Steve Rogers was not especially pleased to be tromping the halls of SHIELD, even as he headed towards Medbay. The days since the Battle of New York had given him some perspective on the events that led up to the showdown over Manhattan, but he was by no means certain he wanted to continue his association with the organization – Fury's deception about Agent Coulson's status being only the most recent hit amongst many. Nevertheless, he would see this through, and until Loki was returned to Asgard, he would remain on their books as a consultant, even if that meant turning in after-action reports and continuing his appointments with their head-shrinker.
On the upside, however, he was glad to have the opportunity to stop in and check on Agent Coulson. (And if he found the agent's painkiller-induced conversation to be privately hilarious, well, he'd never tell. Last time, he'd gotten a lecture on Coleridge and opium detoxification.)
He had planned to sit with his sketchbook until Coulson regained consciousness, but instead he halted at the door. Pepper must have returned with the cellist – a woman sat in the chair next to Agent Coulson's bed, her head resting on the sheets. Coulson held her hand in his, a slight smile on his face, watching her sleep. It was such a sweetly intimate scene that Steve stopped in his tracks for fear of intruding but Coulson spotted him. He waved Steve in, and Steve complied.
"Alys…" Coulson said, shaking her hand, "Alys, wake up."
She raised her head a little and gave Phil a muzzy, tender smile. He nodded in Steve's direction and she looked over.
Her eyes snapped open and she jerked back into her chair with a gasp, gripping the armrests with white knuckles. She stared at Steve openly.
"Oh gosh, I'm sorry I startled you, ma'am." She must've been pretty soundly asleep, to jump like that.
"Alys, this is Captain Steve Rogers. Captain, may I introduce Alys Simon?" said Coulson.
Steve smiled at her and held out his hand. "Hello."
She blinked owlishly. Her eyes flicked back and forth between Steve and Coulson but she then took his hand to shake. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Captain," she said evenly.
"The pleasure is all mine but please, call me Steve - are you all right?" he asked. She'd just made a choking sound.
"Fine. Yes. Fine. Sorry. My allergies are giving me a hell- a heck of a time this year."
"The pollen is bad this month," interjected Phil, who had been watching the exchange impassively.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said politely. "That's one of the things I'd've hoped they'd fixed by now."
Miss Simon seemed a bit sleepy still – it didn't help that she had blanket lines on her cheek where she'd rested it on the bed – but his first impression of her was that she was a handsome lady "of a certain age," as his mother used to say. Even if she was staring at him a bit oddly.
He turned to Coulson. "Glad to see you a bit more lucid, sir."
Coulson looked slightly embarrassed. "Glad to be a bit more lucid. I'm afraid I've been known to say some pretty ridiculous things while on painkillers."
(Alys' stare switched to Phil and she drew in a silent breath, but neither man noticed.)
"I hope I didn't...?" continued Coulson.
"Nah, you were fine." Steve laughed. "You should've heard Falsworth when we had to give him morphine. If you didn't give him enough to knock him out, you got treated to hours and hours of off-key Gilbert and Sullivan."
There was a sudden silence after that, fortunately broken by a knock. "Hate to interrupt, folks, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to kick you out. It's time for PT," said the doctor in the doorway.
"Ah. Torquemada. Is it that time already?" asked Coulson.
Dr. Torquil smiled. "Keep it up, Agent Coulson, and I'll tell the junior agents you try to skip out of therapy even more than they do." He turned to Steve and Miss Simon, looking at them expectantly.
Steve nodded. "Good luck, sir. I'll drop by again tomorrow," he said to Coulson.
Miss Simon stood and squeezed Coulson's hand. "I should unpack at the hotel anyway. Agent Sitwell said to call reception when it was time to leave..."
"Actually – Captain, Alys has to be escorted out. Would you be willing to see her to the lobby?" asked Coulson.
Steve smiled. "I'd be happy to."
Miss Simon returned a shaky smile. "Thank you."
They both made their goodbyes and headed out of Medical.
They walked together in a somewhat uncomfortable silence. Steve tried and utterly failed to think of something to say. Miss Simon's behavior could only be described as peculiar: she kept throwing sidelong glances up at him like she expected him to vanish, but every time he met her eyes she looked away and blushed ferociously. It was kind of unnerving.
"Are you all right?" he asked, just as they were getting to the lobby.
"I'm so sorry. Forgive me, this is all so unexpected. I just keep thinking that any second now I'll wake up and be back in Portland."
"Agent Coulson didn't tell you about any of this?"
She laughed, stopped short and looked up at him. "Until a few hours ago, all I knew was that Phil worked for SHIELD. Then, this morning, one of the most powerful women in the world knocked on my door and flew me across the country in Tony Stark's private jet so that I could be at my lover's bedside in a medical facility so secure my DNA had to be sequenced before I could be granted entry, and now Captain America is walking me to the door!" She laughed again, and took a deep breath. "I've entered the Twilight Zone. We'll see Rod Serling come around the corner any minute."
She looked up at him, stunned. "No, of course you wouldn't know – I'm sorry." Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat. "This is all requiring some adjustment." She looked away, then up at him again and pressed a hand to her collarbone. "I'm so sorry, I shouldn't dump this all out on you like this – I'm not usually this prone to hysterics."
Steve didn't quite know what to say. This was the quietest hysterical fit he'd ever seen.
"Do forgive me. At any rate, thank you for escorting me out." She smiled at him, a little too brightly. "I'll just go get myself a cup of coffee, and then I'll be right as rain."
He felt a sense of kinship and a wave of sympathy for a fellow member of the seriously disoriented. "The commissary here has pretty good coffee, if you want to stay close by."
She picked up her badge and looked at it. "I don't think I have access to the commissary..."
"No, I meant with me."
She stared up at him for a second, like she either hadn't heard him or she hadn't understood. "Yes. Thank you. St-Steve. I'd like that."
The commissary wasn't especially busy this time of day so, once the java was acquired, they had no trouble finding a table. Once they sat down, Alys wrapped her hands around her mug, took a deep breath and looked him straight in the eye. "All right, I give. How is it that you're here?
Steve laughed. "I think they're still arguing over what details they're going to release. Let's just say that I haven't been awake that long."
"Howard Stark looked for you for over a decade."
He nodded. "I know."
"And even then, the conspiracy theories were that he never really stopped, that he just handed the search over to a covert government - oh my God, SHIELD pulled you from the ice three months ago."
Steve choked on his coffee. "What?"
"Am I right?" she asked.
"How on earth...?"
She pressed her hand across her mouth to hide a grin, then answered. "About three months ago, Phil came home from work and it was obvious something amazing had happened, but of course he couldn't tell me about it. And after that, he was incredibly busy. I don't think I saw him more than four our five times between then and the day I moved to Portland, which considering that I was living in his apartment for most of that time was Oh!" She looked appalled, like she'd just committed a major faux pas. "You know that that's done now, right?" She turned bright red. "That it's quite respectable nowadays for two adults to... before they've... I mean, it would be very silly to make a fuss about that, especially at my age..."
It took him a minute to work out what she was upset about, at which point he became equally tongue-tied. Good God, she looked old enough to be his mother! He hadn't thought of that when she said it, and was more than a little uncomfortable discussing the subject with a woman who reminded him of no one so much as Sister Mary Agnes from the orphanage. He was staying with Pepper and Tony, for crying out loud, he'd caught on that playing house wasn't that remarkable today and it hadn't been exactly unheard of in 1945, either. Besides, fully half the professional musicians he'd ever met had been bohemians of one stripe or another.
Nevertheless, the silence grew weighty and she really looked like she might bolt out of sheer embarrassment. "A lot has changed since I was last awake," he said finally, and gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile.
It seemed to work. "I can only imagine," she replied, her blush finally fading. "For the better, I hope?"
"Yes and no," he replied honestly. "And, to tell you the truth, it's kind of surprising that people still remember me."
"Oh, my goodness, really?"
"I would've figured everyone would've grown past it, I guess. Once the war was over."
"The world always needs heroes," she said with total sincerity, her gaze suddenly soft. She leaned forward conspiratorially. "Listen, for all I know, Phil has already asked you this, but in case he hasn't – he's got a set of the original Captain America trading cards and I know it would just mean the world to him if you would sign them..."
Oh NO. "I can't," he said, flushing.
A flash of disappointment crossed her face making her look, for a split second, impossibly young. It was gone just as quickly, and replaced with a cold, adult poise. She sat back in her chair. "Naturally, I'm sure it must get very tiresome, people pestering you for autographs." Her frigid tone turned sharp. "But I had rather hoped you might make an exception for a comrade-in-arms..."
