"This is unnecessarily complicated," Steve moaned, and he rubbed a hand down his face. Phil chuckled. "It's not funny."
"You picked this up quickly enough. You were handling that StarkPad easily the day we met."
Steve shut the laptop carefully, and hugged it to his chest. "I had supervision. Anytime there's no one watching me, it seems like everything goes wrong. Then I have to call Stark, and he laughs his… tail off. Then he mocks me until he gets bored, or until I tell him just how bad the problem is, and he fixes it from wherever he is. Or he leads me through it so quickly I haven't got time to write it down."
"I'm surprised you don't just soak up the information."
He wrinkled his nose. "I can do that with things I understand, yeah. But… a mouse pad sounds like a notebook for rodents. And a notebook sounds like a lot of pieces of paper bound together. Facebook sounds like… You get the picture." Phil nodded. "It's confusing. It reminds me of the fact that I used to miss a lot of school whenever I was sick."
"It… makes me feel stupid."
"Oh no, Steve." Phil touched his arm. "You're not stupid. This is confusing. I know if I was in your position, I'd be at even more of a loss. Probably because I'd be more set in my ways, being so much older—"
"Not that much older. I was born half a century before you."
"And you're physically younger by nearly twenty years," Phil said. He patted Steve's arm, and then retracted his hand. "Never mind. You're welcome to call me instead. If the problem's beyond me, I can redirect you to the tech department at SHIELD."
Steve beamed. "Thanks, Phil. Well, I'd better go. Visiting hours are nearly over. Can I come back tomorrow?"
"Of course. I'm not going anywhere."
"Yet," Steve said. "We'll get you out of here, don't worry. In the meantime…" He shrugged, still smiling.
"I can keep myself entertained," Phil assured him.
There was a reason Steve was so determined to make sure he understood the World Wide Web. He needed to know how to find the safest dating website, screen it, and work out the perfect username. He wasn't going to risk anyone 'talking' to him just because he was Steve Rogers. They might, however, 'talk' to Charlie Mills.
He'd given his pseudonym a lot of thought. He wasn't going to make the mistake of having something too close to his real name, or to anyone he knew or had known. That alone stopped him from picking Phillip, tempting thought it was.
Then he remembered when he read Great Expectations, one of his favourite books. To be more accurate, his mother had read it to him during one of his many illnesses. Pip was the main character. So that took care of Charles, or Charlie, as his first name. And Tony downloaded a lot of black and white films for Steve, including the 1946 film adaptation, with John Mills as Pip. Steve saw him in the movie In Which We Serve and thought he was swell, so it was good to find out he'd gone so far.
So. CharlieMills18 it was. He played with his details before deciding to be honest, at least about some things; if he found the right person, he didn't want to start off their relationship on a lie. This was the best way to find someone who wouldn't want him based on his looks or his costume. He hadn't been able to find any agencies which worked through letters; that just left the internet.
He mulled over his preferences. Well, he didn't know who his true love was yet; just in case, he said male or female. Age? Any, if he was honest. But he guessed there had to be limits, at least as a starting point. So he said twenty-five to forty-five. Non-smoker; cigarettes smelled horrible, and again, there were limits. Also, with Steve being in the peak of health, he didn't want to outlive yet another person, at least not by only a few years. Not if he could help it.
'I'm looking for someone who'll look past outward appearances and see me.' Steve paused, not knowing what else to put; but he soldiered on. 'I don't like bullies, and I stick up for people I care about, even though I'd rather use words than fists to solve a problem.' He winced. Would this even appeal to anyone? But he wasn't going to lie if he could help it. No. Definitely not. 'I don't want to miss a chance at something strong with the right person. I love unconditionally.'
And he stated that he wasn't looking for a casual relationship.
"Good luck," he muttered to himself, clicking the submit button. He confirmed his details through a link sent to his email account, and set about tidying his apartment to kill time while he waited to see if he'd have a response.
Phil tabbed between spider solitaire, his hospital play-list, and his emails. He signed in to his secret shame, a dating website he'd been haunting for months without success. No one ever seemed right; he'd been on enough sites to know what to look for. And he had laughably high standards, considering his age, situation, and appearance. The highest compliment on his features that he'd ever heard was that he was 'plain'. That was when he was at college, for heaven's sake.
