. He started to lever himself up to a seated position but was forced to abandon the effort when he felt a sharp pain on his left side. His hand reflexively rose to press to the still healing wound, but he managed to stop himself halfway, reaching to smooth down the sheets instead, his neutral expression making it seem as though that had been his intention the entire time. Natasha wanted to tell him he wasn't fooling anyone.
"Not sure what you're talking about," Phil answered, his voice only the slightest bit strained.
Tony was practically beaming. "You've got my baby in you."
There was an awkward moment of silence in the room.
"Okay, I know that there are a lot of things I don't understand in the modern world but that one is definitely impossible," Steve blurted, his cheeks and the tips of his ears a bright pink.
"It's not what you think," Phil said with a sigh. "And please never, ever utter that phrase again, Mr. Stark."
Tony produced a page from the folder with a flourish, holding it out for them all to see. Bruce had stepped forward from the back, slipping his glasses on and accepting the page. Phil had half a mind to politely ask them to stop staring at his medical record, but gave up on the idea immediately when he remembered who he was dealing with.
"SISSAH: The Stark Industries Self-Sustaining Artificial Heart. I didn't think you had a working prototype yet," Pepper said in an awed voice.
"I developed the prototype a little further when S.H.I.E.L.D. took an interest in it, just never got around to finding someone to test it on," Tony said. He nodded, seemingly to himself before looking over at the Agent in the bed. "How's she running?"
"Very few complaints thus far," Phil replied.
"They took out your heart?" Clint asked suddenly. "Can they do that?"
It was the first thing he'd said since the group had shown up. Phil watched the marksman carefully. Cognitive recalibration might have been enough to break the control Loki had had over him, but it wasn't enough to fix him. If he knew Clint, and he did, then he was stewing in his own private pot of guilt and negativity. It was one reason he'd been glad when Fury had mention that Tony had started moving all of the Avengers into his tower. It meant Clint could be surrounded by people who were in equal need of fixing who didn't need to be fixed. Somehow that all worked out, even if it was incredibly messy on paper.
"Apparently," Phil answered mildly.
"What's it… How does it feel?"
"I won't lie. It's somewhat disheartening."
The room was quiet again. Until Tony snorted in laughter.
"Was that a joke? Did I just hear you joke?" he prodded.
"Contrary to popular belief, I do have a sense of humor," Phil responded, settling back and closing his eyes briefly.
Fifteen minutes of easy conversation and he was ready to drop off again. He'd had more than his fair share of hospital stays over the years, but he'd never felt so thoroughly worn as he did just then. Likely it had something to do with dying, being brought back to life, and being fitted with a piece of machinery in place of his heart. That didn't make it any less bothersome. He thanked his lucky stars that Pepper somehow always seemed to know what to say and when to say it.
"Well, hopefully we can see a little more of that sense of humor later. Right now, you're going to sleep, Tony's going to start designing your floor in the Avengers Tower—"
"It's going to be like The Real World. But realer."
"—and I'm going to feed the rest of the kids their lunch," Pepper said with an amused smile.
Phil huffed a quiet laugh. "Don't know what we'd do without you."
"Right back at you," she replied, leaning over to press a quick kiss to his cheek. "We'll be back tomorrow."
"I'll look forward to it," Phil mumbled.
The Avengers seemed to take that as their cue. Miraculously, even Tony quieted right down, mindful of the injured man on the steady road to slumber. As they filed out, Steve hung back, glancing awkwardly between the door and the bed. He'd wanted to talk to the man alone, but he didn't want to keep him from getting his rest either…
He watched the man frown as he stirred, prying his eyes open to cast his bleary-eyed gaze at his questioner.
It was a quiet murmur that tugged at Steve's heart strings, making him immediately regret having said anything. Pulling himself together, he shot the other man a smile.
"I just wanted to say… I'm glad you're going to be all right and, well… the rest can wait until tomorrow. If I could talk to you in private then?" Steve ventured.
