"Good news from SHIELD medical, for once," Clint announces over speakerphone. "Coulson's just been cleared for active duty."
The declaration is met with cheers of varying enthusiasm but universal sincerity.
"Active duty, huh?" Tony says, spinning his chair to face the other Avengers and Avengerettes (a title that everyone agrees refers purely to adjunct status, with no deliberate gender connotations) scattered around the common area. "You know, we should probably confirm that. With," he pauses and waggles his eyebrows for dramatic effect, "rigorous testing."
"How?" Bruce asks, gamely rising to the bait.
"We could throw him a party," Steve suggests. In the first few months since falling into this cozily eccentric living arrangement, Steve is already a big fan of 'parties'.
"I support this idea," Thor says, and no surprise there. Thor's been a fan of 'parties' for eons.
"What, a 'welcome back' party?" Pepper takes a sip of her tea.
"Yeah, 'welcome back from the grave, you death-faking bastard, do that again and we'll kill you for realsies'," Tony agrees. "It's the next big trend in party planning."
Natasha rolls her eyes. "You know that wasn't Coulson's call. Director Fury saw an opportunity and he took it."
"Eh, whatever." Tony shrugs. "Phil still didn't have to play along with it for as long as he did. So, party. Theme ideas?"
"We could all wallop the crap out of each other with palm fronds," Rhodey says without looking up from the foot massage he's teaching Steve how to give to Pepper.
Bruce grunts. "Palm Sunday's actually the one before Easter."
"So?" Tony asks.
"So nothing," Bruce says, "I just don't know if that's the kind of detail that would matter to Phil."
Steve frowns. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable making light of the Crucifixion like that. It's tasteless, at the very least."
"Was that even what you were thinking of?" Tony asks Rhodey.
Rhodey shrugs and moves up to Pepper's calf. "Yeah, it was, but as soon as the words were out I knew it was off."
"No Easter bunnies." Natasha shudders. "Not after last week."
"Okay, but we can still have marshmallow Peeps at the party, right?" Clint says from the speaker.
"Why?" Pepper asks.
"I like them," Clint answers.
Tony snorts with laughter. "That does me for an answer. Marshmallow Peeps there shall be. What else?"
"Truly, this event should be a feast of triumph and a magnificent celebration of life," Thor says, nodding sagely. "With a waterbed."
The actual party takes a couple of weeks to come together, what with the twin difficulties of finding an evening when everybody's available and luring Coulson to the tower without making him too suspicious, but when it does it's a roaring success.
Coulson frowns as he steps out of the elevator into the darkened lounge, then jumps when the lights slam on in sync with the first sung lines of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life", blasting from every one of the legions of speakers concealed around the apartment. He sighs and narrows his eyes at Stark, who steps out from behind a banana plant wearing a silk robe and cackling with laughter. "I hate you so much."
"Oh, come on," Stark says, putting a friendly arm around Coulson's shoulders, and the music fades down enough to enable conversation. "It was either this or 'Tubthumping', with a write-in vote for 'My Heart Will Go On'."
"Surprisingly, not what I meant." Coulson reluctantly allows Stark to steer him farther into the room, until he can see that the place is decked with streamers and silver helium balloons. There's an overloaded buffet table against one wall and a sparkly banner reading "Welcome Back, Phil!" spanning most of the ceiling, and beneath the banner . . .
"Is—?" Phil begins, but has to stop because the answer is obvious.
Beneath the banner stands a very large bed, with padded edges around the satin-wrapped mattress which is undulating softly under the shifting weight of the seven people lounging alluringly on top of it like the world's most overqualified underwear models.
Stark—Tony—gives Phil's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Whaddaya think?"
Phil blinks and manages to reel his jaw up from off the floor. "I think I'm starting to wonder if I'm not dead after all. This looks an awful lot like strange and dirty heaven."
Tony laughs and drags him another few steps closer to the bed, while Phil watches Clint smirk and scoop handfuls of condoms out of a large blue bowl then let them trickle out through his fingers, their packages shimmering like rubies.
"Since that'd put us all up there with you, in the absence of evidence to the contrary I'd prefer to assume that we're still stuck in the land of the living. With that in mind . . ." Tony reaches into Phil's breast pocket faster than Phil, this pleasantly distracted, is able to stop him, and does something to his phone before handing it back. "Here's the cheatsheet, when you get the chance to look at it. Oughtta cover most of what you need to know. Current password should be obvious; when you change it try to make it less so."
Natasha smiles and kisses Pepper's shoulder, and Bruce snickers into his knuckles. Phil swallows hard.
"This is your party, buddy," Tony reminds him. "You got first dibs."
On the mattress, Steve reaches overhead and stretches luxuriously, then looks up at Phil with an expression that's at once shy and thoroughly immodest.
"What will make you feel alive?"