Actions

Work Header

Wasn't Born A Beauty Queen (But I'm Okay With That)

Work Text:

Philippa Coulson became Fury’s One Good Eye by being smart and relentlessly competent and notoriously difficult to faze. She did not become Fury’s right hand woman, however, by putting up with bullshit, which is why, when Probationary Agent Clint Barton says “You’re Phil Coulson?” and laughs, she tazes him right in the testicles. She doesn’t even think about it.

As beginnings go, it’s not the worst.

 

***

 

He never apologizes to her, but Clint Barton doesn’t really apologize for a lot of things. It’s one of the things Philippa will come to love about him. Now though, she is young and he is younger, and all Philippa wants is to go home and get out of these fucking shoes.

“I’m sure you’ll never have to buy yourself a drink again,” Philippa informs Barton dryly, handing him a bag of ice she found in the break room fridge. “Gossip about me is more valuable than money around here.”

Barton ignores her. “Are you supposed to be the one handing me the ice when you’re the one who just tazed me?” he asks, nevertheless taking the proffered ice and letting out a soft noise when he places it on his electrocuted privates.

“I’m your handler,” she tells him, because asshole or no, Philippa believes in a job well done. Besides, she’s never really had someone give her grief after a good nut-tazering. “Do you really want to have to explain this to medical?”

Philippa can say, with one hundred percent certainty, that Clint Barton is the only man who has ever answered that question with a laugh.

 

***

 

When Philippa was a little girl, she loved Captain America.

“He’s so dreamy,” her sister, Amelia, would sigh, drawing hearts all over her own Captain America notebook. Philippa didn’t think so. She also didn’t doodle hearts over everything either, but it was only later in life she learned this was a difference that didn’t really mean a lot.

Philippa thought that Captain America was brave and he was strong and he loved his country, loved his friends, to the ends of the earth. She didn’t really understand how someone could love something so much, but she knew that Captain America was born Steve Rogers, who  was small and grew up strong. Philippa was young and she was a girl, but she saw no reason that she couldn’t do the same.

 

***

 

“What?” Clint Barton asks, when he finds her Captain America mug, hidden away in the locked cupboard where she keeps her more mundane secrets, “No Superman?”

“I’ve killed men for less than that, Barton,” she tells him severely. Her love for Captain America is pure and true.

Clint smiles, wide and guileless, something she didn’t even think he had in him, “I don’t doubt you, ma’am.” His eyes sparkle like he’d be fine with another tazering, just as long as it was Philippa doing it.

It’s hard to be stern to a face like that, but Philippa is nothing if not a consummate professional. “Are you here to be debriefed or to fondle my mugs?”

And Clint’s smile doesn’t change—he doesn’t leer or smirk or falter—just tells her honestly, “Whatever you’d prefer, ma’am.”

 

***

 

(Clint doesn’t ever call Maria Hill ma’am, just calls her Hill. Philippa will only notice this when Natasha points it out. To the end of her days, Philippa will be embarrassed that she wasn’t the first to notice.)

 

***

 

Philippa has never been lovely, only ever handsome. Her hair is a sandy brown, her jaw a touch too square, and her hands have been calloused by guns. It bothered her when she was younger, that she was plain, that in the eyes of schoolboys she was a sexless anomaly. Philippa didn’t go to prom because no one asked her, and there were years where that fact cut like a knife. But after high school came college, and the NSA, and then came SHIELD.

She is not beautiful, she never will be, but that is an aspiration for other women. There are things Philippa’s body can do for her that her sister’s can’t. Philippa can run and shoot and jump, as good as any man. Better than some men. For Philippa, there has always been more to life than beauty, but she thinks there is something beautiful in the curve of a knife blade, in the handle of a gun, in the way you can break a person with just words, if you know how.

There is something elegant, Philippa thinks, in the lines of Clint Barton’s back as he draws his bow. A grace in an arrow mid flight. There is beauty in the way that he never misses, not once. Philippa can respect talent like that.

 

***

 

“You know,” says Clint one day, flying back from an op, legs at an awkward angle in their coach seats, “I thought you were going to be worse.”

It’s not the most terrible thing someone’s ever said to Philippa, but it still rankles. “You thought I was going to be a man,” she points out. You don’t get this far in your career by leading with your emotions.

“Everyone calls you Phil,” Clint argues, although he never does. “You don’t hear a name like Phil and think ‘leggy blonde.’”

Never in Philippa’s life has she ever been described as leggy and her hair barely even qualifies as blonde—it’s only lightened thanks to weeks in the desert sun. She can feel her ears burning, is unable to stop it. “Well then,” she lets herself ask. “What did you think?”

“They call you Battleaxe Coulson,” he explains, like it’s ridiculous. “I was told by Sitwell that you’d have my balls on your mantelpiece within the week.”

Jasper Sitwell was Philippa’s partner back when they were both wet behind the ears and got assigned things like partners instead of assets. He has never let the fact that she has breasts get in the way of their relationship and he always terrifies the new recruits for her. Philippa also introduced him to his wife, which means he owes her an indeterminate number of favors for life.

“I do have your balls on my mantelpiece,” Philippa informs Clint, clamping down on a smile. Most people are too scared to call her battleaxe to her face. “Or did you forget how we met?”

“Damn,” Clint grins. “Didn’t even notice. You’re good.”

Philippa lets herself smile in return. “And don’t you forget it.”

 

***

 

Clint Barton is not Philippa’s only asset. He’s not the only one with a shady past, steady hands, and a complicated relationship with authority. And, unfortunately, he’s not the only one who possesses an almost supernatural ability to irritate. Sometimes Philippa thinks back fondly of when she first started at SHIELD, back when each day didn’t seem to end in a migraine.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” says Agent Alvarez, “but I refuse to work with Agent Parsells.”

It’s five o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and contrary to popular belief, Philippa does actually like to go home and sleep. She has a date tonight with Super Nanny and a bottle of Merlot, and if she needs to throttle Agent Alvarez to keep it, then so be it.

“Has Agent Parsells ever threatened you?” Philippa asks because it needs to be.

Agent Alvarez sets her jaw. “No,” she answers, mulishly.

Philippa goes on, “Has he ever harmed you? Made untoward advances? Directly compromised you on a mission?” Alvarez shakes her head, mutinous. “No? Then, Agent Alvarez, I see no reason that you and Agent Parsells cannot continue your working relationship.”

“But—” Alvarez starts, and Philippa has seen that same expression on her eleven-year-old niece.

“You should have thought about the consequences,” Philippa informs her, cutting Alvarez off at the pass, “before you started your sexual relationship with Agent Parsells. Honestly, Clara, I thought better of you. This is SHIELD. We don’t just reassign agents because you broke up.”

Alvarez stands, cold fury radiating off her. “I thought you’d understand, Phil,” she says, throwing Philippa’s name in her face like that’s supposed to change her mind, like it’s supposed to remind her of this bond she and Alvarez theoretically share just because they were both born with breasts.

“I’m your supervisor,” Philippa reminds her, and will no doubt be reminding her female assets for years to come. “The agency comes first.”

“Of course,” Alvarez agrees tightly.  “Thank you for your time.”

Honestly, Philippa doesn’t know why they always come to her with these requests. Jasper has always been the one with the bleeding heart.

 

***

 

(“Untoward,” Jasper laughs at lunch on Monday over chicken salad sandwiches. “You think your vocabulary is going to mend a broken heart?”

“Tell me you didn’t let her opt out,” Philippa sighs.

“Please, Phil, this is a milk run. It’s going to be hilarious. They can’t even look at each other.”

The thing is, Jasper’s very rarely wrong about this sort of thing. Sometimes Philippa really does love her job.)

 

***

 

SHIELD is a ghost agency; it deals with all the things the CIA and NSA can’t. SHIELD stops mad scientists and occult-obsessed Nazis. It takes anything beyond the realm of understanding, anything the world is not ready for, and it puts into a neat little box.

Philippa’s job is not any easy one, but she’s good at it. She’s seen enough, at this point, that nothing’s really surprising anymore. There is so much in the world that Philippa will never be able to truly understand, so she doesn’t try to. There is good and there is bad, and Philippa believes in doing the best she can every damn day no matter what.

You don’t become Philippa Coulson by being anything less than exceptional. You don’t come onto Philippa’s radar by being anything less than extraordinary. She started off solely in the field, but is  now a handler for assets, the higher level ones, the one’s that need someone to keep an eye on them. It’s exactly why Clint Barton was assigned to her in the first place. An archery wunderkind from the circus and the streets, and SHIELD didn’t know if they were looking at the next big thing or the next supervillain.

Philippa knows, down to her core, that Clint Barton is a good man. That doesn’t stop her, sometimes, from wanting to kill him. If he weren’t so good at archery, it would be his super power.

 

***

 

The arms dealer is late. This is not really a surprise anymore. Punctuality, Philippa bemoans to herself, is a dying art.

“How am I supposed to break in my boomerang arrows,” Clint says, Philippa’s com clicking to a private line, “if the guy doesn’t show?”

“Need I remind you we’re on radio silence, Barton.” Philippa answers, wondering if she can willfully forget the fact that Clint has somehow designed boomerang arrows. She’d rather not relive the fiasco that followed the magnetic arrows incident.

 Undeterred, Clint continues, “Think about it, ma’am, boomerang,” and Philippa can feel the beginnings of a headache creeping along her temples.

“Radio silence,” Philippa reminds him again, “or I’ll have you on milk runs with Alvarez and Parsells.” She really should thank those two for being such a hot mess. Philippa hasn’t had this kind of leverage in years.

Clint Barton is smarter than people give him credit for, though. “Fair enough,”  he laughs down the line, the last thing Philippa hears from him until his whoop of victory at the success of the boomerang arrow when their guy finally shows. She has to admit, they do come in handy.

 

***

 

On quiet days, or what counts for quiet at SHIELD, Philippa plays poker with Nick Fury.

“Is this really appropriate?” Maria Hill always sighs, always wearing her tactical uniform like she’s expecting an attack at any moment. Philippa always thinks that if anyone is the battleaxe, it’s Maria. And also, maybe, Maria could pull that stick out of her ass.

“I’m the Director of SHIELD,” Nick always tells Maria, feet kicked up on his desk to make a point. “If I say it’s appropriate, it’s damn well appropriate.”

Philippa never chimes in on these arguments. Nick likes Philippa better than Maria, but Maria still outranks her. Besides, there’s nothing really Maria can do if Nick Fury wants to play poker and drink in the middle of the day. It’s one of the perks of being the Director. Yelling just ruins the good scotch.

 

***

 

“How’s the new guy?” asks Nick one day, trying to distract Philippa from his terrible hand with a work question, “Barton?”

Barton has broken into her office three times in the last week and rearranged her furniture. He has disobeyed nearly every direct order she’s given him in the field unless threatened or cajoled into obeying. Clint changes tactics mid-op; he talks during mandatory radio silence; he doesn’t use SHIELD-sanctioned codenames; and he insists on bringing his personal trick arrows into the field. Two months ago he saved her life in Kabul and yesterday she found Captain America stickers tucked inside the safe where she keeps her more mundane secrets.

“Fine,” Philippa tells Nick. “No problems.”

Nick frowns, always a more impressive gesture now that he’s lost his eye. “You mind telling me, then, why I got Woo telling me he’s a danger in the field."

Now it’s Philippa’s turn to frown. She hasn’t heard anything on that front, not officially at least. There’s plenty of gossip at SHIELD, but if someone has a problem with one of her assets they need to talk to her first. Not the fucking director. “This a business meeting, boss?” Philippa asks. “Or do you just like gossiping about Woo?"

Nick puts down his cards and Philippa thinks this is going to be one of those meetings. “I'm just making sure you're thinking clearly, Cheese.”

The nickname rankles. Nick’s treating her like she’s a silly girl. Like Woo had to come and talk to Nick directly because Philippa was going to let a pretty face distract her from her job. Well, that’s bullshit, and Philippa doesn’t put up with bullshit. Clint Barton has great arms and a great ass, but so do half the agents of SHIELD. He’s an asset, and a damn good one. At the end of the day, that’s all Philippa cares about.

“If you’re asking if I’m compromised, just ask,” Philippa tells him. When Nick stays silent, she goes on. “What was Woo even doing in the field with Barton? I don’t remember clearing that op.”

“It was when you were holed up in medical. Sitwell needed extra hands.”

“Of course,” Philippa sighs. Philippa’s day had been looking really good up until now: a meeting with R&D in the afternoon, a cameo at the new hire orientation, and some free time to maybe clear all the shit off her desk. Now it looks like she’s going to have to spend the afternoon collecting heads. If she’d known this going in, she would have worn flats.

“He’s sweet on you, Cheese.” Nick tells her, taking a drink of scotch

“Woo?” Philippa asks, confused. Woo has always disliked Philippa in the way that all men who secretly hate women do.

Nick looks at her like she’s being dense on purpose. Philippa really doesn’t appreciate that. “Barton,” he says, like it means something. It doesn’t.

“He’s sweet on Bobbi Morse,” Philippa corrects. She doesn’t care what her assets do on their own time, but it’s hard to miss whatever’s happening between those two. “And he’s a good asset. We’re lucky to have him.”

Sometimes Nick stops looking like Nick and starts looking like Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD. It’s not that she forgets, per se, but Philippa works with so many dangerous people that she puts aside the fact that Nick Fury is the most dangerous man in the entire agency. She lets herself forget that Nick Fury always puts the ends before the means; that on this boat, he is god and she’s just a big ant. He always reminds Philippa of a lion in these moments—calm and assessing, confident in his knowledge that he is the baddest motherfucker on this helicarrier.

“I’m trusting you on this, Phil,” he says at last.

If you had asked Philippa this morning if she would stake her reputation on protecting Clint Barton, she would have told you no. Philippa Coulson stakes her reputation on no person but herself. But here, now, it seems like the easiest thing in the world.

Philippa tells Nick the only thing she can, “Thank you.” And she means it.

 

***

 

When Nick Fury recruited Philippa into SHIELD he wasn’t missing an eye. He still had the coat though.

Philippa remembers clearly, three months into working at SHIELD, telling her partner of three weeks, one Agent Jasper Sitwell, that she couldn’t get grab dinner with him after work because she was already having drinks with Nick.

“Nick?” Jasper had sputtered, incredulous, “Like Nick Fury? Leather coat? Punch you rather than look at you?”

Now, Jasper would sigh, long suffering, and ask Do you also hang out with great white sharks for fun? and Philippa would tell him, stone-faced, Only on Wednesdays. Monday’s are for Kodiak Bears.

They were both wrong, her and Jasper, about Nick Fury. He’s exactly as harmless and as dangerous as the other one thinks.

 

***

 

It takes her about twenty minutes to find Barton, but that’s only because she has to break onto the roof to do it. He’s sitting there, like she thought he would be, lounging in a fold up lawn chair, a  cooler filled with the cheapest beer Philippa has ever had the misfortune of drinking on his left, a crate filled with the entirety of Dragonriders of Pern on his right.

“This building doesn’t technically have roof access,” she tells him for the umpteenth time. She could stop him, probably, if she really wanted to, but if Barton wants to sit on the roof and drink during his downtime, then Philippa sees no reason to stop him.

“Coulson,” Clint tells her, not bothering to lift his head, “if it’s got a roof, it’s got roof access.”

There are days when Philippa would smile at that, fighting back a laugh, but today is not that day. She takes a seat on the crate and asks, simply, “What happened when I was in medical?”

“Nothing happened,” Clint says, voice tight, body tensing.

Philippa doesn’t even bother calling bullshit; they both know she’s thinking it. “Then care to explain why Woo’s telling Director Fury you’re a danger in the field?”

Clint actually sits up at that, and it makes him look like a petulant five-year-old, hunched over in his chair like that. “You read the field report. You tell me.”

So it’s going to be like that then. Philippa has no idea why she surrounds herself with difficult people; why, when she gets to pick her assets, she chooses the ones with things like problems with authority and easily triggered and do not mention buttermilk: makes problematically aggressive in their files, but she does. Every time. So far, Clint’s the only one who’s been less difficult than his file claimed, but that doesn’t mean that the initial assessment was wrong. Philippa would never think to limit Clint Barton to some boxes a psychologist once ticked on a piece of paper.

“I didn’t read the report,” Philippa tells him truthfully, and then in the face of Barton’s disbelieving silence she explains, “Field reports collect a very specific set of data. I’d rather hear it from you.”

He still looks like he doesn’t trust her, but his body language shifts from petulant child to something sharp-eyed and dangerous. “You gonna fire me?” he asks.

Philippa is a good handler because she doesn’t pity her assets, but there is something deeply sad about Clint’s hunched shoulders and bone deep fear that he’s easily discarded. “No,” she says simply. “What happened?”

And there must be something in the set of her shoulders, the line of her mouth, that Clint trusts, because he tells her.

 

***

 

Honestly, Philippa thinks, making her way through the halls of SHIELD, agents ducking out of her way as she steamrolls by, if Woo can’t handle playing bait for one op, then he’s never going to make is past Level Five.

 

***

 

The day ends in Philippa reaming out Jasper in the cafeteria, no doubt all the junior agents live texting the whole affair to those not present. Because Jasper is a professional and knew her in the days when she thought a bob was a good look on her, he takes the whole thing like a champion.

“I was just following procedure, Phil,” he says when she has stopped listing all the subclauses in the SHIELD handbook that mean she is right and he is wrong.

“I know,” Philippa tells him. “I’m just doing the same.” Philippa looks out for her own, and Jasper gets that.

Woo was at risk, but it was Clint who stood the biggest chance at coming back in a body bag. Jasper gets that too. He smiles at her—eyes crinkling, mouth quirking at the edges, not enough emotion for anyone to assume that he has feelings. “I’ll be sure to convey your sentiment to Agent Woo.”

And Philippa would smile back, she would, but they’re in public, so she says, “Be sure that you do,” instead.

 

***

 

When Philippa goes home at night, she is not an agent of SHIELD—she is a woman who has had a long day. She likes reality television, red wine, good beer, and knit sweaters. Her work phone sits on the coffee table, ringer turned all the way up, and if that call comes, she will answer it. But until then, Philippa will sit on her couch watching Super Nanny, and she will not think about the darkness that lurks at the corners of Clint Barton’s smiles.

On Wednesdays, she emails her mother harmless updates about her life. She trades emailed recipes with her sister when she finds them, Skypes with her niece when she can, promises to make it out to Montana sometime to meet her newborn nephew. On occasion, Philippa actually breaks out her recipe rolodex, bakes a cake for one, and texts Amelia the results.

It’s not a sad life and it’s not a small life, but, outside of work, it is a quiet one, and Philippa likes it that way. Likes knowing she can wear her hair down and her shirts low and not have to worry what anyone might think. Philippa doesn’t really have friends outside of work, but that’s okay, she’s happy like this.

 

***

 

After everything, Clint does not talk to Philippa for a week. She’s going to talk to him about it—problems at home signal problems in the field—but there’s an incident in Nepal and Philippa is shipped out. It happens. There are more questions than answers and too many of the good guys end up dead. It never gets easier, but Philippa gets better at hiding how much it fucking hurts. Tears don’t solve anything and while an excruciatingly detailed field report doesn’t bring someone back from the dead, it might keep someone else alive. Philippa will take the victories she can get.

There is a cactus sitting on her kitchen table when she gets home. It’s spiky and awkward and there are bright pink blooms hanging off the ends. Even super agents need something to come home to reads the note, in Clint’s blocky hand. It’s the first time Philippa’s smiled in weeks.

 

***

 

Philippa’s never really had a problem saying thank you, but this time it’s supposed to be followed up by breaking and entering is illegal in all fifty states, Barton, and that makes things...difficult. She approves the new tac suit from R&D that Clint had made googly eyes over (and the guys from fiscal had frowned over and asked, “Is it really a necessity at this time?”) instead. Considering Clint now spends his free time walking around SHIELD HQ in skintight purple and black leather, attempting to flirt with anything with two legs, Philippa thinks it was as good a present as any.

 

***

 

(“What does Bobbi think?” Philippa makes the mistake of asking. It’s not until years later that she realizes it’s a mistake, but for now she doesn’t miss the way that Clint smiles ruefully and says, “Oh, she thinks it’s something, alright.”

Of course, Philippa won’t also realize for years that this thing building between her and Clint is something that Bobbi Morse cannot possibly compete with. She isn’t even in the running, in the end.)

 

***

 

It’s not that anything gets worse—Woo isn’t out for her blood and Nick doesn’t stop giving her the good assignments— and it’s not that anything gets better—the break room coffee still tastes like battery acid and ash, and no one below Level Six will make eye contact with her—but everything around Philippa seems to settle. She’s drawn her line in the sand, shown where her loyalties lie. Clint Barton is her sniper, come hell or high water, and Philippa always takes care of her people.

Clint doesn’t stop breaking into her office, but he starts breaking into her house, like a kid testing his limits. He never does it when she’s there, but Philippa comes back home after late nights and long weekends and finds that someone set up Dog Cops to record on her DVR. Finds herself watching it, despite herself. Finds herself wondering if Clint is somewhere watching it too, or if he just thought she’d like it. She waters the cactus sitting on her kitchen table and tries not to think too much.

 

***

 

(“Jesus, Phil,” Jasper gripes over drinks. “How am I supposed to look good when you and Barton keep on doing shit like this?” Shit like this being stopping some wayward terrorists from using the Hadron SuperCollider for evil. It wasn’t that big of a deal. She and Clint make a good team.

“If you can’t stand the heat,” Philippa tells him, “get out of the kitchen.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Jasper laughs and buys her another round.)

 

***

 

Clint Barton is sent to kill the Black Widow. He comes back a week overdue with a penitent Natasha Romanov in tow. Philippa hasn’t been so furious in years.

 

***

 

“I don’t care if she’s the fucking Pope,” Nick roars on the helicarrier dock. “She’s too dangerous.”

This will be the last time that Nick Fury ever thinks that someone who is too dangerous can’t also be used, but for now he is furious and Philippa thinks that there is no way to come out of this with her archer and her job intact.

“I’ll fix it,” Philippa tells him, because that is what Philippa does. She fixes things. She takes the problematic assets and makes them impossible to live without. She takes an explosion in Nepal and makes it go away. She will kill Natasha Romanov with her own two hands if she has to.

 

***

 

Clint is in the brig because that’s where Fury keeps treasoners and mutineers. He doesn’t even wait for her to ask what the hell were you thinking, Barton?

“I made the right call,” he tells her, laying flat on his back on the floor, eyes glued to the ceiling.

There aren’t any chairs down here that aren’t bolted down, so Philippa sits cross legged on the floor, her right side resting against the bars of Clint’s cell. “Okay,” she agrees placidly, doesn’t let an ounce of judgment or emotion slip into her voice. “Tell me about it.”

“Do you believe me?” Clint asks instead, which is a very different question from do you trust me, but it sits heavy like a stone in Philippa’s stomach, nonetheless.

She wants to say yes, but. But. Philippa will always give Clint Barton whatever she can. “I want to,” she tells him. The truth, for what it’s worth.

Clint rolls to his side, back to Philippa, shutting her out. When he speaks, there is nothing of the man she knows in his voice, “Come back when you do, then.”

There is no point in sitting on the floor, waiting for Clint to change his mind. Hoping Clint will change his mind. He won’t. Philippa sits there anyways.

 

***

 

Natasha Romanov is beautiful the way very few people are, sitting in the light of an interrogation room. There is a cut on her right cheek and blood in her hair and it all looks like she did it on purpose. Philippa will never learn where Natasha Romanov the assassin starts and where Natasha Romanov the person ends, but then again, Natasha has never been a mystery for Philippa to solve.