He received a soft, assenting hum in response and, taking that as all the confirmation he needed, he flicked the light switch and closed the door behind him.
Steve did go back. He hovered outside the door to Phil's room until the man in question had woken up and was lucid enough for conversation. They exchanged a slightly awkward greeting that shuffled from Captain Rogers ("Please call me Steve. If you want.") to Agent Coulson ("In that case, you should probably call me Phil.") and somehow managed to settle on something that didn't feel too stilted.
"You signed my cards," Phil said in astonishment, looking at the vintage—though no longer mint—set in the black binder that had been handed to him.
Steve shrugged offhandedly, twiddling his thumbs as he sat forward in his seat. It was an awkward subject to broach and what had seemed like a good idea yesterday was suddenly seeming less so.
"Yes. Uh… well, I told myself it was for you, but I'm starting to think it may have been more for me, to ease my guilt," Steve said slowly. "I hadn't signed them before you—… and anyway, I wasn't exactly on my best behavior. I was letting my own problems cloud my judgment. You shouldn't have had to die just so I could get my act together. I've had soldiers die before, friends and family, but this felt so different. I barely knew you. I barely know you now, in fact, and that bothers me."
"I'm the S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison to the Avengers. You're not required to know me," Phil told him honestly. "It's not something you have to do."
"I know. It's something I want to do," Steve countered. "I'm not sure how, but you already knew me. That time we spoke on the quinjet, you didn't just believe in Captain America, you believed in me. Plain old Steve Rogers. I didn't understand that at the time. But I do now and if you'll let me, then I'd like to get to know you. Maybe we could get to know each other."
Phil studied him for short time, seemingly looking for something in the super soldier's eyes, before he closed the binder and rested his hands on top of it.
"I'd like that," he said. "But I'd like it more if you stopped feeling guilty about this. Frankly, it would be ideal if everyone could. You're finding blame where there's none to be had. The Avengers Initiative was a gamble to begin with and I was doing my job. That's all."
"You died, Phil," Steve retorted, experimenting with his newfound first name privilege.
"I died doing my job, Steve," Phil replied, putting them on equal footing.
"You shouldn't have had to," Steve countered, blowing out a harsh breath. "If Stark and I hadn't been so stubborn—"
"If Clint hadn't been compromised, if Bruce hadn't Hulked out, if Loki hadn't escaped his cage, if Thor hadn't been trapped in it instead, if I had watched my own back… we could sit here for hours dissecting this," Phil said, shaking his head. "You can't say that any one thing was the cause. And in any case, I'm not dead now, am I? Thanks to Mr. Stark—and please do not tell him I said that—I'm expected to make a full recovery. It'll take time and getting used to, but I'll be back to work before long and things should go back to normal. I don't blame anyone because it wasn't anyone's fault other than my own, perhaps. So move on."
Steve shook his head with a slight laugh after a moment's pause. Phil raised an eyebrow at that.
"You know, you really are as unflappable as they say you are?" Steve said.
Phil shook his head with a small smile. "I think you'll find most of the rumors about me are greatly exaggerated."
"We'll see about that."
Phil had a lot of visitors after that. Following their first visit, they seemed to have decided that one at a time might be a better idea. Pepper was always an entirely welcome visit; he found her presence relaxing and she was doing a marvelous job of keeping him up to date on how everyone was doing. Bruce's visits were brief and quiet, but comfortable. He found they talked more over a game of chess than anything else and it became something of a ritual.
Natasha and Clint would always seem to visit together. Sometimes he'd wake briefly in the night and, although he was never certain exactly how, he could tell when Clint was hidden in the room, perched on top of a cabinet or similar structure, watching him in the darkness. Once, in the midst of a fevered nightmare, he'd sworn he remembered being sung to. In Russian no less. Natasha insisted he'd dreamt it.
He and Fury spent most of their time arguing over when he would be cleared for work. Hill would sneak him files on the sly. Fury would steal the files back while he was sleeping. Hill would give him her 'do you see what you've left me with?' look and he really couldn't blame her. Fury had apologized about the trading cards, at least.