"What? No! Oh God, no, it's not that, it's just..." He ran a hand over his face. "He did ask me to sign them. He brought them to the Helicarrier but he had the cards in his pocket when he was stabbed. They're ruined."
"I'm afraid so."
"How on earth...? The cases got nicked by the spear? The blood leaked in?"
"Cases? What cases? He just had them in his pocket."
She cocked her head and looked at him. "That makes no sense at all. He would never taken them out of the display at home without putting them in plastic sleeves, at the very least."
"That seems kind of over-the-top."
"Really, I don't think you understand how valuable those cards are."
He rolled his eyes. "They're just pieces of cardboard with a picture on them!"
She raised an eyebrow. "So if I pulled out a Casey Stengel baseball card and tore it to shreds right in front of you, you'd be unaffected? It's just a piece of cardboard, after all, with a picture on it."
"Not after seventy years, it's not!" She ran a hand through her hair. "You know what? I'm sorry. You were there, and I wasn't. I just can't emphasize enough how out-of-character that is. He's a very meticulous man!"
That statement stopped Steve short – she seemed so sure, and, he suddenly realized, he'd simply been told about the cards by a man who didn't have a strong relationship with the plain truth. It was more than enough to plant a niggling doubt.
"Oh, God, he's going to be so upset, you have no idea!" She looked right into his eyes. "I know this may seem a bit silly, but one of the cards was a memento of his father – you were his father's hero, too – and, all right, I can't even imagine how weird it must be to find out your face is on somebody's family heirloom, but..." She placed her hand on his. "Please, you have to promise me – he can't know. Not until he's better. I mean, if he asks, obviously you'll have to tell him, but just until he's out of the hospital..."
"Yes, of course." Honestly, he would have promised her anything, she looked so distraught.
"Thank you." She pulled her hand back. "Would you talk the others as well? The rest of your team?"
His team? "I don't know how much I can promise, but I'll do my best."
"Thank you so much! I'm sorry... this must seem so foolish." She shook her head. "But it took him years to put that collection together! They were in near-mint condition!"
He desperately wanted to be talking about something, anything else. "It's very nice of you, taking such an interest in your sweetheart's hobby," he said. It felt like a stupid thing to say, but she didn't seem to notice.
She paused for a second, then smiled brightly. "Well, Phil's enthusiasm is infectious..."
"How did the two of you meet?" he asked, finally seeing an out to this awkward conversational subject.
"Oh, we met at a convention in San Diego last year," she said breezily. "It was just dumb luck, really..."
They chatted for a while longer but stuck to subjects less emotionally fraught, especially once he got her talking about her music. In the end, he decided that his initial impression of her was borne out: that she was a reserved-but-nice lady having a somewhat trying day.
The team had taken to meeting for dinner each evening, so Steve decided that that was as good a time as any to fulfill his promise. One by one, they straggled up to the table full of take-out barbeque and Stark was, as usual, last to arrive.
Barton grinned. "Hey look, Winter is Coming."
"Barton, every time someone cracks that joke I bribe George R. R. Martin to type slower," said Tony.
Steve waited until the group had started eating before bringing up the topic. "I wanted to talk to all of you - I ran into Miss Simon at SHIELD Medical..."
"Who?" asked Bruce.
"Phil's girlfriend," explained Pepper.
"The idiot," interjected Tony.
Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose. "She's really not an idiot, Tony, and can we not have this argument again?"
"What?" asked Steve. "Why in God's name would you say that?"
"How do you not know that he's 'Agent Coulson?' How do you shack up with someone for the better part of a year and miss something like that? The guy probably sleeps in that suit," replied Tony.
"I don't know, Stark, how do you work with someone for years on end and manage to miss that they're allergic to strawberries?" asked Natasha. Tony made a face at her, and Pepper tried not to laugh.
"Well, all right, at any rate -" began Steve.
"I do not understand... she did not know that he is a thegn of SHIELD?" asked Thor.
"Nope! Not clue one, apparently!" said Tony.
"That is kind of hard to believe," said Bruce.
"But he is a warrior of great strength and cunning! A brave and noble man! Why would he conceal that from the lady of his heart? Can she not be trusted?"
"It's no reflection on her at all, it's just policy," Natasha tried to explain. "A lot of what we do is secret – it's not unusual at SHIELD for someone's spouse to have no idea what their job entails."
"If they're denser than plutonium..." muttered Tony.
"OpSec isn't a bad word to everyone, Stark." said Natasha.
Thor looked supremely unconvinced, as if, while he certainly understood that the purpose of heroism wasn't necessarily to impress the ladies, he nevertheless felt it to be a vital fringe benefit. "Is she in some way unworthy? Is she using him to her advantage?"
"It's fine. She really isn't, Thor," said Pepper.
"Yeah, seriously, who knew Agent was such a social climber," said Tony.
"Social climber?" Steve's curiosity got the better of him even as the conversation was starting to go off the rails. (Though he was sure he was missing something here: for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why the tension just seemed to be increasing in Clint's shoulders.)
"She comes from Old Money," answered Pepper, "But I can't imagine that matters to him, Tony."
"Forgive me... I fail to understand what bearing the age of the coin has..." said Thor – idioms occasionally tripped up the All-Speak.
"It's an expression, Thor. It means she comes from a prominent family," said Natasha.
"She is wealthy?"
"Sort of. Middle class at best," snarked Tony. "The Old Money isn't what it used to be."
"Stark, she just sold a four million dollar apartment!" replied Natasha.
"That's what I said! Middle class!"
"Good God, did all you people investigate the poor woman?" asked Steve, appalled.
"I didn't," said Bruce, who looked for all the world like he was trying not to laugh. Pepper and Tony looked vaguely guilty. Natasha didn't, because she never did. Clint sat impassively with his arms crossed, his face carefully blank.
"Nay, Captain, they were quite right to do so! And if the proper inquiries have already been made then our path is clear!" Thor thumped the table with his fist. "If the Son of Coul's intention is to gain the hand of this lady, a lady of property and good family, then we must do all we can to aid him in his suit!"
Tony's eyes widened and his grin turned evil, right up until he winced and made a pained noise, as if someone had just jammed her spiked heel into the top of his foot. Pepper traded a horrified look with Natasha. Bruce put his head in his hands. Steve frantically cast about for a way to explain that, no, this would really be best left for Agent Coulson to handle when Clint interrupted.
"Oh for fuck's sake, can you just let Rogers get to the goddamned point already!?" snarled Barton, his first contribution to the conversation.
"Jesus, Katniss, who pissed in your Wheaties?" asked Tony sarcastically.
"Thank you, Clint," said Steve, glad for the interruption, vulgar as it was. "When I saw Miss Simon, she asked that we not mention what happened to the trading cards to Agent Coulson until he's out of the hospital."
Pepper went silent. Tony looked like he'd taken a punch to the gut. Natasha, Bruce and Thor looked confused.
"What happened to his trading cards?" asked Natasha.
"They got damaged when Loki stabbed him. They were in his pocket," said Steve.
"No way. That makes no sense at all," said Clint.
"You know, that's exactly what Miss Simon said," replied Steve. "She said she couldn't believe he had them in his pocket."
"Don't care what she said. I've known him for almost ten years, and I'm telling you right goddamned now that there's no way he would have kept those anywhere but secured in his locker until you had the pen actually in your hand. And he would have put them right back right away."
Steve and Tony shared a horrified look.
"Son of a bitch." Clint started to laugh, a sound that had absolutely no humor in it whatsoever. "Let me guess: Fury told you about this. Gave you one of his big confessional speeches? Yeah, he's good at those. The two of you got played."
"We'll find a replacement set..." said Tony, uncharacteristically serious.
"Because everything can just be bought, isn't that right, Stark," snarled Clint. Underneath the table, Natasha laid her hand on his thigh.
"It's worked out for me so far. What the fuck is your damage here, Barton?"
"Did she tell you the story behind the damn things?"
"She told me one of the cards belonged to his father," said Steve.
"So she didn't tell you all of it."
"What more is there to know?"
"His dad died when he was a kid – a car accident. Coulson was in the car and conscious for the whole thing, so, as a ten-year-old boy, he got to watch his father bleed out right in front of him without being able to do a goddamn thing to stop it. That's what got trashed so that the two of you would quit measuring your dicks and start working together."
"Enough, Clint," said Natasha with serious menace, her hand clutching the archer's shoulder the same instant that Tony pushed back from the table, his face an impressive shade of red. Steve pulled in a breath – he had to do something, or the next words out of Tony's mouth were going to start a fight.
