A/N: More one-shots as I wait for my data. I didn't know I shipped this until right now.
Phil Coulson was a dyed-in-the-wool patriot.
Above all, his duty was to the people of the United States—and the world. He believed in SHIELD's credo like other people believe in a holy book. His work was his life, and his life was his work; he pored over mission reports for light reading, took extra shifts to learn more, and spent late hours working on classified projects because he thought it was fun. Agent Coulson was the job.
One day, a file came across his desk. "I'm thinking about advancing this one," Nick Fury explained, voice grating from years of smoking and stress. "And since you won't take the damn promotion, I think she's our best bet. Unless you want to change your mind."
"Thanks again, sir, but I'd rather stay in the field." He opened the file. "Agent Maria Hill. I'm not familiar with her."
"That's because she's been doing covert operations in South Africa for years. But that project ended about two months ago, and she's back in the country. I want you to evaluate her."
"Spy on her." Phil shuffled through the papers.
"She's not familiar with you, either. Your mission is to get to know her as a civilian. I need a personality evaluation, and I need to know if she's got any political or idealistic leanings that might stop her from making the objective choices that we need her to make as assistant director."
Phil had come to her picture. A pair of piercing brown eyes stared back at him, almost as if the glossy paper had come to life. Her jaw was set and her lips pursed, and her hair was tied back in a no-nonsense ponytail. She was gorgeous.
"Can you do that for me, Coulson?"
"Good. Your flight to Portland leaves tomorrow morning. She plays with the Portland Orchestra; you've got tickets to her concert."
Phil flipped through the papers. "What does she play?"
"Cello, I think," Fury replied, as he walked away.
The interior of the Anne Lund Hall was a breathtaking tribute to the decadence of the Baroque period. A fresco detailing the history of music blanketed the ceiling; Phil spotted the figures of Beethoven and Bach, as well as more contemporary names, Liszt and Bartok among them. Curtains of rich velvet draped the walls, the scarlet red set off beautifully by the contrast of gilded pillars.
He was so enthralled by the architecture and decor that, when the lights dimmed and the musicians stepped onto the stage, he was surprised. As they tuned their instruments, he searched their faces for Maria's.
And there she was, delicate fingers wrapped around the curved neck of her instrument, eyes closed, listening intently to the sounds of the strings. While the women near her wore elaborate hairstyles and dramatic makeup, Maria sported the same minimalist look she wore in her file photo. Phil noted that she was first chair; quite the accomplishment after being absent from her ensemble for years.
The conductor, a rail-thin man with a pencil mustache and a self-important mien, strode out onto the stage and gave a swift, deep bow, then turned to the orchestra.
Phil hadn't even looked at the program, yet he recognized the music: Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. When he was in college, his university choir had partnered with the orchestra to perform this song, and it was the closest thing to a religious experience he'd ever had. He could still remember the tears that stung his eyes when he sang it, could still hear the words ringing out in his deep bass voice: Pobedy boriushchimsia za veru pravuiu i za sviatuiu rus, nasoprotivnyia daruia…
How strange, he thought, that SHIELD's motto should be "Deliver our Land from Evil."
After the concert, he watched her get into a car with a few friends. He kept his distance, following them until they pulled up at a low-key martini bar. He waited a while until he was sure they'd settled in with their drinks, then headed in himself.
They were seated at a table; he strode past them and sat up at the bar, feeling very James Bond as he ordered a shaken-not-stirred martini. As he waited for the bartender to fix his drink, he turned to survey the bar and pretended to notice Maria for the first time.
He realized he was about to go over and practically hit on her, which was not his forte at all; but how else was he going to achieve his objective? So he swallowed his pride and headed over to the table.
"Excuse me," he ventured, "but I was just at the Portland Symphony's concert and I thought I recognized a few of you from the ensemble."
"We all play," responded the redhead.
"Then allow me to congratulate you on a wonderful concert. I'm a great fan of classical music, and I was floored to hear the 1812 Overture performed so well. I performed it myself in college; I only wish our ensembles would have been of your quality."
"What do you play?" the redhead wanted to know.
"I play a bit of piano, actually," he answered, "but I wasn't in my university orchestra. I sang on the 1812."
"I've never heard of it being performed with a choir," Maria said. "Was that part of Tchaikovsky's original composition?"
Phil, taking this as an invitation, sat down and began to discuss the opening hymn and its history, making a great impression on the four musicians. As the night wore on, it became evident to her friends that this sincere, sweet lawyer was rather taken with Maria, and, one by one, they quietly took their leave.
"So," she said conversationally, as soon as the redhead left, "what kind of law did you say you were in?"
