Fandom: Avengers (Earth-199999, movieverse)
Characters: Phil Coulson, The Cellist, Pepper Potts, Natasha Romanoff, Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Bruce Banner
Pairing: Phil Coulson/The Cellist
Disclaimer: So very not mine, more's the pity.
Chapter One: In which a convention is attended, the unconventional is met, suspicions are raised and a disappointing loss turns into a significant win.
Chapter Two: In which the season starts, discoveries are made, a friend gets hurt and space is shared.
In retrospect, he shouldn’t have been surprised at how quickly it snowballed. She was simply very easy to spend time with, and he’d rarely met someone with whom he had so much in common - she was even enthusiastic at the prospect of wading through flea markets and obscure comic book stores on a Saturday morning, something he’d never encountered before. They did have to develop a somewhat complicated system to equitably determine who got first dibs on any particular rarities they found, encompassing the variables of who saw it first, who picked the store, who had what in their respective collections and who got to buy the last real find they’d run across. Working out this system had involved a series of very enjoyable drawn-out arguments, prompting more than one store owner to ask how long they’d been married - a question which never failed to shut the both of them up.)
He couldn’t tell her about SHIELD, but she talked about her work more than enough for both of them. Between the orchestra, her quartet gigs and her master classes, there was no shortage of material. Her professional life was so entirely fraught with drama. She was a member of a select coterie: a bunch of driven neurotics whose rampant personality issues would make them completely unemployable were it not for the fact that they were the best in the world at what they did.
It was a circumstance to which he could entirely relate.
And most of it, on the grand scheme of things, was fairly petty. Who was skipping rehearsal too often, why the conductor was an idiot, who the assistant concertmaster was sleeping with this week, the gory details of the latest teapot-tempest to convulse the prima-donna first violinists - it was better than reality television. Admittedly, he was rather forcibly reminded of how few friends he had outside of work - they always ended up mixing with her crowd, when they socialized with a group, but that had its entertainment value, too.
“I'm telling you, man, my brother lives in Santa Fe, and he swears on a stack: an alien attacked a small town in New Mexico six months ago and the government is totally covering it up!”
There was a chorus of groans around the table. Phil smiled inwardly. It was notoriously difficult to suppress an op if there were too many civilians involved, but if you could hand the story over to the right sort of people, no one would believe it anyway. It saved a lot of trouble in the long run.
“Oh please, Cassie, not this again,” said Finn (first chair viola).
“Wake up, sheeple! There's a lot more going on than gets reported!”
“You know the kind of resources that kind of cover up would require? It doesn't make any sense,” said Percy (tympani).
“It never makes any sense. Why would an advanced species travel millions of miles to terrorize someplace in the middle of nowhere?” asked Alys. “Why do these aliens always seem to want to visit New Mexico?”
“Maybe they like green chile,” said Phil quietly. The rest of the table cracked up. Cassie fumed.
As they were headed back to her place in the taxi, he asked, “What was that woman’s name? The conspiracy theorist?”
“Who, Cassandra? Yeah, sorry about that. She’s nice, but certifiable. Whatever you do, don’t get her started on the Tunguska blast, or you’ll be trapped all night.”
Actually, he was tempted to do just that, to see if she was right about that one, too.
Hah. Cassandra. That was pretty funny.
It was unfortunate, but that deception was simply part and parcel of what they did: when it came to a classified operation, the priorities were to limit the exposure, contain the damage, destroy the evidence, and, when all else failed, completely discredit the person leaking the information. That particular tactic was becoming less and less necessary these days - a peculiarity of disinformation campaigns in the age of the cell phone camera. Unlike a lot of the handlers, Coulson considered the phrase “pics or it didn’t happen” to be his new best friend; just as crime procedural TV shows had given jury pools unreasonable ideas of what could be proven by forensic science, the constant presence of digital cameras had created the expectation that any extraordinary event would be documented by photographic evidence. A targeted EMP blast could take care of the problem, but lacked finesse - in its place, SHIELD’s IT department had come up with a piece of software that erased any file created within a given timeframe on any phone that had used the transmission towers local to the event. And in a situation where those two options didn't do the trick (and the attempted application of a whole lot of money and a nondisclosure agreement failed), they could always fall back on the release of similar-but-obviously-faked photoshops. Honestly, everyone had gotten so good at looking for the con they were able to see a con where none existed.
