Coulson didn't actually mind the quiet life. It took some getting used to, of course, but after a certain point, it was almost enjoyable. He was relocated, given a new name, given a new ID, social security number, history. He was also given the background that allowed him any job he wanted.
(Not that he needed one, of course, as his pension from SHIELD was decidedly generous.)
He wasn't allowed to contact her directly. That was one of the only problems with this new life. But he was allowed to attend her recitals, speak to her anonymously on dating websites, and keep an eye on her.
It was under his assumed name of Clark Rogers (Fury's idea of a joke, probably) that he spoke to her online. They had been corresponding for a few weeks, and he couldn't help but enjoy re-learning things about her. They were close enough that their conversations consisted of more than simple pleasantries, so it wasn't odd when she said,
I got a present today!
Oh? What for?
I have no idea. It was mailed to me directly from the website.
What is it?
A cello! You know I play it? He'd seen her perform over ten times, now.
I think I remember you mentioning that.
It's amazing. An Aubert Lutherie Vuillaume Model! I have no idea where it came from. They're so expensive! I keep expecting someone to come and say the delivery guy made a mistake.
Someone just sent you a cello? How much is it worth? He realized as soon as he hit 'enter' that that was a crude question. But he had a distant sense of suspicion, and it was sometimes hard to write casually after working with SHIELD for so long.
Way more than I make in, like, four months. Last I checked, it was almost 10,000. I looked at it occasionally, y'know, just as an 'if only' kinda thing, but then it just showed up. I think it might have been part of a promotion. Isn't that insane!?
Insane. Yeah. Definitely. He frowned, eyes flickering to his cell phone. Was this Stark saying that he knew Coulson was alive?
He'd have to tell Fury the engineer had his suspicions.
Phil Coulson's parents were sworn to secrecy when it came to his living. They were almost not told, but Fury made an allowance due to the nature of Coulson's 'death'. Even so, Coulson rarely spoke to them.
He didn't even know they were in debt until his mother said,
“And the bank had an error and our mortgage was completely paid. Isn't that great, Philip? We actually got money back.” His ears perked. Banks rarely made mistakes that resulted in their clientèle benefiting.
“How much money?” He questioned.
“Oh, Philip,” she tutted. “Do you need some? You know you only have to ask.”
“No,” he replied calmly, because he got a check every month with more money than he could spend. “I'm just curious.”
“Five thousand. Isn't that just amazing? Your father almost had a heart attack.” A small pause. “Not that he did, of course, dear.” Coulson's father had a history of a bad heart.
“That's great,” he said cheerily, even as his mind raced through possibilities. According to Fury, Stark exhibited no signs of being aware of his living. Had he figured it out, Fury maintained, he would have ranted or bragged. There was no knowledge of his purchasing the cello, but then it was all done anonymously. Even the website had no record of it beyond a basic receipt.
Which was ridiculous.
Which spelled Stark's involvement.
But there was no evidence.
“That's really great.”
“He's in the hospital, dear. Do you think you'd be able to visit? The doctors...” A small pause. “I don't think he has much time left, Philip.” Coulson frowned at his paperwork. He'd been back at SHIELD for three months (civilian life just didn't suit him, and even if he had to be Clark Rogers while he did it, he was born for government work), and he was still acclimating.
(His chest ached in the winter.)
“How much longer?” He asked, wondering whether he could finish this packet before leaving. Because, low profile or not, he was going.
“They say a few more days.” He heard a small, concealed sniffle. “He just needs a new heart so badly, Philip.” If his influence at SHIELD mattered that much, Coulson would have gotten his father the new valves he so desperately needed. But he was dead and it didn't and even his paychecks weren't enough for a procedure like this.
“I'll be there tonight,” he promised.
“Thank you, Philip,” she murmured. “I'm looking forward to seeing you again.” He hadn't seen her since the funeral. Since his funeral. She'd gone to his hospital room after crying at his grave.
(Sometimes he hated SHIELD.)
“Philip!” She crooned, embracing him with all the strength of a seventy-three-year-old woman who's already mourning.
“Clark,” he told her half-heartedly, because it really was nice being called by his real name. She nodded shakily as she retracted.
“Yes, of course, dear.” Just as passive. He glanced down the hallway.
“How is he doing?” His voice didn't shake. It hadn't shaken when he was threatening a god, so it shouldn't shake while he's standing in a hospital. It shouldn't be harder to keep it calm now. She shook her head slightly.
