They were nearly on to dessert when Phil finally abandoned conversation with his sister-in-law Beth and his niece Pearl, and tuned into his brother Michael's monologue. He was, quite rightfully, proud of his job as new head of the science faculty at their alma mater, especially as the attention was usually dominated by their youngest brother, Adam, a TV chef who was beginning to gain notoriety. Adam was looking a bit sulky at his corner of the table, as he suffered through a sore throat.
Phil didn't mind Adam holding the room's attention; anything to keep people from enquiring about his work and his lack of a love life (not necessarily in that order of priority). It was a good thing Michael was happy to chatter away, out of his shell for once.
"And I tried to find a good chemistry joke, but all the good ones argon," Michael said. Phil was the only one who chuckled. Michael looked a bit disappointed; most people understood nearly every one of Adam's kitchen jokes. Science jokes? Not so much. "Uh… do you want to hear a joke about potassium?"
"`Kay," Phil said. Michael perked up.
"Phil… since when do you get science jokes?"
"I, uh, I'm friends with someone at work, who's a…" Phil cleared his throat as everyone else stopped talking to listen. "He's a scientist."
"A good friend?" Beth asked, elbowing Phil. He rolled his eyes.
"I was going to tell you a joke about sodium and hydrogen, but nah," he said. Michael laughed loudly, tossing his napkin to the side of his plate.
"Done much reading lately?" he asked.
"Some. Why? Got any recommendations?"
"Oh yeah," Michael said, eyes twinkling. "I was reading a book on helium last night, and I just couldn't put it down."
At least a few people got that (eventually), and Phil had to warn Michael that his knowledge of chemistry and physics wasn't exactly extensive. But they bantered for several minutes, ending with an oddly appropriate one.
"What element is derived from… an Avenger?" Michael asked. Phil almost replied 'vibranium', before checking himself.
"I don't know," he said. "What element is derived from an Avenger?"
"I surrender!" Phil said, raising his hands. He grabbed his glass of wine. "To the master of science in this family. Michael Coulson, new head of faculty."
"Michael Coulson," the others echoed, Adam croaking away. He was smiling again, gaze flitting from Michael to Phil and back again, and Phil remembered why he tolerated his youngest brother.
It was after dessert, and everyone was preparing to head home, when Michael called across to Phil.
"So who's your science friend?" he asked.
"His name's Bruce," Phil said. "Bruce Banner."
He could've bitten off his tongue; fortunately, the doctor's identity as the Hulk was unknown to few outside of the SHIELD. He did worry, briefly, when Michael's face lit up for the umpteenth time.
"Dr. Bruce Banner? The gamma radiation specialist? You work with him?"
"Y-yes, well, in the same building," Phil said, flustered.
"But you said you're friends with him," Michael said, pressing for information.
Everyone was watching them. Under the optical assault, Phil caved.
"Yes," he said. Michael whooped.
"Bring him to the next dinner," he said. "Please, Phil? Please, please, please? I promise I won't ask him to sign anything, not even his articles that I've had framed. But it'd be so nice to have someone here who understands what I'm saying."
Again, the eyes had it.
"I'll ask," he said.
When Phil got home— that is, back to the Avengers Mansion, he ventured into the common area to find Bruce reading, Steve sketching, and Clint dozing on a pile of blankets and cushions. Natasha was still on a mission, Thor was in Asgard, and Tony was likely down in his workshop. Phil would have to drag him kicking and screaming (and yawning) from his work before bedtime.
Sometimes, he really did feel like their mother.
"Nearly ten-thirty," he said, and he perched on the arm of Bruce's recliner. "How long has Hawkeye been asleep?"
"Since about quarter of nine," Bruce said. He looked up from his book and smiled at Phil. "Did you have a nice dinner?"
Phil nodded. "First, I want to thank you for taking the time to explain certain aspects of science to me. My brother's the new head of the science department at our old college, and I was able to joke around with him for the first time in… years, to be honest."
"That's good," Bruce said. "Glad I was able to help."
"Thing is," Phil continued, and he picked at non-existent fluff on his trouser leg, "when he asked who my scientist friend is, I didn't think and, well, said your name."
"Is that a problem?"
