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Coulson was aware that something was up, judging by the scurrying and occasional muttering of the staff, but he wasn't in any shape to investigate it. He'd just get in the way. He allowed himself a moment of worry that no one he knew had come by the Helicarrier's hospital to congratulate him on his miraculous survival. Normally Fury at least would have stuck his head in the door and made some remark about paperwork awaiting his attention.
He had managed to get a nurse to confirm that the Avengers had made it, including Clint and Natasha. It warmed his heart, well, it made the pain a little less annoying in that region, that Clint had not only recovered from Loki's influence but he'd been accepted into the Avengers. All SHIELD agents were extraordinary people, but some were more extraordinary than others. He wasn't going to be concerned that neither of them had showed up to check on their handler. He could well imagine how chaotic the city must be. They were probably just really, really busy.
He kept drifting in and out of consciousness. It was disconcerting to open his eyes and discover that the tray table had been pushed over his bed and he'd been raised to a sitting position. It was easier to breathe that way, so he wasn't complaining, but he didn't like being so out of it that things could appear as if by magic.
Like a shiny woven gold basket full of fruit, topped by helium balloons printed with Avengers images. He had to hand it to New Yorkers. It didn't take them any time at all to seize on a merchandising opportunity. He pulled the light green cellophane away from the basket and picked up the card. "Get Well Soon!" it read. He turned it over, but found no name for his benefactor. Most likely a mistake by the vendor. He'd find out later who it was.
"Apples, nothing but apples? Oh. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Clever." Since he was bored, he took out each of the apples and lined them up in front of the basket to admire them and feel good that someone had remembered him. No two seemed to be the same variety. "Heirloom, I expect." Well, if you're going to jack up the price, you need justification. They smelled good, fresh and perfectly ripe, but he preferred to know what he was eating. "Ah! I recognize you!" He picked up an almost spherical greenish-yellow apple streaked halfway around with blush pink and red streaks from the top. He brushed it against his mouth verifying by smell. "You're a Northern Spy," he said and opened his mouth to bite it.
And suddenly had a lapful of Black Widow, fortunately not pressing on anything vulnerable or damaged. "Romanov! What?" It hurt to shout and that was all he could say before Natasha was off of him and standing wild-eyed next to the bed. He coughed and checked his IV. No, nothing that should cause hallucinations.
"Loki," Natasha said tersely.
"Oh." Coulson reconsidered hitting his morphine demand. He'd need all his wits for this. "Need I ask?" He gestured at the other apples.
"We were gathered in Stark's penthouse. He wanted to show us something." Natasha carefully put the apples back in the basket, one by one.
"And by 'us' you mean?"
"Director Fury. The Avengers. And Ms. Potts. Thor had come back from Asgard. He said that Loki had escaped, but we weren't to worry because he'd been limited." Natasha frowned. "Thor said he couldn't kill anyone."
"But Loki showed up, too. He had something in his hands..." Natasha made a vague gesture. "I don't know, I couldn't see it clearly. It was...We couldn't move, and he said that he would have us killed by a friend, since he couldn't do it. And then..."
"And then he turned all of you into fruit?" Coulson rubbed the bridge of his nose. This really wasn't what he'd trained for.
"But I was still aware."
Coulson winced. He'd almost bitten Natasha in half. "Presumably the others are as well." Coulson stared at the basket. "You were a Northern Spy. When I was holding you and I said the name, it... I hate to say it... but it broke the spell."
"And you think the others have been turned into apples whose names refer to them?" Natasha frowned. "That does sound like Loki's twisted sense of humor. How many named varieties of apple are there?"
"Lots. It's not my field. Some of these look similar to common varieties, but none of the names seem to match. Delicious? Gala? Macintosh?"
Natasha nodded and went over to the bedside telephone. "This is agent Romanov, in agent Coulson's room. Locate and deliver a specialist in apple identification." Natasha raised her eyebrows at whatever the person on the other end said. "No, this is not a joke. Top priority."
"Try Cornell University, the New York State Horticultural Society, and the New York State Apple Research and Development Program," Coulson said.
Natasha added that information, without asking how Coulson knew it, which was a nice show of trust. Then she broke the connection and looked back at the basket. "What happens if the apples go bad?"
"I've no idea." Coulson began wrapping tissues around the apples. "Nothing good, I would presume."
The man from Cornell looked bewildered as he stood in Coulson's hospital room. "I... what? What is this thing? An invisible, floating battleship?"
"You've already signed the documents swearing you to secrecy," Coulson said. "That includes conjecture."
"Yes, but what do you want with me? I'm an agricultural expert! I don't know anything about... aliens or monsters or whatever those things were."
