"Five Times He Couldn't Say It, And One Time He Had To"
It was Clint who recommended him to Principal Hill. The interview with the school board was a formality; Phil's credentials spoke for themselves. He was a qualified teacher, had completed his masters and doctorate while he worked wherever he was needed, and officially became a professor two years ago. He was one of the youngest professors in the country, but looking to take a break from tertiary education. His mother had had a car accident recently, and while Phil's father claimed to be perfectly capable of looking after her, his own back problems said otherwise.
So when Clint heard on the grapevine that Phil was looking for a good job in New York, he went to Maria and told her to hire his former high school teacher.
"I got straight As in English thanks to him," Clint reportedly said. (What he'd really said was 'I was writing passable essays within a week of his classes', but that was just as dramatic a declaration.) The chairman of the school board, Nick Fury, took fifteen seconds to glance through Phil's CV, spent five minutes talking with him, and agreed with Clint's recommendation.
By the time school started, the only teacher Phil hadn't met was Steve Rogers, the art teacher. He'd been a guest at a summer writing camp, teaching the kids how to draw comics, and Phil was looking forward to meeting him. Steve was the creative genius behind the Captain America books, a cult phenomenon, and Phil's guilty pleasure.
Stepping out of his classroom, Phil noticed a tall, blond man walking up the hallway towards him, deep in conversation with one of the students. The girl stopped by her locker, and Steve looked up while she continued to talk.
And their eyes met.
Phil felt all the breath leave his body. In his forties, and he'd never had anything more than a crush on anyone else before. Not even intellectual crushes. (Except one. But that couldn't be Steve Rogers… could it?)
Then the blond said something to his student, who nodded, and he walked towards Phil.
"Hi," he said, and he stuck out his hand. "You're Professor Coulson?"
"Y-yes," Phil said. Goddamnit, why did he have to go and develop feelings at first sight for a man with the prettiest smile he'd ever seen? "Phil. You can, uh, you can call me Phil."
"I'm Steve," the man said, eyes still twinkling. "Steve Rogers."
"Captain… I mean Mr. Rogers… I'm sorry, but you write—"
"The Captain America comics, yeah," Steve said, and he rolled his eyes. "I'm surprised an English Lit professor's heard of me, though. In my non-teaching capacity."
"I'm a big fan of your work," Phil said. He realised that Steve was trying to take his hand back, and quickly dropped it. "I have all your works, as well as your graphic novels."
"The ones I did for… the Jane Austen books, and Shakespeare, and… all of those?" Steve said, and his cheeks tinged pink. "I didn't think they were all that popular with the literary community, either."
"I'm not like other literature professors," Phil said. He cleared his throat just as the warning bell rang, and looked at his feet. "I'd better let you get to class. I mean, I won't detain you further."
"Okay," Steve said. "Well, see you at lunch, I guess."
"You want to have lunch with me?"
Steve's eyebrows bunched together. "We'll both be eating in the staffroom, won't we?"
"…Oh! Yes, we will."
With a bob of his head, Steve turned to go. Phil wanted to say something, but he clamped his lips shut, and backed into his room a couple of steps. He glanced up again in time to catch Steve looking back at him, an inscrutable look on his face. Then the art teacher set off down the hall, and the moment was gone.
"Smooth," Clint said. Phil nearly jumped, and stared at his ex-pupil. "Don't say you didn't bring stuff for him to sign? I'm shocked, sir."
Phil narrowed his eyes, and pushed Clint away, gently though. "Go to your jocks and your archery kids, and leave me to do my job."
Clint laughed, and bounced off down the corridor with an energy no grown man should have at that time of day, not even someone as young and healthy as Clint Barton.
Apparently there was an accident in the art room before lunch, which meant that Steve didn't show up. At second break, Phil had to stay behind to arrange extra classes outside of school times, so he couldn't get there. At least his students never needed more than three group tutoring sessions with him to stand on their own two feet; it wasn't vanity to say that he was damn good at his job.
