The animosity between Phil Coulson and the Sentient World Observation and Response Department (S.W.O.R.D.) started in the fall of '89. At the time, or at least at the beginning of the season, his favorite -- only -- sister was deputy director at the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division's --(S.H.I.E.L.D.)'s -- sister agency and never before, or again, would there be an era of cooperation such as they fostered
Then there was a meteor shower and the fallout spread, figuratively and literally, far beyond the bounds of Smallville when S.W.O.R.D.'s director demanded a child be turned over to lab scientists to be put down and studied.
It was perhaps noteable that Mallory Coulson was allowed to resign her position as deputy director in order to become guardian to Kal-El, the last son of Krypton. It was supposed to be a demotion, but motherhood was neither demeaning nor a punishment.
The black mark was on Phil's file as a series of redacted paragraphs regarding a shoot-out and defensive measures taken to put down a rogue agent. The files were sealed except to the highest clearance. Phil himself has not seen them since he signed his name to his report.
Of the spaceship recovered at Kal-El's crash site, there was no official record.
* * *
"How's your nephew?" Fury asked.
Phil angled the coffee pot and stopped the flow of sweet caffeine into his mug for the time it took him to blink twice - slowly - and determine this was a conversation he did not want to have. He tipped his elbow up again and resumed pouring. "He's well. As are my nieces."
He replaced the carafe carefully on the heat plate, his mug just as carefully on the counter next to the coffee maker, and turned to face his boss. "No." It was not the first time he'd refused a command from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s director.
There wasn't anger on Nick Fury's face, which was new. He didn't like his wishes to be refused. The tired lines around his good eye set off warning bells in Phil's mind. "I'm not asking."
"I'll take Stark if I have to, sir." It was an empty threat. Stark was most useful where he was at the moment -- away from Phil -- and there was no telling what they'd come up against in New Mexico.
"You know as well as I do that it may not be enough. One extraterrestrial to fight another is better odds--"
"With all due respect, sir, last time you suggested that, General Zod nearly won."
"Whatever is coming clearly isn't Kryptonian. I want your boy up there just as backup." Fury was nearly gentle in his delivery, and Phil had no doubt about his sincerity.
Phil felt himself waver, but in this situation, it wasn't on him and he was thankful for that. "I'll ask."
"Please do. Otherwise S.W.O.R.D. is determined to involve themselves and you know I can't stand those black-suited bastards." Phil did not look down at his own black suit. Fury flashed a half-smile. "No offense intended."
"None taken, sir. Though you may reconsider S.H.I.E.L.D.'s dress-code."
* * *
He started with the highest authority to be had: his sister, Kal's adopted mother.
"I'm not giving my permission," she said as she opened the door. Then she kissed his cheek. "But I'm glad to see you."
"Am I that obvious?" he asked stepping inside and shedding his jacket.
Mallory laughed as she led the way to the back of the house and the airy kitchen. "The only time you call ahead is if it's related to work. And if it's related to work, it's something to do with Kal's origins."
Phil conceded, "Guilty. I'm taking a trip and have been ordered to ask Kal to accompany me." She wasn't cleared for the specifics and under most circumstances even that would have been too much. But until her early retirement, her clearance had matched his and it was an open secret that Kal didn't keep secrets from his mother.
More than one shape-shifter had tried to take advantage of that fact.
"It shouldn't be more than a week. Threat potential unknown."
"You know I can't ground him anymore," she said sadly. "And he's started taking advice from others over me. But I don't like him being in this business."
"He'd be somewhere, if not with S.H.I.E.L.D. as backup, then with none. Kal can't seem to help himself from helping others." She rolled her eyes at him and the unneeded reminder, but he wasn't done. "I will watch out for him."
"You always have. It doesn't make it easier." She gestured for him to get out cups while she brought the tea kettle to the table. "Especially after last year."
There was nothing good to say about Zod, no silver lining to the destruction and its effect on Kal. Phil set down the cups and fetched milk for their tea while Mallory poured.
"Did you know he's been courted by one of those black-suited bastards?" She caught Phil's snarl from the corner of her eye and grinned. "Oh, not like that. I mean in the old-fashioned sense of flowers and dinner and phone calls that last for hours."
Phil hadn't known. It was a lack in his information web he'd have to fix at the earliest convenience. "Have you met him yet?"
"I have. And for one of Them, he's rather likable." There was something far away about her expression and Phil gave her a moment, let a smile crook her lips at long-ago memories before she blinked and was back in the moment with him. "It helps that he's smitten."