“Miss Romanov,” Philippa says, sitting down across the table from Natasha to show that she is unafraid, “I’m Agent Philippa Coulson.”

Philippa can feel the weight of Natasha’s eyes on her. Can feel Natasha taking her in—her pant suit, her bun, her sensible flats—and assessing her. Philippa doesn’t know what conclusion Natasha comes to, how different it is from the men Philippa stares down on a near daily basis, but she also doesn’t care. The key to holding onto power is to not give it up.

“Agent Barton has informed me that you want to seek asylum, stop freelancing, and turn over a new leaf,” Philippa goes on, incredulity slipping into her tone. “As you can imagine, SHIELD is somewhat doubtful. You’ve been our number one most wanted for quite some time now.”

Natasha smiles at that. Smiles like all women who are beautiful and know it do. Natasha’s smile is a weapon, and Philippa wonders how it was left out of her file for all these years.

“It was Barton who made me the offer,” Natasha explains, like it makes a fucking difference.

Philippa smiles tightly. “Agent Barton does not have that authority, I’m afraid, Miss Romanov.”

Natasha bats her eyelashes. “Are you going to kill me, Agent Coulson?” she asks, coy, confident that SHIELD has let her live this long. Philippa’s not really certain of Natasha’s endgame. She doesn’t know what happened in Budapest and why Clint handed this woman promises he couldn’t keep, but Philippa does know one thing to be true.

 “If anyone does kill you on behalf of SHIELD and the free world, Miss Romanov,” Philippa tells her, standing up to leave, “it will most certainly be me.”

 

***

 

“Meeting with Fury and Hill in Fury’s ready room,” Jasper says, standing outside the interrogation room doors. Because he is a professional, he doesn’t waver. Because she is a professional, Philippa instantly senses bullshit.

“When did it begin?”

Jasper, at least, has the good sense to look guilty. “Twenty minutes ago. Things are bad, Phil.”

“I need time,” she tells him. They’re not partners anymore, but that doesn’t mean Philippa has stopped trusting him. “I still don’t know what we’re working with yet.”

“It’s not me you have to convince,” he tells her. Philippa is always glad to know that she has Jasper, no matter what.

 

***

 

“Agent Coulson,” Nick greets when she enters the room. Maria is sitting just to his left, looking tightly coiled and murderous. There are a handful of Level Six agents in the room, men and women with whom Philippa has worked, but none of whom Philippa is friendly with. Jasper stands just outside the door, uninvited. They’re playing it like this then.

“I’d like to request forty-eight hours, sir,” Philippa says, looks Nick right in the eye and ignores everyone else.

“To do what?” Nick asks, a smile in his voice if not actually on his face. “Invite some more known terrorists to bunk down with us?”

“Natasha Romanov is an assassin, sir,” Philippa corrects, “And I’d like forty-eight hours to figure out what the hell Clint Barton was thinking. This could be good for us, boss.”

Nick looks lazily around the room and says, “Everyone who’s not in charge, out,” and then, when the room has cleared except for Philippa, Nick, and Maria, he goes on, “You really think this is anything more than Barton acting on a crush, Cheese? Widow’s played bigger men than him, you and I both know that.”

Philippa wonders how the hell Nick’s gotten Clint so wrong. His aim is nothing less than perfect; his eye always on the prize. The day Clint Barton sacrifices the mission for a piece of ass is the day Philippa abandons SHIELD for a life of crime. What Philippa wants to say is Clint’s capable of thinking with more than just his dick, sir, but what she actually says is, “Forty-eight hours, Nick. That’s all I’m asking.”

There is a moment, long and horrible, where Philippa thinks that it’s all going to be over before it could ever really begin. Before Philippa was given a chance to fight, tooth and nail, for Clint Barton, who has never betrayed her trust. But then, Nick says, “It’s all you’re getting, Coulson. Then his ass is grass.”

Philippa does not stick around for Maria’s protests of, “But, sir, The Vault”; she’s got shit to do.

 

***

 

There are miles of paperwork on the Black Widow, computer algorithms designed specifically to track her, dissertations written on her methods. She came onto SHIELD’s radar in a bad way and she’s been their Number One ever since. There isn’t time for Philippa to go through everything. To read all those words written by people who only ever knew what Natasha left behind, and see if Philippa can figure out what was there in the beginning. But, then again, Philippa doesn’t have to.

Jasper is standing outside the brig, manila envelope in his hand, a picture of Natasha Romanov’s face stuck to the front. “I got Alvarez to pull together a dossier,” he explains. “She did her theoretical case work on the Widow, back in the day.”

Philippa’s going to be buying Jasper drinks for life, after this. Either that, or she’s going to have to find him a new wife.

 

***

 

In high school, Philippa played field hockey. She played in college too, and had a lot of people tell her she could really go somewhere with it. Then again, she had just as many people say it was a dead end. Not that it matters, field hockey was only ever an extracurricular. But she had liked it, when she played. Liked that it was a sport for women. She liked that you had to be precise, and you had to be ferocious, and that she could wear a skirt and still be tough.

Philippa was good at field hockey, in the way she has never been very good at all the other games women tend to play. And field hockey taught Philippa something she’s held with her for her whole life—on the field, a pretty face don't mean shit.

 

***

 

“You’re lucky,” Philippa tells Natasha. Natasha is blood and grime free now, and Philippa wants to know how a woman so small can make Nick Fury so afraid.

“Am I, Agent Coulson?” Natasha replies, one delicate brow arched. Philippa has never had much patience for cat and mouse games, but is unsurprised that Natasha seems to favor them.

“I like Clint Barton,” Philippa says simply. It’s not giving anything away to say that. If Natasha’s half as dangerous as they claim she is, then she already knows this. “Which means that I’m giving you a chance.”

Natasha seems to consider this. “And what about them?” she nods towards the one-way glass, the camera hidden in the corner of the room, “Are they going to give me a chance?”

For the first time in Philippa’s whole life, she does not know who is watching her right now. Jasper, she suspects, is nearby; Nick and Maria too. Usually, though, it’s Philippa right there with them, watching as some agent, in over their head, interviews a witness while trying to save their own neck. Never in her life has Philippa ever been here before—in a position where she honestly does not know if she will fail. Where she doesn’t know if she’s giving herself away to the people she works with only to come away empty handed.

“For now,” Philippa allows. It’s all she knows. “I don’t need to trust you, Miss Romanov,” she goes on to explain, “not right now at least. Right now I just need you to give me something so that I believe you.”

Natasha leans forward, elbows on the table, corner of her mouth turned up in a parody of a smile. “And what makes you think trust and belief are so different, Agent Coulson?”

Perhaps, Philippa thinks, Natasha does not realize how much of herself she just gave away. Perhaps she did. Either way, Philippa knows exactly what kind of person she’s working with. “I’ll give you some time to think about it,” Philippa tells her, smiling, bland and polite. “I’m positive you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to be.”

Philippa leaves before Natasha can respond.

 

***

 

Clint doesn’t know it, but Philippa was there at his intake, on the other side of that one-way glass. It was years ago—years before Jasper brought Clint to her door and said he’s yours now, Phil. She shouldn’t have been there, not really, Philippa had only been Level Five then, but Nick had said, “I want your thoughts on this one, Cheese,” and who was she to say no.

She’s never mentioned it to Clint because it doesn’t really matter. Because she doesn’t think he would take it well. The Clint Barton she had seen that day was a different man from the one who had laughed because she was a woman named Phil. This one had a stone face and angry eyes, his whole body stock-still, not willing to give anything away. That Clint was terse and uninformative. Clint now—Philippa’s Clint—isn’t really that much more cooperative, but it’s different. Philippa’s Clint has restless fingers and a quick tongue. He is warm and expansive and honest, and if he was Philippa’s only asset, she would only be too happy to spend all of her time working with him.

“What do you think?” Nick had asked, then. Even through the one-way glass, Philippa had felt Clint’s thousand-yard stare taking her apart.

“I think that he’s desperate,” she had told Nick. “He wouldn’t be here if he didn’t want to be.”

Philippa has never really been good at people outside of work, but here, in the comfort of a SHIELD interrogation room, Philippa can solve the mysteries of the world.

“Okay,” Nick had said. “We’ll keep him.”

Philippa should have known then that it would always come to this.

 

***

 

He hasn’t moved from the floor, Clint, but at least now he’s sitting up, leaning against the far wall. It’s foolish and it’s simple, but Philippa aches from the distance. From the way that Clint’s eyes, which see everything, skip right over her.

She doesn’t know what she’s going to say until she says, “You never told me she was beautiful,” and surprises herself.

Clint doesn’t look at her, but there’s something at the corners of his mouth, like the beginnings of a smile. “I didn’t think it mattered.”

Philippa sits on the floor, back to the wall, arm against the bars of Clint’s cell. She’s been wearing the same clothes for twenty-six hours and she’s tired. “It doesn’t,” Philippa tells him.

“You think this is a sex thing, don’t you?” Clint asks, finally looking at her. He looks a lot like he did back in the beginning, before Philippa actually knew him. There is something churning in Philippa’s stomach that feels like regret.

“No,” Philippa says, the truth, but just barely. Philippa has been taught her whole life that when it comes to men and beautiful women, it’s always about sex, in the end. But Philippa knows that Clint only ever wants to do the right thing; that he would never give himself up for a pretty face. “Years we’ve been chasing the Black Widow,” Philippa tells him. “Years, and not one person has ever said she’s beautiful.”

“Which tells you what?” Clint asks.

There are a lot of things that Philippa could say, half-formed theories as best, but there is only one thing that matters. “That I believe you,” she tells him,  “One hundred percent.” There is more to Natasha Romanov than meets the eye. Beautiful women like her don’t let themselves be put in cages.

Philippa can feel Clint’s eyes on her, boring through her clothes and her skin to whatever it is she keeps tucked inside, away from anyone who might use it against her. Philippa’s not even sure, some days, what she’s hiding from the world, she’s been hiding it so long. But she thinks Clint might know, or, at least, he might be beginning to. Philippa takes off her shoes and leans her head against the wall when Clint stays silent. It’s been a long day and she just needs five minutes of peace.

“Five minutes,” she tells him, can feel sleep prickling at her eyes already, “and then I’ll fix this.”

Clint says something, too low for Philippa to hear, but she’s out before she can even ask what he said.

 

***

 

Natasha’s holding cell is smaller than Clint’s, with solid steel walls and a video camera in each corner. It’s comforting to know that however Nick’s feeling about Clint, he still trusts Natasha less. There are no bars for Philippa to stand behind. There is just this cell and Natasha and her bolted down furniture.

This time, it is Natasha who speaks first. “I’ve been thinking about what you said.” She’s sitting on her cot, hands tucked under her thighs, eyes trained on Philippa.

Philippa doesn’t ask which part? because she’s not sure she wants the answer. “And?”

“And I think it says a lot that Clint trusts you.” Natasha says simply. If there is one thing that Philippa understands, it’s people’s silences, so she let’s Natasha’s bloom, doesn’t clutter the air with her own words. Natasha has no doubt already thought about every way this conversation could go. Know all the turns it can take. There is no cat-and-mouse if Philippa refuses to advance the game.

After a long moment Natasha says, “I’ll give SHIELD what it wants if you give me what Clint promised.”

Philippa nods, surprised and not surprised in turn. “It will take time, Miss Romanov. Baby steps.”

“Baby steps,” Natasha agrees, looking as small and as scared as Philippa has ever seen her. Finally, Philippa thinks, the truth.

 

***

 

If Philippa’s honest, she doesn’t know why she has the reputation she has. Philippa wears pantsuits for the most part, skirts and blazers on hot, lazy summer days. She wears mascara, tinted lip balm, and her hair in a tight bun. Philippa knows that she has a trustworthy face, has been told at enough performance reviews that her greatest asset is that she flies under the radar. She supposes that she wouldn’t really trust her either. No one likes a woman who doesn’t smile, who can kick their ass with a bag of flour or a ball point pen if they had to.

Maria Hill is younger than Philippa by fifteen years and is smarter than Philippa by just as many IQ points. Maria is the Deputy Director of SHIELD, has long legs and porcelain skin and sparkling blue eyes, and treats every day like she’s preparing for war. Maria is beautiful, and Philippa thinks that people always want to trust beautiful things but never do. People look at Maria Hill and understand that she is more than meets the eye.

They have never been friends, but Philippa has always respected Maria. She suspects, however, that the differences between them are harder on Maria, who is more beautiful and more powerful and more intelligent, and who is technically Nick Fury’s right hand man, but in reality isn’t. Philippa thinks that it’s probably more difficult to be beautiful—to prove that you have worth outside of your looks, that you have earned your lot in life. Philippa thinks that Maria has spent a very long time trying to prove herself and still feels that she comes up wanting.

Not that it really matters. It’s never gotten in the way of the task at hand, before.

 

***

 

“The word of the Black Widow doesn’t mean anything,” Maria says, firm in her conviction. “She wouldn’t be so dangerous if it did.” They are in the War Room because this is Philippa’s show now, whether or not Maria and Nick want it to be.

“She’s agreed to feed us some intel and if she proves trustworthy, then we’ll take it from there.” Philippa does not say an assassin who can’t be held to her word is a useless assassin; no one wants to hire someone who can be bought out from beneath them. If Maria doesn’t know that by now, then she’s never going to learn.

“What if it’s a trap?” Maria asks like she’s already won. This entire time Nick has stayed silent in the corner. Philippa doesn’t know what that means. Maybe Maria has won.

“Then we kill her.”

“And Barton, what about him?”

Philippa honestly hasn’t thought all that much about it. Fretting about worst-case scenarios rarely solves the problem at hand. The difference between Philippa and Maria is that Philippa trusts Clint and Maria doesn’t.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Philippa tells her and refuses to say anything else of the matter for the entire three-hour meeting.

Nick agrees to the deal, in the end. Maria’s not happy about it, but Maria can deal. Philippa’s just happy that Clint’s going to be okay.

 

***

 

Clint’s in her house once they’re back in New York. Of course he is. He’s standing in front of her bookcase—Ikea, like half the furniture in her place, she had to take the afternoon off to assemble everything—his fingers tracing the spines of all the books she aspires to one day read.

“Breaking and entering is a crime, you know,” Philippa says, dropping her briefcase by the front door.

Clint glances over his shoulder and grins. “I didn’t know you used to play field hockey.”

Philippa knows a lot of people who live life like they’re always in the field, but Philippa has never found it necessary. If someone finds out where she lives, the damage is already been done. This way, at least, it gives her something to fight for—the pictures of her in her gear at her high school championship game, of her sister in the hospital clutching her brand new baby girl, of her parents at their fortieth wedding anniversary party. These pictures of things that are good and pure and true in the world.

Philippa shucks of her shoes and her jacket and stands next to Clint, looks at the smiling faces of all the people she loves and never gets a chance to see. “You never asked.”

Clint’s not that much taller than her, and when Philippa wears heels they’re the same height. She’s never felt smaller than him, but here, now, barefoot in her living room, she can feel every inch of that difference. Can feel the solid muscle of his arm as it brushes against hers, and she knows that if it came down to a fight of raw strength, he’d have her beat. Part of her wonders what it would feel like, to be caged in my those arms, to feel the solid weight of Clint against her, back to this bookshelf, her breasts pressed up against him. It’s not something she lets herself dwell on.

“Hill didn’t look too happy about letting me go,” Clint says, thumb brushing against the silver framed photo of Philippa, sweaty and tired, leaning against her teammates and holding up a trophy that, back then, had seemed like the most important thing in the world.

Philippa sways a little, lets her arm knock into Clint’s. “She’ll get over it.”

“You sure about that?” This close to him, Clint can’t catch her gaze, but Philippa can feel him watching her. Tracing the lines of her face with those grey eyes that see everything. Sometimes Philippa wonders if Clint can look at her and see all of her secrets. She’s never worn her heart on her sleeve, but being around him makes her feel like she does.

“I’m sure,” she tells him. “I’ve got you.”

Clint leans against her, a solid weight against her side. “I know you do.”

Philippa holds onto that feeling—trust and forgiveness and something else that she can’t name, but pools in her belly like too much wine—and never lets go.

 

***

 

Natasha’s intel proves good. Philippa is unsurprised and Nick has that gleam in his eye like he’s planning something. Maria just hands over Natasha’s brand new Level Two clearance and says, “She’s your problem now, Coulson.”

It’s not really a problem, though, because Natasha keeps doing good. Goes into the field and gets the job done with all the efficiency of Clint and none of the backtalk. She submits to psych evals and spot checks and asks, “How am I doing, ma’am?” with an eyebrow raised and a twinkle in her eye.

Basically, everything goes better than Philippa could have ever dreamed.

 

***

 

It’s not Clint-Natasha-Philippa, not yet. That takes time, but the seed of it is there. Natasha understands the game, how to earn trust and how to keep it. If it’s a con, then it’s a long one. Philippa’s not worried.

“I didn’t actually think it would work,” Clint says one night. They’re eating Ethiopian with their hands, sitting on the floor of Philippa’s office. It’s a Friday and there’s a bottle of wine and Super Nanny waiting at home for her, but Clint came buy with take-out and Philippa honestly wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“Dinner?” Philippa asks. “Or that stunt you pulled today?” Clint had jumped off the roof of a five-story building. Philippa had promised him that if Clint ever died pulling a stunt like that, she would personally resurrect him just to kill him herself.

Clint grins. The problem with carnies is that they find shit like that hilarious. He surprises her, though, when he answers, “Natasha. I thought Fury was going to have my head.”

Philippa doesn’t need to remind him that Fury very nearly did; she knows Clint lives with that every day, the fear of rejection. “And yet you did it anyways.” It will always amaze Philippa, the capacity for goodness in Clint Barton’s heart. His ability to overlook personal loss and harm to do the right thing. To help someone out.

He shrugs, ever bashful when it counts. “It was the right thing to do.”

Philippa nudges him with her foot and he smiles. “Yes,” she tells him. “It was.”

 

***

 

“They still don’t trust me,” Natasha says one night, drinking shitty beer on the roof. Clint has refused to drag up more chairs (“This is my secret hangout, guys. Quit it.”), so Philippa is sitting in Clint’s chair and Natasha on the overstuffed crate. Clint’s stuck in Mongolia with Jasper, so it’s just Philippa and Natasha and a balmy summer night.

“You don’t trust them either,” Philippa points out, contemplating dumping the entire cooler of beer over the side of the building and buying Clint something that actually tastes like beer’s supposed to.

“True,” Natasha agrees. She seems to mind the terrible beer far less, and Philippa can’t decide if that makes her a terrible person or a good asset. They fall back into silence, comfortable around each other and Philippa’s not really sure when that happened. Not sure how Natasha Romanov, of all people, was able to seamlessly fit into her life.

This high up, Philippa can’t hear all the sounds of the city, just the soft murmur of human life that drifts upwards. She finds herself up here more and more often these days, just listening to the closest thing to silence she’s heard in years. It’s Philippa and Clint here more often than the three of them. It’s rare that Clint isn’t here at all, but Philippa finds she doesn’t mind it so much anymore. Natasha is good company.

Until, of course, Natasha ruins the entire mood by saying, “You’ve never asked what happened, in Budapest.”

Philippa looks at her. “Is it important?”

Natasha shakes her head. “No.”

“Then I don’t need to know,” Philippa tells her. She’s thought about asking, but it doesn’t matter anymore, not really, and, if Philippa’s honest with herself, she’s scared of the answer. She has never known Clint, in all their years together, of trusting someone so quickly.

There is an expression on Natasha’s face that Philippa can’t read, and Philippa is learning that it’s a sign of trust, to be allowed to witness Natasha without her mask of easily interpreted smiles. “You also think we’re sleeping together,” Natasha accuses.

Philippa frowns, can’t help it. “The thought had crossed my mind,” she admits.

“We’re not,” Natasha clarifies, “if that helps.”

“I don’t care who you have sex with, just as long as you do good work.” It’s Philippa’s standard line and it’s SHIELD policy and never before in her life has it ever felt like a lie on her tongue.

Natasha does not look impressed but she lets the subject drop.

 

***

 

It’s not that Philippa doesn’t have a lot of female friends, it’s that she doesn’t have a lot of friends. Period. There’s not really time, and her job requires a lot of secrecy, and, really, when Philippa comes home at night, she’s not really looking to do anything more than unwind with a glass of wine and Super Nanny.

So it’s strange, really, when Philippa finishes debriefing Clint and Natasha on the way home from Dubai and Clint pulls out a deck of cards and Philippa thinks that she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else with any other people.

 

***

 

Philippa doesn’t do vacations, but Nick calls her into his office one day and says, “You haven’t taken a single day off work in five goddamn years, Cheese. HR is about to have a shitfit.”

“I was off for a month, after Kabul,” Philippa protests. It had felt like vacation at the time, if Philippa ignores how every single part of her body had hurt and the hours of physical therapy she’d had to endure.

Nick frowns, but he does that a lot, so Philippa tends to ignore him. “Go home, Phil. Say hi to your mom, hang out with your sister. Send me a picture of that nephew of yours. I’ll see you in two weeks.”

That, it seems, is the end of that.

 

***

 

(The last time Philippa took a vacation was when she was trying to save her two-year old relationship with a dentist named Kent. She’d wanted to go to the mountains but he insisted on going to Vegas. In the end, it wasn’t really surprising when that was the last time they ever saw each other.)

 

***

 

Her mother picks her up from the airport, and Philippa spends the entire ride to Amelia’s house scouting the landscape. She’s packed jeans and dresses and sandals, her personal sidearm, and not a single suit. Her cell phone is back in New York and there’s a burner phone in her purse with a promise from Nick that he’ll call if something happens to Clint or Natasha.

Philippa wasn’t born or raised in Montana, but that where her family is now. It’s hard to be sad about the distance when Philippa knows that Montana isn’t on any major hit-list. That, for the most part, it is safe. Amelia lives on the prairie, land stretching towards the mountains in the distance, closest neighbor a mile away. Philippa’s mom drives with the windows down on her truck, letting the summer air in, and Philippa can hear her sister’s dogs barking a half-mile away from the house.

It’s remote and it’s idyllic and, Philippa thinks, watching the sunset with her sister on the back porch, it’s exactly what she needs. She is never telling Nick.

 

***

 

Philippa was born in Colorado but grew up in Washington state in a sleepy town. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a firefighter and they were never rich, but no one in town really was. Washington hasn’t been home since Philippa left for college on the East Coast and never looked back. She’s never been to a high school reunion and she’s never gone back to visit, not since her parents moved to Montana when Philippa’s niece was born.

There are plenty of agents at SHIELD who come from broken homes. Who are running from something. Who can give up on a conventional life because a conventional life has already given up on them. But not Philippa. Growing up, she was loved and she was happy. But Captain America gave himself to his country, and while other girls fantasized about their wedding day, Philippa has always wanted to give herself to her country. Has always wanted to keep people safe. Has always wanted to help build a world where a child can grow up loved, and happy, and safe.

Philippa isn’t running from anything—she’s trying to protect it.

 

***

 

Her family doesn’t ask her about her job, they’re better than that.

Philippa teaches her niece how to play field hockey and her mom how to make her Facebook private. During lazy afternoons, she bakes cakes and drinks wine with her sister. At night she watches baseball with her dad.

There is more to life, Philippa thinks, than just work. She wonders how she could have ever forgotten.

 

***

 

The most surprising part of Philippa’s two weeks away is not how easily she falls back into civilian life. It’s not how Clint Barton manages to go two weeks, unsupervised, without incident. It’s that it takes thirteen days before Philippa’s mother takes Philippa’s hand into her own and says, “I worry about you, you know.”