The problem was that this state of affairs wasn’t going to last forever. Eventually, it would reach a critical mass - something would happen that no amount of damage control could handle, and on that day, people would be terrified.
And that was the nub of the problem: scared people made stupid decisions. Scared people were demagogue fodder. The biggest lesson to take away from the bloody abattoir that was the 20th century was that a population in the grip of a terror (real or manufactured) was capable of anything, and would listen to anyone who could offer them any sense of security, however illusory, no matter what freedoms or ideals they had to throw away in the process.
This was the purpose behind the Avengers Initiative. If the universe started throwing aliens and mutants and mad scientists at you, well, then get your own team of aliens, mutants and mad scientists to throw right back at them. SHIELD, whatever their other faults might be, was racing to stay on top of the situation, hell-bent on having a solution before the problem went world-wide.
That was the theory, anyway. And there were still times at two in the morning when he stared at the ceiling and wondered when this had become his life.
“You got quiet – I hope you weren't too scarred by the entertainment...”
“No, just a bit tired. Though I will admit the theremin solo was a bit much.”
She ran a hand through her hair. “Oh God. See the problem with begging your friends to attend your recitals is that you have to reciprocate. And Sabrina's girlfriend? The composer? She's decided that tonality is a bourgeois affectation.”
He grimaced. “And then complains about being surrounded by Philistines?”
“Interminably.” She smiled, and slipped her hand into his. “Thank you for enduring it with me. It was above and beyond the call of duty.”
“Do I get hazardous duty pay?” he deadpanned, running his fingers through hers.
“I'm sure we can work something out,” she whispered in his ear.
He was open to suggestions, though, honestly, given that she was already enthusiastically planning their trip to CapCon? The occasional evening of avant-garde classical music was really a very small price to pay.
He spent the night, as he was starting to do more and more frequently. She fell asleep before he did, and he watched her for a little while. His mind turned to her paranoid friend. Sooner or later, Alys would start asking him questions he couldn't answer – it always happened; in fact, he was truly surprised it hadn't happened already - and he was finding that he really didn't enjoy lying to her. She'd been remarkably understanding but at some point, her forbearance would run out. He would do his duty: he always did, but that didn't mean he liked the prospect.
Still, there was not asking, and then there was drawing conclusions with the data available. The first time she'd seen him dressed to head out for work, he'd been treated to a rendition of “Secret Agent Man” (J. Rivers, arranged for strings and vocals by A. Simon).
He'd laughed it off. “Dinner tonight?”
“I can't. I have rehearsal. Sunday, perhaps?”
“You've got it.”
As she warned him, when the orchestra’s season started, her schedule filled up and it became tricky to find time when neither of them were working. He had absolutely no right to complain, he knew, not when she had accepted his frequent and irregular absences with such equanimity, but he was stunned at how quickly he had become addicted to her company, and how much he missed her when she wasn’t there.
However, in truth, it was entirely possible that the whole thing might not have worked at all if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were both equally willing to be flexible - if the only time they could possibly be together was to meet up for breakfast, then that’s when they’d meet. If slow-motion conversations via text message were the best they could do, then their thumbs would get a workout. Once, they’d even had coffee at 3:00 in the morning, when she’d been on her way in and he’d been on his way out.
And, as corny as it sounded, it made what moments they could steal alone together all the sweeter.
Working for SHIELD was a notorious relationship-killer but (to his surprise) her punishing schedule was, in large part, self-inflicted, and he gently asked her about it.
“I lost a lot of time, and I’m trying to catch up.”
“I don’t understand.”
“For a long time, I didn’t perform. My ex had no problem with me taking lessons, though he thought I practiced too much, but he really hated the time that working with an ensemble took up.”
“He was aiming for the sort of career for which you need a decorative wife. And a wife who rarely had Friday and Saturday nights free simply wouldn’t do.”
