He's six years old and he can't stop staring. He cradles each trading card in his hands like a precious artifact. His comic books are all stacked as neatly as his little hands could get them on the blue bookshelf in his room. His bed sheets are red, white and blue, and Captain America's smile is blinding and brilliant from the big poster on his wall.
It's a particularly warm day in July when the neighbors and their kids join Phil and his parents for a barbecue. Steaks, burgers and hot dogs are sizzling on the grill, the Peterson boys are horsing around on the lawn, and Hertz's daughter is showing off her new doll to Mrs. Slagle. Phil is sitting in the sunlight, happily sorting his trading cards (again) when a shadow falls across him. Blinking, he looks up and into Marcus Peterson's face.
"What are those?" he asks, pointing with as much superiority as an 8-year old can muster.
"My cards," Phil explains. "This is Captain America. He's a hero."
"A hero?" Marcus asks, seemingly intrigued as his older brother Billy also joins them. "Does he have any superpowers?"
"He's really big and really strong," Phil explains sagely, "he protects America, he protects me, and I love him."
That sends both Marcus and Billy into great fits of laughter, and Phil doesn't understand.
"Phil loves a boy," Marcus mocks, and Phil feels his face heat up. There's a bad feeling spreading in the pit of his stomach and he almost feels like crying, though he doesn't quite understand why.
"Boys?" Mrs. Peterson's voice comes sternly from somewhere behind Phil. "You be nice now."
Marcus and Billy walk away then, muttering, "Yes, Mom," under their breath.
Phil looks down at his cards and doesn't cry, and still doesn't understand.
"It's because you said you love him," Penny Hertz says as she sits down next to him and offers him a hot dog. She's 10, like Billy, and always nice to Phil. "Boys can't love boys."
Phil doesn't know what to say to that, but there's a part of him that's just absolutely terrified, because if boys don't love boys--does that mean Captain America doesn't love him? And if Captain America doesn't love him, why would he ever want to protect him?
He's seventeen years old and terrified out of his mind, but he tries not to show it.
Jake is careful and gentle, but there's still a strong sense of urging as he places a hand on Phil's jaw and guides Phil's mouth to his hard cock.
"That's it," Jake says encouragingly. "That's it."
Phil's never done this before, but this is Jake--he feels like he would do almost anything Jake asks of him. A blowjob, certainly.
The feeling of Jake's cock in his mouth is not unpleasant, but it's not pleasant either. It feels--restricting. Phil doesn't quite know what to do with himself, but sucks hesitantly. That gets a moan from Jake and a "Yes, do that," so Phil does. He tries moving his head a little bit like he's seen in pornos, and Jake seems to like that even more.
It doesn't take long before Phil's jaw is already sore and he's distantly wondering when it'll be over. Thankfully it's only another few minutes before Jake's grip on Phil's hair tightens, hurts just a little bit, and with a choked "Phil!" Jake comes in Phil's mouth. It tastes bitter and feels weird and slimy, and Phil pulls off as soon as Jake is done coming in order to spit onto his bed sheets. He'll just have to be sneaky about doing his laundry.
Still though, Jake looks terribly happy where he lays, relaxed and blissed out against Phil's covers, and Phil can't help but feel pride--happiness--love, even. I did that, he thinks, looking at Jake. Jake with his blonde hair and his wide shoulders. Jake who Phil never would have thought in a million years--
Phil lies down next to Jake, puts his head on his shoulder and feels indescribably lucky.
The next day at school every happy thought and feeling in his head vanishes when, upon seeing him in the hallway, Jake immediately looks away. Through him. As if Phil's not there at all. Jake passes by him without a word, without acknowledging Phil's little smile or the hand Phil's half raised in greeting. Jake's football buddies doesn't notice, and Phil catches a brief part of their conversation as they pass him. "...right after the game next week," one of them says, and Jake nods and gestures and doesn't look at Phil at all.
Phil watched Jake go, frozen to the spot. His mind feels sluggish, and he has trouble drawing a breath.
Then another student bumps into him, and the spell is broken. "Sorry man," the other kid says, and Phil is just another teenager in the crowd, and it's just another Thursday, and he's got Chemistry in two minutes, just like always.
Phil sticks his hands in his pockets and does his best to look okay, to sound okay, to be okay, as he walks through the halls of school and finds his classroom. It's not a big deal. People have sex, so what? It didn't have to mean anything. It clearly didn't to Jake.