He really should've lowered his standards; but in his line of work he wasn't going to waste time on an unsatisfactory relationship.
At his age, he should also raise the minimum age of his preferred partner. About to do just this, he noticed a new profile pop up, and paused. Something told him to check out this CharlieMills18. The number couldn't have been his age or the year of his birth; maybe the date? It didn't matter. What mattered was that this person was open to pretty much anyone.
That was usually a sign that they were either desperate or not picky, neither of them on Phil's list of favoured traits. But the description caught his eye.
'…look past outward appearances and see me.' Low self-esteem. Maybe not particularly striking? That's okay; Phil wasn't choosy when it came to appearances. No one could compare to hunks like Steve Rogers, after all, and Phil wasn't even interested in his childhood hero. 'I don't like bullies… rather use words than firsts to solve a problem.' CharlieMills18 seemed honourable, and preferred brains over brawn. Modesty aside, it looked like Phil might actually have a chance. 'I love unconditionally.'
Phil's breath caught in his throat. Those three words struck him like Thor's hammer. He wanted something like that. It was stupid, and unrealistic, and CharlieMills18 would probably get hundreds of requests based on that phrase alone. But Phil couldn't not send one of his own. He would never forgive himself if he didn't.
Steve's eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw the list of responses to his profile an hour later. He really should've narrowed his preferences; this was ridiculous. How would he have time to get through them all?
"You started it, Rogers," he told himself, plonking down into his computer chair, still staring at the screen. "Don't be so yellow. What would Bucky say?"
He followed link after link, viewing some frankly vulgar profiles, many of them riddled with bad grammar and punctuation. Some were so badly written he couldn't even understand what they were saying, and this coming from someone who sat through a three hour presentation, given by Tony Stark, on 'text speak' and 'net speak'.
After an hour, he had narrowed down a list of one hundred and twenty-four to six requests. He studied each one, before sighing, and putting them aside. Maybe he just wasn't cut out for this.
Then a new message materialised in his inbox. He paused, deciding to read this last one. Honestly, he should probably just pack the whole thing in and leave the—
Steve stared at the message added to the request. It was possible, but no one had bothered yet. They'd probably seen the new profile and sent him a message without personalising it. Sure, this was just one word. But it was more than anyone else had given him. He visited the profile.
No picture, but then it seemed that most pictures were very poor, or the person in them was showing too much skin. Sometimes there was even more than one person. Steve certainly hadn't posted a picture. He read down the page. Age: forty-three. Occupation: government. Preference: female or male. Status: looking for long-term relationship. Then he got to the description.
'I've been to many countries and have yet to find someone who would be willing to share their life with me. I protect those I care about, whether they need it or not. I'm hoping to find someone who doesn't believe that looks are everything, who doesn't mind being protected, and who is understanding in general.' This guy sounded lonely, even though he implied that he had people to look after. Or maybe it was hypothetical. 'I would devote everything I am and have to my partner's happiness.'
Steve didn't need protecting. But he did like the idea of someone who wanted to make their loved one feel secure. This JohnHemming45 (not the year of his birth, and not yet his age; what could the number mean?) also seemed kind of desperate. Yet look at Steve's profile. He wasn't exactly Mr. Fussy-Of-The-Year. JohnHemming45 had been with the site since early last year. He was single, not classified as divorced or separated or widower. He could've been with other websites before. Or maybe, like Steve, he had just decided that he wanted someone to call his own.
Steve wouldn't mind that. And JohnHemming45 had contacted him, so it wasn't like he wasn't interested. He'd even said hi.
Desperately trying to find the reply button, he accidentally hit 'ignore'.
After taking his tablets, Phil logged back onto the site. He sighed when he saw that CharlieMills18 had 'ignored' him.
Then he frowned when he got a message from him a second later.
'I'm sorry! I've never used a site like this before, and my mouse went wild. How do I un-ignore?'
Phil laughed, relieved. He led CharlieMills18 through the procedure, until the nasty little red flag disappeared, and the green acceptance flag popped up.
