It hits him late one night, not exactly out of the blue but more like something that's been tickling at the back of his mind lately and has only now surfaced. Phil's been acting weird lately. Just little things, but weird all the same.
He's not weird now, sitting on the other side of Nick's desk, typing steadily, laptop balanced on his knees. This is normal, the two of them in Nick's office, going through mission reports and bitching about the Council. Phil has a fresh bruise over his left eye, but that's normal, too, op got a little more intense than expected. Maybe he's imagining stuff.
Phil yawns and closes his laptop. Nick doesn't bother hiding the fact that he's staring and Phil meets his eye briefly and then looks down, fiddles with the laptop cord.
"I, um. Do you want to get some dinner?" he asks, looking somewhere in the region of Nick's chest.
Nick stares at him, mind running through possible explanations for this weirdness, and answers automatically, "Didn't I see you grab a BLT from the canteen, earlier?"
Phil looks at him blankly and then down at the damn laptop again, smiling thinly at something Nick doesn't get. "Yeah, sure, I just. Nevermind." He stands, and starts gathering his papers.
"Agent," Nick says and it's a relief when Phil looks him, gaze steady, familiar. He leans back in the chair, just a little. Phil puts his papers down carefully and lets his hands fall to his sides, fingers clenched like there's something he needs to grab hold of.
Sometimes, Nick wonders if Phil will make him ask, but tonight he just comes round Nick's desk. Sinks to his knees as Nick spreads his legs to let Phil between them and this isn't weird, this is them, like it's been for years now.
Phil leaves, saying "See you, boss," and everything should feel normal.
SHIELD hq coming under attack isn't weird as much as deeply annoying, especially today since Nick's hit by a piece of the roof as who-the-fuck-ever blasts their way in and is unconscious while Phil and the other agents on site neutralize the intruders.
He comes to seeing Phil stare down at him with a strangely blank expression and the medics have to push him out of the way to get to Nick. That is kind of weird, but Nick's too busy thinking of the fit he's going to throw if the council ever gets on him for spending too much on security, and doesn't really dwell on it.
Later, Nick signs himself out of medical, and is rewarded with Phil's most disapproving glare. It's somewhat less effective on Nick than on his subordinates, given that he learnt it from Nick in the first place.
Phil keeps hovering during the walk through hq, when they get to Nick's office, and as Nick changes his clothes. When Nick takes off the shoulder brace medical gave him Phil draws breath to protest, but shuts up when Nick raises his eyebrow at him.
"When's the last time you got some sleep?"
Phil just shrugs. "Don't know," he says, not meeting Nick's eye. "Look, it doesn't matter."
"Agent," Nick says, making it a warning. That makes Phil look at him, at least. There's something sullen and defeated about the way he's curled in on himself, so far from the usual agent Coulson cool.
"I'm ok," Nick says, thinking that he sounds really unconvincing. "It worked out fine, everything's ok."
"Yeah," Phil says, "I just." He cuts himself off, swallows and just like that Nick knows what he's asking for.
Nick can feel the headache from the fading adrenaline rush coming on, and he's pretty sure this is a terrible idea. Saying so would mean talking about it, so he keeps his mouth shut. He's had enough weird to last a lifetime.
He keeps his gaze locked at Phil as he methodically clears what little is on his desk. Phil's eyes are dark, unguarded with exhaustion and Nick feels like he's stealing something by seeing him like this.
Phil takes his suit jacket of and hangs it on the back of the visitor's chair before coming round Nick's desk. They don't really look at each other as they get their pants undone. Looking's not a big part of this.
After, Nick rests his forehead on Phil's shoulder for a moment, hears him pant as he comes down. He gets his own breathing under control and tries not to think about touching, how he could slide his hand under Phil's shirt to stroke along his side, touch skin instead of his rumpled clothes. Then he straightens before Phil can say anything about it. They get cleaned up and dressed in silence.
