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I Don't Compromise And I Don't Pretend (Most Of The Time)

Chapter Text

"I am Iron Man," says Tony Stark on the TV.

The press goes nuts. Pepper Potts gasps. Colonel Rhodes frowns and carefully hides his face behind his palm. In the room where they've set up surveillance, Jasper's jaw drops.

Phil Coulson says, "Excuse me," walks out of the room, down the hall and into the stairway. Once there, he stops on the landing, takes a deep breath, and then counts backwards from twenty, eyes squeezed shut and hands balled into fists at his sides.

"Shit. Fuck." Then after a beat, "Son of a mother freakin'--"

In his pocket, Phil's phone starts buzzing insistently. When he pulls it out, the display reads Director Fury.

It's shaping up to be an awesome day.

*

 

Nick Fury goes to talk to Stark in person.

Stark laughs him out of his Malibu mansion.

To say that Nick is pissed is like saying water's a little wet. Phil tries to slink down in his seat a little in an uncharacteristic slouch, a bid to make himself smaller and non-threatening, as Nick paces in front of him and yells.

"--the most boneheaded, reckless, shortsighted, moronic fucking genius I've ever--" Nick rants.

Phil stares at nothing and thinks of the potential the Iron Man armor holds.

"--might as well have painted a fucking target on his forehead--"

It's a damn shame Stark wouldn't listen to Nick when he presented the Avengers Initiative, because the Iron Man armor is unquestionably one of the coolest things Phil's ever seen--not that he'd ever admit that to Stark. The man doesn't need any further stroking of his ego.

"--wasting time and resources on his spoiled ass, and it's not like I don't already have enough shit on my plate--"

Nick's words register with Phil and he blinks himself out of his thoughts. "Wait, what?"

Nick gives Phil a glare he hasn't seen in years. "There's no way I believe that you weren't actually fucking listening to every word I just said."

Phil's brain does a quick rewind over Nick's words, and he frowns. "Are you giving Stark a bodyguard detail?"

"Knew you were listening," Nick grumbles, before sitting down in his massive office chair. Phil's jealous of it. A little bit. "Yes. Indefinitely, until further notice, even. I don't really want to, but I have to. Best case scenario, a couple of amateurs try their luck. Worst case scenario, every lowlife scumbag in the world is gonna come for him and his goddamn suit, and as competent as he is in that thing, he can't always be in it. Hell, you've seen the tapes. The song and dance it takes just to get in it necessitates a bodyguard detail. The technology is too valuable to let it go, and I'd still like it for the Avengers Initiative--with or without Stark at the helm."

"I thought he already had a bodyguard?" Phil asks, and Nick scoffs.

"You vetted Hogan. He's a good guy, but would you trust the Iron Man suit with him?"

Phil nods; he can certainly see the point. "Not solo." Bodyguard detail is not a service SHIELD normally provides--but then again, they've never had anyone with a weapon like Stark's suit before. "Who's getting stuck babysitting?" he asks, but as soon as the words leave his mouth, he knows. "No, wait, no--"

A wide, shit-eating grin spreads across Nick's face, the first Phil has seen in days. "Make Jasper do it," Phil says, refusing to let desperation creep into his voice, because Nick's just enough of a bastard it'd just amuse him further.

"A Level Five? Please."

"Exactly! You need me here, Marcus," Phil tries, even though he knows it's a low blow. Even though he knows it's not even true--Nick doesn't really need him for a damn thing, and they both know it.

Nick, of course, sees right through him. "Nice try," he says, chuckling. "I've already cleared your arrival with Stark. Get your ass on a plane to Malibu. Yesterday. You make it there by tomorrow morning, I might consider giving you Sitwell as a second."

For a moment, Phil considers telling Nick where to stick it. He enjoys his work at HQ, and babysitting Stark isn't his idea of a fun time--but on the other hand, this is for the good of the Avengers Initiative, and Phil fucking loves the Avengers Initiative. He thinks if they can get past the bureaucracy of the World Security Council, it could be the single greatest thing SHIELD has ever done, and Stark's suit would be a tremendous asset to that team.