'Thanks. Can we start again? I guess I should say that Charlie isn't my real name. I'm sort of wary of the internet, even in this day and age.'
'That's okay. John isn't my real name. It's my middle name, though.'
"That's close enough.'
Charlie had added a smiley face icon to his message. Phil felt almost a hundred years old; when he received the next message, that feeling dissipated.
'You're the first person who's actually welcomed me to the website. You know, except for the nice people who set it up. I think everyone gets the same message, though.'
'That's mail merge for you,' Phil replied, typing away. 'They'll be able to use their minds one day to create something they think is personalised.'
'I hope not.'
'Oh. That's good.'
Phil cocked his head. Was this guy even for real?
'A security consultant must be an interesting job,' he wrote. 'Do you get much work?'
'Yeah. It's just the one place that hires me. Actually, two. I do work for Stark Industries sometimes. I can't tell you about it, though.'
Phil groaned. Stark haunted him wherever he went. Well, it couldn't be someone from SHIELD. Natasha was an exception to the rule, and she was in legal, not in the security detail. Charlie was also too young to be Happy Hogan. Plus he was apparently part-time.
'Which part of the government are you in?' Charlie asked. Phil realised that he hadn't planned for this; he'd had about fifty requests in total. Okay, closer to seventy; but most of them were discarded quickly.
'Law enforcement. That's why I wondered about your work. They're loosely connected.'
Steve laughed. He knew it wouldn't be anyone from SHIELD; he was sure Director Fury had distributed some kind of memo to the effect that employees of SHIELD were restricted from online relationships of a non-work nature. Maybe this person was FBI? Or even CIA? No. He was probably a cop. But that didn't matter; it was steady work. They could've even met sometime, and Steve just didn't know.
'Do you usually talk about work with people on this site?' he typed.
'No,' came the reply several seconds later.
'I wasn't sure what it would be like on here. I was just about to give up when I opened your message.'
'You've only been on for an hour.'
'I was already despairing of the human race.'
John's next message was a laughing smiley face. He followed it up with text.
'You'll get used to it.'
Steve chewed his lower lip as he thought about his reply. He decided to go out on a limb.
'I don't think I'll need to. I like talking to you.'
He pressed the enter key before he could second-guess himself. He hoped John wouldn't think it was too forward of him, or too sudden, or—
'I like talking to you, too. We can keep doing that, if you want.'
Steve didn't even realise how late it was getting, and how many lines of text they had written, until it was nearly ten. John said that he had to get some sleep, but would be happy to exchange email addresses so they could chat if they weren't online at the same time. Steve gave his email without a second thought, and went to bed with a smile on his face. With any luck, this time he wouldn't miss his chance.
A month of sporadic, yet informative, emails later, Phil ventured to suggest that they meet. He was out of hospital by now, and he didn't want to run out of things to say before he met his new friend. His new maybe something more?
Hemming was Phil's mother's maiden name; and, as he'd told Charlie, John was his middle name. He took the forty-five in his username from the year Captain America's plane went down. In his defence, he was collecting the cards around the time he started his account, and it was long before they found the captain's plane; consequently, even longer before he met Steve Rogers. Now, however, his temporary crush on the poor captain had faded into nothingness, to be replaced by something stronger for this man whose name he didn't even know.
As arranged, he waited in a booth at a fifties-style diner. Fortunately it wasn't a milk-bar kind of place. If it was pastels, red plastic seats and a jukebox he would have felt ridiculous. But with the old movie posters, and pictures of stars from the Golden Age of cinema, it felt more friendly, and less uncomfortably girly.
He hated sitting with his back to the door. However, that was what Charlie had suggested; and Phil could be just as formidable with his back turned as he could facing his attacker. His copy of Great Expectations, with a metal-and-tasselled bookmark sticking out the top, was placed in such a way that his date would see it as soon as he came in the door. All Phil had to do was keep an eye out for someone wearing a brown leather jacket with sunglasses in the breast pocket.
His heart jumped when he heard the sound of the door opening again. This was different, though. He could tell.
