A/N: This story arose out of the annoyance at Joss Whedon for (once again) killing off one of my favorite characters, as well as the news that Phil Coulson will "headline" the SHIELD television series. So, without further ado, here are five ways (some more unlikely than others) Phil Coulson could have survived his (quite literally) gut-wrenching encounter with Loki. Rated T for paranoia, death, and occasional bad language.
Marvel Cinematic Universe: Something to Avenge
Phil grimaced as the Life-Model Decoy finally expired. He was impressed with its performance; he hadn't expected it to last so long with a giant gaping wound in its chest. He'd even managed to get off some pretty decent last words to Director Fury, too, along with a plan to motivate the Avengers to finally get off their collective assets and work together.
Not bad for a piece of untested technology.
Director Fury came into the room a few minutes later, glaring at him out of his one good eye. "You do realize that now I gotta hide you somewhere until after the inevitable showdown with Loki, right?"
Phil offered him a slight shrug of his shoulders. "The most important thing is that the Avengers now have something to avenge, Boss."
"Yeah, about that, Agent Coulson," the imposing SHIELD director stated pointedly. "I'm gonna need something tangible to motivate them."
"What, other than my dead body?" Phil gazed blandly at Fury.
"The only problem being you're not really dead, and somebody might notice that minor detail sooner or later!"
"Stark," sighed Phil. The genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist had invented the LMD technology, after all, and he'd be the most likely to recognize his own handiwork, even wearing Phil's face. With an expression of resignation, he offered up a solution. "Get my Captain America cards out of my locker. Say they were in my jacket when Loki killed me. I think that would be an appropriate enough talisman."
Fury actually looked impressed; he knew how much those trading cards meant to Phil. "You really are willing to see this through, aren't you?"
"Of course I am, Boss. This is about saving the world, after all."
Supernatural: When the Best Did Not Lack All Conviction
Phil had already lost sensation in his limbs. Distantly, he could hear Director Fury telling him to hold on, to keep his eyes on him, but there was something far more pressing hovering just beyond his range of perception. It was a light, and it seemed to drag him towards it.
I can see that you, at least, do not lack conviction, a voice said. "Voice" couldn't even begin to describe it, actually. It was profound - cosmic, even. It shook Phil Coulson to the very core of his being. I can give you a chance to live, to continue to serve and protect your fellow humans from threats beyond their understanding. I only require your consent.
Phil was not so far gone that he didn't wonder what the catch was, though he didn't have the strength to speak aloud.
That powerful presence seemed to understand his question. You would be my vessel, allow me to act in this world. While I inhabit your form, your conscious mind will sleep. And when I am finished with my task here, you will be restored to yourself.
The fading spark of his mind cobbled together another thought: Why now? Why not earlier?
You would never have agreed. Your duty rested with SHIELD and you would not have abandoned it, even for me. Now, however, the circumstances are different. Do not believe that I am forcing you into this - if you so choose, you can pass from here, and journey to the Fields of the Lord, where you will find rest and comfort forever. But you can also choose to continue your service in a different capacity. I will not lie and say it will be an easy service. But I have looked in your soul and do not believe that you are one to shy away from difficult trials. There was an intense, almost electric pause. It is your choice, Phil Coulson.
For a moment, Director Fury thought he imagined Coulson's voice - his agent's eyes had already gone glassy, their stare fixed on some unfathomable distance. Before he had time to be surprised, however, Fury was forced to look away and shield himself against a powerful light that appeared to explode from Coulson's slumped form.
"What the-" Fury gasped in shock as the light poured forth. As abruptly as it had appeared, the light vanished, and Fury was left blinking against the sudden dimness of the room. Then Coulson stood up, with even more fluidity and ease than the veteran agent ever shown, his expression eerily flat and inhuman. Fury scrambled backward, drawing his sidearm.
"Who the hell are you, and what have you done to my agent?" he demanded.
The thing inhabiting Coulson cocked his head slightly, glancing at Fury's gun without the slightest flicker in expression. "He is with me now. He consented to this," the thing said in a tone that indicated the answer was obvious. "He has conviction."