As she spent the entirety of Philippa’s trip trying to get her to put on a sweater even when it was seventy degrees outside, Philippa is aware. “I know, mom,” she says, trying to sound as reassuring as possible.

“It’s just, you have no one to take care of you,” her mother goes on, undeterred, and before Philippa can butt in I’m a government agent, I can take care of myself, she adds, “It’s not about having someone to buy groceries or make the bed, Pip. I’m just worried that you have no one to talk to. People need companionship.”

“I’m not allowed to talk about work, you know that.” It’s an old argument, one that Philippa doesn’t think will ever go away.

Her mother frowns. “That nice Jasper fellow, he got married, didn’t he? You’re not telling me that he’s allowed to spill state secrets and you’re not, are you Philippa?”

Philippa sighs. “I’m okay, mom, I promise.”

Her mother brushes a stray hair out of Philippa’s face, and Philippa mourns the fact that in two days she’ll be back to buns and pant suits. “You’re always okay, it’s why I worry so much.”

There’s not really anything to say to that, so Philippa holds onto her mother’s hand and doesn’t let go.

 

***

 

Amelia drives Philippa back to the airport. “You should visit more often, Pip. No way in Hell am I dragging my kids to New York, not when Bill’s scared of flying.”

Philippa’s burner phone buzzes and she can feel herself turning back into Agent Philippa Coulson, a stillness settling into her bones. “You just want mom to start pestering me about grandkids,” Philippa says, checking her phone.

I hope you’re bringing me a souvenir - CB.

“You’re not getting any younger,” Amelia teases. Philippa types back, I doubt you’ve done anything to deserve it.

“Trust me, it’s like herding cats at work. I’m good.”

“Fine, you’re off the hook for now,” Amelia laughs before sobering. “But seriously, Phil, you should visit more often.”

Philippa smiles. One of the most dangerous men she knows is texting her for souvenirs. There’s a handgun in her carry on. Her life doesn’t really allow for a lot of trips like this, no matter how much she’d like to. “I’ll try,” she promises.

Because Amelia is the best sister ever, she doesn’t even call Philippa out on her lie.

 

***

 

In New York, no one is waiting for Philippa at the airport. In New York, Philippa has to drive herself home. It’s okay. It’s what she signed up for.

But at her apartment, someone’s brought her mail in and there’s a still hot pot of coffee on the counter. Her Christmas cactus now has a companion, this one with delicate peach-colored blooms. Philippa goes to sleep that night thinking her mom really doesn’t have to worry so much. There are people in New York for Philippa. She is not alone.

 

***

 

(Clint brings her a passion fruit donut in the morning, a party hat sitting askew on his head. “I tried to throw you a welcome back party, but Natasha wouldn’t bite,” he explains mournfully. Philippa bites back a smile. She tells him that filing his RF-12s on time would be a better present. Clint just throws his head back and laughs. Really, as far as Philippa’s concerned, that’s the best damn present in the whole wide world.)

 

***

 

Philippa helps save the world a few times. Clint and Natasha help too. Life, it seems, goes back to normal.

 

***

 

There’s this thing in Harlem with two super soldier experiments gone awry. Philippa would rather not talk about it. She watches Captain America cartoons the entire night, trying to get the taste of disillusionment out of her mouth.

 

***

 

“I’ve got a plan,” says Nick. “Go fish.”

They’ve given up on poker, for now. Their betting was becoming problematic. Philippa picks up a three of hearts and curses her luck. “I hope it’s not to win this game,” Philippa tells him, steadily losing.

Nick smiles. That’s never a good sign. “Got any fours?” Philippa has three of them, in fact. “I’m thinking of putting together a team. Anything like Harlem happens again, we’re fucked.”

Philippa has been thinking the exact same thing. It makes her sad, in the sort of melancholy way of crushed childhood dreams, to think that the reason two monsters ripped apart an undeserving neighborhood was because they were trying to follow in the footsteps of her childhood hero. Captain America, Philippa thinks, is not about genetic mutation. It’s about a person’s heart. She’s always wondered why so many people don’t seem to get that.

Unfortunately, Philippa can’t really think of a way to counteract things like the Abomination without something like the Hulk. “What are you going to do, boss?” she asks, genuinely curious and a little afraid. “Engineer your own Captain America?”

Nick puts down his brand new set of fours. “If I have to,” he tells her. “Sixes?”

Philippa hands over the cards and pretends that all of her hair isn’t standing on edge. After all, it’s the only way.

 

***

 

Philippa, Clint, and Natasha get stranded in Siberia; it’s irritating but not unexpected. The mission is done, for what it’s worth, completed sixteen hours ago, but there’s no way to leave until the snow clears. Natasha and Philippa send Clint out to get firewood because they both think that gender roles have to be good for something.

“He missed you, you know,” Natasha says, looking at home in this small wooden cabin in the middle of nowhere. “When you were away.”

Philippa ignores Natasha; this isn’t a topic to be discussed. Philippa and Clint. Clint and Philippa. It’s been them against the world, in one way or another, since he first laughed at her name. Since Clint had his ego bruised (and his genitals electrocuted) by a woman and had thought yes. There’s not a lot she wouldn’t do for him, if it came down to it, but there’s a lot of things that Philippa won’t let herself do. She’s his handler. He’s her asset. There are lines that can’t be crossed.

Natasha purses her lips. “I think, he wouldn’t be the man he is, if it weren’t for you.” Philippa thinks that the only person who is more patient than herself is Natasha. Philippa thinks that’s a wonderful talent in an asset but a terrible one in someone Philippa is going to spend an undetermined amount of time with in an enclosed space.

“Clint Barton,” Philippa tells Natasha with certainty, “has always been, and will always be, his own man.”

“You gave him a chance,” Natasha counters, and Philippa doesn’t know why Natasha is pushing the issue. Whatever lay between them, it doesn’t change anything in the field. Whatever lay between them, it’s been there for a while now and will be there for a while more. When Philippa stays silent, Natasha adds, “You should give yourself a chance, Coulson.”

Philippa smiles at her tightly and says, “Thank you for your input, Miss Romanov.”

Natasha’s expression grows as cold as the wind outside, but Philippa can’t be bothered to fix it. There are lines that can’t be crossed. Natasha should know that.

 

***

 

(When Clint asks, “You guys fighting about me?” Natasha smiles wickedly and says, “Like you’re worth it.” When Clint throws his arm around Natasha’s shoulders and sighs, “Aw, Nat,” Philippa thinks about puppies, trigonometry, her grandmother—anything else but them. Anything but what Clint Barton’s arms would feel like against her own skin. She needs to get out of this cabin.)

 

***

 

Help doesn’t come for three days.

“Two truths and a lie,” Clint asserts, holding up a bootleg bottle of whiskey. “It’s the way of men.”

Philippa frowns, “You don’t have the clearance to know half the things in my file,” while Natasha laughs, “Like you could tell if I was telling the truth at all.”

“Fine then,” Clint sighs, “poker.”

They end up trading secrets anyways.

 

***

 

“A team?” Clint asks.

“A team,” Philippa confirms.

“I don’t like it,” Natasha scowls. There is something, a look, between Natasha and Clint, and Philippa knows that there is something between them she does not know. Some shared history or some shared secret. She still doesn’t know what happened in Budapest; neither one has ever volunteered to tell her.

“It’s a brand new world,” Philippa says, feeling bitter and shameful for it. “We need something.”

Clint smiles, an empty gesture. “We’ve got you.” Philippa desperately wishes that were still enough.

 

***

 

Tony Stark disappears in Afghanistan and the world goes crazy.

It is not actually Philippa’s problem until it is. The call comes through at three AM, when Philippa is still warm in bed. This had better be important, she thinks unkindly, cold air rushing in as she throws back her sheets. It’s supposed to be her day off. She was going to make risotto.

“He built something, Cheese,” Nick tells her when she asks why she should care about some drunk billionaire. “Tony Fucking Stark took out the entire damn camp and now he’s fucking MIA in the goddamn desert.”

“And this is our responsibility because?” Philippa asks. The way she sees it, the army lost Tony Stark; they can find him. Search and rescue is only Philippa’s jurisdiction when it’s one of her own.

“It was the motherfucking Ten Rings,” Nick growls, and Philippa can feel herself grow still, every nerve on edge.

Philippa says the only thing really appropriate for this situation, “Well, shit.”

 

***

 

In many ways, Malibu is the worst assignment of Philippa’s entire career at SHIELD.

 

***

 

Pepper Pots is beautiful, competent, and politely dismissive in a way Philippa imagines one would be after making a career shepherding Tony Stark. Philippa ends up spending weeks chasing Tony Stark around like a clingy ex-girlfriend because Pepper is clearly not going to be any help.

“Listen, I know this must be a trying time for you, but we need to debrief you,” she tries at a party feeling severely underdressed. Tony Stark’s eyes rake over her, and Philippa has never felt less important in her entire life. Pepper Potts is on the other side of the ballroom shimmering in a silver backless gown and here Philippa is, in a pencil skirt and two-inch heels, trying to woo Tony Stark. “There's still a lot of unanswered questions,” she goes on, “and time can be a factor with these things.” Like in trying to figure out why the Ten Rings kidnapped Tony Stark at all so maybe Philippa can save his life.

“Let's just put something on the books,” he tells her, clearly planning on ignoring her later. Philippa takes it, however. She’s on the books now, at least it’s something.

 

***

 

Nick won’t let her come home, even though Philippa has better things to do than wait for a drunken billionaire genius who engineered himself out of a terrorist camp to call her back.

“We need someone on the ground, Phil. Someone who won’t sleep with him.” Nick says, using his I’m-the-director-of-SHIELD-and-I’m-doing-you-a-favor voice. Philippa doesn’t appreciate it. She also doesn’t appreciate being told in a roundabout way that Hell will freeze over before Tony Stark, playboy extraordinaire, would ever consider fucking her.

“You owe me,” she tells him, contemplating fucking Tony Stark just to make a point.

Nick just laughs at her. “It’s a vacation, Cheese. Enjoy it.”

Sometimes, Philippa has no idea why they’re friends.

 

***

 

As a rule, Philippa doesn’t get lonely, but she’s lonely in Malibu.

Tony Stark is ignoring her and Tony Stark is painfully in love with his assistant and Philippa is left wondering what there is for her to do. Everyone here is either beautiful or intelligent or both, and Philippa feels every inch of her plainness—her handsome face and her thin hair and her simple clothes—in a way she hasn’t for years. Decades even. It makes her feel too old and too young all at once.

She finds herself texting Clint even though they don’t do that. Not really.

Everyone here is orange

Even you?

Clint’s reply is lightning fast, and Philippa wonders what he’s doing. If he’s on the range or with Natasha or up in one of those goddamn air ducts again. Philippa finds herself smiling without even really meaning to.

You wish

:D

She wonders when all she needed was Clint Barton’s smile, virtual or not, to be happy.

 

***

 

(As another rule, Philippa doesn’t let herself fall in love with her assets. She doesn’t even let herself fall in like. That way broken hearts lie.)

 

***

 

Things continue to go to shit because apparently Malibu’s clear skies and beaches teeming with unnaturally attractive people are just clever disguises for how it is actually the worst place on Earth.

“Obadiah Stane,” Pepper Potts explains. “He had Tony kidnapped. I don’t know why. Here, take this.” She hands over a zip drive, small and sleek and black, and Philippa has been around long enough to no longer think of them as innocuous. Zip drives, Philippa knows, are where people keep their secrets.

(Philippa doesn’t—-she keeps hers on floppy disks.)

“Miss Potts,” Philippa says, taking the zip drive with all the care of a live bomb, “Do you know anything about the Ten Rings?”

“No,” Pepper shakes her head. “Should I?” Pepper doesn’t look lovely and elegant and put together anymore. Her hair is coming undone and her eyes are red-rimmed and tearful. She is no longer a tool in Tony Stark’s arsenal, but a flesh and blood human. Philippa can work with that.

She puts her free hand on one of Pepper’s trembling ones. “No, that’s okay. Tell me, what do you know about Mr. Stark’s escape and eventual rescue?”

It’s entirely expected and boring, in a way, how Philippa had been dismissed before by having the clear look of government suit written upon her skin. But now, when push comes to shove, when Tony Stark is in over his head, that’s exactly who people like Pepper Potts turn to.

Pepper tells Philippa everything.

 

***

 

It’s all a big mess in the end, but nothing, Philippa thinks, she can’t handle. There are pictures to be suppressed and false witness accounts to be written and it should be easy. This shitstorm of an enforced vacation mission should be over. All Tony Stark has to do is read the lies neatly printed on the note cards before him.

Of course, there is no way to account for the way Tony Stark’s eyes gleam at the name Iron Man. It is the first time that Philippa desperately wishes that she could strangle the man, and it is, unfortunately, not the last.

On the bright side, things like people saying “I am Iron Man,” at press conferences make Nick Fury take notice. Philippa doesn’t care that this whole thing is still a mess. At least she gets to go home.

 

***

 

Clint is waiting for her at the airport. This, in and of itself, is entirely unexpected. He’s in his civilian gear—jeans and hoodie and purple t-shirt, baseball cap shading his eyes.

“Looking good, ma’am,” he greets. “Malibu agrees with you.”

Philippa had two layovers, her suit is rumpled, and she doesn’t even want to know what her hair looks like. She is never going back to Malibu. “I can have you court-martialed for lying, you know,” she tells Clint. It makes him smile; Philippa thought it would.

“I would never,” he beams. “I’ve got Thai food in the car, if you’re interested.”

It’s understandable that Philippa is suspicious of Clint’s good cheer, but the idea of food she doesn’t have to cook sings to her like a siren. “I’m assuming I have a stack of complaints about you waiting on my desk,” she tells him, and in the face of his shit-eating smile, Philippa relents. “Fine, but we’re eating at my place.”

“Sure thing,” Clint agrees, and to punish him for whatever sin he committed while she was away, Philippa makes him carry her bags.

 

***

 

It should be awkward, Philippa supposes, sitting on her couch in her pajamas and catching up on Supernanny with Clint Barton by her side. It’s not, though. Clint doesn’t talk through the show and he doesn’t spill food on her couch and he only laughed a little bit when she changed into her Captain America pajama pants, stopping when Philippa had reached meaningfully for her tazer.

“It wasn’t the same,” Clint says eventually, Philippa flipping between episodes on her DVR. It got dark out sometime in the past couple of hours, time slipping away with easy companionship and good food. There is something younger, Philippa thinks, about Clint’s face in the half-light of her living room—scars smoothed away by shadows.

“Without you,” Clint adds, and Philippa feels her heart flutter, unbidden.

Sometimes Philippa thinks that the only thing more important to her than SHIELD is Clint, but it’s dangerous for a woman like her to think that way, so she only lets herself dwell on it in moments like this—where everything is still and quiet and feels like a dream.

“I was lonely,” she confesses, “in Malibu.” She leaves the without you unsaid—too dangerous to admit out loud—but she thinks that Clint might hear it anyways.

Clint looks at her, grey-eyes sharp and bright in the light of the TV, and Philippa feels exposed, compromised. “Okay,” he agrees at long last.

There’s nothing really more to say after that, so Philippa puts on the next episode and lets the feeling of being wanted sink into her bones.

 

***

 

When Philippa she wakes up the next morning she is alone, curled up into the corner of the couch. A blanket has been thrown across her shoulders sometime in the night.

Okay, she thinks, okay.

 

***

 

“It goes without saying,” Nick declares at the Malibu debriefing. “But this can never fucking happen again,” he glares around the room at Philippa and all the other agents who got to witness the Tony Stark versus Obadiah Stane smack down. “I am dead fucking serious,” he adds, like the reason everyone whispers about him in the hallways is for his sense of humor and not the fact that he exudes the sort of quiet menace that puts even the most highly trained soldier on edge.

Philippa would laugh but, frankly, it’s not that funny. The media has gone crazy. Iron Man is completely out of SHIELD’s control. Tony Stark famously drank like a fish and slept with any attractive woman who passed his way and spent all of his time sliding from one scandal to another, and it never mattered before Afghanistan. He built weapons. Some people had more to say about it than others, but Philippa has never been a peacenik. Tony Stark was never her problem until he was and now he’s a loose cannon directly in SHIELD’s path.

“Is there anyway to suppress the media coverage?” asks Parsells, and Philippa thinks that he and Alvarez are really a match made in heaven.

“At this point,” says Maria, clearly suppressing rage, “the best we can do it keep an eye on the situation. Iron Man could still be a onetime only incident.”

There is something glittering in Nick’s eye that makes Philippa sit up and pay attention. “Or,” he says, “Iron Man could be an asset.”

Maria frowns. “Sir.”

Philippa hasn’t really heard anything but gossip and half-formed thoughts from Nick, but Avengers Initiative sounds exactly like the kind of thing Nick would orchestrate. Now is not the time, however, to bring that up.

Nick frowns right back at Maria. “At this rate, we’re dealing with a whole lot of who the fuck knows. Coulson,” he says, turning to Philippa. “You’re being turned into the Stark liaison. Hill’s right, we need to keep an eye on this.”

Philippa could say I’d rather not and she could say I don’t have any real rapport with them, but she knows that if she were in Nick’s situation she’d do the exact same thing. Philippa was on the ground and she at least has some kind of relationship with Stark and Pepper Potts likes her well enough. Besides, Philippa is too much of a professional to pull that kind of shit in public.

“Sir,” she agrees. Nick is going to owe her for this forever.

 

***

 

“So,” Jasper says, “I heard you got put on Iron Man.”

Philippa is eating carrot sticks for lunch to make up for the truly heinous amount of Thai food she ate the other night. She’s not really in the mood for any shit. “How’s Hulk tracking going?” Philippa asks in return.

Jasper’s face turns stony. “He’s making a move for India. Do you know how many shots I have to get?”

Philippa smiles at him. She was his best man. She gets to pull this kind of shit. “Malibu is lovely this time of year.”

“Phil,” he tells her honestly, “if I didn’t like you so much, I’d hate you.”

Several agents Level Five and under startle when Philippa laughs, delighted, in the middle of SHIELD’s cafeteria. It feels good.

 

***

 

(“You look good, Pip,” Amelia says one night, bogarting Philippa’s three-month belated Skype chat with her niece. “Happy,” she amends.

“Did I look sad before?” Philippa asks, dry and just a little concerned. She doesn’t think that she looks good or happy. Right now, she’s existing purely off carrot sticks and rage.

Amelia rolls her eyes. “There’s more than just happy or sad. You are not that much of a suit that you’ve forgotten the full spectrum of human emotions.”

Philippa laughs but she worries, deep down, that maybe she had begun to. She wonders what has changed.)

 

***

 

Since the Iron Man situation doesn’t need to be maintained so much as monitored, Philippa feels it is entirely within her rights to just call Pepper Potts instead of flying out to Malibu.

“Agent Coulson!” Pepper chirps, and Philippa wonders if she really did enough, when push came to shove, to really warrant that kind of enthusiasm. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be hearing from you.”

“I thought I’d check in and see if you needed anything,” Philippa tells her, in the half-lies that come with the job.

“Oh you know Tony,” Pepper answers in that conspiratorial tone all women seem to get when talking about the man-child they love, “if he’s not in over his head, he’s not happy.”

Philippa makes a noncommittal noise. Men like Tony Stark give her a migraine. Tony Stark gives her a migraine. “If you’re ever in New York,” Philippa tells her, “we should get coffee sometime. This is entirely out of SHIELD’s jurisdiction, but I might be able to help.”

“Thank you,” Pepper says sincerely, but Philippa remembers what Pepper had sounded like when she said they’d put something on the books. Philippa knows that she can lie with the best of them. “I’ll be sure to call you if I need anything, Agent Coulson.”

If you smile when talking on the phone, people can hear it in your voice. It’s advice that sounds like a load of bullshit, but it’s something Philippa has taken to heart over her years at SHIELD. “Please do.”

Pepper Potts is not the only woman who can lie.

 

***

 

Pepper Potts doesn’t call. Iron Man continues to be a media circus, but in the way that all things Tony Stark related are. Ten Rings isn’t a threat anymore, so Philippa doesn’t really care how many reporters Stark sleeps with, just as long as she can get back to her real job.

 

***

 

“Avengers Initiative,” Nick Fury says. “I want you in on this.”

There is a big shiny badge on the table that says Agent Philippa J. Coulson and Security Clearance: Level 7. Philippa picks it up, tracing her face and familiar ID number with her fingers. “There isn’t even a Level Seven, sir.”

Nick grins, and Philippa thinks of all the things that go bump in the night. “Well now there is. You in?”

Really, how is Philippa supposed to say no to that.

 

***

 

(There is a story of Philippa’s life where this is where it begins. With Nick Fury and an idea. But Philippa thinks that her story starts earlier—in a hospital in Colorado, in an interrogation room in Iowa, the day she first learned the name Captain America. This is not the beginning or the end of Philippa, but, she thinks, it’s certainly an interesting middle)

 

***

 

“Avengers?” Clint asks, wrinkling his nose. It’s perhaps wrong to think of a man as lethal as Clint Barton as adorable, but Philippa’s only human. “What are we avenging?”

They’re in her office, Philippa standing in front of her desk and Clint lounging on Philippa’s sofa that looks a lot more comfortable than it feels—not that it matters, Clint’s the only person who sits on it anyways. She was going to do this on the roof, but Philippa needs Clint to take her seriously, and the roof is where they go to get away from SHIELD. She forgot, however, that Clint is the only person who looks at her and doesn’t think battleaxe.

“Whatever needs to avenged,” she tells him seriously, and then, when he goes to make another smartass comment, she adds, “I’m serious about this, Barton. We need you.”

“And how hard did you have to fight for that?” And there Clint is, right on the mark, like always.

If Philippa’s honest with him, it was pretty fucking difficult. “You deserve to be on it,” she tells him instead, the exact same thing she had told Nick too when he had said Barton’s good, Cheese, but look at his record.

Clint looks at her, calculating. It’s an expression she’s not used to seeing on his face. “Do I get a choice?” he asks, and Philippa thinks about all those asides in his file, the one’s she does her best to ignore, that mention abuse and coercion at the hands of all those people who were supposed to raise him up right and instead gave him a bow and taught him how to be a weapon.

Philippa sits down on the edge of her desk, feels her knees give out a little, “Of course you get a choice.”

His expression softens around the edges a little, appraising, Philippa thinks. “Okay,” he tells her.

“Okay,” she repeats, glad to have however much of him she can.

 

***

 

Natasha is, admittedly, an easier sell.

“Avengers Initiative?” she asks, lips curling in distrust of the unknown.

“You’ve been recommended,” Philippa tells her. The truth. Natasha cocks her head, considering. “It means they trust you, Natasha.”

Apparently, that’s all it really takes.

 

***

 

(Nick is Philippa’s friend, but she will always be a little bit awed by him. The Avengers Initiative, if they can get it up and running, will be a thing of beauty.)

 

***

 

There is a brief, beautiful moment, where the Avengers are just a pipedream and Philippa can go back to the daily grind of SHIELD life. But then Iron Man is all over the news again and Jasper is down the hall cursing everything in creation and, when Philippa turns on her cell phone, there’s a message from one Miss Pepper Potts asking about that coffee.

Philippa is not even surprised.

 

***

 

“Can’t SHIELD do something?” Pepper asks, and if Philippa had a nickel for every time she heard that question, she would be a wealthy woman.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Philippa reassures her. “We, unfortunately, cannot be everywhere at once.”

SHIELD also can’t complete time sensitive missions with Iron Man blowing in and taking out the easy target of oh hey, those guys look menacing and well armed. Jasper is going to have to spend months re-gathering intel.

