It’s strange. It’s only been a week and a half, objectively, but the bridge of the Helicarrier feels unfamiliar, suddenly. He feels foreign in this space, and he doesn’t like it. Not at all.
They’re running a skeleton crew, which is odd given the hour, but Phil’s not there to question. He walks, careful of his stride and the way he bears his weight, mindful of the healing hole that could have, should have put him down for good where it tingles in his shoulder. He sees the Director leaning over one of the central displays, expression lit with the cool glow of the translucent screen.
“You asked for me, sir?” he announces his presence, wary and weary and curious, yes, he’ll admit it. He’s of little use for the immediate future, as swathed and bandaged as he is.
“Coulson,” Fury acknowledges, stands straight and turns away from the data streaming in front of him. “You’re looking well.”
“Can’t complain,” Phil nods, because he can’t. Complain, that is. “I hear I have Mr. Stark to thank for the tech that pulled me through?”
“He doesn’t know it yet,” Fury tells him with a knowing smirk that has always set the hairs on Phil’s neck to standing. “Not that I’ll be the one to say it to his face, but that man’s got something special.”
“I’ll be sure to send a fruit basket,” Phil agrees. He makes a mental note to be certain that said fruit basket is devoid of strawberries. Virginia’s allergic, of course.
“I wanted to return these to you,” Fury continues, never one to waste time with small talk; always down to business. Phil appreciates that about his boss, for the most part.
Until he see what’s being returned.
Given his line of work, Phil’s become intimately attuned with the expressiveness of his own facial features; he’s learned how to school his emotions and maintain calmness, collectedness. He knows, down to the subtlest twitch, which muscle movements herald surprise, enthusiasm, terror, disappointment, frustration, rage. He knows what it feels like when his expression betrays him. He can gauge to the millisecond how long it takes for his face to fall.
And when he sees the cards, his precious, red-splotched Captain America trading cards—a whole handful of them, ruined: when he sees the cards, oh, but his face falls.
He says nothing; the calm takes over, his default setting: blankness broadcast to the world at large because that’s what he’s trained to sink in, to take over when he loses control. He listens, half-heartedly, as Fury offers a stilted, half-hearted explanation: world in danger, prima donna superheroes, clarion calls and all the trimmings; he fits this into the context he has, the snippets of what occurred in Manhattan. He runs a finger over Cap’s face on card number six, obscured with the red: the story seems sound. It adds up.
That doesn’t mean he has to like it.
“I can’t even tell what you used,” Phil notes idly, but with a particular clip to his words, an edge to the consonants that makes it clear—as clear as he’s likely to get, as he’ll willingly show—that he’s more than just teetering on the cusp of displeased. “What is this?” he runs a thumb across the too-red stains on the card stock, the unrealistic pattern of the splatter across the sides. “Tempera paint? Ketchup?” He brings one of the specimens—CapCard #3—up to his nose and sniffs, lines the corner up with his pupil and stares, frowns; shoulders stiff.
“And no one noticed?” he follows-up before Fury can respond,which always pisses the hell out of the Director; Phil doesn’t care what was used, he doesn’t. It doesn’t really matter. “No one questioned the candy-apple hue?” If he sneers, if there’s just a little hint of a hiss, a bite to his words: if it’s there, it’s so subtle, so controlled that no one could prove it. If one happened to be so inclined to try.
He makes a point of ordering the remaining cards numerically, holding them carefully between his fingers before he fans them out, evaluates their condition, and then smoothes them carefully back into a neat pile, stroking the edges into uniformity with great care, caressing like a lover, still scowling, in his own way, at the red. “Who bleeds this color? Jesus.”
“Emotions can be sticky things, Coulson. They can distract people,” Fury tells him, tone cool, yielding but icy in the way that only the Director knows how to deliver; “as you well know.”
There’s a dagger lanced in those words, a warning, and Phil hears the question under the syllables themselves—sentiment, compromised, backup; he hears the implications as they sting anew in the wound he earned for those reasons, sticky then as the cotton of his shirt clung wet to the wound just as it is now, beneath dressings that need to be attended to, should be cleaned and changed and evaluated by Medical. He breathes deep, even as he feels his muscles tighten, his pulse run harder, pumper deeper but not faster: adrenaline, fight-or-flight, threat response—he weighs the situation and the pros against the cons, lets the aggression drain and redirect; allows the jab to slide and his chest to loosen ever-so-slightly.
He’s always been good at that.