"Wait, let me get this straight..." Bruce's quiet voice managed to cut through the argument. "Fury took Agent Coulson's Captain America trading cards – the original cards? Seriously? – a set of immense monetary and even greater sentimental value, and ruined them in pursuit of a manipulative ploy that was unnecessary in the first place? He trashed the prized possession of a guy who pulled out an untested weapon based on alien technology to take on a demigod?" Bruce took off his glasses. "Shouldn't we be more worried about what Agent Coulson is going to do to Fury, once he actually gets out of that hospital bed?"
The air hummed with tension, and the situation really could have gone either way, but Thor let out a mighty, bellowing laugh, and clapped Bruce on the back. "HAH! Indeed! I'll wager he'll have enacted an fearsome revenge within a month of his recovery! What say you?"
"A month? I'll give it a week..." said Natasha, leaping on the opportunity to help defuse the situation.
"Oh, I don't know, they've been friends for more than twenty years..." said Pepper. "I imagine it'll be something slow and lingering, when Fury least expects it."
The conversation went on from there – even Tony took a renewed interest, when Thor mentioned putting up some Asgardian mead as his part of the wager. Only Steve and Clint remained silent, and Clint only remained at the table because Natasha's hand pinned him to the seat.
Steve found he'd lost his appetite.
Immediately after dinner, Tony retreated to his workshop. He fiddled aimlessly for the better part of an hour, then spoke.
"JARVIS, what's the status on the trading card search?"
"As of yet, I have been unable to locate a complete set matching the parameters you gave me. Unfortunately, the sets that have been coming on the market have been in poor condition, or have been obvious forgeries."
"Keep looking, J." He tapped the screwdriver on the table. "Price no object."
The tender ministrations of the physical therapist left Phil exhausted and in agony. He was terribly glad to be able to hit the pain medication and sink back into sleep and even gladder to wake up to the sight of a smiling Alys. She set down her tablet and grinned like a cat with stolen cream on its whiskers.
"The Unnameable Triumph? You rescued Captain America."
Phil raised his eyebrows – he wouldn't have figured the Captain for having a big mouth. "I can neither confirm nor deny…"
"Oh stop it. You rescued Captain America."
"Captain Rogers shouldn't have told you that."
"He didn't. He mentioned that he woke up about three months ago. I cross-referenced 'Things That Happened Three Months Ago' with 'Things That Would Have You Jumping Around The Living Room Like A Lunatic' and, lo and behold… I did leave out the part about you jumping around the living room like a lunatic, by the way."
"I appreciate that."
"You rescued Captain America."
"There was a whole team. It's a project that's been going on for decades."
"And one onto which you had to be forced at gunpoint, I'm sure. You rescued Captain America." She was gazing at him like he had hung the moon, and he had to say it was, however inaccurate it might be, rather nice.
"I did say the last few months have been atypical."
"You did, dear God, you did!" She rubbed her face with her hands and laughed honestly. He warmed to her laugh, and it did him a world of good to hear that horrible choked tone gone from her voice. He smiled and reached for her hand.
"Did you get a chance to talk to the Captain?"
"I did! Steve" – she said, somehow making five letters into three syllables – "took me to the commissary for some coffee."
"In that case, I'm surprised you came back at all."
"Well, the real world continues to bear absolutely no resemblance to my ninth-grade fantasy life, a circumstance for which I think we can all be grateful. But, oh Phil, I made such an ass out of myself. Honestly."
"It can't be as bad as all that."
"It's just that he's so young! He's just a boy!"
"Not in lived years! You don't understand – I got through adolescence with a poster of Steve Rogers and a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. You ever sit across from someone trying not to think about something like that? It doesn't work! And then he turns out to be all of twelve years old? Ugh! I feel like a perverted old lady. I need to wash."
He successfully hid a smile. "I can explain to him about cougars, if you'd like."
Phil found himself on the receiving end of a Glare of Extremely Limited Amusement.
"Should I start calling you 'Mrs. Robinson?'"
"You are a dreadful, horrible man and I don't know why I put up with you."
"No wonder you wanted that poster so badly," his poker face started to slip. "And how are your allergies doing?"
"You are an absolute bastard," she hissed. "That's it, I've had it. You can consider yourself dumped."
"Aren't you supposed to flounce out, if you're dumping me?"
"I would, but I have to be escorted." She cringed at another memory. "And, oh God, I may have – this is so embarrassing – I may have told him that you and I are sleeping together."
"I am dying to know how this came up in conversation."
"Well, it was one of the ways I knew something unusual was going on – I told him I barely saw you for weeks, even though I was living in your apartment at the time and now he probably thinks I'm some sort of demimondaine!"
"And a divorced one, at that," he said, trying to be facetious. He instantly regretted it when he saw the stricken look on her face. "You're making too much out of this."
"Easy for you to say! Like anyone has ever looked down on a man for having a mistress!"
"Calm down. The Forties weren't the Fifties, and they really weren't the eighteen-forties. I doubt he thought anything of it, and even if he did, it's simply another thing he'll have to adjust to."
She nodded reluctantly.
"Besides, you're a musician. Don't you people get some sort of leeway when it comes to these things?"
That coaxed out a smile. "What kind of a musician do you think I am? Orchestras don't have groupies!"
"I'm glad to hear it."
She shook her head. "I babbled like an idiot."
"If it's any consolation, I told him I watched him while he was sleeping."
"Well, we did – he was monitored constantly from the time he was found until he woke up. It just came out wrong."
"Good Lord, we're a pretty pair, aren't we?" Her smile turned rueful. "You might have warned me, though! That was a hell of a shock!"
"I'm sorry about that," said Phil. "I'm not exactly in the loop right now with what they're releasing to the public, but once he walked in you would have seen through any lie I could have told – I knew that as soon as you made that comment about his fighting style."
She smiled. "Well, you must have seen it... it's really striking."
"I've yet to see him fight."
"We were more worried at first with his reintegration than his training. Until, well, we were overtaken by events..."
"Oh my God, it's all over the Internet! Hang on..." She reached for her tablet.
"Wait – close the door. He might come back," Phil explained.
"Good point!" Alys got up and closed the door, then returned to her seat and scooted it closer. She picked up her tablet and pulled up YouTube. "Were you on . in 1990? It was consumed by this enormous months-long flamewar that UberBOFH instigated saying that the accounts of the Bastogne campaign had to be pure propaganda, that there was no way Steve Rogers could have actually done all that, and my GOD, what I wouldn't give to have his e-mail address now..."
Alys stayed with him until absolutely the last minute, but had to leave when visiting hours ended. She was back again as soon as possible in the morning, for what proved to be a busier day than he would have expected. The news that his death hadn't quite taken spread quickly: as a result, he had no shortage of visitors, a development as exhausting as it was gratifying. Most of the team came by, as did a good chunk of the senior staff. It really wasn't ideal – he would much rather have introduced Alys to Nick before she met Director Fury, to Jasper before she met Agent Sitwell – but it couldn't be helped. Nevertheless, it was nice to wake to see Alys and Nick chatting companionably, and to have an entire conversation with Captain America without any awkward pratfalls (on either his or Alys' part). Even Thor took a break from his vigil over his brother to stop by. (Alys had blushed a little and nearly giggled when he'd kissed her hand - Phil hadn't thought she was the type to get flustered by that sort of thing, but wrote it off to the fact that the man was an actual Norse God.)
Barton was the notable exception to this parade of well-wishers – in fact, Coulson wasn't sure he'd seen him at all since he'd woken up. He burned to find out more about Clint's condition, but he couldn't, except in the vaguest of terms – Alys' presence meant that nothing of substance could be discussed. Fortunately, she left when the physical therapist came in again, and when it was (finally, mercifully) over, Romanoff was waiting in the hall.
Apparently, from her expression when she came in the room, he looked as bad as he felt.
Natasha walked in when invited, took one look at the man in the bed, and said "For God's sake, take the pain meds, Coulson. Don't be stubborn."
"Not just yet – I need to talk to you." He shifted a little, apparently trying to make himself more comfortable. He didn't look like he'd succeeded. "I need you to brief me on the situation since the Helicarrier."
"That's going to take a while, sir, and you need to rest."
"Then bring me a tablet so I can start getting caught up."
"No. Besides, Fury had IT disable all your logins. You won't be able to get on the network."
"Please, Natasha. I won't be able to relax until I know what's going on."
She raised an eyebrow. That was, sadly enough, probably true. "And if I don't?"
"I'll find a probie and browbeat them until they give me a laptop and their password."
