Agent Hill's bruised but no longer bleeding face is the first one he sees.
"I knew it." She moves back from the hospital bed, arms crossed and eyes on Coulson. "Tony is going to shit kittens."
A heavily medicated and severely weakened Coulson dismisses the billionaire's tantrum with a wave of his hand: he'll get to it Monday.
"What happened with Loki?" Coulson's voice doesn't sound like his own. His normally calm rasp is broken, the words barely making it past the tube in his throat.
"They assembled," she says. "The team wanted to avenge one of their own. In the process they saved New York from some very nasty aliens Research is currently dissecting down below."
"Who was the casualty?" Coulson asks. Could Loki's stunt have killed Thor? Had Natasha been unable to bring back Clint? Was the Hulk too much for Banner?
Maria's lips thin. "It was you, Phil. You died."
Coulson opens his eyes to find Natasha and Clint flanking his hospital bed.
"How many people have survived the two of you showing up in the middle of the night?"
"Not many," Natasha admits. They're both in their black mission suits. Natasha's hair pulled off her face and Clint's arrows slung across his back.
"What can I do for you?" Coulson asks. His attempt at sitting only results in machines beeping and spiking in distress. Coulson hadn’t realized there were so many wires attached to his body.
"Shhh," Clint says, putting a hand on Coulson’s shoulder to ease him back onto the hospital bed. "You're killing our stealth here Phil."
Coulson's aware something isn't right. He's been in and out of consciousness with only his nurse, doctor and one time visit by Maria. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are busy but they're also a brotherhood. Whenever one of their own is injured in the line of duty, the others bring magazines, trade jokes and supply the latest gossip. Camaraderie keeps the ship flying (camaraderie and some very advanced, possibly alien, technology). The lack of visitors can only mean there's (another) world threat or Phil has something communicable. As far as Coulson knows, getting stabbed through the chest isn't something you can catch.
"How long have I been out?"
They look to one another before Natasha answers, "Two months. Banner tipped me off that S.H.I.E.L.D. might be using Pym particles to expand the helicarrier's capabilities. We decided to explore and see what we could find."
"Didn't think we'd find you," Clint says. "Welcome back Phil."
After Maria, Natasha and Clint's visits, Coulson gets two stony faced guards for his door. Unfortunately for the guards, and S.H.I.E.I.L.D's very expensive training regime, they’re woefully unprepared for Pepper Potts and Tony Stark.
"That man is my friend and you will open this door or I will blast it open," Tony threatens.
"Sir, Commander Fury has requested that the Agent have no visitors. In addition, this wing is off limits to civilians."
"Was that jab meant for me?" Pepper breaks in, sounding angrier than Coulson's ever heard. Even that time Stark lost the jet to that Facebook whizkid. "But if you do not let me in, I will shove my six inch heels so far up your ass you'll be eating Louboutin's spring line for breakfast."
There's a pause - and then Coulson's door slides open.
"Thank you," Pepper straightens her skirt with a huff and a defiant chin raise. Tony mimics the pose with his suit jacket and follows her inside the room.
"That was the hottest thing I've ever seen."
"Save it for the ride back Tony." They both crowd around Coulson's bed, Pepper giving him a hug while Tony offers his hand.
"I see the rumors of your demise have been greatly exaggerated," Tony quips.
"I wasn't aware there had been rumors," Coulson says. Natasha and Clint had debriefed him but they'd both been a little distracted when Fury was making his grand speech about Coulson's sacrifice.
"Yeah well Fury's a manipulating bastard who knows right where to hit his audience. A bit like Joss Whedon that one," Stark says. "Glad to see you're still with us though."
"You have so much Young and the Restless to catch up on," Pepper says. But there's tears in her eyes and she clenches Phil's hand. This is not the first time a friend she's cared about has been presumed dead. "Do you need anything? Is the food okay, we can send a cook. Or can we have you transferred? Anything you need."
"I've heard Vegas showgirls do wonders for the healing process." Pepper frowns and Tony adds, "Heard hypothetically."
