Phillipa Jane Coulson clutches the Captain America to her chest, pouting.
"I can too be Cap when I grow up!"
The boys laugh. "You're a girl, stupid! Captain America is a boy!" one of them shouts.
Cap's hard plastic edges dig painfully into her arms, but she holds him tight.
"I don't care! You're all stupid!"
Her parents, not sure what to do with the daughter who picks fights with bigger boys and runs around throwing imaginary shields and saving an imaginary Bucky, enroll her in the gymnastics program. To Phil's surprise, she likes it. She likes the practice, loves the tumbling, loves the unrelenting Soviet-trained terror that is Madame Rodionova and even the constant pains and aches in her hands and feet and all over are okay, because she's jumping and bouncing and dodging, just like the superheroes in the comics.
"And now, do it again! Tan-tan-tan-tan-up-and-round-and-over-and-down. Good! Now again, the other way!" Madame Rodionova claps a beat with her hands as she goes through the routine on the beam. It's not her favourite - her favourite is the floor - and she also likes the hoops that she can make dance and fly and come back to her (like Captain America's shield). But Madame has decided that she should focus on artistic gymnastics, so she practices on the beam dutifully that year, just like every year after. She learns how to keep a smile on her face during the competitions, no matter what she feels.
Her life is full of gymnastics and school and school and gymnastics, and she gets straight As and wins a few gold medals (even if she never makes it to the national level) and rolls her eyes at her sister with her endless phone calls and boyfriends. She lets her mom buy her clothes because she doesn't really care and mom does, but sometimes the pink and girly things start to feel like they're suffocating her so she takes out her old plastic Captain America and pretends that she's deep undercover on a secret mission.
She learns to blend in.
A boy from her AP History class she's hardly spoken to before asks her to prom. He gets really drunk and spills punch all over the pink gown Phil's mom bought her and she has to drive them both home. He pukes on the driveway after getting out of the car, and Phil is mostly relieved and only a little bit disappointed.
When she decides to go to study political science at the university, her parents are happy. She doesn't tell them that what she really wants is to join the FBI.
In the university, she takes Women's Studies, has an epiphany, shears off her hair and throws out the make-up and feels a little giddy at the prospect of never having to wear anything pink ever again. She considers giving up on the dream of becoming a federal agent and getting seriously into radfem, but she feels like a poser at the feminist meetings and can't commit herself to either direction.
One morning after a party she gets up enough to sit on the edge of the bed where the other woman with an identical buzz cut is sleeping. She has a hangover but her memory is all too clear: Sandy hitting on her, them kissing, the horrible realisation that while Sandy's touch is nice and warm and a comfort after feeling lonely and out of place throughout the whole semester, it isn't anything more than nice, and then Sandy being nice and understanding about everything, and the awkward realisation that neither is sober or awake enough to do anything but go to sleep in the same bed anyway.
She bows forward and down so that all her weight falls on her hands, and despite the fact that her queasy stomach protests and Madame Rodionova would absolutely kill her if she saw her do this without warm-up (Filyochka! Niet! Stop! You will have a sprain - stop this right now!) she pushes herself into a handstand, and then, stiff and out-of-condition muscles protesting, slowly flips herself over and back to her feet. Quietly, without waking Sandy, she pulls on the dress slacks and the men's shirt she wore last night, collects her bag and leaves. Her aching, fuzzy brain has come to a conclusion of what she is (a feminist) and what she is not (separatist lesbian); and somehow this translates to a decision to try for the FBI, if they'll have her.
When she comes back to her room, the battered and chipped figure of Cap with its glued-together shield greets her from its place on her desk. She thinks he approves. Paternalistic idol of patriarchy or not, she'll take it.
In her third year (she's added criminology and Russian as minors to her already full schedule, kept the buzz cut and men's clothes and still doesn't bother with makeup) she gets recruited. Not by the FBI, but by CIA. The recruiter is a smartly dressed woman in her 40s, and when Phil asks her why they are interested in a not quite radical but close enough feminist, she smiles. "Simply put? We need more women in the Agency. We understand that you're interested in joining the FBI, so you clearly don't have an issue with working for 'the Man', and you fit the profile. Interested?"
Whatever it was that she imagined her work to be (explosions like in the James Bond movies? Emma Peel and the Avengers? Endless sliding doors like in Get Smart?), this isn't it. She does a lot of filing and has to let her hair grow and put on make-up and wear business suits and pantyhose in the office in order to blend in (and it's clear to her that she is expected to), and while she may not be radfem, she really, really hates wearing make-up and hose and misses the convenience of her buzz cut. She keeps up her gymnastics, adds martial arts and learns how to shoot, and starts sending applications to become an analyst or even a field agent.
She lets her parents think she's happy, doing patriotic filing. Cap is still on her desk, smiling over every application in a plastic benediction.