Natasha said, "You know about apples, Professor Smith."
The man blinked. "Yes?"
"Name the varieties of these apples, and you'll be returned to your desk with our thanks," Coulson said.
"That's it," Coulson confirmed.
"All right." Smith picked up a large apple of so dark a red it was almost purple. The skin appeared tough, and it was evenly flecked all over with tiny pale dots. "I'm fairly sure I know this variety. But I should confirm it." He pulled out a pocket knife. "I'll just..."
Natasha kicked the knife out of his hand. He screamed and threw the apple up in the air. Coulson stretched out a hand and caught it as it fell. Natasha stared at the man. "Don't hurt the apples," she said seriously. He flinched back and rubbed his wrist.
Coulson rubbed the apple soothingly with his thumb. It didn't appear to have been bruised. "What type is it?"
Natasha picked up the knife, opened it and threw it against the far wall, where it stuck, quivering.
Smith's eyes followed the knife. "It's probably a Baldwin."
"A Baldwin?" Coulson said dubiously, a moment before he found himself holding Fury's hand. "Sorry, director." Loki really did have a cruel sense of humor.
Fury grunted something noncommittal. "Thank you, Phil. Now, for the others..." He turned. "Do we need a new expert?" Professor Smith was lying on the floor in a dead faint.
Natasha dumped Coulson's pitcher of ice water over the professor, who sat up, sputtering. "He's fine," she said.
"You... you..." Smith pointed at Fury. "You were an APPLE!"
Fury nodded. "We have a secret weapon, the fruitilizer. There was an unfortunate lab accident." Coulson didn't laugh. It would hurt. And besides, that explanation sounded better than 'an alien god with a grudge did it'.
"I'm not... I don't want anything to do with this! She KICKED me!"
Natasha looked at Smith and said, "Sir. I apologize." She didn't add anything else, just looked at Smith.
"Yes, well..." Smith swallowed nervously. "All right. Just...I don't want to touch any of the apples. Please don't make me."
"I'll handle that," Coulson said. Fury hadn't changed when Smith said 'Baldwin' so the spell-break seemed likely to be specifically Coulson in physical contact with the apple and his voice naming it. "You just tell us what each one is."
"Well...." Smith pointed to a large, irregularly shaped greenish apple streaked with brown. It was rather unattractive. "I'm fairly sure that's a Greensleeves."
Coulson frowned. "Perhaps, Director, we ought to leave that one for last." If it turned into the Hulk instead of Banner, they'd have a basket full of applesauce.
"Um, the next one I'm reasonably confident of is a Ginger Gold," Smith said, indicating a gracefully tapered light greenish yellow fruit freckled with slightly darker green speckles.
"I'll take her," Coulson said, holding out his right hand. Fury brought him the apple and laid it gently in his hand. "Hello, Ginger Gold," Coulson said.
"Oh, God." Pepper appeared, stumbled before catching her balance, squeezed Coulson's hand hard for a moment, and then released it. "Are you all right, Phil? Oh, my God, Tony!"
"It's all right," Coulson patted at her arm. "We've got everything under control. Professor Smith is going to get him back."
"Next," Natasha said to Smith.
"The maroon to purple one. That's... I can smell it from here. That's a Viking."
"That's a stretch, but I assume there are no apples named Norse God?" Coulson asked as Fury brought the apple over to him. This time Fury held the apple far enough away that Coulson was only touching it with his fingertips.
"Not so far as I know," Smith said.
"I dub thee Viking," Coulson said, gently stroking the apple. Well, he was getting a little light-headed.
Thor stood up, and then knelt at Coulson's side. "I thank you, Agent Coulson. I regret that my brother has been the cause of this mischief."
"Mischief?" Pepper said in a high-pitched voice. "We could have been eaten!"
Thor winced. "Perhaps a stronger word was in order."
"Let's get on with it, and argue about Loki later," Fury said. He put his hand on Coulson's shoulder. "How are you holding up, Phil?"
"Oh, I'm fine, sir."
"We could let you rest before we do the others."
"No, sir!" Coulson tried to speak with more vigor. "There may be a limited window to reverse the spell. You know, one of those, 'if the sun sets on this, it'll stay forever'?"
Pepper went so pale her freckles stood out. Thor wrapped an arm around her in support.
"Get on with it!" Fury snapped at Smith.
"Well, this one looks like a Delicious." Smith indicated one of the two remaining similar reddish apples streaked with blush and yellow. "You can see the classic taper."
Fury brought the apple to Coulson who looked at it dubiously. "Delicious," he said while touching it. Nothing happened. Everyone looked at Smith. No one was smiling.