Getting to his feet, Phil buttons his suit jacket and heads for the door. "You owe me."

Nick just shakes his head and grins back at him, nasty and knowing. "Add it to the list, Cheese. Add it to the list."

*

To his surprise, Stark meets him at the airport in person, looking expensively rumpled and casually ignoring the paparazzi and reporters surrounding him. Happy Hogan is nowhere in sight. When he sees Phil and Phil frowns at him, Stark just grins from behind his reflective sunglasses.

"You know, Mr. Stark, this is the sort of thing you probably shouldn't be doing anymore, and certainly not alone," Phil says into Stark's ear over the sound of clamoring paparazzi, neatly dodging Stark's attempts at throwing an arm around his shoulders.

"What?" Stark asks, "I'm just picking up the new babysitter, I'm allowed to, it's a free country."

"Mr. Stark!" a reporter cries, "Do you have illegitimate children?"

"I don't know, who'd your wife say was the father?" Stark responds, and a few others titter around them.

"Tony!" another one cries, "Tony, did Obadiah Stane really die in a plane crash, or did you kill him that night? Was he the Iron Monger?"

Stark's lips tighten and Phil makes a mental note to talk to him about that--it's a small change, but it's still like a neon sign that they've struck a nerve. Sure enough, the same guy immediately presses on. "Did you kill him? Did you kill the man that was like a second father to you?"

Stark shoves through the crowd with no further comments, and Phil thinks about everything he knows about Howard Stark--thinks that a second father doesn't even begin to describe what Obadiah Stane was to Stark. Following Stark, he hunches up his shoulders, shielding him as much as possible from the blitzing of flashbulbs.

Once they're in Stark's car he pulls down his sunglasses enough that he can peer at Phil over the rim.

"Fury knows I'm still not joining his super secret boy band, right?"

Phil considers his words carefully; he knows that his presence here is not really welcome, just tolerated--and barely so, at that--and he doesn't want to spook Stark away. But on the other hand, he can't help feeling like there's been enough people lying to Stark lately. He doesn't want to join their ranks. "You might not be," he says, "but you still have a lot to offer, Mr. Stark--both to us and the world in general."

Stark doesn't respond, the tightness around his lips that never quite left getting more prominent.

He hasn't seen a therapist since Afghanistan, Phil knows--but he thinks idly that Stark really should have.

"It's not like anyone's coming for me, anyway," Stark says with a dismissive gesture, weaving through traffic in a way that might have been unsettling to anyone who wasn't Phil Coulson.

There's no way Stark really believes that. He's far too smart. Phil mentally goes through the list of potential threats. Garden variety small time criminals, suicide bomber nut jobs, US military forces, US government, foreign military forces, foreign governments--hell, maybe even supervillains.

Phil doesn't care what Nick says about his excessive interest in Captain America, he still maintains that the Red Skull had something supernatural juicing his engine. And if supervillains have the potential to exist--if they exist--then they'll surely be coming for Iron Man, who could potentially be the first superhero the world's seen since the Captain himself.

"Besides," Stark continues, "even if anyone's coming--and that's a big if--I can handle myself, Agent."

Phil smiles blandly at him and doesn't share his theories regarding supervillains. "I'm sure you can, Mr. Stark, but I have my orders."

Stark grumbles at him, but doesn't object further, instead launching into a rant about copyright and patent law, and the weapons developed under his old military contracts.

*

Stark puts him up in a room in his mansion which frankly is about twice the size of Phil's entire Brooklyn apartment, with its own en-suite bathroom. Phil balks a little. He won't be spending a lot of time there, but it's the principle of the matter. Stark just waves his hand blithely in the air and makes a pssht sound. "I wasn't using it."

Phil frowns a little. "Was this room even here a month ago? I've seen your floor plans, I thought this was a dining area?"

But Stark's attention is already elsewhere. "I've set you up with access to JARVIS and most of his functions and protocols, except for what's on a few private servers, of course. All Stark Industries tech is on the private servers, because it is my company, and I don't like sharing. The workshop is always off limits, and if Dread Pirate Fury has an issue with that, he can suck my nut."