Tony had been something of a surprise. He spent a lot of his time talking to Phil about SISSAH's designs and schematics, how it operated, and what he could expect. Of course, whenever the conversation would get too serious, the billionaire would quickly crack a joke at Phil's expense… or he would leave. On one visit, Tony talked about Afghanistan and the arc reactor. When Phil had mentioned this to Pepper, she couldn't seem to decide if she was surprised or not. In her own words, "Tony never talks about it. He brought it up once with me and that was it. He doesn't talk about it." He never talked about it again and refused to acknowledge that he'd ever brought it up, but Phil got the message.
In his own way, Tony was trying to sympathize—he wasn't the only one being kept alive by a foreign object lodged in his chest anymore.
Steve was by far his most frequent visitor. As it turned out, he really was serious about getting to know each other. It started out tentatively at first, the casual exchange of hometown stories (Brooklyn and Boston weren't really all that different when you got right down to it) that eventually developed into long, personal conversations. They had more in common than either of them would have thought. They'd both been small, smart kids who'd just wanted to do the right thing, which more often than not meant they shuffled home bloody nosed and bruised from ear to elbow.
"I can't picture you as the type to go pick a fight," Steve admitted.
"I won't lie and say that I didn't know what I was doing, but I never threw the first punch. I'd just talk until they got fed up enough to hit me," Phil replied.
Steve huffed a laugh and ran a hand through his hair. "Boy, that sounds awfully familiar."
Eventually, they even talked about family. Neither of them had particularly stable homes in their childhood, but both agreed they'd turned out alright. Somehow, the subject of how Phil came to be a Captain America fan managed to come up and it was like day one of their conversations all over again; stagnant and filled with awkward silence.
"I wanted to believe that there were people who were willing to do the right thing. The good thing. I wanted to believe that heroes existed," Phil said at length, looking at his hands folded neatly in his lap. "You embodied that. You made me believe that things could get better."
Steve considered that, considered whatever else Phil had told him. He found his gaze lingering on the agent's left shoulder. "And did they?"
Phil didn't even hesitate to answer: "Yes."
"There was a funeral," Pepper told him one day, her arm curled supportively around his as they walked slowly down the hall. Thank god they'd given him the okay to walk around, because he'd been ready to do it regardless. 'Stir crazy' wasn't even the half of it.
"I wish I could have gone," he said. She raised an eyebrow, prompting him to clarify. "For the other agents."
"Of course," she said with a nod. "Well, I can show you where they're buried when you're well enough."
"Thank you, I'd like that."
They continued on a little ways further until he couldn't deny that he needed to sit for a moment. Thankfully, they were near enough that they could look out one of the building's windows from where they sat. It was quiet on the floor, considering it was so secret that nearly no other patients existed on the next three floors, and while he typically liked his space, there was something decidedly off putting about it.
"I found your cellist, by the way," Pepper said, looking up at the sky from the window. "She's a lovely woman."
"How did she handle the news?" Phil wanted to know.
"I think 'gracefully' is the best way to put it. I could see she was upset by it, but she managed it well," she replied. "I can see why you liked her. It's a shame it didn't work out."
Phil had to smile at that. "Julia is an amazing woman. Smart, talented, lovely, kind… I believe that's why we were able to part on such good terms. We enjoyed what we had while it lasted, but we were headed in two completely different directions. In the long term, it never would have worked."
"At least you tried," Pepper agreed with a nod of her head. "I wish I could have been on such good terms with some of my exes."
"Maybe next time."
"Hey. Don't you get cheeky with me, Phillip J. Coulson."
She swatted him lightly on the hand, a slow grin settling on her face. He smiled back, slow and easy, enjoying the feeling of the sun shining down through the window. He was surprised, then, when Pepper's eyes suddenly welled up and, despite her best efforts, a few wayward tears rolled down her cheeks.
"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry about this. God," she said with a soft laugh, hurriedly brushing them away with the heel of her palm.