As a consequence, he didn't see Steve again until after school finished for the day. Steve was talking to Natasha, the foreign languages teacher, and Thor, the history professor. He had become a qualified professor in his home country of Sweden; Clint told him that much. Fury must have decided it was a great coup to get two honest-to-God professors on the staff. Add to that the doctor of science, Bruce Banner, and it was one of the best-staffed public schools on the Eastern seaboard.
"Hey, new guy," someone said, elbowing him. Phil turned his Disapproving Teacher gaze on Tony Stark, the IT teacher.
"Can I help you, Mr. Stark?" Phil said.
"Yeah. You can call me Tony, for starters. You're totally checking out Captain Denim, aren't you?"
"Our resident art guru, he of no pseudonym, and absolutely no shame. Not in those jeans. And yes; he always wears tight jeans. Nearly all the student body – regardless of gender or sexuality – has had the hots for him at some time or other."
Tony snorted. "You've met my wife. I'm married to female perfection."
"Stop bothering him," Pepper said, grabbing Tony's arm as she passed. "See you tomorrow, Phil."
He waved to the business teacher as she led her husband to their sedan. Phil went back to staring at Steve, and wishing he'd made a better impression on him. Any kind of good impression would have been a step up from what'd taken place that morning.
It was so very tempting to brain himself against the brick wall behind him, but he decided against it. Instead, he nodded goodbye to his colleagues as he passed, waved to Clint across the parking lot, and then slid into his car. His gorgeous, bright red baby.
"Lola, your daddy's lost his heart," Phil murmured, stroking her steering wheel and gazing out at Steve one last time. "I'm screwed. I'm in love with a man I've only just met, and he's my co-worker, and one of my favourite writers… and I'm screwed."
Lola purred reassuringly when he turned the key in the ignition, bringing her to life. He did take a moment to bump his head against the wheel.
"I love him," he said, so softly he could have just been breathing. "I love him."
And he could never tell him.
It was nearly a month into the new school year, and Phil was taking a well-deserved break in the staffroom during a free period. He was systematic in his marking, of course, but he was only human, and needed a breather before firing himself up for the first wave. In this case, it meant munching on mini powdered donuts and doing the cryptic crossword in the paper.
His only free period, and it happened to be at the same time as Steve Rogers. Whether it was Fate having a laugh at his expense, or some other divine being (or the sadistic principal) Phil didn't know. He'd managed to avoid talking to Steve outside of pleasantries; but it was ridiculously obvious and awkward when they were the only two in the room. He hid behind the paper, discreetly checked for any powder on his suit, and tried to concentrate on thirteen across. 'Award for musical about weight. Why?' Come on. It couldn't be that hard.
Phil stared up at Steve, startled, and got momentarily distracted by some of the sugar on the art teacher's upper lip. It was bad that Phil just wanted to lick it off. Bad, right?
"Uh… crossword," Phil said, giving himself a mental shake. "Cryptic crossword."
"Cryptic? Wow. I have enough trouble with the normal crossword."
"Well, some are ludicrously difficult," Phil said, and he relaxed his grip on the pages. "I guess… do you want to give one a go?"
"I'm good, thanks," Steve said. "Gotta worry about the homecoming dance decorations. Before that, we need a theme, and Maria's having enough fun fielding all the students' suggestions. Only got a couple of weeks, and nothing's been decided on, so I have to work out something generic."
"That isn't very well organised. I mean, on admin's part, not yours. Obviously. I'm sure you've got it all in hand, and… uh…"
Steve shrugged, apparently unbothered. "It happens every year. Artistically, I do my best work at the last minute. It's just a matter of getting the basics right. Then I get the students to jump to it, and issue orders to them like nobody's business." He smirked around his cup of coffee. "The one time I get to do that without anyone questioning me. Some of the other teachers come and watch, even participate. But I think they prefer to see the kids doing what they're told without arguments."
"Sounds like a dream," Phil said. That reminded him of the dream he'd had about Steve the night before, so he quickly ducked back behind his paper to hide his blush.