Ah, yes, pirate jokes, Phil thinks. Nick loves those. Always so original.

"Right," he says, clearing his throat. "Mr. Stark, as you're already aware, I've been assigned as the primary agent on your security detail. SHIELD has deemed your self-sufficiency in the Iron Man suit of armor to be acceptable--"

"Very generous, I'm sure," Stark mutters, predictably interrupting, but Phil continues talking over him.

"--so when you are piloting the suit, you are free to come and go as you please--with the provision that you actually stay in the suit. For the rest of the time, I'll be on duty your every waking moment, and a few of the non-waking ones--"

"Really? You don't even do shift rotations?"

"If something is preventing me from doing my duty for whatever reason or if I'm otherwise in need of a reprieve, Mr. Hogan can be called on for solo duty in certain situations, or we have a secondary on standby. There are tactical teams available with near-global response times of less than 30 minutes, less than 10 for most of the continental United States, that are prepared to intervene, should I deem it necessary. I will not be replacing your current bodyguard, Mr. Hogan, but will be working alongside him to ensure your safety. Unlike Mr. Hogan, I will not be driving you anywhere--"

"Good, I prefer driving myself."

"The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement--"

"Oh for fuck's sake," Stark interrupts again, explosively this time. "SHIELD, man, SHIELD, I'm gonna have an aneurysm if you keep saying the whole thing!"

"SHIELD," Phil corrects, "appreciates your cooperation in this matter, and personally, I would be grateful if you didn't attempt to leave the house without me--or if I can't make it, my secondary--for any reason."

Stark narrows his eyes at Phil.

Phil lets himself smile, because Stark is a genius after all. It's a nice change of pace, dealing with someone he doesn't have to pussyfoot around quite as much as the usual civilians he encounters. "What I mean is," he says, "if you don't cooperate, I will taze you and watch Supernanny while you drool into the carpet." He makes no attempt to keep the glee out of his voice.

Stark, to his credit, grins and claps Phil's shoulder. "Threatening my safety while ensuring my safety. That's more like it." He turns around and heads out of the room with a wave of his hand. "I'll be in my workshop. I've got a meeting in two hours, so if you could be ready to leave in three, that'd be great."

Phil shakes his head and starts unpacking.

*

The first day at Stark's passes by quickly and quietly. Stark spends the first few hours locked in the workshop, upgrading the suit and tinkering with about fifty million projects Phil isn't really supposed to know about, and only half of which Tony's actually managed to keep under wraps. Nobody else comes and goes, and Phil's just fine with that--it makes his job easy.

For his own part, Phil spends the hours familiarizing himself with the mansion's layout and checking out the surrounding terrain for potential security weaknesses. The landscape is open for several hundred yards on one side, and nothing but ocean on the other. Still, the building is fairly exposed and while it would take quite a lot to sneak up on foot, Phil spots at least three locations that would be ideal for snipers--not to mention the easy target they make for any potential aerial attacks.

Phil also gets to know JARVIS and learns about the general tasks he oversees on a daily basis. JARVIS confirms that his room temperature is pleasant, shows him where Stark has set up screens with the mansion's security video feeds, guides him from room to room in the mansion, and makes sure Phil gets a copy of Stark's schedule downloaded to his PDA. Phil is not surprised to note that it's completely full, yet Stark seems content to ignore half of it in order to tinker.

"I'd ask you for an approved visitors list, but I assume JARVIS is already on top of that?" he asks Stark when he eventually emerges from his workshop, two hours past the time he told Phil he had a meeting.

"Indeed you are correct, Agent Coulson," JARVIS responds, and Stark gives Phil a cocky Ain't I the grandest? look.

"It's pretty much just you, Pepper, Rhodey and Happy, anyway," Stark says, pulling on a blazer that would look respectable if it wasn't so rumpled, "and I don't think Rhodey's gonna show up for a while."

Phil looks at Stark and waits.

"Rough patch in the marriage," Stark explains after a beat, shrugging. "We're having disagreements." He doesn't clarify further, but that's okay--Phil can guess the details.