Fury realized abruptly that all the blood and damage had vanished from Coulson's body and clothes, leaving them pristine. Nick Fury had seen many things that defied explanation over the years, but few that were so unnerving as what was happening at this moment, right in front of him. "Then tell me who - or what - the hell you are," he ordered, his hands refusing to tremble as he pointed his gun at his best agent, a man he actually considered a friend.
Coulson's head straightened, and his blue eyes locked on Fury's face. "My name is Azrael. I am an Angel of the Lord." Fury blinked, ever so slightly, at the pronouncement, but in that tiniest space of time where Fury's eyes closed, Coulson vanished into thin air, leaving behind the blood on the wall, the gun on the floor, and a sound like the flapping of wings.
Stargate: SG-1 : A Few Candles Short of Enlightenment
Phil had thought dying would involve the darkness closing in around him, but, oddly, things seemed to be getting brighter. And brighter, and brighter. Finally, he realized that he was standing in rolling sand dunes, wearing a crisp suit and not feeling at all like he'd been stabbed through the back by a scepter-wielding megalomaniacal god. In fact, he felt surprisingly... light. Like all the tiny aches and pains accumulated over his twenty-plus years of service had somehow fallen away.
Frowning, he looked around, trying to get his bearings. The dunes reminded him of a place he'd been to, somewhere near Vancouver, if he remembered correctly. But the three moons hanging in the sky definitely ruled out Canada.
"Don't worry. You're not lost," an accented voice assured him. Phil turned around to see a young man standing nearby. He clearly hadn't been there a moment ago. He was wearing robes that fit the desert setting a lot better than Phil's suit and tie did.
"If I'm not lost, then where am I?" Phil asked. "And who are you?"
The young man smiled widely and came closer. "You are dead. And my name is Skaara."
Phil gestured to the desert around them in a mix of disbelief and complete confusion. "This isn't exactly how I imagined death."
Skaara's smile didn't fade one bit. "If you know that the candlelight is fire, then the meal was cooked a long time ago."
"And if I had a candle, I could get to Babylon and back again," Phil replied, a bit nonplussed. "But, as you can see, I'm a bit short on candles at the moment."
"You remind me of O-Neer," Skaara laughed. "My brother Dan-yer tried many times to explain this to him." He gestured broadly to the dunes around them. "This place, my home. It was burned by a creature called Anubis. You would call him an abomination. Trapped between the physical world and the spiritual, belonging to neither. In his quest for power, he destroyed this world. This echo is all that remains of Abydos."
"You're a non-corporeal life form. And all this is what, a dream in my last moments of life?" guessed Phil.
Skaara rolled his eyes in a very human manner. "Now you sound like Dan-yer or Carter, always trying to put names to things that do not need them. Your enemy slew you in battle. Your physical body is dead. It has been for many hours now. What you perceive now is the essence of things, as well as you can understand it without taking the next step."
"And what's that?"
Six weeks after the climactic battle against the Chitauri in New York City, Agent Maria Hill nearly had a heart attack when she found a very naked and confused Phil Coulson walking through the corridors of the helicarrier, which was still undergoing repair and refit. Coulson had apparently woken up in a closet with no idea how he'd gotten there; he just had a feeling that he was very, very irked at 'the others', whoever they were - something about not doing their duty to help.
Coulson patiently endured the seemingly endless battery of tests the SHIELD doctors felt obliged to put him through; he expected nothing less from them, given their line of work. Needless to say, the Avengers were still very much surprised when he walked into the Tower a few weeks later, not nearly as dead as the last time they saw him.
Highlander: Not the Strangest Thing To Happen Around Here
When Phil woke up in a morgue drawer, he wasn't exactly surprised. It wasn't the first time he'd found himself in that position, nor, hopefully, would it be the last. It may seem odd to a normal human being for someone to actually wish to find oneself in a refrigerated container for corpses, but the alternative would probably entail Phil's actual death, something he didn't really desire.
