[personal profile] concertigrossi
Title:  Second Fiddles
Author: ConcertiGrossi
Fandom:  Avengers (Earth-199999, movieverse)
Characters: Phil Coulson, The Cellist, Pepper Potts, Natasha Romanoff, Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Bruce Banner
Pairing:  Phil Coulson/The Cellist
Rating:  PG-13
Disclaimer:  So very not mine, more's the pity.

Summary:

Chapter One: In which a convention is attended, the unconventional is met, suspicions are raised and a disappointing loss turns into a significant win.
Chapter Two: In which the season starts, discoveries are made, a friend gets hurt and space is shared.

Chapter Three:  In which worries surface,  the other shoe drops, communication becomes an issue and news comes in from the West




The only problem with this oddly idyllic situation was that he was starting to wonder when the other shoe would drop. In Phillip J. Coulson’s experience, his romantic relationships with otherwise-compatible people who weren’t also members of SHIELD tended to collapse due to three factors, either singly or in combination: the need for secrecy, his complete incompetence when it came to talking about his emotional state, and his insane work schedule. (In the case of his romantic relationships with fellow members of SHIELD, it was those three with the added bonus of enemy fire, which is why he tended to look outside of the office for dates.)

The first, the fact that so much of his life was classified, was the least common of the destructive factors, but it was still statistically significant. When it came to that, she was good to her word: she really never asked about what he did. She wasn’t stupid, not by any stretch of the imagination, and he could watch the questions form behind her eyes. She would trace his scars sometimes as they lay together, and he could see the effort it took for her to hold her tongue. “You have too many of these,” was all she said, and he couldn’t disagree.

She got close, once, after a very, very bad few days that involved a bungled operation gone so far south that SHIELD was completely disclaiming any and all knowledge. It wasn’t one of his, thank God, but Delancey and Martinez had been killed - two good agents with whom he’d worked dozens of times. As was protocol in these situations, the family would be informed but no official notice would be taken of their passing.

She found him, still in his suit from work, sitting on her couch with a thousand-yard stare. She said nothing - she just sat down next to him, pulled his head into her lap and gently stroked his hair. After a time, she said softly, “You should have someone you can talk about these days with.”

He took her hand. He kissed her palm and placed her hand on his chest, covering it with his own. “I do. There’s a whole department. But this is better.”

The second factor, still not that common but too frequent to be ascribed to chance, was more troublesome. He always felt that it was important to face one's own limitations, and so he knew and accepted from bitter experience that when it came to talking about his emotions, he was catastrophically bad at it. In any sentimental situation, not just romantic, but anything even remotely involving any feeling but anger, terrible things happened between his brain and his mouth. He tried to make up for it elsewhere – there were hundreds of ways of showing someone you lov- cared about them that didn't involve babbling like an idiot. If his partner brought up the subject, which had been his experience heretofore, then he could at least respond: he could usually manage three or four words without embarrassing himself, but any more than that and all bets were off. He could quote regulations at Asgardian killing machines, but telling a woman how he felt about her was really intimidating.

In this as well, it really seemed not to bother her. She was also not given to effusive behavior, except when it came to her music. She was affectionate and tactile – he had a great appreciation for her hands, and what she could do with them – but she never seemed to feel the need to verbalize her feelings. Not that he minded – he didn't especially miss comments like, “Tell me how much you love me,” or the dread “Where is this relationship going?” conversation, but it came as a bit of a surprise.

But the absolute, number-one, kiss-of-death was the amount of time he spent in his office or on assignment. It wasn't just that the hours were insane – and they were – but that he tended not to get a lot of warning before he had to head out into the field. Technically, his was supposed to be a 40-hour-a-week position with a limited amount of out-of-town temporary-duty assignments (SHIELD HR frequently sent out irritating Powerpoint presentations about the need to maintain a good work/life balance, to general amusement) but their adversaries never seemed to get the memos. He couldn't blame his partners for getting frustrated.

And here he really was in uncharted waters. They had known each other less than a year, and he’d managed to be out of town and/or incommunicado for Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day and her birthday, and she hadn’t even seemed annoyed by it. This was unprecedented. If he wasn't available, she made other plans. If he had to cancel, she expressed definite regret, but accepted it, and (more often than not) ended up doing whatever they'd planned to anyway, either by herself, or she'd invite a friend. He kept expecting her patience to run out, and worried the thought, poking at it like a canker sore to see when it would start hurting.