He glanced back, view obscured by the plant behind his head. Someone tall, male, wearing a brown leather jacket. A hand placed sunglasses in the pocket. Phil still couldn't see the man's face; he would soon enough.
Fighting the urge to cough pointedly, he nudged the book closer to the edge of the table. He sensed/heard Charlie turn, and move towards him.
Phil was so relieved to hear that name that he didn't even register the familiar voice as he looked up.
"Charlie…?" His voice died off when he realised just who 'Charlie' was.
"Phil?" Steve Rogers said, eyebrows furrowing. He glanced at the book. "You're… you're JohnHemming45?"
"Hemming was my mom's last name," Phil said softly. "And nineteen-forty-five was the year you…" Steve nodded slowly.
"I see," he said, and he slid into the booth, resting his hands on the glass surface of the table. He glanced up at Phil, then down again.
"Charlie Mills? I get where the eighteen comes from; your year of birth, am I right?" Steve nodded. "The rest of it?"
There was a pause. Then, "It doesn't matter."
"No, I guess not," Phil said. He really didn't know what to do. Usually people who met online didn't know each other in real life; this sort of thing was only supposed to happen in romantic comedies between two antagonists, not between two almost-friends who sort of worked together sometimes.
Part-time security consultant indeed. That was as bad as Phil's law enforcement.
"Did you know?"
"Did I know what?" Phil asked. Steve looked frustrated.
"Did you know who I was, who Charlie Mills was?"
"What? No, of course not. If I'd known—"
"What? What would you've done?"
Phil didn't know what to say to that.
"I guess… I would have told you. Then we could've moved onto people we didn't actually know, and continued on as we were in the real world."
"Are you sure?" Steve asked. His look deepened into a scowl. "How am I supposed to know this isn't some set-up, a way to keep an eye on me? A way to tie me to SHIELD?"
"What are you talking about?" Phil said, even though he knew full well what Steve was talking about. And it stung. "If that was the case – which it isn't, thank you very much – then it's not exactly the most effective way, is it?"
"It might have been!"
Steve crossed his arms and looked away. Phil had never seen him so angry. He couldn't help feeling angry himself, not to mention sick. The one person he enjoyed talking to online, and it turned out to be… It just wasn't fair.
"Even if you weren't working for SHIELD, you could've still known it was me," Steve said. Phil was rapidly reaching the point where he wanted to throw something. Preferably a chair. Or one of the tables currently bolted to the floor. "It could've been your way of getting closer to me."
"We were already becoming friends," Phil said,
"Romantically," Steve said, half-leaning across the table. "Everyone knows how you've always felt about me."
"How dare you," Phil hissed. "You know nothing about it. I had the highest admiration for you. Yeah, a crush for a little while, and just a couple of times. But I got over it when I started to fall for—"
He bit his tongue, even as Steve prompted him.
"For Charlie, who just happens to be me?" he said. It was almost taunting. "I may not be as smart as you, but—"
"Oh, for God's sake, how many times do I have to tell you you're not dumb?" Phil said. "You're as bad as Clint, I swear. Neither of you realise the amount of potential you have, if you'd only just believe in yourselves."
There was silence between them for a couple of minutes. Phil forced himself to simmer down, not exacerbate the situation further. He could feel how hot his cheeks were.
"Why did you feel the need to join a dating website?" he asked quietly. He saw Steve look up in the reflection of the window. "Anyone would be lucky to be with you."
"I wanted someone to see the real me," Steve said. "Someone who didn't care about Captain America."
"Captain America is a part of you; it's inside of you," Phil said. "If someone didn't care about him, then they wouldn't be caring about you."
"And you know all about him."
"And I know all about Charlie. What he's told me so far."
Steve's eyes drifted to meet Phil's in the reflection. They held his gaze for a good half a minute.
"Why did you join up?" he asked.
"I was tired of being alone," Phil said. "I was nearing the age of complete retirement from field-work, which would mean slightly more reasonable hours, and less danger. Now that I'm working with you— the Avengers, that danger has returned. I should probably leave the site. It's not worth it. Look at what happened when I wasn't even supposed to be fighting." He gestured towards the place on his chest where he knew there was an inches-long scar. Steve nodded, still unsmiling.
