It starts as a joke around the SHIELD office.
--no, that's not true, it starts as a well-meaning lie that Phil Coulson tells his mother. Phil doesn't consider himself a mama's boy, not by a long shot, but he cares about his mother, and whenever he is within driving distance of his childhood home he goes to visit her.
"I just worry about you," she always says, trying to look calm, the way her fingers twist creases into her lap blanket betraying the depth of her concern. "Ever since Melissa left you, there's been no one to take care of you."
They have this conversation every time he visits. It used to make Phil upset, in the first year or so after the divorce, before he came to peace with the truth of it--he'd rather be married to his job, and Melissa had just realized it before he did. Now he weathers his mother's worry with the practiced calm of one used to dealing with far larger problems than this. Mrs. Coulson means well; he's usually just been too busy organizing operatives and agents and corralling superheroes to think about any sort of extracurricular activities.
The thing with Barton sneaks up on him, that's for sure. It ticks all of Phil's "Things That Aren't Happening" boxes:
1) a relationship
2) with a coworker
3) who is a man.
It's not that SHIELD isn't progressive about these things, or that Phil was any kind of bigoted before this thing happened, it was just unexpected. It's a surprise, a nice surprise.
So this visit to Mrs. Coulson is different, for a few reasons. First, despite all the awful things going on in the world, Phil Coulson is happy. And second, it's less a visit and more a farewell; she is old and has been sick, and the family doctor says she probably has a matter of days or weeks left. Phil feels he owes it to her, after all this time and all this worry, to let her know that she doesn't have to worry anymore, so when she begins to twist the blanket under her hands, he says, "Mom, I've met someone."
His mother lights up, as much as someone her age and in her condition can do. "Oh, Philip, I'm so happy for you. Tell me about her. What's her name? What's she like?"
Phil's expression stays still, but his mind races. He notices again, for the first time in a long time, the framed picture of the Pope staring sternly down at him from the wall above the sofa. Somehow he had not thought this far ahead. How should he tell his church-going, bible-thumping, not-long-for-this-world mother about the man he cares for?
"Catherine," he says, the words out of his mouth before he can stop them. His mother had an aunt named Catherine. It's a good name for an imaginary girlfriend. "Her name is Catherine--" and there's an almost imperceptible pause as he grasps for a last name, still staring almost accusingly at the picture of the Pope. "Bishop. Katie Bishop."
Mrs. Coulson is not trained in interrogation and people-reading techniques of any kind, but she stares at her son for a moment, obviously doubting his veracity. "What does she do? How did you two meet?"
"We have...a mutual friend at work," Phil says. He is not going to try to explain Director Fury to his mother. He tries to think of something that Catherine Bishop could do, something inoffensive and mnemonically easy to remember. Bows and arrows... professional package wrapper? One of those people who paints lines on the street? Ah, he's got it. "And she's a cellist."
"Oh, how nice," his mother says. She sounds as though she approves. She's always liked musicians. Phil had undergone years of childhood violin lessons before they'd both come to terms with his lack of musical talent. "And Philip, are you happy?"
Phil Coulson smiles to himself, thinking of Clint Barton, and says, "Yeah, yeah I am."
Then it becomes a joke around the SHIELD office.
"Katie Bishop?!" Clint exclaims. Phil has waited until after the funeral to quietly tell Clint about the exchange. It's not like it's important at this point; no one is left to give him a hard time about not bringing his new girlfriend home for Christmas.
"Who's Katie Bishop?" Natasha asks, sliding into an empty chair beside Clint at their mess hall table.
"Apparently I am," Clint says wryly, although he immediately regrets the phrasing. "Coulson told his mother he's dating a cellist named Katie Bishop."
Natasha makes a thoughtful face. "Cellist, bows, I can see that."
"I panicked," Phil says, as though this explains everything.
"You never panic," Clint counters. "I know for a fact you were brought on with SHIELD because of your 'unflappable calm'." There are air-quotes.
Phil shakes his head and sighs. "I blame the Pope."
When it becomes clear that nobody has a real response to that, Natasha says, "I don't know, Coulson, a standard lie about that kind of thing might not be a bad idea." She punctuates this with a shrug. "In our line of work, an extra layer of protection between the bad guys and the people we care about makes us that much less vulnerable, keeps them that much safer."