Pepper frowns into her coffee, a moment of unguarded honesty. “He’s going to hurt himself, isn’t he.” It’s not a question. Pepper has known Tony a long time. If there is anyone who knows what he is capable of, it’s her.

But, Philippa has seen with her very own eyes that cave Tony Stark blew apart. There are a lot of men, good men, who would not have made it out alive, let alone in one piece. Philippa does not like the way that Tony Stark dances around the cold, hard truths of life with his money and charm and searing intellect, but there is something in him that cannot be denied. That cannot be contained. Philippa would be a fool to think of Tony any less than at least the sum of his parts.

“He might,” Philippa agrees, “but I think he’s going to do some good along the way.”

Pepper doesn’t smile, but there is a warmth in her eyes that wasn’t there before. Part of Philippa thinks that the best kind of informant is the one who likes you. A smaller part thinks that maybe, underneath all the politics of both their jobs, Philippa could have a friend in Pepper Potts.

 

***

 

Clint’s in her office because of course he is. It’s been raining for three days straight, so he’s holed himself into her office with the original Dragonriders trilogy. Philippa had banned Clint’s terrible beer from her office before he could even think about bringing it down.

“You should get me Iron Man’s autograph,” he tells her as she shucks off her soaking wet trench coat.

There is a mug of tea sitting on her desk, still hot, and a carafe of coffee carefully balanced on Clint’s knee. The first couple of times Philippa had come back to her office to find Clint there, waiting just to see her and nothing else, she could feel her heart skip a beat in her chest. There’s something comfortable about it now, though, something warm and lovely and delightful even though it’s expected. It’s a little bit, Philippa thinks, like coming home.

“Absolutely not,” she tells him, “Tony Stark is a menace.”

Clint shrugs, dismissive, and makes room for Philippa on the couch. She takes the spot without really thinking about it. She has reports to file—on her meeting with Pepper, her quarterly report, three requisitions for new equipment, an updated risk assessment of Iron Man—but for now, she just wants to sit and watch the rain come down outside her window.

“Well he’s no Captain America,” Clint agrees, and Philippa is about to put her foot down because no one talks shit about Captain America around her, but then he continues, “but Iron Man, you know, that’s cool. It’s cool that Stark did that.”

“Ruined Jasper’s op?”

Clint rolls his eyes, “No, the superhero thing. He went out on his own and he did it. That’s cool.”

He’s not looking at her. His hands are stock-still and his shoulders are tense and Philippa can honestly not remember the last time Clint seemed this uncertain around her.

“You know,” she says, and Philippa doesn’t think anyone has ever told Clint his, but he needs to hear it. He needs to believe it. “You sort of did that too. And you don’t even need the fancy suit.”

Clint’s laugh is fake, but some of the tension has leaked out of him. “Shucks, Coulson, flattery like that will get you everywhere.”

She wants to reach out, to touch, to comfort, but she doesn’t. There are lines that can’t be crossed. “It’s not flattery,” Philippa tells him. She has always endeavored to tell Clint Barton the truth.

Clint stays silent for a long moment, and Philippa drinks her tea, unsure what else to do with her hands. There is a look on Clint’s face she can’t interpret, and Philippa has made it her personal and professional responsibility to understand Clint Barton.

The rain starts to stop a little and Clint takes a sip from the coffee carafe. “You’re not so bad yourself, ma’am,” he tells her, crooked smile on his face.

Philippa feels herself smile in return, reflexive. “Now who’s flattering whom?”

She holds the sound of Clint’s answering laugh with her for the rest of the day.

 

***

 

There’s this thing in North Dakota with a shrink ray, and Philippa honestly not surprised by anything anymore. She takes a day, when Alvarez is busy tying up loose ends that are below Philippa’s pay grade, to cross the border into Montana. It is, perhaps, the first time in her entire life that Philippa has ever surprised her family with a visit.

Clint texts her: Do you have a Captain America poster up in your old bedroom? And Philippa tells him it’s classified, because he’s not even supposed to know if she’s still in the country or not.

Amelia says that she’s never seen Philippa smile so much and asks if she’s a pod person, which isn’t even funny because there was an incident in Peru a couple years back, and Philippa will never get those stains out of that shirt.

Still, Philippa thinks it’s a valid observation. She tries not to think so hard about the reasons why.

 

***

 

Philippa’s not given to introspection, but that doesn’t mean she’s not self-aware. She has mandatory psychological evaluations every six months and, in between, she does her best not to lie to herself. If Philippa is anything, she is confident in who she is as a person, which is what makes this thing building between her and Clint so unsettling.

It’s not that Philippa doesn’t do love, and it’s not that she doesn’t do romance. She’s had her heart broken before and she’s done the weekend getaways and candlelit dinners. It’s just that Philippa, for all she’s made her career out of protecting and serving her country, doesn’t do danger. That rush of adrenaline that comes with firing a gun, with fists connecting to flesh, it scares her. Philippa doesn’t like losing control and, recently, she doesn’t feel like she’s in control of her life at all. There is Clint Barton and there is Iron Man and there is Nick with the Avengers just on the edge of the horizon, and Philippa feels like she doesn’t know all the variables. Can’t possibly figure out all the outcomes.

“Entropy,” Natasha explains without prompting, in the middle of their routine sparring session. “It’s a part of life.” Natasha, Philippa knows, doesn’t do love. She also doesn’t do American ballet or assignments with Woo or cilantro. Philippa thinks that for a woman who has made her career off being a mystery, there is no one more sure of themselves than Natasha.

“That doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Philippa scowls, blocking a punch and trying to land one of her own. Natasha catches her arm easily, flipping Philippa onto her back, winding her.

“What’s it you Americans are always saying?” Natasha asks, leaning over Philippa on the mat. Her red hair tied back in a ponytail, sweat dripping down her face, and she still looks gorgeous. There are times where Philippa genuinely wonders if life would be easier if she were as effortlessly beautiful as Natasha, or even Maria. “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

“I don’t like lemonade,” Philippa tells her. Natasha just throws her head back and laughs.

 

***

 

Two things happen at once: the American government decides it wants to get its hands on the Iron Man suit and Nick Fury decides that he just wants Iron Man.

“If the military gets their hands on the suit, does it really matter?” Philippa asks, less than enthused about heading to Washington to make sure that Tony Stark doesn’t do anything that would jeopardize SHIELD or Iron Man.

Philippa has not made a name for herself for her originality. Philippa asks the necessary questions. She ticks all the little boxes so that no one else has to worry about it and they can get on with thinking outside of the box, confident everything that needs to be done has been. Nick thinks in grand, sweeping ideals. He believes in abstract ideas like the human spirit while Philippa has always preferred not to get bogged down with philosophy when there is tangible good she can be doing. Nick likes to think that the Avengers, whatever they will be, will save the world. Philippa thinks that it might not be so easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.

“You think anyone else could have gotten themselves out of that cave?” Nick asks. “Cheese, put any dude in that suit and he can smash a few walls, but no one else is Tony Stark.”

Philippa worries that Nick has been watching too much TV.

 

***

 

She doesn’t tell Pepper she’s in town because it doesn’t really change anything. The government wants the Iron Man suit and Tony Stark doesn’t want to give it to them. Philippa’s just eyes on the ground in case things go sideways.

“Is there anything you can do to help him out of this?” Pepper asks, spotting Philippa standing quietly in the back of the courtroom.

And Philippa tells her, “Not this time,” with actual sadness in her heart. It’s not that Philippa likes Tony Stark; it’s that she’s seen the prototypes Justin Hammer and his ilk have been working on. SHIELD exists for a reason, and it’s because there needs to be a barrier between the American masses and the sort of things that come along with Iron Men.

Pepper brushes it off easily. Most things Tony Stark related, Philippa imagines, cannot be easily fixed. “Well, apparently I have to go and get some hot dogs,” Pepper explains, the air of someone who thinks it’s a ridiculous task but also really likes hot dogs.

Honestly, Philippa thinks that Pepper Potts is kind of great.

 

***

 

The media circus that follows Tony Stark’s cheerful declaration that he’s successfully privatized world peace is largely not Philippa’s problem. When she gets back to New York, Nick is dangerously close to smiling.

“Romanov, you’re up to bat,” he says, passing off the dossier on Tony Stark that Philippa helped compile. Because Natasha is a professional, she accepts the folder without complaint.

“What if he’s not a good fit?” Philippa asks because it needs to be, when Natasha has cleared the room.

Nick shrugs, “Then we’ll figure it out from there, Cheese, but we won’t know if we don’t try.”

Sometimes Philippa hates it when Nick is right.

 

***

 

“How close do you think Natasha is from breaking cover?” Clint asks, watching as a Russian with a grudge attempts to assassinate Tony Stark in public. Natasha hasn’t called in yet, so Philippa is not really worried about this turning into something that needs SHIELD’s intervention.

“If she hasn’t yet,” Philippa says, watching an electrified whip cut through a car door, “then she won’t.”

Clint shoves another handful of popcorn into his mouth. “I was really hoping just to watch some car racing.”

Philippa can see Pepper Potts screaming in Monte Carlo on her TV. She changes the channel. If they needed her, someone would call.

Wife Swap’s on,” Clint volunteers. Philippa shrugs; it’s as good a show as any.

 

***

 

Because all things Tony Stark related are designed to disrupt Philippa’s life in the most inconvenient ways possible, Natasha calls just Philippa is leaving her office Friday night.

“He’s dying, Coulson,” Natasha says, never one to beat around the bush, “I think it has to do with the Arc Reactor. You might need to come in on this.” Natasha doesn’t call in when she’s undercover unless she needs help. Natasha hates it when she can’t get the job done on her own.

Philippa flicks the lights in her office back on. “I’ll get the team together.”

 

***

 

Back in the day when the Avengers Initiative wasn’t even a spark in Nick Fury’s eye, Maria Hill had called Philippa into her office and said, “Dyer’s retiring. You’re now in charge of the Howard Stark file.”

Philippa hadn’t even known there was a Howard Stark file until then. To be honest, she didn’t really think that Captain America had been everything the comics had cracked him up to be either. But now Philippa’s the one person at SHIELD who holds the keys to everything Howard Stark had worked on during the war, the Super Soldier Project included. Now she knows how much money he poured into finding Steve Rogers after that plane went down. Now she knows things about him that his own son doesn’t. At the time, Philippa’s heart had fluttered with possibilities.

But it was, for the most part, an honorary assignment. Howard Stark was long dead. Tony Stark was a drunk genius intent on keeping up the family business. It didn’t much matter what secrets Howard had tucked away in SHIELD’s vaults.

There are moments now where Philippa yearns for the days when Stark was just a name on file in the bottom of her file cabinet.

 

***

 

It takes a team of thirty SHIELD scientists working around the clock for two days to come up with a viable treatment for palladium poisoning, and even then, it’s only a stopgap. The one thing no one could ever accuse Howard Stark of was being straightforward.

 

***

 

“You remember Agent Coulson, right,” Nick says. Tony Stark is in a damask robe and the Malibu sun is hot on Philippa’s shoulders. His eyes skim over her like she’s an uninteresting houseplant. He reminds her of Clint, in a way, how he covers self-doubt with ego, but Clint has never looked at her the way Stark does. Clint has only ever looked at her like she matters.

“Please,” Tony rolls his eyes when Natasha and Nick finally leave, dismissive and thoroughly unimpressed, “First thing I need a little body work. I’ll put in a little time at the lab, if we could send one of your goon squad down to the Coffee Bean for a Starbucks run or something like that, that would be nice.”

“I’m not here for that,” she informs him, not really impressed either, “I’ve been authorized by Director Fury to use any means necessary to keep you on premises. If you attempt to leave, or play any games, I will taze you and watch Supernanny while you drool into the carpet.”

She’s not surprised that Tony listens—it worked on Clint after all.

 

***

 

Philippa is surprised to learn that when Tony Stark sets his mind to something, he loses focus on everything else.

“Do you think we should bring him food?” Philippa asks Natasha. They are sitting in the hallway, listening to Tony receive cryptic, beyond the grave messages from his father in the other room.

Natasha shrugs. “I’m not sure he actually eats.”

Philippa leans her head against the wall and wonders what kind of man Howard Stark was if his greatest creation was Tony Stark.

 

***

 

She is not even remotely surprised when Tony makes a break for it. GPS tracking says he’s heading to Stark Industries and Natasha calls to confirm. The Iron Man suitcase sits next to Philippa’s feet so she’s not overly concerned yet.

Stark’s back two hours later, anyways, a manic gleam in his eye. There’s no use in yelling, not when Tony has work to do.

 

***

 

you have no reason not to get me his autograph now - CB comes the text as Tony takes a sledgehammer to the walls of his Malibu mansion. Philippa would never have thought that babysitting Tony Stark would be dull, but here she is, eating yogurt in the kitchen, waiting for Stark to save himself.

he’s working. it’s something some people do, Philippa texts back, just as her phone starts to ring, NICK FURY flashing on her caller ID.

“I’m sending Woo in. I need you in New Mexico. Something just fell from the sky and made one hell of a splash.”

Philippa’s phone buzzes with an incoming text in her hand and Tony Stark berates his robots in the room over. “You have a location?” Philippa asks.

She can fucking hear Nick’s Cheshire cat grin over the phone, “Now where would the fun in that be?”

Well, anything’s better than Malibu.

 

***

 

Two hours later, waiting to pick up her rental car at Albuquerque International Airport, she reads all work and no play makes Clint a dull boy on her phone and can’t stop from smiling. She doesn’t answer him. He doesn’t need any more encouragement.

 

***

 

(There’s an incident in a gas station. Philippa has always said that she could take someone out with a bag of flour if she had to, mostly to scare new recruits, but it’s nice to know that it’s true. Jasper will never let her live it down.)

 

***

 

It’s not actually that hard to find the satellite. Philippa does a little googling to get her on her way and, when that trail grows cold, she just stops at every roadside diner she passes for coffee, pie, and gossip. The road, empty and seemingly never ending, starts to fill with pickups, truck beds full of beer, as she winds her way through New Mexico.

In the end, it’s sort of hard to miss the crater, filled with Chevys and the shouts of boasting men.

Philippa pulls out her phone. “Sir, I found it.”

 

***

 

The nearest town is Puente Antigo, population 2,175. It has exactly one motel. Philippa wouldn’t say that it’s the worst place she’s ever stayed, but, then again, she once spent three days snowed-in in a one-room cabin with Clint and Natasha in Siberia. At this point in her career, Philippa’s expectations are sort of low.

“Guess this is sort of a downgrade, huh?” Clint asks. He’s standing in civilian gear in the doorway of her room, duffle bag thrown over his shoulder. The sun outside is bright and the desert has never been Philippa’s favorite place. It’s always too hot, too open. There’s never any place to hide. “You could be hanging out with Tony Stark, right about now.”

“It’s true,” Philippa agrees. “Or I could have a root canal. Maybe mentor some Level One’s on how to write a field report.”

Clint grins. It’s nice, after Malibu, to see someone who doesn’t have a smile full of too perfect, too white teeth. Or maybe it’s just nice because it’s Clint. Philippa’s not really invested in figuring out which.

“Did you go to the site yet?” She asks, switching back into suit-mode.

Clint’s shoulders automatically straighten. For all his backtalk, Clint has always understood that business comes first. “If you don’t mind me saying, ma’am, that satellite looks a hell of a lot like a hammer.”

Philippa’s smile is a tired thing. “Well, I guess that means we have some work to do.”

 

***

 

Philippa has a dream; it’s that, one day, when she says, “We’re the good guys,” to the young scientists whose equipment SHIELD is seizing because, honestly, Ms. Jane Foster does not need to get messed up in whatever is happening in this town, said scientist will look Philippa in the eye and believe her.

Sadly, today is not that day.

 

***

 

The storm rolls in out of nowhere. Philippa has been in her fair share of deserts, has seen her fair share of freak storms, but nothing like this. There hasn’t been a cloud for days, but now her men are slogging through mud to take out the single strongest man Philippa has ever seen outside of genetic mutation.

“I need eyes up high. With a gun,” she bites into her microphone as the desert storm turns into a monsoon. Philippa can’t hear much over the sounds of rain hitting metal, but she can hear the sound of whoever this guy is taking down every single one of her men with embarrassing ease.

Philippa doesn’t like not having all the variables, and right now all she has is wet shoes and Sitwell telling her that all their equipment’s frying thanks to some sort of electromagnetic surge. “Barton?” she asks into her radio, “Talk to me.”

“You want me to slow him down, ma’am?” he asks, words clear despite the storm. “Or are you sending in more guys for him to beat up?”

“I’ll let you know,” she tells him, making her way to the center of the base. If Clint and Philippa were anyone else, this would be a foolish risk, to let this man go on, unimpeded. Philippa has suspended field agents for less than this. But if Philippa says take him down, then Clint will, before the words have even finished leaving Philippa’s mouth.

“You better call it Coulson,” comes Clint’s voice over her radio, “‘cause I’m starting to root for this guy.” Philippa thinks, as she watches him pry open the doors of the cube at the center of the base, that she might be too.

“Last chance, ma’am,” Clint tells her, and Philippa has seen a lot of things during her career at SHIELD. She’s seen monstrous green men take apart city blocks. She’s seen shrink-rays gone bad and explosions and a lot of good men die young. Philippa has never, in all her years, seen anything that she would describe as an act of God, but here, in the middle of nowhere New Mexico and the driving rain, she thinks she might be about to.

“Wait,” she tells him, “I want to see this.”

There is a hammer and there is rain and there is a man looking at this hunk of rock like it’s his salvation. Philippa doesn’t believe in miracles, but she thinks she could. She thinks she’s ready to. She thinks—

Philippa thinks that she is used to disappointment.

“All right, show’s over,” Philippa says into her radio, the man has sunk to his knees in the mud, all fight gone out of him just as quickly as it came. “Ground units move in.”

The man doesn’t even try to resist. It keeps raining. It’s just another day at SHIELD after all.

 

***

 

“You made my men, some of the most highly trained professionals in the world,” Philippa says, dry now through the sort of quick change magic that has become a part of her job requirements over the years, “look like a bunch of minimum-wage mall cops. That’s hurtful.” For such a large man, he’s slumped in the chair like a fifteen year old being scolded. “In my experience,” she goes on, “it takes someone who’s received similar training to do what you did to them. Why don’t you tell me where you received your training?”

Please, Philippa thinks. Because that shit ain’t natural, the part of her brain that has spent too much time with Clint Barton chimes in. But the man continues to say nothing, and Philippa really wishes that she had something to go one besides large, blonde, and crazy, because, honestly, that describes a disturbingly large percentage of the men she’s had to deal with over the years. But if Sitwell found nothing, that means there’s nothing to find, so Philippa is left with the only tactic available to her—talk until she pisses him off. She’s been hanging around Clint for a while now. She’s pretty good at it.

“Pakistan?” she goes on. “Chechnya? Afghanistan? No, you strike me more as a soldier of fortune type.” This is, actually, exactly the opposite of what Philippa thinks. A soldier of fortune would never charge a base like this man did. A soldier of fortune wouldn’t grasp for a hammer like he was reaching for an old friend. He wouldn’t fall to his knees like a wounded man when it refused to budge, like it been refusing to do since appearing in the desert less than a couple days ago.

“Where was it, South Africa? Certain groups pay very well for a good mercenary like you.” The surest way to insult an honest warrior is by saying he was paid, but this man refuses to budge. Refuses to meet her gaze or give her anything, and Philippa thinks she hasn’t been in an interview this difficult since Natasha, and even then, Philippa had something to go on. There is, Philippa supposes, only one real question that needs to be asked. “Who are you?”

He meets her eyes then, this sad wild man grasping for a hammer in a rainstorm, and Philippa thinks that she’s finally found her way in. “One way or another, we find out what we need to know. We’re good at that.”

Philippa’s phone chimes with an incoming text from Nick, what the fuck is happening out there cheese, and it’s as good a question as any.

“Don’t go anywhere,” she tells her blonde hunk of angst, and steps out of the room so she can call Nick and tell him that she has no fucking clue what’s happening here, but all signs point to something SHIELD isn’t really prepared to handle. It was sort of inevitable that this day would come.

 

***

 

Dr. Erik Selvig is such a painfully terribly liar that Philippa’s interest is actually piqued. Besides, it’s not like her interview was actually getting her anywhere.

 

***

 

SHIELD always finds out what they need to in the end. And this ends badly. This ends with a town destroyed and the cold, hard, truth lain at SHIELD’s feet that Earth is ill-equipped to deal with the perils of the universe at large. That there are men like gods and monsters made of metal that can’t be put down with any weapons from this heaven or earth.

This man called Thor who might actually be a god calls her Daughter of Coul and ally and he calls himself a protector of this world, which is a cold comfort in the face of so many lives lost. But Philippa has been in the business long enough that she takes what she can get.

 

***

 

“It’s been one hell of a day,” says Clint Barton that night, standing in the doorway of her hotel room once more. Philippa has spent eight hours debriefing the Town Supervisor of Puente Antigo about how the media is never going to find out what happened. How no one’s going to call the National Guard and that SHIELD will do the best is can to help out but, unfortunately, these sort of things tend to be unfixable. One hell of a day doesn’t even begin to describe it.

“I’m tired, Barton,” she tells him. She’s barefoot but otherwise still dressed, although there is something in Clint’s gaze that makes her feel exposed, naked. There is something in Clint’s gaze that makes Philippa’s body feel alive. Philippa thinks that she has had enough excitement to last a lifetime, but she could stand to see a little more.

Clint leans against the doorframe and Philippa thinks that he is beautiful. She thinks that she’s happy he is here. She thinks everything she doesn’t let herself dwell on, is unable to stop it.

“Can I come in?” he asks, smile playing at the corner of his lips.

Philippa has a report to write up. She has notes to organize for her debriefings tomorrow with Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, and Erik Selvig. Philippa has to call Woo and ask how the Stark situation is coming. She doesn’t want to do any of it. If it were anyone else asking, she would say no; work has always come first. But, then again, Clint has always been her exception.

“Okay,” she says, and steps back from the door.

For perhaps the first time, there is no sadness at the corner of Clint Barton’s smile. “Okay.”

 

***

 

(She wishes, in the morning, that she could blame it on intoxication, but she can’t. She wants to claim sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst, anything, but the truth of the matter is that Philippa’s gone longer without sleep, without food, without water. The truth is that the only thing she’s hungry for, thirsty for, is whatever will sate this empty feeling that lives in the pit of her stomach, in the hollow of her heart.

Philippa wishes that something, anything happened that she would have cause to feel guilty for, but she doesn’t.)

 

***

 

Clint comes in. He takes off his shoes, he takes off his jacket. Philippa reminds herself that he is an asset. That he is a friend. That there are lines that can’t be crossed.

“They drowning you in paperwork yet, Coulson?” he asks, and she wants to say, call me Phil. Hers has never been a beautiful name, but she thinks it might be, coming from his lips.

“Don’t you know?” she asks, and she can feel every beat of her heart against the cage of her ribs. “Paperwork is what I do best.”

“I don’t believe the rumors, ma’am,” he disagrees, sits on the edge of her bed likes it’s where he belongs and Philippa has never known that she was capable of so much want. “I’m sure you’re good at other things to.”

Philippa laughs. It’s nine o’clock at night and an alien god destroyed a small town in New Mexico today. Back in Malibu there is a drunk billionaire genius dismantling his home so that he can save himself and then maybe, hopefully, save the world. Here, in her hotel room on the edge of nowhere, there is Clint Barton and his smile and something that Philippa refuses to call love, but can’t really find another name for. She chooses, for now, so stop worrying about it.