"…To put it bluntly, my brother's a fan of yours – which I never knew, I'm ashamed to admit – and he asked me to invite you to the next dinner. Naturally, you're under no obligation to say—"
"And I'll understand… oh. Really? You don't mind?"
"Of course not. That is, if you don't mind."
"I think it would be swell for both of you," Steve piped up. "I understand why not all of us can come along, since it'd blow your cover."
"I'm sorry about that," Phil said. "If I could—"
"`S price y' have t' pay," Clint mumbled. "Y' know, `f you have fam'ly."
Phil winced. "Your identity is—"
"Known well enough," he said, and he raised his head from his nest. "`Sides, you'll have enough fun explaining how you know Bruce."
"We'll think of something," Bruce said. "Don't worry, Phil."
"I owe you twice over," Phil said when he knocked on the front door of his mother's house. "Probably more by the end of the night. The 'children' are all grown up, and Adam still hasn't got his voice back, so it should be relatively peaceful."
"I can keep a handle on the Other Guy, okay?" Bruce said. He touched Phil's arm. "I'm a lot better…"
"I'm not worried about that—"
The door was yanked open. Pearl's gaze dropped to where Bruce was touching her uncle, and she slowly smirked, even as Bruce pulled his hand away.
"Uncle Phil's here!" she shouted. "Hi. You're Bruce?"
"That's right," Bruce said, shaking her hand. She continued to grin.
"I didn't know you and Uncle Phil were dating," she said.
That was when Beth and Michael chose to appear.
"Wait, you're finally seeing someone again?" Beth asked. She brightened when she set eyes on Bruce. "Wow. You sure do have good taste."
"Uncle Mike's tongue-tied already," Pearl said, nudging Michael back. Sure enough, he was staring, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, at Bruce. Phil nudged the poor doctor into the house, making a mental note to buy something nice for him. Like an airplane. Or a slave. Hell, for this, Phil would personally devote the rest of his life to making Bruce happy.
"This is what I was worried about," he murmured into the man's ear as he turned to shut the front door.
"Grandma!" Pearl dragged Phil's mom into the hallway. "See Phil's boyfriend. Isn't he cute?"
"Hello, dear," she said, holding out her hand. Meekly, Bruce took it. "I'm Julie, Phil's mom."
"Ma'am," Bruce said. "Pleased to meet you. Phil's told us so much about these dinners that… well, it's an honour to be invited."
"I invited you," Michael said, getting his tongue in order. He was at Bruce's side in an instant. "I'm such a huge fan of your work, Dr. Banner. I have a scrapbook with cut-outs of my favourite articles from the science magazines I'm subscribed to, and at least half the pages are devoted to monographs you've written. I've had some of them framed, too, but… Oh God, I sound like a stalker."
"We all sound like stalkers when we talk to our heroes," Bruce said, and he glanced at Phil with an amused look in his eyes. Phil blushed at the memory of his initial conversation with Steve Rogers. He couldn't tease his brother for this; he didn't have a leg to stand on. "Glad to know you, Michael. I can call you Michael?"
Phil's brother looked like he was about to faint.
As with Steve, time and food mellowed the fanboy-ish impulses Michael had been suffering from, and he and Bruce were soon deep in a discussion which even Phil couldn't follow. He gave up, and tried to talk Pearl out of her notion that he and Bruce were dating, especially as all the females were under the same delusion.
"I didn't even say anything," he protested.
"It's body language, Uncle Phil. The way he was touching your arm, and his head was tilted, and you both looked so nervous about him being here for the first time, and meeting the family. A blind man could see there's something between you."
"But there isn't—"
"You're not fooling anyone."
"Oyster," Phil said, resorting to her childhood nickname, "I'm serious. There's nothing going on between us. We just work together, and li—" He stopped short of saying 'live together'; yet it left her more curious.
"And what? Like each other?"
"Of course," he said stiffly. "We're friends."
"Well, if you're not together, then you should be," Beth said, leaning forward so he could hear her. "You never talk about your work or your friends, but suddenly you're talking about both, and it's because of him."
"Actually, it's because Michael asked how I knew—"
"That doesn't matter," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "You've stayed pretty close to him all evening, you know exactly what food he wants to try, and you keep checking to make sure he's okay. You smile at him, Phil. When he boasts about you, you blush. You've gone to the trouble to learn about science just to talk with him, not so you can understand Michael's jokes."