‘“I’m starting to dislike this guy.”
She shook her head. “Don’t. A lot of bad decisions went into making that debâcle. If his father hadn’t been so overbearing, if he had had more of a spine, if I hadn’t been so naive, if I’d listened to my friends and not my mother, if she hadn’t been so keen on me marrying into that family - take your pick. It was what it was.”
“You’re awfully calm about it.”
She sniggered. “That’s because you’re seeing me now and not me ten years ago. I’ve long since made my peace with it.”
He let the subject drop. She didn't talk about her former marriage much, and when she did, she tended to speak of it with the same clinical dispassion as a pathologist reviewing an autopsy. She had apparently decided that being relentlessly even-handed about it was the correct way to handle the topic, and so, by God, relentlessly even-handed she would be.
Phil felt no such compunction.
Actually, that reticence also extended to her upbringing – except for her father, she didn't talk much about her family at all – but from what he'd been able to gather, her life before was very different than her life now. He'd discovered, for example, that making coffee and toast were pretty much the extent of her culinary abilities: when he'd teased her a little about having been married for over a decade without having learned so much as how to boil water, she'd just shrugged and said, “We had a cook,” a statement for which he didn't have a good response. (Apart from offering to give her lessons. She took him up on it readily, and teaching her turned out to be more fun than he expected.)
Given what he'd been able to deduce, he began to wonder if she and Stark knew each other – she'd lived her entire life in Manhattan, and, at certain social strata, Manhattan was a very small town. He got an answer without having to bring the subject up himself, as it happened. They were passing the Stark Tower construction site, on their way to dinner, when she pointed out the window of the cab.
“God, have you seen the drawings of that building? They had a spread in the Times the other day - what an eyesore! If you ever wanted a clearer example that money can't buy taste...”
“It's supposed to be a revolution in clean energy technology – the first cost-efficient use of the arc reactor in a commercially-viable setting.” As Stark was happy to tell people. Repeatedly. At length. Whether they wanted him to or not.
“And revolutionary clean-energy technology couldn't hire a decent architect?”
“Too much of a risk. A lot of architects wouldn't touch it – they didn't want their names anywhere near the project, in case it flops spectacularly.”
She nodded, conceding his point. “You know, I met him, once.”
“Tony Stark?” he asked blandly.
“Yes... well, 'met' might be putting it strongly. He crashed Margot Welland's coming-out party and threw up in the punch bowl. Poor Margot cried on my shoulder for days.”
She caught his look of surprise, but evidently misinterpreted it, and continued. “We didn't mix, socially. You have to understand, my mother and grandmother were the most terrible snobs. The most they would ever concede was that the Starks were very clever nouveaux.”
Again, coming from a small town where questions of old and new money took a back seat to questions of actually having some, it gave him a second's pause – but only a second. He wouldn't say he enjoyed running across people who weren't immediately impressed by the name of Tony Stark...
Oh, who was he kidding, he really did enjoy it.
Contrary to popular belief, he didn't actually hate Stark. Phil found him arrogant, immature, mercurial and absolutely infuriating, but hidden under all that (sometimes extremely well-hidden) was a good man, with the potential to be a great man. Stark's phone call from the governor, in the form of the new element for his arc reactor, had stopped his slide towards self-destruction, but it remained to be seen how long that pause would last.
Without external support, the man had all the stability of an upturned pyramid.
In theory, he was supposed to be having regular meetings with Stark to touch base, in keeping with Stark's position as a consultant to SHIELD. In practice, that usually meant having regular meetings with Pepper Potts, SI CEO and Official-Stark-Industries-Liaison-To-
“At any rate, the benefit is on Monday night, and you're welcome to come, if you like...” Pepper finished.
“I won't be able to, I'm afraid. I have a date.”
Her face lit up with the matchmaking zeal of the happily-paired-off. “Do you? That's wonderful! Spill! I won't rest until I have all the details!”
He smiled. “She's a cellist. With the Empire Chamber orchestra.”
“That's great! Where did you meet?”
“You're going to laugh.”
“Oh, how can you say that? Of course I won't.”
“I promise, Phil.”