Phil slinks down into his seat and spends the whole class doodling meaningless patterns and twirls on the page, and he definitely does not cry, as the teacher drones on in his ear.
He's twenty-six years old and drunk.
He keeps going over the papers, over and over, willing them to not make sense. It's all there though, in black and white. He paces the living room, doesn't wobble despite his inebriation, and doesn't cry despite the tears in his eyes. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, and he curses himself for being so observant, for being so goddamn curious. He quietly peeks into the bedroom, at the sleeping woman in their bed, and then he paces through the living room some more.
Four months, and he never wanted this. This was not what he wanted, or suspected, when he noticed that letter. It mysteriously vanished from their mail basket before he had a chance to read it, and Phil couldn't stop thinking about it. He had to dig a little, and digging a little turned into digging a lot, and...
Silently, Phil curses his own mind, curses Penny Hertz who went into law enforcement and kept in touch with the neighbor boy, curses Victoria. Beautiful, funny, smart Victoria. Victoria, the most amazing woman he's ever known. Victoria, the thief.
Victoria, the murderer.
Phil paces and runs his hands across his hair and still doesn't cry.
He drinks three cups of coffee, two bottles of water, then calls the cops. They, in turn, call the feds, and just as the sun peeks above the horizon they show up at his doorstep. Men in suits with somber looks on their faces. Phil shows them in, quietly, and leads them to the bedroom. The men linger in the doorway as Phil walks to the bed, kneels down next to it and gently touches Victoria's shoulder.
"Vicky," he says carefully. "Victoria."
Hey eyelids flutter and open, and she smiles at Phil, unable to see her future waiting for her at the door from her angle. "Hi, sweetie," she says, voice hoarse with sleep. "What time is it?"
Phil smiles carefully at her, regrets her beauty--regrets everything. "You need to get up," he says, swallowing hard against the lump in his throat. This is as emotional as he gets. He's promised himself that. "I know everything."
She's freezes, wide awake in a second. Her eyes turn fearful.
"I know everything," Phil repeats when she doesn't speak. "I found everything."
She sits up then, sees the men in the doorway, and gasps softly. Tears fill her eyes as her eyebrows draw down in anger, and for a moment Phil thinks she's going to hit him, but she never does.
"I'm sorry," Phil says, because part of him genuinely is. "I just... I couldn't ignore it. I couldn't."
She goes with the feds without another word to Phil, and he sinks down onto his couch with a tired sigh. There are a lot of men wearing uniforms and suits waiting to take his statement, he's still not completely sober and his day has barely just begun.
Twelve hours later he's in an interrogation room. He's been talking and talking for what seems like forever, going over the same details time and time again. Special Agent Smith has gone to get him a coffee, and Phil feels gutted from the inside out. He turns to look at his own reflection in the two-way mirror, and almost startles at the sight of his own appearance. Rumpled clothes, hair in disarray, yet his face looks almost normal. Inside, it feels like chaos, but Phil Coulson remains oddly calm on the outside.
The door opens again and someone who isn't Special Agent Smith walks in.
Phil takes in the long duster, the eye patch, and isn't quite sure how to react.
"Mr. Coulson," the man says, and he looks almost smug. "I'm Nick Fury with S.H.I.E.L.D."
Phil blinks. He's never even heard of that agency, and he resists the urge to look around. He's been interviewed so many times at this point, he vaguely feels like this is just someone playing a prank on him, adding one more acronym to his ever-growing list of government agencies.
"That was quite a bit of impressive investigative work you did there," Fury says, sitting down across from Phil. He sounds impressed and proud.
"Thanks," Phil says blandly, numbly.
"You made a very tough decision today," Fury says. "I like that. What do you know about the artifact Victoria stole?"
Phil thinks, tries to remember what the information he had found said. "Not much," he says, not really caring, and then suddenly changing his mind and caring intensely, because Victoria had killed for it--innocent people, in cold blood.
"You don't know it yet," Fury says, almost smug, as if he's got a secret Phil doesn't, "but you've just become part of a bigger universe."
Phil's too tired to try to understand it at the moment.
Fury reaches into his pocket, takes out a business card and slides it across the table to Phil. "I realize you've been through quite an ordeal today--emotionally. But once things settle down and you get the chance to clear your head a bit, I'd really like for you to give us a call. We'd be very interested in hiring someone of your persistence, and I have a knack for reading people. I'd think you'd find the work... satisfying."