Fortunately for him, no one had actually tried to do an autopsy on him this time. He'd had that happen before; it wasn't very pleasant to pull out all those sutures, even though they healed pretty quickly.
He wasn't sure how long he lay there patiently waiting before his drawer was opened up and he was slid out into the harsh fluorescent light of the SHIELD morgue in New York.
"You were out for so long, Coulson, I was actually getting worried there," Director Fury informed him as he handed over a gym bag.
"Really? How long was I gone?" Phil blinked in mild surprise as he sat up and pulled out a pair of boxers, followed immediately by an undershirt.
The Immortal stared at Fury in disbelief. "Three days?" He'd never been dead that long before. Then again, he'd never gotten skewered by an alien scepter powered by a Tesseract before, either. Of course, being involved with SHIELD for as long as he had, he'd learned not to be all that surprised when unexpected things happened.
"You're lucky you woke up when you did. Your funeral's scheduled for the day after tomorrow. Oh, you might be happy to know that your little plan worked out in the end. The Avengers came together as a real team, even that pain-in-the-ass Stark and the Big Guy," Fury informed him. "And since they've all gone their separate ways now that the battle's over and won, it'll be kinda hard to explain that you aren't actually dead."
Phil extracted a carefully folded button-down shirt and trousers from the gym bag. They weren't too badly wrinkled, much to his satisfaction. "With all that goes on around here, my coming back from the dead isn't exactly the strangest thing that could possibly happen. It'll probably take a bit of persuasion to convince Stark I'm not a Life-Model Decoy, though."
"Maybe so," Fury acknowledged a bit ruefully. "In any case, I'm glad you didn't clock out permanently on me. You know how hard it is to find someone with your experience."
Doctor Who: Hidden in Plain Sight
Phil Coulson's eyes went glassy, and Nick Fury knew he had to do something now or never. "This had better work, else I'm gonna feel like an idiot," the SHIELD director told his fallen agent. Nick reached into his pocket and pulled out a small object he kept with him at all times, a keepsake entrusted to him years ago: a pocket watch, of all things, engraved with intricate circular designs on its case.
If anything happens to him, open it. Until then, keep it hidden. Keep it safe. Especially from him.
Fury popped the clasp, opening the watch to reveal a beautiful clock-face with Roman numerals - and releasing a strange golden energy that swirled in the air before settling into Coulson, absorbing into his skin. Abruptly, he inhaled deeply, his eyes snapping wide open.
"You might want to stand back, Boss," Coulson said in a strangely conversational tone.
Fury stepped back several paces as Coulson pulled himself to his feet, his eyes still as wide as saucers. The agent's skin began to glow with the same golden energy that had been released from the watch, and Fury decided that he should back up a bit more.
Then Coulson exploded.
Brilliant gold-white energy burst forth from his face and hands, tearing through the room. Even at his distance, Fury was knocked back another few paces by the force of the explosion. He thought he could hear Coulson scream in pain for a moment before the energy abruptly dissipated.
Standing in Coulson's place was a completely different man, wearing Coulson's bloodied suit and a decidedly bemused expression on his face. "Not exactly the way I expected to clock out," he remarked wryly, looking down at his ruined shirt and completely unmarked chest.
Nick Fury stared at him, a bit surprised at this turn of events. "That you, Coulson?"
The man shrugged. "More or less. Less, now." He ran a hand through his now somewhat-longer dark brown hair, which seemed to stick up as if it had a life of its own. He also seemed to have gained several inches in height - his trousers and sleeves were now too short for him, a fact he observed with eyes that were now a distinctive hazel color. Coupled with a frankly handsome face, he could not longer walk through a room with no one giving him a second thought. He'd draw eyes wherever he went, especially from the female half of the species.
"You know, I read the UNIT files on Time Lords and your little get-out-of-death-free trick, but seeing it happen right in front of you is pretty damned crazy," Fury remarked.
The man Fury had known as Phil Coulson made a sound of disbelief. "Hey, up until about a minute and a half ago, I couldn't remember anything about it, either! Now, can I please get some clothes that fit? I can't help save the world dressed like this, Director."