Tahiti is a magical place, but Coulson doesn’t feel like himself there. He can’t even remember the last time he had such a long vacation, without any interruptions from S.H.I.E.L.D., and now it feels too good to be true. It is a relief when he finally gets the clearance to go back to DC.
Of course, when he gets back to DC, he finds that in his absence, everything has changed. While he’s been recovering in Tahiti, S.H.I.E.L.D. has removed every trace of his old life in order to maintain the facade of his “death.” His apartment has been cleaned out, and all of his things are in storage. He is forbidden from contacting Audrey or any other S.H.I.E.L.D. agent without explicit authorization.
He stays in a hotel in Georgetown, stewing quietly for the first week after his return, as he waits for S.H.I.E.L.D. to decide what to do with their “dead” agent. But eventually he cannot take the waiting or secrecy any longer. S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken so much from him, and now they have taken his whole identity.
He finds the storage facility that is holding his last remaining personal belongings, including Lola, and breaks Lola out to go for a drive. Lola is the one constant in his life, from childhood to S.H.I.E.LD. agent and now to his “afterlife.”
Coulson loses himself in the pleasure of driving, not really paying attention to where he’s going. He now has the freedom to go anywhere in this car. He could drive to Wisconsin and see his childhood home, or go to Portland and see Audrey again. However, as he pulls off the DC Beltway, he realizes that he isn’t heading towards Wisconsin or Portland. Instead, he is instinctively driving to Bethesda, to May and Andrew’s old house. He has been there hundreds of times before, and it is as familiar to him as his own home. But, like his old apartment, their house now too has been handed over to someone else, all traces of their life together erased.
Still, he sits in the dark outside their house, thinking about May and Andrew. Somehow, even with S.H.I.E.L.D. looming over their life they had managed to carve out something for just the two of them. He envied that, just as he envied their closeness and in particular how easily she was able to let down her guard and be herself around Andrew. When May had first announced her plans to marry Andrew, Coulson had worried that it would mean losing his partner. May had been by his side from the very beginning. They had been through everything together, and he thought that she would always be there, right by his side. Coulson couldn’t imagine being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent without her. He still can’t.
However, in the end, the only thing that destroyed his partnership with May was S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson still doesn’t know exactly what happened in Bahrain, but after that mission, May changed. He tried to help her, but nothing he said or did helped. She had pushed him away and withdrawn from him and everything else in her life. He didn’t understand it at the time, but he thinks he’s starting to. He may have survived his attack on the Hellicarrier and come back from Tahiti, but he doesn’t feel like the same old Coulson. He feels like a ghost, haunting the places that once were important to him, but unable to truly be a part of them.
The house in Bethesda has a new family inside, and so he doesn’t linger there too long. May never told him where she moved after the divorce, but he knows where her apartment is. He drives into DC, to a neighborhood not far from her childhood home. It is busier here than her quiet street in Bethesda, and it takes a while for Coulson to find a parking spot. He has to walk half a mile to get back to her place, and when he gets there, he finds the house dark except for a lone light coming from her apartment on the third floor. Even though he’s been forbidden from making any unauthorized contact with anyone from his old life, he is sorely tempted to ring the bell and see her again, protocols be damned.
In the end though, the S.H.I.E.L.D. protocols are too tightly ingrained in him. He stands outside her window for over an hour, hoping to catch her taking out the trash or going on a late night run. However, there is no sign of her, and eventually he gives up and goes back to his hotel. As he drives away past her apartment though, he slows down and checks his rearview mirror, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
“He was outside my apartment last night.”
May’s statement is met with silence as Director Fury processes the information. Then he asks, “How long?”
“Over an hour.” Fury falls silent, pondering the situation, and May asks, “What are you going to do?”
“He’s having a hard time letting go of his old life. Especially you. If we want him to comply with protocols, we may have to give him back some of what he’s lost.”
“He needs a sense of purpose. Something to get up for in the morning. Someone.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Me?”
“He needs someone to watch his back. Do you have a problem with that Agent May?”
May shakes her head. “Of course not. He’s my partner.”