"Sir, Ms. Potts is on the phone for you again," JARVIS informs him.

Stark makes a face and doesn't answer JARVIS, or the phone, and just heads out to the car instead. Phil makes sure to catalogue the route Stark takes as he drives them to the Stark Industries office building, at the front of the sprawling Stark Industries campus. He's been to the building before and knows there's underground parking, yet Stark just pulls up at the curb and jumps out before Phil can even say anything, much less get out first and check that everything's clear. Phil has no choice but to curse under his breath and follow him.

When he catches up to Stark in the lobby, he tells him, "Don't do that again, Mr. Stark."

Stark rolls his eyes so hard Phil's surprised he can't hear it, but he doesn't object either, so Phil counts it as a win.

They take the elevator up to the 4th floor, where Stark strides down the hallway with an almost regal gait, and then bursts into a conference room, pushing both wooden doors open at the same time so hard they bounce off the walls. The group of suit-clad people around the table looks up, then clearly dismisses the whole thing in a collective, Oh it's just Stark way, before glancing at Phil and blatantly dismissing him, too. That means they perceive him as a non-threat. Phil's pleased.

"Let's get this party started!" Stark announces.

For the next hour and a half, he leads the group through a fairly heated discussion about his repulsor technology and how to modify it for public marketing without actually having to duplicate what he's using in the suit. Phil's no engineer, so he only follows about half the conversation, but he definitely understands why Stark would want to keep the Iron Man armor's specific tricks to himself.

"But," Stark almost whines, "flying cars!"

Phil quietly thinks to himself that flying cars for everyone sounds like a terrible idea, and immediately feels vindicated when one of the suits agrees with him.

Once Stark is done arguing about his repulsor technology, they take the elevator down to the basement--fingerprint security in the elevator, Phil notes--where there's a huge lab. Stark immediately gets into an argument with a man in a white lab coat, and Phil understands significantly less of that conversation. It's possible they're debating something about energy generation, but Phil's not sure.

The rest of the day goes much like that, up and down the elevator so Stark can argue with various people. When they head back towards Stark's mansion, the sun is almost at the horizon, and Phil's stomach is growling. Stark, however, is still going, complaining loudly about being the only person with half a brain at his company, possibly on earth.

"I should just fire everyone," he says, and Phil's not even sure if he's kidding anymore. "It would be more efficient than having them all underfoot, cluttering things up, I mean, I'm already doing all this extra bullshit work, don't see how it'd make a difference, ultimately."

Phil thinks of Stark's full calendar. "Staying busy?" he asks, and means it casually.

Tension pops back up at the corners of Stark's mouth. "Well, with Obadiah gone, there's some slack to be picked up," Stark offers bitterly, and Phil curses himself inwardly. "Pepper helps, though."

When they pull up in front of the mansion, a man Phil recognizes as Happy Hogan is standing by the front door, looking quite angry.

"What the hell!" he says immediately when Stark exits the car. "I've been trying to find you all fucking day!" Then he looks slightly chastised, and adds, "Sir."

"Aw, Happy, baby, I missed you too," Stark says, blowing a kiss. "Next time, try to keep up, yeah?" Then he breezes past Hogan into the house. "I'm thinking Chinese for dinner. JARVIS?"

Phil quirks an eyebrow at Hogan, whose shoulders slump as he sighs in resignation. "You're Coulson, right? He gave me the slip this morning, and then lied to me about his whereabouts. He does that. Better you get used to it now, honestly."

Phil smiles and shakes Hogan's hand, and thinks about how Stark hasn't actually made a single attempt at ditching him.

Stark shares his Chinese with both of them, and while Phil can think of better assignments, he can think of a lot worse ones, too.

*

Ms. Potts shows up on the second day.

"It's nice to see you again," Phil says with a smile when she walks in to find him sitting in the living room, waiting for Stark to get out of the workshop. She's balancing a cup of coffee on top of a stack of papers in one hand, and she's carrying a garment bag in her other hand. He likes Ms. Potts. Her efficiency and no-bullshit attitude appeals to him, and her well-known ability to wrangle Stark--which he's had the pleasure of seeing first-hand, if briefly--is impressive.