 

***

 

(Maybe that, then, is what she has to let herself feel guilty over. That Battleaxe Coulson let herself want so much.)

 

***

 

There’s nothing on TV, but that’s okay because Philippa’s behind on Supernanny anyways.

In the morning she doesn’t remember what they watch, in the end, but she remembers how Clint’s arm had felt against hers, pressed up against each other on her bed. There was no reason for them to be touching, the bed was not too small, but at the time, Philippa couldn’t really find any reason to move. At the time, Philippa wondered what would happen if she pressed even closer, had straddled Clint’s hips with her thighs, pressed her lips to his.

Maybe she regrets that she let herself think about it at all. Maybe, too, she regrets, just a little, that she didn’t let herself do it at all.

 

***

 

They fall asleep together, shoulders and wrists touching. There’s nothing on TV and the world has gone a little to shit, but Clint Barton is asleep beside her, and Philippa thinks that everything might be okay, anyways.

 

***

 

Philippa wakes to the sound of passing cars in the middle of the night.

Clint is beside her, corner of the comforter thrown over his shoulder. They’d fallen asleep before either one of them could get under the sheets. The TV is still on and Philippa reaches around in the dark for the remote to turn it off.

She wonders, in the silence, what she is doing. She wonders if she’s brave enough to roll over, to tuck her knees against her chest like she did when she was a little girl, to curl herself into the warmth of Clint’s arms.

“Do you ever think about us?” Clint asks, pulls at the comforter a little, but doesn’t turn towards her. Philippa wonders how long he’s been awake for. If the thought of her usually keeps him up at night.

“Sometimes,” she admits, feeling braver here in the dark, away from SHIELD and all of her responsibilities, than she ever has before. The air is cool from the AC and desert night, but Philippa knows that’s not why she has goose bumps.

“And?” he prompts. Clint is usually never one to pry, but Philippa thinks that the night is making him brave too.

There are a lot of ways Philippa can answer, but she doesn’t know exactly what Clint’s asking. She doesn’t know exactly what she’s ready to give him. There are consequences to think about, and Philippa has never been able to turn off the part of her brain that asks but what then?

“It’s a lot to think about,” she tells him honestly. She rolls to her side, taking the edge of the comforter with her. She sticks to her side of the bed. Clint stays silent beside her, and Philippa doesn’t know what that means, but she knows that she doesn’t want to sleep. “Go to sleep,” she says, wants to reach out and touch his wrist, but holds the corner of her pillow instead.

“Okay,” he says. “Goodnight,” he says.

Philippa burrows into the blankets and doesn’t think about tomorrow.

 

***

 

Morning, as it always does, brings clarity.

Morning brings Philippa brushing her teeth and watching Clint Barton sleeps in her bed and the feeling of dread at the pit of her stomach. Never before has Philippa reached so far for something she knows she can’t have.

Philippa leaves before Clint wakes up. Never in her life has Philippa felt so dirty over something so innocent.

 

***

 

“So,” Jasper says in between debriefings, Danish in one hand coffee in another, “You and Barton, huh?”

Philippa doesn’t freeze up or panic because she has been working at SHIELD for over a decade, but that doesn’t mean her heart doesn’t skip a beat. She’s only human, after all. “What about me and Barton?”

“Don’t give that super spook shit,” Jasper tells her through a mouthful of Danish. “I’ve known you since you were a rookie. You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Philippa sighs into her coffee. “It’s nothing.”

“Uh huh,” Jasper agrees blithely. “Sure it is.” And then, before Philippa can tell him to mind his own business he adds, “Look, Phil, if you were anyone else I’d tell you to be careful, but you always know what you’re doing, right?”

Philippa doesn’t answer, just smiles tightly, uncertainty sitting like a stone in the pit of her stomach.

 

***

 

Clint comes by that night, Philippa working on writing the notes from today’s briefings.

“I’m assuming you haven’t eaten today,” he tells her, take-out containers from the miraculously unharmed diner in hand. Philippa thinks of her Christmas cacti, of eating Ethiopian on her office floor. She thinks that even Jasper, who’s known her since day one, still sometimes thinks that she’s infallible. Philippa thinks that Clint Barton is the only person who looks at her and sees a living, breathing person. Philippa thinks that nothing in her entire life has ever terrified her more.

 

***

 

“We can’t do this anymore,” she says in between bites of the greasiest hamburger of her life, the words slipping out before Philippa—brilliant, always three steps ahead Philippa—can stop them.

“Dinner?” Clint asks, and Philippa knows that face. She’s been Clint’s friend for years. She’s been his handler even longer. Philippa knows when Clint is playing dumb. That doesn’t mean she has to play along with him. “It’s not against any regs.”

“No.” she tells him, “Clint, I can’t do this.”

Clint’s right of course; there’s aren’t any SHIELD regs against this kind of thing, not at the level they’re on, but that’s only because it’s a rookie mistake, sleeping with your asset. That’s only because women like Philippa are supposed to know better.

He frowns at her. “Is this about the other night?” he asks, and Philippa wants to yell it’s about every night. It’s about how falling asleep next to Clint on a shitty mattress in a shitty motel in bumfuck New Mexico felt better to her than all the nights Philippa has fallen asleep alone on her pillow top mattress with Egyptian cotton sheets, wondering where Clint was, what he was doing. Wondering if he missed her like a lost limb, the way that she sometimes—all the time, standing right next to him and continents apart—missed him.

“I have to remain focused in the field. I can’t let myself become compromised,” Philippa says because it’s easier than admitting that two days ago she stood up to an alien robot that breathed fire to stand down, but it’s this that makes her heart race. The thought of what having Clint could mean, for Philippa and for her career. It’s not so simple, she thinks, as admitting that she wants too much, because women like her aren’t allowed to want at all. Not when there’s a job to do.

“You know you’re allowed to feel things,” he tells her, standing, anger finally seeping into his voice. All Philippa wants is for him to kiss her and prove it because she’s never done well with theory. “You’re allowed to want  things.” You’re allowed to want me hangs between them, unspoken. The I want you is understood.

Philippa still remembers back in the early days when Nick had said he’s sweet on you, Cheese, and she had laughed him off. She remembers when a crush had meant that she could be compromised. Philippa doesn’t know what it means now, that she could happily spend the rest of her life sleeping next to Clint in a sleazy hotel in a dead town. If a crush is compromising, Philippa doesn’t even want to know what this means. “It’s not that easy. I need to be able to stay objective in the field.”

“And I what? Compromise you?” he seems taken aback, like Philippa would ever let herself be compromised over a man like him. Philippa had really thought he’d understood her better than that.

In any case, there’s nothing left to tell him but the crippling truth. “Yes.”

Clint takes a step back like she just punched him. There’s a look in his eye, and for the first time in her life, Philippa doesn’t know what it means, doesn’t want to know what he sees. “Fine,” he tells her at long last. “But only because you asked so nicely.”

He doesn’t slam the door on the way out, but the sound of it echoes in Philippa’s bones.

 

***

 

The uneaten half of her hamburger makes Philippa’s stomach churn. She throws it away and lights a match to get rid of the smell of grease that hangs in the air.

Philippa showers and brushes her teeth and works on her report, peers over her notes, until her eyes sting, until her back hurts, until there’s a dull throbbing at her temples and the only option left is to sleep. This is better she tells herself. Philippa is no longer emotionally compromised. Philippa thinks she might be just a little dead inside, but that’s okay. She can still do her job. She still has her job.

Cold comforts are really the only ones Philippa’s used to anymore.

 

***

 

Clint heads back to New York the next morning. There’s nothing left in New Mexico but paperwork and loose ends, a sharpshooter is no longer a necessity. He doesn’t say goodbye, but that’s okay, Philippa tells herself, none of her other assets would.

 

***

 

(It takes seven days to settle everything in New Mexico. That’s okay too; Philippa isn’t exactly eager to get back to New York.)

 

***

 

“You okay, Phil?” Jasper asks on the plane ride back, when all the baby agents have been put in coach and Philippa and Jasper pulled rank and got seats in business class.

She flips through Skymall like her life depends on it and knows that Jasper sees it for the ruse it is. Philippa’s actually surprised it’s taken him this long to speak up. “I’m fine,” she tells him. It’s what she’s been telling herself since Clint left. It’s what she told herself when no one asked her to prom and Kent left her because she was married to her job. Philippa is always fine, it’s always been her best asset.

Besides, it’s stupid, Philippa thinks, to feel this way. It’s not like anything happened. It’s not like she and Clint broke up—they weren’t even together. She can’t miss, Philippa reasons, what she never had.

Jasper just looks at her like he knows what she’s thinking, and what she’s thinking is a load of shit. Philippa can’t really blame him.

 

***

 

In New York, there isn’t time to dwell. For this, Philippa is grateful.

“The Avengers Initiative is being bumped up in priority,” Nick tells her, sweeping into her office as soon as she turns on her computer in the morning. “New Mexico taught us a few things.”

“What about Stark?” Philippa asks. All she’s heard is what’s been on the news, and boy is Philippa glad that she was shipped out to New Mexico before the Stark Expo became her problem to solve. She hasn’t seen Natasha yet, but Philippa assumes that she is not amused.

“We’re retaining him as a consultant,” Nick says like it’s funny, taking a seat on her couch and throwing his feet up on her coffee table. “Turns out that Iron Man’s a better fit than Tony Stark is. At least, for now.”

Philippa frowns at him. Sometimes I told you so isn’t good enough. “And he’s okay with that?”

“Sure is,” Nick agrees. “Especially when I told him who the Avengers Initiative liaison is. Congrats, Cheese, you’ve been promoted.”

When Philippa throws her staple remover at Nick’s head, he just laughs. It figures that all the bad karma she’d been racking up would pay out like this.

 

***

 

When Natasha comes to debrief Philippa on Malibu, she asks, “So how was New Mexico?” in that tone of voice that implies she knows exactly how New Mexico was and she and Clint have already spent a night drinking about it.

But Natasha has always been Clint’s person first and Philippa’s second, so if she wants to dig for details, then she’s going to have to try harder than that. Besides, Philippa owes her nothing, so she just smiles and answers, “Eventful.”

It’s the truth, for what it’s worth.

 

***

 

Thing is, Philippa hasn’t actually seen Clint since he left her with a half-eaten hamburger and a heavy heart in New Mexico. It shouldn’t be strange, not really. Philippa’s gone days without seeing Natasha, weeks without seeing some of her less important assets. She’s always been a busy woman, never really had the time or patience to immerse herself in the petty, daily aggravations of all her assets’ lives. But somehow, Clint became a fixture in Philippa’s life. Well not somehow. Philippa knows exactly how, and that’s half the problem.

But now Clint’s not there, in her space and in her life. And now no one makes sure Dog Cops is setup to record on her DVR, and no one makes her tea, and there’s this dent on her couch from where Clint always used to sit, and Philippa can’t look at it without getting mad that her couch is lopsided.

But Philippa doesn’t have time for things like a broken heart, so she does what she always does—she throws herself into her work and keeps going.

 

***

 

There is a meeting about Thor and New Mexico and their implications for the Avengers Initiative. Clint is there because of course he is. He was there, after all, an arrow aimed at the god of thunder’s head just waiting for Philippa to make up her mind. There is no reason that Clint shouldn’t—wouldn’t—be here.

“I’ve asked Dr. Selvig to consult on the Tesseract,” Nick says, and Philippa pretends that she can’t feel, like a hole in her heart, how studiously Clint is ignoring her.

Maria asks, “What about Dr. Foster?”

“We’ve given her our full backing,” explains Philippa. “We need her working full time on her  Einstein-Rosen bridge research, if we ever hope of reaching Thor again. She’ll have a research facility here full time, but she’s still currently working out of New Mexico, as that’s the only place we know of with a hundred percent certainty that an Asgardian has touched down in. Priority is being able to reach Thor, if the need should ever arise.”

“When the need arises,” Maria corrects. “We’re not as safe as we once were, Coulson.”

Philippa knows that. New Mexico changed a lot of things.

 

***

 

(“I don’t care if you tell me or not,” Jasper says eventually, “But there’s a time limit on how long I’m going to file Barton’s equipment requisition requests. He has terrible penmanship, you know.”

Philippa can feel nothing but grateful that she has someone like Jasper in her life.)

 

***

 

“You’ll have to talk to him eventually,” Natasha says, sitting in Clint’s usual spot on Philippa’s sofa, when she gets back from lunch.

“I have never known you to be so interested in the human heart, Agent Romanov.” Philippa’s not surprised, exactly, that Natasha is here. She’s just surprised it took so long. It’s been almost two weeks since New Mexico.

“I have a vested interest in Clint,” Natasha answers primly, and Philippa still doesn’t know the full history that lay between her and Clint. Doesn’t know what happened in Budapest and why they keep each other’s secrets so well. But she knows that this is the one lie in the whole wide world that Natasha Romanov lets herself believe—that she does not love Clint Barton.

“Then you should talk to him about it,” Philippa tells her, sitting down at her desk and pretending that Natasha’ presence doesn’t set her on edge. Philippa’s pretty good at appearing unruffled at all times. It’s one of her strong points.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Natasha frowns. It’s a small thing, a barely there turning down at the corner of her lips, but Philippa is well versed in Natasha’s expressions after all this time. She wouldn’t be very good at her job if she couldn’t read her assets like a book.

“I did,” Natasha confesses. “He didn’t want to.”

“And when has that ever stopped you?” Philippa asks. It is, in a way, a genuine question. Philippa doesn’t actually know Natasha’s limits. Part of her thinks Natasha has none. She has never known Natasha to come out of an interview with anything less than the answers she was looking for.

There is a pause. Natasha’s evaluating stare is less intimidating than Clint’s, but that’s not really saying much. “When I said that you should give yourself a chance, Coulson, this isn’t what I meant.” Natasha says at last, apparently deciding to switch tactics.

“Well,” and Philippa feels like Natasha should have learned this lesson years ago, wonders why she has forgotten it now, “we don’t always get what we want.”

“No,” Natasha agrees solemnly. Philippa can see some stray thought calcifying in her eyes, wonders what conclusions Natasha has come to about her, “we don’t.”

Natasha leaves without another word.

 

***

 

Pepper Potts calls on Wednesday, “Tony said you gave him some of his dad’s things. I just wanted to say thank you.”

“How’s he doing?” Philippa asks. “I was out of town on business during the Expo, unfortunately.”

There is a lightness in Pepper’s voice that wasn’t there last time she and Philippa spoke, and Philippa wonders what happened that SHIELD doesn’t know about it. “Oh, you know Tony,” Pepper laughs like anyone understands Tony Stark. “I’m in town next week on business. What say you and I grab a coffee?”

Technically, Pepper Potts is not cleared to know about the Avenger Initiative, but Philippa would be surprised if Tony hadn’t already told her everything. Besides, Philippa thinks it would be nice to see Pepper again.

 

***

 

Coffee at the Doughnut Plant with Pepper is the only part of Philippa’s week that isn’t terrible. That isn’t stress and Avengers and the creeping loneliness that comes from Clint vacating all the corners of Philippa’s life that she wasn’t even away he’d taken up residence in.

The most wonderful thing about Pepper Potts, Philippa finds, is that for all the woman is impeccably dressed and wearing Louboutins at all hours of the day, she will happily overindulge in sweets.

“It’s a survival mechanism,” Pepper explains, daintily wiping at her mouth with a napkin after devouring a cashew and orange blossom doughseed doughnut. “With Tony, you need all the energy you can get. Coffee’s out of the question because there’s never time for a bathroom break when you need one.”

“I’m sure it has nothing at all to do with how sugar is delicious,” Philippa tells her dryly.

Pepper’s answering grin is absolutely wicked. “No,” Pepper agrees, “Nothing.”

It’s ostensibly a business meeting, this coffee date with Pepper Potts, but Philippa honestly couldn’t give two shits that the only thing Tony Stark related they’ve discussed is how he bought the shoes Pepper’s wearing, an apology for an imagined slight. Maybe, Philippa muses, this is what having friends is like.

 

***

 

(Somewhere, in between one coffee date and the next, Philippa goes from Agent Coulson to Phil, and Philippa finds she doesn’t mind.)

 

***

 

Philippa is called Battleaxe Coulson by almost everyone at SHIELD, and she knows it’s because she does things like tell fire-breathing alien robots to stand down and takes out terrorists and petty crooks with bags of flour or an errant shoe. Philippa knows that there was a brief period of time where she was referred to exclusively by the new recruits as don’t taze me bro, but that stopped being funny when she was the one assigned to teach them during training exactly what it felt like to have 50,000 volts crackling through their veins. It’s never bothered her, the nicknames, because Philippa J. Coulson has always known exactly who she is. Because no one has dared call her anything but Agent Coulson to her face.

She thinks it’s fortunate, really, that her reputation precedes her—that only one person has ever dared to call her Battleaxe to her face and laugh—because it makes it so much easier to say, “Gentlemen, may I have a moment with Agent Barton?” when she finds Clint in the Senior Level break-room laughing with Woo and Gandarez and Parsells, her legendary self-control shattering like so much glass.

It doesn’t really help with what comes after, though.

 

***

 

“You wanted something?” Clint asks after too much silence, where Philippa had been nothing but over aware of where she was, who she was with, what she was doing. Of course it’s fucking Clint Barton who makes her self-conscious.

“You understand why I had to do it,” she finds herself saying.

And Clint says, “That doesn’t mean I have to like it,” because he’s never denied her the truth when she’s asked for it

“We have to still work together,” she tells him, ever practical. “We can still be friends.”

“You know, Coulson,” he tells her, and there is no smile lurking at the corner of his mouth, no twinkle in his eye, “I’m not sure that I believe you.”

Philippa doesn’t stop him from leaving. Afterall, she doesn’t really believe herself either.

 

***

 

It’s not that Philippa regrets what she did, exactly. There are things you can’t come back from. There are choices women like Philippa aren’t allowed to make. It’s not that she misses Clint, either, exactly, because he’s still there. For all that she doesn’t see Clint for days at a time now, he isn’t gone.

Clint still shows up to mandatory meetings, Avengers Initiative or otherwise. Clint still does his job. He still chats on the comms, but she doesn’t talk to Philippa anymore. He doesn’t talk back when she tells him to maintain radio silence, he just cuts the chatter. He doesn’t fight any commands, just yes ma’am and no ma’ams his way through debriefings and sitreps and that time that Philippa got fed up with silence that she cornered him in the break room and asked so it’s come to this, has it?

Yes ma’am, he told her, it had.

And really, Philippa can’t be mad over something she asked for. Preventing forward motion on whatever they were doing meant taking a step back, because they were already too far in when Philippa realized that the only place they were heading was somewhere she wasn’t comfortable going.

It’s lonely, is what it is now, when Philippa was never lonely before. But now there all these spaces in her life—in her apartment and office and heart—where Clint was and they’re empty now. They must have been empty before, back when Philippa’s firmly drawn lines were still in place, but, it’s true what they say—ignorance is bliss.

 

***

 

(“I don’t know what you did in New Mexico, Cheese,” Nick says during one of their increasingly rare card games. There is no such thing, anymore, as a quiet day at SHIELD, “but Barton has never been so damn well behaved.”

Nick Fury is good with strategies and big ideas but he’s not so good with people, which is why he misses the way Philippa adjusts the sleeves of her jacket and pretends that everything is okay.)

 

***

 

“I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but Melissa said that it would be better if you heard it from me,” Jasper says, standing in the doorway of her office looking like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world. Philippa doesn’t really know what to say to that, so she says nothing and Jasper takes a step inside her office, closes the door behind him, takes a deep breath and says, “Barton’s dating Bobbi Morse again.”

“Just as long as it doesn’t affect their field work,” Philippa returns, because that is the official line. Because Philippa wants to believe it with the whole of her being. She hates that Clint Barton is responsible for her happiness. Hates that they can’t even speak to each other now outside of the necessary communication for work. She wishes that she could change it, could take them back to when they were friends and the possibility of more seemed like a distant dream.

Jasper frowns. “Phil—” He starts, but then he must think better of whatever he was going to say. “Are you okay?”

Philippa nods. She’s always okay; it’s her party trick. There was a time, once, years ago when a bullet passed through her gut, was this close to nicking her spine, and she’d almost died. Heartbreak is terrible Philippa thinks, but if that bullet didn’t kill her then Clint Barton loving someone else certainly won’t. “Who else knows?”

“About Barton and Morse? I don’t know. Barton’s not exactly subtle.” It’s not the question that Philippa wanted answered, but it’s still good to know. But Jasper knows what she wants, “About anything else? Well, shit, Phil, since I don’t know a goddamn thing, I can guarantee no one else knows squat.”

“Good,” Philippa tells him. “There’s nothing to know.”

Because Jasper’s a good friend, he doesn’t call her on her bullshit.

 

***

 

(If Philippa buys a dozen doughnuts on the way home and eats them in front of her TV, then no one has to know. Emotional eating isn’t something Philippa’s exactly proud of.)

 

***

 

In New Mexico, Philippa realized that whatever was happening between her and Clint was something big and permanent and wonderful, but so unprofessional it made her teeth ache. In New Mexico, Philippa cut her losses, because that’s what she’s always done. Objectively, Philippa has experienced worse things in life than having to tell herself no when her heart wants her to say yes. She’s been an agent of SHIELD for almost two decades, after all. Besides, Philippa’s never had the patience for heartsick yearning in others, and she has even less patience for it in herself.

So, yes, Clint Barton has a new (old) girlfriend. Philippa’s not really sure what she was expecting. Perhaps more time between Clint licking his wounds and moving on, but, then again, Clint has always been efficient. The only option is for Philippa to do the same, and so she does.

It’s not that difficult, not really. There is the Avengers Initiative and Tony Stark wrangling. There are the infinite and terrible possibilities of the Tesseract. There is a blossoming friendship with one Ms. Pepper Potts, and there is Natasha, who is still there, in all the spaces in Philippa’s life she occupied before, like nothing ever happened at all.

Clint has Bobbi and that’s fine. Philippa’s always been a loner, by nature. Life, as it always does, goes on.

 

***

 

(Eating lunch alone in her office, at least, means that she has even more time to get through her infinite backlog of paperwork.)

 

***

 

Pepper’s been in New York more often, recently. Tony Stark’s been called in to consult with Fury on something they’re calling the quinjet, but Pepper keeps talking about proving that the Arc Reactor is a viable means of alternative energy. Philippa does not bring up that Nick is working on something similar with something called the Tesseract that Howard Stark once found in the ocean while looking for Captain America.

“So what,” Pepper asks one day, “secret agents don’t get to have boyfriends?”

This is, unfortunately, not the first time Philippa’s been asked this question, although it has the novelty of not being asked by her mother. “Oh, so you had a lot of time for dating when you were Stark’s assistant?” Philippa asks brightly. Shepherding Tony Stark and shepherding assets like Clint and Natasha are both, Philippa imagines, largely thankless tasks.

 “I don’t know,” Pepper answers honestly, far too sophisticated and used to Tony Stark’s bullshit to blush, “I wasn’t really interested in anyone else. Tony is—” Pepper pauses, coffee halfway to her mouth, a thoughtful expression on her face before she decides on, “all consuming.”

“I can imagine,” Philippa tells her seriously, and doesn’t let herself say I know exactly how that feels, but Pepper must see it anyways.

“No one ‘all consuming’ in your life then?” Pepper asks, smile on her lips, and Philippa knows that she can laugh it off if she wants. That Pepper, of all people, understands and will give her space. But, Philippa has enough space in her life. Acres of emptiness in her heart and no one to watch Supernanny with, and for the first time in her entire life, Philippa thinks that she would actually like to have a friend. Would like to have someone in her life who wants nothing more from Philippa than Philippa’s company.