"There's nothing you need to apologize for," he said with some perplexity. "Are you all right?"
She nodded, taking a deep breath. "Yes. Just… we mourned you. I mourned you. For a month we thought you'd died and it was terrible. To suddenly find out that you were alive was the best thing I'd heard in a long time but it's all been so confusing. It's good though. It's very good."
He watched her carefully as she sniffled absently, not wanting to say anything to upset her. When she softly placed a hand on his shoulder, over his wound, he flinched; not out of pain, but for a reason he would have been hard pressed to describe to her.
"I know you don't like this and that it bothers you—and I know it bothers you that it's something of Tony's. But I'm glad it's there," Pepper said. "It might not behave like a natural heart does, but it means you're here with us again. And… I'm just so glad you're okay, Phil. First Tony and then you. We're lucky. I'm not foolish enough to ask you to promise me you'll stay safe, so instead just promise me that you'll come to us when you need us and let us help when we can."
Placing his hand over hers on his shoulder, he quietly spoke his gratitude and reminded himself—not for the first time—that Tony Stark was a very lucky man.
By the time Phil was ready to be released from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s medical facility, the Avengers Tower was just being newly christened. This meant, of course, that Thor was present. Which meant that Phil was embraced with almost enough force to send him back to the medical facility. Thankfully he managed to avoid that fate and only had to tell Thor to stop apologizing three times. He was surprised to find that all his belongings had been moved from his apartment into his floor on the tower. Although he wasn't especially fond of the idea of all his personal items having been handled by other people, he was grateful for the sentiment; by the end of the night he was flat out exhausted and ready to collapse on the nearest horizontal surface and was glad that happened to be his own bed.
Phil detested physical therapy, but he detested being a desk jockey even more, so he put up with it.
He didn't mind so much when his wounds had to be examined to ensure they were healing correctly, but whenever there came mention of words like 'calibration' in reference to the device serving as his heart, he didn't want to hear a word of it. Of course, he listened politely, responded when necessary, and did as he was told, but it didn't stop the free floating feeling of resentment any time it was mentioned.
Deciding he was still adjusting, he opted to ignored it.
He remembered the days when the theories of him being a robot were common among the Junior Officers. He didn't hear many of those rumors when he was finally cleared for work.
He was on his way to a disciplinary meeting with Clint when he picked up on a conversation he was not meant to hear. Pausing at the corner of the hallway, he remained hidden and listened.
"I don't care, Nat. I don't. Where the fuck do they get off saying those things?"
"They're young. And stupid."
"That's not an excuse."
"No, it's not. But it's still true."
"Yeah but… I mean, yeah, the jokes were funny back then. Calling him a robot because he never slept and was always on time and always finished everyone's paperwork, that was funny back then. But it's not back then anymore. And it's not funny. It's not ever going to be funny again. I shouldn't have stopped at Wachowski's nose. I should've broken his whole damn face."
"And if I didn't think Coulson would suspend you for a month for doing so, I would have let you. Wachowski got the message, so drop it before you get in even more trouble."
He heard a snort from Clint. "Fury brings up the whole artificial heart thing and what does Wachowski say as soon as he leaves the room? 'Looks like he really is a robot after all!' It's… It's stupid. It's so fucking stupid and it's not even worth getting this angry over but I'm really fucking angry over it."
"Then do him a favor and take the punishment without complaint. I'll even help you fill out the paperwork."
Phil decided he didn't care to hear the rest. He walked into the office as though he'd only just arrived, but he had the distinct impression that Natasha knew. Gifted with a blessed sense of knowing when to be silent, she didn't say anything.
He suspended Clint for a month.
He woke with a start, torn abruptly from the throes of yet another nightmare. They'd been occurring with greater frequency since he'd left the medical facility and even greater frequency since he'd been cleared to go back to work. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling and counting each quickened breath. He couldn't feel anything.
