“Indefinitely. Maybe permanently.” Fury was still looking over the paperwork declaring Phil Coulson dead. There was a lot of paperwork involved in a civilian death; SHIELD, as always, took it to an art form. “As valuable as you are to the Initiative, we may never reach a point where bringing you back in won’t cause more more trouble than it settles. And this is not a group of assets we can afford to trouble.”
The fact that he couldn’t look him in the eye while discussing it was not lost on his decidedly living agent. Phil folded his arms. “In that case, sir, I’d prefer to decline the agency’s relocation assistance.”
That got his attention. Fury looked up, eyebrow arched. “You know we’re not just going to drop your ass somewhere in the midwest with a suit and a Civic, right? You’ll have final say on anything we set up.”
“I know.” Phil rocked back on his heels a bit. “But, realistically, the... assets in question, with all due respect, trust you about as far as they could throw you. Significantly less than that, in some of their cases. In fact, I think the ones who could throw you furthest trust you least.”
“You think they’ll catch on.” It wasn’t phrased as a question. Nick didn’t have to phrase a lot of things as questions with Phil anymore.
Phil let his arms drop. “I think they’ll start nosing around sooner rather than later, and having even that little bit of data in-house seems like an invitation to disaster. Left to my own devices, I can get off the grid within 48 hours, possibly much less. I’ll stay in touch with you through personal, non-agency channels, and everything will look a lot tidier if anybody goes snooping.”
His director’s lips pressed tight in what few people but Phil would recognize as a smile. “You realize how bad off we’re going to be around here without you?”
“If it’s anything like what happened after I went down, sir, I think you’ll be just fine.”
“Alright.” Fury signed a couple of the papers, and put the rest aside. “According to all our internal documentation, you’re gone. Your family had you cremated and asked not to be contacted.” He sat back, appraising Phil carefully. “It’s been an honor, Agent Coulson. We hope to have you back soon.”
“I hope so too, sir.” Phil smiled warmly -- the only person in this whole damn operation who ever did, Fury thought to himself -- and turned to go.
He turned back. “Sir.”
“How much do you trust me?”
“As far as my knowledge of this agency will allow, sir.”
“Take care of yourself, Phil.”
Phil, clad in khaki cargo shorts and a blue t-shirt, looked down at the notepad in his hand. It held three pages of cross-referenced paper sources, printing sources, ink companies, IP addresses, proxy server settings, phone numbers, and one bold print address scribbled across the bottom. Then he looked up at what appeared to be an abandoned barber shop in the shitty part of Wichita. This was the place.
A cursory investigation of the empty shop led him to a back room, which in turn had a door that led to a basement. At the bottom of the stairs was a third door -- reinforced metal, with six visible deadbolt locks.
Definitely the place. Phil wasn’t certain he could even see the grid from here.
He knocked three times on the door, paused, two more, paused, then four. He could just barely hear muffled voices from inside, and what sounded like a peephole being slid open. The locks disengaged one by one, and the vault-like door swung wide open.
Melvin Frohike grinned widely, looking back over his shoulder. “Hey guys, I found a narc on the doorstep. Can I keep it?”
Two more heads popped out from behind a massive server rack, both breaking into wide smiles. “Coulson? Seriously?” Langly bounded over, wrapping Phil in a tight hug, Byers close behind. “Shit, man, what’s it been, two years? Where the hell have you been?”
Phil returned their smiles as he stepped over the threshold, pushing the door closed behind him. “Manhattan, actually.”
“Called it.” Langly raised a hand while Byers stepped up to clap Phil appreciatively on the shoulder. “I so called you being in on that. That shit doesn’t happen without somebody knowing about it. You want a beer or something?”
Phil stretched his arms, pulling up a computer chair nobody appeared to be using. “Beer sounds great, thanks. And we just barely did. You’d never believe the comedy of errors that led up to that fight. How much did you guys get?”
“Not much past the media coverage.” Byers leaned on the server rack. “Ton of protocol paperwork from the Army, a little in the Bureau. Almost all reactive, though, after the fact, autopsies on the invaders, stuff like that.”
Langly reached over Phil’s shoulder from behind with an open bottle of some local microbrew or another; Phil took a long swig. “So you guys missed Iron Man pulling a reverse Dr. Strangelove through a wormhole to the other side of the universe, then?”
The room went silent.
Phil grinned, pointing at Frohike. “You put the eggs on and I’ll talk.”
He sat contentedly back from his plate, watching the third serving of huevos rancheros slide onto it. “That’s the last of the eggs,” Frohike announced. “So unless you want me to just slosh some salsa around in a frying pan for you, you’re cut off. Try calling ahead next time.”
Phil snorted. “Are you shitting me? I had to relearn high school trigonometry just to find you bastards. If I’d called you’d have just moved.” He dug into the eggs.
“So--” Langly leaned his chair back, legs dangling. “--your boss told your team you were dead so they’d quit bitching and save the world. I’m glad the planet’s safety is in such reliable hands.”
Phil shrugged. “Wasn’t my call. I wouldn’t have made it. I still say they’d have pulled together once it hit the fan. And they will again, if it’s needed.” He took another swig from his beer. “Stark’s not nearly the bastard he wants people to think he is. It’s all emotional armor. I have no doubt he’d play ball once it got that serious. He’s pretty much adopted Banner, so where Iron Man goes, Hulk will follow, and there’s no real question about the rest of them. They may not always be there for SHIELD, but they’ll be there for the world.”
Byers shook his head. “We have got to get a finger on these Security Council guys. What you’ve gotten us has been great, but they’re good at keeping things changing, and you’re going to be out of that loop for God knows how long.”
“Unfortunately. I told Fury I’d be replanted in 48 hours, but realistically I’ve got a few days. I was thinking coastal Maine, but anywhere semi-rural and not overly warm would be nice.”
Langly waved a hand dismissively. “On it. Got anything you’d like to do?”
Phil tilted his head. “After babysitting six of the biggest egos in the galaxy for a couple of years? I could go for librarian.”
“Pretty much looks like that’s what you’ve been doing, yeah. I’ve met bloodhounds with less bags under their eyes.” Frohike jerked his head back towards the cramped bedrooms. “We never all sleep at once, so you can crash out if you want. We’ll get you something to check into a motel room with tomorrow night.”
Phil ran a hand through his hair, standing up. “That sounds better than it should. Don’t let me inconvenience you, though, wake me up if you need me to skedaddle.”
Byers smiled. “I promise you’ll know as soon as you’re a bother, Phil. Go get some rest. You definitely need it.”
And, well, the bed was crap, the blankets thin, and the room cold. But he was full and mildly buzzed, and if he could relax safely anywhere in the world, it was here. Tomorrow he’d be off the grid, starting over, a new man, but for tonight, Phil allowed himself to relax in the company of friends.