Stars Bright and Unending

May 25, 2018:

One of Phil Coulson's ghostly fugues takes him to the terrace of one Emma Frost. Her unique gifts give her a lot of insight into the state of the spy's spirit.

Emma Frost's House

A vision of beauty.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Tony Stark, Nakano Rin, Rocket Raccoon, Agent 13

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

It is a quarter to four in the morning.

Emma quietly entered her penthouse home approximately three hours ago, took a long bath and a few ibuprofen to offset the long tennis lesson she’d taken in the afternoon, and then went to bed.

The warmth of the late spring has been a delight tonight, and the mistress of this home has actually opened the doors onto the terrace in both the living room and the bedroom so that the breeze—carrying the light scent of the white jasmine’s first spring blooms—can filter in as it pleases. It sets the lightweight white sheers to dancing before it, creating a light show of sorts when those sheers catch and diffuse the light from the landscaping spotlights in her garden.

Not that Emma can appreciate either the visuals or scents. She was asleep before her damp hair had even finished drying.

Curled up in her nest of satin sheets and pillows, she’s very comfortable.

And alone.

Warmth and beauty and sweet scents.

Then the temperature drops. And drops. It drops enough that it's possible to mist the air with one's breath.

Someone is here. A mind. A familiar mind, but it might take a moment to identify it.

Once that mind was an orderly stack of file cabinets. Every thought arranged and organized, precise and chosen. When she'd taught him psychic defenses, it had become a series of locked file cabinets. Not impossible to breach, but not easy to. It was a place of perfect serenity.

Now it is as if someone or something has come through and blown every lock. Kicked every cabinet onto the floor, scattered every file. Some of the file cabinets are destroyed. Some files simply missing. Thoughts that don't belong together swirl and don't make sense.

Which is why the predominant emotion in the mind seems to be…confusion. An emotional state that can only be described as out of it. And occasionally, in flashes, distressed. Like a drowning swimmer trying to claw to the surface of deep waters. Trying to make sense of anything.

It's out on the terrace, the mind, bringing the chill with it. Some of the flowers die in response to it being here, withering.

He doesn't mean to do that. He doesn't even know where he is, or why he's here. He just stands there, or rather exists there, trying to find the files that will help him.

Emma doesn’t immediately stir. It’s not an uncommon sensation for a presence to intrude upon her sleep; it’s part of why she hates being anywhere overly crowded. Thoughts and dreams liken themselves to the uninterrupted drone of a television left on in another room. Occasionally, she gets dragged in. Usually, it just drones on.

Her security system—freakishly advanced for a woman who hates technology so much—doesn’t stir, either. The hair-trigger sensors and lasers continue to scan the terrace, blind to the fact that someone is indeed there. In a sense, anyway.

Phil Coulson’s presence coalesces, unseen entirely…

…Until one blue eye cracks open and turns its gaze blearily towards the terrace. That, its owner concludes a long moment later, is not the tightly-wound-until-they’re-drunk couple downstairs.

She slips out of her satin sheets, pulls her silk robe over her negligée, slips into her kitten-heeled bedroom slippers, and then begins to move in that direction. “Who’s there?” she murmurs as she moves just close enough to the French doors that she gets lost in the wafting sheers.

The thoughts are unsorted and unfamiliar in their present arrangement.

“I know someone’s there,” she continues, her voice suspicious as it rises in volume. “I can hear you thinking.

The invisible presence starts. And for a moment it just feels confused. Then something swirls out of the mess. Recognition. Relief. Some of the chaos steadies.

Emma?

There's no visible manifestation. The chill remains, and a particular spot of cold is just kind of there, right in front of her. But Phil Coulson's mind voice is clear enough. Death doesn't change that. Nor the rueful chagrin that touches it.

In life, a man who was rarely anywhere he didn't want to be. In death?

Where are we? Where is this? I'm sure I've never seen it before.

Emma steps out of the door, her head ducking low as she peers out onto the terrace with a furrowed brow. There’s the quiet whir of servos as cameras suddenly hone in on her movement, identify their mistress, and then quietly hum and descend back into their sleepless slumber.

Phil?” Her tone is, understandably, a little incredulous.

Against the unexpected chill, she pulls her thin robe closer. The death of her flowers missed, masked in shadow on the lee side of a spotlight. Her heels click against the brick and concrete and stone under her feet, even as a manicured hand reaches up to put tousled curls into some semblance of order over her shoulders.

“Welcome to my home. You seem to be missing something, however.”

You know. Like a body.

A flash of amusement.

You know me. Always leaving those around.