Of course, that wasn't exactly true; his sensory perception hadn't diminished in any way. But he'd never been so acutely aware of how strongly the physical heart was associated with emotion. He couldn't feel the familiar pounding in his chest when he was excited or afraid (as he had been just prior to and a few minutes after waking from his nightmare), he no longer felt his pulse race even when he exerted himself. Logically, he knew those were just physical reactions that weren't the emotions themselves. It was irrational to think that he was feeling any less just because that organ had been replaced.
The artificial heart—SISSAH, said a nagging voice in the back of his mind—was doing just what his real heart had done, just without some of the extras.
So why did he continue to wake in the middle of the night, unsure if he was alive or dead?
It grew worse as time wore on. His psych evals immediately following his release from medical were normal given the situation and the psychiatrist hadn't had any problem clearing him for duty. And he was fine, really. During the day, when he was occupied, he found he noticed no change from his feelings before the stabbing. Night seemed to be the difficult part and, more alarmingly, so did being alone. Phil had always been a rather private individual, enjoying space and solitude, but these days it seemed like he very nearly couldn't stand to be alone. When he was alone, he had time to think, when it was quiet the silence was deafening; there was something about not hearing your own heart beating in your ears that made silence so terrifyingly loud.
Night brought nightmares, some of which he forgot immediately upon waking, others he recalled with such startling clarity it was like the images had been seared into his eyelids. He'd taken to walking when a nightmare woke him up, as lying in bed had become unbearable. Wandering the tower, he would sometimes chance upon Bruce or Tony in the lab, neither of whom ever questioned his apparent insomnia. They all had their quirks, after all, and it was a known fact that Phil only slept for a minimal amount of time to begin with, back when things had been normal.
But things weren't normal.
Things were definitely not normal when Captain America came to give you a 3 a.m. pep talk in his pajamas.
"You haven't been sleeping," Steve said as he eased onto the couch beside Phil.
"I don't often sleep very much. Habit," Phil answered, flipping through the forms he'd completed hours ago.
"I know that. I meant you've been sleeping less than usual," Steve clarified. He paused, as though unsure of whether or not he should say what was on his mind. Leaning forward somewhat, he spoke to Phil in hushed tones. "Natasha told me about the nightmares."
"Everyone has nightmares. They're not that unusual," Phil countered.
Steve placed a hand on top of the file Phil was holding, blocking every readable portion of it so that the agent was forced to look at him. "Every night, though? It's been months."
"I'm dealing with it as best I'm able. If it should begin to interfere with my work, I'll be sure to find a suitable replacement," Phil said calmly.
"That's not what I'm worried about," Steve said with a frown.
"You're not required to wor—"
"Can I ask you something?" Steve interrupted.
"Certainly," Phil responded as though he hadn't been.
"Whenever I've tried to get closer to you, whether it's been wanting to know more about you or just being worried, why do you always tell me that they're things I'm not required to do?" Steve asked.
The funny thing about it was that from anyone else, that question might have sounded accusatory. From Steve it just sounded disappointed. Sad, even. Phil found himself taken aback.
"Because you're not," he said.
"You know that I know that. So why do you keep telling me?" Steve questioned further.
"Because one of the first things you expressed to me after I woke up was your guilt. I want to make sure you don't feel somehow obligated in any way to do these things," Phil answered.
"And I've told you that I don't feel obligated. That I know I'm not required. I keep telling you that these are things I want to do. Why don't you believe me?"
"I do believe you."
"I don't think you do."
Silence fell over them, each looking to the other for some sort of sign to help them understand. At last Steve sighed and shook his head, patting Phil's good shoulder as he rose from the couch.
"Sorry. Guess I need more sleep, too," he said as he walked back in the direction of the lift. "Goodnight Agent Coulson."
Phil wasn't sure how, but it felt as though he'd just lost something.
Steve stopped calling him Phil. The nightmares got worse.
Phil knew it had all gone downhill when they started seeking him out to talk in private, one by one. Thor was the first, finding him up to his eyeballs in paperwork.
"Is there something I can help you with, Thor?" he asked, offering the god of thunder a genial smile.
