It all begins the day after the event in Los Angeles, the one where somebody (Fury still doesn’t know who) didn’t get all the footage of one Agent Phillip J. Coulson scrubbed off the Internet. The highlight of that particular morning is the part where Steve Rogers storms into headquarters demanding answers and sounding like he’s just lost his mind. Fury’s inclined to let the agents witnessing that spectacle to come to their own conclusions about Captain America’s sanity. Fury rides out the moment, finishing giving Hill and Sitwell their orders for the day before manhandling Rogers into his office, with Rogers spluttering like a fish out of water.
“Just between you and me, everybody witnessing your little breakdown out there is just going to have it reinforced you have issues,” Fury said, shoving Rogers toward a chair before turning to shut and lock the door. “Now, I could say you had a hallucination, but we both know that isn’t true.”
“When were you going to tell us Coulson was alive?” Rogers demanded.
“In my good time,” Fury said. “It’s not something you needed to know right now, and your security clearance isn’t high enough. Damn it, I wonder if retcon will even work on you?”
Rogers’s glare is enough to derail the SHIELD director’s train of thought.
“So far, you’re the only one that knows, and we’re going to keep it that way,” Fury snapped.
“I told you—you didn’t need to know,” Fury said. “Coulson’s current assignment is of the utmost importance, and if another Avenger finds out, I don’t care how, you’re going back on ice.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Rogers said.
“Piss me off, and I just might,” Fury said. “Now that you know, keep it to yourself. You’ve got your own job to do, and so does Coulson.”
“How is he even alive?”
“Way above your security clearance, soldier,” Fury said. “Rogers, go home. I have enough on my plate to deal with today without adding Avenger hissy fits to the list.”
“I’m just supposed to keep it to myself he’s alive?”
“Yes,” Fury said. “Is that too much to ask?”
“No,” Rogers said, rising. “But you didn’t have to threaten me. I can keep a secret.”
“I’m counting on it,” Fury said.
Two weeks later, after a nasty op in Vancouver, Phil Coulson thinks he’s hallucinating when he sees someone who looks suspiciously like Steve Rogers helping pull civilians out of the rubble of the building that just collapsed. He’s bloody, and he hit his head hard, but not that hard, right? Why, out of all the people in the world, would he hallucinate Steve Rogers? Wanda, he could understand, his last serious relationship, the cellist he’d told Pepper about. But no, the blond across the street currently helping Fitz to his feet looks very much like Captain Spangles, as Stark calls him. Then Coulson is on his knees, vomiting up blood, and everything goes dark.
Three weeks later, Coulson and his team are in London breaking up an alien tech-trafficking ring when they receive word that the Avengers are assembled in Moscow, fighting an enemy codenamed Winter Soldier and what the media is calling “HYDRA-zombies.”
Coulson and the team are ready to hand off their clean-up to another team and head to Moscow. Fitz and Simmons are foaming at the mouth to get their hands on a real zombie, Ward and Skye just want to see the Avengers in action in person, and Mae is the one that breaks the tension and kills their excitement—they’re to stand down, and head to Sao Paulo for a few days. And, Coulson finds, there is nothing in Brazil for them but a few days of enforced R and R. He’s not about to argue with Fury, and he’s a good soldier, so they head to Sao Paulo without looking back.
But, as usual, Fury is right, and a few days of downtime is exactly what his team needs. They bond over food, the beach, and staying out too late, and it’s late on the evening of the fifth day, when Coulson is sitting alone on the beach near their hotel, when he thinks he’s hallucinating again. Except this time the hallucination comes over and sits down beside him on the sand.
“Y’know, Fury is going to kill me when he finds out,” Rogers said, reaching into his shirt pocket, pulling out a familiar deck of cards. “I signed these, each and every damned one. I’m sorry I couldn’t get all the blood off, but I decided it was worth the trouble to come down here and give them back in person.”
Coulson took the cards, dumbfounded. “How long have you known?”
“Since I saw the footage of what happened in Los Angeles,” Rogers said. “Fury’s been very careful since then. Everyone still thinks you’re dead.”
“And what did the director threaten you with if you reveal the secret?” Coulson asked.
“He said he’d put me back on ice,” Rogers said.
“Fury could do it if he wanted,” Coulson said. “Why take the risk of making contact?”
Rogers snorted, shrugging. “I really don’t know,” he said. “It just made sense, considering the past few days.”
“We’ve seen footage of part of the Moscow battle,” Coulson said.
“But do you know how it ended?” Rogers said, shoulders suddenly slumping.
“No,” Coulson said. “What happened?”
“That assassin—the one the Russians called the Winter Soldier—it was Bucky, my best friend, Bucky Barnes. He didn’t die when he fell off that train. . .the Russians found him and used him in their own experiments to try and develop a super soldier serum. He got away, and Fury forbade me from looking for him, so here I am.”
“Captain Rogers, I’m sorry,” Coulson answered, slipping an arm around the other man.
It’s a month before Coulson sees Rogers again, and in that time, he’s wanted to have words with Fury about his Captain America cards, but he keeps his silence. Fury probably knows Rogers made contact, and he doesn’t want to create more friction between super soldier and SHIELD director. This time, they’re in Toronto, investigating Rising Tide, and in the process, Skye goes missing. Three days she’s gone, and when they find her, she doesn’t remember a thing between getting grabbed and being found.
Coulson barely keeps his rage in check because of what’s been done to a member of his team, and between taking care of Skye and reassuring the rest of his team after an unsettling affair, he’s trying not to come undone. The appearance of Steve Rogers at the bottom of the plane’s ramp doesn’t do much for his temper, but he walks down to see what the super soldier wants anyway.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Coulson said.
“Doesn’t change the fact I’m here,” Rogers answered.
“Fury must not be keeping you busy enough,” Coulson said.
“Fury can go to hell,” Rogers said.
Coulson ignored the jab. “How did you even know how to find the plane?”
“Jarvis is a great help,” Rogers said, a wry grin on his face.
“You’re treading on dangerous ground, Rogers,” Coulson said.
“I trust Jarvis,” Rogers said. “I don’t understand why Fury just doesn’t come clean. I know you’ve got a new team, but you should come back to the Avengers.”
That gave Coulson pause. “Sitwell isn’t working out?”
“He isn’t you,” Rogers said.
“It’s not that simple,” Coulson said.
“It is,” Rogers said. “What’s Fury hiding now, that he doesn’t want you around us?”
“Captain, I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Coulson said.
“Fine,” Rogers said, but he wasn’t looking at Coulson. He was looking past the agent, who turned around. Skye was at the top of the ramp, watching them with interest.
“Is that the girl that went missing?” Rogers asked.
“Yes,” Coulson said.
“Will she be all right?”
“I think so,” Coulson said.
“See you around, Coulson,” Rogers said, walking away.
Coulson watched him go, and suddenly Sky was beside him. “Was that?”
“Yes,” Coulson answered.
“And you just blew him off. Are you crazy?”
“Skye, you’re supposed to be resting,” Coulson said.
“I will. Later,” she said.
“Don’t want to be alone, do you?” Coulson asked.
“Not really,” Skye said.
“C’mon. I’ll sit with you a while,” Coulson said, linking his arm with hers.