"Wish I'd been able to go into the army, but, well…"
Phil peeked back over the edge. "What do you mean?" he asked. Steve pulled up a chair opposite him, facing backwards, and straddled the seat. He grabbed a second donut, spearing it on his finger, and sending Phil's thoughts right back into the gutter.
"I was kind of a weakling in high school," Steve said. "No matter how much I trained on my own, it just made my health worse. Finally, I signed myself up for a boot camp, and started to improve. We couldn't afford much medication, not until Dad died. Instead of paying off the mortgage like she was supposed to, Ma spent it on getting me well. Between meds and training, I got better." He laughed softly. "Turned out to be a good investment in the long run. I went to college, got myself qualified, and went into teaching. I send whatever I can to her."
"You're from Brooklyn, aren't you?" Phil said.
"Yeah, I know there're some traces of the accent left," Steve said, and he rubbed the back of his neck with the hand not holding hot liquid.
"It's fine. I mean, it suits you." Instead of kicking himself, Phil got his mind into order while Steve sipped some more coffee. "What'd you look like as a kid? I can't imagine you as a 'weakling'."
Steve rolled his eyes, and set his coffee down. He shoved the rest of the donut into his mouth, and retrieved his wallet. He flipped it open, and pulled out a photo.
"This is the best picture I have of Ma, taken before I went to boot camp. She wanted me to have a memento of where I started out, in case I ever got discouraged. I prefer to think of it as… as a reminder of who I was doing this for."
Phil studied the picture, and couldn't help smiling. "She's beautiful."
"And… don't hate me for this, but you were cute." Steve made a face. "You still are. I don't mean… Well, I could've said adorable, and I wouldn't blame you for punching me if I had."
"Thanks," Steve said, taking the picture back. Phil resolutely didn't shiver when their fingers brushed. "I'll let you get back to your crossword."
"Hmm? Oh. Yes. Thank you."
Then Phil ducked behind the newspaper again, and worked out thirteen across within seconds. He smiled as he filled it in, leaning over the paper to write in his usual neat script.
When he looked up, he thought he noticed Steve's head move. But he had to have been imagining it. There was no way his colleague could have been looking at him.
"So are you going to be a chaperone at homecoming?" Phil asked. Steve glanced up at him, and smiled shortly.
"Yeah," he said. "It's your first year here, so you don't have to; you can just wait for one of the other dances. I go to all of them. One, I have to keep an eye on the decorations. Two, this school is my only social life outside of the occasional book talk."
"That's a pity."
Because you're absolutely stunning, and other people don't know what they're missing, he thought.
"Do the staff just, uh, stand around the sides, or do we dance as well?"
"There are restrictions on dancing with the students, but it's still pretty relaxed."
"What about adults dancing with… with other adults?"
"If anyone brings a date…" Steve shrugged. "Why do you ask?"
Phil swallowed down the answer he wanted to give most of all.
"N-no reason," he said, and he retreated once more, like the coward he was, and moved on to fourteen across. 'Royal Russian star, but not quite.'
The staff Christmas party was being held after the school broke up for the semester. Phil drew Pepper's name in the Secret Santa, and offered up prayers of thanks when Natasha told him that they each had to come up with a list of five different gift ideas, and the lists would be emailed to their Secret Santa. Since Phil could afford to splurge a bit, he went with the most expensive item on the list: a pair of black high heels. He found a pair of Louboutins in her size, had them gift-wrapped at a charity stand, and got a card which played the theme from 'Friends' when it was opened. He knew that it was one of her favourite shows.
She'd become one of his best friends, which was inexplicable, but incredibly useful. He knew she wouldn't be expecting Louboutins, but he didn't care. She only had a few pairs of black shoes, which she wore to school. The ones she was wearing right now, at the party, were the best ones she owned, and they wouldn't match up to his gift. Not if he knew anything about women's shoes, which he did, thanks to his sister.
"Don't avoid the mistletoe all night," Clint said, poking Phil in the side. "D'you think I can catch everyone, if I'm very sneaky?"
"I'm sneakier than you," Phil said.
"Do you remember your junior prom, when I caught you about to light up a joint?"