The mild joke is tinged with pang of the kind of rueful sadness he has often displayed whenever he treads into gallows humor. One could almost imagine him sliding his hands into his pockets and displaying that Cheshire Cat smile.

And, with the mild-mannered gentility that also marks him: I'm sorry. I must have disturbed you. I don't…always…

He hesitates, not sure how to articulate anything.

At last:

I keep losing time. Keep ending up in strange places. Everything's fragmented. Disjointed. Being dead is weird.

Disturbed? Emma closes her eyes, shakes her head, and shrugs the concern away.

They reopen, pale eyes, but with the strange otherness of her psychic ilk as the blonde tries looking through things on the astral level for a point where Coulson’s consciousness centers. “I think it’s a telling mark of my life that what you just said is not the strangest statement I’ve ever heard.”

There’s a pause and then — whether or not she finds the cardinal direction in which to offer what comes next — the woman chuckles. “I could ditch mine, too, if that would make you feel more at home. Unfortunately, since I can’t offer you tea or bourbon, that’s likely the extent of my offerings as a hostess. Shameful, that. Tsk, tsk on me.”

She whispers, “But, if there’s a variety of spirit that spirits prefer, you’ll need tell me. I’ll be certain to keep it on hand for just such an emergency as this.”

On the Astral he stands there same as ever.

Mostly. He's dressed in what they buried him in. Sometimes it's just coated in blood. Sticky lines of it are on his face where he might have touched his own head. If one looked closely they'd see his ripped up heart eternally pumping out his life's blood all over the crisp, white fabric. The hole in his stomach joins that gruesome symphony in a more sluggish fashion.

But that's when he loses concentration. He exercises it for a moment, and all that nastiness is gone. He gives her a wan smile, able to sense that she can see him now. Without him having to expend the very real energy to make her see him.

The cardinal direction is directly in front of her. And like this, he can just speak. "You've always been an incredible hostess, but no need. Bodies really are pretty great. I don't want to detach anyone else from theirs."

A quirk of his lips.

"You know? One of the first things I tried to do after learning I was dead was get a drink. Turns out there's no such thing as ghost-Bourbon. I feel like this is a vast oversight on the Almighty's part. The company's enough. It's easier around friends."

“One oversight among many,” Emma says caustically on the matter of God, although her dry half-formed laugh gives as much commentary as her quip.

Stepping out more fully onto the terrace with her long and swaying stride with her robe alternating clinging and trying to flee her form in the chilled breeze, the telepath’s eyes narrow a moment as she surveys him. Senses him, over and through. And then she unhurriedly takes a deep breath before tilting her head in the direction of the other set of doors that lay open before them. “Come on. No need to stand outside like a pair of Bohemians. And then we’ll talk as long as you can.”

“Thank you.”

He doesn’t float. He walks. Sort of. It’s a semblance of it. Walking is how he has always gotten around and it works for him now.

When he realizes they’re right in her bedroom his transparent cheeks color.

But he decides he is just not going to call any more attention to it than that. Gently: “How are you, Emma? As best as I can tell things seem to be getting scarier than ever out there.”

She doesn’t need to see the blush. She feels it as she disappears back through the sheers and ends up on the other side. And, with her back turned, maybe she’s safely hidden away as the corner of her mouth twitches up a small degree.

It’s dark, and most of the light comes in from outside. There are the dim shapes of her furniture, save the sheen of her bed’s dressings and the bright silver of several mirrors about the room.

She wasn’t going to linger, but… Hey. How often can you really tug at a dead guy’s chain? Not often. That’s how often. Best not to waste these opportunities when they come. Not to mention, there are certain… practicalities of this exercise that might come along. Best to also be prepared.

Her form sways in the direction of a tiny accent light set upon her vanity. And then she promptly settles herself like the Queen of Sheba upon a settee tucked in a corner of the sprawling expanse of the room with a Louis bergère tucked up beside it. They—like everything else—are nothing if not a testament to luxury and indulgence, swathed in pristine white velvet and painted with an antiqued white finish.

She makes herself very comfortable in her domain, slipping out of her shoes and pulling up her feet beside her as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Her hand indicates the chair.

She also pointedly ignores his question. Or maybe she didn’t hear it?

“So. Who else have you been visiting, my dear Mister Coulson? How have you been spending the time?”

That sense of never-ending blush deepens. And deepens. And deepens.

You know that phrase? I'm blah blah blah, not dead? Usually said when viewing a beautiful woman or a handsome man?

Apparently that phrase is bull. Even being dead isn't always an aid.

Coulson sits, and for a moment her question produces confusion. He sifts through the files. "I think maybe only Agent Nakano," he says slowly. "I think. I had information that could help her. I remember meeting Jim. He's dead too. Jim is helpful, but I haven't seen him. I feel Tony just constantly. Like he's always around. Poking at me."

