He comes from a secret place, far below the city streets, hiding his face from strangers, safe from hate and harm. He brought me there to save my life...and now, wherever I go, he is with me, in spirit.
The day that changed Phil Coulson's life forever started out perfectly normally, for a Friday. The coffee shop forgot to put a sleeve on his cup, as usual, so his fingers were stinging from the heat when he reached his desk. A file breeding program appeared to have been established overnight, leaving nowhere to put the cup except on top of a blue folder that he didn't recognise. The lid popped off as he set the cup down, sending a wave of coffee sloshing over the side to scald his fingers. Typical Friday-masquerading-as-Monday stuff.
Phil swore and dropped his briefcase, trying to flick the burning liquid away and dig around in a drawer for napkins at the same time.
Most people loved Fridays. The end of the week, the prospect of a weekend.
Somehow, Phil's Fridays were always more stressful than any other day of the week, and weekends never lived up to their promise.
He managed to find a stack of paper napkins and wiped his fingers, wincing a little, although no permanent damage had been done. The stinging had already stopped when he picked up the cup and tried to sponge off the file. It was flimsy cardboard and the coffee had soaked through.
Phil sighed and flopped down in his chair, still clutching the folder. He pushed a few papers aside and put the cup down on the corner of his desk. Coffee had soaked through the first few pages inside the folder, too, partially obscuring the words. He didn't recognise the letterhead on the first page or the name of the client, and the pages stuck together when he tried to turn them.
He was wiping at the top page, trying to soak away some of the coffee so he could read it properly, when someone knocked on his door.
It opened before he could respond. John Garrett never waited for anything as mundane as permission before he did something.
He hesitated for the barest fraction of a moment before striding forward, clearly surprised to see Phil sitting there. "Ah, Phil, glad I caught you--Tessa got our files mixed up when she was distributing last night. These are yours. II was worried you'd be going into court with the wrong documents today. You've got the Marshall appeal in an hour, right?"
Garrett held up a small stack of manila folders, and Phil smiled, shaking his head.
"I took the Marshall files home with me last night," he said.
"Of course you did." Garrett grinned and moved to the desk, throwing the folders down on top of Phil's groaning inbox. "Always over prepared; that's why you get the tricky cases."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
Garrett tried to affect a pious, solemn expression, but it never seemed to work on him, no matter how hard he tried. "I meant it as one."
"Hmm." Phil closed the blue folder and held it up. "Was this supposed to be yours, then?"
"I didn't recognise the client."
Garrett shrugged, another wide smile creasing his face. "They're new. Did you spill coffee on it?"
"This isn't turning out to be one of my better mornings."
"I can see that." Garrett glanced around. "I hope your dinner jacket is hiding somewhere, or your day is going to get a lot worse."
"My dinner jacket?" Phi's stomach sank. "My dinner jacket. It's at home."
Garrett snorted and began rifling through the files that had appeared on Phil's desk overnight, pulling out the ones Tessa had misplaced. "You need to get gussied up tonight, remember? The fundraiser. I even found you a date."
"You bet your ass I did."
Phil crossed his arms. He definitely did not pout. He was at least twenty years too old for that to be reasonable. "You promised not to set me up again."
"You can't go stag to a thousand-dollars-a-plate fundraiser."
Phil sighed, and Garrett's smile widened. He'd won and he knew it, and he was making sure Phil knew he knew it. If they hadn't been friends since law school, Phil would probably hate him a tiny bit right now. Instead, Phil allowed himself a moment's irritation at the smug grin, before mentally conceding that Garrett had a point.
Going to an event like that without a date would only leave him fielding questions about why he didn't have one, instead of making connections and schmoozing, which was the only reason to go to a thousand-dollars-a-plate fundraiser in the first place.
Phil had lost any illusions he'd had about his life years ago.
"Great, I'll tell Minnie that you'll send a car," Garrett said, with an obnoxiously wide smile.
"She's a great girl. You're going to love her."
Garrett saluted and sauntered out, closing the door behind him.
Phil stared at it for a minute, before saying, "I'm sending a car?"
To Phil's complete lack of surprise, Garrett had arranged the car for him. He'd arranged everything, as usual. He'd even anticipated that Phil wouldn't be ready to leave the office until the last minute, so the car picked him up there instead of at home. Phil's black tie and dinner jacket appeared on the back of his door while he was buying a sandwich for lunch. There was no chance of escape.