"My defences were down," Clint said, sounding almost as sullen as he did that night. It'd been a turning point, at least. "Someone spiked the punch, remember?"
"Wasn't that someone your brother?"
"Can we not talk about Barney?"
Phil nodded. "Of course, Clint. I'm sorry."
Clint's lips tilted up in a smug grin. "And I'll bet you're sorry that Steve's doing a signing tonight, instead of being here."
"I… I don't know what you m—"
"You know what I mean," Clint said. "Don't worry. I won't tell anyone that you've had it bad for him since day one."
"That's so very kind of you," Phil snarked. "Go bother Natasha or Bruce. I'm getting a drink."
Clint's laughter followed him to the punchbowl. The recipe already had alcohol, so no one needed to spike it. Phil helped himself to a cup, and silently mourned the fact that Steve really wasn't here tonight. It's not like Pepper and Tony's place was out in the digs. It's just that Steve had been asked to attend a convention, and it clashed with the staff party. Stupid, but Phil had been looking forward to seeing him, even if just from a distance. He usually contented himself with 'just from a distance'. Any conversations turned weird eventually, thanks to his tongue losing control whenever Steve was around.
Considering the connotations of that thought, it was best that Steve wasn't here. His tongue losing control? Jesus.
When it came to distributing presents, Pepper handed out two: one to Jane, the astronomy teacher, and one to Phil.
"Since your Santa couldn't be here," she said. Phil almost forgot to hand over his gift, and quickly pushed it into her hands, before turning to the card on his present.
Steve was his Secret Santa.
It was suddenly a very good thing that Phil hadn't listed any of Steve's books on his wish-list, or God, that would've been more embarrassing than anything else he'd said to or done in front of the man.
Pepper nearly deafened him when she tore off the wrapping and saw the brand name on the shoebox.
"Phil, oh my God!" she squealed, and she threw her arms around him.
"I won't shock you by saying 'But they're just shoes'," he said, amused. She pulled back, and immediately dragged a chair close.
"I have to try these on," she said.
"Next year I want Phil to be my Secret Santa," Natasha said, and she glanced at Clint. "No offence. The coat's great. But… Louboutins."
"Nope, don't blame you at all," Clint said. Phil chuckled as he untied the ribbon around Steve's gift. He smiled softly at the collection of old school musicals he'd been telling himself not to buy for about two years now. He'd put it on the list as a whim, and his heart beat extra fast that Steve had chosen the best possible thing he could have bought Phil. He persuaded himself not to read anything into it; he really had to get out of the habit of seeing things which just weren't there.
"They're perfect," Pepper said, now standing beside Phil. She was just a bit taller than before, and he noticed that Tony looked torn between being annoyed or just laughing. "I won't say that you shouldn't have or that it's too much, even though that would be the truth. I love them."
"My sister's going to rub it in that teaching me about fashion turned out to be useful after all, but that's fine," Phil said. "It's Christmas."
Pepper kissed him on the cheek, and wandered over to her husband. Phil rubbed the corner of the box set, gazed at the spines, and imagined sitting at home, spread out beside Steve on the couch as they watched Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse and all those other stars dance their way across the screen. He got so lost in the fantasy that he could almost smell the popcorn, and it took a few seconds for him to realise that his phone was buzzing. He almost fumbled in his hurry to answer when he saw the caller ID.
"Steve, merry Christmas," he said. "How are you? Thanks for the DVDs, by the way. They're great. I've wanted to get them for ages, but I never told anybody, and you didn't have to, but thank you—"
"That's all right, Phil," he said. "I just called to say merry Christmas, and sorry I couldn't be there. You wouldn't believe how busy it is here. It's like half of these people don't have anywhere else to go for Christmas, so they're celebrating a couple of weeks early with a whole bunch of strangers."
"Sounds like fun," Phil said, wishing he was there. "Wish I was there."
Damn. He didn't mean to say that.
"Really? Well, I guess, if you like comics—"
"It's not that." It just got worse. Did he have no control?