"Wait! Since so many of the varieties were heirloom, perhaps this was meant to be the original name," Smith was babbling. "In 1892 the Louisiana-based Stark Nurseries held a contest to replace the 'Ben Davis' apple. A farmer from East Peru, Iowa, sent in the winning apple which he called 'Hawkeye'. The nursery bought the rights and changed the name to 'Delicious'."
"Hawkeye," Coulson said with surety.
"Thank you, sir," Hawkeye said to Coulson as he straightened and turned to look at Smith. "Stark Nurseries? Oh, he's going to have fun with that."
"I hope so," Pepper said. She stared at the three remaining apples, the green one that presumably housed the essence of the Hulk, a red one, and a yellow and red.
"Well, this red one could be either a Freedom or a Liberty. The consistency and narrowness of the striping makes me lean more towards Liberty," Smith said, still looking nervous.
"Three guesses who that is," Clint remarked as Fury brought over the apple.
Coulson smiled. "Hello, Captain." He touched his fingers lightly to the apple. "Liberty."
Captain America smiled at Coulson. "Tony's promised to get me a replacement set of cards to sign."
"That's... very nice, of both of you." Coulson felt very fanboy at the moment.
Pepper cleared her throat. "He can't do much as an apple."
Clint pointed at the round, mostly yellow apple, with the streaky patch of blush red speckled with orange. "Ok, what's Stark? Brainfruit?"
Smith shook his head. "No, this is... I'm almost certain I know this variety. It's an interesting apple. Its juice is tart, but not unbalanced. Indeed, it has a vinous, wine-like, quality, the taste a mixture of banana, lemon-lime citrus, something like tart strawberry and there's even some fizzy acidity." Apparently Smith had recovered his nerve and was in lecture mode. "It does well in the brutal heat of Southern California, and remarkably also is able to withstand minus 40 degree winters. Really, an underrated versatile variety."
"Yes, I'm sure," Fury said impatiently. "But what's it called?"
"Oh. This is a Wealthy apple."
"Of course." Pepper beat Fury to the basket, and carefully took the apple to Coulson.
Coulson was really getting tired, and he had the Hulk, possibly, to look forward to. He touched a fingertip to the apple. "Wealthy."
Tony Stark turned and kissed Pepper Potts. "Do I really taste like strawberry? I hope not, I don't want to get you sick. See, I remembered."
Pepper grinned. "I knew you could do it, if you really tried."
"Can I go now?" Professor Smith asked.
Fury looked thoughtful. "Perhaps you should retire to a prudent distance. Perhaps everyone who isn't as unbreakable as Thor ought to accompany him."
Thor nodded and took a firm stance at Coulson's bedside.
Natasha raised an eyebrow. "Prudent distance? The helicarrier isn't that big." She went over to Smith and nudged him.
"Let's go, Tony," Pepper said.
"No. Hey, I missed out on all the fun. I'm going to stay here and welcome Bruce back."
"And what if it's not Bruce?" Steve said.
Tony shrugged and crossed his fingers. "The big guy and I are like that."
"He's probably in a bad mood, being left for last," Clint remarked. "Maybe I'd better stay, too. I've still got a few tranq. arrows."
"You'll just get him mad," Tony said.
"Oh, for..." Fury went over to Coulson and efficiently peeled off all the monitoring equipment and removed the IVs. "It's been a long day. Everyone breakable, out of the room. Thor, you stand ready to distract the Hulk. Captain, you can carry Coulson to safety if necessary."
"Why should I listen to you?" Tony said, but he put an arm around Pepper and headed for the door.
"Because I'll kick your skinny ass if you don't move it," Fury replied.
Once the room was cleared, Thor picked up the remaining apple, while Steve got his arms under Coulson and braced himself to run.
Coulson took a deep breath. "You should leave, too, sir," he said to Fury.
Fury grunted. "And have to listen to Stark? No, thanks."
"All right. Everyone ready?" Coulson touched the apple. "Greensleeves."
Thor fell back under the weight of the Hulk. Steve pulled Coulson out of the bed. Fury drew a gun from under his coat and aimed it at the Hulk. Fury shouted, "Let's do this the easy way!"
The Hulk punched Thor and then kicked out a wall. Thor got up and followed him. They made a tunnel heading for the outside of the helicarrier. Steve laid Coulson back on the bed. "I'll follow them, sir. Make sure no one gets hurt." He leaped through the hole and ran after them.
People were shouting and there was assorted other noise from the corridor where the other Avengers had gone.
Coulson smiled at Fury. "Well, boss. That wasn't so bad, was it?"
Fury grinned and rang for a nurse. "I suppose not. Just another day in the Big Apple."