Not that he seriously considered escaping for more than a minute or two. Garrett was right about the importance of showing up and schmoozing at a fundraiser where half their biggest clients would be making appearances. It was good business practice.
And Garrett had been right about the importance of having someone on his arm, too, even though it made Phil feel uncomfortable. Some of their clients were deeply conservative. They liked to see a pretty woman on their lawyer's arm, instead of wondering what he was hiding by being there alone.
He'd suggested, once, that he could find his own date for one of these functions. Garrett had given him an odd look and laughed.
"Your taste probably doesn't fit with what any of our clients want," Garrett had said. "I'm not saying you couldn't find anyone, but our clients like to see their lawyers with a pretty girl. Not a pretty boy."
Phil hadn't dated anyone who could actually be termed "a boy" for a long time, but he understood easily enough.
Tonight's date, Minnie, was twenty years too young and very blonde. She was perfect.
She wasn't even being paid.
"John is my roommate's second cousin," Minnie said, as Phil nodded to the driver and they pulled out into traffic. "I think someone is once or twice removed in there, too? It's hard to keep track of that, isn't it?"
Phil smiled politely. "I don't have any cousins to keep track of."
Minnie's brown eyes softened. "Small family?"
"You could say that."
"Julie was right about you," Minnie said as they pulled up in front of the hotel where the fundraiser was being held. "You have the prettiest blue eyes."
"Um," Phil said, feeling his face heat.
Minnie laughed and patted his arm. "Don't worry; I'm not expecting a date-date. Julie explained. But I am getting an excuse to wear this dress, at last, and who says no to dinner and dancing when they're promised a date who won't turn into an octopus the moment you smile at them?"
She rested her hand on his arm as they entered the hotel, following the elegantly dressed crowd to the ballroom. Phil showed his invitation to the doorman, and Minnie gasped as they entered.
He'd forgotten the night's theme, and Garrett clearly hadn't explained much when he was inviting Minnie. The ballroom was decorated to resemble a fairy tale forest, from the tiny lights strung between potted trees, to the dinner tables set with shimmering table clothes. The chandeliers overhead dripped with tinsel that caught in the faint breeze, and the walls were hidden behind cloths painted with fantastical trees and creatures that Phil itched to examine more closely.
Even the waitstaff were part of the theme. Fauns and delicate fairies were serving champagne and finger food, weaving between the milling groups of the city's finest and wealthiest.
Minnie's smile was bright. "It's beautiful."
Phil discovered he was smiling, too. "It's to benefit a woodland trust, I think."
A heavy hand clapped Phil on the shoulder, startling him, and Garrett's voice boomed too loud in his ear. "Phil! Glad you could make it."
Phil rolled his eyes. "I didn't have much choice."
Garrett shrugged, unrepentant. His date had brown hair and pretty dimples, which described pretty much every woman Phil had ever seen Garrett with. He definitely had a type.
"If I didn't help you out," Garrett said, with one of his too-wide grins, "you'd be spending Friday night with a case file or whatever single guys do when they're being boring on a Friday night. Instead we're both here, we've got beautiful women on our arms, and that looks like Roger Timmins trying to catch our attention. Shall we?"
"Who is he?" Minnie whispered, as they followed Garrett and his date across the room.
Phil snagged two glasses of champagne from a faun as the walked. "Roger Timmins. He owns fifty restaurants on the eastern seaboard and he's one of our biggest clients."
"Oh," Minnie said, her eyes going wide. She accepted the champagne flute and sipped it. "Huh. Guess this isn't really a fun night out for you, is it?"
"It's more of a working night out," Phil said. "Feel free to desert me if you get bored."
"Can you dance?" Minnie asked.
"I haven't broken any toes since ninth grade," Phil said.
Minnie smiled. "Then as long as you take me out on that dance floor a few times, I can cope with a bit of work talk."
"I'll do my best."
Phil felt his shoulders relax slightly, and he was even able to smile almost sincerely when Timmins shook his hand so hard it that was a miracle his fingers didn't break.
The music grew steadily louder as the evening went on and the guests became drunker. There had been a speech after the dinner, completely unmemorable, which had been almost the only time all night when Phil was able to stay still and not think. When he finally sat down in a quiet corner for a few minutes, to rest his aching feet, his stomach was complaining bitterly about only getting a few bite-sized salmon things early in the evening.