Dryly:

"I never see him though. It might be Post-Tony Stress Syndrome."

It’s all fun, until…

Until there is confusion on the part of the wayward. It’s not the best sign.

Jim isn’t a name she recognizes, but Nakano is. That’s mildly reassuring.

Emma’s lower lids lift marginally, scrutinizing and appraising. It passes a beat afterwards, and she smiles. “He certainly can put even the most zen among us to the test,” she concedes readily about Stark.

“To be completely honest,” for once, “I am rather surprised you’re…” She gestures vaguely at her spirit guest. “…cohesive. I would chalk it up to my excellent training, but this isn’t precisely a chapter we covered, now is it?”

Her fingers come up to distractedly twist a curl between them. “How do you feel?”

__

Phil Coulson is often a stoic sort. He is disinclined to worry others. He tends to handle his own business, to keep his hurts and fears to himself, save for when his temper frays. He believes it is his job to guide and help others, not to be helped, and he conducts himself accordingly.

And though his face doesn't change out of that mild smile, there's no hiding his feelings here. Deep fear flashes through him, and for a moment it's like he's ready to cry. It's all pushed down with a spy's training that seems to hold even in the afterlife, but…

He's in pain as if he had a body, and the question draws attention to it. A flash of that can whisper in Emma's mind.

And he tries to figure out how to describe it.

"I don't—"

He hesitates.

"I'm not sure—"

And then, finally, softly: "I think something's not right. I think I'm not right. Thinking is hard. I keep feeling yanked, this way or that, and then it's like I'm in a fog for days at a time, weeks at a time. I am not always this cohesive I think. I'm not sure what's happening."

He holds his head for a moment.

"And the stars, Emma. God, the stars. So many stars. Beautiful and agonizing all at once. Sometimes it's nothing but the stars."

What?

What, indeed. A artfully sculpted eyebrow arches, confessing wordlessly Emma’s deep concern and unyielding skepticism.

Her fingers twirl filaments of pale spun gold as she continues contemplating. She doesn’t realize perhaps that her mouth has slowly resolved into a frown for the effort, but there is it, all the same. In all of its unpainted glory.

But when he speaks of celestial bodies… Her features crinkle into an expression that seems equal parts surprise, bewilderment, arrogance, and disbelief. “The stars?”

It’s not unusual for there to be something that she herself has not experienced. He’s come to reside in his Otherworld by a means with which she—admittedly—has very little desire to experiment.

In lieu of her duplicating his precise exit, she asks him but a single question: “Phil, darling, do you know where your body is?”

The stars? She asks, and he nods fervently. He sends her an image. In this state, it is easy.

Swirling purple-white nebulas. Stars that streak by endlessly. Points of light that wink in and out, flickering here and there, sometimes bringing bursts of pain, sometimes producing no feeling, sometimes producing odd bursts of what would be endorphins, had he a body. Sometimes they're nauseating. Dizzying. The deep Void stretches beyond them, ancient and endless and cold. Sometimes so beautiful he wants to weep. Sometimes he hears music beyond them, a song of something lost, forever lost.

But then she asks about his body.

"No…" Phil says, shaking his head. "I'd assumed someone buried it. It hadn't occurred to me to go looking."

He tilts his head thoughtfully. Was this a thing that should have occurred to him? Then again, as out of it as he's been…well.

"Why, where is it?" He assumes she knows, even if he does not.

Emma’s eyes open emphatically wide as she shrugs. “Not where someone intended for us to believe it went,” she tells him with a certain care. As someone who has unfortunately intimate experience with being cleaved out of a temporal form, she can be sensitive in that regard.

But not all of her business delivery is gone from the statement.

“What was at your funeral was an LMD, I am given to understand by several persons. And… a talking furry… thing.” The blonde’s frown deepens as her head drifts to one side. “It was a very strange funeral in some regards.”

Then she heaves a weary sigh. “If your body is somewhere and in a condition to be occupied, you should absolutely do that. You might have gotten… knocked loose by the trauma you experienced, but consciousness and corporeal form are typically tethered. Psychics and telepaths, advanced practitioners of various arts, we can view that tether as… a bungee cord, for lack of a better analogy. Stretch ourselves from the anchor point. Get far enough away, the tether can break. You can lose track of where your body went. I have absolutely no idea if it’s at all the same principle at work here, but there might be some intersection between concepts.”

There’s a pause, and then:

“The confusion you are presently experiencing might be tied to a vacation from your body that’s gone on a little too long, for example. Did your…” A twirl of her hand focuses thought: “…friend, Jim, offer any pearls of wisdom about that?”