“No,” Philippa says, honest, “not anymore.”

It hurts less to admit than Philippa thought it would.

 

***

 

Natasha teases, “Making nice with Pepper Potts?”

"It doesn't hurt," Philippa knows that Natasha doesn’t actually care what Philippa does in her own time, just as long as it doesn't bleed over into Natasha's own, "to have friends outside of work."

Natasha shrugs. She's like a cat, in a way, how she's lounged on one of terrible office chairs like not only is it comfortable, but it's where she ought to be. "I've got plenty of friends here. One of them even signed me up."

"Well," Philippa frowns, knowing that there’s no use trying to evade Natasha, "We can't all be so lucky."

Natasha doesn't smile, because smiling isn’t something Natasha unless she’s under cover, but there is a trickster’s glint to her eye. "Oh I don’t know, Coulson, I think you have more friends than you realize."

Philippa doesn’t bother to point out that that’s not really the issue at hand. Natasha already knows.

 

***

 

(“We’re starting Phase Two,” Nick tells her and refuses to elaborate. Philippa knows better than to ask.)

 

***

 

Pepper calls. “Tony just had to fly back to Malibu. I need you to come to the Philharmonic with me.”

Philippa has spent the past seven hours writing up a field report on the shit show that was Keflavík. She pulled a muscle in her thigh in the firefight and her neck and shoulders hurt from being hunched over a desk all day. The only thing waiting for Philippa at home is week-old Chinese and reruns on her DVR. It’s not a difficult decision to make.

“Okay,” she tells Pepper, “I’ll go.”

 

***

 

This is not when she meets Toby, not officially. Later on, Philippa will not wax poetic about her eye being drawn to him, like a moth to a flame. He’s the artist-in-residence and Philippa is at the Philharmonic so she’d had no choice but to notice. But, Philippa will admit when asked, that she liked his hands—how his fingers weren’t calloused from guns, how, when he drew his bow across strings, no one died. Philippa doesn’t know what it means to live a life out of the line of fire, but there are days when she’d like to.

Philippa does not meet Toby McLaren officially for five more weeks, but something loosens in her chest, listening to him play Kodály’s Sonata for Solo Cello, and Philippa thinks, at long last, that she is ready for something new.

 

***

 

(“I’m not overly fond of these sorts of things,” Philippa will admit when she first, at last, meets him. She’s draped in a navy blue gown that Pepper bought—wouldn’t even think about letting Philippa pay for—at what was supposed to be a small cocktail party and turned out to be a gala fundraiser. Philippa has no idea why she ever trusted the woman who convinced Tony Stark to give monogamy a try.

Toby’s smile is open and honest, completely free from ulterior motive, and the novelty of that makes something in Philippa’s chest flutter. “You know what, I’m not really either.”)

 

***

 

“It’s strange,” Natasha says one day. “You seem happy.”

“Most people wouldn’t find that strange,” Philippa informs her. They are sitting in the cafeteria at three o’clock in the afternoon because Philippa couldn’t stand to be confined in her office for a second longer and she hasn’t been to the roof since coming back from New Mexico. That has always been, and always will be, Clint’s space. It doesn’t feel right anymore, borrowing it, even if he’s away. “People are supposed to be happy.”

“It’s been a while,” Natasha allows. She has a mug of tea in one hand and a book written in Cyrillic on her lap. Philippa doesn’t know why she followed her in here—they haven’t had an op together since Keflavík and their standing sparring date isn’t until the day after next—but Philippa suspects it’s because that Clint is in Bosnia with Sitwell and Alvarez, and Natasha can’t go curl up in Clint’s room and deny it later with Bobbi in the picture again. “I’d forgotten what it looked like on you.”

Even after all this time, Philippa still does not know what to say to Natasha, when Natasha pulls her apart like a science project—peeling back layers and pulling down walls Philippa has made a career of putting up—so Philippa says nothing at all.

 

***

 

(The thing is, Philippa remembers being happy—joyfully, effervescently happy. She remembers it like the first crack of ice in spring, sharp and pure, a moment of realization before she let herself drown in the feeling of it. Let it sink in through her pores and change something inside of her, indelible.

It’s not that Philippa hadn’t been happy before, hasn’t be happy after, but it’s different, somehow, remembering the way Clint had smiled and the sun had shone, warm on her skin after a long winter. She remembers that there was a curry stain, small and unobtrusive, on the cuff of her white blouse, and it had annoyed her. But then Clint had laughed, Agent Philippa J. Coulson, taken down by a lack of Tide to go, and Philippa had smiled, helpless in the face of his good humor, don’t tell HYDRA, it’ll be the end of me.

The thing about being happy like that is no one can take it away from you. The thing about being happy like that is that when Natasha sits across from Philippa at lunch and says you seem happy, Philippa can’t help but think back to that one pure moment and wonder, but am I really?)

 

***

 

Toby is funny and he’s sweet and he doesn’t seem to mind that Philippa doesn’t smile all that often and spends anywhere between fifty and eighty hours a week at the office. He likes classical music and nice restaurants and has a weakness for Insomnia Cookies. He does not know sadness, he does not know pain, not the way Philippa understands it. He has loved and he has lost, but it hasn’t crawled under his skin, hasn’t settled into his bones, festered in his blood and calcified in his gut into something that can’t be cut out, no matter how much he’d like to.

Philippa goes to work every day and saves the world, but Toby goes to work and makes something beautiful. Something worth saving. Philippa can’t help but love that, just a little.

 

***

 

“You know,” Clint says, and it’s the first non-professional thing he’s said to Philippa in more than six months, “Toby is a terrible name.”

Philippa presses her comm to her ear and tells him, “Says the man whose middle name is Francis,” instead of the hundreds of things bubbling up inside her. Instead of saying says the man whose name sounds like it was rhymed by a drunk poet, because she knows—Philippa knows—that story. She’s read it in clinically detached files and heard Clint say, brash and almost bragging, one thing being raised by alcoholics teaches you, and that’s how to take a punch. She’s heard Clint whisper in the quiet of a safe house, I cried when they died, you know. I shouldn’t have, they were terrible, but I couldn’t help it, and Philippa’s heart had broken into a thousand pieces, pieces she gave back to him in return.

And he still has it, all the secrets that Philippa willingly handed over, which is what has made this whole thing so stupid, because that can’t be undone. It’s foolish for either of them to act like it can. But things can change, Philippa has always believed that. Clint has Bobbi and now Philippa has Toby and she thinks that maybe, just maybe, these two outside players were the missing piece of the puzzle. Were the key to making this thing between her and Clint okay again.

Clint doesn’t quite laugh, but there’s a smile to his voice when he replies. “Touché, ma’am.”

Philippa’s not foolish enough to think that things will be like they once were, but she’s been around long enough to know that different things can be, sometimes, just as good.

 

***

 

It’s been years since Philippa last had any sort of relationship, years since she ever even dated. There was always work and then Philippa had found that she wasn’t lonely because Clint was always there. In any case, the bitter taste of her last failed relationship had clung to her mouth for years, and while Philippa is ready and willing to brave any number of horrors for the sake of national security, she’s never really been inclined to do it for herself.

But now she has Toby, who likes to text her random asides throughout the day and who wants to take her to dinner and, sometimes, he just wants to hold her hand. Philippa doesn’t really know what to do with that most days.

“You’re supposed to let him buy you dinner and tell you that you look pretty,” says Pepper over dinner. Stark Industries is looking into acquiring property in Manhattan in some sort of Tony Stark ego-boosting display, so Pepper’s been in the city for the past month, scouting locations.

“Oh, is that what you and Tony do?” Philippa asks, dry.

Pepper smiles, indulgent, before sobering. “It’s not about when you last dated or checking some boxes, Phil, it’s about you, and this cellist of yours, and if you’re happy. That’s the goal: being happy.”

Philippa supposes she can do that.

 

***

 

There’s this thing in Uzbekistan. It’s terrible and Philippa would rather not talk about it, but apparently it’s been assigned as her mess to clean up.

“At least the food’s good,” Clint says, clearly chewing over the comms. These days, it’s the only time he’ll talk to Philippa like he used to, but at least they’re talking.

“You’re supposed to be taking down your target,” Philippa tells him sternly, a small smile on her face that Jasper must catch if the way he rolls his eyes is any indication. “Not figuring out if you like lagman or shurpa more.”

There is a pause where Jasper’s computer starts to beep excitedly before Clint answers, “Target One down. And, ma’am, I like those little meat pies best. Gumma or whatever. Really convenient to eat on the go.”

“Debrief in ten, Barton. And if you’re going to eat, bring enough for the class.”

Clint’s laugh, sharp and clear over the new comm system, feels like progress.

 

***

Uzbekistan  is one of those long ops where Philippa comes home from a month away and she feels like she has to relearn how to live her life. There’s a stack of requisitions and memos and timesheets waiting for her on her desk; Clint surreptitiously pelts everyone with paper footballs during the debrief; and Philippa has one brief, terrifying moment where she can’t remember if she files her JR-12s and JR-22s separately or together. It takes sixteen hours and approximate two gallons of coffee to get her head back in the game.

Toby is smart enough not to ask about Philippa’s work. He’d asked once, at their first awkward meeting, if she’d met Pepper Potts though Iron Man, putting two and two together, and Philippa had smiled enigmatically, “We met around that time, yes.” Toby had been smart enough then to swiftly change the subject. It is, in Philippa’s opinion, one of his more attractive traits.

But it makes things like this difficult, though, when she comes back from an op like this. There is a bruise, ugly and purple and giant, down Philippa’s side. There are circles under her eyes and funerals she has to attend and all Toby can do is ask, “Are you okay?”

Philippa just smiles, tired, but glad to be home, and tells him, “It’s just work,” which is at once both painfully true and an oversimplification of matters. There was a time when Philippa would sit on the roof of SHIELD with Clint and Natasha, after a mission like Uzbekistan, and watch whatever they could on the rabbit-eared television Clint had smuggled up there, drinking whatever Natasha had decided to bring along.

Now though, Philippa has Toby who just says, “Okay,” and has this look in his eye like he’d like to ask more, but instead he holds her hand while they watch Wife Swap. For now, it’s enough.

 

***

 

Because when it rains, it pours, Nick barges into Philippa’s office at quarter past eight in the morning and grits out, “Motherfucking World Security Council. Nothing but a giant pain in my ass. Meeting in five,” before leaving in a swirl of leather and rage.

Philippa pops a pre-emptive aspirin. It seems like it’s going to be that kind of day.

 

***

 

(She is not, in the end, disappointed in her prediction.)

 

***

 

“This isn’t the end of it,” Nick swears, all fire and brimstone, to the Level Six agents cleared for the Avengers Initiative all huddled around him like schoolchildren, “The WSC doesn’t know shit. The Avengers Initiative is real and we are going to fight for it.”

But for all of Nick’s ardent belief, it doesn’t change the facts. The WSC is putting the Avengers Initiative, for better or worse, on ice. Nick is learning what Philippa has always known: sometimes hope is not enough.

 

***

 

(“I think it’s because you got Tony Stark to publicly embarrass General Ross,” Jasper speculates over lunch.

“That was your idea,” Philippa argues. “You’re the one who suggested him.” Tony Stark is charismatic and intelligent and, most importantly, unpredictable. Philippa doesn’t like to put people like that into the field, even if it’s exactly what the situation calls for. She was never the child who set fires just to watch things burn.

Jasper, because he is terrible, just smiles and says, “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”)

 

***

 

“What does this mean for us?” Natasha asks. Philippa, Clint, and Natasha are all sitting around the table in one of the smaller conference rooms. It had felt too intimate to discuss this in her office, and Philippa wonders what is says about her that she counts her office, now, as private, personal space. Not a place to discuss business with the two people who, for better or worse, know her best in the entire world.

“It means we stay the course,” Philippa tells them both. “You were both valuable operatives long before the Initiative came along. If anything, it gives you both more freedom.”

Clint shoves a scone in his mouth and contemplative, “You still our handler?” He asks like he’s curious, not like he’s looking for an out. Philippa expected the question to come, but she didn’t expect it from him.

“As if you could get rid of me, Barton,” she scoffs. “I’m the only one who can put up with you.”

Clint’s answering grins, crooked and genuine, “That’s what I wanted to hear, ma’am.”

Philippa almost risks something like a smile in return.

 

***

 

Because Philippa must have done something terrible in her past life that she is still atoning for—kicking puppies, committing mass genocide, inventing jeggings—she’s the one who has to tell Tony Stark that the Avengers are no more.

“As no significant progress has been made towards assembling a team and there are no immediate threats to national or global security that cannot already be handled by SHIELD or one of its sister organizations, the Avengers Initiative has been put on hold,” Philippa tells Tony Stark, repeating verbatim from the letter Nick passed around at yesterday’s meeting. It’s neater than saying The WSC has no foresight and wanted the Abomination, of all people on the team, which only proves that they shouldn’t be involved at all let alone calling the shots, because at the end of the day, the WSC are calling the shots, and if they put the Avengers Initiative on ice, well, that’s that.

Stark’s looking at Philippa like he can read her mind. “Uh huh, yeah, sure,” he agrees blithely, “Is that why you had me buy out that shithole of a bar? So that no progress could be made?”

Philippa frowns. “Mr. Stark, I know you’d like to believe that your position as a consultant on the Initiative entitles you certain things, but let me remind you that the Avengers and SHIELD are both bigger than you. There are other things at play here, things you are not cleared for.”

“I doubt that,” Stark dismisses, “So what’s this then? Fury using you to dump me?”

“We’d like to keep you on in a consulting capacity. The Avengers Initiative may still come to fruition.”

“Yeah, sure, why not?” Tony shrugs. “Could be fun.”

Philippa remembers Pepper saying once Tony always knows what he’s doing; that’s what scares me. It scares Philippa a little bit, too.

 

***

 

Without the Avengers, Philippa starts to work seventy-hour weeks instead of eighty. It is, in a way, almost restful. Of course, it’s wrong to believe that any period of quiet at SHIELD is anything but the calm before the storm. There is no use, though, fretting over what is to come; worrying never solved anything.

 

***

 

“Mom’s going to ask you to come home for Thanksgiving,” says Amelia over Skype. “She thinks her chances are pretty good, since you have a new squeeze and all.”

Philippa scowls at her computer screen. “It’s not serious,” she tells her sister because it’s not. It’s hard to be in a serious relationship with someone who’s out of the country as much as Philippa. It’s hard to be in a serious relationship with someone who has the ridiculous hours Toby works, for that matter. It’s a miracle they see each other at all.

“Pip, the last time you had anyone was years ago, serious or not,” Amelia tells her sternly. “I don’t even know what you do for Thanksgiving now. Hell, we don’t even know what you do on weekends.”

“Work, mostly,” Philippa tells her. Paperwork is slowly infiltrating Philippa’s life, and when it’s not paperwork, it’s things like Uzbekistan. Last Thanksgiving was spent on a vigil in Bogota, waiting to see if anyone on Alpha Team survived the tunnel collapse that had taken out half Gamma Team in its wake. The year before that, she ate tofurkey with Jasper and his wife, Melissa, as they drank beer and shouted obscenities at the Cowboys.

“That’s no way to live,” Amelia argues, and it’s an old fight, one going back to grammar school discrepancies and blooming into something that would cause them, for one terrible semester in college to only ever speak to each other by yelling. Philippa was always at field hockey or in the library, eating well and going to bed on time and never drinking too much, while Amelia, only a year younger but always acting like she was Philippa’s big sister, drank her way through school and wound up pregnant and single, six credits away from a degree she wouldn’t finish for seven more years.

Philippa does not say that she once shook hands with a god; that she has helped deliver babies; that she has killed at least eight men in what some would term cold blood,  and god knows how many more in firefights, too confusing for a clean count. Philippa has climbed mountains and explored forgotten caves and she has, genuinely, helped save the world. But Amelia and the rest of Philippa’s family can only know the shadows of it. Can only know that Philippa works long hours and comes home alone and does something that involves paperwork and guns, but they’ve never been quite clear on if the gun is just a requirement of the position or a necessity for survival.

But this fight between sisters is an old one, well trodden, and Philippa doesn’t need to revive it because they both know where that path leads. “I don’t like making promises I have to break,” Philippa says honestly.

Amelia sighs, two thousand miles away, safe and happy with her house and husband and two kids, comfortable in a life she worked hard for. “I know. I’ll talk to mom.”

 

***

 

“I’m going back to Portland for Thanksgiving,” says Toby. “You should come with me.”

Philippa smiles, the one she uses to get witnesses to talk and ease probationary agents’ first day jitters. “Thank you,” she tells him. “I’ll think about it.”

 

***

 

(She lies her way out of it three days later. Not for a second does Philippa feel guilty about that.)

 

***

 

Thanksgiving was going to be Philippa and Jasper and Melissa, again, but then Jasper is sitting on Philippa’s couch grousing, “Melissa says that having a kid means we have to spend holidays with her family. She told them I was in tech support, Phil. I’m going to have to spend all weekend explaining that having two monitors doesn’t use up more Internet,” and Philippa suddenly finds herself alone.

She knows that she could call Toby or Amelia or her parents, but the idea seems so sad that Philippa drives herself to work so she doesn’t have to sit in an empty apartment and remember that she did this to herself. That only a handful of people have ever wanted Philippa, and she has pushed every single one of them away.

Philippa goes to work because there is no use in watching football by herself if there’s no one around to yell at the TV with.

 

***

 

“It’s Thanksgiving, the time honored day of getting drunk and watching sports.” Clint says, standing in the doorway of Philippa’s office, bottle in hand and Natasha at his side. “You can deny Alvarez her request for transfer tomorrow.”

Philippa can feel her pulse thrum, just under her skin, and she can’t help but think that she hasn’t been to the roof in a little more than a year. That it’s been three hundred and sixty five days since Clint last wanted her near.

“I don’t want to intrude,” Philippa tells him, because the idea of being so close to Clint and have him look at her again, like he used to, seems too wonderful and horrible and desperate to bear.

When Clint looks Philippa in the eyes, level and calm and piercing, everything she’d ever loved in him, she realizes that it has been a year since he’s bothered to look at her and see Phil, not Philippa or Coulson or Ma’am.

“I’m asking,” he says, and Philippa doesn’t think Clint has ever asked for Philippa’s time or presence before. Always assumed he was wanted. Was always there, in her space and in her life, like he belonged. It was nice, then, to have someone she could rely on. To know that there was always someone at Philippa’s back, someone who wanted to be there. But this is nice, too. To be asked for. To be openly wanted. This is, in many ways, better.

“Okay,” she tells him.

And there’s a smile in his eyes when he says, “Okay,” back.

 

***

 

In the end, then, Thanksgiving is Clint and Natasha and Philippa getting drunk on the roof of SHIELD with a bottle of jack and the shitty beer that Clint still insists on buying. There is a game playing on the TV, but Philippa is telling stories about the early days at SHIELD, when Nick wasn’t director and Jasper still had hair, and Clint and Natasha are laughing, all three of them happy in a way they usually aren’t allowed to be.

It feels, in many ways, like the early days, when Natasha only trusted Clint and Clint only trusted Philippa and Philippa had felt so old but she was still so young. More than that though, it feels like something new. Like something that could only be forged through time and trust and hard work, and Philippa knows, without a shadow of a doubt, for whatever may come between them—her and Clint and Natasha—they will always be her people.

It is, in many ways, the best Thanksgiving of Philippa’s life.

 

***

 

(“Did you miss me?” Toby asks, playful, when Philippa picks him up from the airport.

“Yes,” she tells him, because now is not the time to say, I didn’t even remember you were gone.)

 

***

 

“I think,” says Nick, “that we are about to get some very good news. You still have those Captain America trading cards, Cheese?”

In many ways, it is the beginning of the end, when the frozen body of one Cpt. Steve Rogers is found frozen in the arctic tundra, but Philippa can’t know that yet.

 

***

 

“You going to swoon, ma’am?” Clint asks, standing to Philippa’s right on the observation deck. Captain America lays lifeless on white sheets below them. A heart monitor assures everyone that he is still alive, and Philippa thinks terrible things about Snow White and true love’s kiss.

“I can have you disappeared,” Philippa tells him sternly. She has never been the type of woman to swoon, but there is something about knowing that Captain America is alive that makes Philippa think about possibilities and fairytales. Makes her think that this is the first time it has been just Philippa and Clint, alone in a room together without Natasha or Jasper or anyone else to intervene, since New Mexico.

Clint just smiles, smug and happy. “Sure you can, ma’am. You’re very intimidating, ma’am. Please don’t take me out with a bag of flour, ma’am.”

If this were a year ago, Philippa would tell him you’d be so lucky and she knows that Clint would have laughed, head thrown back, the way he only ever does when it’s just the two of them. But while things are better, they certainly aren’t the same, so Philippa says nothing, just lets silence fall between them.

“Do you think,” she says after a while, when the beeping of the heart monitor below has grown too much, “that if he wakes up, he’ll sign my trading cards?”

“For you, ma’am,” Clint says, not a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “I bet he’d do anything.”

 

***

 

Toby is understanding of things like long silences and faded scars and bruises, yellow and blue, spread across Philippa’s skin. He is less understanding, though, of when Philippa says, “I have all the old Captain America films,” and then proceeds to watch them on a lazy Sunday, after Nick had said if he found her skulking around Captain America’s body for the sixth day in a row, he’d have her banned from that floor permanently.

“What about the 2009 one?” Toby asks, indulgent for only a single 1940s propaganda film. “That one was pretty good.”

That one was not good. That one was anachronistic in ways that made Philippa’s teeth ache. That one was a thinly veiled metaphor about the war on terror and Philippa didn’t really have the patience for moralizing on the subject when she lived it, day in and day out.

“The next one’s better,” Philippa promises, because the old war films are terrible by any film critics’ standards, but they are filled with hope and promise, not a cinematic attempt at gritty realism. The war films are filled with Steve Rogers face, animated and alive, looking just as young as he does now, defrosting in a SHIELD medical room.

Toby leaves in between film three and four. Philippa is by no means upset, just makes herself another bowl of popcorn and presses play.

 

***

 

Things with Toby are like this:

There are times when Toby touches her, that Philippa feels beautiful and delicate and loved. And while only two of those three concepts are novel, Philippa thinks it’s been a long while since anyone’s loved her without any blood on their hands.

But there are times when Toby’s fingers, calloused in places Philippa’s aren’t, trace across the puckered scar on her belly where she once bled out, across the scars of the knife to her ribs and shrapnel to her legs, and Philippa’s body doesn’t feel like her own. She may have never been a beauty queen, but she’s never really been self-conscious. Now there are times, in the dark of her room, of Toby’s apartment, where her body feels like a mystery. Like all of her secrets are writ across her skin and there’s no Rosetta Stone to be found

Worst of all is when he whispers, “Did it hurt?” and all Philippa can hear is was it worth it. It always makes something dark and savage that lives deep down inside of Philippa raise its head because of course it was worth it.

But she tells him, “Every time,” instead, answering both questions. Endorphins can only do so much to ease the pain. You don’t do what Philippa does if you don’t believe, down to the core of your being, that what you're doing is the right thing. And Toby always looks like he’s sad for her, which is bullshit. If there’s one thing that Philippa knows, it’s that you don’t get the good things in life without a little sacrifice. It’s something Captain America taught her young. It’s something Captain America is teaching her now, sleeping in a SHIELD lab, still young and beautiful and alive.

There’s no reason to regret the pain, to mourn the scars that mar Philippa’s body that was never going to be perfect anyways—Philippa’s always been ready to give everything she has.