He made up his mind to ask her about it, and, on a rare Saturday afternoon that found them both free and at home, he’d decided to finally broach the subject. (They were curled up together on the couch at her place: he’d been watching “America’s Got Talent” and she’d been pretending she wasn’t.)

“Is everything all right?”

“Hm?”

“Is everything all right?”

“Well, except for the fact that you persist in filling up my DVR with the most god-awful trash…”

“No, seriously. I mean, between us.”

She looked up at him, suddenly wary. “As far as I know. Why?”

“I just… I didn’t know. If you were all right with the way things are.” Part of his brain was watching this unfold with growing horror. And wondering where all the polysyllabic words ran away to.

She blinked. “Are we having the ‘Where is this relationship going?’ conversation?”

Oh, dear God. “Um. Do you want to be?”

“Are you unhappy with the status quo?”

She’d apparently decided to face the subject with frank, analytical questions. This seemed unfair, somehow. “No. No! Are you?

“Were I unhappy, I would tell you.” Her expression grew confused. “Have I given you that impression?”

“No. I thought… I’ve had to be away so much, and I don’t know that that’s going to get better anytime soon. I didn’t know if that was bothering you.”

“Well, naturally I’d rather you were here, but your job is your job, and even if you can’t tell me about it, it’s obvious how much it means to you. I don’t want to jeopardize that.”

“You really mean that.”

“Of course I do, I just said it. The question really is what do you want.”

Control of this conversation again. “What do you mean?”

“I’m as devoted to my work as you are to yours. If you’re looking for June Cleaver, 2.5 kids and a dog, then we’d probably better stop this right now because at this stage of the game, that’s never going to be me. Is that going to be an issue?”

Damn it. He’d waded into this morass, now he was going to have to hack his way out of it. This was unbelievable. He had toppled governments, he’d killed men with his bare hands, he’d survived over a year as Tony Stark’s handler, spoke eleven languages fluently and had now just forgotten every last damned one of them. Why was this so difficult?

“Oh, for goodness sake, you look like a deer in the headlights. You don’t have to answer that now, if you don’t want to.” She took his hand. Her cheeks colored a little, and her voice got quiet. “I will say this: the status quo has made me very happy.”

He looked down at her. She lowered her eyes, and blushed a little more. He squeezed her hand. “Me too.”

“Well, that’s good, then.” She rested her head on his shoulder. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, and sat there quietly for a little while. The tension slowly dissipated.

“Anyway, you did give me fair warning. You told me on our second date - you’re married to your work.”

He laughed. “I did, didn’t I.”

“I have no problem being your mistress.” She gestured to the practice room, and her cellos. “And I can’t imagine anyone I’d rather cheat on them with than you.”

That was certainly the most unusual compliment he'd ever gotten, but he'd take it. “If you’re my mistress, what does that make me?”

“My cavalier servente.”

A married noblewoman’s official lover. He rolled his eyes, and switched to Italian. “<Leave it to the Italians. But I don’t think I look the part.>”

“<Surely that’s for me to decide?>” she replied, just as fluently. “<Oh, and just so we’re clear, I am your only mistress, right? I will accept that you are married to a large, faceless organization, but any other flesh-and-blood women and we’re going to have a problem.>”

“<That’s a shame. It’s going to be a real hassle, dumping the rest of them.>” he said dryly.

She elbowed him in the ribs, and got up to go to the kitchen. “<I should make you sleep on the couch for a crack like that.>”

“<And if you did, how would you keep an eye on me?”>

“<That's a good point. I suppose you can stay.>”

He smiled. He got up to get his laptop from the table. He was a bit taken aback when came out of the kitchen with a determined look in her eye.

“Phil?” Her cheeks started to color. “I... I...”

“What is it?” he asked, somewhat confused.

She turned even redder. “I... I meant what I said,” she replied finally. “I am very happy with the way things are.”

“I'm glad.” He brushed his hand down the side of her neck, and she leaned into the touch. “I feel the same way.”

Her eyes looked up into his, their expression illegible. Before he could say anything else, she pulled his mouth down to hers and kissed him, hungrily and with definite intent and snaked her other arm around his waist. He cupped her chin with both hands and deepened the kiss, smiling as he felt her hand untuck the back of his shirt. He had time to think, before the blood rushed completely away from his head, that maybe - just maybe - this time, things might work out.

-----

Eventually, however, the other shoe did drop; just from a direction he hadn’t expected.