“I met her at DiegoCon.”
To Pepper's credit, she didn't laugh. She did take a sip of her water, though, a maneuver that was not lost on Phil. “So bring her with you on Monday! I can't wait to meet her!”
“Well... there's no delicate way to ask this, but will Stark be there?”
“Of course.” She opened her mouth, then closed it again. “You've only been seeing her since May? Yeah, you're right, you'll probably want to wait a bit...”
Coulson lay face-down on his stomach, in a fuzzy state between waking and unconsciousness. It was generally considered to be no mean feat to render an agent of SHIELD incapable of voluntary movement, but Alys Simon had done it.
Apparently, as Phil had just discovered, the Secret to Happiness in this Universe was a girlfriend with really strong fingers. He would get up and shout that amazing revelation from the rooftops, just as soon as he could convince his bones and muscles to work together again. She had started at some point in the recent past with his head and neck, and would finish up sometime in the not-too-distant future with his feet. In the meantime, he was perfectly content to lay still and think of nothing, a tensionless puddle of kneaded flesh.
She got to his toes and stopped. He felt the bed shake as she climbed back up next to him. “Better?”
She laughed and lay down beside him. With a superhuman effort, he rolled up onto his side, pulled her to him and curled his body around hers. They drowsed together for an indeterminate period of time, contented and at peace as the morning sunbeams crept across the bedspread.
Until, of course, the alarm went off. They both flinched.
“Is that yours or mine?”
“Mine.” She slapped it off. “I’ve got call at 12:30. When does your flight leave?”
That’s right - she was an extra musician at the NYC Opera today. “I have to be there at 2:00.” New Mexico, again.
She pulled away from him slowly, and headed towards the bathroom.
“Don’t use all the hot water.” Admittedly, that was more of a problem at his place than hers. Alys Simon: inveterate stealer of blankets, user-up of the hot water, and how such a small woman managed to take up so much real estate in a king-sized bed was an ongoing mystery.
Just not one he wanted to solve anytime soon.
“You could come in here and make sure I don’t,” she replied.
“I would, but we both have places to be this afternoon.”
She did hurry through her shower, though, and he noticed she seemed a bit nervous as she was getting dressed. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yeah. I just promised I’d be there a little early today.”
“Oh! In that case, I’ll be done in a second -“
“Look, no, don’t worry about it. This is for you,” she held something out to him, and he took it. “If you want it, that is.”
It was a door key, shiny and sharp-edged. He turned it over in his hand.
“You know, so you can take your time, so you don’t have to rush out with me…” she said, blushing.
He smiled, a bit tongue-tied. “Thanks.”
She returned the smile. “You’re welcome.”
There was an awkward pause as neither of them looked at each other. “I have to run,” she said.
He pulled her to him and kissed her goodbye.
“Come to me as soon as you get in,” she whispered in his ear, standing on tiptoe with her arms still around his neck. His blood began to heat, both from her words and the sensation.
“I might be pretty late,” he murmured, his hands on her waist.
She shrugged. “Hence the key.” He felt her cheek grow warm against his. “Only if you’re up for it, obviously.”
“I think that’s pretty much a given,” he said, gently kissing down the side of her neck.
She drew in a sharp breath. “Good.” She stepped away, her face red. “But I really do have to go.”
He suppressed a groan. “I know. Break a leg.”
“And you have a safe trip.”
They kissed again, and she left.
The problem was, of course, that hard-won experience had taught Fury to listen to Coulson’s gut instinct, too. And when the New Mexico situation didn’t improve to his liking, biweekly video teleconferences turned into bimonthly trips for him to the Land of Enchantment. Going down there only made the feeling worse - he toured the entirety of the PEGASUS compound every time, escorted and unescorted, and spent most of the time in the facility with every hair on the back of his neck standing straight on end. More than once, when passing a reflective surface, he’d whirled around, as if expecting to catch someone watching him.
He never did. He began to wonder if he was going mad.