 

***

 

“Melissa wants you to be the godmother,” Jasper says one day, in lieu of nothing. They’re sitting in the back of the training room, ostensibly making sure that Parsells doesn’t tell the new recruits something unalterable, but really it’s just to freak out the new guys. Jasper always likes to introduce them as, “Agents Jasper Sitwell and Philippa J. Coulson. After this meeting, you need to forget that we exist because, according to a majority of the US government, we don’t,” which is suitably intimidating enough that everyone does their best to ignore them. New Hire Orientation is always a good day.

Philippa doesn’t balk because that isn’t something she does. “Don’t you have sisters or something?”

Jasper shrugs. “My sister said that Melissa wasn’t carrying her baby weight well. Besides, you’re not going to have opinions about how we raise the thing.”

“You know, I’ve always felt that your strong paternal streak was one of your more admirable qualities,” Philippa tells him dryly. “Does this mean that you’re asking me, too?”

“There was that thing in Tanzania. I figure, if anyone’s got to look after any kid of mine, it might as well be you,” Jasper says seriously, which is perhaps the most heartfelt, nicest thing anyone’s ever said to Philippa. She took a knife for Jasper in Tanzania. She broke her collarbone, three ribs, and her right arm, and then she had to rip up one her favorite blouses to make a tourniquet so that Jasper wouldn’t bleed to death. Philippa is fond of Tanzania not because she particularly cherishes the memories, but because that was where the Jasper-Coulson partnership changed from something assigned by paperwork into something forged in blood. Something that, ten years and several promotions later, is still one of the most important things in Philippa’s life. Of course she would look after any kid of Jasper’s. That’s not even a question.

Of course, then Jasper has to go and ruin is by adding, “Plus, then we could get Barton as the godfather. Greatest Marksman in the world is nothing to sneeze at.”

Philippa interrupts Parsells to volunteer Jasper for the tazer demonstration. It’s really the only thing to do.

 

***

 

“I hear you’re scaring the new guys,” Clint says. He’s standing in the doorway to Philippa’s office. There is no paperwork in his hands and Natasha is in Belarus. Philippa continues writing her email to Woo, self-conscious of her hands and her hair and the way she is sitting in her well-worn chair.

“Sitwell had it coming,” she sniffs, “Besides, Parsells has been taking liberties lately. It’s important to remind him who’s in charge.”

Clint’s grin, crooked and happy, is one that Philippa hasn’t seen in a very long while. There is a moment where Philippa wants to ask, you eaten yet? because she knows that Clint has probably skipped out on lunch again in favor of showing off down at the range, but she’s not brave enough. There is a moment, she thinks, where Clint sort of looks like he wants to ask the same thing, because they both know that Philippa had two donuts for breakfast and has been sustaining herself throughout the day with black coffee and Captain America fruit snacks.

But, instead, Clint says, “I’ll see you around, ma’am,” and for all things seem to have gotten better, Philippa knows, in her heart of hearts, things can never be the same again. She’s not sure, anymore, that she’s okay with that.

 

***

 

Because Natasha lives to be a thorn in Philippa’s side, she comes back from Belarus in dire need of a blood transfusion and 72 solid hours of sleep, and instead of resting chooses to debrief Philippa in the medevac and then say, “I hope you and Clint have sorted your shit out, because I am too fucking tired to deal with the both of you when medical inevitably grounds me.”

Philippa tucks Natasha’s report away and says primly, “If you think I’m inclined to mother-henning, then we are clearly paying you too much.”

Bozhe moĭ,” Natasha grimaces, which she hadn’t even done when the medic had bloodlessly inspected her crude field stitches, “You’re as bad as each other,” and then, seeming to pull herself together, she smoothes away any and all expression from her face and asks, “Do you need anything else from me, Coulson?”

 “No,” Philippa shakes her head.

“Good,” Natasha tells her, and rolls over.

 

***

 

“You seem distracted,” Toby says at dinner, “Everything okay?”

It’s the one question that Philippa despises because no, everything is not okay. Natasha needed nine units of blood today; Captain America is still fucking defrosting; and Jasper has taken to emailing Philippa Abercrombie & Fitch ads with notes like just some thoughts for Cap’s new getup attached. To top it all off, sometimes Clint smiles at her—in meetings and in hallways and in the doorway of Philippa’s office—and it makes Philippa feel like she’s falling, every time. Makes her feel like if she could just figure out how to miss the ground, then maybe she could fly.

“It’s just work,” Philippa shrugs. There is still blood crusted under Philippa’s nails; she’d had to paint them, a soft, unobtrusive pink, to cover it up before coming out tonight. “One of those days.”

“You keep on saying that,” Toby tells her, “but I don’t know what that means.” He doesn’t say I’d like too. Philippa’s honestly not sure if he actually wants the truth at this point, or if he’s just getting sick of having to be comfortable with lies.

There’s nothing to be done about it, though. Philippa has a security clearance that doesn’t really exist. Her boss knows things the President can’t know. Once, Toby was on the jury of an arson case and when he was eleven his mom accidentally ran over their dog. There is no shared vocabulary between them, no way for Philippa to explain to him the things she knows, to impress upon him the things she feels, not when all he can know is only a sliver of what she actually day in, day out does.

“You know I can’t tell you,” she says, and Toby says, “I know. It’s okay,” but Philippa has been down this road before and she knows it really, really isn’t.

 

***

 

Natasha spends three days in hospital. Clint spends two of those days curled against her side in the too narrow hospital bed, and it says something sweet and almost deeply sad about them that Natasha lets him stay. Of course, Philippa spends those two days avoiding Natasha’s bed at any cost, unwilling to let her gaze linger on the line of Clint’s back, the slope of his mouth, the way his hand curls, possessive, across Natasha in his sleep. Unwilling to put herself in any situation where she can’t help but wonder if anyone—if Clint—would do the same for her.

So instead Philippa finds herself in the room that Nick Fury had mocked up to look like someplace Steve Rogers might have known, telling a sleeping Captain America, “It wasn’t supposed to come to this.”

She thinks that he might, out of anyone, understand the way the ground moves beneath your feet some days, unbidden, and there is nothing left to do but bend your knees and roll.

 

***

 

(It’s easier to pretend that everything is okay when Natasha is out of the hospital and back to menacingly peeling fruit in Philippa’s office, like she can actually threaten Philippa into talking about her feelings through pure strength of will.)

 

***

 

Philippa is literally on a date with Toby when Nick calls. “Wheels up in thirty. Project Gorgon’s a go. Hill will brief you on the flight.”

Toby has this look on his face that’s somewhere between this had better fucking be important and oh god no, but Philippa doesn’t really have the time to deal with his feelings. “Who’s coming with me?” she asks, already putting on her jacket.

“I got your team, Cheese, don’t worry,” Nick tells her before adding, “Now get on the fucking plane,” and hanging up.

Toby‘s already drained both his and Philippa’s glasses of wine by the time she hangs up the phone, “I know, I know,” he says, resigned to it. “Go.”

“I’ll let you know when I’m back,” she promises. She doesn’t say I’ll miss you or thank you for understanding and she doesn’t give him a kiss goodbye. It’s only later, flying over the Atlantic, the buzz of the plane around her almost deafening, that Philippa realizes that she was probably supposed to.

 

***

 

Because not everything in Philippa’s life is required to go to shit, for all intents and purposes, Project Gorgon goes off without a hitch.

“Sure,” Clint grouses tying off a bandage around his bicep with his teeth, “if you consider this without a hitch.”

Jasper peers over the edge of the building they’re currently stuck on and casually fires off three rounds. “Well, there was that time in Monaco.”

“All things considered, Barton,” Philippa amends, doing her best to patch up their emergency comm so they can tell someone that they have, you know, an emergency. “Of course, it would be going a lot better if our sharpshooter hadn’t been compromised.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Clint grumbles, slinging his quiver over his shoulder once more and taking back his perch on the roof’s edge, “everyone’s a critic.”

Later, when the comms are back online and the hostiles have been incapacitated, one way or another, Philippa will allow herself to feel that bitter rush of adrenaline. She’ll let herself sit, hands hovering over her laptop keyboard, and think about all the ways it could have gone wrong. But here, now, with Clint and Jasper at her back and enemy combatants below, all Philippa can do is bite down a laugh, wild and on edge, and tell him, “Get back to work.”

Clint grins, manic and unafraid. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

***

 

(Because Philippa’s starting to realize there are things in her past that she would change, if she could, she finds herself asking Clint, when Jasper’s out doing recon, if he wants to grab dinner with her. And Clint just smiles, sad and a little self-deprecating, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you know we can’t.”

And Philippa wishes, she really does, that he wasn’t so fucking right.)

 

***

 

“I didn’t know you played field hockey,” Jasper says. They’re sitting the three of them scrunched in the middle aisle of a 747 because SHIELD doesn’t really care about how Agents come back once an op is done.

Philippa nods and answers, “In college,” pitching her voice just a little higher so she can be heard over the rumble of the engines. This is one thing Philippa certainly doesn’t miss, not with the helicarrier and the quinjet at her Senior Agent, Level Seven disposal.

From beside her, Clint leans over, his forearm pressing against her arm in the confines of coach, and Philippa can feel the muscles in his shoulders shift. “High school too,” Clint adds, before smiling at Philippa. “It was adorable.”

“I could kick your ass in high school, Barton, and I can kick your ass now,” she reminds him, but that only makes Clint smile bigger. He’s been doing that more these days, smiling at Philippa. It still makes Philippa’s heart flutter, makes her feel like a little girl with a crush, but she doesn’t mind it anymore. She knows, now, that the alternative is not having Clint in her life at all and Philippa never wants to do that again.

“Promises, promises,” Clint grins, and beside her, Jasper roll his eyes. But Philippa doesn’t pay any attention to that, not when Clint’s in his civilian gear and Philippa can feel the heat of him through the fleece of his hoodie, the cotton of her own cardigan. She doesn’t really see the point anymore of denying herself, not when Captain America is still alive and Clint Barton’s smile is still Philippa’s favorite thing in the whole wide world, so she just leans in. Lets Clint brush up beside her. Lets herself think that maybe, just maybe, she can keep Clint this time if she just tries.

 

***

 

(Of course trying was never the problem in the first place, but even Philippa Coulson can dream.)

 

***

 

Jasper corners her after the Project Gorgon debrief. “You know, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always had your shit together. Now though, I’m not so sure.”

“Did I leave something out of the debrief?” she asks, and even though Philippa doesn’t forget things like that, she goes to flip through her notes just to make sure. Jasper stops her with a hand to her wrist.

“I’ve known you fifteen years,” he says, “fifteen years, and not once did you ever mention field hockey.”

This is entirely possible. Philippa doesn’t really like talking about herself; she doesn’t see the point. “And you’ve been harboring a secret desire to discuss women’s college field hockey for all this time?”

“Look, I know you and Barton had a thing and I know that he and Morse just broke up again, but I never thought it was serious.” There is genuine concern on Jasper’s face, something soft and earnest around his lips, in the way his eyebrows come together. Philippa knows that Jasper has a good poker face—he wouldn’t be where he is today if he didn’t—but he’s not using it. He’s not talking to her as a colleague, as someone who’s literally held her life in his hands. He’s talking to her as a friend. To someone he wants to be the godmother of his child. “Jesus, Phil, this is some rookie bullshit,” he says, reprimanding her like she’s some Level Two halfwit. “Do you really trust Barton that much?”

And Philippa doesn’t even think about it, just snarls, “Yes,” and rips her hand away from where Jasper still has his fingers on her wrist.

There was a time when Philippa was scared that she would sacrifice everything she ever had, everything she ever worked hard for, just on the hope of Clint. Now, though, she understands that it would be worth it. She understands that she sacrificed her happiness just to push him away and it wasn’t worth it. It so fucking wasn’t worth it. She understands now that to have Clint near, to have him any way she can have him, is a blessing. Is something worth fighting for.

Philippa knows that Jasper is just looking out for her, because Philippa Coulson doesn’t share childhood memories and she doesn’t give her trust away easily and she doesn’t fall in love with assets. But, then again, there’s a first time for everything.

“I didn’t know,” Jasper apologizes, hands held up in retreat, voice soft and honest and a hundred other emotions that Philippa doesn’t understand, doesn’t have the time to dissect. “I didn’t know,” he repeats, but Philippa’s already too far down the hall to really hear him. Jasper isn’t the one she should be talking to about this.

 

***

 

She goes to Clint’s room on base. Natasha doesn’t even look up from where from where she’s carefully replacing all of Clint’s arrowheads with Nerf darts. “He has it coming,” is all she says in defense of herself, before adding, “He’s on the roof.”

Philippa’s just glad that it’s not Nair in anyone’s shampoo again.

 

***

 

Honestly, what Philippa means to say is we need to talk or even, maybe, I’m sorry, but what comes out of her mouth is, “You and Bobbi broke up.”

Clint’s wearing those stupid wraparound sunglasses of his, but they do nothing to mask the incredulity on his face. “Does it matter?” he asks, and his voice was never that controlled back in the day, before Natasha came into the picture. Or maybe it was Philippa who taught him that, how to cover up all the hurts in his voice. She wishes she could see his eyes through those infuriating purple-black lenses.

Philippa shifts her weight, a tell and she knows it, but for years now Clint has been the one person she knows she can trust with the whole of her—cracks and underbelly and seedy past, everything she keeps safe from the world. It seems wrong to hide it now.

 “You broke up with her,” Philippa repeats stupidly. “Again.”

It’s Clint’s turn to shift now, sit up straighter in his chair, dog-ear the page he’s on so he won’t forget. “Yes, well, she had some rather pointed things to say on my character.”

“I’m sure Natasha’s said worse,” Philippa deadpans, working on autopilot, and Clint’s answering smile is small and not quite genuine.

“Natasha never wanted to marry me,” Clint returns, and the truth of it hits Philippa like a physical blow. This whole Clint-Bobbi thing, it’s always been in the periphery, even back when the only thing Philippa wanted out of Clint was his ability to shoot straight. Philippa never knew what had happened to them the first time, can only guess as to why Clint went back to her and Bobbi let him. But for all Philippa’s known about Bobbi Morse, she’s never really understood. The idea of it—of Clint marrying someone else, of Clint not being, in some way, hers—it makes Philippa ill.

When Philippa says, “Not the marrying type, then?” it’s supposed to sound light, uninvested, because this is not a game she is eager to lose, but the words are heavy on her tongue.

Clint runs a hand through his hair. “I like to make promises I know I can keep.” His tone is casual, unaffected, and there is something about the set of his shoulders, the way he leans back into his chair, that suggests this is the truth. That this is something that Clint has come to accept about himself, and he is unafraid.

Philippa, though—well, she’s spent a long time running.

Nick likes to call her his One Good Eye, and Philippa always accuses him of turning sentimental in his old age. The truth of it though is that Philippa thinks the nickname is bullshit. She’s never been good at seeing what’s right in front of her, always too concerned with exit strategies and backup plans. And now she’s forty and she’s never been married and she has a fucking boyfriend who she doesn’t even think will be there when she gets back home, all because one night in New Mexico Philippa was too terrified of the possibility of love so she threw it away in the name of her career.

“Is that all you wanted, ma’am?” Clint asks, when Philippa’s silence lasts too long. There are so many things Philippa wants to say—I miss you and I’m sorry and do you still love me?—but it’s not her place. She never made it her place before, not properly.

So instead she says, “I made a mistake, in New Mexico,” because it’s true and it hurts less to admit now than she thought it would.

Clint picks up his book again and tells her with grim finality, “We all make mistakes.”

 

***

 

That night, Philippa sits at her computer until her back aches, until her eyes burn, until there is nothing more to her than a crick in her neck that won’t go away and carpal tunnel threatening. She’s always preferred the aches she can name.

When she finally gets  home, it’s only after she’s filed her reports and gone through all the papers on her desk and double checked her safe (the one with the lesser secrets, the one where there is a Harry Potter valentine written on in garish pink glitter pen that Clint refuses to cop to). It’s only after she has sat and stared at her notes at Phase Two as if they held the words to fix what is broken.

Philippa doesn’t really have patience for moping, only allows the minimum in herself, so she goes home well after dark and finds that Toby left a message on her landline, we have to talk.

She’ll call him back in the morning, she decides. It’ll be an easy conversation.

 

***

 

Toby moves back to Portland. His residency is up. There was a time when he would have asked Philippa to come with him, but that time has passed. In any case, they both know what her answer would have been.

 

***

 

Three things happen at the same time:

  1. Clint starts to avoid Philippa while somehow keeping her well supplied in caffeine, donuts, and those terrible vending machine Danishes she loves.
  2. NASA finally agrees to help out with Project Pegasus and Philippa is sent to babysit.
  3. Captain America wakes up and, according to reports, punches out a wall.

“You would have loved it, Phil,” Jasper gushes. “They had on this baseball game from 1941and the guy just knew.”

“I called for a status report,” Philippa reminds him sternly. Of course Captain America fucking woke up when Philippa was halfway to a secret SHIELD base in the ass end of the country on a Priority One project. Of course everyone had wanted to know Philippa’s opinions on Captain America’s suit, Steve Rogers muscles, but no one bothered to remember that she wrote her fucking thesis on Captain America and the War Effort. She clutches at her phone to keep from shouting down the line I fucking told you that would happen.

“Yeah, yeah. Selvig’s arriving the day after tomorrow, with Natasha. NASA onsite staff has been briefed, but they haven’t heard any of the Phil Coulson campfire ghost stories, so you might have to taze someone just to make a point. By all accounts they learn quick,” Jasper rattles off, and then, “I’ll take a pic with Cap and send it to you. Wish you were here.”

“If you tell him about the trading cards, I’ll taze you,” Philippa promises. Jasper just laughs.

 

***

 

In a way, Philippa thinks, she’s glad that she’s not back in New York with a freshly woken Steve Rogers. He was her childhood, in a way, fangirl love overlapping with nostalgia and genuine admiration.

Back when she was first handed the Howard Stark file, there were nights where Philippa found herself pouring over his notes, unable to understand the science but fully able to comprehend that even though Howard Stark wrote about Steve Rogers like a science experiment in the early days, there was genuine affection there. Together, Stark and Rogers flew into enemy territory. Together they talked about girls. Together they defeated the greatest threat the American Public never knew about. Howard Stark searched for Steve Rogers for years.

Philippa doesn’t have a lot of friends, doesn’t understand how to give herself out in pieces like, and she thinks that Howard Stark didn’t have a lot of friends either. She understands this, though, the devotion that comes from fighting together, side by side. But to be friends with Howard Stark, to be friends with Captain America, for those two men to be willing to bleed and to create for each other, it does nothing to make Steve Rogers seem less deserving of Philippa’s admiration. To save the world, to sacrifice yourself, to do it all as a flesh and blood human, well, it’s all Philippa’s ever really dreamt about.

Philippa thinks that she needs time before she meets Steve Rogers, officially, because she hasn’t swooned once, a day in her life, but she thinks that for him, she might.

 

***

 

The Project Pegasus site is cavernous and largely empty. There are corridors deep underground, winding passages nothing like clean lines and bright halls of something SHIELD would build. The scientists will come, she knows, in the following days and weeks and months, but for now it’s the skeleton crew and Philippa can walk the hallways, learn the buildings secrets, find space in this concrete bunker to, for the first time in a long time, just breathe.

It was a military building, before NASA, before SHIELD, and the barracks are spartan. Philippa has slept in worse but she still buys herself a pillow from the nearest Target as soon as she can. There’s no reason to develop a crick in her neck if she doesn’t have to.

Philippa stays up late the night before Selvig arrives, planning escape routes and evacuation drills. She has seen men and women crushed under cinder block and stone, and Philippa knows it’s always best to be prepared.

 

***

 

Nick assigns Clint to be Slevig’s security escort, and because he’s a bastard, he just tells Phil, “I made sure to pick someone you wouldn’t hate. Consider it your yearend bonus.”

Selvig, bless him, doesn’t notice the way Philippa’s step falters on the helicopter pad, but she knows that Clint does. Clint has the best eyes in the world. He doesn’t miss anything.

“Agent Barton,” Philippa nods, when it’s appropriate and not a moment sooner.

Clint grins, cocky, it’s his Hawkeye smile, part of this carefully constructed persona that means people like him, but no one gets close. “Ma’am.”

Selvig asks to see his lab, where they’ve set up the Tesseract in the heart of the compound, so Philippa takes him. Clint falls in step with them, crowds into Philippa’s space, lets his hand brush against hers and it’s all Philippa can do not to shudder. Not to grab him by the collar of that non-regulation hoodie and physically shove him against a wall. She wants to hold him down and touch him and tell him she’s sorry, she’s so fucking sorry, tell him that she was scared because women like Philippa aren’t meant to fall in love. She wants to make him understand. She wants him to forgive her. She wants him to want her.

But for all Philippa wants, now it not the time or the place, so instead she tilts her head to the side and says, “We’re going to have a talk later about regulation field uniforms later, Barton,” and catches the edge of Clint’s smile.

 

***

 

There is a knock at the door of what is now Philippa’s office. It’s bigger than hers in New York, but it doesn’t have any windows, and the buzzing of the fluorescent light above her head is threatening to give her a migraine.

“Come in,” she says, finishing up her email to Nick—if you think that I’m going to spend the next couple of months working out of a damn hobbit hole without complaint, you had better come up with another yearend bonus.

“You wanted to talk about me taking off this hoodie, ma’am,” comes Clint’s voice, absolutely wicked, and Philippa is thankful for all of her training that lets her hold her body stock-still.

Through sheer force of will, Philippa reads through her email one last time and clicks send before she raises her eyes. Clint is standing in her doorway, still wearing the damn hoodie. There’s mud on his boots and the material of his cargos is starting to thin at the thighs, his knees. He crosses his arms across his chest when he notices Philippa’s eyes raking across his body, and there is something sly and amused to the twist of his mouth.

“You’re supposed to be representing SHIELD, Barton,” she tells him, because even though she knows, she thinks, what he wants, Philippa doesn’t like to give in, even if it’s what she wants, too. “This isn’t a vacation.”

Clint shrugs. “It was cold on the plane.”

“And now?”

Clint leans against the doorframe, forced casual, but Philippa can feel his eyes burning through her. She feels, in many ways, like a cat basking in the sun. She wonders how she went so long without Clint near. “And now I can take it off, if you want,” he offers, straight faced except for the twinkle in his eye. “Ma’am.”

It’s a challenge, Philippa knows. It’s something Clint would have said to her when possibility still existed between them, naive in its youth. Philippa knows she can scoff if you want to take your clothes off, do it in your own quarters, Barton; that she can tell him, stern, another uniform infraction and I’ll have to write you up, but Philippa is sick of games. She’s sick of being scared. Steve Rogers never told Peggy Carter he loved her, only asked her out when he thought he was going to die. Philippa thinks she can learn from that. That she can do better.

“You’re off the clock now, it’s up to you,” she says. “But next time, Barton, I expect to see you in uniform.”

“Of course, ma’am,” he agrees. “Anything else I can do for you?”

There are whole conversations Philippa wants to have with him, but she doesn’t know how to begin them, doesn’t yet know the words that will make this easier. But, Philippa thinks, there is still possibility between them. Possibility found in the forgiveness at the edge of Clint’s smile. Possibility in acknowledging something that was always there, that never really went away.

“I am sorry, you know,” and it’s easier this time to admit. “I was stupid.”

“I know,” Clint tells her, and there is no accusation in his voice, just acceptance. “I know.”

It is, at least, a beginning.

