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There’s something not right.

He can’t put his finger on it, but something is subtly off, and it frustrates the hell out of him.

He’ll lose track of things sometimes, not often, but occasionally, and when he does he’ll jerk back to himself with a shock, Tahiti in the forefront of his mind.

It was better there, he thinks. Easier to recover when he wasn’t trying to pick up pieces of the life he laid down.

It irritates him though, the gaps. The way that muscle memory doesn’t work like it used to. He’s not used to his mind, his body being a fallible instrument. He misses the days he could rely on it – when loading a gun was second nature and not a chore that he embarrasses himself with more often than not.

The new team helps, though even they grate on him sometimes. He collects Avengers action figures, and when he lines them up in his quarters, he isn’t quite sure why he doesn’t contact the team.

In the end, in desperation, he goes back to Tahiti. It is nothing like he remembers, but it is a magical place in its own way. It’s transformative at least, and everything slots into place and he realises.

He’s only there for a couple of days, a short enough span of time that he doesn’t have to explain his absence to anyone who might count. He gets the sense that it’s important that he hides it, and he certainly doesn’t bother telling them he’s worked it out. Why should he? They know already, and if they knew he’d become aware, well… He doesn’t trust them not to reboot him, leaving him as lost as he was before, new memories of Tahiti blocking what has happened to him.

That is a risk he has to anticipate now that he’s this.

Consciousness uploaded to a life model decoy – it’s not life, it’s not human, and he’s fairly damn sure he has no rights.

In any case, he chooses not to push the issue.

He might be nothing but the echoes of someone who was once alive, but, by god, he can work with that. He’s worked with less before. So he puts up and shuts up, and he stays at SHIELD because he likes it, because it’s all he has.

He starts to collect the Avengers’ merchandise in earnest, sells off his Captain America collection to fund it. He prefers Hawkeye and the Black Widow these days, and smiles when he realises that. It’s the first preference he can identify that is his rather than Coulson’s.

That becomes something of an obsession.

Coulson, he feels, is like his father. Like yet not like. His creator, but not his future. He’d go so far as to say that what he’s feeling is akin to teenage rebellion, and he takes a vicious pleasure in distancing himself from the man who came before.

It might not be healthy, but, he decides after a long, sleepless night, it’s natural. All things that live want to shape their own identity, and now he knows he has a chance to do so.

The only thing that comes as a shock is the first time he meets Hawkeye, and somewhere in between his tongue tying itself in awestruck knots, and his desperate attempts to wrack Coulson’s memories for something he can use to put him off the scent he sees something break in Hawkeye’s face.

Even then, it’s not till after he’s visited by the Black Widow that he understands: Coulson had a relationship with Hawkeye – with Clint – and somehow he kept it hidden from SHIELD. So well hidden that it didn’t form part of the memories they used to create him.

He can’t explain, doesn’t dare, and so he has to watch Hawkeye leave with a stoop in his shoulders that he doesn’t recognise. He wants – more than anything – to reach out, and he curses himself for a coward and a fool when he doesn’t.

He avoids the Avengers after that, and he’s retained enough of Coulson’s skills that he manages to do so successfully. It’s a shame – he’d talk to JARVIS if he could. He suspects that JARVIS might be the only one who could understand him now.

He needs to know who did this – to work out what happened to Coulson. Maybe then he can have closure, move on with who he is now.

It’s a magical place, he says, whenever he has the chance, and watches to see who flinches.

Too many of them, he decides. So he bides his time and waits. He’ll do this – for Coulson, whose echo he is, for Barton, whose heart he broke, but mostly, mostly for himself. Whoever he is.