"You're supposed to be one of the good guys, Coulson." Nevertheless, she took a deep breath and launched into a précis of the battle and the aftermath.
"... so now we're in a holding pattern until we can get Loki off-world."
"What's the progress on that?"
"They're thinking they can manage the return tomorrow, as long as they can keep Selvig sane. He's... not reacting well to what he did while under Loki's influence."
"What about Barton? I haven't seen him. I'm starting to worry."
"Physically, he's fine."
"Not as bad as Selvig, but he feels responsible for all of it. Especially your run-in with Loki. He's been avoiding you." It was... mostly true. Clint did feel responsible, and did feel guilty, but he'd spent every second at Coulson's bedside right up until he'd heard Stark and Pepper bringing Phil's cellist down the hall and Natasha very strongly suspected he'd been coming back at night, too, after visiting hours were over.
"I need to know he's all right, Tasha. We've got to get it through to him that this wasn't his fault. Is he staying in quarters?"
"We're all staying at Stark's."
Coulson got a calculating look on his face. "That... that may actually be the best place for him right now."
She nodded. "He's not comfortable on the Helicarrier. He's avoiding HQ, too."
"Have there been reprisals?"
"Nothing up front. Most people understand and the ones that don't... well... the less subtle ones have been dealt with."
He raised an eyebrow. "Officially or unofficially?"
She smirked. "They've been dealt with. Though I hate to say it, I think they're more afraid of Captain America's 'I'm Very Disappointed In You' Face than they are of me."
Coulson smiled. "I seriously doubt it." The smile vanished. "Natasha, I need to see him."
"I'll get him down here."
"Thank you." Coulson tried to move on the bed again, and grimaced. "There's something else I need to ask you to do for me."
She got up to go. "You need to rest, Coulson, I've kept you up too long as it is."
"No – this is a personal matter. There's something I need you to get from my desk..."
Natasha hurried back to Coulson's hospital room, not especially pleased by this turn of events.
To be sure, she had no personal objection to Alys Simon: she seemed to be a level-headed female who had seen something she wanted and had gone for it with next to nothing by way of fuss, games or drama. Natasha could respect that. She'd also read through the one extremely thorough official background investigation SHIELD had run on Alys Simon, three even more thorough unofficial background investigations and, what's more, she'd taken advantage of Coulson's opiate-induced loquacity to ask him about his cellist (nobody ever accused SHIELD agents of playing fair). At this point, she felt pretty confident that the woman did not pose a threat. (It was an odd case of Occam's razor – Alys Simon was either a well-off nerdy cellist who happened to share Coulson's Captain America fixation, or she was a hostile agent who had slipped past four SHIELD background checks, who had managed to carry on an affair with Phil Coulson for a year without triggering any suspicions, and who hadn't raised any red flags during an hour-long conversation with a trained Red Room Operative. The "nerdy cellist" option was the more likely alternative, but only just.) And the two of them were obviously, ridiculously in love – they stared at each other like lovesick teenagers, if you knew what to look for underneath all those layers of British-grade emotional repression.
Dammit, she'd warned Clint. Repeatedly! She'd done everything but sit him down in front of a Powerpoint presentation! She couldn't possibly have made it any clearer. Coulson would never make the first move on a subordinate and the man, for all his intelligence, his skills and analytical abilities, needed a flashing neon sign to see when someone was taking an interest in him. The woman had simply crossed the line that Clint had never quite dared.
She sighed, and turned the small velvet box over in her hand. Maybe she could talk Coulson into taking a long vacation in Portland? It would be better if Clint had time to process this without his handler in the picture.
Phil woke up and looked around for Alys – relief warred with disappointment when it turned out she wasn't there. He didn't quite have a written speech this time and, well, recent events meant there was a lot more ground to cover. He'd spent the day watching his worlds collide without too terribly much trauma, even if he had been pharmaceutically-altered for most of it, and he felt himself to be on slightly firmer ground. Nothing had changed about what he wanted, he had a bit more reason to hope that it could actually work, and he'd sworn he wasn't going to miss another chance. He would do this now before he lost his nerve.
He rubbed his face, glanced down at the table, and finally noticed the folded piece of paper there, addressed to him in Alys' handwriting. He opened it.
Pepper and Tony were kind enough to invite me to the farewell dinner they're giving for Thor, so I hope you don't mind if I abandon you for a few hours tonight. (I rather like Pepper – she seems like a good egg, and Tony certainly can be charming when he chooses to be.) At any rate, it sounded fun, and I'm looking forward to meeting a few more of your coworkers.
I'll drop by as soon as it's over and give you the – what was the phrase? – the after-action report.
Phil was suddenly reminded the first op he'd ever run that had gone horribly, irreparably wrong. He vividly remembered the sick feeling in his viscera as he mentally tossed out Plans A through K, and realized that from here on out, it was strict improvisation and that he could not guarantee a good outcome for anyone involved.
This felt exactly like that.
He reached for the phone, but faltered. What would he say to her? "No, I forbid you to go!" Yeah, because that would go over well. Besides, it wouldn't be that bad, would it? Pepper would have his back, and so would Natasha. Alys had been charmed by Captain Rogers and Thor. Clint knew how to keep secrets, and Dr. Banner didn't know enough of Phil's to be any kind of threat. Stark was a wild card, as he always was, but surely Alys would take anything he told her with a grain of salt?
His stomach turned over. He'd just always figured he would be there with her when (or, honestly) if she ever had to spend time with the more... volatile... of his work-related associates.
He glanced the clock – it was only early evening. It would be at least a few hours until she came back. In self defense, he lay back, pressed the dosage button on the PCA machine, and fretted until the painkillers blanked out his mind.
He resurfaced to see Alys sitting in her chair next to the bed, her face drawn and worried.
Tony Stark is a dead man. Even the residual morphine wasn't enough to kill the creeping feeling of panic.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi." He swallowed his nerves. "How was dinner?"
"Lovely. Tony Stark does nothing by halves."
Phil's heart sank. "What happened?" he asked.
She pressed her lips together. "Thor," she said finally.
"Yes?" The hell? Thor got along with everybody.
"Is really an alien."
"Ah. Yes." Well, all right, there was that. Dear Lord, this wasn't good at all.
"From… from… oh my God, I can't even say it."
"Like in the myths."
"The basis for them, actually."
She nodded slowly. "Hence your extensive library of Viking-age literature."
"Yeah, pretty much." What else washe going to say?
"And how long have we been in contact with aliens?"
"But more than a year. Those books didn't look that new the first time I saw them."
Damn it. "Something like that." Where is she going with this? "You can't imagine... you have to know I couldn't tell you..."
"No, of course not. I do understand that much."
He gave up. "Alys, please just tell me."
She closed her eyes and started to rub her temples. "I guess Thor had been complaining to Agent Barton about the relative weakness of the alcoholic drinks he'd had here and Agent Barton felt that local honor was at stake. They were both really quite drunk, I think, and it apparently offended Thor to the very core of his Viking soul that, as he put it…" She dropped her pitch and adopted a plummy tone. "'The Son of Coul's lady knows nothing of his deeds of glory!'"
Oh SHIT. "Alys –"
"And we tried to explain about classified materials and how I don't have a clearance, and how that's really not a problem, but apparently "need-to-know" is not an Asgardian concept. So he got up and started floridly apologizing for the actions of his brother, specifically to you and to me and said that even though you were only dead for less than a minute, the weregild - the weregild! - still applies and that we may call upon him and his family for a favor at some point in the future, like some kind of Norse Godfather. And then he decided to sing forth the tale of your brave stand against his brother."
"And Stark just let him." He needed a focus for his rage, and Stark was as good a place as any.
"No, actually, both Tony and Steve saw where this was going and tried to get him to stop, as did Dr. Foster , when she realized that something was wrong."
"They weren't able to!?"
"Well, see, that was when the Son of Coul's lady stood up and told them she wanted to hear the story."
His inner monologue gave up and just started a silent litany of foul invective.
"It was extremely well done. In poetic meter, naturally, with an extraordinarily complicated rhyming structure. And it was very complimentary – honestly, I think he was intending to plead your cause. Thor is a magnificent orator, but I imagine that's one of the things that one has to learn when one is the Crown Prince of Asgard." She glared at him, daring him to speak.
The moment drew out like a blade.
"It was a really complicated situation at that point…" he started. That was a rookie mistake if there ever was one – the first person to talk was always at a disadvantage in an interrogation.