 

***

 

Project Pegasus is a landmark operation. NASA and SHIELD are working together, for the first time, with some of the best and brightest in the country, in order to ensure that the Earth will never be left defenseless in the face of some alien terror. Phase Two, Philippa knows, is Nick’s primary concern, but the fringe benefits—clean energy, an unlimited fuel source, god knows what else once Selvig starts to dig deeper—are still things worth fighting for.

But striving towards a better tomorrow does nothing to prevent Philippa, two weeks in, from being relentlessly, helplessly, bored. Project Pegasus is largely a research operation, and although prototypes for Phase Two are due soon, Philippa knows that deadlines don’t really mean much at this stage in the game. There is nothing for Philippa to do, it seems, but wait.

“What, are you hoping that the NASA guys stage a mutiny?” Clint asks, feet dangling over the edge of the observation deck. Philippa had come, ostensibly, to make sure that he was doing what they pay him to do, but she’s stayed because all that’s waiting in her office is bad lighting and reports that will take her hours and encyclopedias to get through.

“Not a mutiny, too much paperwork,” she disagrees, “but at least a complaint about the working conditions. The break room coffee. Having to work with a Swede who has terrible taste in menswear. Anything.”

Beside her, Clint dissolves into peals of laughter, which Philippa doesn’t really think is fair considering that if she sees another knit tie/plaid shirt combo, she is clearly have to strangle Selvig. Below them, Philippa can see the faces of scientists looking up, disapproving of any distraction. “Jesus, Coulson,” Clint manages at last. “I forgot you were funny.”

He says it like it’s nothing, a casual observation about the dry wit only the people closest to Philippa claim she possesses, but it makes something inside of her to ache. She knows it’s her own fault, though, that she pushed Clint far enough away that he forgot how to see her, past Philippa Coulson to just plain, old Phil.

“I don’t know how, I’ve been voted Funniest Senior Agent three years running,” Philippa tells him straight-faced. There’s no use in bringing up past failings.

 “I must not have properly read my SHIELD yearbook,” Clint agrees, still smiling. “Did I get anything?”

“Biggest flirt," Philippa replies, unthinking in the way that she only is around Clint. Something in Clint’s face falters, and she worries that she made a misstep, but then Clint is smiling again, soft and sweet and a little sad, knocking his shoulder against hers.

“It’s only for you, Coulson,” he tells her sincerely, eyes steady, and Philippa finds herself unable to look back. “You know that, right?”

It’s taken her a long time, too long, to work this all out, but when Philippa says, “I know,” leaning back against the solid muscle of Clint, she means it.

And there are so many things that Clint could say to that, all of Philippa’s mistakes that he could lay out, but instead he just shifts, weight leaning more firmly against Philippa, hand shifting so his pinky brushes against hers.

“Okay,” he tells her, and for now it is enough.

 

***

 

It’s quiet in the nest in a way the roof in New York never was, with its broken TV and the sounds lazy Manhattan afternoons drifting upwards. There is no sunshine here and no terrible beer, but there is still Clint and Philippa finds comfort in that, in her safe space being wherever Clint hides himself away.

And here, deep underground, hidden away from the world, it feels like a fresh start. Something new, just Clint and Philippa without SHIELD getting in the way. If this is where Philippa spends her breaks now, high above where Erik Selvig works, Clint beside her, eyes like a hawk, then it’s nobody’s business but her own.

 

***

 

(The scientists don’t really like Clint; he makes them nervous.

“That Hawk of yours, he sees everything, doesn’t he?” Selvig asks one day, not really a question, and Philippa can’t be bothered to figure out the meaning behind his words because all she can hear is mine, mine, mine with the beating of her heart.

“Yes,” Philippa agrees. “Everything.”)

 

***

 

When Clint says, “I missed you, you know,” in lieu of nothing, words hanging between them in the middle of the night, it feels like the first time Philippa’s taken a breath in months.

She puts her hand on his, unafraid now, and admits, “I never should have left.”

Clint lets her hand stay. Something like hope stirs in the empty chambers of Philippa’s heart.

 

***

 

Fury gives everyone two weeks off at the beginning of summer, a moment of altruism no doubt prompted by Maria. Philippa is one of the handful of people who elect to stay behind. There is nothing waiting for her in New York. The only things she cares about in the world are here.

 

***

 

If anyone asked a twenty-year-old Philippa what the most important things in her life were, she would have said, family. She would have said the same thing at thirty, too, but by then it would have felt like a lie. By then Philippa had signed her soul over to SHIELD and had given up on ever being able to break in a nice pair of heels when she found herself, so often, chasing down gunman for the good of her country.

But country, Philippa thinks now, is a hollow thing. She has seen children starving on every continent and she has seen an alien god destroy a small town. Serving her country—serving Nick Fury—is a means to an end. It’s a way to help the world, to keep the bad things at bay, so that honest, hard working people, like her sister, like Toby, can make the world a better place. It’s ultimately an idealistic and sentimental world-view, but, then again, Philippa was always the little girl with a Captain America poster above her bed because she liked the idea of patriotism more than she ever liked his dimpled smile.

Sometimes, though, when Philippa catches the edge of Clint’s smile—the one that makes his eyes light up and her knees go weak, the one that Philippa knows is all for her—she can’t help but think that the most important thing in her life is him.

 

***

 

Really, for all the buildup, it should be a lot more climactic in the end than it actually is.

 

***

 

There are fireworks on the Fourth of July. The nearest town is miles away, but the night is dark and the sky is clear and across the mountains Philippa can see fireworks in the distance like sparks. It’s peaceful in a way most things in her life are not.

Everyone on base is still gone on break, the compound like a ghost town, cement hallways echoing with Philippa’s footsteps. Part of her thinks that she could have gone to Montana, but Philippa’s finding it harder these days to pretend she understands civilian life. So instead she winds up here, sprawled in the grass, base well behind her and night sky open above her.

“Don’t you usually spend Fourth of July holed up with Captain America movies?” Clint asks, and for all Philippa didn’t hear him coming, she’s not surprised he followed her out here.

“I came to watch the fireworks,” Philippa tells him, tilting her head towards the mountains, red sparking behind them like they dream of becoming volcanoes. She did, in fact, spend the day curled up with her laptop watching old propaganda films, like she does every year, but there’s only so long that she can watch them now without her mind wandering to thoughts of a now awake Steve Rogers.

Philippa can feel Clint settle in the grass beside her, his shoulder ghosting against her own. She shivers at the touch, doesn’t try to hide it.

“Natasha says we should talk about it,” Clint says in lieu of nothing.

“Natasha is a gossip,” Philippa informs him, but there’s no heat to it; they do need to talk. Natasha doesn’t hand out living advice to just anybody. She can feel Clint shrug beside her, but Philippa doesn’t turn to look at him. This, here, already, is almost too much for her

 “When Bobbi left, she said that it was cruel of me to keep stringing her along.” Clint admits, eyes on the sky above him.

“The first time or the second?”

And Philippa still isn’t looking at him, so she has no idea what kind of face Clint has when he answers, “Both, actually,” but he sounds resigned and amused and, maybe, a bit sad.

“Why’d you go back to her then?” Philippa asks, only realizing now that she’s angry. That when she came back from New Mexico, heartbroken by her own insecurity, there was a part of her hoping that maybe things would turn out okay. Maybe she and Clint could work through their (her) collective shit and get on with it. But then Clint fell back into bed with Bobbi, and all Philippa could think was that she was just going to end up being another notch on his bedpost, so maybe she’d actually done the right thing.

When Clint doesn’t answer, Philippa thinks that maybe he’s just trying to figure out how to say everything she’s always feared—that Clint looked at Philippa and saw a leggy blonde with a tazer, and what guy who lived on the edge wouldn’t want to try and tap that, at least once? But, then—

“You never looked at me any differently. That night after you came back from Malibu, I thought things would be different. And then after New Mexico,” Clint pauses, moves so he’s sitting up straighter, “you just kept on looking at me the same and it was like nothing had ever changed and I thought—I thought that I’d made everything up.”

“Clint,” she says, straightening as well, “you are the only person who has ever looked at me and seen Philippa,” which is so painfully true it hurts. She’s Phil and Coulson and Agent and Pip and they’re all her names, they’re each a part of her, but they’ve never been the whole of her. “I never looked at you any differently because I never felt any different.”

She looks at Clint now, because if she can admit all that then she can do anything, but Clint flinches like a spooked cat. Philippa doesn’t reach out because she’s not sure what a man with Clint’s training would do, so instead she says, “I was scared, in New Mexico. I’ve never wanted something so much,” and something in Clint’s posture settles.

He looks at her then, quirks his eyebrow. “Something?”

It’s only years of training that stops Philippa’s flush. “Well, someone.”

Clint laughs, simple and happy, “Coulson—” but Philippa’s had enough of words and she’s sick of over thinking things, so whatever Clint’s going to say is lost in the night to the press of Philippa’s lips to his. She can feel him startle, just a second of confusion, before he’s kissing her back, hand fisting in her hair.

Philippa can feel his smile against her mouth and when she pulls back—to breathe, to ask if this is okay—he just sighs, “Phil.”

It turns out, that’s all she ever needed to hear.

 

***

 

They make out in the grass like teenagers, fireworks sounding like distant thunder from the other side of the mountains. The grass is damp with dew, but Clint is warm and his mouth is soft and his fingers are rough and there’s nowhere Philippa would rather be.

 

***

 

Philippa says, hands tracing the line of Clint’s hip, “I’m not having sex with you in a field,” and she means it. Been there, done that, lived to regret it in the morning. She’s not as young as she once was.

Philippa can feel the laugh that punches out of Clint though her thighs, her skirt rucked up and no doubt hideously wrinkled. “Why, Phil, I’m not that kind of boy.”

“Well, I’m that kind of girl,” Philippa admits, kissing away any further protests.

 

***

 

When they make it inside, Clint kisses her, hungry and desperate, against the wall of her room, Philippa’s legs wrapped around his waist. It’s sloppy and undignified, but they’ve both waited so long that it doesn’t really matter. That it couldn’t really happen any other way.

Philippa scrapes at Clint’s shoulders, bites her way down his neck, and thinks that she would like to be a whole lot more naked. But this, Clint’s breath hot in her ear, his clever fingers and those thighs—well, Philippa sort of figures that there’s always next time.

 

***

 

They fall asleep on her bed, only because Philippa knows, deep down, that if they fall asleep on the floor, they will both regret it in the morning. Clint sleeps on his belly, face buried in the pillow, one arm thrown out across Philippa’s waist, proprietary.

This, Philippa thinks, sleepy and satiated, this is what happy feels like.

 

***

 

There should be a freak out, Philippa thinks in the morning. It should be weird and strange and like New Mexico all over again but worse, so much worse, because now she knows how Clint tastes, now she knows the sound he makes when she rakes her fingernails up his spine, how his knees go weak when she kisses him, soft and only a little dirty.

But this isn’t New Mexico and Philippa’s changed and Clint’s arm is still across her waist, but he’s turned himself around in the middle of the night so he’s curled up against her side. I should say something, Philippa thinks, I should make sure this is okay.

“You’re the one who has to tell Natasha,” Clint says, voice rough with sleep, eyes not even open yet, “if that’s what you’re freaking out about.”

“I’m not freaking out,” she tells him, prim. “I’m just awake.”

Clint cranes his head at that, looking for her clock, and groans when he sees the time. “It’s seven,” he tells her, aggrieved, tucking his head into the crook of her neck. “And we’re still on vacation.”

“Only for two more days,” she reminds him, but she doesn’t actually try to get out of bed. Instead, she tucks herself tighter against Clint, presses her back against his chest, holds his hand to her heart. “And we’ll have to get up eventually.”

“I’m sleeping,” Clint tells her, presses a kiss to the knob of her spine, and Philippa thinks that maybe things won’t be like New Mexico at all.

 

***

 

(“Seriously, though,” Clint says hours later when they finally stagger out of bed. “You’re the one who has to tell Natasha. My heart can’t take that much gloating.”

“Sure,” Philippa agrees magnanimously, taking a sip of her coffee, curling her toes against Clint’s leg under the table, “only if you tell Fury.”

Clint spills coffee all over himself. It’s totally worth it.)

 

***

 

Part of Philippa thinks that it should be more of a thing, that the world should rearrange itself and Philippa should somehow be fundamentally different because now she’s having sex with Clint Barton.

She’s not really surprised, though, that things are mostly the same. Except now, Philippa can kiss her apologies into Clint’s skin. Can tuck herself, small and fragile, against his side and know that she is safe. Philippa gave Clint all of her secrets, long ago, an eye for an eye, and it is so natural now, to give him her heart. To let him have the whole of her.

“I wanted to do this since the day I met you,” Clint admits in the night, peeling Philippa out of her stockings, kissing the soft skin of her thighs.

And Philippa was not ready then, but she is now. “You better make up for lost time then,” she tells him, and Clint laughs.

 

***

 

Scientists slowly filter back onto base. There’s talk about finishing up the first Phase Two prototype. Clint calls Philippa ma’am in the halls and Phil in the privacy of their rooms. It’s easier now, this assignment, somehow, even though it wasn’t that difficult to begin with.

At long last, Philippa doesn’t feel alone. She doesn’t feel lonely.

 

***

 

Philippa has to take a quick trip to New York to deal with her other, less important, projects.

Jasper takes one look at her in the hallway outside Meeting Room C and says, “What’s different?”

“You’re early, for once,” she tells him, dry, and steadfastly ignores Jasper’s curious gaze for the entire presentation on why SHIELD shouldn’t pull the plug on Project Why Did Anyone Ever Fund This In The First Place.

“You get to fire someone?” Jasper guesses afterwards during their lunch break, “Tazed Alvarez? Walked in on Parsells and Woo in a passionate embrace?” Philippa just smiles blandly and Jasper sighs viciously. “You wouldn’t even tell me if I guess correctly, would you?”

“No,” Philippa agrees, “I wouldn’t.”

Jasper doesn’t even look disgruntled, just takes a bite of his tuna fish sandwich and tries, “Changed dry cleaners?”

 

***

 

Natasha, on the other hand, just takes one look at Philippa and decides, “Good.”

Philippa is rather inclined to agree.

 

***

 

Clint picks her up at the airport when she gets back, coffee and doughnuts in hand. “Miss me, ma’am?”

“If I say no, do I still get the doughnuts?”

“Who said that you were getting any at all?” Clint retorts, not missing a beat. Philippa lets her hand brush against his, lets herself sag a little, weary from travel.

When she says, “I missed you,” it doesn’t feel like a confession ripped from her chest, but a truth meant to be given.

When Clint says, “I missed you too,” it feels a bit like coming home.

 

***

 

Things, of course, go to shit soon after that.

 

***

 

“I’d like permission to be on point for the search and rescue team,” Philippa says, straight backed, hands balled into fists behind her back, nails digging into her palms, and it’s all she can do to keep it together.

“I’ve got a fucking alien sociopath on the loose, Cheese, and you want to help clean up?” Nick asks, dangerously close to losing it. Project Pegasus isn’t anything more than one big hole in the ground and Philippa knows that the official death toll is already at seven, never a good sign.

“Yes, boss,” Philippa tells him, “I do.”

She can deal with Clint compromised, he can come back from that—they can come back from that. Dead, though, Philippa doesn’t even know what she’d do if he were dead. She doesn’t even want to think about it.

Nick’s looking at her like he’s never seen her before, eye searching from some sort of answer in the set of her jaw, the line of her shoulders. Philippa’s made a career for herself being unreadable. Nick’s good, but he’s not that good. “Fucking why?”

There is no real way to tell Nick everything Philippa feels about Clint Barton, no way to convey how his absence—his death or his betrayal or his kidnapping, it’s too soon to tell which way the chips fell—already feels like she’s been stabbed in the heart.

But then Maria’s there, blood on her cheek and fire in her eyes, “Just let her, sir. She needs to do it.” Philippa has never talked to Maria about anything other than work, but Maria’s looking at her like she understands.

Nick rubs a hand over his face, “We’re going to have a talk about fraternization regs later, Coulson,” he promises, “but do what you have to.”

 

***

 

If the loss of the Tesseract is unacceptable, then Philippa doesn’t even want to know what that makes the death toll so far. But Clint’s body is not underneath the rubble; she lets that victory carry her.

 

***

 

It is, perhaps, indecent, the way Nick’s face lights up when he says, “Looks like we’re going to have to assemble the Avengers.”

 

***

 

The circumstances are perhaps not optimal to meet her childhood hero. Philippa embarrasses herself terribly, blurts out that she watched him when he was sleeping and thinks that Steve Rogers is exactly the way she’d always thought he’d be—kind and polite and entirely unfazed by a Level Seven senior agent confessing I helped make some changes to your uniform, like a schoolgirl with a crush.

Clint is never going to let her hear the end of this.

 

***

 

(She does end up asking him to sign her trading cards. She’s only human.)

 

***

 

There are, according to Nick Fury, the greatest men and women in all the world sitting on this helicarrier—Tony Stark and Captain America and Dr. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov and an alien god called Thor. But Clint is still missing and Loki still has the Tesseract and none of them can pull their heads out of their asses long enough to realize that this isn’t about them.

She can hear them arguing over her comms, petty, like children. They all have things they love in this world, Philippa thinks. Pepper Potts and Jane Foster and Manhattan. Baseball and capitalism and family.

This will never work, she thinks, seconds before the helicarrier explodes.

This will never work, Philippa thinks, unless.

 

***

 

She doesn’t really know what Phase Two does. Testing wasn’t scheduled for another month. It doesn’t really matter at this point anyways.

 

***

 

“You’re going to lose,” she tells Loki. She can’t feel her legs anymore but she is unafraid.

He turns to her, amused. “Am I?”

“It’s in your nature,” she agrees, thinks that maybe if she can taunt him, hold him here, then things don’t have to get worse before they get better.

“Your heroes are scattered, your floating fortress falls from the sky,” he tells her and Philippa thinks that he learned nothing from New Mexico. “Where is my disadvantage?”

And, well, Philippa knows the answer to that question. “You lack conviction,” she tells him, and pulls the trigger.

 

***

 

There is no pain. By the time that Nick gets to her, there is no pain.

“It’s okay boss,” she tells him—her recruiter, her friend. There is darkness slipping into the edges of her vision. Her heart aches with its dying beats. “This was never going to work if they didn’t have something to...”

She doesn’t have the breath to finish.

That’s okay. She can be the martyr, just as long as Clint survives.

The darkness, at least, doesn’t hurt.

 

***

 

Waking up would be more of a surprise if everything didn’t hurt so badly. Someone’s fingers are in her hair, soft. There are machines beeping, steady, to the left and to the right. Philippa’s chest aches.

Safe, she figures, too tired to open her eyes, and drifts back to sleep.

 

***

 

When she wakes up again, Clint is holding her hand.

The room is white, sterile, and familiar from a long career of getting beaten up. There is a SHIELD logo stamped on the front of the heart monitor. There is a guard outside her door. Clint is next to her, chair pulled close, and he smiles, soft, when Philippa blinks up at him.

“Nice of you to join us,” he tells her.

She wants to reach out, to touch, to smooth away the worry that creases his face, but she finds she can’t. Everything aches. Her arms feel weak. She squeezes Clint’s hand as best she can, instead. Clint smiles a bit brighter.

“You’re okay,” she says, the only words that come to mind. The only thing that matters. She does not know what she’d do if she woke up and found Clint dead, found him too compromised to come back. She doesn’t let herself think about it.

“Of course,” he presses a kiss to the back of her hand. Her skin is sallow, pale. She wonders how much time has passed. “Natasha helped me out.”

Philippa smiles. “I’m glad you’re here.” She’s sleepy again, already.

“Nowhere else I’d rather be,” he tells her. “Go back to sleep.”

She doesn’t bother telling him stay. Philippa knows that Clint isn’t going anywhere.

 

***

 

Doctors come by and tell her she’s lucky to be alive, like Philippa didn’t feel the press of the blade break her ribs, slice through her heart. Like Philippa doesn’t remember baiting a god. They tell her she’s lucky to work for SHIELD, to have their medical backing. Philippa kindly doesn’t point out that none of this would have happened to her if she had a nice, normal job—it doesn’t matter. Philippa wouldn’t change a damn thing about what happened on the helicarrier. Philippa wouldn’t change a thing about her life.

 

***

 

Natasha and Jasper bring flowers. Both of them promise her that if Philippa ever pulls a stunt like that again, they’ll kill her.

Nick comes by and says, “Glad to see you’re feeling better, Cheese,” from the doorway, but he doesn’t step inside. Clint looks like he knows what that’s about, but he also looks like he’s not going to talk about it. Philippa is too tired to push. She knows the answers will come with time. They always do.

 

***

 

When Maria Hill stops by and Clint voluntarily leaves Philippa’s side, she knows that something is definitely up.

“I’m assuming no one’s told you anything,” Maria says, standing at the foot of Philippa’s bed. She’s wearing a soft looking sweater and pencil skirt. It is the first time in years that Philippa’s seen Maria out of uniform.

Philippa shakes her head no and Maria sighs. “Well, technically you’re dead,” she reaches into her purse and pulls out a plastic baggy filled with something rust red. “At least, you were.” Maria tosses the bag to Philippa, and now she can make out a set of Captain America trading cards, a little foxed around the edges, dyed in blood.

“These are mine?” Philippa asks, already knowing the answer. She’s always been so proud of her collection.

“Fury has always had a flair for the dramatic,” Maria frowns, “He wanted to keep you dead, to give the Avengers something to keep fighting for.”

It makes sense. In her hands, Steve Rogers’ smile shines out from underneath Philippa’s blood. Her stomach turns at the idea that she was the symbol her childhood hero needed to fight the good fight.

“The Director and I don’t always see eye to eye,” Maria goes on.

And Philippa deduces, “You told Clint.”

Maria shrugs. “He was your medical proxy. I was only following procedure.” There is a moment where Philippa thinks that they’re going to have to talk about their feelings, but then Maria turns, hand on the doorknob of Philippa’s room. “I expect to see you back at work the second medical clears you,” she says, something final in her tone.

Philippa just smiles, glad, at least, to know where she stands, “Yes, ma’am.”

 

***

 

There are a lot of questions to be answered, about the Avengers and SHIELD and Nick Fury and the rebuilding of Manhattan, but when Clint curls up along Philippa’s side, in the narrow hospital bed and asks, “So I’m your medical proxy, huh. When’d that happen?” Philippa figures that those questions can wait.

“When you saved my life in Kabul,” she tells him, the truth. She’s always trusted Clint Barton with the whole of her, it’s just that now the idea of it has stop scaring her. “It’s always been you,” she admits. It’s foolish how long it’s taken them to get here.

“Yeah?” Clint asks, and Philippa answers the only way she can—presses a kiss to his lips, chaste and soft and honest, to make him understand.

“Okay,” he tells her, voice rough, and all Philippa can hear is I love you.

“Okay,” she smiles back. I love you too.

 

 

Epilogue:

 

Philippa can hear Tony Stark in the living room, loud as ever. He’s over for dinner with Pepper, despite the protests of both him and Clint. Consider it a team building exercise, she had told Clint, unsympathetic to his plight. She’s starting to question her decision making a little, though.

“So do you really look at Coulson, five foot terrifying, taze you as soon as look at you, and think, yeah, I’d tap that?” Tony asks, bulldozing over Pepper’s protests.

Philippa walks back into her living room—their living room, with Christmas cacti on the windowsill and framed Captain America posters on the wall and purple throw pillows on the couch—just in time to catch Clint’s smile, wicked and charming and hers, all hers. “Yeah,” he says, catching Philippa’s eye, “I really do.”