Phil ignores their question. He'll stay in the S.H.I.E.L.D. hospital until released and he's long grown used to cafeteria food. "How's the team doing?"
"Oh we're good," Tony begins. "Bruce stops by Stark Towers about once a week. We chat, build things, only one of which caused the evacuation of a couple of city blocks. Thor is still missing but Jane says she's detecting new patterns of energy only emitted by the Bifrost. We're gradually getting Steve up to this decade. Clint and Natasha are back to working Team Delta during our downtime. Apparently they were making life a little difficult for Fury: locking him out of his room, hiding his eye patch, inciting riots, that sort of thing."
"They will do that." Phil acknowledges. He normally works as Team Delta's handler due to Natasha and Clint's tendency to emotionally break other agents.
"There's nothing official yet but Pepper and I are rebuilding Stark Towers to accommodate a wide range of abilities and functions should a homebase be needed."
"My involvement is now 50%," Pepper says with a smile.
Tony wavers before saying, "We're still in negotiations."
Bruce brings books, lots and lots of books.
"Wasn't sure what you'd like," Bruce says in explanation. "Figured you'd probably be going a little stir crazy by now."
Coulson's already been caught sneaking out of his hospital room three times. They've at least moved him to a non-guarded and non-alternative dimension room that allows for more visitors. Still, Coulson's not the type to simply sit.
"I see you're doing better."
"I hear the same thing about you," Coulson says. Pepper's been keeping him updated on Bruce and Tony's doings (it's like living in a well-armed fraternity she'd said) along with helping him catch up on all their favorite shows.
"The Other Guy hasn't been as big of an issue, as well," Bruce says with a shrug, "he can be."
Coulson nods and starts looking over some of the books Bruce brought with him. The collection is a grab bag with a couple of obviously well loved science textbooks but also genre fiction and history books. Coulson spots the Battle of the Bulge memoir and makes a grab for it. He's always been a sucker for WWII.
"I just can't figure out what the hell Fury was thinking," Bruce says, hand sliding through already mussed hair. "He let us believe for two months that you had died."
"I think he was worried I might still die on him. From what they tell me, it took awhile for medical to get me stable. Luckily the Destroyer wasn't the only thing we've been reverse-engineering," Coulson says.
"Yeah well," Bruce says. "Don't expect any of us to trust Fury for a long time."
"Son of Coul. It is good to see you." Coulson is recovering from Loki's attack but the hug Thor gives him is enough to rattle several of his ribs. Thor's in only S.H.I.E.L.D. issued workout pants without the matching top. Coulson didn't know people could have 12 pack abs. "I see your Odin-sleep was restful."
"Usually we just refer to it as a medical coma," Phil says. "But yes. I should be out of here in a few days."
"And then you shall return to us?"
The doctors are ordering Phil to three months paid medical leave. Coulson's estimates he'll be out a week before returning to work. "Anything I can help you with now?" Coulson asks. He's not suppose to put any strain on his heart but Coulson can accomplish a lot with his phone.
"I am fine my friend. Tony has offered accommodations in his castle. Lady Potts has been most helpful in securing me Midgard currency and clothing."
"She's very helpful. Any reason you're not taking her advice right now?" Coulson asks.
Thor laughs. "You'll have to excuse my sight." He sniffs, raising an arm like a middle schooler to smell his arm pits. "And my smell. I am returning from the gym where the Captain has proven to be a worthwhile sparring partner."
"Good to hear that. I'm sure we can work on modifying our existing gym equipment to better suit your needs."
Thor's smile is wide and his backclap hearty. "You are a good man Son of Coul. I am glad you are not to Valhalla yet."
Phil's released four months after being stabbed through the chest by the G-d of Mischief. His apartment, prepaid a year in advance in case of this kind of situation (although Coulson had never imagining anything quite like this) sits dusty and unused when he arrives. Home rests lasts for two weeks, the extra week to catch up with all his stories, before he's back at S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Thought the doctors said three months off?" Fury asks when Coulson steps onto the bridge.