"Agent Coulson," she says pleasantly. "Tony told me you were coming. I didn't realize you'd arrived already."

Phil helps her get the garment bag settled over the back of a chair and then shakes her hand. "I got in yesterday morning."

"How long will you be staying with us?"

"Hard to say," Phil says, shrugging. "As of right now, my assignment is on an indefinite basis, but that could change at any moment."

Ms. Potts frowns a little. "But you don't think he's in any immediate danger, do you?"

It's a ridiculous question; they both know Phil wouldn't be here if there was no immediate danger, and Phil clears his throat a little.

"We don't want to rule anything out, Ms. Potts."

"Please," Ms. Potts says, "call me Pepper."

"Step away from the redhead," Stark says, suddenly appearing at the top of the stairs.

"Tony," Pepper says on a sigh, but she's smiling all the same as she hands him his coffee. "I have papers for you to sign."

"When don't you?" Stark asks, eyeing Phil suspiciously and blindly signing the documents Pepper's holding out for him. "Why are you two talking? There's no need for you two to talk."

Phil keeps the bland smile on his face as Pepper shoves the garment bag into Stark's arms and ushers him towards the stairs again. "Go get changed. Go, go!" She gestures at his sleeveless t-shirt and the oil stains and burn marks adorning it. "That's not head of Stark Industries attire, Tony! You have a meeting in 45 minutes, and I'd like it if, for once, you weren't late!"

Stark's still looking at Phil over his shoulder. "You're not allowed to call her Pepper," he says, then takes the stairs two at a time, coffee sloshing in the cup.

"You don't decide that!" Pepper shouts after him, and then groans as Stark's shirt comes sailing over the railing to narrowly miss landing on her head. When she turns to Phil however, her pleasant smile is back in place. Phil's impressed.

"Can I get you anything, Agent Coulson?"

Phil shakes his head quickly. "Oh, no, thank you, I'm good, Ms. Potts."

Pepper's bright enough to catch the glint in his eye, and she winks at him, friendly and happy. "Well, I have work to do," she says, gathering her documents and preparing to leave again. "But it was nice seeing you again, Agent. Please take care."

Of which one of us? Phil thinks, and just smiles at Pepper in goodbye.

*

On the third day, Stark stops a bank robbery and then invites all the near-hostages to the Playboy Mansion that evening. Phil spends the morning relaxing, since Stark actually stays in his suit--only lifting his faceplate to do some TV interviews and grin cockily at the press, throwing peace signs for the photographers and paparazzi--and then he spends the evening sitting in the quietest corner he can find, reading, since Hugh Hefner has a lot of his own security in place.

Stark brings three women home, only grumbling mildly when Phil prevents them from leaving the party until he's gotten all their fingerprints and run a cursory check on them. On the way home, Phil rides up front with Hogan and ignores the sounds coming from behind the closed partition.

"He does this; you get used to it," Hogan offers with a shrug.

Phil just puts on his blandest smile and wishes the partition was sound proof, security risk or not.

All three women are gone by the time he gets out of bed in the morning, and Stark grins at him and says, "Maybe next party Hef can spare a bunny for you, too, huh?"

Phil smiles blandly at him and doesn't tell Stark how he feels about Playboy bunnies.

On the fifth day, Stark takes a trip in his suit to help with a derailed train upstate. Phil watches the footage on the news and rolls his eyes when Iron Man lifts part of the train triumphantly above his head in a grand pose. Pepper sits next to him with her laptop resting on her knees as she pretends not to pay attention to the TV at all, but Phil can see the corner of her mouth twitch.

His days continue to go like that. Stark works, and parties, and shows off in his suit. Sometimes he saves lives. Phil's maybe starting to not mind this softball assignment so much.

*

Nick's right. Of course he is. Unfortunately.