"It probably helps that he's handsome," Phil teased, just to see the spark come back into her eyes.
* * *
His calls to Kal's cell phone went unanswered, there was no one in his dorm room, and a text to Mallory assured him Kal hadn't taken up refuge in her house in the hours Phil had been gone.
He'd performed his task to the letter of his agreement with Fury, if not exactly within the spirit of it, and if his nephew couldn't be reached to be asked, there was little else he could do.
Aside from going up to the roof and yelling Kal's name to the sky, but that was both undignified and likely to create undue attention to their familial connection.
Duty dispensed with for the time being, Phil headed back to his office for a few last minute details, only to open the door and be greeted by what at first appeared to be an empty room and a disembodied voice.
"Hey, Uncle Phil," Kal said.
Phil looked up slowly and tried to at least look unfazed to find his nephew lying against the ceiling. "Have you been taking lessons from Hawkeye?"
Kal's grin was instant. "Not exactly. But he was feeling lonely last week and after spending a couple hours keeping him company..." He shrugged. "It's kind of nice up here. People are less likely to find me."
"Of course." Phil shut the door to his office and walked around to sit at his desk. Kal dropped casually into a chair opposite him.
"Sorry I missed your call. I was on another call."
"Have you been at HQ all day?"
Kal shook his head as he leaned back in the chair. "No. I had class this morning and then Chloe and I had lunch. And then--" he cut off abruptly and his cheeks colored.
Phil could guess, though if Kal had been busy on the phone earlier, his sudden avoidance of eye contact and details suggested the call had been of a rather personal nature. Phil was curious about Kal's boyfriend, but he wouldn't pry. Mallory managed enough survelliance on her children without Phil's assistance.
"So, anyway, you had something to ask me?" Kal filled in the awkward silence.
"There have been some anomalous weather patterns in New Mexico and we have reason to believe something is on its way, something bigger than storm clouds. Fury wants you on hand in order to keep S.W.O.R.D. out of it for the time being."
Kal frowned. "But if it's alien--" He stopped and drew a sharp breath, and Phil could see the sudden memory of their last alien encounter shadowing his eyes. "Isn't that kind of their thing?"
"It is, or should be, but Fury isn't happy with the way things were handled last time." Phil wasn't either, though he didn't necessarily think this was the best course of action. At least this way, Kal would be under his orders and not those of Abigail Brand or the lackey she sent to head the mission.
"Oh," Kal said softly, eyes downcast.
Phil wondered if Kal was disappointed that his boyfriend wouldn't be on site. S.W.O.R.D. personnel weren't exactly welcome where S.H.I.E.L.D. dared tread. "We'll fly part of the way and then drive in, keep a low profile for as long as possible. And Kal... you don't have to go."
His nephew looked up at him through his lashes. "But you're going."
* * *
They were on site for twelve hours when the Porsche rolled up. They'd gotten rid of the trucks and the various glory hounds seeking to lift the hammer. The man who got out of the car seemed ill-suited to the climate and the task, and Phil could feel the pounding of his head increase. The heat never agreed with him and the car ride down with Barton and Kal had been long.
He waved away Barton and the other agents and approached their visitor himself. He didn't even have to ask who this kid was; the moment he was within range, the guy pulled out his I.D. and opened his mouth.
"I'm from the Sentient World--"
"Stop," Phil directed. He felt a little better when the younger man obeyed instantly, but his headache refused to disappear. "This matter is being handled by S.H.I.E.L.D."
"Yes, sir, and I am not here to question the authority of the agent in charge." He didn't offer more than that, which earned him some credit with Phil. He wasn't so eager that he was oversharing, but neither was he so mute as to need to have everything dragged from him. It was a good sign of interagency cooperation, but they weren't officially supposed to be cooperating.
Phil narrowed his eyes. "You were with Brand in Metropolis last year."
The kid straightened up. He didn't have the military snap, but the training and obedience was there. "Yes, sir."
"You were the one who brought down Zod." He remembered the group that had crawled out of Ground Zero, dirty and ragged. He'd been focused on cleanup and organizing the backup team he'd brought in from S.H.I.E.L.D. and then in making sure Kal was okay; he hadn't paid much attention to those not under his care and supervision.
"I-- not alone, sir." The agent managed to look like he wanted to duck his head at the same time he wanted to lift it, and all of that without actually moving.