Thor shifted the box of files off the chair in front of Phil's desk and sat heavily in the cleared seat. He studied the Midgardian before him seriously, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.
"I wish to have a discussion with you, Son of Coul," he announced.
Phil nodded, placing his pen down and folding his hands on the desk. "What would you care to discuss?"
Thor gathered his thoughts carefully. "You have not been the same since your confrontation with my brother."
Phil's shoulders twitched in the slightest of shrugs. "It was a life changing event."
"While this is true, I cannot help but notice there is something that you will not discuss with us, your comrades, something that weighs heavily on your heart," Thor explained.
"You can't weigh down something that doesn't exist," Phil quipped with a small smile.
With a look like the one Thor gave him, he decided, Steve had some serious competition in the 'kicked puppy look' department. He sighed, spreading his hands before him on the desk.
"It's fine," he said. "It was a joke."
"Was it indeed?" Thor said, shaking his head. He rose from his seat, Mjolnir in one hand. "No man can weather the storm alone forever, Son of Coul. I should hope that when this becomes evident to you, you will allow we who carry you in our hearts to come to your aid."
Phil wasn't exactly sure what he could possibly say to that, so he dipped his head in a nod and offered his thanks.
"That was a pretty dumb move earlier."
Phil looked up as a mug of steaming black coffee entered his field of vision, held out by a very battered looking Bruce. The scientist sank into the couch a few feet away from him when Phil had accepted the mug with a nod of thanks. Bruce cradled his own mug of tea, looking thoroughly worn.
"You're fine with taking stupid risks, then?" Bruce inquired.
"I wouldn't classify it as being stupid," Phil responded, filling out yet another damage report in his tidy handwriting.
"You intercepted the path of a potentially deadly, as-yet unfamiliar piece of extraterrestrial weaponry meant to bring down the Other Guy, were shocked with I'm not even sure how many volts of electricity, and shorted out your heart," Bruce detailed calmly, sipping his tea. "And that's just what I was told after I woke up."
"It was a calculated risk. You were in a highly vulnerable position. They managed to beat the Other Guy enough so that you changed back; that attack could have killed you," Phil countered.
"I suppose nearly getting yourself killed instead was the better option?" Bruce hummed.
"Considering the circumstances—"
"Save us both the trouble and don't try to tell me you're expendable," Bruce cut him off, wincing as he jostled one of his many injuries.
"For whatever reason, the artificial heart that Stark engineered is… outfitted with more to it than is strictly necessary," Phil explained. "I've reviewed the 'manual' so to speak and there is a device that is meant to absorb shock to prevent a short circuit. When the artificial heart shuts down, you just have to shock it with the right voltage to give it a quick reset. The device in place prevented any of the electricity from travelling along my neural pathways. It was only logical that I intercepted the attack."
"They thought you were dead. Again," Bruce said. "Without a pulse or a heartbeat it can be hard to tell—"
Bruce fell silent as Phil focused on drinking his coffee. He watched the agent carefully for a few brief moments before his eyes widened a fraction, as though he were seeing the other man for the first time. He turned his attention to the contents of his own mug, uncertain what to do with what he'd just discovered. After twenty minutes of silence, he hesitantly tried to connect to the other man.
"You hate it."
Phil said nothing.
"I understand. Dying, you know, dying's easy. Living's what's hard," Bruce said quietly. "Especially when things are different than what we're used to. Or when we feel like we're less ourselves than we used to be."
Bruce drummed his fingers against the mug when he got no response.
"It's all right to resent it sometimes. It doesn't make you a hypocrite."
Phil rose abruptly. "I think I should try to go to sleep. Save the rest of this paperwork for tomorrow."
Bruce opened his mouth to respond, but shut it quickly. Phil Coulson saying he was giving up on paperwork was decidedly out of character. Knowing when to back down, though, he simply nodded.
"Sounds like a good idea. I should do the same," Bruce said, rising also.
They shared a silent lift ride until they reached Bruce's level. The scientist paused when the lift door opened, lingering inside. Before pushing himself to depart, he stuck his hand out.