The post as a drone in the embassy in Zagreb, Croatia, is still mostly filing with the occasional side of fetching coffee (that she hates on feminist principle but is too junior to grumble about). But even though there isn't anything exiting to speak of, at least she's in Croatia, Europe, and it's definitely a step forward. And since it turns out that she happens to be so good at paperwork that she scares herself a little, including international paperwork involving former Communist states, there's a lot of free time and she's even tracked down a former Yugoslavian gymnastics trainer who is willing to let the crazy American practice her tumbling once a week in exchange for a couple of real, genuine US dollar bills.
Phil has already developed a routine and is starting to feel boredom set, when Agent Fisk arrives on a mission. Croatia is war-torn and poor but it’s in a good location with a long shoreline on the Mediterranean, which makes it a convenient place for assorted war criminals, international terrorists, plain old criminals and most of all, smugglers. Agent Fisk's task is to make sure that the Agency's thumb is firmly embedded in this mystery meat pie.
For the sake of appearances, Fisk is trailed by people who profess a deep interest in Croatian business and possible trade liaisons with their new best friend the US of A, and when Fisk spots Phil she finds herself promoted to a glorified secretary, organising meetings with local businesspeople and talks with the government officials. She doesn't mind that much - it's a nice change and nobody can say she isn't efficient - but she secretly wants to tag along Fisk and learn how to deal with the Criminal Element, in the flesh.
There's nothing special about the meeting, it's just two of the businessmen that make up Fisk's cover meeting a couple of Croatian businesspeople, and she's tagging along to hold all files and hand out papers and call taxis and generally facilitate the trip. They've managed to settle around the table and she's at the coffee pot, getting ready to start the rounds of coffee-milk-sugar and how many lumps? when the door bursts in and three angry men with guns come right behind it.
Everyone freezes. The leader walks to the big Croatian honcho pointing his gun threateningly and speaking quickly in Croatian (Phil's only started learning the language, but it's related to Russian, which she knows, and the gist of it seems to be that the leader wants the businessman to give him something, something related to Germans and something - hydro? Hydroelectricity maybe?), while the left-hand man points his gun at the two Americans. The right-hand man walks up to Phil and grabs her hair with his free hand and yanks, waving his gun (a Glock, with trigger safety) in the general direction of the businessmen.
Without warning, the leader moves his pistol and shoots one of the Croatian businessmen, the one sitting left to the main guy. The man jerks and falls off his chair. His boss pales visibly and slowly reaches inside his jacket to take out a capsule filled with something icy blue that glows faintly. The leader's attention is riveted; he lowers the gun and reaches for the capsule.
Up until now Phil has stayed still and pretended to cry, because she's been afraid of doing something that leads to people getting shot, but now people are shot and she won't get a better chance than this, so she reacts.
The carafe is still in her hand, so the guy holding her gets a faceful of hot liquid and glass. Instinctively, he tries to protect his face - too late - which means he's let go of Phil and forgotten his gun.
Phil hasn't. She grabs the gun and twists it off the guy's hand, and launches herself back and away from the guy with the coffee burns while squeezing off a shot at the leader. She turns and shoots the coffee-burnt guy, twice, both right in the chest. The noise is deafening inside the small room and then something stings at her side. She lets herself fall down and roll back, coming back up from the tumble with something stinging her knees but she can't think about what it is, because coffee-burnt guy has fallen and the third guy is up behind him. Her gun is already raised and she has fired - at the head, why the hell did she try for a headshot - and she's rolling again, to the side this time, under the table, gun up.
She looks around and sees a crumpled heap of person to her left behind the chair legs, no, make that two. There are other legs, very very still, almost frozen, belonging to the businessmen. Coffee-burnt guy is to her right, dead or bleeding out, and right in front she can see the second guy. So, maybe she got them all? She rolls back to her right, not sure what she'll do now but it probably involves the door, and making sure the dead guys stay dead.
Then a huge black man with a gun, dressed in black and wearing an eye patch, explodes into the doorframe. He scans the room and freezes when he sees Phil, or more precisely, the muzzle of Phil's gun (coffee-burnt guy's gun) pointed at him from the floor.
"Please identify yourself," she says, too loud because her ears are ringing from shots fired in too small space and she can't hear herself properly. She's fairly sure the big guy is an American based on his clothes and military stance, but weird stuff has happened today, she's probably killed three guys and had her hair grabbed, she misses that buzz cut, and right now, this guy should be glad she's decided to ask first and shoot later.
The guy frowns and there's a half a second of a Mexican standoff, and then Phil sees Special Agent Fisk's face appear in the doorway.
"Mr. Fisk!" She doesn't know what the big guy is and what he knows, so it's better to play it safe. "Is this guy one of ours?"
Fisk does a double take at the scene that would be funny or gratifying but the adrenalin is starting to wane and the big guy still hasn't lowered his weapon. "Miss Coulson! What are you doing with that thing? Put the gun down right now!"