"Then… what is it?"
Because I want to spend every Christmas with you until the end of time.
"I…" Phil briefly wondered whether beating his head against something would help. "It's just that you shouldn't be with strangers."
"Phil, it's not Christmas Day yet. I'll be with my mom for that."
"Not like that. No, well, I guess like that. You should be with people who care about you, so yeah. Your mom. That's good." Shut up, Phil! he told himself. "We miss you, that's all."
"You do? You care about me?"
Phil held the DVDs close, trying to keep his heart inside his chest. "We miss you," he repeated. This had to stop. "I have to go now. Bye, Steve. Merry Christmas."
He hung up, and checked. No one was watching. Good. Hopefully no one had seen him make an ass of himself.
His phone buzzed again, this time with a message.
'Merry Christmas, and I really am sorry. Steve.'
'I'm in love with you. I'm sorry, too. Phil.'
He clicked out of the message before he could send it, waited until his pulse rate was down, and then started a new message.
'You too. Phil.'
That one, he sent.
Steve's latest graphic novel was out; this one was Northanger Abbey, which Phil liked to use as an example of gothic fiction. He often compared passages from books either by genre, author, or period.
He had automatically added the book to the reading list for second semester, along with other gothic novels by female authors: Frankenstein, Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, and so on. He was surprised that so many of his students had bought Steve's version…
And it had been so long since a new Steve Rogers graphic novel was released that he just didn't think when he recommended it. At the end of the day he went to the art room, and was glad to find that Steve was still there.
"Hey," Phil said, his voice breaking. He cleared his throat, and Steve half-smiled from the sink where he was washing brushes.
"How was your day, Phil?" he said.
"I probably should've asked you about this first, and I hope it doesn't cause you any discomfort," Phil said. He watched Steve dry those nimble artist's hands, and leaned against one of the tables. It appeared clean enough, with no wet paint, so his suit was safe. When Steve was done, he threw aside the towel and approached.
"What's on your mind?" he asked.
Phil exhaled slowly and held up his copy of Northanger Abbey. "This," he said.
"My… my book?" Steve said. His cheeks turned crimson. "What about it? Is it… okay?"
"What? Yes! Yes, of course. Your illustrations… the whole thing… perfect as always. It's not that, Steve."
"Then what's the problem?"
"Well… I…" Phil set the book down and sank his head into his hands. "Oh God. I had Northanger on my reading list, and I always note a few different editions. Your books have proven helpful in the past, wonderfully helpful, especially with the difficult students. Some of them aren't interested in reading actual novels, and prefer to watch movie adaptations. But that defeats the purpose of reading. So I get them to read graphic novels if their English isn't strong, for example." He lowered his hands and stared at Steve, who was much closer than Phil had realised. "Even for the well-read students, your illustrations show great insight into the texts that teenagers might not get on the first read-through." He laughed softly. "You've seen things that I haven't, Steve."
"Is that so?" Steve said, cocking his head. He stepped closer. Phil straightened.
"Anyway, I'm not here to… to talk about that," he said. "At least half of my students have bought a copy of your Northanger, and I'm worried that it might make you uncomfortable."
"It's never bothered me before."
"You mean, this isn't the first time?"
"No. We've had English teachers here before, Phil. Not professors of your calibre, but they've set some of my books. I also…" He ducked his head, and looked up at Phil through his eyelashes. "Have a small fan club. Apparently. In the student body. That's what Tony told me, anyway, but he could've been winding me up. Either way, it's fine with me. Hell, just means more royalties, which means more I can send to Ma."
"You're a good son," Phil said, and he pushed off the bench. "I'd better go finish tidying up." A funny thought came to him, and he paused. "I wonder if you'd mind…"
"Signing the… No, never mind."
Phil went to pick up his book. Steve placed his hand over the top, and Phil just managed to hold in a gasp. He'd been around high school girls too long, damnit.
"I'd be honoured to," Steve murmured. "D'you have something to write with? I don't think paint is appropriate."