"In other words," Pearl said, "you're head over heels for him, Uncle Phil."
The trouble was that Bruce was, in fact, sitting right next to Phil, and he and Michael weren't so involved in their conversation that he couldn't hear what was being said. As his head turned enough so that he could make eye contact with Phil, the SHIELD agent wished as hard as he could that Pearl was six years old again, so he could send her to the naughty corner or bend her over his knee.
Then Bruce smiled slowly, and Phil realised that he couldn't have heard. Beth and Pearl hadn't been all that loud, and Bruce was soon giving Michael his full attention again.
But Bruce's ankle knocked against Phil's, and suddenly he wasn't so sure.
Driving back to Stark Tower, they were both quiet. Phil had been turning the evening over in his mind, from the talking beforehand, then during the meal, and then as they said good-bye. He recalled every recent interaction with Dr. Banner, and his general behaviour around the man.
Yes, he liked to stay close when possible. Bruce was one of Phil's team, and when they met new people Bruce tended to shrink away unless science was the topic of conversation (which wasn't always the case). So Phil preferred to ensure that someone was there to support him, redirect the conversation, keep an eye out for anything stress-inducing. He didn't mind taking on the responsibility himself.
Bruce was a vegetarian, yet he didn't always pay attention to what he was about to eat, and so Phil made sure that he was well-fed with things he liked. Being on the run for so long had adversely affected Bruce's eating habits. Phil didn't treat him any differently; look at the way he mothered Tony and Clint. It was just that their dietary preferences were much broader than Bruce's, so it only seemed like he was getting special attention.
And of course he smiled at Bruce. Who wouldn't? The man was like a magnet, with his quiet charm, his soulful, dark eyes, the way he ducked his head, the way he smiled proudly when he was telling the others about how calm and competent Phil was under immense pressure and how he commanded attention from everyone he worked with and…
"Oh my God," Phil muttered, eyes widening the smallest amount. His hands tightened on the steering wheel.
"What's the matter?" Bruce asked.
"I like you," Phil said.
"I like you, t—"
"I have a crush on you. I might be in love with you. I… am in love with you. Oh God, I'm sorry, Bruce." Phil knew his voice was higher-pitched than usual as he shifted in his seat. "I don't know how… you shouldn't have to… I'm sorry. I didn't imagine—"
"That it could be possible for anyone to love me?"
Phil shook his head. "Not that. It's impossible not to adore you." He glanced down, sighed, and looked back up at the road again. "I didn't think I'd fall in love again, not at my age, and not after…"
"David. I thought he was the love of my life. But he was in a car accident about a month after Manhattan. I was still in hospital. I didn't know until Mom told me after I woke up, and I found out I'd missed his funeral." Bruce didn't say anything. "It took awhile to get over, even after my recovery. It's just… Bruce, it's been months. Not years. Yet here, I suddenly realise that I've been falling for you, and I should feel guilty for…"
"You're not betraying David's memory."
"No, I know that," Phil said softly. "You shouldn't have to deal with me… having feelings for you. It's inappropriate, and it will make you feel uncomfortable—"
"But it will, Bruce—"
"Does the fact that it's requited make you uncomfortable?"
Phil couldn't reply to that for awhile; he was too busy not crashing the car, and then finding someplace to pull over. When he eventually cut the car engine, he half-turned in his seat.
"Could you repeat that?"
"I said, does the fact that it's requited make you feel uncomfortable?"
Phil looked away, and then back to Bruce. The doctor was smiling gently. Even in the strange lighting, the moonlight and street lights poking through the trees and painting ghostly patterns on their skin, he looked gorgeous. Magical.
"No," he said.
"How does it make you feel?"
He swallowed deeply. "I don't know." Bruce tilted his head. "It… it feels f-fantastic, and overwhelming, and… scary. I." He shrugged. "How? How could you…?"
Rather than answer, Bruce leaned across, cupped the back of Phil's head, and pulled him into a kiss.
I would like to thank the internet for providing me with some terrible science jokes, primarily from . I had to Google some things to understand the humour, since I know next to nothing about physics, chemistry, biology… you get the idea.
I wasn't supposed to go this far along with the romance. Bother. I always do.