The first attack on Tony Stark happens two months after the press conference, a few weeks after Phil starts working with him. And just as Nick predicted, Stark himself is nowhere near his fancy machinery to actually get in his suit--in fact, Stark's probably located in the last place he should be.

"Stay down," Phil orders Stark, popping his head up over the car to fire again, while at the same time getting a quick overview of the situation. He curses and wishes he'd managed to talk Stark out of this particular point on his calendar.

"Shouldn't I have a gun, too?" Stark asks, voice slightly high pitched and panicked.

"I've got six hostiles," Phil says into his comm link, "heavily armed. We're in a residential area, lots of civilians around, we need backup and extraction ASAP!"

"I got your location, ETA four minutes," Jasper responds, and even though the man has his flaws, Phil's glad it's Jasper he's working with and not one of the other Level Fives, like Williams or Xu--God knows they're both fucking useless.

"Now do you see?" Phil asks, crankier than he means to. "This kind of thing cannot happen anymore."

"I think that's unfair," Stark says, not even pretending to misunderstand Phil. "I just wanted to do something nice, okay, something nice, and they've been asking me, begging me, and I normally wouldn't, I mean, before I wouldn't, but--"

"Being an honorary judge at a grade school science fair is not a priority for you right now!" Phil snaps back, interrupting Stark.

The six men who had jumped out of a black van--and seriously, do bad guys get vans at a bulk discount?--had cornered them a mere four blocks away from the school, forcing them into a slightly shabby looking cul-de-sac and then started shooting. They are dressed head to toe in black, ski masks and all, and seem hell-bent on kidnapping Tony Stark.

"I really think I should have a gun," Stark says again, urgently tugging on Phil's sleeve. Irritably, Phil tries to pull his arm away.

"I can't stop you from carrying a gun if you so desire, I'm sure you have some overstock left somewhere."

"I specialized in big guns," Stark cries, tugging harder at Phil's clothes. "I can't very well carry a missile with me, and we got rid of all the overstock anyway, even the small handguns, you know, clean slate, all of that..."

"Mr. Stark, please," Phil says, at the same time as Stark continues, "I mean, I get that you're here to defend me and all, and that's great, but I feel like I should be able to defend myself as well, and in the absence of my suit--"

"Your three o'clock!" Hogan yells from one car over, and Phil is swinging on autopilot, whirling around and using the butt of his gun to knock out the man who's snuck up on them.

"Thanks," Phil calls towards Hogan. "Extraction's on the way, when they get here I want you to get Stark to safety."

Hogan nods, and Phil's relieved the man follows orders, at least. Popping his head back up, Phil fires again and manages to take out one more of the Bad Guys, whose head is peeking out by a tree.

"We just want Tony Stark!" someone yells as the gunfire temporarily stops. "Give us Stark, and nobody gets hurt!"

"Yeah, no!" Stark yells back, and Phil wants to strangle the man. "I've already met my kidnapped-quota for the year, thanks, try again next year!"

"Do you ever shut up?" Phil wonders as the Bad Guys start firing again. Phil hears glass shattering in the house behind him.

Stark shakes his head. "No, not really."

"ETA?" Phil asks into the comm link, because otherwise he really will strangle Stark--but before Jasper has a chance to answer, the sound of Quinjet engines appears and quickly grows to a deafening roar.

"Nevermind," Phil says, watching the Quinjet descend over the residential area, the main gun lowering to point in the general direction of the Bad Guys.

"Drop your weapons," Natasha says over the speakers, and Phil is pleasantly surprised.

A Bad Guy pops out from behind the van and fires at the Quinjet, and then instantly drops as Natasha fires back with deadly accuracy. "Drop your weapons!" she repeats, and Phil knows her tone of voice well.

A few seconds pass before the last three guys push their guns out from behind their hiding spots and then slowly emerge, arms raised high above their heads. Phil nods once to Hogan, who darts out and ushers Stark away, before he gets out from behind the car, gun leveled towards the men.

"All clear here," he says into the comm link. "Good to see you, Agent Romanoff."

Natasha doesn't answer, but Phil knows she heard him loud and clear. He watches as the Quinjet lands in the middle of the cul-de-sac and several SHIELD agents swarm out.