Phil fumbled to remove the pen from his pocket, and he handed it to Steve. He shut his eyes and turned away as he listened to the rustle and scratch of Steve signing his book.
"There you go," Steve said. Phil looked around at him, and accepted the tome. He hugged it close to his chest, and held still as Steve tucked the pen into his suit pocket for him.
"Thank you," Phil said. He couldn't help getting lost in that earnest gaze, and barely paid attention to what those soft-looking lips were saying.
"Can I do anything else for you? Carry your books? Take you to dinner? Keep you company while marking? Just… anything?"
"Hmm?" Phil blinked, and realised that Steve had been speaking. "Oh. No, no. It's fine. No, I don't need anything. But thank you for the offer. I've taken up enough of your time."
"…Okay. Have a nice night."
Phil nodded, not trusting himself to speak in case he told Steve some of the things he'd like to do for him, not the other way around. He couldn't understand Steve's puzzled, puzzling look, like he was disappointed. Why? Phil hadn't been any more awkward than usual. Maybe Steve expected things to be smoother by now?
He'd just have to try harder to fall out of love with Steve. That was going to be the only way to make this work.
Why did that thought hurt so much?
"We did not anticipate your attendance this evening," Thor said, and he beamed as Phil moved into the room and picked up a bag. "You have come to assist us?"
"Of course," Phil said.
In the past, he'd sometimes had to miss chaperoning senior prom, which is why he made the effort to get to the other school dances. His babysitting stint had finished early – and prom had finished late – so he'd gone along to the school to help with the clean-up.
Falling out of love with Steve Rogers was considerably harder than falling in love with him. Hell, falling in love with him had been the easiest thing he'd ever done, easier than breathing. He'd tried to stay away, just for tonight. Not be in a room reminiscent of his own high school days, with the romantic lighting, a radio playing love songs in the background, and balloons still three-quarters full. Working alongside Thor at least kept him on the opposite side of the room from Steve, who was helping Clint disassemble the long tables.
"What plagues your thoughts, my friend?" Thor asked, continuing to sweep.
"Were your niece and nephew well-behaved?"
"With those kinds of parents, they can't be anything but well-behaved." Phil quirked his lips into a mischievous smile. "Except with me. I think Sadie and Mike know that I kind of let the kids go wild whenever I `sit for them. Though, much as I love them, I hate missing prom. I don't know why – God knows we see enough of these kids the rest of the year – but there's something different about it to anything else. Sports matches, concerts, homecoming. Prom's on a whole other level. The few times in my many, many years of teaching that prom's fallen on Mike and Sadie's wedding anniversary, I've had to miss half of them when we can't get hold of a babysitter."
"By giving them such freedom, they must hold great affection for you," Thor said. Phil held out the bag so that his fellow professor could dump in debris from the floor.
"I'm the world's greatest uncle," Phil said. "I have a mug to prove it."
Thor laughed, and Phil joined in as they turned to talking academics. It was getting quiet now, and the staff had consumed the leftover food and drink. Phil hoped he wasn't drooling when he noticed Steve coming over to them; because damn, that man could rock a suit.
"We missed you," Steve said, his eyes never leaving Phil's. "Had anything to eat or drink?"
"I've had too much sugar tonight; I'm working it all off."
"Your family's good?"
"As good as ever those two can get. Next year it'll only be Harriet to look after. Riley will be old enough to go out with his friends." Phil wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. The lights weren't helping. "I can't believe I've been doing this for sixteen years. Not every year, but it sure as hell feels like it."
"I don't suppose you, uh, wanna dance?" Steve asked.
"…No one else is dancing," Phil said, even though he was mentally smacking himself. It got worse when Steve's gaze dropped to the ground, and he sort of deflated.
"I will dance with Jane," Thor said, and he clapped Phil on the back as he passed.
"Well, all right, then," Phil said. Steve perked up within seconds, and his smile shamed the moon.
(Phil had been a professor of literature for too long.)