Minnie was out on the dance floor with a senator. She seemed to be having fun, which eliminated the pangs of guilt that had been assailing Phil each time Garrett dragged him off to talk to someone else.
As though thinking of him had summoned him, Garrett materialised from the crowd, heading towards the corner Phil was sitting in.
Phil wasn't hiding there. He wasn't. He was resting. In an out of the way place where nobody was supposed to see him, or notice him, or talk to him.
Garrett pulled up a chair and sat down. "Phil! What are you doing over here? Alexander Pierce was just asking after you."
Phil didn't have the energy to smile. "I was taking a break."
"You can sleep tomorrow," Garrett said. "That's what Saturdays were made for. Come on, you should talk to Pierce before he leaves. We're this close to getting the rest of his business, but he won't do it if he can't talk to both of us. Come on, you know how good he'd be for the firm."
"I'm not sure..." Phil frowned. "I've heard some things about his business deals. Do we really need him?"
Garrett laughed. "Do we need him? What are you talking about? His business would put us on the map. We could rent another floor. Expand. You could have that great view we always talked about at law school."
"Is it worth sacrificing our principles, though? You know his reputation."
"He's a sharp businessman and he'll make us a lot of money."
Phil shook his head. "I don't like him."
"You don't have to like him. You just have to shake his hand and cash his cheques."
"And do his work."
"I'll do his work," Garrett said. "He just likes to meet all the faces. You'll barely know he's there."
The lighting was dim in their corner, but when he leaned forward, Phil could still see the flush in Garrett's cheeks and the way his eyes weren't focusing as sharply as they should.
"John, you're drunk," Phil said. "Everyone is drunk. Even Pierce probably isn't sober, and you know we'd advise clients not to sign anything unless they're sober."
"I'm not putting a contract in front of him right now," Garrett said, rolling his eyes. "Give me some credit, Phil."
Phil sighed. "If you're still determined to go after Pierce, I'll meet him next week. In the office. But I'm not comfortable with taking him as a client, and I'm not going to change my mind about that."
"You're a real party pooper sometimes, you know that, right?"
"I'm going home," Phil said.
"Just two minutes," Garrett said. "Shake his hand. Smile. Where's the harm?"
"I'll see you on Monday."
Garrett's expression darkened for a moment, but it was gone so fast, replaced with one of his wide grins, that Phil decided he'd imagined it.
"What about Minnie?" Garrett said.
Phil looked over at the dance floor, where Minnie was still dancing with the senator and seemed to be enjoying his company. There was a bright warmth in her face as she smiled at a joke, and the senator seemed equally smitten. As far as Phil could remember, the senator had a good voting record and his recent divorce had been an amicable split with an unusual--and welcome--lack of scandal attached. Even gossip in legal circles said that he was a good guy.
"I think she'll be fine," Phil said.
Garrett shook his head. "You're killing me here. Come on, two minutes to say hello, and then I'll let you go. I'll even throw in my car again."
"No," Phil said. Every word Garrett said only made the uneasy feeling lurking at the back of his mind grow stronger. "Good night, John. I'll see you on Monday."
Closing his ears to Garrett's final attempt to wheedle him into a meeting, Phil stood and walked away. He stayed in the ballroom long enough to make his apologies to Minnie, who didn't seem disturbed about her date's early exit, before collecting his coat and leaving.
The evening air was a cold slap in his face, and he took a deep breath of it, enjoying the sting of it in his throat. He'd only drunk a couple of glasses of champagne, and the cold blew away the last hint of fuzziness they'd brought.
A valet appeared at Phil's elbow before he'd taken more than two steps away from the hotel entrance.
"Do you have a car, sir?" he asked. "Or can I get you a cab?"
Phil thought for a moment. "A cab, please. Is there somewhere I should wait?"
"You could wait in the lobby," the valet said.
"It's a little stuffy in there."
"I guess you'll have to wait out here," the valet said. "I'm sorry, sir. I'll have a cab here in a couple of minutes."
Phil smiled and put a couple of bills in the valet's hand. "I'm enjoying the evening air. It's fine."
The valet bobbed his head and hurried away, no doubt to call whichever cab firm was giving him the right kickbacks. Phil tipped his head back to look at the sky, but it was cloudy and the stars were hidden. He stared up, anyway.