He’d been away for five days, with Romanoff in Montenegro. (The fucking Balkans - nothing good ever happened to him in the Balkans.) After the debriefing and the paperwork, he went directly to her apartment. They greeted each other properly, but afterwards, when they were lying together, she took a deep breath. “Phil, there’s something we need to talk about.”

Here we go.

She propped herself up on one elbow, and rested her hand on his bare chest. “A few months ago, Mariasol convinced me to throw my resumé in for this opening for a principal cellist. I figured, ‘What the hell,’ and did it, but they usually get on the order of several hundred resumés, so I wasn’t expecting it to go anywhere. A month ago, I was invited to send an audition tape, and again I figured, ‘What the hell. I can use the experience.’ So I put a new one together - I think you were out of town that week, probably for the best, I wasn’t a lot of fun to be around. Anyway, they called two days ago to tell me I’d made the semi-finals.”

“Congratulations! That’s wonderful news! Why is this bothering you?”

“It’s in Oregon.”

“Ah.” He looked up at the ceiling, and tried to ignore the tight feeling in his chest.

“Phil, I’m going to take this seriously. It’s barely believable they even gave my resume a second look, much less that they invited me to the live auditions. This is my chance to grab at the brass ring. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. And it really might not go anywhere. They’ll pick three out of sixty, and there will be another audition after that to decide who gets the job. But I’m going to do my best, and if by some miracle I get it, I’m going to go. I can’t pass it up. I needed you to know that, before I fly out to Portland in two weeks.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t dream of asking you to pass it up.” He really wouldn’t, but did it have to be on the other side of the continent?

“It’s just… I mean…all this… Oh God.” Her face flushed, and she buried her head in his chest. “Okay, so you can tell which bit of this I practiced.”

He gave a half-hearted chuckle and reached out to touch the side of her face. She sat up again and made a fluttery gesture with her hand that could have encompassed them or the entire room. “All this… it’s been really, really nice. And I don’t want it to… to…”

The tightness vanished, and he broke out into a big smile. “Neither do I. If it comes to that, we’ll make it work."

He could see the tension drain from her body. She kissed him wholeheartedly.

“There’s a condition, though,” he said, once they broke apart. She looked at him with a worried expression. “If you get it, and come back with a tote bag with a bird on it, wearing Birkenstocks? It’s over.”

She laughed. “No fear! It’s the Sticks, I won’t go native. Besides, I’ve probably completely jinxed it by telling you about it at all.”

He would be too ashamed to ever admit it, but deep down, a small, selfish part of his heart really hoped she had.


--

She hadn't.

--

She texted him the instant she got the results, and he bought her flowers on his way home from work. Her euphoria was infectious; he was able to celebrate with her wholeheartedly despite the fact that his feelings on the matter were more mixed than he cared to admit. He was so pleased, so happy for her, and so proud, but that nagging part of his heart wouldn't let him forget that this brought her one gigantic step closer to leaving.

Her own good mood crashed pretty quickly in turn. The notification came with an enormous packet of sheet music that covered most of the dining room table when she laid it out.

“How much of this do you have to learn?” he asked.
“All of it,” she replied, her hand rubbing the back of her neck. “Not the whole of each piece, just the highlighted parts. And I've played most of these before, but it's still pretty daunting.”
However daunting it might be, she threw herself into it. She cut down all her other commitments to a bare minimum and concentrated wholly on preparing this music, practicing for hours and hours. Once, he'd even caught her practicing her fingering in her sleep. (On his forearm. It had hurt like hell, and left bruises. She was very apologetic.) This was not her usual diligence – she was crossing the line into obsessive behavior, and he began to worry.

It came to a head one night when he came back to her place, to find her exactly where he'd left her, in her windowless practice room and in a foul mood.

She looked up at him from where she was annotating the sheet music. “What kind of sadistic bastards assign the Prokofiev as an audition piece!? I ask you!”

“The kind of sadistic bastards you're trying to get a job with, it seems.”

“Well, when you put it like that...” She crossed her arms and looked at him quizzically. “Are you home for lunch?”

“Lunch? It's seven o'clock in the evening.”

Her eyebrows raised, and she glanced at her phone. “Ah. So it is. I lost track of time, I guess...”

“Apparently! Have you eaten today?”

She began to look abashed. “Coffee counts as a food group, right? Look, I'm not that hungry. Just fifteen more minutes and then - “

My God, how did he keep finding these people? “No. Get your coat. We're going out, and then we're going to my place. You need a break.”