Fury stands up and walks back out without another word, and Phil just stares at the card in front of him. It's white with a black logo imprinted in the corner, along with a phone number. Nothing else is there, not even a name, and Phil lets out a sharp, little breath between his teeth. A job offer. The timing of it is surreal, and Phil's not even sure anyone in their right mind would even consider their employment status at a time like this. He doesn't know why, but he picks up the card and puts it in his pocket anyway.
He's thirty-three and buries himself in his work.
As far as breakups go, it was very free of drama.
David had (apparently) simply sighed deeply at dinner and said, "I'm so tired of always sharing you with your work, Phil. I don't think this is going to work out."
Phil had looked up from his report, one hand turning the page, pen pinched between his fingers, and the other hand absently pushing David's chicken curry around on his plate with his fork. "I'm sorry," Phil said, head still full of Morgan's poorly written field report (the man had SPAG issues like a first-grader). "What did you say, I didn't catch that?"
So yeah. That took care of that.
Phil drowns himself in work and pretends not to care that for the first time in four years, he's going home to an empty bed. He processes more field reports than any other junior agent with equal seniority. He closes more cases than most of their departments do in twice the time. He gets a promotion and an increase in both pay and security clearance.
He keeps himself so busy that it takes over four months for anyone at work to notice (except Director Fury--because Director Fury is scary like that--but he would never say anything about it, which Phil is grateful for). Phil has perfected his poker face by now. When some nameless junior agent who apparently hero worships Phil just a little tells Phil that he's sorry, Phil merely gives a small smile and a shake of his head. "Don't be sorry," Phil says. "It was for the best."
He almost believes it himself.
He's thirty-nine years old, and feels all of sixteen again. It's ridiculous how his mouth can't seem to form words and how his palms get sweaty when Jamie smiles at him. Part of him feels like doodling little hearts with "P+J" on his napkin, and he thanks all higher deities--because he knows from personal experience that there are at least a couple out there--for the fact that he's a seasoned agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and has long since learned to school his face into a perfectly calm mask of bland politeness.
It's that ability that lets him take the coffee from Jamie with a smile and a, "Thanks."
Jamie grins back, because they've been flirting for months, and Phil notices then that the "i" in his name has been sloppily dotted with a heart.
Something goes all off the rails in him and he realizes that this is it, this is the sign he's been hoping for, and he's a grown-ass adult--he can do this!
Jamie looks eager and expectant when Phil turns to him, and Phil opens his mouth to say, "Would you let me take you out to--"
And that's as far as he gets before something really big comes crashing through the window and hits Phil (as well as the coffee counter, several patrons, tables and displays), sending him flying across the room and into the wall.
His first thought is, Jamie! And then the Agent-Coulson-agent-of-S.H.I.E.L.D. part of his brain takes over. He gets his gun out and starts herding civilians to safety. He manages to locate a shell-shocked and gaping Jamie in the chaos and throws an arm around his shoulders as he ushers him out of the ruins of the coffee shop, before turning back and raising his weapon. It all goes on autopilot from there.
The creature that crashed through the window actually turns out to be some form of feral animal not entirely unlike an oversized hog. It would seem ridiculous if it wasn't so terrifying and very clearly deadly. Phil empties his entire clip into it before it stops attempting to charge him and is still on the ground. Phil reloads as he turns around, hearing the unmistakable sound of chaos nearby, and yeah--it just figures that there'd be more of these things.
Luckily it doesn't last long; the Fantastic Four arrives within minutes, and then Natasha shows up with a team, and it's pretty smooth sailing from there on out. The hogs--all four of them--are quickly disposed of, and everyone is greatly relieved to find that there were no fatal casualties. One young woman has a broken leg, and there are a couple of concussions and a whole lot of cuts, scrapes and bruises, but on the whole people seem to be doing as okay as can be expected. Natasha has a brief conversation with Reed Richards about potential leads for where the hogs came from in the first place, and then they go their separate ways.
The property damage is another story entirely, but that's why S.H.I.E.L.D. has a legal department, and Phil takes a moment to be happy that even though he's going to have a lot of paperwork to take care of in the morning, it's not even a blip on the radar compared to what Legal has to deal with.