"Good job, Agent Sitwell," Phil says. "Impressive response time."

"You don't have to sound so surprised," Jasper says.

"I'll stop being surprised when you make it a habit," Phil shoots back.

"It's like you want more bad guys to come at you!"

"You know Phil, he just appreciates a good gunfight," Natasha says, walking up to Phil and shaking his hand. "Good to see you, Agent Coulson."

"Agent Romanoff," Phil greets her. "I didn't think you were assigned to this detail?"

"I was in the area," Natasha says with a small smile and a shrug.

"Hey, I know you," Stark says, strolling over from somewhere. "I've seen you! You're in Legal! Something's rotten in the state of Denmark!"

"You're supposed to be not here," Phil tells him, and notices how Hogan's nowhere in sight. Making a mental note to yell at Stark later for ditching Hogan again, Phil raises an eyebrow at Natasha. "You were in the area, huh?"

"Legal is boring." Natasha shrugs again, and walks away without saying anything further. Phil smiles as he watches her go, before turning his attention to the area at large.

The remaining Bad Guys have been handcuffed and are presently being led into the Quinjet. People have started exiting the surrounding houses, and Phil sighs.

"Report?" he asks into the air, and an agent in full tactical gear stops in front of him.

"Agent Coulson, sir. Two hostiles dead, four captured. One hostile is unconscious, one has a minor GSW which can be treated on the way to base. Property damage is minimal, and there have been no civilian casualties or injuries, sir."

Those are the magic words Phil has been waiting for, and he breathes a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Agent."

"Agent Coulson, sir, yes, sir, sir, yes," Stark mocks under his breath.

"Hey!" a woman shouts from the perimeter, where another agent is preventing her from approaching further. "Hey, what's going on?"

A few others have also gathered near her. Phil looks over and catalogues the crowd. The brunette woman who was shouting has a girl around preschool age clinging to one leg and an older girl of maybe ten hiding behind the other. Another brunette woman stands next to her with a little boy of her own, maybe around seven, and a blond man stands nearby with a boy of maybe three years old on his hip. An older couple are standing in their front yard, holding onto each other, while two teenagers have their cell phones out, taking photos of everything.

Catching another agent's eye, Phil gestures for her to confiscate the cell phones, before taking a few steps up and addressing the small crowd. "My name is Agent Phil Coulson with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division," and in the background he hears Stark mutter, "Oh, here we fucking go again."

"I'm terribly sorry for the disturbance. The area is safe now, and the gunmen responsible have been apprehended. SHIELD will be working with the city to repair any damage to your homes--"

"Fuck the property damage," the blond man with the toddler calls. "What the hell happened? There's kids in this area!"

Phil takes a breath. "I'm afraid that's classified information, sir. I can however tell you that it was an isolated incident, and that it will not happen again."

"Yeah, as long as Tony Stark's not nearby," one of the teenagers giggles, and Phil feels a sting of satisfaction when an agent swipes the cell phone out of his hand and his grin disappears.

"Hey dude, that's not cool!" the teenager protests. "I heard them, though! They just wanted Tony Stark!"

"That's stealing!" his buddy says in outrage as his phone is also taken from him. "We're not doing anything wrong, why don't you guys go fucking harass Iron Man, he's the only reason they started shooting!"

Phil turns to glance at Stark, where he's frozen on the spot, staring hard at the ground. Phil's never seen Stark like this, and it's a vaguely uncomfortable sight.

"I assure you," Phil says with emphasis, "Mr. Stark is not to blame for the events that just occurred. Now, if you'll go back into your houses, the proper authorities will be in contact regarding your property damage."

"Fuck you guys," one of the teens say, but Phil ignores him and instead walks back to Stark.

"Mr. Stark?"

Stark doesn't look up, just scrapes the toe of one sneaker against the ground, kicking a couple of bullet casings. "Mr. Stark, we have to go," Phil tries again, and Stark sticks his hands in his pockets.

"I feel bad," Stark mutters, and he almost sounds surprised by his own statement. "I never used to feel bad." Before Afghanistan, Phil hears.