She griped a little as they headed to pick up some takeout, but stopped abruptly as soon as she smelled the food. They got settled in back at his apartment.

“Pick out a DVD,” he told her, as he opened a bottle of wine.

He heard the strains of a very familiar theme song as he was walking out from the kitchen, and glanced over to the screen to see the title card for “Captain America Meets Pimpernel Smith” - one of her go-to comfort movies. Apparently, she was really troubled.

She waited for him to sit down, then nestled herself into his shoulder.

“Did you see that they're releasing a commemorative box set next year?” he asked

“I did. Are you going to get it?”

“I tell myself I'm not, that I've bought the set in too many formats already, but...”

“Yeah, I know. It'll be nice to have all the interviews and documentaries in one place, though.”

The film was an old friend to them both, depicting Captain America and a direct descendant of the Scarlet Pimpernel liberating prison camps throughout Germany. It was a heroic tale of patriotism, derring-do, and really stellar wartime production values.

“It’s the espionage scenes that get me. As if someone really thought it was believable that you could use Steve Rogers as an undercover asset,” he commented.

“Right. ‘Oh, it’s just another six-foot-five blond guy with an incredibly broad chest. But see, he’s got a fake-looking mustache, so that’s totally not Captain America.’”

“Exactly.” He thought for a second. “Paid close attention to the broad chest, did we?”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. The handsome, chaste hero, who nobly, tragically sacrifices himself to save the world? Do you know what that does to a 14-year-old girl? I went as Peggy Carter to my friend’s Halloween party that year.”

He laughed. “Well, now I'm jealous.”

“Oh, fear not. I’m not fourteen anymore. For one thing, chastity loses its appeal pretty quickly,” she said archly. “For another, he's been dead for sixty-seven years, so I think you're safe.”

The movie and their banter served well enough as a distraction for a while, but (at one of the quieter parts of the film) he noticed the line creep back into her brow, and heard her sigh.

“It's not like you, to overtrain like this,” he murmured. “This has really gotten under your skin.”

“It has,” she replied.

“Why now?”

She sighed again. "This is going to seem so terribly irrational.”

“Try me.”

“It's just that up until now, it wasn't really real. It was just a lark, I didn't really have a chance, so I could just go for the experience and have a good time.”

Right. It was just a lark and a hallucination. So forget the whole thing and stay here in New York with me. “And now?”

“And now that I'm at the final round, it's real and I've started to care. I've let myself want it. And a month from now, when I get the rejection notice, it's really going to hurt.”

That was, of course, the problem. As much of a complication as her getting this job would be, he couldn't honestly say he would prefer it to the alternative. “Unwarranted pessimism is also not like you.”

“Hardly unwarranted.”

“Of course it is. How many hundreds of people did you beat to get this far?”

“I don't know.”

“Yes, you do. How many applicants were there?”

“Three hundred and seventy-nine.”

“Meaning you've already surpassed three hundred and seventy-six. Why do you doubt yourself?”

“The two left are almost certainly younger than I am, and with much more experience than I've got.”

“All of which will mean nothing when you play better than they do at the audition.”

“If I play better than they do at the audition.”

“When. And as for their age, well, remember, youth and skill will always fall to old age and treachery.”

She snorted. “I'm going to remind you that you said that, darling, when you turn fifty in two years.”

“Go ahead. I speak from bitter experience.” He looked down at her head on his chest, and ran his fingers along her jawline. “I know you can do this.” And that was God's honest truth.

“And I wish it weren't so far away,” she said, blushing.

“New York will always be here. Besides, if you're so sure you're not going to get the job, why do you care how far away it is?”

She glared up at him. “You're an unkind man, bringing in logic at a time like this.”

“Well, someone's got to.” He held her tighter. “You'll do well. I know you will. I have faith.”

She hid her face in the crook of his neck. “You are so very good to me.”

“It's no more than you deserve.”

She made a noncommittal noise and wrapped her arms around him. They stayed that way until bedtime.

----

He had hoped to go with her to Portland for the audition, but the latest round of New Mexico meetings couldn't be rescheduled. He arranged for flowers to be sent to her hotel room, and called her whenever he could.

