“So now it’s just you and me.”
Phil Coulson had been held captive by hostile parties enough times that he had a whole catalogue of facial expressions for masking his inner panic: disappointment, skepticism, feigned ignorance. Once, he had pretended to be punch-drunk long enough to fool his interrogator into letting his guard down before he knocked him out and gave him the slip. He had discovered early on that if he wore these masks long enough, the façade grafted itself onto his persona and the panic disappeared.
As the self-proclaimed “Superior” began his first round of questioning, Coulson opted for amused bewilderment. In all of the times that he had been surrounded by enemy forces, this character took the least amount of effort to assume.
Because this guy was off of his fucking rocker.
“That’s quite the collage you’ve got there,” Coulson remarked, indicating the desk in front of him strewn with surveillance photos. “It’s always nice to meet a fan.”
The Superior smirked.
“Oh yes?” He asked. “It’s true, Mr. Coulson. I have been following your career for quite some time. You, eh, get around quite a lot.”
“It’s true,” Coulson said. “My job does afford me with an opportunity to visit the occasional exotic location.”
“Exotic, yes,” The Superior agreed. “Exotic seems to be your speciality. Mr. Stark invents his famous Iron Man suit? You are there.”
He pointed a blunt finger at a grainy still of him in the halls at Stark Industries. Moving his finger to another photo, this one taken near a crater in the Arizona desert, he continued, “The alien known as ‘Thor’ makes his first appearance in our world? You are there.”
The Russian picked up one photo after the other, laying them in front of him for his perusal. Collecting debris from the portal shift in Greenwich, on the streets in Seville above the crypt where the Berserker staff was unearthed, bloodied and bruised coming out of the Theatre Ponce de Leon in Puerto Rico, at the castle in Gloucestershire where the monolith had been held, at the decommissioned Roxxon Facility… the pictures went on and on. In most of them, he was out-of-focus or in the background, but Coulson could not help but feel a hint of professional disappointment in himself.
“I’ve got to admit,” he said frankly. “This is pretty embarrassing for a spy.”
“Yes,” The Superior said, drawing the word out. “You are not supposed to get ‘caught on camera.’”
Coulson plastered on a look of friendly camaraderie.
“Well, when I was coming up in the ranks, there weren’t nearly as many ways to survey people,” he commiserated. “Now everyone’s got a camera on their phones, there’s social media… The world we live in, huh?”
“‘The world we live in,’” The Superior repeated, nodding. “It is this world I wish to discuss with you. It has changed quite a lot in the past few years, yes?”
Coulson met his inquiry with a fraction of a smile, saying nothing.
“And I think you may have something to do with this.”
“How so?” He asked.
“Mr. Coulson, do you expect me to believe it is a coincidence that you were at all of these sites where this alien activity took place?”
“Of course not,” Coulson answered evenly. “You know what organization I am a part of, what we do.”
“Yes, but you,” The Superior pointed at him. “Are exceptional. There are many SHIELD agents, but none of them, not even the former Director Nick Fury himself, has seen as many of these things as you have.”
“So, what are you getting at?” Coulson asked. “Because if you wanna to recruit me, try to get my expertise to take down the Inhumans… it would seem from your research that you know me well enough to know that’s not going to happen.”
“No, Mr. Coulson,” he chuckled. “The Inhuman problem is well in hand. But there are more alien threats than just these Inhumans. You and I both know this. And I think we also know who is causing them.”
When the realization of what his captor was insinuating hit him, the puzzled amusement ceased to be a façade and became very real. Almost too real. If he was not careful, he was going to start laughing and get himself shot.
“You think I have been causing all of the alien activity on Earth?” Coulson asked. “All of it? Thor? The Chitauri? The Inhumans? How am I meant to be doing this exactly?”
“You know, that is what I asked myself as well,” The Superior said, standing from his chair. “After all, you are just a man, yes? A man that, by all accounts was killed and came back to life?”
Coulson shot him a tight smile.
And there it was.
Coming back to bite him in the ass once again.
“How does an ordinary man come back from the dead?” The Superior asked, circling around the table. “How does an ordinary man walk with gods and live to tell about it? How does this man always know where to be when the next Inhuman appears among us?”
He turned his back to Coulson, standing in front of a bookshelf along the wall. Even though he was not watching him, the Russian still commanded Coulson’s full attention. He had to admit, the guy had a flair for theatrics.
“I did not know the answers to these questions,” he continued. “Until your friend, Dr. Radcliffe brings me this book.”
The Superior grabbed a heavy tome from the shelf and dropped it on the table in front of him. The familiar metal ambigram surrounded by dark leather filled his vision and Coulson felt the smile fall from his lips.
