Clint once asked, “Do you know what it feels like to be unmade?” and the thing is, Coulson does.
Clint dreams at night of being trapped in his own body. Of having a mind that is not his pick him apart and lay him out flat. Of having someone else twist his thoughts and memories and feelings and fears and to make him a prisoner in his own mind. And Clint wakes up and he can taste bile in his mouth and he only knows what happened because of the security footage he watched on loop until Natasha told him to stop. Until Natasha took the tapes away and burnt them.
But Coulson dreams of spears. Of sharp metal slicing through ribs and sinew and lungs. Coulson dreams of his blood, too hot and too cold running down his back and his skin is on fire. The scepter is like ice on his skin, burning in its intensity, tingling like too much electricity. He feels it burn through his lungs and all he can think is it’s worth it.
There are tears in Thor’s eyes but Coulson knows they’re not for him. He’s mourning for his brother and his childhood and all the hope he has in that heart of his, impossibly large.
Coulson’s always believed in heroes. Captain America was his first love. Nick Fury talks of heroes and hope and saviors and Coulson believes because he has to. Because the world is dark and scary and Coulson has seen a small town in New Mexico destroyed in a single afternoon and that wasn’t even one of the worst things he’s seen. Coulson believes in heroes and he’s on an invisible helicarrier and he is a casualty of sibling rivalry and confused love.
When the world goes dark he can feel Loki’s magic prickling under his skin and Coulson thinks enough and it’s time for peace now because he knows what a martyr is, never wanted to be one but knows that sometimes the price you have to pay is blood.
Coulson feels the magic prickle under his skin and his body doesn’t feel like his own and when his heart beats he can feel it touching the ghost of metal under his ribs.
When Nick Fury gives him back his trading cards, they’re covered in his own blood, and Coulson’s not sad that they’re ruined, not sad that Nick cares more about results than feelings. His own blood stains his fingers and the one thing he loved most and Coulson can feel the spear, too close to his heart, magic burning into his flesh, and thinks maybe Loki didn’t miss. Thinks that Nick got what he wanted and that everyone came together and everything worked out but he was the price to pay.
Nick tells him that he is dead, that no one can know, that the world is safe. Coulson hears the for now and tries not to think of possibilities.
And Coulson still believes in heroes but he doesn’t think he believes in SHIELD. He thinks that he’s given everything he has and Nick is still asking for more and now Phil has to bury his mother, so close to her seventieth birthday, and that he has to bury his niece, so close to her ninth.
He takes six months off and he can still feel the magic crackling under his skin and he wonders what it means. Coulson thinks that maybe he’s alive for a reason and Coulson thinks that he’s just another piece of rubble left in Loki’s wake and Coulson thinks that there are no right answers, not anymore.
After Coulson goes back to work and does his job and thinks that his bed is too cold at night. And sometimes he thinks that he should have died that day because Nick’s as good as killed him anyways. But the Avengers don’t work without anything to avenge, and Phil’s become a symbol when all he ever wanted to be was good at his job.
Coulson knows that one day Clint is going to find him. That the Council will understand that the world needs the Avengers and that SHIELD will give Clint and Natasha carte blanche and that they are too smart to be fooled by Nick’s lies forever. Coulson knows that Clint is going to find him, and that used to be the one thing that kept him going on the bad days, but now it haunts him like a ghost.
Coulson knows that he can’t really be forgiven for this, that some lies are too big. And Coulson thinks he knows how it feels to be unmade, but he’s always believed in heroes. Coulson dreams of dying and thinks that there’s no way to come back from this, that he is the price that has to be paid.