Phil barely resists doing an eyeroll, but Fisk is the agent in charge and her superior and the big guy probably is an ally at least. "Yes, sir," she says and lowers the weapon. A heartbeat later, the big guy lowers his. Phil sort of wants to stay down on the floor where it's nice and steady, but she figures it's better to get up. Her knees and shins are burning, and no wonder - there's glass all over the floor and she remembers that there had been a big, pretty piece of art glass on the sideboard that's now in splintery pieces spread all over the floor and stuck in Phil's legs and dammit, there's a cut on her stomach too where she must've rolled on a big piece. Her hose is shredded, her legs are full of shards, and she's bleeding all over the place.
There's a sound from behind her, and she turns around just in time to see one of the American businessmen get up and start shouting at the newcomers. The main Croatian businessman moves his hand furtively towards the blue glowy capsule. Phil steps forward and drops a hand heavily on his shoulder, giving him a shake of the head with pleasant smile and a discreet glimpse of her gun when he looks up, and the man subsides.
The big guy comes up and pockets the capsule, and she lets him.
Later, when the nurse has just finished taping off last of the small cuts and is about to leave, the big guy appears again at the doorway. The nurse squeezes by, and the guy closes the door, leans on the frame, folds his arms and just looks at her with his single eye.
"I hear from Agent Fisk that you're not actually a secretary but a junior agent with the CIA," he says.
"Sir," she says non-committally. She still has no clue who he is.
He laughs and fishes out a leather wallet that he hands to her. "Colonel Nick Fury. I'm with SHIELD."
She looks at the badge; it looks good, but she hasn't heard of that agency. She hands the wallet back with a smile.
The big guy takes his badge back and grins. "So, are you happy in your current line of work? With the filing? Because I like your work and my agency is recruiting. We always need more people who can think on their feet, mainly because they tend to end up in shit where they have to."
Phil considers this. If Colonel Fury is legit, and her gut says he is, he's basically offering her a field job. Also, she has a feeling that her career at CIA will move forward glacially slowly if at all, and not towards the direction of the field.
"I suppose I could send in an application, sir" she says.
"I'm warning you though, we deal with a lot of stuff that's... weird. Unnatural, even. You think you can deal with that?" he says, now serious.
Phil must be still jangly from the fight or something because she responds to that with "Does the dress code require heels or pantyhose?"
"The dress code? No, I don't think so," he answers with a curious look.
She grins, for real this time, and extends her hand. "In that case? I'm in, sir."
They shake on it.
She's in a hotel room in Berlin on a stakeout for an arms dealer when the asset walks in. He's in casual clothes, with sandy blond hair cut short and beautiful grey-blue eyes (Phil may be married to her work, but she isn't dead). And an attitude.
"Good evening, Mr. Barton," she says and offers a hand, getting an assessing once-over, a firm shake and a careless "Ma'am".
He seems to be taking stock of her, and she wonders briefly what he makes of her plain face with her hair in a stylish version of a buzz cut, sensible shoes, no jewellery or make-up and a vaguely masculine suit, but no tie; in Berlin, she actually doesn't stand out too much. Giving herself a mental shake, she goes straight to the point.
"We have a few known locations for Hauser for the next 24 hours," she says and hands him the folder. "If you need any more information before selecting the best place to set up, please let me know."
He glances up from the folder. "You haven't picked my spot for me?"
"As a rule, I don't tell specialists how to do their job. Did you want my recommendation?"
"No, this is fine." He chuckles. "The last handler was kind of into micro-managing stuff, that's all."
She gives him her pleasant smile. "I expect people to be capable of completing their assigned tasks without needing their hands held, Mr. Barton," she says, and it's a warning.
"Ooookay," he says, and throws himself into the nearest armchair. "I'll just start on my reading, then."
There's a moment when the only thing breaking the silence is the slide of paper against paper.
"So, how's Berlin, Miz Coulson? Having fun?"
"Agent Coulson," she corrects. "Have you decided on the location?"
"Hey, that's fine, Miz Agent Coulson. And yeah, I have a couple of possibilities, but I want to do a recon myself first. Probably the 18:00 spot, or the 20:00 one." He closes the file and hands it back to her.
"It's Agent, not Ms." She hands him the comm. "Please report to me after you have made your final selection and I will notify you when the target is on the move. On this mission, I want you to wait for my word before you take the shot." She gives him a small note. "The first address and contact data is for the rendezvous point if everything goes well; the second set is in case you lose contact during the mission or if something goes wrong for any reason. Is everything clear?"
Barton has already fit in the earpiece and checks the note. "Yeah, it's cool. I'll call you later, 'kay?"
"Do that," she says dryly.
He tosses her a jaunty little wave on his way out.
Three missions with Barton later, Phil is feeling antsy. All three have gone off without a hitch, and that kind of luck cannot last. She doesn't count Barton chattering over the comm, or his disregard for paperwork or procedure - he calls her Agent and listens to her when it matters, and that's enough for her. He is good, and she knows she is good, but luck never lasts and so she double-checks everything and makes contingency plans.