"You also said he was dead," Steve says, coming to a stop right behind Coulson. His voice is carefully controlled and Coulson can feel the tension emitting from the soldier.
"Captain Rogers," Fury acknowledges. "Do you want to yell at me some more or debrief Coulson?"
"Debrief me for what sir?" He's been keeping up to date with the after action reports along with being personally debriefed by Natasha and Clint. It's Phil's job to make the two versions co-exist.
Steve takes Coulson's elbow, steering him off the bridge and away from Fury. The animosity between the two promises lots of fun for Coulson later.
"The Avengers Initiative," Captain Rogers and steers them towards the part of the ship with personal quarters.
"No offense Captain but that's a mission I'm intimately familiar with." He doesn't mean for the words to come out so suggestively. Just as he didn't mean to mention watching the Captain while he was sleeping. All watching had been done for mission related reasons of course.
"I meant no disrespect, Agent Coulson," Captain Rogers says with smile. "Merely that we've decided to fully enact the operation. As I'm sure the others have told you, the newly remade Stark Tower will act as our homebase. Right now we're still in planning mode but once we're operational we'll need a liaison between team members and S.H.I.E.L.D. itself."
"Has S.H.I.E.L.D. assigned anyone yet?" Coulson asks. He can't deny the desire to work with his idol or with Natasha and Clint again.
"We decided actually," Steve says. They stop outside of what Coulson realizes is Captain Rogers personal quarters aboard the ship. "Part of our agreement in becoming a full time team was that it'd be you working with us."
"Oh," Which is unfortunately the best response Coulson can come up with. "Everyone decided?"
"Of course," Captain Rogers says and ushers him inside the sparse quarters. "I had wanted to see you earlier but I was hoping to find everything before they released you."
Coulson scans Captain Rogers room. Not speaking is probably the only way to avoid saying anything inappropriate. Coulson knew Captain Rogers was the type to sleep with only one pillow.
Captain Rogers bends down and searches through his footlocker. He stands up and presents Coulson with two manila envelopes. "These are for you."
Coulson takes the first envelope, shaking out the contents onto his hand. In his palm land twelve mint condition signed Captain America cards. Even - "The Special Edition VE Day Costume Card with alternative lettering." It's a reflex to clutch the card to his now scarred chest. Only twenty-five are in existence: Coulson never expected to see one in his lifetime. "How did you get these?"
Captain Rogers is smiling now, the expression more real than any of matte reproductions Coulson holds in his hand. "Well we worked on your collection first. Tony donated the funds and Pepper helped me navigate some auctions to grab most of them."
"Where'd you find this one?" Coulson asks and holds up the special edition.
Captain Rogers shuffles on his feet, glancing at the floor before saying. "Natasha found a foreign dictator who happens to have a crush on Captain America and is a big time collector."
Coulson raises an eyebrow.
"That was a weird day," Rogers acknowledges. "Natasha and Clint happened to be visiting the country and ran across the card."
Coulson has no doubt. "Thank you."
"Look at the other envelope," Captain Rogers says. "Public Relations thought it'd be a good idea to bring them back."
Coulson takes the envelope and pulls out a trading card sleeve: one filled with three cards across and three cards down. It's a set Coulson's never seen before. The card's edges are all sharp, the color saturation high and finishes glossy. These are new cards that hold a photo of each Avenger. The team poses in their uniforms, arrows pointing at the viewer or mouth howling its rage. Two of the cards hold group shots but the last, the last is something he would never expect.
"I'm on a trading card," Coulson says. It's him in his suit and sunglasses, expression neutral verging on amused. His hands are clasped in front of him. "I have my own trading card."
He flips over the sheet. There are stats for all the team members: places of birth, favorite weapons and miscellaneous trivia. For Phil, his favorite quote is listed as: "I will taze you and watch Supernanny while you drool on the carpet."
"Tony helped PR fill in some of the blanks. Your file was very thin."
Coulson nods. Jumping from secret agency to secret agency will do that. "This is so cool," he finally says which earns him a laugh from his idol.
Captain Rogers slaps him on the back and says, "Welcome to the team Phil."