Just as he's about to step out the door, Phil turns to him. "When did you last sleep, boss?"
Nick keeps his face neutral. "That's classified, agent."
Phil smiles and shakes his head and then he's gone.
Couple of weeks later, and Nick's the one acting weird. At least he's aware of it.
They're in his office again and he has Phil pinned against the wall. Phil's usually so quiet, but now he's gasping as Nick jerks him roughly, making little bitten-off moans. Nick stares at the blood in his hairline that didn't quite get washed off before they put the stitches in and remembers how it had looked when they got Phil out of the 'jet, pale and blood-soaked. It doesn't make sense, he's seen Phil look far worse, but he can't get it out of his head.
Over the years, they've had a lot of close calls, a lot of these moments, getting each other off high on adrenaline and smelling like blood. They don't talk about it and they don't look at each other.
Phil shudders and closes his eyes when he comes and Nick yanks him closer so he can rut against his hip, coming all too quickly.
They stay like that, panting and not looking at each other. And then Nick finds himself drawing back a little to look at Phil. He sees, as if from a distance, himself reaching out to run his knuckles down the uninjured side of Phil's face, like he's a puppet on some fucked-up puppet-master's string but when he leans in to kiss Phil, the only thing he can think of is how much he wants this.
They kiss clumsily for a long while, Phil clutching at Nick's shirt. They only look at each other when the sound of someone hurrying past in the corridor breaks the spell. Then they scramble to get their clothes is some sort of order and they're probably way too old for stuff like this.
Phil's is starting to get the pinched look that comes with pain and exhaustion. He touches the cut on his head gingerly, looking a little bewildered, and Nick has to smile.
"Hey," he says, touching Phil's shoulder, "Go get some rest. Report can wait."
"Yeah," Phil says sounding a little absent-minded, and then he looks up at Nick, smiling lopsidedly and it makes Nick at the same time worried and happy. "Sure thing, boss."
Nick clicks off the call and wishes for an old-fashioned phone he could slam down. The fucking council and fucking insurgents and fucking having to notify Gutierrez' next-of-kin.
Phil's standing opposite his desk and Nick can't look at him right now. Mostly, he finds Phil's bland suits and general air of unflappability calming, but tonight the sight of him is unnerving. He knows he made the right call, sending Gutierrez and his team out, just like he will send Phil out when needed and sometimes the right call doesn't mean a happy end. And the Director of SHIELD can't afford to think along those lines.
"Boss," Phil says after a long silence and all Nick can think is don't come close to me, don't make me care. But, yeah. It's a little late for that.
"Boss," Phil says again and Nick forces himself to look at him, which is a mistake, because Phil looks sad and worried and it's not helping with Nick's tangled feelings at all.
He's working himself up to some kind of outburst that will hurt Phil sufficiently to make him back the hell off, but Phil just says "Let's head out, car's on its way." Nick goes with him.
Nick hasn't had anything resembling a real home in years. He stays at hq most nights and when he needs to get out of there he goes to one of the safe-houses not currently in use. Phil kept an apartment for a while, but eventually someone cottoned on and there was some minor explosions and a messy situation with the neighbours.
It wasn't something they discussed, they just happened to need a place to stay at the same time a couple of years back. They've been using this place for a while now, and it's pretty much the size of a postage stamp, but it's close by.
They don't talk in the car, don't really talk once they're inside either. Nick keeps writing the letter to Gutierrez' family over and over in his head. I regret to inform you. He'd seen something of himself in that kid, frustrated with army politics, getting desperate to be seen as something other than a statistic. He'd given him the SHIELD sales pitch and felt like he'd done a good thing, bringing him over. He's lost a lot of good people over the years, and it's not likely to end anytime soon. There are no safe runs in his business and the day he starts looking for them is the day the other guys win.