"Yeah," he said. He was quiet for another minute; then he stood up. He touched the cover of Great Expectations, and Phil could swear that he grimaced.
"Do you want a drink?" he asked.
"No. Good-bye, John."
Phil stopped breathing as Steve moved past, and out the door of the diner. It was only when the clank of the closing door reached his ears that he inhaled unsteadily.
Damn. He'd screwed this up.
Steve walked around Central Park a few times before taking public transport back to his apartment in Brooklyn. He logged in to his email account without thinking, an automatic reaction from these weeks of corresponding with John— with Phil. Only slightly hurt to see that there were no emails, he ventured onto the site to visit JohnHemming45's profile—
It no longer existed. JohnHemming45 had deleted his account. In the last few hours, Phil had deleted his account, just like that. He hadn't even bothered to try to find someone else. Unless he was trying his luck on a different website? In which case Steve would stick with this one. Let Phil find someone else who would know when Phil stopped believing in dragons (age eleven), what his three favourite colours were (white, green, and lavender; not blue anymore), his favourite pasta dish, the first time he rode a bike, his most embarrassing army stories…
Steve didn't want that. He didn't want to be replaced. Who else would understand Phil's line of work? Who else already knew how he took his coffee, and what his favourite donut was, and how much he both hated and liked Tony Stark? And those were things Steve already knew about Phil; John never told him that. They'd agreed to keep some mystery until they could meet and talk, and maybe start something more. Nothing like that had ever been stated; it had all been implied, through flirtatious comments, through their own philosophies on relationships, through their reasons for joining the site.
Steve didn't want someone new coming in and ruining their tentative friendship, and he didn't want to start from scratch. He wanted someone he already liked and trusted.
He wanted someone who would 'devote everything I am and have to my partner's happiness'.
Phil had deleted his account, erasing any traces of himself from the website using every trick he knew. He permanently deleted every email he had received from 'Charlie', not even mourning their loss. It was over. There was no way he was trying this again. He'd given too much of himself to a relationship which was doomed before it even began, to a man who could never want him back, not now, not then, not ever.
He was over Captain America, and over Steve. And now he was going to get over Charlie. He had confessed to Nick, who laughed when Phil told him that he'd finally joined a dating website – as the director had suggested – but that laughter died when Phil relayed the content of the conversation. He said it as unemotionally as he could, using standard report language. Nick had commiserated, and offered Phil a week off work. He declined.
Now he was debating over staying in, or taking the risk of going to his office instead. It was getting too late for work; but he'd had a lot of good conversations with Charlie both in the hospital and here, and damned if he didn't need to get away from it all. The only problem would be if he met Steve; but that was unlikely.
After an early dinner, he tried to watch some mind-numbing reality TV. Instead, his gaze kept wandering to Great Expectations. 'Charles' now made sense. And if he remembered correctly, John Mills and Alec Guinness were in a film version in the forties; maybe Steve saw it before or after he joined the army? He'd have to look it up. He knew that it was one of Charlie— Steve's favourite books. Phil had never read it; now probably wasn't a good time to start.
But then Phil Coulson occasionally broke the rules.
He didn't even get halfway through the first line.
'Phillip Pirrip.' The name of the main character.
"What the hell, Steve?" he murmured. He nearly jumped out of his skin when there was a knock at his front door. He tossed the book aside, metal bookmark slipping out and landing beside it, and walked to the door. He could no longer stride the way he used to, thanks to Loki. With that thought, he half-expected the god to be on the other side of the door.
It was worse.
"Hey," Steve said, hands deep in his pockets, head bowed a little.
"Hi," Phil said, for wont of anything better to say.
"Can I come in?"
"I don't think that's a…" Steve's face started to crumple; Phil caved. "Sure. Come on in. What do you need?"
Steve stepped past him, and Phil shut the door. "I said good-bye to John. But I didn't say good-bye to Phil."
There was nothing he could really say to that. He couldn't even face Steve. "Uh?"
"I know it's too much to ask, but if I don't do it now, it'll just be worse later on. I was hoping we could start over again?"