Clint protests this, saying that he doesn't need protection, doesn't need to be kept safe, but the point still stands. So the line about the cellist becomes standard for Phil. It's not secret around the office (for whatever passes as 'the office' with SHIELD) that he and Barton have something going on, but in the outside world, if anyone asks, he is seeing a cellist (usually nameless) who lives in either New York or Portland, depending on which half of the world he's in. He picks whichever of the two is further away from his current location--the point, whenever someone asks, is that yes, there is somebody special in his life, and no, you cannot meet her.
People around the office begin to ask after the cellist as if she's a real person. It's all in good fun, so Phil grudgingly begins to fill in details. She has dark hair. She owns two cats. She just bought a new car. Her springtime allergies are flaring up again.
When they are posted together, even Barton gets in on the act. "How's the cellist, Coulson?" he asks over the secure comms one evening in New Mexico. Barton's drawn patrol duty and is obviously bored.
Coulson sets his jaw, noticing the sideways looks he's getting from the other agents in the main control room. "She's visiting her sister this weekend," he responds.
"The one with the kids?" one of the agents whispers to the agent at the next panel over.
"No," the second one whispers back, "I think it's the one who's getting married. She's been spending a lot of time there recently."
Coulson takes a deep breath, reaches into what has been described as his 'near-infinite reserve of patience', and does not roll his eyes. Everyone is paying way too much attention to his imaginary cellist.
"So you're going to be around this weekend?" Phil can hear the smirky grin on Clint's face, and something deep inside of him rumbles happily at the unspoken plans they're making.
Once things in New Mexico are fully cleaned up (well, okay, once the rebuilding effort has started and they've contributed as much as they can), Director Fury sends him back to Stark with a packet of additional papers. Fury doesn't say what they are, and Coulson doesn't ask.
When he arrives at Stark's place, Stark himself is nowhere to be seen. Stark's partner, Pepper Potts, greets him at the door. "I'm afraid Tony isn't here right now," she says. She doesn't need to wink at him for Coulson to hear that as Mr. Stark is hiding from you in the basement, but it's not that important that the papers go directly to Tony Stark anyway--it's unofficial SHIELD policy now: if you want to get something done with Tony Stark, you go through Pepper Potts.
"Will you give these to Mr. Stark when he gets back?" Phil says, handing the packet to Ms. Potts. She looks faintly surprised--as though she didn't expect him to trust her with them--but she agrees and takes the packet from him.
As he turns to go, Ms. Potts calls after him, "Wait!" He turns back. "Agent Coulson, I was just sitting down to dinner. Would you like to join me?" His gaze follows her gesturing hand to a candlelit table with a veritable feast laid out on it. It is obviously Tony Stark's dinner, and it is just as obvious that Ms. Potts believes that if Tony Stark isn't going to behave like an adult when company arrives, he is not going to get any dinner. Coulson thinks back to the prototype Captain America shield he had watched Stark use to prop up heavy machinery in his lab and accepts the dinner invitation, not feeling guilty at all.
Over dinner, Ms. Potts attempts to grill him about SHIELD. It is not a particularly successful grilling, and she tones it down once Coulson specifies that she should call him "Phil" instead of "Agent." "So, you can't tell me what you want with Tony, why you keep showing up where there's trouble, or what it is you actually do," she says, sounding slightly annoyed. "Is there anything you can tell me? How about what you, personally, do for fun on your days off?"
Clint Barton! says a voice in his head that sounds suspiciously like Clint's. He smothers the smile this elicits and replies, straight-faced, for approximately the hundredth time this evening, "I'm sorry, ma'am, but that information is classified." He waits for her to react, then cracks a smile, answering truthfully this time. "I read books--I get a surprising amount of free time in this job. I also put together model planes. Sometimes I do yoga."
"A lot of quiet hobbies," Ms. Potts observes.
"You don't know the half of it," he replies, shaking his head. He answers more of her personal questions--where he grew up, where he went to school, what kind of movies he likes--and fires back some of his own. It's a very enjoyable evening. Finally she says to him, "And what about your home life? Is there a stoic Mrs. Coulson, a matching set of you?"
In the long second before he responds, the following things go through Phil's head: here is another soul who understands the feeling of waiting for the person you care about to get home from his job of saving the world; whatever I tell her has a very good chance of ending up back at Tony Stark, even if he isn't really listening when she tells him; goddamnit, the people that we care about make us so, so vulnerable. When he does speak, he says, "Not married, no. I'm seeing a woman in New York. She's a cellist."
"You know, that's all I know about her and already I think she's perfect for you," Ms. Potts says, pouring them both some more wine.