“You know this, yes?” He asked.
Coulson looked up at him.
“I know that it’s dangerous.”
“Knowledge is always dangerous to one’s enemies, Mr. Coulson.”
“This knowledge is dangerous to anyone that reads it,” Coulson retorted. “I’ve seen what it can do. I’ve seen it drive people mad.”
The Superior smiled.
“I’ve seen its answers, Mr. Coulson,” he murmured. “I’ve seen answers about you.”
Coulson searched his expression, looking for tell-tale signs of a lie. He could not find one. The man thought that he was telling the truth. The Darkhold had already driven him insane.
“If you’ve seen any answers about me in there, it showed you what you wanted to see,” he reasoned.
“Don’t you ever wonder why it was you that Director Fury selected to be his right hand?” The Superior asked, walking towards him. “There were other agents with more credentials, more experience. Yet, he recruits you, a history student from a community college in a small town in America to join the prestigious Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. He watches over your career as you climb the ranks, then selects you, out of all of the other agents at your agency, to lead your ‘Avengers’ operation. Why is this? What is so special about you, Phil Coulson?”
Smile back in place, Coulson snapped, “Maybe it was my dazzling personality.”
“And then, you die. You are somehow resurrected and Fury makes you Director of SHIELD.”
The Superior paused, giving Coulson time to respond.
He knew this technique. It was a sneaky lawyer’s trick. He wasn’t going to fall for it.
Coulson was not an insecure man. He had worked hard as hell to attain his place in SHIELD. He had proven himself time and time again. But there were moments when he had asked himself that same question: why him?
“Nick Fury had the Darkhold in his possession, yes?”
Coulson did not answer. Truthfully, he did not know. He knew Fury had been afraid of it, but he had assumed it was from its reputation. It was possible that it had been in SHIELD’s possession at some point in the past.
“I think your director had this book,” The Superior continued. “I believe he came to know the truth about you from its pages.”
“Even if Fury had the Darkhold, he would have never have been stupid enough to read it,” Coulson spat.
“Even great men have fallen to curiosity, Mr. Coulson,” The Superior goaded. “Are you not curious?”
“Curious,” Coulson answered. “Not suicidal.”
The Superior laughed.
“I have read its pages and I stand here, unaffected.”
“Yeah,” Coulson drawled. “You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t take your word for it.”
The Russian grabbed the back of Coulson’s neck in a motion so fast, he did not have time to anticipate it. Coulson glared at the eyes that bored into his own from a distance of mere inches.
“You will see the truth, Mr. Coulson,” he hissed. “You will know what I know. And when you learn the truth about yourself, we will see which one of us is mad.”
“You’ll have to kill me,” Coulson said flatly. “Because I am not reading that book.”
Somewhere behind them, the percussive clang of bullets hitting metal rang out in the hallway. Coulson let out a small breath. His team was here.
The Superior’s eyes flashed. He released his hold on Coulson and grabbed the pistol in his belt.
“Your time grows short Phil Coulson.”
He pulled back the slide on his gun and aimed it at Coulson’s head.
“Open the book,” he commanded.
The gunfire in the hallway grew closer. Shouts in Russian filled the room.
“No,” Coulson replied.
He jerked as The Superior reached past him and pulled the cover of the Darkhold back, revealing its first blank page.
“Read it!” He shouted.
The Superior grabbed his shoulder and turned him around so he was facing the book. Coulson clamped his eyes shut, grimacing as the barrel of the gun pressed against the back of his head.
“Read it, now!”
He pushed the gun against the base of his skull with bruising force and Coulson ground his teeth.
An explosion from a gun sounded so close to his ear, he thought that The Superior had fired. His eyes flew open reflexively and he found himself staring at the spidery calligraphy of the invisible scribe that penned the Darkhold.
Instinct told him to shut his eyes, but he did not obey. His eyes flew over the page, absorbing every single word.
It was all there. Just like he had said.
A deafening bang broke his concentration and the metal door flew off of its hinges. Suddenly, the pressure of the gun on the back of his head was relieved. Coulson looked over just in time to see Mack blast a hole in the side of The Superior with his shotgun axe.
He could only stare in wide-eyed shock, torn between the reality of the situation and the text he had just read.
“Coulson?” Mack asked. “Hey Coulson! We got Mace and May. We gotta get out of here!”
Coulson tried to stand, but his legs did not to want to obey him.
From the floor behind him, The Superior let out a hissing laugh that ended in a gurgle. Mack and Coulson looked over at the dying villain with a mixture of disgust and horror.
“Now,” he whispered. “Now, Mr. Coulson. You know.”