He didn't speak, allowing Steve to drag him to the middle of the dance floor. Someone – probably Darcy, the music teacher – turned up the radio, and more couples joined them on the floor. Like something out of a teen movie, 'If' began to play. Phil wasn't sure who the singer was, but it sounded like one of the crooners. Dean Martin, or Perry Como; someone like that. It was smooth, and romantic, and Phil was having trouble convincing himself that he wasn't back in school, on a first date with his crush. Steve was so much more than a crush. Phil was grown-up enough to identify the strength of his feelings, and he should have known that ditching them was impossible. And even if it happened eventually, it would take more than just a handful of months.
He sighed, but didn't realise it until Steve stopped moving. Phil looked up at him.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
"I was about to ask you the same thing," Steve said. "You seem to have a problem with me."
"Of course not, no," Phil said. "I'm dancing with you, aren't I?"
"Then why won't you tell me what it is?"
"What 'what' is?"
"Why you're so… I don't know, tense around me," Steve said. "Did I do something wrong?"
Relieved that Steve hadn't figured it out, Phil chuckled. "No. It's my fault. The first day we met, I kind of ruined our meeting by fanboying over you." And I lost my heart to you, but you don't need to know that, he thought. Steve laughed softly as well.
"Is that all?" he said. "I thought it was something worse. Well, just put it all behind you, okay? We work together, and I want to be your friend."
'I want to be your friend'. One of the best and worst sentences in the English language.
"I'd like that," Phil said.
If this was one of those situations where he'd just confessed his undying devotion, he could have rested his head on Steve's shoulder, presuming the sentiment had been returned. Instead, he smiled at Steve, and some tightness deep inside started to loosen.
It was an ordinary day. Phil handed out marked assignments to some of his classes, tested the others, and ensured that his schedule for the next few weeks would be clear. The school year was coming to an end, which caused both tension and excitement in the student body. Phil had already told off Leo and Jemma for running in the hallways when they were late for class. Horror stories were being shared in the staffroom, and the home science teacher had started setting biscuits, cakes, and savoury muffins for assessment, and brought samples during breaks. It kept them going through the day, and made a change from sandwiches and microwave meals.
At least Phil and Steve were friends now. They sat next to each other sometimes, often smiled at each other across the hall during assembly, and complained about the kids during their shared free period. Phil was even teaching Steve how to do cryptic crosswords, and Steve was teaching Phil how to sketch cartoon characters. Yes, it was torture on his ravaged heart – sometimes it felt like every smile skewered his chest just a little more – but he'd take what he could get.
"You're going to run out of room on your phone, just like last semester," Natasha warned, and Phil resisted the urge to poke out his tongue at her. Professors did not poke out their tongues, no matter how irritating their colleagues could be. Especially when said colleagues were right.
"You haven't even known me a year," he said, pulling out his cell. "How do you know so much?"
"She learnt that from me," Clint said. Natasha kicked him.
"Oh God, why do I have unsent messages?" Phil muttered. "Going back to Christmas, the hell?" He hit 'Send all', since there were only a couple there. If anyone asked, it'd make an interesting start to a conversation. He'd learnt his lesson about forgetting to tell his sister something important, all because he got distracted by a call, or his thesis, or trashy television.
He heard Steve's phone buzzing from the other side of the table, and had the weirdest feeling that that was significant. Had he written him a message and forgotten about it? Just in case, Phil checked, and sure enough: 'I'm in love with you. I'm sorry, too. Phil.'
His stomach plummeted to the floor, and he looked up at Steve. The art teacher was absolutely ashen, his mouth agape, his eyes wide. Phil didn't hear or see anything else; just the one person he'd never meant to tell, horrified by the accidental confession, and… and he couldn't breathe. He had to get out.
Phil nearly tripped over his own two feet in his hurry to leave the staffroom without losing any more dignity than he already had. Once in the swarm of passing students, he moved swiftly through the crowd, only one thought on his mind: get away from Steve. He was literally saved by the bell when it sounded throughout the school. Phil ducked into his classroom, and pulled himself together before the next barrage of students, the last for the day.