It finally clicked, the name Phil had been searching for. "Alexander Brand." Not a kid, then, or a junior agent, despite the shuffling feet and attempt at charm. Second to and brother of Abigail Brand, Fury's counterpart at S.W.O.R.D.
"I prefer 'Lex'," Brand corrected, and his chin did lift.
"You're not here in any official capacity," Phil surmised and Brand's confidence flickered with uncertainty. "And I'm willing to wager that if I were to call up your superior, I would get some nonsense thrown my way and you would be getting a phone call asking what you're doing."
Brand didn't answer and his expression was carefully blank.
Phil nodded in answer to his both questions. "Officially, I will remind you of what you already know regarding jurisdiction and authority. Unofficially, I will tell you to stay out of the way. And as an uncle to the young man you've come to see, I will tell you it's a pleasure to meet Kal's boyfriend."
It wasn't quite the truth, but the half-lie was worth Brand's surprise and the light flush that came to his cheeks. And maybe if the smile Brand fought against was sincere, the words would be true soon enough.
"Now get off-site. Kal's in town helping to babysit the civilians who beat us to the punch."
"Sir," Brand said, mouth a pinched line. He left quick enough to prove Phil right.
Fury was going to be pissed Phil hadn't run him straight off, but if the thing headed their way was S.W.O.R.D. standard issue, having the agent on hand would be useful. At least, that's what Phil's report would say.
* * *
It didn't come to that. A day and a half in the desert and Phil sat three tables away eating a lackluster sandwich and not watching Kal and Brand have lunch when Brand's cell beeped at him. He excused himself from the table, but it was a mere formality with Kal's hearing.
Phil didn't bother to disguise his observation of Kal's face as he eavesdropped on Brand's conversation. Irritation for the interruption, a frown at bad news, concern as the call ended. Phil rose to his feet and made his way to their table.
Before Brand himself had returned, Phil already knew it was to say goodbye. Phil put a hand on Kal's shoulder as the S.W.O.R.D. agent fixed his eyes on Kal's face. "I have to go."
"S.W.O.R.D. business?" Phil prompted gently, interrupting on purpose. Given a choice, he'd have let them have their privacy, but there was none to be had with half a dozen other agents forsaking their meals to stare.
Brand looked up sharply and cleared his throat when he realized they had an audience. "Htraeans. In Metropolis. Again."
Phil translated Htraeans to the more commonly used 'Bizarros'. The last time there'd been an incident, it had taken Kal's assistance to take down his sharper-featured doppelganger. Come to think of it, Phil recalled Lex being in several of the photos Phil had reviewed in the aftermath. He'd been busy overseas at the time and had come back to Kal's tales of victory and excitement.
Kal had been so young then, which said a lot since he still seemed young now. But that had been four years ago and he had saved the world multiple times since.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. will make Kal-El available to you." Phil offered offhand, like he wasn't talking about his nephew and a rather important asset to his own agency.
Brand wasn't dumb enough to question it and Kal apparently was too happy to have permission to go play. He was excited enough to forget where they were and pull Phil into a hug. "Thanks, Uncle Phil."
Phil returned the hug briefly before shooing them away. He'd have to work on terrifying the witnesses later to make up for this soft-hearted scene, but some things were more important than reputation.
* * *
Less than eight hours later, Phil was regretting that decision when 'Blake' broke into the compound, but given how simple he was to apprehend after being thwarted by the hammer, throwing Kal at him would have been overkill. If Phil had known for certain that their erstwhile visitor was Thor, god of Thunder, he might have recalled Kal sooner.
But Kal was still in Metropolis dealing with Kryptonite and reverse logic to be of any help when the metal monstrosity started shooting up a town and threatening civilians. By the time Phil had sent word for his nephew to come back, Thor had returned to outer space, Fury had already threatened Phil with a thorough dressing down, and he had four text messages from his sister demanding to know why he wasn't babysitting her grown, near-invulnerable son.
* * *
"The Strategic World Observation and Response Department is being dismantled and reassigned." Fury indicated the thick folder on Phil's side of the desk. "We're inheriting some of their agents and a lot of their problems. Brand is apparently going to the Breakworld."
Phil didn't ask what that meant, but he could guess. A trip to space wasn't unusual for S.W.O.R.D., but they weren't talking about a day outing. "And her brother?"
Fury raised an eyebrow, but answered, "Coming aboard. Under you."
"There may be some question regarding familiarity," Phil admitted, putting a hand down on the folder. "He's dating Kal."