"You know what? I believe you. And, obviously, given the current state of Lower Manhattan, the circumstances were pretty clearly exigent. I wasn't there and I make no pretense to any great understanding of matters military, but I would point out that the only two people in that room who thought that what you did was a good idea were a man who survived being frozen in a block of ice for seventy years and a being who, for all I know, actually gets escorted to Valhalla by warrior women singing Wagner when he dies! There are some pretty strong conclusions I can draw from that!"
He took her hand. "Alys..."
"It's not even that... well, no, it's partly that, but it's mostly... Jesus, Phil, you were declared dead for almost two weeks, and I had no way of knowing! I checked the casualty lists hourly, but I had no idea if you'd even be listed. I had no one to call. No one to contact. Even knowing that you were listed as missing would have been something."
"What!?" Until now, Phil would have said it was impossible for him to feel worse about this situation. "Hill knew! She should have called you!"
"Nobody called me. And Pepper contacted your Agent Hill, who told her I'd been notified."
"For that, I am so sorry. I mean that. I'll find out what happened."
"I mean, I shouldn't complain - you're alive, I'm not the one who got stabbed, and there are a lot of people in Manhattan with missing loved ones who would kill to be in my shoes, but..." She paused, grappling for control. "I can accept not knowing where you are. I can accept not knowing what you're doing. I can even accept not knowing when you'll be back. But I cannot accept not knowing if you're dead or alive."
Now or never. Now, or he was going to lose her. "We can fix that." He gestured to the table next to the bed. "Top drawer."
She went to the drawer and opened it.
"Oh," she said in quiet surprise. She took out the small box and sat down in the chair.
"Family are always notified. Always," he said.
"Are they." She bit her lip pensively. "So it really wasn't just the morphine talking."
"No, it wasn't." He paused, and took a deep breath. "What you said in reply..."
She blushed, looking anywhere but at him. "That wasn't the morphine either." She opened the box and looked at it. The silence stretched on.
"There's a chain underneath... I didn't know if it would interfere with your fingering..." He haltingly forced out words past the paralysis that was creeping up on his tongue. "I know this is never going to be simple," he said, "But I don't want… what was it? 'June Cleaver, 2.5 kids and a dog.' This is what I want, even as things are."
She looked at the ring for a moment longer. "If I put this on, will you promise not to do anything like that again?"
"You know I can't do that."
She sighed but slipped the ring on her finger. "Phil, if you die in an unnecessarily self-sacrificing and overly heroic manner, I will walk up to Steve Rogers at your funeral, burst into tears and declare that I'm a widow because he didn't do a good enough job."
"That's the deal. You don't die doing something stupid, and I won't psychologically traumatize your boyhood hero."
"My boyhood hero! What about your girlhood crush!?"
"He's not you!" she was goaded into snapping.
They stared at each other for a moment in something not entirely unlike a state of shock.
"Phil, I... I..." Alys started to stammer and ducked her head, unable to meet his eyes. In the flash of the moment, he knew, just knew, what she was trying to say.
"Yeah. Me too." Later, he would kick himself for his total lack of grace or aplomb, but in the moment all that mattered was the blinding smile she gave him. She surged forward and they kissed until the heart monitor started beeping a warning.
After the nurse left (she'd had to come check once the monitor went off, but she'd made a lot of noise on the way over – Phil didn't think that was a coincidence), Alys settled with her head against his good shoulder.
"There's a lot we'll have to discuss, though. You'll have to be read in on a lot of things but I still won't be able to tell you much, and we really will have to upgrade the security at your apartment –" he began.
"We'll talk about it tomorrow. They'll kick me out, soon, and I don't want to deal with all that now."
They sat in happy silence for a little while, holding each other as best as possible, given the situation.
"Is there really a flying aircraft carrier with a cloaking device?" she asked.
"Oh my God." Phil rubbed his face with his hand.
"Yeah, I couldn't figure out if they didn't know they weren't supposed to talk about this stuff in front of me, or if they knew and didn't care..."
He sighed. "Yes, there is."
"That's so cool!" She thought for a second. "But I'm not going to get to see it, am I."
"Probably not, no."
"Okay," she said, in a tone of such disappointed resignation that Phil found himself wondering if maybe he could make that happen.
"Oh, and another thing..."
"I'm almost afraid to ask."
"Can I change my name to Mrs. Son-Of-Coul?"
"You're not letting that go, are you."
"You didn't actually think there was much of a chance of that, did you, darling? 'Oh, Son of Coul, ravish me! You know I can deny you nothing!'"
He grinned. "I'll remember that, for when I'm out of here..."
"She's a fucking bitch. A stone-cold fucking robot."
She's really not, Clint. Natasha held her tongue but patted him on the shoulder.
"She just sat there like a goddamn fucking statue. I've seen ice sculptures warmer than that."
Natasha really didn't know what the appropriate reaction would be to a Norse God singing forth the Saga of the Son of Coul, but quiet disbelief seemed well within the spectrum of "normal."
He took another long pull off the bourbon. "You know what? She's the price. That's it. She's the price."
"The price?" asked Natasha.
"I prayed. I went to church and I prayed. I haven't been to church since I left the goddamned orphanage, but I went, and I prayed. I prayed to God to give him back, to have them be wrong about his death. It's all I wanted. I wanted not to have killed him, of all people. And I said I didn't care what the price was, I'd pay it. Didn't matter what."
He raised one finger and pointed it towards Natasha. "And God gave him back. God gave him back and gave him to her. And that's the price."
Natasha managed to suppress an eyeroll – this was Inebriate Logic at its finest. She pushed a glass of water at him in the vain hope of easing his impending hangover. "Drink this, Clint, or you're going to be hating life in a few hours."
"'m gonna be hating life anyway, so what does it matter?" He chugged down the water regardless, and chased it with more bourbon. "But you know what? It's a relief. It's a fucking relief. You know why?"
"No, Clint, I really don't."
"Because if that's what he wanted, I never had a chance."
Natasha sighed. Clint was, in fact, wrong in every respect. When she'd asked a morphine-addled Coulson about his cellist, she'd gotten an earful, and not just about Captain America memorabilia. Phil had gone on and on about the woman's clever mind and her dry, snarky wit; he'd rhapsodized about her music, about human talent shaped by effort and persistence into superhuman ability; he'd waxed lyrical about her beauty and grace, her strong arms and rough hands. And if all that was what Phil had been looking for, then Clint had had every chance in the world, and had blown it through inaction and a total lack of self-confidence.
Natasha was still working out whether or not it would be a good idea to tell him that or not. At any rate, there was no point in saying anything at all of consequence until he sobered up.
"You'll never leave me though, right, Tasha? You're the best friend I've ever had..." Clint sniffled and draped his arm around her shoulders.
Ah yes, they'd reached the handsy stage of Barton's Trip to Unconsciousness. If she was exceptionally unfortunate, the singing would be next. Nevertheless, she leaned into his arm and kissed his cheek. "Absolutely. I'll always be here for you, Clint."
Thor came by in the morning to take his leave, promising to return as soon as could be arranged to help undo the damage his brother had done. Upon hearing the happy news, he congratulated the Alys and Phil floridly and at volume – it was pretty clear he thought that his epic poetry had done the trick, but neither Alys nor Phil could think of a polite way to disabuse him of the notion. Alys left at the same time: she had to call on Angelica's mother in the morning, and Mariasol was picking her up to attend Finn's funeral in the afternoon.
Phil would have preferred to go with her – more accurately, he would rather her not have to undertake these sorrowful duties at all – but it couldn't be argued that her absence made it easier to get the lay of the land at SHIELD.
Romanoff and Barton reported in once Loki had been successfully exiled. Barton looked like hell –part of that was almost certainly the hangover – but Phil had never been so glad to see anyone, and had told him so, possibly being a bit more effusive than he would ordinarily (they caught him on the wrong point of the painkiller cycle, damn it).
"I swear to God, sir, one of these days we're going to film you when you're like this. We could fund our retirement selling copies to the FNGs," said Barton flippantly. It was Barton's standard defense mechanism – deflect with a joke, but it was at least something resembling normal.
"Don't even think about it, Barton. I don't plan on being in this bed forever," said Coulson. Clint's flinch at the mention of the hospital bed would have been missed by anyone but his nearest and dearest; Phil cursed inwardly at his carelessness.
"None of this is your fault, Clint."
"Yeah, I got that," he said, but his face wore a blank look that plainly said that this was not the first time he was hearing these words, not by a long shot, and that he wasn't any closer to believing it.
Phil discussed this with Romanoff, once Barton left for yet another psychiatric screening.
"He's as stubborn as a mule. You know that as well as I do," said Romanoff.
"He did his best to fight Loki's influence. That's obvious."