Which was, unfortunately, not often. He'd started to receive reports that Selvig's behavior was becoming erratic. His assistants had noticed that the good doctor's schedule had changed – that he was now prone to be up at all hours, and spent an inordinate amount of time just staring at the Tesseract. Coulson had ordered a round of psych evals for the scientific staff – that was easy enough to pass off as a routine precaution – but the results had been inconclusive. (“Inconclusive” was one way of putting it – the head psychiatrist's off-the-record response to Coulson's request was, “Their behavior is erratic? They're researchers. How can you tell?”)

Coulson made a point of catching up with Selvig late one night, after discreetly arranging that the two of them would be alone and uninterrupted. It helped, of course, that he came bearing coffee.

“Oh, thank you, Agent Coulson. Just what I needed.”

“You're quite welcome. I see you've been proceeding well, recently.”

“Thank you, though we'd get more done if we didn't have quite so many reports to write.”

“The perils of bureaucracy, I'm afraid,” said Coulson.

“Like death, there's no escaping it.” Selvig took a sip of his coffee. “This is such a revelatory project to work on, Agent Coulson. Again, I can't tell you how glad I am you people brought me in on this.”

“Your stellar work made you the natural choice.”

Selvig tilted his head to acknowledge the compliment, but the pun, to Coulson's mild disappointment, flew right over his head. Coulson began to ask him about the ongoing project, about their progress concentrating the Tesseract's power. It may have started as a reiteration of the most recent reports but Selvig, like all researchers, needed very little encouragement to keep right on talking.

“There's so much to study, and we're just scratching the surface! Take the designs we documented in the sand at the Bifrost site - in all three cases, after each transport, the patterns in the sand were exactly the same! And not just the same each time, but they were the same prime knot, a prime knot of incredible complexity! So what are we dealing with here? Is it transport by quantum entanglement? Have the Asgardians mastered the quantum computer? Is that why they need a power source of this magnitude? And what does that mean for the knotwork designs all throughout the British Isles and Scandinavia? Are they meaningful in this context, or are they cargo-cult copies, the scribblings of humans trying to ape their betters in the hope that they'll return their divine presence?”

“'Ape their betters,' Dr. Selvig? That's an extremely loaded phrase.” Coulson turned his best bland stare directly at the man.

Selvig waved his hand dismissively. “It's just a figure of speech – forgive me, English is not my first language. But there's something here, something greater, and I feel like it's just within my grasp... the patterns are like those labyrinths in the ancient cathedrals – follow the path to reach Jerusalem.”

Actually, the classic labyrinth was a straightforward pathway, not a maze or a knot, but this didn't seem to be the time to bring up that distinction. “Or to protect against supernatural enemies, from what I understand of some Scandinavian traditions?”

Selvig looked at him. “You are very well-informed, Agent Coulson.”

“Donald Blake made us take a second look at an awful lot of things.”

“Then something good, at least, is coming out of his blunder.”

Coulson said nothing, but kept his eye on Selvig.

Selvig shook his head. “It's just the strangest feeling, to be this close. Like I have just a few more hurdles to leap and I then will find freedom...” He trailed off.

“Freedom?” Coulson raised an eyebrow.

Selvig snapped back to earth. “Freedom from this confusion.” He stared into his coffee. “Or maybe I just need more sleep.” He looked over to Coulson and smiled. “Good night, Agent Coulson.”

“That's rarely a bad idea,” the agent replied. “Good night, Dr. Selvig.” Selvig nodded as he headed out the door.

Coulson looked over at the glowing cube, after the man had gone. That was an unsettling conversation, he thought. He turned on his heel and headed back up to the office he'd staked out as his, and dialed Fury directly.

“I want Barton down here on surveillance as soon as it can be arranged.”

“It's that bad?”

“Selvig's behavior is becoming a concern.”


Phil flew back to New York late on the actual day of, and smiled at the text he received as he deplaned:

“It's done. Alea iacta est, and I refuse to worry about it any more.”

He was, at least, able to meet her at the airport and bring her home. She didn't touch her cellos for two days – a record, in his experience – and by some miracle, no emergencies called him away, so they were able to enjoy a quiet weekend alone together. He relished every second of it – after all, who knew when they would get another?



-----

Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante, Part 2, which really does look like it would be an awful thing to make someone do at an audition. :)

Also, "Pimpernel Smith" is a real WWII movie starring Leslie Howard, about a descendant of the Scarlet Pimpernel liberating prison camps in Germany. It was released in the US under the name, "Mister V." Sadly, neither version involves Captain America. :)

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