She is almost satisfied when everything goes to hell.
Barton is moving on rooftops somewhere in Tirana with a stolen AK-47, picking off local goons despite the weapon's notorious lack of long-range accuracy. Phil is crouched in a doorway under his current position, on her last clip. They've been separated from their team since 19:00 last night and it's still a half a klick to the nearest safe location.
"What's the status, Hawkeye?"
"There's one guy hiding behind the grey Moskvitch that's out of my line of sight. Two others behind the corner at your 3 o'clock. Two more behind the corner at 11. A beer says we're gonna get more company soon."
She allows herself a real smile. "No betting on duty. Let's get out of here. Give me covering fire for 15 seconds and then get off that roof, I'll meet you on the north side of the building. On my mark... go."
The AK-47 starts barking and she slips inside. Pelting through the empty offices - thank god the layout is simple - she doesn't bother trying to find a door but breaks a window and climbs out just in time to see Barton rope down the side of the building. And then they run.
"You could've told me that you got hit," Barton grumbles as he puts a neat line of stitches in Phil's back.
"It's just a flesh wound," she deadpans and gets a groan for her efforts.
They're sitting in the basement of an abandoned farmhouse outside the city, and it's going to be another eight hours before their pickup gets there. Both are tired, but too wired to sleep.
"Okay, I'm done," Barton says and gives the tape holding down the bandage a final pat. Phil lets her shirt drop back down and shudders once; she knows it's pathetic, but the memory of feeling those calloused and careful hands on her skin is almost worth the pain of stitches.
They eat and drink a bit and settle down to wait. Barton, never one to suffer silence for long, plays a one-sided game of "I Spy..." until he gets bored and starts telling stories about his time in the circus. Phil knows he's editing; it's only the fun parts with the smell of popcorn and glitter of spangles and the magic of the Big Top. But she hums encouragingly anyway in all the right places, because Barton is a good storyteller and they have six more hours until pickup.
"So, that's me. How did you grow up? The guys at the HQ have a bet going. Dickinson has a fifty going on you being an android, and Peng insists that you're a genetically engineered former Soviet Olympic athlete."
It's dark, so she grins because he can't see her. "That's too bad, because if anyone wins that bet I would be obliged to make sure that person spends the next month at the very least filing requisition forms in triplicate."
"Awwwww, what if we go halvsies on the pot?" She can hear him smiling.
"No. But actually, I had a perfectly normal American childhood," she tells him, and it's true. "And now that you know, the moment someone wins that bet, I will know exactly who leaked that information and will assign the paperwork accordingly."
"Coulson, you are an evil, evil person," Barton says, appreciatively.
There's a pause.
Then: "Okay, so what's your number?"
"What number?" Phil lies down on her stomach.
"The number. How many people you've slept with, that number."
She gives in and rolls her eyes in the darkness. "First of all, that is not an appropriate thing to ask from your superior. And second, you do not have a clearance for that information."
"What? I save your ass and stitch you up and my clearance is not high enough to know a few minor personal details?"
"You need at least ten completed missions going this far outside parameters or further and involving injury and high risk to personnel to qualify for that clearance level," she says solemnly.
A while later, she hears Barton again. "All righty then. Animal alphabet? Just animals, no birds or lizards or bugs or shit. I'll start: Ape."
She sighs, but it is still hours until pickup and they're stuck in a dark cellar. "Baboon."
"Barton – while birds are in fact animals, you just ruled out them out two seconds ago. Dog."
"Oh, man... Emu. No, dammit, elephant."
Barton is standing next to the door of the cheap motel room. The woman sitting in front of her is like a hot coal, dark at the edges but she will burn you if you get too close.
Phil isn't sure about any of this, but despite his reputation of being insubordinate this is the first time Barton has refused to follow a direct order, and at the very least, it buys the woman a chance.
"Madame Romanova, Agent Barton has recommended that we offer you a job. Are you interested?" she asks her in Russian.
"You mean, do I want to kill and whore for you, or do I want to die?" Romanova answers in perfect American English.
Phil switches languages too, and answers carefully. "Frankly? Killers are a dime a dozen. There are even more people who trade on their sexual attractiveness. Our employer is not interested in people who are so... limited.
"You, Ms. Romanova, have received this offer because you are a highly trained agent with excellent analytical and tactical skills and a particular talent at infiltration and working under cover, all of which is completely wasted on these penny-ante operations for whoever pays the most money. I could offer you a desk job - our translation department is always happy to get more multilingual people - but the fact is that you'd be wasted there too.
"Yes, sometimes a mission may involve killing someone, but usually we are dealing with issues that are less simplistic. As for seduction, that is always left at the discretion of our operatives. If someone so much as tries to pressure you into doing something sexual that you aren't comfortable with, they are in violation of regulations, and I will personally make a point of reaming that little shit a new asshole even if it's the Director himself."