Phil's paid for the takeout and is setting out food and beer. With his suit jacket off and his shirt-sleeves rolled up he somehow looks more undressed and vulnerable that he does naked. Nick watches him move methodically, seeing the strength so many overlook. Dear mrs Coulson, I regret to inform you.
He grabs Phil by the shoulder to turn him so they can kiss. It's still new, rare enough that Phil makes a surprised noise before kissing back. It feels like dangerous territory, kissing just for the sake of it, and Nick doesn't really believe himself when he thinks he could end this anytime.
They eat in silence, shuffling takeout boxes back and forth on the table in front of the couch, tv turned on to a game they're not watching, because it's one of those nights when silence makes them jumpy.
Nick watches Phil eats with exaggerated care not to get food on his shirt, never mind that there are at least three shirts fresh from the dry-cleaners in the wardrobe, because Phil has this thing about his shirts and food stains, and that's when it hits him.
"You've been, what, asking me out?" It sounds even more ridiculous when he says it out loud. "All those questions about grabbing dinner."
"No," Phil says defensively and immediately blushes. He's very focused on picking up a prawn and it takes him a while before he turns to look at Nick.
"Just stop hogging the fried rice, and I'll eat with you anytime," Nick says, nudging Phil's knee with his own, and for a moment there's a naked relief on Phil's face that he doesn't know how to handle.
Sleeping together was tricky at first. They're used to it now, staying on their respective sides of the bed, because a spy who wakes suddenly when someone throws an arm over him is likely to react badly. It's not like they're big on cuddling, anyway.
When either of them wakes from a nightmare there's an unspoken agreement not to talk about it. They know pretty well what kind of things come back to haunt you.
Tonight, Nick wakes when Phil is already out of bed, heading for the bathroom. There's a grey morning light coming through the blinds and he checks the time while listening to the water running, Phil splashing his face.
Phil comes back to sit on the edge of the bed, staring ahead of him, keeping his hands perfectly still on his knees. Nick can guess what the dream was about. Phil's only two weeks out of deep cover, the kind of ops he rarely does nowadays.
There was no exotic location this time, just some homegrown white supremacists with a suspicious amount of resources and tech. There wasn't anything elegant about the way it went down, it got vicious and bloody, but it's dealt with now.
Nick watches Phil's back, hears how his breaths are still a little shaky. What he usually does is leave Phil to deal with it and try to get a couple more hours of sleep. Tonight he shuffles a little closer, making sure to move noisily since Phil seems lost in his own thoughts and spooking him when he's like that is not a good idea. He reaches out to touch Phil's shoulder, stroke slowly down his back.
"What's the time?" Phil says after a while.
"Two-fifty." He's still touching Phil's back, rubbing in small circles now.
Phil closes his eyes tightly for a moment and then turns to look at Nick. His eyes are still distant, not really Phil.
"I think I'm gonna head in to work." Phil says, fiddling with the twisted sheet. "Probably won't sleep any more tonight anyway."
Nick takes his hand and doesn't say anything, just tugs a little. Phil looks puzzled and Nick would rather throw himself out of a window than say it, so he tugs again.
Phil looks a little stunned, but at least he doesn't laugh. Nick scoots back to give him some room and Phil lies down stiffly, fitting his back to Nick's front as they lie on their sides.
Nick doesn't really know what to do with his arm, so he drapes it over Phil's side. Then he remembers the bruises still visible over the curve of Phil's ribs, and lifts his arm to just hover awkwardly, not sure where to touch.
"Does it hurt?" he asks, but before he's finished speaking Phil has taken hold of his hand, drawing Nick's arm tightly around himself.
"S'ok," Phil says quietly.
They stay like that until morning and it takes Nick forever to relax and he can't really sleep like this. But Phil sleeps a little, fitfully and Nick keeps holding him and he finds he doesn't mind at all.
Phil's looking so utterly miserable and disgruntled where he sits across Nick's desk that Nick can't stop himself from laughing.
"I fail to see anything amusing about this," Phil says haughtily, narrowing his eyes at Nick.