"I'm happy, and that's all I can ask for," Phil says, his voice quieter than he means for it to be.
Barton is the only one Coulson ever panics over, and even then you have to know what you're looking for to see the signs. His panic turns itself into something useful. He stayed up for three days straight when Barton and Natasha went missing in Istanbul, assisting the monitoring teams and helping to organize a search-and-rescue force of nearby agents to track them down. He once spent five hours bullying a representative from the Kazakhstan Embassy over the phone. He spent an hour physically bullying a government representative in Latvia who had five inches and a hundred pounds on him. He drove through the night to personally retrieve Barton from the Mexican border. Never mind that there were closer SHIELD forces--Barton had asked for him and he would be there. Now, Barton is gone, carried off by a Norse demigod with the power of mind control, and there's no one to bully or blame.
Before anyone can ask him to, he is on his personal cell to Natasha. She doesn't hesitate when he explains the situation. When she arrives back at SHIELD HQ, she gives him a brusque hug. The gesture means a lot to him; he can count on one hand the times he remembers Natasha showing any meaningful physical affection to anyone.
Almost immediately, Director Fury sends them off in separate directions, gathering new teammates to deal with this new threat. Natasha's going after Bruce Banner, an assignment Phil does not envy her. He'd seen what remained of some of the Hulk-buster units they'd sent out a while back. For his part, he is being sent to New York to coerce Tony Stark into helping. He's not sure he can handle Stark's flippant attitude right now, but there is no arguing with Director Fury.
His driver in New York is a woman he recognizes from the New Mexico assignment. She asks, in a muted voice, how the cellist is doing. Coulson doesn't respond. "She's well, I hope," the driver says to fill the silence, expressing her sympathy the safest way she knows how.
It does feel unspeakably good to stride into Stark Tower. It's a struggle to keep his face and voice steady as Stark refuses to help, but at least it can be excused as concern for humanity. And Ms. Potts is as delightful as he remembers; in the end, she's the one who does the coercing of Tony Stark. It's the least he can do to drop her off at the airport.
As she gets into the elevator with him, she asks--bless her heart--how his cellist is doing.
He is gone, he wants to shout, He is gone and we need to find him. Instead he manages something about how the cellist has moved away. The noises of sympathy sting. "Hopefully I'll be seeing her soon," he allows himself to say. "When this is all over."
"I know the feeling," Ms. Potts says, staring at the elevator door. When she exits the SHIELD car at the airport, she gives him a surprising peck on the cheek. "I couldn't say this to Tony, so I'll tell you. Be brave and be safe, all of you."
When the dust has cleared, when Manhattan is safe and the Avengers have gone their separate ways, Natasha finds Clint in his bunk. He has been sitting there for some time now, staring at the wall and trying to process everything that's happened. In her hands, Natasha is holding a small, bulging envelope with a sticky note on its front. The envelope has a slightly worn look, as though it's been handled by a number of people before finding its way here.
"This is for you," she says, handing him the envelope and sitting down next to him.
He doesn't look at the front of it, just rips the seal open and pulls out the contents. It's a greeting card, with a flower motif and something like We're Sorry for Your Loss in soothing lettering across the front. When he opens it, Phil's Captain America cards fall out into his lap.
Now he turns the envelope over to read the note on front. The envelope is addressed to Katie Bishop, and the sticky note says:
Agent Coulson spoke on several occasions about the woman he was seeing, a cellist named Katie Bishop. We were unable to track her down, and I can only assume that this is because SHIELD has moved her for her safety. If it is appropriate to do so, I would appreciate if you could pass this on to her.
Yours, P. Potts.
"Are you okay?" Natasha asks, but Clint waves away her inquiries.
He picks up the cards and sifts through them. They are all there and all clean, which means someone--presumably Pepper--had taken the time to swap out the bloody ones for vintage replacements. It had to have been quite an effort. At least this solves the mystery of where the cards had gone. Officially, nobody had seen them since before Clint had been deprogrammed; apparently Stark had palmed them for a good cause.
"Katie Bishop," Clint says aloud, his voice sad and a little bitter. He reads the inside of the card, skimming Pepper's neat script, taking in the condolences, the assurances that they should all be proud of Phil Coulson, the strange sense of camaraderie that Pepper obviously felt she had with this imaginary woman. Miracle of miracles, she had even managed to get Stark to sign the card.
He wonders what Phil had told Pepper about the cellist.
He wonders what happens to Katie Bishop now that Phil Coulson is gone.