Romanova blinks once. "And if I say no?"
"You know we can't let you walk away. However, a long-term deep cover reporting on the actions of certain persons of low-grade interest is probably the closest thing to retirement there is in this business."
"Why should I believe that you will trust my loyalty to you?" She's frowning.
It's a good question, and Phil is asking herself exactly that. "I trust Agent Barton's judgment. He believes that you've had enough, that you want to make a difference." She pauses, trying to find the right words because if she wants to reel Romanova in, instinct tells her she has to do it with the truth. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't truly believe that we work for something more, something bigger than any political or national agenda. If you want to balance the scales... we can give you that chance."
Barton steps closer and crouches on his heels near Romanova. "Look, this is why I brought you here. If Coulson says she can get you a safe, boring job, she can. But I think you'd hate that. And what she said - about making a difference - these people are no angels, but they give me regular opportunities to kick the shit out of bad guys and stop them from hurting innocent people. What do you think? You in?"
There's a sigh and Romanova closes her eyes for a moment, but Phil already knows what she's decided.
Phil looks up from the mission report. "... the plastic dog with a bobbing head?"
"It annoyed me." The other agent shrugs. She's long since anglicised her name from Natalia Romanova to Natasha Romanoff and proven her loyalty and usefulness to SHIELD over and over again, but she still has a temper.
"Which completely justifies stuffing it with C-4 and small screws and exploding the charge inside a moving vehicle. I see." The worst of it is that Phil sort of does understand the impulse. Those toys with the bobbing heads creep her out, and nobody can claim that the impromptu grenade hadn't been effective. She initials the report and closes the file. "Well, I think we're done here. Congratulations on completing yet another mission successfully, Agent Romanoff."
She nods briskly and gets up. "My pleasure. And now, I'm going to get coffee and the biggest Danish in the whole cafeteria. Coming, Phil?"
Phil isn't sure when they moved on to first name basis when off duty, but she thinks it's after Natasha heard about Madame Rodionova but before Phil fished her out from Donau in the middle of the winter that one time and packed her directly into the yacht's hot tub with an even hotter cup of tea and a bottle of vodka for company. It would be in character for Natasha that shared experiences with the Soviet teaching methods would count for more than saving her life.
"Sure, let me just put this away." She slides the report into the correct tray and shuts down her computer and follows Natasha out of the office.
They're sitting on a dirt floor in a barn somewhere in Georgia (not Georgia, USA, but Georgia, east of the Black Sea) and this time, it's bad.
It's bad because Phil is feeling lightheaded from blood loss and Barton is lying down with his head in her lap. His breath is raspy and she knows it's because the bullet has nicked a lung (please let it only be a nick) and they are a total mess.
"So this is, what? The eleventh mission that's gone to shit and there's been life-saving involved?" Barton asks.
It's good that he's talking; she's trying to keep them both awake. She tries to count. Tirana, Mainz, Budapest, Angoulême... "Yes, I'd say it is."
"So, what's your number?"
Barton laughs and coughs. "You asked me that last time, too. That number. How many people have you slept with? I've got clearance now, remember?"
Phil hesitates. Truth? Lie? She threads her fingers through Barton's hair for comfort. "Does making out while drunk count?"
Barton opens his eyes wide. "Drunken make- Coulson! What the hell, are you-"
She laughs; she can't help it. "Fine, I'll count it as one quarter, so it adds up to... Three quarters?"
"I can't believe it," Barton grumbles. "You know there's a cool five grand riding on your relationship status and the name of your mystery lover."
She runs her fingers through Barton's hair again. "I'm in a long-term monogamous relationship with paperwork, you know," she says lightly. "And I still know how to bury the unfortunate winner of that bet in triplicate."
"You know you could get pretty much anybody you wanted," he says.
That makes her pause. "Remember what's in that other bet - the one riding on whether I'm a lesbian, a Domme, a sub and/or a masochist, or just into pegging? And while I don't have any false modesty about my looks, we both know I'm not Natasha either."
"Come on, you could go get a date with somebody outside the office. So, what? Are you like... just not interested? Or was there - did something bad happen?" His voice gets tight.
Phil shakes her head. "No, nothing bad happened." She debates for a while whether to explain or not, but what the hell - she's said too much already, and Barton has told her about his brother and his life before SHIELD, she might as well return the favour. "I just... I'm a boring old mostly vanilla heterosexual woman, in short, I'm normal.
"Except for one thing: I don't want to play the role of a girl the way women are expected to play it in our culture. I can't. It's not me. There aren't that many men out there who are okay with it. Even women can get a bit weird about it - sometimes I think Hill still believes this is just me trying too hard to be one of the boys. Then, you know how intense this job is and what the risks are, and imagine that strain on a relationship? Every time, I've picked my work and my... my self, me being my own person, over a relationship. It'd be really convenient if I could do casual sex, but... that doesn't work for me. Trust issues, job hazard I guess."
