It's well known among the members of SHIELD that Agent Phil Coulson is a workaholic. Though he has a quiet, bland appearance, every single member of the organization who's worth anything at all knows how terrifying he is in dedication and sheer capacity.
The paperclip story is still whispered around SHIELD's various bases.
Everyone also knows that, hard-ass he may be, there is no one else you'd rather have at your back in a crisis. His ability to stay calm even in the direst of situations has saved more than one life, and his level voice over the comms means that there is light at the end of the tunnel no matter how FUBAR things have gone.
There is a reason that Coulson ranks right below Fury and Hill in the SHIELD hierarchy.
Coulson has a storied history in the organization, much of it redacted even in restricted files, but for all his competence in the field, the general consensus is that Coulson is exactly where he wants to be—running operations, handling assets, and troubleshooting when the shit hits the fan. Many agents have seen Coulson not leave until hours past his nominal clock out time, filling out paperwork and drawing out every last detail so that whatever went wrong (or right) in this mission can be avoided (or replicated) in the next. Coulson leaves late and returns early with the same efficiency he gives everything else.
For all of that reputation, it's only slightly less known that he takes his days off willingly.
Like clockwork, Phil books a week and a half of vacation time and disappears to his old family home, which was gifted to him and subsequently had most of its records erased, now setup under one of his aliases.
He has a routine during his days off. While it's not sacred—because if there is anything that Phil has learned on the job, it is that flexibility in planning is always a good thing—Phil tries his best to stick to it simply because it works.
For one thing, he doesn't wake until the sun has fully risen for at least an hour. It's a rare luxury, given how often he's up at the crack of dawn ore before. He allows himself the pleasure of hitting the snooze button a few times before truly waking.
Phil then dives into the pool for his morning routine. After all, being on vacation doesn't mean that he can neglect his training; at his age, he needs every advantage he can get to stay in the game, and that's beside the fact that Phil really enjoys swimming. He spends two hours doing exercises and then about an hour after that simply being lazy, soaking in the heat from the sun as he floats in the pool.
He then drags himself out of the water and cooks himself lunch. Because a decent portion of his meals tend to be take-out while working, Phil relishes in the chance to make himself something. He isn't a spectacular cook, but he has enough skill to survive, and he is always happy with the result.
After lunch, Phil alternates between vegging out on the couch, surfing the internet, or going out for a run and simply taking the time to breathe. The former two are often accompanied by a beer or two, while the latter has him making the rounds around the building.
Dinner is also a simple affair, and he relaxes afterward with an ice cold beer and a movie. Sometimes he watches something new, as his workload very rarely lets him go out for movies or keep up with whatever bits of pop culture he does enjoy, and sometimes he watches something old, like that copy of the Captain America biopic that is pretty much an open secret by now.
After the movie ends, Phil rouses himself from his sleepy daze and then double checks that all of the doors and windows are secure before retiring for the night in his old bedroom. Even now, he can't imagine the thought of taking his parents' master bedroom.
That's his routine for when he's alone. Sleepy, sedate, and everything he needs to face his hectic job when he returns.
It grows slightly more interesting when he has company.
The first time Phil has enough clout in the organization to have it really matter when he takes time off, he's inundated with calls and emails and texts. Phil makes sure that he has nothing pressing when he takes a vacation, but there are always junior agents of all types and panicked senior agents who need guidance and a helping hand. Apparently, though he has a reputation for being a hard-ass, there's also no one better to fix things.
Phil gets very little rest during his vacation, and he is cranky for a month when he returns.
After this happens for the next couple of times, with his final one having him be recalled back to base for what turned out to be a truly minor incident, Phil breaks. He ends up ranting to Nick (at this point, in Nick's office with only the two of them, it is Nick and Phil, not Fury and Coulson) for at least an hour, and when he finally calms down, Nick offers him some of his special scotch. The two of them commiserate in silence.
Nick quietly takes care of things, because he's a good friend like that, and there's an unofficial memo floating around that everyone in SHIELD has seen about not interrupting certain Agents' break time on pain of Siberian relocation.
Of course, when it happens again next year, Phil shoots off a message to Fury and Hill that he's going to disappear for a bit, activates one of his backup aliases, and drops off the face of the earth for a while.
Granted, disappearing without telling anybody but Fury and Hill is probably not one of his smartest moves, as when he wakes up from a quick doze on the couch, it is to see Natasha glaring at him from its opposite.
"It took me two days to find you," she says tonelessly. The you weren't at your apartment is silent but implied.
Phil sits up with a wince. He sometimes forgets that, of SHIELD, there are very few people the Black Widow actually trusts, and Phil is almost chief among that number. "I'm sorry," he says, meaning every word.