He thought he'd done well to get through the lesson without mishap, and even sent them off at five to three. They couldn't get into too much trouble in that time, and Steve always had to clean everything after classes, no matter what medium the students were using. Phil was packed and ready to go by one minute to three. He'd just never expected Steve to have the same idea, only he was done sooner. Phil could only stand there, struck dumb, as Steve closed and locked the door behind him.
"We have to talk," Steve said.
"Don't play stupid with me, Phil Coulson! We have to talk about that text you sent me."
"Steve… it's something I wrote at Christmas, and I didn't mean to send it, ever."
"No. You just wrote 'You too', and then your name."
"I didn't want to make things uncomfortable between us," Phil said, and he backed into the blackboard as Steve continued to stalk forward. "I've tried to be calm around you, God knows I've tried. But you have this weird effect on me where I just can't say the right thing. I can't even write the right thing! Maybe we just… shouldn't be friends."
"Don't say that," Steve said. He stopped just a couple of feet from Phil. "This… this is something you wrote at Christmas?" Phil nodded. "Do you mean it?"
"Yes," Phil whispered.
"You're in love with me?" He nodded. "You've been in love with me since Christmas?"
"A… a bit longer than that."
"How much longer, Phil? Thanksgiving?" Phil shook his head. "Halloween? Homecoming? Before that?"
"S-since the day we met," Phil said.
Steve's head reeled back as if he'd been slapped. "What?"
"You heard me," he replied tersely.
"You've… since the beginning… Why didn't you say anything?"
Phil laughed once, loudly, bitterly. "I think we've established that I have absolutely no social skills at all when it comes to you."
"What you told me prom night, about being discomfited because of our first meeting, is this the real reason?"
Steve was breathing heavily, and Phil had a moment of panic, remembering what Steve had said about his health when he was younger.
"You really do want me?" he asked.
"More than I deserve," Phil said, and he lowered his head, waiting for whatever was going to come.
"I've been waiting to hear that for so long."
He didn't have time to blink before Steve was crushing him against the dusty board, tasting Phil's mouth with a fierceness he'd never dreamt could come from the mild-mannered art teacher. Phil overcame his shock in time to start kissing back, and he slipped one arm around the back of Steve's shoulders, and placed his other hand on Steve's chest. He could feel the man's heart racing.
Before either of them could pass out from oxygen deprivation, they parted. Phil licked his lips, and wiped away a bit of saliva that was just out of reach. He hadn't had much practise with kissing, but Steve appeared to have enjoyed it, if the grin on his face and the warm body still pressed against his said anything.
"I've been gone on you since you told me about reading my graphic novels," he said.
"What, the beginning of this semester, in the art room?" Phil asked. Damn. To think…
"No. Since the first time you mentioned it."
"The first time? Well, I mean, the very first time was the day we met, so… Oh. Oh, Jesus." Steve nodded slowly.
"It meant a lot that people weren't just reading them because they were my illustrations, or because they were too lazy to read the original works," he said. "You read them… and you used them to help people. You, an actual professor of English literature, read and liked my books."
"I love them, but I love you more," Phil said. Steve glowed with joy, and he wrapped his arms around Phil properly, holding him tight.
"Thank God you sent that message," Steve said. Phil finally let his head rest on Steve's shoulder.
"Yeah," he said. "Who knows how long it would've been otherwise?"
"Next time, talk to me."
The cryptic crossword Phil was doing is one of my own devising, created especially for this story. I've put it on Deviantart, but here's the URL: celiaequus . deviantart art / Avengers - Cryptic - Crossword - 426873647 (just remove the spaces).
I have a habit of coming up with angsty/fluffy stories. Don't know whether you'd noticed that. Unfortunately, there are some stories I want to write which will require me to see 'Cap 2: Winter Soldier' first. So, either you wait until I've seen it in Australia, or you all pool your resources and fly me over to America so that I can see it earlier, and thus get writing and posting earlier.
No takers? Sigh. Wait until April, then, or whenever it's coming out.
Please review! Was there a sufficient amount of plot? I threw in some very obscure references, such as 'disassembling' the tables, purely for my own amusement.