Sooner than he expected, the sound of a car pulling up caught his attention and Phil sighed. It really was a nice night. Just cool enough, with a breeze to cool his face and the promise of spring in the air.
The cab's window rolled down and a man's voice said, "Mr Coulson?"
Phil nodded and opened the door to slide into the back seat. He was closing the door when something struck him.
He hadn't given the valet his name.
That was the last thought he had for a while. Something sharp scratched his neck, and the world went fuzzy around the edges before fading into blackness.
Sounds returned. Muffled, too indistinct to make out words, but enough to tell Phil that he wasn't alone. He was lying on something hard, and his hands had been tied behind his back. After a while, Phil realised the surface under him was vibrating and rocking.
Engine sounds slowly separated from the muffled voices. A van.
Phil's head was hurting and his mouth tasted like something had died inside. The pain flared higher when he tried to move to relieve some of the pressure on his shoulders, and a wave of nausea made him breathe hard to keep from throwing up.
He hadn't drunk that much. No more than two glasses of champagne.
A sharp scratch.
The memory came back slowly. Someone saying his name who shouldn't have known it, followed by a scratch on his neck.
Had he been drugged? Why?
And why was he in a van?
Phil opened his eyes slowly. The light was dim, but he was able to make out the shape of two heavy boots not far from his face.
The boots shifted and someone pounded on something metal--a divider?--above him. The banging made him wince.
"He's waking up!" a rough voice said.
The reply was too muffled to understand, but it must have made sense to Boots. He settled and muttered, "Stay where you are."
At least three men, a van, a cab, and the resources to get some kind of sedative. Anyone who could arrange something like this was not someone Phil was going to argue with. He stopped trying to move against his bonds and closed his eyes.
Who were they? And who were they working for?
Phil hadn't pissed off any armed gangs lately--or ever, actually--so they had to have been hired by someone. He wracked his brain as the van rumbled on, but he couldn't think of a single name. Half his clients probably had the money to afford this, but he'd always done good work for them. Why would any of them order a kidnapping?
His personal life was boring enough that it was even less likely to be a source than his work. Unless an ex had been storing up resentment and capital for ten years, there was no one.
The van's rocking became wilder, as though they were driving over rough ground. It made Phil's head hurt and his stomach tried to crawl into his throat. He had to swallow hard and grit his teeth against the wave of nausea, and sweat prickled on his skin.
They lurched to a halt. Phil slid a few inches, his nose meeting one of the thug's boots with a painful crack. Warm blood gushed down his face.
Silence fell as the engine turned off with a sad rattle. So, these were not the kind of kidnappers who bought an expensive vehicle for their work. They'd probably abandon it somewhere as soon as they finished. Set it on fire and walk away.
A shiver ran down Phil's back. Set it on fire with him inside?
The van door opened and Phil squinted as someone shone a flashlight in his eyes. He hadn't seen any faces yet, only a pair of boots and a couple of hulking outlines.
"Get him out," a voice ordered.
Someone grabbed Phil under the arms and hauled him out of the van, throwing him roughly to the ground. Pain exploded in his shoulder as he landed with a sickening crunch. He cried out, he couldn't stop it, and there was a loud bark of laughter.
"There's some life in him, then," the voice said. "I thought you might have dosed him too high."
"I know what I'm doing," Boots said.
He sounded whiny and petulant. Phil tried to look up, blinking the stars out of his eyes, but he still couldn't make out more than dark outlines. They were wearing black clothes and ski masks, he realised.
"What do you want?" Phil asked.
It came out as a shaky whisper instead of the angry demand he was trying for. His throat was dry and sore.
The leader laughed. "Nothing. My employer is paying me very well to shut you up. The boys and I are going to have some fun, and then you won't be poking your nose into anything you shouldn't be looking at again."
Before Phil could say anything, do anything, a solid kick caught him in the gut and he gasped. More kicks came, too many of them, and he couldn't curl up or protect himself because they were coming from everywhere. His chest, his stomach, his sides, his legs. Pain blossomed everywhere and he lost track of what was happening.
He didn't even feel the first cut. The first swipe of a knife down his face. Not until the blood was flowing freely, running into his mouth. Choking him. Then it burned and the knife flashed, catching a reflection from a flashlight, as it cut his face again and again.
Phil couldn't catch his breath. His chest hurt every time he tried, his shoulder grated with every movement, and his face was on fire.
The pain was too much and he sank into the darkness of unconsciousness gratefully.