"C'mon, it's adorable," Nick says, "It's like you're the dad and Barton's the kid bringing home a stray puppy. Did he promise to care for her all by himself?"
"It's not," Phil starts but then throws his hands up in frustration, "Never mind." He looks at the desk like it's insulted him and Nick can't help enjoying seeing him so flustered, it's a rare sight and he can pretend it's something only he gets to see.
"Hey," Nick says, serious again, "You know as well as I do that Widow would be a great asset. Red Room's not looking out for her any more, she'd be up for other offers anyway."
"Sure," Phil says, "It's just that we have no hope in hell of containing her, so forgive me for worrying just a little."
Nick shrugs. "If you really think she's a threat we'll deal with it, I promise. But I don't think she'd be here if she didn't want to." He looks over at Phil who nods, still hesitant. He waits for Phil to make a decision.
"I don't know," Phil says after a while, "Her and Barton, I guess there was something. I don't know."
"We'll play it as it comes along then?" Nick asks and gets a reluctant nod in return. Phil's suit's stained with something Nick strongly suspects is mud from the Pest and he really looks just like a frazzled dad. Nick decides to keep that thought to himself.
They sit in silence a little longer before Phil sighs again, more tired than frustrated this time.
"I should go get cleaned up," he says, getting up. Nick's very tempted to just let him go, but he promised himself he'd ask as soon as Phil got back.
"Uh," he says just as Phil's turning to leave. "I wanted to ask you." Ah, screw it. "My sister's in town."
"For a few days," Nick continues before he can change his mind. "With her kids. And her husband."
"Ok," Phil says, and there's something guarded about the way he speaks, "I'll step in if you need to take a day off, you know that."
"Yeah, uh, no, I was gonna ask if you wanted to come to dinner. Tomorrow."
"Sure," Phil says immediately and there's a small smile he can't quite keep down.
"Ok," Nick says, smiling back, just for a second. Then he makes himself snap out of it. "Get changed, or something, you're getting mud all over the place."
Phil grins. "You got it, boss."
Nick changes into a suit jacket and a pair of glasses with an opaque left lens before they leave to meet the others at the restaurant. He's comfortable in his coat and eye-patch in most situations, but this is his bossy little sister. She's a lawyer and thinks Nick is a mid-level ATF agent and loves trying to sort out his career and lack of personal life. There's really no need to give her more ammunition.
"This is Phil," he tells her after she's finished hugging him and there's a cold sense of dread that he won't be able to go through with it, that he will just say we work together and the thing is, Phil would never say anything, wouldn't show any disappointment.
Becca just talks right over him, though, telling Phil it's great he could join them and waving to the servers for another seat while at the same time introducing her husband and Nick's niece and nephew. None of them even bat an eyelid.
They're halfway through the meal before Nick can relax, and then he suddenly feels like he's surfacing after being underwater. Phil's across the table, apparently discussing hockey with Nick's niece, and he looks like he always does, kind of small and unassuming. Their eyes meet for a moment and after all these years he just needs that quick look to know it's ok, they're ok. Curry's kind of strong, now that he can actually taste it.
Mostly they just make small talk, catch up, but it never feels strained, just easy and familiar. The kids are doing well, of course, and Becca brags a little, which makes them roll their eyes and go Moom. They even talk about New York real estate prices, and it's such a ridiculously normal topic of conversation that Nick has to fight the urge to smile. He hears himself say "Yeah, we just have one bedroom," and it's kind of not a lie, he realizes.
They don't stay late, and when they say goodbye Becca gives Phil a kiss on the cheek and tells him it was nice to meet, and take care. Phil's blushing and stumbles a little before he can answer her. Then she hugs Nick tightly and gives him a look that clearly says what did I tell you.