"Rocket went to my funeral?"

Coulson sounds shocked. And maybe a little touched.

And then, "An LMD. I'm so sorry. That's terrible. Everyone who went to wish me off got deceived. I should—"

But he leaves that thought unspoken. But look who he is talking to.

Should maybe just stay dead. What will it do to everyone, to have seen me off only to have me…what? Pop back in my body like it was all some massive joke, sit up in bed and ask for the morning reports?

Instead he says, "This is why. Why Nakano asked me if I wanted to be dead. The question made no sense at the time."

He loses concentration again. His shirt is abruptly coated in blood. He touches his chest and says, "How could I possibly have survived this? He stabbed me. He stabbed me right in the heart. He stabbed me a second time in the stomach. He didn't miss the vitals. Jim— No, Jim Craddock's been dead since earlier centuries. He has no face. He says they hung him."

Coulson's habit of meeting interesting people continues? As it is, he rambles from one topic to another without hardly seeming to notice that he's switched gears mid-sentence.

“I don’t know,” Emma replies, her eyes perhaps appearing to shine for a moment as she looks more intensely in Coulson’s direction. She hears the thoughts as they pass through, a whisper beneath the larger conversation as she operates largely in the realm of her abilities.

“Most humans don’t go dancing over the astral plane. You came with me the once.” Her shoulders shrug as she draws up her knees and changes position to curl up over them and settle her chin upon them. “Maybe it had unintended consequences. Gave you a little extra staying power, as it were. I don’t make a habit of doing that.”

Her lower lids narrow, and her eyes glow in her astral reflection as she looks harder still. She’s looking for damage. For fragmentation. For a sign of his tether. For anything strange at all. Well. Stranger.

“You said you were losing time. Have the intervals seemed to grow? Has it been harder to remember things or keep thoughts in line?” A pause. “Has it been harder to fix yourself to any sort of point? Do you feel weaker?” So many questions, so quickly.

She’s not sure how much time she has; she’s trying to make the most of it.

The tether is strange.

Sometimes it's not there. Like he is really, truly, 100% dead.

Sometimes it is. It flickers in and out, charges as if with some sort of strange electrical current, pulses into him. It looks like a cracked rubber band beneath the electrical pops. White and purple and blue, it's not hard to imagine how it might make one see stars.

It's not quite like a live person's. Not quite like a comatose person's. The more she studies it the more it seems to pulse with potential. There is a potential to use it, to draw him back into his body and, if the body can sustain him, to keep him there. Some otherworldly force has touched it, too, but whatever left those fingerprints is long gone.

It stretches out into Manhattan somewhere. But not towards the Triskelion. It's off for that. She'd have to follow it to see where it might stretch instead.

Used to rapid-fire questions, though, Phil focuses. "Twenty to thirty days since escaping the strange room." He says this like he thinks he's discussed the strange room. "My thoughts are scattered and that seems to be getting worse. Increment by increment. Sometimes I don't remember who am for days, Emma." And that terrifies him, but he is stiff-upper-lipping it as he gives his report. "Once I become aware again I can fix myself wherever I am, but I don't return to any one place if that's what you're asking. It's always somewhere new, somewhere different. Once I was in Baltimore staring at a pit beef place I ate at once. There was a graveyard next to it. Probably no correlation. I feel tired all the time, which makes little sense. But there's no change in that. Sometimes I'm in pain. Usually just before or just after the star thing happens."

Even if Phil didn’t know how very peculiar his situation was, he might have a sudden inkling of it as the telepath in front of him looks deeper into the situation and sees things she doesn’t understand.

There’s an immediate look of confusion that resides there, and her head slowly tilts to the other side. Blonde hair slides over the slick fabric of her robe, as her eyes grow brighter still and her curiosity deepens.

The adage about the cat never seems to really have struck home, or she either is confident enough in herself to not really worry about what lurks at the bottom of the rabbit hole. You might think that the little round mark she bears on her hindquarter from her last foray into uncharted waters on the astral plane would be an excellent reminder.

You would also be wrong.

“What did you get into?” she asks rhetorically, with wonder in her tone. Emma Frost likes discovering new things, apparently.

“I can go to your people,” she offers, distractedly. “Tell them what you’ve told me, if your Ninkano or whatever-her-name-is doesn’t have that information.” Then her eyes dull down a little as she looks at her guest for himself anew, rather than the astral mechanisms making his awareness a possibility. “Maybe find a host body to anchor you to for a minute…” She rolls her eyes and waves a hand dismissively, as though the idea of hitchhiking a body were perfectly normal. Preemptively. “Think of it like an AirBnB.”