The first few weeks after Puente Antiguo saw massive reorganizations within SHIELD to face this newly-rediscovered external threat. They were only sure of Asgard, of course, but during Foster's debriefing she'd mentioned that Thor had told her of at least seven other populated worlds. For his own part, after he'd gotten home, he'd thrown himself into the study of Norse mythology and culture, looking for any clues he could garner from the garbled, handed-down stories – a tactic that was deeply flawed, at best, but what other choice did they have?
He was beginning to curse oral tradition as a means of data preservation. Separating reality from fiction from metaphor was next to impossible. He'd even talked Freeman from linguistics into giving him lessons in Old Norse, to try to eliminate the translator's interpretation of the texts. He was getting to be pretty good at it, but really wasn't all that much closer to any reasonable course of action.
As a side note, Alys had noticed his newly-purchased library of Scandinavian literature, and had commented on it. He'd passed it off as a recently acquired hobby.
“Have you seen the new Ring Cycle at the Met? I haven't, though I want to... I mean, I've heard it a thousand times, but it doesn't really count if it's a CD, or if you're in the pit.”
“Not yet – I'd like to, but it's a hell of a time commitment..”
She pulled a volume off the shelf. “It's funny, but do you ever wonder why anyone in these stories ever trusts the Aesir? All they ever seem to be doing is screwing people over and expecting Loki to fix it for them.”
That fact haunts my nightmares. “Most ancient pantheons seem do to be staffed by overgrown children.” Which was another recurring theme to his nightmare reel. All of it made the humanly-caused crises he had to face seem to be child's play.
And it really said something when the “child's play” aspect of his job involved rogue nuclear warheads. Another communique from Romanoff had him winging his way back to Eastern Europe directly from Roswell AFB.
SHIELD policy was very strict (and rightly so) about the use of personal electronics in the field. Commercially-available hardware could not possibly be considered secure, not by any stretch of the imagination, and anything that could be identified or traced was a liability when on a mission - this had never really been an issue for him before, but he was starting to find it a hardship. The safe house in Tblisi, however, had a secure internet connection, and he took advantage of it to check his off-duty e-mail.
His heart warmed to see two e-mails from Alys – he'd told her that he couldn't always reply, but that he enjoyed hearing from her, and so she kept up the correspondence. It was mostly chatter about the minutae of her daily life, but even updates on “As the Orchestra Turns” were like manna in the desert.
“...and you know how I adore subbing at the Met, but that damned set creaks! It all looks very impressive, and that spectacle is important for the opera, but why are we here if not for the music? It's absolutely maddening. At any rate, I must dash.
See you when you get home,
He didn't even realize he was smiling until he looked up to see Romanoff's raised eyebrow. She gave him a speculative look. “So. How long have you been seeing her?”
There was a downside to working with the best spies in the world. “Five months.”
She nodded, giving him a kind look. “You should wear that smile more often. It suits you.”
“I thought love was for children.”
Her lips twisted in harsh amusement. “You're twenty-five years younger than I am, Coulson. You are a child.”
She patted him on the shoulder as she headed to bed.
As promised, he let himself into her apartment as soon as he got in. Unfortunately, after twelve time zones in five days, he wasn't capable of anything more than passing out before his head hit the pillow.
He finally resurfaced hours later. He was still waking up in an empty bed - a note on the pillow next to his told him that she’d had to run to an early practice session, and to make himself at home - but the bed smelled of her. There was hot coffee in the kitchen, edible food in the fridge (he shuddered to think of the festering mess that his own would be: he hadn’t expected to be gone so long) and, wonder of wonders, she’d gotten fresh doughnuts from the shop up the street.
He got himself some breakfast, and texted a greeting and an apology for being such bad company. The reply came almost immediately:
“Never been one for zombies, darling. You can make it up to me now that you’ve rejoined the living. :) “
He smiled, and checked the clock. Fury had banned him from SHIELD premises for at least twelve hours. He had time to relax a little, and get a copy of his own key made for her.
He could get used to this.
“Are you sure he's coming? How reliable is this guy?” asked Hawkeye. He and Romanoff were in St. Petersburg, walking along the banks of the Neva, waiting for a contact. Clint was not happy. He didn't like Russia much at the best of times, and not at all in the dark cold of an Arctic November.