Phil really wanted to shake his head. He'd had the worst afternoon of his life due to Steve's reaction. Yes, the very nature of SHIELD had worked against him; it shared the responsibility. However, Phil had been innocent in all of this; his past feelings had been used against him, and Steve had made horrible accusations.
Thing was… where they unforgivable? Not really.
"I don't know," he said honestly. "It's not entirely your fault. You've awoken in a cynical world, and you've seen some terrible things. It's not unreasonable that you should be wary. But…" He couldn't stop the look of hurt, even if he'd wanted to. "Wary of me? Mistrustful of me? I've tried to help you, help all of you. And Director Fury, despite what you may think of him, has been trying to make amends for his lies. Do you really think he would add to them when it's unnecessary?"
"No," Steve said, voice low.
"Agents technically aren't even allowed to sign up for sites like that. But I was given special dispensation because he was sick of seeing me single, to, uh, paraphrase the words he used." He smiled ruefully. "It's hard for me to meet people. I never know when I'm going to be called up for work. I just wanted someone who wouldn't care about that. Someone who wouldn't care that I haven't got movie star looks. Someone… who'd love me. Unconditionally."
He had to stop before he lost it. Instead, he turned away, and began to walk to the kitchen. He went to offer a drink, try to establish some normalcy. Steve spoke first.
"What?" Phil said, turning around. He didn't understand.
"Can I be that person?"
Phil shook his head. "I don't… I don't get it." Steve stepped forward.
"I know I've messed things up with my thoughtless actions," he said. "I really wish I could take it all back. It's too late to go back to the diner and try again. Can't we just… leave Charlie and John aside, and be Steve and Phil instead? If you don't want me, just say so. You were… expecting someone who definitely wasn't me, so I can understand if you were disappointed. Especially now. B-but I'd really like to be the person you want. I don't want anyone else to—"
"No one else will," Phil said, remembering how his tongue was supposed to work. "I've left that site."
"Yeah, I noticed," Steve said, hands buried in his pockets once again. Had he even moved them?
"If this happened again…"
"It won't," Steve said. "I swear. If you just let me start over or something… Please, Phil. I don't want someone else taking Charlie's place, unless that someone is me. And… and I don't want someone who isn't John, unless it's you. I know… I know my feelings don't come into this—"
"Of course they do," Phil said.
"No," Steve said, shaking his head emphatically. "It's you I'm worried about. It's you I want, Phil."
He couldn't speak; he literally couldn't get his tongue moving, not even as Steve began to retreat into himself. It was almost like watching a reverse of the serum. It was as he was saying 'no' in his mind that he felt just what would happen to his heart if he went the whole way and said it out loud.
"Yes," he said. Because it would kill him to say otherwise.
Steve's head jerked up. There was a sudden surge of hope in his expression that the sheer power of it nearly knocked Phil off his feet.
"Yes?" he said. "Yes… you forgive me?" Phil nodded. "Yes, you'll give this another go?" He nodded again. "Yes… yes, you want… me?"
"So much," Phil whispered. "I knew I wanted whoever I was going to meet in that diner today. I was just lucky that it turned out to be someone I already knew. Or not so lucky, as it turned out." He laughed sadly. Steve pulled him close.
"Can I kiss you?" he pleaded.
"I don't know. Can you?"
"Phil," Steve said, pouting at Phil's playful tone. "You know what I—"
The thing about kissing is that you can't really talk while you're doing it.
But when you can say what you feel with actions, words don't matter anymore.
And so ends chapter one. I meant to have this done for Valentine's Day. Ha. By the time I decided that, it was February twelfth, give or take a day. I've been writing this for a few hours now, finishing at about twenty-five to one in the morning. Can you even say 'in the morning' when it's pitch black outside?
Tomorrow… or should I say later today?… I'll see how much of this has made sense to my tired mind. Guh… Shall go and sleep now.
On the plus side, I've had a long day and I'm knackered. Should be easy to fall asleep.
EDIT: It was relatively easy to fall asleep. If I recall correctly, which I probably don't. Sigh. Posting now.