Steve Rogers, whether he knows it or not, has presence, and despite being stereotypically courteous and kind and an all-around stand-up guy, when he walks into a room with purpose, people have a tendency to scatter in his wake.
(Or in the case of Tony Stark, head straight into his path to flirt shamelessly, but that is another matter entirely that Coulson is decidedly never thinking about.)
Despite this being the case, Phil is somewhat nonplussed when Steve strides into the middle of the administrative floor of SHEILD at 9:30pm on a Sunday night and heads straight for his office, paper-pushers fleeing in all directions.
His secretary has gone home for the weekend, so he has no line of defense for when Rogers comes in the door and crosses his arms in classic Captain America Disapproves style.
“Can I help you, Captain Rogers?” he asks.
Steve sighs. “I’ve told you to call me Steve. And you can do me a favor and go home. Natasha says you’ve been here until midnight for ten days in a row now. Whatever you’re doing can wait.”
Phil smiles blandly. “It really can’t.”
Steve matches his expression. “I’ll tell Clint to come and kidnap you.”
“I do have to get this done, you know.”
“You need to delegate. I know we’re not easy to deal with, but you can at least give some of the easier stuff to other agents.”
Phil snorts. “I really couldn’t, Captain.”
Steve exhales. “Fine. I’m very sorry then.”
“For wh--” He claps his hand over the dart just above his collar. “I’ll have you court marshaled,” he manages as the room begins to go blurry.
“I didn’t do anything,” he hears Steve say. “And I’m pretty sure you don’t want to get rid of Clint. He claims to be your favorite.”
Phil’s last thoughts are of two things: that Stark has apparently managed to finally adapt Clint’s crossbow to take tranq rounds, and that Steve Rogers is far more devious than he’s given credit for.
He identifies, with some horror, that what he feels most about this is a sort of terrible, aggravated fondness.
Christ. Fury had warned him, but he hadn’t expected the Stockholm Syndrome to kick in quite so fast.
The thing is that anyone with half a brain who's ever been in contact with an honest-to-god superhero is instinctively skeptical of said superhero's altruism. It's a fact of life, a combination of survival mechanisms, natural human cynicism, and plain old fear of the unknown.
For this reason, most SHIELD agents exist in a constant state of paranoia, and the turnover rate is outrageously high. There's more than a few reasons why Fury is bald and has that twitch at his right temple.
Coulson, after ten years on the job, has no such hangups. The other agents think that it's because he has some sort of latent superpower himself. He doesn't disabuse them of the notion, but he also knows better.
He's the least paranoid, because he works with the Avengers the most. He knows them, often better than they know themselves.
And, more surprisingly to his mind, they’ve grown to know him, for better or worse.
It started, Coulson suspects, with the Time Rot Incident, which was exactly as unpleasant as it sounds. After a week of sifting through necrotic patches of New York that looked like a combination of post-Langoliers blackness and zombie apocalypse deadscapes, they’d finally found the source of the chaos and righted it, only to find themselves mired in about twenty lawsuits that Fury was just upset enough to consider hanging them out to dry for. Rogers was nobly offering to take responsibility for the team, Stark was raving about counter-suits and calling his army of litigators, and Natasha was sharpening knives with worrying precision and intensity, while everyone else ranged around the boardroom looking generally like a lot of SHIELD property was about to get damaged.
Coulson had been working with them on the ground through the whole debacle, and felt tired down to his bones. Nevertheless, he looked around, pinched the bridge of his nose, and said, “I’ll deal with it. Everyone go and get some sleep, I’ll give a full report in the morning.”
“Last I heard you weren’t a lawyer, Coulson,” Tony pointed out into the ensuing silence.
Coulson forced a smile. “I passed the bar when I was at Quantico,” he offered. “I think I’ll manage.”
And he did manage. Barely.
Specifically, at 4:30 in the morning he found himself juggling between issuing threats of contract breaches and finding precedents for the boundaries of lawful action and restraining himself from resorting to his sidearm instead of his phone.
He was halfway through explaining just how badly it would go for the Governor if the Avengers came under fire during an election year when a light came on in the hallway and then suddenly there was a mug of coffee under his nose. He inhaled, identifying that whoever had made it remembered his blend, and looked up.