"Agent Coulson. I'd just like to thank you," he said.
Phil looked from Bruce's hand to his face before reaching out and clasping the offered hand with his own. "I've done nothing that requires thanks."
Bruce didn't say anything, merely kept his eyes trained on the agent's before he gave the man's hand a brief squeeze. Then he stepped out, the doors closed, and Phil was left alone with his thoughts.
Steve found him once again on the sofa, busying himself with paperwork. It had been a long week. A long month. A long year. But it wasn't anything he hadn't signed up for, not really. So when Steve simply deposited himself on the seat next to him, Phil didn't say anything. It was late. Tony and Bruce were up to he-didn't-even-want-to-know in the lab and the others slept. He'd almost forgotten the super soldier was sitting there, with the time that had passed, until he felt a broad hand pressed to the left side of his chest.
"Put the paperwork down, Phil."
It hadn't been an order, but the words had rung with an undercurrent of authority and Phil was just surprised enough to obey. He waited silently as the blonde stared him down.
"I like you just the way you are."
Phil raised an eyebrow at that and Steve—God bless him—actually blushed.
"No, well, I mean, that's true but it wasn't what I was planning on saying," Steve admitted. He shook his head and started again. "Listen, just… I spoke to Bruce and Tony and Pepper and… well, everyone and I understand now, why you've been different."
"I don't think I've behaved all that differently," Phil answered, trying not to focus on how he could feel the warmth of the other man's hand through his shirt.
"But you have," Steve said quietly. "And I understand. I can't imagine… it's got to be difficult. But why didn't you come to any of us?"
"It's my problem," Phil answered simply. He needed to find a way out of this situation. "It's mine to deal with."
"It isn't. It really isn't. If it's your problem, then it's our problem, too," Steve argued gently. "This frightens you. This here. You think it somehow makes you less of a person. And you're afraid you're not feeling what you used to. Am I right?"
Phil couldn't say anything. For once, he was beyond words.
"It's okay. You're still all you," Steve said. "Just because it's not beating, because you can't feel it, doesn't mean it isn't there. You haven't lost anything. You're alive and you're not going anywhere because I'm not going to let you and neither is anyone else. Just because you don't have a heartbeat or a pulse doesn't make you any less of a person. You're undeniably one of the single greatest men I've ever known, with more heart now than most people are born with. You do have a heart, one that's better than most everyone else's, and you are alive and I don't care what it takes, I'll spend every day proving it to you if I have to."
"You're not required—"
Looking back, Phil wonders if what happened wasn't partly to shut him up about things that Steve was and wasn't required to do. Either way, he couldn't say he minded. Midsentence, Steve had dipped his head down, pressing his lips against Phil's in a sweet, chaste kiss. It was only a moment before Steve draw back, anxiously searching the agent's eyes for some sign that what he'd done was not out of line. Immediately after, Phil could only blink in surprise, his lips still tingling from the contact and the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. He felt… unexpectedly warmed.
"I'm sorry. I've just been talking to Tony and Pepper and, well, things have changed a lot since my time and they thought… maybe…"
"What?" Steve asked, looking perplexed.
"I said 'thank you.' For understanding," Phil clarified. "Although I may not have come to terms with this yet, I think that perhaps what I needed to get me started down that path was the right person to tell me something I should have already known."
"I suppose that makes me the right person?" Steve asked, trying not to look too hopeful.
"If you'd like to be, then I'd like it if you were," Phil said.
He couldn't help but smile at the happy grin that settled on the blonde's face. Steve eased back against the sofa, letting his hand drop back to his side. They sat there, side by side, Steve's right knee pressed against Phil's left, engaged in quiet conversation that, while no different than those they'd had in the hospital, suddenly held a far greater weight than they had before.
In the early morning hours—sometime after Steve's arm had wrapped around his shoulders and his hand rested on Steve's thigh—they succumbed to sleep, and for the first time since he'd awoken in the hospital a year past, Phil slept and didn't dream.