"The rules on fraternization--"
"Are purposely vague and were not a problem before." He made sure his gaze was steady; one couldn't really stare Nick Fury down, but Phil had gotten adept over the years at keeping himself steady under the intensity of the director's gaze. "I will not give an order for them to separate. And I will ignore any regulations that attempt to do the same."
"I want Kal in the Initiative."
It wasn't the first time this conversation had come up. It was the first time he thought Kal might agree. Give him Brand, and Kal would follow. Fury's expression didn't change, but Phil could practically smell the smug satisfaction rolling off him. Phil picked up the folder. "I'll ask."
* * *
Mallory would have to be spoken with, but Phil started by calling Alexander Brand into his office and handing over the case files on the individuals being pulled into the Avengers Initiative. Kal's file was on top.
Brand looked at the files, then at Phil. He wasn't a kid at all, but there was something skittish about him, something young. "Sir?"
It had taken little effort to get Brand's file and only a little more to dig into the history of one Alexander Luthor. He'd lost his father in the meteor shower that had delivered Kal-El into Phil's life, and then his mother had died three years later. There was minimal information about the boy in that time, and then the adoption by Abigail Brand's mother had put an end to him altogether.
His adopted mother had died when he was seventeen, leaving him technically an orphan, again. He'd been old enough and clever enough to be independent at that point, though he'd kept his adopted name and a relationship with his adopted sister.
Alexander Brand's school records were public record, unlike his early enrollment into S.W.O.R.D. and his service records, though Phil had eventually found his way into those as well. He was less than exemplary in certain areas, with early citations of xenophobia that had abruptly ended around the time of the first Bizarro encounter.
"There are three things you should be aware of going into this assignment," Phil began, straightening his tie. "Kal is my family. Kal is well-loved by the current members of the Avengers Initiative. And Kal's godmother is Maxima of Almerac."
He stopped there and waited for Brand to offer up a thousand promises of how he'd never hurt a hair on Kal's occasionally dense head. Gray eyes regarded him calmly in return. "Shouldn't there be a threat in there somewhere?"
Phil stared back at him. "I didn't think you required one." He pulled the top file from the stack to his right and put it down between them. "You know his weaknesses and his strengths. And you won't use them against him."
That put a ding in Brand's facade. "You don't know that."
"You took down Bizarro in '07; you took out Zod in '11. In between, you led three S.W.O.R.D. teams into Smallville to recover, research, and destroy the green meteorite known as kryptonite." He added a second folder. "You've been shot twice by weapons that could have killed Kal."
"With all due respect, those weapons weren't fatal to humans," Brand interrupted.
Phil paused long enough to give the younger man his approximation of Fury's eyebrow. "Did you know that when you acted, or were you as surprised as everyone else?" There was no reply, but the silence spoke volumes. "And two years ago, you went off-orders to help Davis Bloom excise the entity known as Doomsday in a course of action that nearly killed you both."
He put another folder to the growing stack and opened the flap to reveal the picture of Chloe Sullivan and Davis Bloom. Brand glanced at it briefly and swallowed hard, before resolutely looking at Phil again.
"I'm willing to bet that your only reason for helping was because Kal asked you to," Phil said gently. "And so that it is clear, your weakness may be visible to me, but only because I share it. There was no threat, because you don't need it."
"That's a lot of faith to have in someone you don't know," Brand warned, and there was something dark and hurting on his face, something Phil had seen in Stark and Barton. It was the same sort of shadow that drew people into Kal's light.
Phil closed the flap on the Doomsday file and put the stack of case files to the side again. "I know you well enough. And I'll know you even better when you make an honest man of Kal."
There was another flash of surprise, stronger this time, but no dismay or fear. Just the same quickly hidden pleasure in the fact that Phil had acknowledged Brand's relationship with Kal.
* * *
Phil's coffee was lukewarm when his office door opened without warning. He nodded to Fury. "Sir."
"How are the boys?" the Director asked, settling into an at-ease stance and ignoring Phil's perfectly serviceable chairs.
"As well as the girls," Phil answered obliquely. "Mallory sends her love."
That made the director pause, but only for a moment. "We're dividing the Avengers in order to improve response time. An East Coast and a West Coast initiative."
"Brand," Phil said instantly. "I'll divide the roster and work with Lex to fill the ranks."
Another hesitation, which made it a record in one conversation. "You know that will put Kal outside your authority."
For once, Phil felt entirely justified in using Fury's smirk against him. "He's family, sir; he's never outside my authority. Same for Brand. But they'll take care of each other."