“He'll be here.”
“I'm freezing my ass off.”
“Your blood has grown thin.”
“Whatever. I haven't had enough vodka. My blood is still capable of freezing.”
“Stop whining. You could have passed this up, you know.”
“Yeah, but I missed your bubbly personality so much, I just couldn't stay away.”
“More like Coulson asked you nicely.”
Barton said nothing.
“You know he's seeing someone, right?”
Clint stopped and looked at her. “What?”
She nodded. “For about six months.”
He turned away, and they started walking again. “Well. That's great. Good for him.”
“He looks very happy.”
“Wonderful. That's good. I'm happy he's happy. He deserves to be happy. So, you know, that's just fine. We're all happy.”
Their footsteps crunched on the snow as they continued in silence for a little while.
“I told you repeatedly. If you wanted a chance there, you were going to have to make the first move. He's dense, when it comes to his own romantic life,” she said.
“Oh come on.”
“Everyone's got a blind spot, and that's his. How long has that girl in IT been mooning over him?”
A horrifying thought came to the fore. “Oh God! She finds out, and we're back in the regular tech support queue!”
Barton kicked at a pebble. “Swell. This just keeps getting better.”
The fact that they’d traded keys hadn’t helped at all with the temporal kleptomania. By midwinter, he also had half a closet and three dresser drawers at her place. It had never been explicitly agreed on - it had just sort of crept up on them in that eminently straightforward and logical way things seemed to around her. He wanted to spend time with her, she wanted to spend time with him, and this was the most efficient way to accomplish that.
And, as he discovered, they were well-suited. He'd caught flak from previous partners from his - well, he refused to call it “neat-freakery”: he preferred “appreciation for a well-ordered living space,” but it was an appreciation she shared. They'd already bonded over bad sci-fi and, as much as she might mutter about the “inexpressible vulgarity” of reality TV, and rail about the Decline of American Civilization, more often than not she ended up sitting on the couch right next to him. (A few times under the pretext that she had to box up new additions to her comic book collection – in mylar sleeves with alkali-buffered backer boards, put into acid-free longboxes while wearing gloves. He thoroughly approved. And it didn't hurt that there was enough overlap in the titles they both followed that they were able to share the copies purchased specifically for reading.)
He was a bit surprised at the amount of time she spent practicing outside of rehearsals and performances, but it made sense, once he gave it some thought. He had a lot of respect for all the sheer bloody-minded work that went into making something look so effortless. She never spent less than an hour in her practice room, and usually it was closer to four or five. And, if he had to be honest, listening to her rehearse wasn’t exactly a hardship. He loved to watch her play at any time at all, but when she was practicing by herself, for herself - this was when she was the most beautiful, he decided. In all other situations, she had her ear to her fellow musicians, or her eye to the conductor, or was even just aware of her audience. Here, she held forth in her glory (even in yoga pants and a ratty t-shirt), coaxing beauty and emotion from catgut, horsehair and the printed page for no more reward than the sheer joy of it. Watching her made him long to wrap his arms around her waist and trail kisses up her spine, but if he did that, she would stop playing.
The music was a remarkable barometer of her mood, too - he was starting to categorize composers by her emotional state. And on the really bad days, well - he came in once as she was playing furiously on one of the lesser cellos, and he recognized the tune.
“Was that ‘Enter Sandman?’”
“Yep. There’s a cello quartet out of Helsinki that does metal covers.” She raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t’ve figured you for a Metallica fan.”
“A guy I work with plays it a lot.” True enough. “Are you all right?”
“It was a bad day,” she answered.
That was an important indicator: more than fifteen minutes of heavy metal songs in a row meant that he should check to make sure they had chocolate on hand; more than half an hour and it was time to crack out the tonic water and gin.
And, a few weeks later, when he caught Phil tapping his foot along to “Harvester of Sorrow,” Stark had given him the strangest look.
He was, dare he even think it and against all probability, happy with his personal life.
There really is a cello quartet out of Helsinki that does metal covers. :) The quartet is named Apocalyptica, and they are awesome.
Enter Sandman and Harvester of Sorrow as played by four cellos.