John likes to keep in touch with old army buddies. It’s always a bit awkward, because those who have done well have husbands or wives and kids and steady jobs, and they weren’t like him. Most of those who are like him are dead or living on the streets. He supposes that he’s lucky that he found Sherlock. Or Sherlock found him, whichever way you want to look at it. Although it’s difficult to convince himself of that when he wakes and walks past the empty bedroom and the sofa free of moping detective.
Philip Coulson was not exactly in the same sphere of contacts. Partly because he was clearly involved in some kind of undercover operation, but mostly because he was American, and the different country’s troops didn’t mingle much. Officially anyway.
John never knew what Coulson’s mission was, exactly, or why it involved the man tailing him everywhere, but what could have been a very irritating situation was made easy by the instant comradeship between the two of them. John was not only a doctor, but also a captain, and both titles brought a certain amount of awe and respect from his fellow men in arms. He’d been tailed before by various overeager young men, as a steadfast and dogmatic role model. Coulson had been different.
Besides the obvious differences - his country, his age, his proficiency - there was a more intangible reason why Coulson was the exception to the rule. The reasons why men fought for their country were wide and varied, and it rarely involved just fighting for their country. It was difficult to fight for a concept, full of people you hated as well as loved, politics you didn’t understand the depths of, and taxes that would, one day, drain you dry. But Coulson’s faith in America and the cause was unwavering. When most men said they’d lay down their lives, they meant for their families and their loved ones. When Coulson said it, he literally meant he’d die for his country.
John respected that. It was hard not to. It was also hard not to appreciate Coulson’s general level headedness. He had his moments of course. They all did. But he was one of the few soldiers John knew that, if he asked them to stick their fingers in a wound to hold the tissue in place, he could do so without barfing all over his shoes first.
They’d not exactly stayed in touch after John had been sent home, although they hadn’t maintained radio silence either. John’s blog had become pretty famous by the end of - well, Sherlock, and he had always been surprised but pleased to find a comment or a private message from one of the best soldiers he had ever led into battle.
So it came as a blow to hear that Coulson was one of the many hundreds who had died in the alien attack on Manhattan that had revealed the Avengers Initiative to the world. The Avengers. Honestly. This from the people who called themselves S.H.I.E.L.D. and faced opponents such as HYDRA. John almost felt embarrassed for them. The fact that the leader of the Avengers had turned out to be the original comic-legend Captain America just made the names even more ridiculous. (John said legend. He hadn’t heard of the guy until he’d met Coulson and the man had been horrified to learn of his ignorance. He’d since become very well informed of all of the Captain’s comic adventures.)
It was three weeks after learning of Sergeant Coulson’s death when he received a phone call from a Colonel Nick Fury.
“You’re being called in,” the man stated.
“With all due respect, sir,” John had bitten back. “I don’t answer to you. I was never under American command and I have received honourable discharge.”
“I could make it a dishonourable discharge,” the disembodied voice threatened. John turned to face where he knew one of Mycroft’s cameras was hidden and very purposefully rolled his eyes.
“No,” John argued, “I really don’t think you can. Now, how about I pass you over to my friend for a bit and, when you call back, you try asking nicely, hmm?”
The line cut out and John put the phone down, grinning a bit to himself. He probably looked a bit foolish, but it always had felt good to one-up the more heavy handed of their American allies. The man on the phone sounded very much like there were no threats he wouldn’t utter in order to get his way. John didn’t react very well to threats. Or blackmail. It was best to get that out there straight away, he supposed.
The phone rang again and John let it ring five times before picking it up.
“Understood, Dr Watson.”
“If this is a military-based request, I would ask that you refer to me as Captain, sir,” Again, John emphasised the title of respect in a way that let the man on the other end know that he did not respect him one iota.
“Captain,” Fury corrected himself. “Have you heard about S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers Initiative?”
“Do you mean in any other form than the disaster splashed across the headlines?” John asked.
“The publicity was hardly our fault that-”
“Excuse me,” John interrupted. “Do you have any idea how many potentially Earth-destroying alien invasions the British - let alone the Europeans - have quietly brushed under the carpet? And that’s without the use of the memory-altering device your foot soldiers flash left, right and centre. It is not difficult to keep things under wraps. Instead, you try and nuke a city. Good God man, and you call yourself a world power.”
“What about that incident with the spaceship and Big Ben?” Fury asked, clearly disgruntled.
“Widely accepted as an elaborate hoax. And those who are inclined to think otherwise, know to think otherwise. And the fact that you chose that incident, rather than, say, the one where the atmosphere was set fire to? Or when the entire planet was moved to the opposite end of the Universe and back? Really says something for our PR people. Maybe you should be talking to Mr Holmes again, rather than me?”
“That is not the issue at hand,” the man insisted, sounding more and more fed up. John bit back the urge to grin again, know it would show in his voice.
Instead, perfectly level, he replied, “No sir. So far as I can determine S.H.I.E.L.D. was supposed to be covert ops. No one outside of the agency should know about it without direct interaction. All I know about the Avengers is that they sound like they’d make an excellent sequel to the Captain America comic book saga.”
“Do you always show such little respect for authority?”
“No sir. Only when I’m blackmailed.”
“Justifiable, Captain. Apologies. You have been contacted in the understanding that you are the best available replacement for Agent Coulson.”
John considered for a long moment, keeping his breathing carefully measured. “Coulson’s not dead,” he remarked coolly, trying in vain to keep it from sounding like an accusation. He might not be able to read people like Sherlock had, but he damn well knew Military double-speak. “A man like you does not care how ‘available’ an asset is, unless they’re only temporary.”
“He’s not dead yet,” Fury corrected. “He’s currently in surgery and his chances of a full recovery are not high. There is, however, a chance.”
“If anyone can pull through, it’s Coulson,” John remarked, allowing a little humour colour his voice. “Damn, that’s good to hear.” It took him the meanest of moments to switch back to professional. “What was Coulson to the Avengers?”
“He was their handler,” Fury informed him coolly.
John waited a beat. “Let me get this straight. You had a single person as the link between you and six dysfunctional superheroes?”
“They’re not dysfunctional.”
“Believe me, sir, I’ve had enough therapy sessions to know dysfunctional when I see it.” He held his breath briefly to control the sigh that threatened. “What do you want from me?”
There was a pause over the line and, if Fury had been any other person, John would have assumed he was hesitating.
“Damage control,” was the dry response.