“…With hair.” She looks back to Phil. “…Unless I find a bald man.”

A beat later, she smiles with the bright false innocence of the knowingly and unapologetically guilty. Yes, not at all displaying morally ambiguity here. Move along.

If she follows the tether back, and back…

She will first fall into the same void of stars Phil showed her. Vast and incomprehensible, pricking and prickling.

She finds a body. She can 'Air B&B' it if she wants for half a second, though it's not a fun place to be. At the moment Phil's entire chest cavity is open, as is the top of his head. Some sort of drone fires electrical currents into precise places in his brain, preserving it. Voices, muffled in the wash of agony, covered in masks, speak, but it's hard to make out the words, or who they are. The body does not breathe, and the pain is immense, intense, no hospitable home for Emma or anyone else, though someone or something sure is trying to rectify that. Still, staying in it, even for a moment, is an invitation to having one's sanity eroded.

"What happens to the person who owns it?" Phil asks in fascination, unsure. She has moral ambiguity, he does not.

And then: "Sharon. Sharon Carter is my XO. If any information needs to go anywhere it is to her."

She follows the tether, he isn't, nor is he being yanked along it at present, so he misses the sudden explosion of medical madness.

She does follow the tether, and Phil will no doubt see that, the further along she goes, the more Emma’s body starts to droop and she actually separates out of body partially—his other state can observe it, like a 3D movie without the glasses on.

That is until she finds its source. For a moment, barely any time at all, she stops talking and her body sleeps on the couch and her glow disappears.

She’s slipped somewhere. An elsewhere.

And then she snaps back, sharply, at the first blazing touch of pain. Her physical form cries out, as she suddenly perks back up and limbs fly uncharacteristically out. “What in the…?!”

Her incredulous gaze shifts back to Phil even as she catches her breath, which seems to have left her somewhere between Point A and Point B. “Carter, hm? Met her. Briefly.” Time for another discussion.

Oh, right. There was the question he asked just before she went traveling, and she shakes her head to clear her thoughts. “Oh! Uh… They sleep, sometimes. Sometimes, it’s like… like riding in a car that someone else is driving. We can continue the theme if you like, and liken you to an Uber driver, but that’s a bit of a mixed metaphor. The important part is that it would possibly give you a place to securely reside to minimize the episodes. Centers you. Keeps you from…” Her fingers wiggle and spread demonstratively.

"As long as it's not hurting anyone," Phil says slowly. "And it's done with their consent, then…that might be helpful. Can they drive? It seems like anyone ought to be able to drive. But Emma? Are you okay? You seemed to— when you followed the tether you seemed to have quite a reaction."

Who the Hell would even agree to that? A problem for another day. He would like to not go crazy, or whatever is happening to him, but not at someone else's expense.

Concern radiates off him, alarm, even, though his mild-manners remain in tact.

He has already half stood, coming over towards the couch, and he looks down with wide, translucent hazel eyes.

Emma can’t help but look at Phil a little differently now, and not just for the changed angle. No, he might sense a muddled mass of far darker thoughts, although his sensitivities are undoubtedly less refined. There’s pain mingled with pity there. Concern of her own. And a whole lot of barely restrained anger.

She draws her ragged breath, leaves her leg exposed by the slit in her robe from when it touched down from her place on the settee to steady her. And she lies.

“I’m fine.”

Well. A half-truth, maybe. She’s better off—obviously—than him.

Phil Coulson is familiar with lies. Committing this sin for the greater good was his entire life. He recognizes them, hears them, knows them. He also knows when to let a lie stand. And he does now.

And if none of her reactions bode well for him at all, he nevertheless lets that lie too. His life— and whatever it is he is doing now— has also involved calmly enduring terrible things. Taking them as part and parcel of the way things are, the risks he faces. So he doesn't ask. It's bad. He can tell it is bad.

Worse, she might know that whatever is happening might well yank him back to it soon. She can watch it on the tether itself, the way it pulses and snaps.

But his eyes are all Phil's eyes, gentle and maybe a little weary, smiling through it all. "Thank you for your help," he says softly.

“I’m not done yet,” Emma promises with all of the dark sincerity of a coming storm. It’s meant to be reassuring, but has no guarantee it will be received that way.

She can’t sever the tie, for fear of the consequences. But she can try to bolster him. Tuck in the frayed edges. Help preserve. Blue eyes glow other as she makes the effort.

But he’s going where she can’t follow. And time is slipping through her powerless fingers. Even as she works, her voice is deceptively calm and reassuring as her façade slides back into place.

“I’ll contact your Agent Carter.”

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License