"I'm a prosecuting attorney in Maryland."
"Oh, I've spent quite a bit of time there! Where in Maryland?"
He knew that she was evaluating him, and that he had to pass her test. "Annapolis."
"Any interesting cases lately?"
"Not for me, but a colleague of mine recently prosecuted a young man for breaking into an historical landmark and covering a good chunk of the interior with candlewax."
She laughed, her eyes dancing. "Candlewax?"
"I know. Must have been a slow process."
Smiling, she finished off her pomegranate martini. "Will you be in town for long, Phil?"
He nodded. "A couple of weeks. I needed some time away."
"I'd like to see you again."
Phil returned her smile. "I'd like that too."
Phil knew that this had become more than just a mission when, the next morning, he called her without any shred of duty on his mind. He simply wanted to see her. They agreed to meet for breakfast at a French café she enjoyed.
Though Phil never asked, Maria explained her lack of job over crepes, saying that she was suffering burnout and needed a break from the high-paced executive world. He didn't press for details, and she gave none; he only expressed his happiness that they were both commitment-free and, as a result, able to make the most of their time together.
They spent the day together, and Maria showed him several of her favorite hometown haunts: coffee shops, the music store that was celebrating its 100th anniversary, a cavernous used bookstore, and a beautiful secluded park. Phil ducked into a sports card shop and educated Maria about how to tell if a card was in mint condition; it was here he admitted to his collection of Captain America nostalgia, much to her amusement. Before the sun set, they were ambling down the paths, hand-in-hand, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Neither of them had ever felt this comfortable around another human being before.
As the days went on, they continued to spend time with one another. Phil did remember his duty eventually, steering their conversations into more volatile subjects, testing the waters with her beliefs on politics, religion, and violence. She cited some of her experiences in South Africa, though she told Phil that she'd been there on a mission trip years ago when she was still going to church. But her ideals matched up with what Fury was looking for: neutrality, loyalty, and valuing human lives.
With only days before he was supposed to return to SHIELD, Phil lay in his hotel bed, his arms around a sleeping Maria. He'd always been a logical person, his life guided by his work; now there was Maria, and he was a hundred percent certain he'd fallen in love with her over these past few weeks. He wanted desperately to tell her who he really was and why he was here, but he feared her reaction; would she assume that all the emotion was simply an act? Not to mention the fact that Fury would be incensed if he found out Phil had compromised the mission. On the other hand, how would Maria feel when she showed up for work and Phil stepped out of his office if he didn't tell her?
Tomorrow, he thought. I'll tell her before I leave.
But he couldn't bring himself to ruin any moment the next morning, least of all the last words she said to him before he boarded the plane.
"I love you, Phil. Let's see each other soon."
And for a while, Phil's world was bright with that promise. Over lunch with Pepper Potts, he raved about his new love, a beautiful and intelligent cellist from Portland. He was glowing.
Until Maria showed up for work.
Fury hadn't told Phil when she was coming—why would he, Phil mused, as he saw Maria coming down the hallway.
When she looked up from the sheaf of papers in her hand, she stopped dead. "Phil?"
"It's good to see you, Maria."
"What are you doing here?"
Here goes. "I, uh… I work here."
Her heel ground into the carpet. "You said you were a lawyer."
"Look, Maria—I'm sorry. I should have told you, but I would have been in deep trouble with Fury—"
"Fury sent you to Portland?"
"Yes." His heart broke as he saw her eyes, locked down and cold. "This doesn't have to change anything between us. Fury may have sent me, but the only lie I told you was what I did for a living."
"He sent you to evaluate me. To get me to open up to you. I told you everything!" she hissed, vehement and furious. "I told you those things for you, not for you to feed back to my boss!"
He felt like his insides had been torn out. "Please. I didn't do it to hurt you, and I didn't share any of the specifics. I had orders. And I didn't make up any of my feelings. They're all real. If I hadn't been on a mission from SHIELD, I still would have approached you that night. I've never met anyone like you. I love you, Maria."
She glared at him. "Unless it's official business, don't speak to me again."
The muted click of her heels as she walked away sounded like the sad percussion of a funeral march.
I'll fly you out to Portland. Keep love alive.
As Phil slipped in and out of consciousness, the wound from Loki's scepter gushing blood, Tony Stark's words inexplicably drifted through his mind. That's kind of you, he'd wanted to say, but I don't have to fly anywhere. She's right here. She just won't speak to me.
The room flickered in front of his eyes, and in the darkness, he could see Maria's face, smiling in the dark as they whispered things to each other. He would greet Death with an outstretched hand if he could re-live those two weeks just one more time before he left the world.