"Don't disappear on me again," Natasha replies. It isn't a threat, in spite of the tone her voice holds.
Phil nods and gets up. Silently, he putters his way to the kitchen and starts prepping dinner for two, the invitation clear in his actions. After a few moments, Natasha joins him, and the two manage to whip up something that they both like, maneuvering around each other with ease.
They settle into a conversation about literature over and after dinner. Natasha has a secret love for science fiction novels, and though it isn't Phil's forte, he has enough knowledge to be conversant. They chat about Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein (Natasha prefers Clarke, but Phil likes Asimov better) over a steadily decreasing bottle of wine, and eventually Natasha disappears into the guest room while Phil heads into his own and falls flat on his face.
When he wakes up, it's to an empty house and the lingering scent of Natasha's perfume. He can see the marks Natasha has left on the place, in the breakfast waiting for him and the copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Phil carefully tucks away in the same place he puts the Captain America memorabilia from his childhood.
The next time, Phil is more discreet. He sets up a fake mission during his chosen time off, informing only a choice few of his true intent, and turns it into his vacation once he returns.
No one bothers Phil during a mission, and Phil is content.
Fury typically comes and goes as he pleases. As the Director of SHIELD, he honestly cannot take more than a few snippets of time away, but every so often, he pops up at the house when Phil is there.
As Nick now, some of the ever-present tension seems to flow out of him. It never leaves him entirely, because a man like Fury has far too much going on. Phil himself has far too much going on, but he quietly compartmentalizes it just for this time.
Neither man likes talking about the past, though they have history together. It is the history which has Phil following Nick to SHIELD after a gigantic fuck up cost Nick his eye and Phil much of the use of his left hand. Only months of therapy left either of them with any sort of capability to function, and the events left an unwavering trust in each other.
Nick lets Phil call him on his shit, and Phil gets prodded into motion.
But neither speaks of this at Phil's place. Within these walls, work disappears for them, and they share a bottle of scotch or whiskey and watch bad B-movies together. Nick likes shouting things at the screen and mocking the characters, their decisions, and the artistic intent of the director. Phil, on the other hand, adds comments every so often but simply enjoys the experience. The bottle of scotch grows lighter and lighter as the day wears on until Nick (fucking Nick with his high alcohol tolerance) sweeps to his feet and claps Phil on the shoulder.
Phil, who is usually lightly dozing in a drunken haze, vaguely waves Nick off as he disappears.
These moments stolen away aren't usually spoken of, not out loud at least, until the next time Nick appears in his house with another bottle of alcohol and a list of movies he wants to watch.
On the other hand, when Maria drops by with some of her favorite coffee, they often do nothing but talk about the past.
It began back in North Korea, when rookie Agent Coulson and slightly less rookie Agent Hill had that impossible to foresee fuck up and were forced to hole up in their safe house until they could make their way back into the Demilitarized Zone. There had been tension and silence as their supplies dwindled, until Phil broke and started talking about his older sister, the doctor, and how he felt he could never measure up to the star pupil of his family.
Hill disappeared into the bathroom at the admission and emerged an hour later with her own tales. As the daughter of an FBI agent and a Marine, with CIA and FBI brothers, she'd been born and bred to be a hard-ass and had to fight for her very position and self-confidence. Her brothers always had more attention, and she'd joined SHIELD just to get away from it all.
They spent the night talking in bits and pieces, when the silence grew too heavy and pressed down on them, up until they made their escape. But by the time they left, they weren't Coulson and Hill to each other but Phil and Maria.
And so, on Phil's days off, every so often Maria will appear. Maria doesn't like drinking, as it reminds her too much of her mother, but she has a healthy addiction to coffee. It is well known that you're in Agent Hill's good graces if she gives you coffee, and that she trusts you if she gives something from her personal stash.
For those few hours, Maria loosens within the walls of Phil's home. She sprawls slightly, leaning against the soft couch, and simply breathing in the scent of the dark brew. Phil sometimes sits next to her, sometimes on another couch, and tries not to get too addicted to some of the best coffee Maria has, because Maria has sources.
They don't always talk, and Maria can't always stay long because if both Phil and Maria are out, it leaves Fury without his most trusted agents (his buffer between him and the rest of SHIELD), but they make the most of their time together. And when they do speak, it's the little bits of their soul they bare to one of the few people they trust.
Maria never stays the night, and she is always professional at work, but during those moments, they can simply breathe.
Phil all but kidnaps Jasper Sitwell one day, just because he can.
Well, kidnaps is a strong word, but it does involve assigning him to his "mission" and tossing him a new alias.