Bruce smiled crookedly, and said, “I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d make some tea. I know you’re a coffee drinker, though.”
“Thank you,” Coulson said blankly, and watched Bruce as he exited the room. Then he said into the phone, “No, I wasn’t talking to you, sir, you’ve done nothing so far for me to thank you for.”
The coffee was perfect. He didn’t sleep for the rest of the night, he had too much more to take care of, but he didn’t feel like shaking out of his skin anymore.
The next morning he turned in a report on the whole mess and Steve glanced at the paperwork over Nick Fury’s shoulder and then stared at him. “You got all of this done last night?” he asked blankly.
“I said I would.”
“Good work, agent. Dismissed,” Fury said.
Coulson nodded and headed for home, unaware of Steve watching him go with a worried expression.
After that, things changed slightly. Clint and Natasha didn’t—they'd had Coulson’s number for a long time now, but it seemed that the rest of the Avengers had maybe caught up.
Coulson didn’t notice at first, but then Tony Stark happened, as he was wont to do.
Ever since Phil had been her liaison for the whole 'Iron Monger' business, Pepper had made a point of calling him to check in and generally be an invaluable resource when it came to corporate politics, Tony Stark, and Tony Stark's robot army.
Because while they were a very well-mannered army, Tony still kept a large number of limitedly-sentient robots in his lab, and Coulson preferred to know their quirks before venturing into their natural habitat.
"He's built another Dummy," Pepper said. "He's adorable, you'll like him."
"So he's not going to douse me with fire-retardants?"
Pepper laughed. "No, I don’t think it will come to that. Tony dotes on him."
Tony Stark, Coulson was well aware, doted mostly on things that were as destructive as he was. (Captain Rogers was, again, an exception. Phil was still not thinking about it.) He said, "I'll keep that in mind,” and prepared for the worst.
When he got to the lab, however, he didn't have to defend himself against anything, because one robot was cooing at him, and the other was, lo and behold, offering him an espresso delicately grasped in its pincers.
He looked at it for a moment, took the cup, and said, “Thank you.”
Dummy II made a happy beeping noise, and Tony finally looked up from his massive holographic workspace. “Now that I’ve been a good host, does that mean I don’t have to do paperwork?”
“Technically, your machines have been good hosts,” Coulson replied. After a second, however, he amended, “Pepper has taken most of the paperwork on. It’s all Stark Industries policy anyway.”
Tony grinned. “In that case, what can I do for you, Agent Coulson?”
Coulson felt vaguely like he’d stepped into some sort of parallel universe wherein Tony Stark was actually helpful.
He said, “We need an aircraft carrier.”
Tony raised an eyebrow gamely. “Far as I know, you have a few already.”
Phil handed over a file full of specifications. “We’d like one that flies.”
The other eyebrow went up to join the first. But all Tony said was, “I’ll see what I can do. Tell Fury it’s gonna cost him his other eye, though.”
“Forgive me if I paraphrase when passing that on,” Coulson said dryly, and as Stark had the temerity to laugh him out, Dummy and Dummy II saw him to the door, taking his empty cup and whirring peaceably when he patted them in farewell.
Huh. It was generally understood that if Tony didn’t like you, neither did his robots.
Coulson straightened his tie as he walked out of the mansion, feeling refreshed rather than aggravated. It was a puzzling, but welcome change.
Well, all right, then.
That could have just been an anomaly; but then weeks passed, and while Thor and the Hulk continued to be accidentally destructive (and Clint remained snarky and Bruce timid, etc., etc.), Phil found himself in a strange sort of bubble amid the Avengers that seemed to insulate him from their tendencies to play badly with each other and get smart with the government institutions that paid them.
Oh, there was still plenty of mistrust and hostility towards the rest of SHIELD—there always was. Moreover, Coulson knew that part of his job was to be the first sounding board for those things so that he could absorb the worst of it and then blandly deflect the rest, in order to allow Nick to actually get back to doing his job.
But that didn’t seem to be working anymore, apparently.
The first time Tony bypassed Phil completely to give Fury hell, Fury had just looked at him and then muttered, “Shit, they’ve finally noticed,” before telling Stark loudly to go fuck himself sideways.