“Not well. I'm glad you came.” As they walked down the hallway, there came a bustling, a low murmur of excitement that made Coulson uneasy. He frowned at his mother, who seemed equally unnerved.
“Mrs. Coulson?” She nodded, grasping onto Coulson's hand for support as a doctor approached.
“Is something the matter?” She demanded. The cardiologist smiled as she glanced down at her clipboard. The expression on her face was nothing short of gleeful.
“Mrs. Coulson, I've got some very good news.” Coulson's brows furrowed.
“ 'Good.' ” The woman raised an eyebrow.
“I'm sorry, are you family?” His mother rolled her eyes.
“Of course he is, he's-”
“A family friend,” Coulson interjected smoothly. “Clark Rogers. What's happened?” The doctor still seemed unsure, but nodded anyway.
“We've just received a phone call. Your husband's surgery is going to be paid for in full, Mrs. Coulson. The expenses are completely covered, including the recovery period. We've got a few forms for you both to sign, and then I'd like to get him into surgery as soon as possible.” Coulson felt more than saw his mother crumple. The tight grip on his hand turned lax, and he scooped his hand beneath her armpit to support her.
“Mrs. Coulson.” He said delicately, resisting the urge to just call her 'Mom' or 'Mother' or even 'Mommy', because, yes, this was good news.
“He- the surgery is paid for?” She asked disbelievingly. The doctor nodded.
“Yes. But your husband needs to get into surgery as soon as we can get him in. We haven't got much time, Mrs. Coulson, so if you'd please follow me, you both can fill out the necessary paperwork and we can get him ready.” Coulson followed his mother down the hall, but just as they reached his father's room, the doctor frowned at him. “Family only, sir.”
His mother looked as if she were about to rave, so he smiled placidly.
“It's alright,” he lied. “I'll read a magazine. Just sign those papers, Mrs. Coulson.”
A day and a half later, his father was in surgery. Coulson and his mother sat in the waiting room, knees bouncing up and down in nervous sync.
(Coulson saw no reason to hide his unease behind a veneer of calmness, because his mother had seen him cry over scraping a knee; there was just no purpose in behaving as if he weren't worried sick.)
His phone vibrated against his chest.
“Can it wait?” She asked, almost nervously. He wanted to say, 'Yes, absolutely.'
“I'll be just a minute,” he assured her, standing.
(It was his SHIELD phone, and SHIELD calls can't wait.)
“Rogers,” Coulson reminded Fury tiredly (it would be amusedly if he weren't so exhausted). “What is it?”
“An amount of $174,640 was removed from Stark's personal savings account yesterday afternoon.” Coulson nodded a little.
“The 'anonymous benefactor' behind your father's surgery paid that exact amount at that exact time. I still see no reason to believe Stark suspects you're alive.” Coulson didn't really have to choke back the laugh, but he still felt it bubble in his chest.
“Other than the thousands spent to aid those close to me.”
“Yeah,” Fury agreed. “Other than that.” Coulson sighed heavily.
“What does this mean, sir?” A long, pregnant pause.
“Would you be interested in returning to the Avengers Initiative, Agent Rogers?”
“Coulson,” he replied.
It was answer enough.
“Welcome back to the world of the living, Agent Coulson. How do you feel?” Coulson smiled tightly at the director.
“As if I'm about to hear a lot of yelling.” Fury inclined his head slightly.
“I wouldn't write off the possibility.”
“Are they all present?”
“Except Stark. He always prefers making a fashionably late entrance.” Coulson's lip twitched. He was still unsure how the engineer would respond to his return. He obviously knew he was alive (he'd been sending him messages that he knew for a year, now), but how would he react in person?
“Agent Coulson.” He turned, and his half-smile grew. Maria Hill pursed her lips. “It's a pleasure to see you again, sir.” And there it was. A year and a half after being informed he was dead, and that was her shocked response.
(He was really proud of his SHIELD agents, sometimes.)
“Sir-?” Coulson had never seen Barton look so blindsided (and happy). And he had seen him the night after the agent had met Romanoff. A brief, unprofessional hug. “I- I'm glad you're okay.”
“I'm glad you're safe,” The handler told him honestly. “And I'm extraordinarily impressed with what I've seen on basic cable news stations.” Barton smiled, pleasant and open, and Coulson felt a little happier than he had in 19 months.