Sitwell sort of squawks and is a little confused when their destination turns out to be a home. Phil's not going to lie; the look on his face as if questioning if his virtue was safe is one of the funniest things Phil has seen in a long while.
But he basically orders Sitwell into the guest bedroom and goes about his routine. Whenever Sitwell asks, he barely responds and only gives that impassive smile which he knows either infuriates or frightens everyone else. He offers Sitwell drinks and food, points out the small weight room in the basement, and enjoys his time in the house.
It takes a few days, but Sitwell eventually gets it. He begins arguing over TV choices with Phil, sometimes stealing the remote to put on cartoons, and taking over the cooking duties. They get into debates about anything and everything, from Phil's Captain America fanboyism to Sitwell's well hidden Japanese otaku side. They push and tug at each other the entire time.
All because Sitwell is Phil's protégé. Phil is in the process of teaching Sitwell everything he knows, because when the time comes and Phil has to leave SHIELD—whether due to age, injury, or death—Sitwell, over a decade younger, will be there to take up the slack. Phil is thorough in everything he does, so in teaching Sitwell how to do his job, all of the tricks and tips that'll save the lives of him and his assets, he'll also teach him how to save himself. Though time apart, though these secret vacations.
SHIELD agents cannot subsist on work alone. To be a handler means not just having your own life in your hands but everyone under you. So to be at your sharpest, you need these breaks, where you can relax and center yourself.
Sitwell understands without having it explicitly spelled out for him, and this is why Phil started mentoring the man all that time ago.
Eventually, they'll be here as equals, but not just yet. Phil has too much left to teach him before he'll start calling him Jasper.
But it'll happen someday.
Clint doesn't come unless explicitly invited. Phil gets it, of course. For all that Barton will break into his apartment back in New York, this place is Phil's sanctuary, and Clint will not intrude on that.
But of all of the assets Phil handles, he has a soft spot for Clint Barton. Clint can be infuriating on the comms, talking, joking, and sometimes even outright singing. The only reason Phil lets him get away with it because Clint can do his job, can do it damn well, and he knows how to improvise in the field. Phil will never admit it out loud, but Clint, back when he was still just Barton, forced him to become a better handler and agent, and Phil will always be thankful for that. So if he's a little bit fonder, if he worries a little more for Clint, then that's for Phil to deal with.
But after years of Natasha and Nick and Maria and even Sitwell showing up, Phil finally says, "Barton. Do you have a couple days off?"
He says this to what seems like his empty office, but after a few moments, Clint drops out of the vents without a sound. "Uh, I don't have any missions scheduled for the new future, sir."
"Make sure it stays as such next week," Phil says without elaboration.
Clint pauses in the doorway, and while Phil doesn't look up from his paperwork, he can feel Clint's gaze on him. There's a certain amount of confusion there, but Phil doesn't like speaking of his plans in advance. When, in a couple of days, Phil is on his way to his house, Clint by his side, he can feel almost feel Clint shift nervously next to him. A small part of him likes seeing Clint squirm, though getting him to admit that will take a fair amount of torture.
"Sir? I wasn't called in for a briefing..."
"It's fine, Barton," Phil says.
When they finally pull into Phil's house and he is unlocking the door, Clint remains hovering at the stairs.
There is hesitation on his face when he looks back. "Um, sir? I don't..."
"Clint," Phil finally says, and there is an almost imperceptible twitch in Clint's body. "The backyard's set up for archery, and I have a bow that should be up to your standards."
"Call me Phil," he throws over his shoulder as he finally makes his way inside.
Face melting into a grin, Clint follows.
Clint's loud and sarcastic the entire time, and Phil snarks back as he allows himself to play video games for the first time in a while. They ease into their own routine, sharing beer and food, with Clint teaching Phil some archery and Phil dragging Clint into the pool.
It's an easy sort of life, and Phil almost expects Clint to show up the following years.
But he never does unless Phil invites him.
So one day, right before Clint has to head back while Phil still has some more time before he too returns, Phil presses a key into Clint's hand. Clint looks up and stares.
"Come whenever you feel like," Phil says, and he memorizes the smile that blooms across Clint's face.
At the end of his vacation, Agent Coulson slides back into SHIELD as if he never left. He catches up on any backlogged paperwork, taking command of any missions that need his help, and prepping for future assignments.
But to those who know him, he is always sharper right when he returns. Coulson is more refreshed than ever.
That's his secret, after all.
Coulson always gets things done to the best of his ability.
If doing his best means taking time off, then Coulson will do it.
And, if at some point he retires from SHIELD, if he even makes it that long, Coulson will have that house, that home, waiting for him.
Coulson looks forward to it.