"So what do you do?" Barton is frowning and his voice is thready, but he's still there and if Phil has anything to do with it, he'll stay there.
She wriggles her fingers in front of his eyes and waggles her eyebrows.
For some reason, Barton thinks this is the most hilarious thing ever and tries to laugh so hard that he almost chokes.
"Sorry," Phil says once the coughing is over.
Barton nods. "'s okay. But now you gotta call me Clint, because really? We're way past the point here."
"Fine - Clint. But if you ever call me Phil over the comms when we're working, I'll twist you into a pretzel, sic Natasha on you, and make you fix all the errors in your requisition forms for yourself for at least a year. Clear?"
"Clear. Phil." He smiles, eyes closed, and grabs her hand, and she lets him keep it.
It's still far too long until help is coming. "Hey Clint? Want to know about the time in college when I nearly slept with this girl called Sandy?"
She tells him that story and others, and pokes him so that he stays awake until they're rescued.
This time it's Clint who pokes his head inside her office and drags her out for coffee. Sometimes when Natasha is in, the two double-team her; neither of them is fond of paperwork and frankly, Phil may be the master of filing but she isn't in love with it, so she lets them rescue her.
Also, she hasn't slept in 48 hours due to a crisis that's thankfully blown over, and it's starting to get to her.
They go outside to an indie coffee shop nearby, instinctively walking so that both have their hands free and are able to cover each other if something happens. In the haze of exhaustion, Phil thinks there's something off about Clint. He seems nervous. After Georgia, even though they're still professionals when on duty it has been a bit different with them when off duty, though not in a bad way, but this is new.
She drinks deep of her caramel latte - it's ambrosia for her tired system. Clint is toying with his double venti macchiato caramel topped with whipped cream and lord knows what else, frowning.
"What's up?" she asks.
He rubs his hands over his face, takes a deep breath and says: "Phil, would you like to go out sometime? On a date? With me?"
There's little that surprises her, but she really did not see this coming. "I thought you and Natasha -"
"It's not like that." He waves a hand, frustrated. "She's my best friend. Well, you and her are my best friends. But as fine as Tash is, and she sure is fine, she needs somebody to be her friend. Not lover. Somebody who doesn't demand things from her, and I can be that person. It means a lot to me, too. Besides, I think there was somebody, way back when in the USSR, and she still isn't over that person. Anyway, she's got issues and we're all better off not poking at them with a stick."
"Um. That's true." It makes sense, at least the part with Tasha. Phil feels a warm glow inside about being acknowledged as Clint's other best friend, but she's still reeling a bit. "But are you sure about this? You know how I am. I can't be your friend with benefits, I don't do white picket fences, and I'm pretty sure that a torrid fling would blow up in both our faces. Possibly literally."
"Hey." He takes her hand. "I know that. I know you. Believe me, if I wanted June Cleaver I wouldn't be asking you. Or if I only wanted casual sex. But I want... I want more than coffee or lunch breaks or downtime on missions. If that's all you want, I get that and I'm not going to push - I mean, if I can be just friends with Natasha, I can be just friends with you. But I think, maybe, I want to at least try. If you want that too."
She thinks about it. Takes his hand and presses it to her face, kisses the calloused palm and then the knuckles, because this is Clint with his beautiful grey-blue eyes and his smart mouth and tangled history and complete focus with the bow. "I want that too. With you. And if I wasn't about to drop off from sleep deprivation, we could make this our first date, but we can have dinner tomorrow after work. How's that sound?"
Clint grins and leans over the table to kiss her. It's short and chaste, and leaves her lips tingling. "Sounds good. Hey, how about I take you to your apartment and tuck you into bed to sleep this off for tomorrow? We can make out in the doorway first, just like on a first date."
When they get up, she drags his head down and gives him a real kiss, with tongue and a nip of teeth. She's a bit breathless when they come up for air. "Great plan. Let's do that."
If they still walk far enough apart not to block each other's moves, that's okay, because when they get to her place they end up making out inside her apartment long enough that Clint does actually tuck her into bed. Phil retaliates by licking his palm and telling him to make sure he takes care of himself when he gets home, which makes him shudder and swear in three different languages.
When he leaves, she's both frustrated and exhausted and she's never been happier.
Phil looks at the mountain of paperwork on her table they will have to fill out now that they've realised how much easier life would be if each had the other as their official medical proxy and person to call in case of emergency and so on and so forth, instead of using up precious office favours to trade information whenever something happens, and she looks at the other, single form. Then she looks at her old, plastic Cap figure. She could swear he's winking at her.
They take Natasha and Fury along as witnesses, and sign the papers in front of the judge. She's put on her best suit and Clint is wearing a tie. There's a lot of indiscriminate kissing in the hallway, and Fury insists on buying them all a bottle of champagne.