The restaurant's not far from the apartment and they end up walking back, mostly in silence. There's a lot of people out and Nick's struck by how unreal it all feels. This is part of what he works so hard to protect, the evening crowd. He hasn't belonged to this world in a long time, but he's borrowing a bit of it tonight.
They're nearly home and Nick's telling how Becca would hug his leg when she was little and didn't want Nick to go back when he'd been home on leave, when Phil stops abruptly.
"I don't really go home, anymore," he says, looking first at Nick, then at a car passing and then at the pavement.
"Yeah, I know," Nick says, because Phil's told him. It's not that Phil's family don't love him, it's that they kept telling him God does not. He gave up hoping things would change years ago.
"Only, if I were to, y'know," Phil goes on and then he runs out of steam, shoulders slumped.
It takes Nick a second, but then he gets it. I'd take you home if I could. He reaches out to tilt Phil's chin up so he can see him.
"I know," he says, and he's not the type to kiss in the street but he cups Phil's cheek, runs his thumb along the cheekbone. "Let's go home."
Phil keeps his field gear in a locker in Nick's office. There is actually a practical aspect to it, cuts down on prep time as they can brief while Phil's getting ready. Mostly it's because Nick's greedy for a few extra moments before Phil leaves on missions. He's long past wondering if people will notice, and what they'll make of it.
Phil's getting ready now, checking and holstering his gun as Nick talks. He's reaching to touch the envelope with Captain America trading cards that he keeps on the top shelf when suddenly he whips around, hand still reaching for the cards, to stare at Nick.
Noticing and anticipating how people react to something said (or unspoken) is something Nick's very good at. It can tell him all he needs to know, expose people's weaknesses, let him know how to play them. He's been in the game a long time and doesn't have to put a lot of conscious effort into it.
Now, however, Phil's just staring at him, face perfectly blank, and Nick did not expect this to happen, has no reading on it at all. It's obvious that Phil's moved way past his defences, but he had no idea it was this bad.
"Motherfucker," Phil says at last.
"What?" Nick says, replaying the conversation in his mind without finding anything that could prompt this reaction. Ok, he can admit that I think we'd better get married, since you're always getting banged up and it would save a lot of hassle is maybe not the most romantic way to put it, but. And then it all clicks into place and he's pretty sure his smile is a little predatory.
"You're pissed because you wanted to ask first," he says, watching as Phil starts to blush.
"Shut up," Phil says, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"Did you buy me a ring?" Nick asks, tilting his head.
"Well, you're not gonna find out now," Phil says, but he's laughing quietly. "Asshole."
"C'mere," Nick says, leaning against his desk. Phil checks his watch, before sighing and stepping in front of him. Nick reaches under Phil's suit jacket to rest his hands on Phil's hips, draw him closer. They kiss, going slowly, like always before one of them is set to leave, both needing the illusion that time doesn't matter.
Phil draws back to look at him, touches Nick's cheek, little points of heat where his fingers rest near the hinge of his jaw. Nick swallows, because he's serious about this, about them.
"How about it, then?" he asks.
"Alright," Phil says, smiling. "Since it'll save you a lot of hassle." Nick huffs, before tightening his grip as Phil leans in to kiss him again.
It's Phil who breaks the kiss. "I need to get going," he says, though he's still holding on to Nick's shirt.
"Yeah," Nick says, "Go see if you can get Stark's head out of his ass." He doesn't say Good luck, or Be careful, they both know there's no point.
Phil's straightening some invisible wrinkle in his suit, and he smiles and says "Sure thing, boss," and then he's gone.
Nick bows his head after Phil's left, happiness tinged with fear making his heart pound. But if he could let go, he'd have done so a long time ago. There's nothing for it now, but holding on.
He sighs as he sits behind his desk, new intel on HYDRA activities calling for his attention. He steals a moment to feel good before pushing it away, hard. Director Fury makes the call and his agents act on it. People are fragile and feelings have little value in the Director's world.
He stares at Phil's locker and wishes he could believe in touching something for luck.