As soon as he can get a moment in the aftermath Phil starts weaving his way through the ambulances which are lined up, taking care of people. He finds Jamie one block down, where a paramedic is cleaning glass out of his upper arm.
Jamie just stares blankly, and when Phil approaches, says, "Hey," it takes a few seconds before he gets a response.
"Phil," Jamie says, as if in a daze. There's definitely some shock going on there.
"Yeah, hi," Phil says again. "I just, uh. I wanted to check on you. Make sure you're okay."
"You shot that--thing," Jamie says, still sounding shocked. Phil's not surprised. A lot of civilians tended to react this way to some of the weirder stuff. It's one thing seeing it on the evening news, it's another thing entirely to be caught in the middle of it.
"I did," he confirms, and he's got a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"You... you know about this kind of stuff?"
The paramedic is sneaking skeptical glances at Phil and not being very subtle about it, clearly not believing for one second that Phil might be dealing with aliens, supernatural creatures and superheroes on a regular basis. Phil can't blame the paramedic--he knows what he looks like. He's spent years, in fact, working very hard to make sure he looks as unsuspecting as possible.
"I know about this kind of stuff," Phil confirms again. He knows where this is going, because he's been here before. He knew what this job meant when he took it, and he still knows it now, but part of him still can't help but feel sick to his stomach.
Jamie stares wide-eyed at him and takes a deep and shaky breath. "Please don't come into the shop anymore."
What shop? It got demolished by a mutant hog beast, he thinks bitterly, but doesn't say it.
There's a lump in Phil's throat, preventing him from speaking right then. He merely just nods and walks away, because Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. always remains calm and rational.
Fury notices (again, because hello--Nick Fury), but again chooses not to say anything. It's a wise decision. After all, it was just a stupid coffee shop crush, right?
Phil drifts slowly into consciousness, and it's an unfamiliar feeling. Years of training and missions and work means that he mostly only has two default states; asleep and wide awake, no in-between. But today, he drifts--eyes slowly blinking against the morning light coming through his window. It takes him a couple of seconds to realize--to remember--and when he does, he pushes up on one elbow and turns over. He's alone in the bed.
Sinking back against the pillows, Phil stares hard at the ceiling and takes a deep breath. He's gotten very good at compartmentalizing over the years, so that's what he does; he starts filing away the previous night's events into little boxes in his mind, tucking them away and rationalizing everything to himself. It's an almost soothing exercise at this point. Phil huffs out a ghost of a laugh at the absurdity of it. Barton's naked ass in this corner of his mind, and the way he gasps Phil's name in another...
Honestly though, it wasn't like he was expecting declarations of love and flowers. Phil's too old, too seasoned and too cynical for that. He knows himself, and more importantly, he knows Barton. Barton with his cocky attitude and dangerous smirk. Barton, the man who slept with Natasha after being at S.H.I.E.L.D. for less than six months, and walked away with all limbs intact and only a few bruises to show for it. That alone really says more about Barton than anything in the novel-length file S.H.I.E.L.D. has on him. (It also has to count as some form of sexual extreme sport, in Phil's opinion.)
So Phil lies perfectly still, alone in bed, stares at the ceiling and tries to convince himself that this was exactly what he'd expected--that he wasn't hoping for a different outcome.
Except then his thoughts are interrupted by the sound of a door opening and closing, and Barton's walking into the bedroom carrying two Styrofoam cups of coffee and a paper bag with faint grease stains on it.
"Morning, Sleeping Beauty," Barton says, setting the cups down on the bedside table next to Phil before launching himself onto Phil's bed, paper bag in hand. "I got us breakfast."
Phil isn't quite sure how to respond. He's not even sure how to begin to process this situation, as all sense of logic seemingly abandons him all at once.
"I thought you'd gone," he says dumbly.
Barton shrugs, pulls out a bagel from the bag and places it on Phil's stomach. "I did," he says, with the Duh going unspoken, "to get breakfast. And now I'm back. From getting breakfast."
He procures another bagel and nudges Phil, who still hasn't moved. "Eat up," Barton says, placing a quick kiss onto Phil's stunned lips. "Most important meal of the day and all."
Phil breathes out then, slowly, and looks at Barton as he stuffs half the bagel in his mouth at once. "Thank you," he says sincerely, and smiles.
Barton's, "You're welcome," is quiet and muffled by his bagel, but Phil hears him loud and clear anyway.