"He didn't win. Which means, in his mind, that wasn't enough."
Coulson made a frustrated noise under his breath. "We'll have to find something for him to do, until he's ready to go back into the field. Inaction doesn't suit him. I'll talk to Sitwell."
"There's something else I'd recommend, sir."
"For you to leave. At least, temporarily."
"I think he'd do better without you around." She sat back. "Right now, your condition is just another stick he can beat himself with. I know you're under no illusions about how long your recovery is going to take and that you're well aware that you'll have some setbacks along the way, but I don't think Clint having a ringside seat for all that will do him any favors."
Coulson sighed. "I'll take it under advisement."
"I mean it. Seeing you back on your feet will help him more than any inspirational speech."
The corner of his mouth raised into a sarcastic half-smile. "You know damn well that my inspirational speeches are top-notch."
"I can't argue that, sir. By the way, there's a pool on how long you'll manage to stay away from HQ."
She nodded. "I know for a fact that Sitwell has two hundred riding on you taking more than four months to come back to work." She knew this for a fact because she'd given him the money with which to make the bet. "The smart money is on you never taking any leave at all."
"That's kind of depressing." She had a point about Clint, and, frankly, the idea of taking a break, of running away with Alys for a little while, had no small amount of appeal. He would have to think about it. "Was there a 'He Doesn't Take Leave, He's A Robot' category? Because if not, I'm obviously slipping..."
Finn Prentice's funeral was set to be held in Yonkers, so Alys and Mariasol had agreed to meet near SHIELD in Manhattan so that Mariasol could drive them both out. When she spotted her friend in the crowds, Alys waved and Mariasol hurried over.
"You're such a sight for sore eyes," said Mariasol.
"It's so good to see you," replied Alys. They hugged each other tightly. Like most of the world, they'd each spent the first few days after the attack trying to locate everyone in the city they knew and cared about and, like most New Yorkers, not everyone on their respective lists was accounted for.
After more than a few seconds, they separated.
"Ok, now that we're off the goddamned cell phones will you quit being so cryptic? How the hell did you swing this? Did you end up going to Cabot?" Getting a ride to New York on a private plane through one of her ex-husband's friends had been Alys' Plan of Last Resort.
Alys hesitated. "It's all of a piece... that is to say... Mariasol, there's something I have to tell you..." she said. In lieu of words, she held out her left hand gingerly. The diamond sparkled in the sunlight and Alys leaned back a little, clearly expecting an explosive reaction.
She got one.
"How could you...? What were you thinking!? How is this even possible!? What sort of Svengali-hold does this guy have over you!? Maybe you've forgotten the last two weeks of you sobbing into my ear, but I sure as Hell haven't! What the fuck did he tell you to make it seem like – "
"Alys!" came a voice from the other side of the square. They both looked over, and Mariasol's jaw dropped. That couldn't possibly be...
Steve Rogers jogged over from the SHIELD entrance. "Are you on your way to see Agent Coulson? Do you need an escort?"
"Thank you, but no. We were just on our way out."
"In that case, I'm glad I caught you before you left." He smiled. "I heard the news. I wanted to offer my best wishes."
Alys blushed and ducked her head, but she had one eye on Mariasol. "My goodness, word travels fast. Thank you, Steve."
"I think people are just glad to hear some good news right about now."
Alys nodded, still smiling. "I suppose that's true." She placed her hand on Mariasol's shoulder. "Steve, I'd like to introduce you to my oldest and dearest friend, Mariasol Trujillo. Mariasol, this is Captain Steven Rogers," she said, staring directly into Mariasol's eyes.
"A pleasure to meet you, ma'am."
Mariasol stared at him, her eyes like saucers. "Hello," she managed to choke out once Alys stepped on her toe. She shook the Captain's hand.
"We should probably go," said Alys, heading off an awkward silence. "We have to be across the city within the hour."
"I won't hold you up then. Ma'am," he nodded to Mariasol, and headed back into SHIELD HQ.
Once they'd said goodbye (and they were out of super-soldier earshot) Alys looked over at Mariasol. Her eyes were still wide.
"That was really... that was really..."
"Yes, it was."
Alys looked at her, and gave a half-smile and an apologetic shrug. "I've met some of Phil's coworkers."
Mariasol was almost speechless. "That's impossible."
Alys nodded. "Last week, I would have said that, too."
"So, what happened to Phil? He died and couldn't call you?"
"Something like that, yes."
Mariasol just stared for a moment, processing the new information. After a minute, she came to a decision. She crossed her arms and rolled her eyes theatrically. "Well, if he's introduced you to Captain America there'll be no peeling you off him now!"
Alys smiled, her relief palpable.
"And if you stick me in another horrible maid-of-honor dress, I'll never forgive you."
"It was 1990! Cut me some slack!"
"How... how does this relate to you managing to get to New York?"
"Like I said, it's all of a piece and kind of a long story. I'll tell you on the way over."
They both looked over to where Mariasol had parked but neither of them made a move. Their mood darkened.
"You ready for this?" said Mariasol.
"No," Alys replied quietly.
"Me neither," said Mariasol.
They hugged again, and walked arm-in-arm to the car.
It was late in the afternoon before Fury made his way to Coulson's room to talk and he came with an unexpected confession. Coulson glared at the Director who, reputation be damned, actually looked a little contrite.
"I can't believe you did that," growled Coulson.
"They needed a push."
"They had a push! My skewered corpse wasn't enough for you?"
"You can expense replacements to SHIELD."
"They can't just be replaced! One of them belonged to my..." he stopped as Fury drew something from his pocket and handed it to him.
It was Captain America Trading Card No. 1, in its plastic case, no less. Coulson subsided. "Thank you at least for that," he said grudgingly. "You're still on the hook for the other nine."
Fury nodded. "Agreed."
Coulson carefully put the card in the bedside table drawer. "So what happens now?"
"Officially, they're to go their own separate ways – it'll save us a lot of grief with the WSC, and, hell, they earned a break. Once you're healed up, you're going to keep tabs on them, same as you did before, the reports for your eyes, mine and Hill's, nobody else. But paper files only: nothing on the servers. You're going to be their official liaison, when they get recalled."
Coulson nodded. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me, you're the one who volunteered for cat-herding duty. But that's only after you get medically cleared. If we find you a rehab hospital in Portland, will that keep you from trying to come back early?"
"Actually, sir, I've got several months of leave coming to me – I might look into taking them after the doctors sign off."
"What's was that? See, I thought I heard Agent Phil Coulson asking me for time off, but no, I've got to be hallucinating because that just doesn't happen."
Phil rolled his eyes, and stifled a smile.
"And what's that going to be, your first real vacation since the Clinton administration?" Nick laughed. "Can the woman part the Red Sea, too? What is this world coming to? 'Here lies Benedick, the married man.'"
"I'm not married yet, don't jinx it."
"If she hasn't dumped your ass after the last three weeks, I think you'll be ok." Nick smiled. "She's all right, Cheese. Seems like you managed to land on your feet."
Phil grinned. "I'm incredibly lucky."
As this was getting perilously close to a Discussion of Feelings, Nick shook his head and changed the subject. "I just hope you realize the shitstorm you're letting me in for."
Nick answered in a falsetto, "Your little friend Philip is getting married and I'm going to die without seeing grandchildren!"
"Can't help you there, Marcus..."
Alys returned briefly that night, worn out and mournful and not in the mood to talk about the day at all, more or less as he expected. He held her hand and hoped it was enough.
Morning brought Maria, finally down from the Helicarrier, with an explanation.
Well, an explanation by way of a rant, but it got there in the end.
"You know damn well why I couldn't tell Alys the truth, how about you explain it to her?"
Phil pinched the bridge of his nose. "Is that what it came to? Really?" He looked sheepishly at Alys. "I thought it was presumptuous to add you as my next-of-kin until you'd actually agreed to be my next-of-kin. But it meant that, officially, you couldn't be told anything but the cover story."
"And the cover story was that you were dead." Maria turned to Alys. "I would have had to tell you that, and believe me, I didn't want to, particularly when it wasn't the truth. As it was, I was giving him two weeks to wake up before I made the call."
"I see," said Alys. She looked up at Maria. "And, honestly, knowing what I know now, I'm grateful that you waited."
Maria nodded. "I'm glad." She turned back to Phil, pulled a sheet of paper and a pen from her uniform and slapped them down on the bed. "So now that you've worked it out, fill out the goddamned form. I've got Pepper Potts pissed at me, Tony Stark is plotting revenge, and Captain America looks at me like I torture puppies in my off-hours. I don't have time for any of this garbage."