“I've had some help making headlines,” the archer told him unnecessarily, and Coulson was forced to hug every Avenger present.
(That is, every Avenger except Stark.)
After Thor cracked a few ribs that hadn't wanted to be cracked, Coulson regained his personal space and listened politely while Fury explained himself. There was a lot of anger on the side of the Avengers, but none of it was directed at him. In fact, whenever a distrustful gaze flew from Fury to him, it turned instantly fond.
(Except for Bruce Banner, who seemed genuinely confused as to who he was and why there was such excitement over his return.)
“Stark is on his way,” a small intercom device informed the room. The meeting had (more or less) ended. Everyone except Fury and Coulson had left, whether to buy a Congratulations-your-death-was-just-a-ruse-in-order-to-promote-unity cake (Barton and, by association, Romanoff) or attend to a small matter on ground (Thor and Rogers) or to just get a cup of tea (Banner, of course).
Coulson was bent over a screen when the consultant entered.
“Where is everybody? I'm not that late, am I?” Stark glanced at his phone. “Oh, wait, was this meeting set for ten or noon? I guess, either way, I'm late. Can I get a summary fast, because I do have plans.”
“We were familiarizing the group with your newest handler.” Fury answered, and Stark snorted.
“Geez, another one? We don't need a-” Coulson figured the hitch was indicative of his being seen. He glanced up slightly, casting a small smile at the newcomer.
He expected something like, 'About time' or, 'Was wondering when you were gonna show up' or even, 'Wow, Casper, like the new suit.' But there was no joke or yes-I-knew-all-along comment.
There was just a genius gaping in the doorway.
Fury raised an eyebrow.
“Either you guys really took off on my Life Model Decoy idea, or you're a fucking asshole.” Fury's eyebrow lowered.
“Agent Coulson will be returning to assist with the Avengers Initiative, Mr. Stark.” Stark shook his head.
“Impossible, seeing as how he's dead. Still waiting for an explanation, Commander Cook.”
“You would have received a thoroughly satisfying one had you arrived on time. Agent Coulson, could you please escort Mr. Stark out?” Coulson raised an eyebrow, but Fury remained resolute. When Stark didn't offer up even a token insult, the agent nodded slightly.
“Shall we, Mr. Stark?”
“Only if you promise not to posses me.” Stark replied stiffly, stalking out of the room with Coulson in tow.
“So, you wanna explain why you're not in that coffin I saw get lowered into the ground? I'm working off of the assumption that this isn't a 'Dawn of the Dead' situation, by the way.”
“Fury believed I was dead at first,” Coulson answered genially, enjoying the company of a familiar face (even if it were a familiar face that had always managed to annoy him). “After the medics brought me back, he'd already spoken to you all and given the news. You remember it was a busy day.”
“Vaguely.” Stark allowed, holding the door open as Coulson passed by.
“When he was told I survived, he kept everything on paper and those that knew were required to keep the information confidential. My death encouraged you all to work together, and he was concerned that the truth would dissolve already tenuous bonds. I was given a new identity, a generous pension, and after a few months of PT moved to Iowa.” Stark blinked.
“Why Iowa?” Coulson shrugged.
“Alright, so why the reappearance? Fury decide we could finally handle the truth?” Coulson paused, unsure how to handle this particular aspect.
(Because if Stark hadn't known, that couldn't be the reason.)
“We both agreed it was the right decision to reinstate me.” Stark nodded, removing his keys from his pocket.
“So are you gonna move in?”
“Move in.” Coulson repeated.
“To the tower,” he elaborated. “I've got a bed-and-breakfast thing going on there. All the Avengers have a floor. I can set one up for you in no time.”
“I'll discuss it with Fury.” Stark sent him an amused smirk.
“I see you haven't upgraded to big-boy pants during your vacation. Alright, lemme know what Daddy says.” Coulson leveled him with a heavy look, and the engineer raised his hands innocently. “You haven't got your taser back yet, have you?”
“Last week actually,” Coulson answered good-naturedly. Stark let out a low chuckle.
“Alright, I'll be good. Keep me informed. I've gotta go break into SHIELD's servers and see what other dirty secrets you guys are keeping.”
“Anything you'd be interested in is hardcopy,” Coulson told him, already turning to re-enter the building. “Have a nice day, Mr. Stark.”