Both keep their own names, neither wears a ring and the relationship stays so private that not even all of the other agents realise (and the ones that do are smart enough not to try and cash in that old office bet), but she makes one concession and introduces Clint to her family.
Predictably, her mom is ecstatic.
"I apologise in advance for the next mission," Phil says and pushes the file towards Natasha. "It'll be a trial."
Natasha leafs through the papers. "You want me to seduce Tony Stark? Well, at least it won't be a long trial."
"No, what we want is for you to keep an eye on him. I would suggest that the best way to consolidate your position for the long term is to make yourself indispensable to Ms. Potts."
"Hmmm... With Stark, there will be flirting, but no sex so that he stays interested. That'll work." Natasha purses her lips. "Is that all? Keeping an eye on him? It sounds like a... it doesn't sound too complicated."
Phil sighs. "Despite everything, SHIELD considers Iron Man to be an asset, and in his own way, Tony Stark is one as well. There's going to be trouble ahead and we have to be prepared for every eventuality, and that means having someone on the inside. Be ready for anything."
"Does that mean I'm allowed to tase him?" Natasha smirks.
"As long as there is no permanent damage, you are authorised to use any means necessary to protect the target from all threats, up to and including himself," Phil answers, smirking right back.
She ends up joining Natasha on Stark-watching duty before she is sent to New Mexico (she suspects that Stark might be growing on her. Like a fungus. Or possibly a mold. A toxic, radioactive mold. Anyway, Natasha can be trusted to handle Stark.) Clint arrives a bit later to find her setting up a facility. She's got a container for an office and it's deserted for the moment, so she greets him with a real smile and a lingering hug.
"Hi there," he smiles into her neck.
"Hi yourself," and she burrows closer. "One minute?"
"Ooh, a challenge..." The kiss is deep and they both let their hands wander, but she still breaks off after her internal clock has run out of time. Or maybe a few seconds later, who's counting. They're both wound up and breathing hard, but they step away from each other to put a bit of space in between, because this is work.
She breathes in and out to focus. "So... what we have here is a big hammer that fell down from the sky and nobody can lift. I want you on security detail if - when - somebody comes to get it back."
"A big hammer that fell down from the sky? Damn, we always get the weirdest stuff. Okay, I'm on it. There's probably no downtime either, is there?" He takes the folder she hands over to him.
"That's your security staff. And no, I don't want that thing left unattended, but Sitwell is coming down tomorrow and I'm going to be taking an extended lunch break. You're welcome to keep me company."
Phil stashes every one of those lunch breaks in New Mexico in her memory to be savoured later, when Clint is assigned to Tesseract guard duty and she is either stuck in the office writing an epic-length report on the Destroyer incident or keeping track of all of the other projects when she isn’t Stark-wrangling, so they have precious little time for even phone calls. (She still feels a twinge of regret for missing a chance to debrief a real live ancient alien who had played a god for prehistoric Scandinavians.)
Then they find Captain America.
She still has the old plastic figure of Cap on her desk, and over the years, she's indulged in a hobby of collecting original trading cards - she figures that everyone needs a hobby, and what if she has a weakness for Captain America? She can't help it if her heart beats a little faster and she feels like she's five years old again.
When she hears about Loki, about him taking the Tesseract and Clint, she almost breaks. She doesn't show it - can't - but buries the whole messy jumble of regret and raw grief deep down somewhere until the mission is over and Loki is finished.
She feels guilty about feeling giddy and happy when she finally meets Steven Rogers - Captain America! - even though she's kicking herself about acting like a pre-teen fangirl. But Rogers, even still not up to speed after his long sleep in the ice, is everything she thought he would be. She imagines Clint's voice in her head: "Come on, you gotta ask him to sign your cards! Seriously, do it and save my sanity - what if they send you to Siberia and I'll have to listen to your griping about missed opportunities forever?" and stomps on the pain because Clint is not going to tease her about her Captain America obsession ever again.
In the end, she never does have time to get those cards signed. When she realises the situation in the Hulk containment chamber, it's too late to do anything but grab the experimental model of the Destroyer weapon and run. She doesn't call for assistance, because what's the point? Normal weapons won't help, everybody else is either not answering to comms or is busy or has evacuated the level and is too far away, and a persistent whisper in her head says that Clint is gone, so she might as well play the odds. She's still doing her duty, and who knows - maybe it'll work?
The spear hurts. She wishes briefly that she’d shot first and asked later, but Loki was standing right next to the controls and she didn't want to risk the chamber falling with Thor inside. Except then it fell anyway.
She gets to take a shot at Loki, which is at least something. She must be going into shock because the world is fuzzy and greying on the edges and the pain is still there but also somewhere far away.
It's been a long time since she's seen Fury upset like this, and she doesn't really want to remember the last time. She tries to think of something else and remembers Captain America, and Tony Stark who is not as annoyed at her as he wants to think, and latches on to a halfway coherent thought.