"Wait... how did they get involved with this?"
"The subject came up at dinner the other night. The team was somewhat upset. I'm sorry," said Alys to Maria.
"Not your fault." Maria said to her, then glared at Phil. "If you'd gotten your ass in gear and asked her when you bought the ring, we wouldn't have been in this situation to begin with!"
"My plans were interrupted by an inter-dimensional invasion! That hardly counts as dragging my feet!"
"That's a sorry excuse." Maria shot Alys a wink. "I'm not sure I'd buy it, if I were you."
"Oh, I think I'll overlook it, just this once..."
To be sure, officially and legally integrating their lives was never, ever going to be a simple matter. They both knew that, and were well aware that the difficulties brought on by Phil's recovery would only serve to make it more complicated.
Phil was only finally persuaded to go to Oregon after several more good long talks with Clint and a discreet, off-the-record conversation with Clint's therapist, who confirmed what Romanoff had told him: until Phil recovered, his injuries would only serve as a reminder of to Clint what he'd done while under Loki's control. Natasha also had to promise to send daily updates, and to bring Clint to Portland as soon as Phil was well enough to have visitors. (Alys took Phil's hesitation in stride: she merely became curious about the man Phil evidently cared for so deeply and made an effort to cultivate the taciturn Agent Barton. Clint did his best not to be rude but still didn't appreciate this sudden interest, and, surprisingly, was relieved to see the two of them leave for Portland on the medical transport.) SHIELD Medical transferred Phil to a rehabilitation center near Alys' apartment, a SHIELD doctor was posted to the center for the duration, and Phil began the months-long struggle to regain his strength.
Alys and Phil were married by the Justice of the Peace, as soon as Phil was well enough to leave his bed. Nick and Mariasol flew out to act as witnesses. The toast was done with sparkling apple juice, and the groom couldn't stay awake much past 9:00 pm, but it was no less joyous for all of that.
Phil threw himself into the therapies and exercises, desperate to restore his strength and to erase all traces of that terrible day. He healed quickly, far beyond what would be considered normal for a man his age, fast enough that he was brought back to SHIELD for an agonizing week to be examined for any lingering Asgardian influence. None was found, inasmuch as they were able to determine, and they allowed him to return. (Albeit begrudgingly. SHIELD's research division would have loved to keep him in the lab full-time, but were far too afraid to suggest it out loud.)
Once he was discharged from the hospital, he legally changed his address to the apartment Alys had bought. Alys blushingly confessed she'd gotten the larger space in the first place with the intention of asking him, if not exactly to move in, to regard her house as half his, and they set about making it a combined home. They had their very first marital fight over Phil's proposed security measures for the apartment, Alys providing a fairly scathing (and somewhat unfair) commentary on the subject of what she termed "Alcatraz-chic."
It would be the longest stretch of domestic time they would share for years to come.
True to her word, Natasha dragged Clint out to visit them in Portland for a visit. It went well – as predicted, the fact that Coulson seemed mostly back to his old self made a big difference for Barton. (It was also obvious to Natasha that Alys had gone to some trouble to roll out the red carpet for her husband's friends. Clint may not have noticed but Natasha appreciated the effort.)
Clint was, of course, fully capable of acting like an adult around Phil's wife, and even of putting on a good show of it, but Natasha cringed inwardly the first night when Clint slipped into her room after everyone else had gone to bed.
"Tasha, can I sleep with you?"
Natasha rolled her eyes, but scooted over to make room in the bed. "We talked about this, Clint," she whispered. "I know this is hard, but she's not going anywhere, and unless you're planning to cut Coulson out, too – "
"No! It's not that," he whispered in return as he got into the bed. "I just can't sleep in that room!"
"Everywhere I turn my head, there's Steve, staring at me!"
Oh, thank God. As relieved as she was, Natasha couldn't help but snicker. "I had no idea there was that much Captain America junk in the world."
"I mean, I knew they were both Cap nerds, but Jesus!" said Barton.
"What I don't get – there are four of a couple of the action figures..."
"I saw that! I saw that! That means they each bought two: one to keep mint in the box, the other to actually take out and look closely at, and they haven't figured out which set to keep and which to get rid of." Clint's shoulders were shaking with the effort of not laughing. "Do you think she makes him dress up? 'Oh Captain America, you have saved my life! How can I show my gratitude?'"
Natasha elbowed him in the gut but they nevertheless collapsed into entirely affectionate and mostly silent laughter. It took a while for the aftershocks to wear off enough for Natasha to ask a serious question but once they had, she looked over at Clint.
"Are you doing all right with all this?"
"No," he said, staring up at the ceiling. "But I'll get there."
That was good enough. Natasha pulled Clint into her arms, and, eventually, they slept.
Over the weeks of Phil's recovery and subsequent vacation, he and Alys developed a pleasant morning routine: breakfast and a slow coffee at the dining room table while she read the news on her tablet and he checked his e-mail on the SHIELD laptop Fury had sent. (Fury had only agreed to send it once Coulson's rehabilitation was complete, and even then only because Hill and Sitwell begged.) Portland was growing on him more than it was on Alys – she would still occasionally grouse about the Sticks and bemoan her outcast state, but he figured that any place with this much good coffee and excellent beer couldn't be all bad.
However, to tell the truth and as nice as this interlude was, he would be glad to get back. He wasn't ready for the quiet life just yet.
"Oh! I got a bread-and-butter letter from Steve. How nice!" Alys exclaimed. Phil looked up and smiled as she squinted at it. "Mind you, I've never seen anyone manage Strunk & White formatting on a personal e-mail..."
"We're going to have to figure something out, if he ever comes to visit again," said Phil, glancing at the spare bedroom that held a small part of their collection.
"Oh my God, no kidding. That was an awfully close call," she replied. "Maybe some sort of climate-controlled storage?"
"Perhaps," he said, turning back to his computer.
"Anything interesting going on at work?" she asked. "That you can talk about, obviously."
"Mostly e-mail from Sitwell – he's begging me to come back sooner."
"He can go pound sand. You're wholly mine for another month."
"I'll tell him you said that," said Phil.
"Do!" she laughed. Alys' tablet chimed with another e-mail. She checked it, and started to grumble.
"That doesn't sound good."
"It's not bad, just irritating." She rolled her eyes. "The concert-master wants to have a meeting with me and the conductor over the change of seating in the my section and I told Evan I'd already cleared it with Carlos, but..." She looked up at Phil and broke off. "Never mind. It's not that important."
"No... what were you going to say?"
"It doesn't matter."
Phil pushed away the laptop and looked at her over the rims of his glasses. This wasn't the first time she'd reacted like this. "Of course it does. What's bothering you?"
She shook her head and looked down at the table. "I just never realized how frivolous I must sound to you. I get into knock-down, drag-out arguments over seating and bowing and notation placement, and you spend your days saving the world."
Once in a very great while, the stars aligned and Phil found himself saying exactly the right thing, usually without realizing it until the words were out of his mouth.
"You make the world worth saving," he said, and it had barely even registered in his own brain before he found himself with a lapful of amorous cellist.
"Oh Phil..." she said, and kissed him. Phil had been cleared for, ahem, vigorous activity some weeks before so he was entirely prepared to take full advantage of the unexpected situation. Before it could come to that, however, the doorbell rang.
"Ignore it," he said, and settled in to the pressing business at hand. Their visitor would not be deterred however, and the doorbell kept ringing.
Groaning, Alys pried herself off him. "I'll chase them away."
"Hurry back," he whispered, his glasses askew.
She hurried to the door and looked through the peephole. In an instant, her posture and poise went deadly serious. "Phil, there's a man with an armed guard at the door."
He got up swiftly and silently, straightening his glasses and grabbing his sidearm from the entryway drawer. He tucked the holster into the back of his pants, and waved to Alys to get back. He opened the door.
"Hello! I'm looking for Mr. Phillip Coulson and Ms. Alys Simon?" A small man in a dark suit stood in the entryway, flanked by an intimidating private security guard. The guard held a package in his arms.
"For what purpose?" asked Phil in Agent Coulson Mode.
"I'm here on behalf of Tony Stark. I have a delivery to make." (Both Alys and Phil relaxed a little at that, but their curiosity was whetted.)
"I'll just to need to verify your identities first?" He checked their IDs, then handed over a clipboard. "All looks in order – if you could both sign here that you're acknowledging receipt."