“Seventeen months,” he says instead, re-focusing on the cards in front of him, his prized collection. “It took me seventeen months to find these.” He picks up Number Twenty-Nine: Hydra Up In Flames. “Do you know how many sellers tried to give me counterfeits? How many were creased, stained, obviously only very good, or just good, not even worthy of an excellent? Damnit,” he glances at the rest of the cards mournfully. “These were near mint, possibly even mint. I don’t even know if another set like this exists.”
“These cards saved the world, Agent Coulson. One might think you’d feel pretty good about that fact.”
“I’d feel better, had they been signed,” Phil shoots back, checking for creases, trying to ignore the splatters and looking instead for overall signs of wear. “At least the red kept with the color scheme, I guess.”
“You do realize that, once you’re cleared, you’ll be working directly with the genuine article?”
“That’s not the point.”
“Then please, enlighten me,” Fury’s eyes narrow, impatient; “what is the point? Because all I’m seeing are some flimsy cardboard rectangles, star-spangled with propagandist nonsense about the frozen supersoldier we thawed out a few months back.”
Phil flips the very last red-blotted card out from the back of the stack in his hands—the last card released in the set, Number Forty-One: The Ultimate Sacrifice. He’d been unable to find that particular piece in anything better than Good Condition: no gloss, substantial wear—it wasn’t all that rare of a card, but in the wake of Captain America’s untimely demise, kids had taken that card and lived with it, loved it, beat it to hell in joy and rage and childish fervor. He’d scoured the Internet, deigned to attend more conventions that he’s willing to admit in front of the Director, here and now, but no luck—best he’d come across was a dealer selling an Excellent Mint that was nothing of the kind, too many scratches, and with a price tag that even an NRFB card couldn’t have pulled.
He’d all but given up, until after the Budapest debriefing, when a heavy pair of boots had paused for a second at his side, scuffed loudly, piercing against the tiling as a light bit of debris fluttered down to the table in front of Phil, who was organizing the last of the files before calling it a far-too-long-and-bloody day. When he looked up, the boots and their owner were gone, but in front of him, just atop his briefcase, was the card, #41, slight boxing around the edges but shiny, mostly-untouched, swathed in a card sleeve with the smeared-ink word remnants left behind where the stickered-on price had been torn off. Underneath the smudged Hungarian was sharp, sloppy handwriting on what was left of the tag: Don’t worry. I didn’t steal it.
“Had to grab this one, didn’t you?” Phil murmurs, swipes across the image with his fingertip in a vain attempt to wipe it clean, make it new again: unscathed. Fury quirks a brow at him and frowns, clearly desiring elaboration, but Phil’s feeling tired, drained, like the blade’s still lodged in his left lung, like the stitching never took and the pressure’s back again; the cold.
“Emotions, sir,” Phil gives him, and that’s all he’s going to offer, all Nick Fury deserves just now. He lets his index finger linger on one spot at the upper-right of #41, where whatever’s-so-red never quite dried, still presses tacky to his fingerprint. “They’re sticky.”
Fury breaks eye-contact, and Phil feels just a little bit vindicated, even as his chest aches: the wound, and something deeper all at once.
“Get some rest, Agent,” the Director’s voice cuts through the pain, but only really adds a different kind of burn. “We’d like you back on the job sooner, rather than later.”
Phil considers tossing a ‘sir’ in confirmation as he walks out, but he’s not here on official business, and frankly, he’s not feeling it. For the first time in his life, perhaps, he doesn’t give a shit about protocol, about deference, about duty.
He doesn’t quite know how he feels, about that.
As Coulson’s footsteps fade, new ones replace them; Nick knows these well.
“Hill,” he greets her with a bark. “Status update.”
“Six, twelve, seventeen, and twenty-nine have been secured, sir,” she informs him with due efficiency. “Eleven, eighteen, twenty-two, twenty-five, and thirty-seven are pending negotiation.”
“And number forty-one?”
“Still unaccounted for, sir,” Hill tells him. “But prospects remain promising.”
“Has he checked in?”
“Within the hour,” Hill confirms, a note of surprise to her tone. “Dunabogdány. Says he has a lead.”
“Number forty-one,” Nick mutters, wryly, cementing the dots he’d connected long ago. “Tell the Hawk to get a move on and stop lazing around in his goddamned nest. He’s got work to do.”
With that, Nick Fury takes his leave of the bridge and seeks out the scotch that Stark spends too much money on, and leaves far too unguarded in his quarters on the ship.