She can't do anything else anymore, can't help anyone; let her do this one last thing.
There's a beeping sound that won't go away, everything hurts, and there's something in her throat. She tries to open her eyes but her eyelids are too heavy.
She remembers that she's supposed to be dead. Why does it hurt when she's dead? She gets her eyes open, but it's dark and she can't focus her thoughts.
It's light, and white. Muzzily, she thinks that this is a bit more like it, but then she realises that there's a hospital smell in her nose and machines are beeping and the whiteness is fluorescent light on white ceiling. Everything is too heavy and her lungs are burning, and she thinks that she must not be dead.
Except then she tries to check out the room (it's SHIELD medical, all right) and sees Clint slumped in a chair next to her and thinks that maybe she is dead after all and it's okay.
But then he opens his eyes and they are again that same beautiful grey-blue she noticed years ago on their first meeting. She watches those eyes widen and a grin break out, wide enough to split his face.
"Hi," he breathes.
She grins back.
Clint scolds her about the lone gunman kamikaze action until she finds out about him jumping off of a high-rise, and they agree to call it quits. ("You coded three times!" "You could've been a wet smear on the pavement!") Sitwell and Hill pop in, and Hill shakes her hand; they might not be best friends, but they've worked together too long not to be glad that both are safe and mostly okay. Sitwell kisses her on the cheek and earns a double eyeroll from both Hill and Phil and a quick hustle through the door, courtesy of Clint, who still hasn't forgotten that Sitwell is one of those quarters of drunken make-outs.
Stark comes over with an obscenely large bouquet of flowers and enough balloons - Captain America -themed, natch - to make her bed float, and Pepper slips her the latest issues of GQ and The Gentlewoman. Dr. Banner comes with them to shake her hand with a quiet smile.
Thor has already sneaked in and out, almost painfully restrained in deference to hospitals and the fragility of mortals, but that does not stop him from exclaiming in whispers about the bravery of the Daughter of Coul and wishing her speedy recovery. He seems to find bittersweet amusement in the story he can now tell about the blow she struck at Loki to Lady Sif in Asgård, who had (predictably) underestimated Phil when they met briefly in New Mexico.
They've apparently all decided to visit her, because after lunch and a nap, Natasha herds in Rogers and Fury. Phil has heard about the stunt with her trading cards and knows why he's been avoiding her, so she gives Fury one of her Looks, and damn if the boss doesn't shuffle his feet. But Rogers gives her the cards, stained reddish-brown with blood (probably Fury's) and signed with funny comments, and thin folder. It has a picture inside, showing her in the suit, holding the shield in a classic pose, signed with a scribble that looks like S. Rogers. Captain America himself smiles wryly and shrugs, and she grins back like a little kid and they shake hands. Natasha gives her an assessing look of her own and herds everybody out again, except for Clint who wouldn't budge anyway (she swears those two read each other's minds; Phil is just grateful that Tasha was there to bring him back).
"I'm glad he didn't do a self-portrait, since I totally will have to look at that on our bedroom wall for the rest of my life," Clint laughs.
She tries to elbow him and winces when it jars something painful. "Good thing you love me, then."
"Yeah." He steals a kiss, and she lets him. "It's great."
It isn't great, and it is.
She's got a long term of recovery ahead, and so does he. Natasha helps; so do the SHIELD medical team and their psychiatrists. Phil has lost enough range of motion that her days on the floor and the balance beam are over, years of practice before age would've set in, stolen from her; Clint will never be able to fully trust his own mind again. There are days when they both are so strung out that they snap at each other, and once Phil even cries in frustration to her eternal embarrassment. Sometimes they can't sleep, or only find nightmares when they do.
But even through the bickering and the continuous lack of sleep and sudden flashbacks, they have each other. For support, and for a reason to make themselves accept outside help when they get to the last dregs of their endurance. And there are good times too, when they sit and watch bad reality TV together and enjoy lazy Sunday breakfasts in the kitchen after a night spent (not) sleeping huddled together.
Things may never be normal, but they both had their issues and nightmares even before this happened. They can live with it.
A star-spangled man with a plan!
Phil groans and hides her face in her hands, and feels Clint laugh and nuzzle a kiss in her neck.
"Look! Phil got full points for that routine! Isn't she wearing the sweetest outfit, she designed it herself, you know," her mother beams.
"Yeah, Babs, she is incredibly talented, that's why I snapped her right up," Clint says, his half teasing, half serious tone going right past Phil's mom.
The figure on the staticky home video poses in her red, white and blue leotard, with a big red, white and blue bow on her head, and leaps high in the air.
Phil knows that she will not hear the end of this any time soon, but deep down? She doesn't regret a thing. There's a framed picture opposite their bed where she can see it every morning that's proof that she did get to become Captain America when she grew up, after all.