Tony flounced out of Fury’s office with a shouted, “Pretty sure that’s physically impossible, but maybe Steve can help me out with that!” before he spotted Phil and grinned.
“Morning, Coulson. If he tries to unload on you just send him to Pepper.”
“Why would you do that to Pepper?” Phil asked.
“She made me buy back my art collection. Consider this battle escalated, and try not to get caught in the crossfire. Ciao!”
Phil shook his head, and discreetly poked his head in to Fury’s office to assess the damage. “Sir?”
“Never mind, Phil,” Fury said, vein pulsing visibly in his temple. “Let’s just thank our collective lucky stars that DADT got repealed. Stark defiling a national hero illegally is the last thing we need, just after him doing it legally, which…no. Never mind. Dismissed.”
Phil shrugged, and left him alone. That was fair enough.
But then Latveria happened, and a lot of things became clear.
"All I'm saying is that if we're going to implement that strategy, we're going to have to--oh. Good afternoon, Agent Coulson," Steve looked up from his briefing.
"Carry on," Coulson said, resolutely refusing to raise his fingers to his temple despite the insistent pounding in that region. He'd been gone two weeks on an only semi-diplomatic mission which would hopefully be the beginning of the Avengers’ international presence, and it had been more than enough time to acquire three cracked ribs and a lingering concussion, in addition to the various mental aches and pains of diplomacy, which Phil excelled at, but which also exhausted him.
He was jetlagged, sore, and irritable, and he was not missing this meeting for anything.
Tony peered at him. "Long night?" he guessed. "Because I definitely know how that goes."
Steve elbowed him, and he quieted abruptly. Clint got up. "Sit down before you fall down, sir," he murmured, steering Coulson into the vacated chair.
Coulson blinked slightly more slowly than usual, but when he spoke his voice was level. "Long week," he admitted. And then again, "Carry on."
Steve nodded, and did so.
“One of us should have gone with you,” Thor said, in a stage whisper. “I am saddened to see you in such a state, my friend.”
He pushed a mug over to Coulson, and this time it didn’t smell of coffee, but rather of something honeyed and warm and very, very alcoholic. “For your pains,” Thor explained with a smile.
“Better drink up,” Clint said over his shoulder. “Don’t want to insult the big guy, right sir?”
He snorted, tilted his head in acquiescence, and lifted the mug to his lips.
No one said anything further (though he could still feel Latveria with every stray clump of dirt in the folds of his cuffs and every strain of his muscles along his ribcage and mostly it annoyed him), but Natasha leaned towards him in her chair, radiating heat, and Clint provided obnoxious commentary from just behind him, knuckles of one hand brushing the top of his spine.
Phil breathed, and listened, and did his job, feeling inordinately warmed.
Or maybe that was just the Asgardian mead. Either way, he was home, and so yeah, he was okay.
When he finally wakes up after being tranqed into submission, it’s midday and he’s in his apartment and down to his shirtsleeves and pants. There’s aspirin and a glass of water by the bed, and he can smell a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen. He doesn’t even feel much of a hangover; Bruce must have concocted some sort of painless new sedative.
Probably specifically for the purpose of kidnapping him from work. Phil is, all in all, reluctantly impressed.
There’s some off-tune humming accompanying the coffee smell, and the tune sounds like some sort of woeful country music. He shifts and rolls out of bed stiffly, indicating that he’d apparently slept like the dead.
“Morning, sunshine!” Clint calls from the kitchen.
Phil contemplates whether he really wants to expend his energy on verbal ass-kicking this morning. He may have to settle for a lot of glaring and paperwork assignations.
Rogers did say he should delegate more, after all.
And maybe, he thinks, his lack of paranoia isn’t so much a superpower as it is just another symptom of insanity at this point. But Phil feels more rested than he has in months, and so he can’t quite bring himself to care.
He won’t thank Captain Rogers, but he’ll probably hold off on the court martial. He needs to ask Bruce about that sedative, after all, and maybe debrief Tony on the crossbow adaptations. Really, he needs to check in with all of them, and disciplinary action will probably just encourage them.
Oh yes, it’s definitely Stockholm. But he’s never felt safer.