Once this was accomplished, he handed over a medium sized parcel. They thanked the deliveryman and went to the table to open the package. Within the first box, they found two greeting cards. The first read: "Congratulations and fuck you for not inviting us to the wedding." It was signed by Tony Stark. (That was bad, but as reactions went, that had nothing on the fraternal ire of five men who hadn't even been told their little brother had been seeing someone – in retrospect, that had been a bit of an oversight. Next week, Alys and Phil were headed to Ohio to present themselves to the family entire.)
The second read: "Best Wishes and Congratulations!" and was signed by everybody else.
Phil opened the inner box and dug through the oceans of packing material. When he drew out another, smaller case bearing the Sotheby's logo and opened it, his jaw dropped. Alys gasped and covered her mouth with her hands.
Revealed within was a complete set of Captain America trading cards, in pristine condition, and each one was signed by Steve Rogers.
I swear to God, this thing was only supposed to be a thousand words long.
Over a year later, it's novel length (according to Nebula-award standards), the first novel I've ever written, and honestly not something I thought myself capable of doing.
Thanks to everyone who read, reviewed and kudo'ed – especially for your patience as this took me a LOT longer than I ever intended. A million thanks to Rex Luscus, Jep, Schemingreader and Ishymaria for their unflagging beta support as I griped and bitched about this thing over the course of the last twelve months. I couldn't have done it without you guys.
There will probably be more in this 'verse, as it's gotten a lot more complicated, and well, I really like Alys. But I make no promises as to timeline.
And it's a Marvel Fic, so it's got an after-credits scene:
Steve had come back from his road trip to find Clint, Natasha and Bruce pretty firmly ensconced in Stark Tower. He'd been prepared to gently refuse Stark's offer of an apartment, but all his objections melted away when he saw how much care and thought Tony had put into each floor, and how much the billionaire appeared to want the company.
They'd started to make a habit of getting together for dinner a couple of nights a week. Tony was hell-bent on catching Steve up on seventy years of pop culture, so it usually turned into dinner and a movie, which was fine by Steve. Honestly, he'd been catching up on pop culture since he'd figured out the Internet (he found the cat pictures hilarious) but it was just nice to sit with a group of acquaintances-becoming-friends and shoot the breeze.
It was at one of these dinners that the subject of Coulson's floor in the Tower came up.
"So a little bird told me that Phil's going to start back to work at SHIELD in a few weeks," said Pepper.
"That's good to hear. I saw them when I was up in Portland. He's looking much better," said Steve.
"Really? Wasn't that a bit creepy?" asked Clint.
"The Shrine to All Things Captain America in Coulson's apartment."
"Don't exaggerate, Clint. He and Alys invited me to stay with them and all I saw was a poster."
Clint raised his eyebrow at Steve. "Uh-huh. Say, how much advance notice did you give them? Did the walls seem at all bare to you?"
"So why is it that Agent keeps refusing to move in? I've actually got Captain America living here. How is that not the ultimate draw?" All previous offers of an apartment in the Tower had been turned down, and they hadn't done anything bad enough to merit Fury ordering Coulson to accept.
Steve rolled his eyes. "You can't fault a man for wanting his privacy, Tony."
"It's a Tower. It's not like we're sharing dorm rooms here."
"You should've tried a loaner Stradivarius and an acoustically-perfect practice room," said Bruce in the quiet tone he used when he was gently trying to wind Tony up.
Tony looked up and stared at Bruce. Silence fell as the group could almost hear the gears whirring in his skull.
Bruce looked taken aback. "Ah... I was joking…"
"JARVIS, do we have any Stradivarii in the Stark holdings?" asked Tony. Pepper put her face in her hands.
"No, sir, but the Maria Stark Foundation does own one of the fourteen known cellos to have been made by Andrea Guarnieri."
Tony took off for his workshop.
Tony sent the updated plans out the next day. Coulson's response read only, "Well played, Mr. Stark."
The team threw a party the day Coulson moved into the tower, a sort of welcome-to-the-neighborhood-and-back-to-work party all in one. As happy as she was to see them all again, and as much as the feeling was mutual, it was all Alys could do not to sit in complete thrall to the cello the entire time. Tony made a point of coming over when she was running her hand over the fingerboard.
"Well? How good are you?" he asked, throwing down the metaphorical gauntlet.
"I'm one of the best," she said simply as she picked it up and handed it back to him.
"Prove it," he said, and called everyone around.
Thus challenged, she began to play, switching to one of her personal instruments as the music became rougher. After Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 (the third movement, and hadn't Alys been ecstatic when she found out JARVIS could provide a backup orchestra), Van Halen's "Eruption" solo, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and an attempt to break the world-speed record for "Flight of the Bumblebee," it was generally agreed that her assessment was not that far off.
As the evening wore on, Clint drifted away to the roof, emotionally exhausted. He was doing his best with the jealousy – and it was getting easier – but feelings of such long standing couldn't just be wiped away overnight, even if Alys Simon wasn't the witch part of him wanted her to be.
Especially because she wasn't the witch part of him wanted her to be.
"So this is where you're hiding..." said Alys, climbing the ladder to sit next to him.
He shrugged. "Needed some air. Did you get lost?" he asked, somewhat sarcastically.
She ignored it. "No. I wanted to find you. I wanted to talk to you something..."
"It's about Phil. I'm worried about him."
He turned to look at Alys, no longer just humoring her. "What happened? Has he had a setback? What's wrong?"
She shook her head. "Nothing physical. Believe it or not, he's in better physical shape than before the incident. The doctors are mystified. It's just... he didn't have nightmares before."
Clint nodded. Boy, was that ever a common refrain these days. "About Loki?"
"He won't tell me, he's Agent Coulson. Even his nightmares are classified."
"But you know what they are."
She nodded. "There are two – I hope the first one is metaphorical, but apparently he's trying desperately to outrun a crater opening up in the ground that keeps swallowing up everything he cares about."
Not exactly metaphorical, Clint thought but didn't say. His stomach tensed up. "What's the second?"
Her brow furrowed. "His second nightmare is that he couldn't save you," she said, watching him carefully. "I mean, clearly you're here, so I don't quite understand that one..."
He glared at her. "You've got to be kidding me!"
"Is that bad?" she asked.
"I got possessed by an alien with a magic spear! How the fuck was he supposed to know what to do about that! It was just dumb luck that Tasha knocked me on the head before actually killing me, she had no idea that would undo Loki's spell!" He'd started shouting and waving his arms by the finish of the speech. He looked down at her wide eyes and groaned.
"You didn't know any of that, did you."
"Nope." She shrugged. "Don't worry, I'm good at keeping secrets."
"Unbelievable!" He rubbed his now-aching head, frustrated and edging up on angry. "You know, this is girl talk. Why are you bringing this to me and not Natasha?"
"I did tell her first. Who do you think clued me in on how to find you?" she asked. "She told me I should tell you this myself, and she strikes me as someone whose advice ought to be taken, when it is offered."
He couldn't argue with that. "And what is it you want us to do about it?"
Alys looked off into the distance. "Nothing that you wouldn't do already. I'm just providing you with more information as to his condition and state of mind."
He stifled the anger that boiled up at that. How dare she take them for granted! If she was so fucking worried, she could stay here and look after her own damned husband instead of rushing off to live on the other side of the country! She'd beaten Clint out and now she was asking him to do her job? Fuck that and the horse it rode in on!
He glared over at her, about to unleash the tirade when cooler thoughts prevailed. Of course she couldn't stay. Because she clearly knew just as well as he did how much Coulson hated to be mother-henned, and how he'd react if he felt he was being watched for signs of lingering trauma. So she was giving a heads-up to those closest to him out of concern, and nothing more.
Damn it. "Yeah. I get that. Thanks."
They fell silent for a time, then she spoke.
"You're the family he chose, you know, same as me. You and Nick and Maria and Natasha."
What the hell? "You don't know what you're talking about."
"I beg to differ. I've met his blood relatives and they're appalling. Phil spent the entire weekend with this look on his face that said, 'Yes, I'm related to these people. Please don't leave me.'"
Against his will, his mouth twisted up into a half-smile for a split second, then returned to his resting-face scowl.
"Anyway. I just wanted to say, I would never want to do anything to interfere with that."
And what the fuck was he supposed to do with that? "Good to know."
She nodded, clearly uncertain. "Well. I'll stop bothering you, then." She got up to go, oblivious to the turmoil she was leaving him in.
"'Night," was all he said as she headed back downstairs.
God this would be easier if she was a raging bitch.
"In other news today, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC was pleased to announce that it has received on permanent loan one of the largest privately-held collections of Captain America memorabilia in the United States. The collection, lent without charge as long as the owners remain anonymous, will be on display as part of a larger WWII exhibit later this spring. And now, the weather..."