"Thank you," Phil mumbled, as Fury raced into the room and knelt next to him.
Fury instantly called for a medic. "I haven't done anything yet," he said, tearing off a strip of Phil's shirt to stop the bleeding.
"You've done—you—the mission. More than you know. Happiest— best time of my life. Maria…" His eyes closed.
"Stay with me," Fury urged.
"I'm checking out here, boss."
He held the fabric firmly. "Not an option."
Maria's wounds were being tended when Fury's voice came over her earpiece. "Coulson is down."
She pushed the medic away. "I'll send someone."
"They're here. They called it."
All of a sudden, the gash in her head didn't hurt anymore. "Go," she ordered the medic, and sat for a moment, numb. He's gone.
She'd never cry, but every fiber in her being longed to. It occurred to her that, if she'd been in Phil's shoes, she'd have done the same thing; orders first, emotions second. But Phil had allowed himself to fall in love with his target, which was a huge risk to begin with. He was only trying to do what was right for everyone in a tough situation. Regret consumed her. She never should have shut him out like that.
Nothing that anyone said to her made any sense until Fury threw a handful of bloodied cards on the table in front of Steve and Tony, claiming that they'd been in Phil's pocket when he was killed. But she knew better than that. He was far too particular about the corners of his cards remaining in pristine condition to jam them in a jacket pocket without being in some sort of screw-down case. These flimsy plastic sleeves are good for nothing, he'd scoffed in the little card shop, annoyed at how the owner took care of his merchandise. And anyway, she'd seen them earlier that day; he hadn't been carrying them at all.
Knowing Fury's motive, she kept silent until the two heroes were off the bridge. But as she and Fury stood at the window together, she called him out. "Sir? Those cards were in Coulson's locker. Not his jacket."
Fury shuffled the cards. "They needed the push," he told her, as a Quinjet soared into the sky.
"Sir," she said after a moment, "I wonder if I could have those."
He considered her with a knowing smile. "So that's what he meant."
"His dying words. He thanked me for sending him to Portland. Said it was the happiest time of his life." He handed over the cards. "Get communications up. Do whatever you need to do."
"How'd that go?" Fury wanted to know.
Still reeling from the ignorance of the Council, Maria shook her head. "Sold you down the river, sir. Should have your job back within a month."
"Good work," he said, as she took her place at the helm. "You should… maybe ask for a chair."
"There's something I'd rather have." She folded her arms and stared her boss down. "Now that the Avengers have done their job and the world's saved, I don't think we need to keep their 'push' a secret any longer."
"St. Gabriel's Hospital. Newark."
Once her helicopter dropped her off, she raced down the hallway to Phil's room. He was in the ICU, but stable, so the nurses allowed her in.
"Phil." He was lying in bed, his entire top half wrapped in a thick layer of bandages. A heart monitor beeped steadily: music to her ears. "Fury told us all that you were dead."
"Did they do it?"
"Yeah. Loki's captured, and his army's wiped out."
He smiled weakly. "It's all right, then."
"You don't need to say anything. I'm just glad to see you."
"I do, though." She settled into a chair at his bedside. "I'm sorry. I know why you did what you did. I wish you would have told me, but I understand why you didn't." She paused. "Fury told me what you said to him."
"On the Helicarrier. About Portland being the best weeks of your life."
He blinked. "I don't remember saying that… but that's true. It was."
"Same here," she told him quietly. "I want to have that again."
He looked at her carefully through heavy-lidded eyes. "I hope this isn't a hallucination," he said.
She laughed and pressed his hand. "I'm here. You're not imagining anything."
"Good, because I love you. I mean it."
"I love you, too."
After she gave him a very careful kiss, he caught a glimpse of the cards in her purse. "Maria? What—" He gestured weakly at the bag.
"I'm sorry." She pulled the cards out and handed them to him. "Fury decided he needed an element of theatricality to rub your death in Steve and Tony's faces."
The heart monitor spiked.
When Maria and Phil were married, Nick Fury stood up as the best man in the wedding. They tied the knot on a pier in Portland, and Tony and Pepper's little girl spread daisy petals over the dock.
The Avengers, after hearing their story, set up a surprise honeymoon for the two of them: a trip to Russia, where Phil and Maria would sing bass and play cello, respectively, with the Saint Petersburg Court Capella as they presented the 1812 Overture during a Tchaikovsky celebration.
But Phil's favorite present was from Fury, and finally ended his bitterness toward his boss; a complete set of vintage Captain America trading cards, signed by Steve and presented in the finest screw-down cases.