Stark continues, "Those were submachine guns they were firing." One foot nudges a bullet casing again. "Decent caliber, too. Half a step down from autocannons, really. Any one of those bullets could have gone through the wrong wall, ricocheted off the wrong thing, and with this caliber... This area's full of kids, Agent."

Phil looks at Stark and tries not to let any emotion show on his face. Stark is still not raising his head--Tony Stark, who jeopardized a whole lot of people, a whole lot of kids, simply by existing--

"You can't predict everything," Phil says, then after a pause adds, "You were right to go to that science fair. The kids loved it."

Stark's head is still bent, but he looks up at that, wary, but with something almost like hope on his face. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," Phil assures him, then adds, because he's got an image to uphold and it's important, "But you have got to start keeping Hogan with you, all right? Stop trying to shake him off your tail. It's not a game."

Stark huffs out a breath of air, but he nods in agreement before raising his head. "Let's go home, Agent."

*

Pepper calls when they're in the car on the way home--Phil's driving the SHIELD-issued Acura, since Stark's Bugatti had taken quite a few bullets to the engine--but Stark barely glances at his phone long enough for Phil to see Pepper's face on the display, before rejecting the call and shutting the phone off. A couple of minutes go by before Phil's phone buzzes in his pocket.

Phil doesn't answer, but he does look over at Stark. Stark's got his head turned away, looking out the window, leaning his forehead against the glass.

"She's worried about you," Phil says carefully.

Stark doesn't respond.

When they pull up in front of the mansion, Pepper is right there at the doorstep.

"Oh my God, Tony! Oh my God!" she shrieks. "Do I not deserve a phone call to tell me you're okay? I see on the news that there's a shooting, that you're involved, that--"

"Pepper," Tony groans, walking by her and into the house, but Pepper follows.

"No, don't you walk away from me! Is this a thing now? Are you going to be in constant danger now? I thought it was bad when you were in that damn suit, but--"

"What's wrong with me being in the suit? The suit saved my life--"

"--it's one thing to lift trains and save kittens or whatever it is you do, but do you have to--"

"--and I don't see how one, single incident--just because some crazy idiots--"

Phil lets them argue their way further into the house, hanging back to check the alarms and JARVIS's security settings on his way in. By the time he gets to the living room, Pepper's sitting on the couch with her laptop and Stark's nowhere in sight.

"Workshop?" he asks, and Pepper nods, sighing.

"He wanted to take the suit out. I discouraged it." Phil nods, and Pepper takes a break in her typing to look up. "I know he means well, I know that, Agent Coulson, but I just--this is just a lot to handle."

Phil doesn't quite know what to say, so he says nothing and lets Pepper get whatever she needs to off her chest. Her eyes are shiny, but there are no tears.

"This isn't just lifting trains back on their tracks. When he came back--after--I was so relieved. But then everything with Obadiah and... he's changed. Beyond the obvious, I mean," and she smiles a bit ruefully. "I wish he'd talk to someone."

Phil doesn't voice his agreement, just sits down next to her. Pepper goes back to her work, and Phil watches the TV on mute. In the workshop, Stark tinkers.

*

After Pepper has left for the evening, Phil calls Nick.

"I think I like the bastard," Phil says in greeting, and Nick positively cackles.

"No, no," Phil objects. "That's a compromise. Standard operating procedure for emotional compromise is reassignment. Pull me out."

"Nothing," Nick stresses, "about this case is standard. Your assignment stands, Agent."

Phil sighs and sits down on the massive bed, one eye on the security feeds. "You owe me so big."

Nick snorts. "What else is new?"

"No, I mean it," Phil insists. "You're handing over your office chair when this assignment is over."

"Yeah, that's something that will definitely happen," Nick says, voice free of contempt but dripping with sarcasm all the same. Phil scowls at the phone. "Now, give me your report on today's events, Agent."

"Ask Natasha," Phil sneers and hangs up on Nick.

*

The next morning, Phil wakes up to find that JARVIS has cleared everything off Stark's calendar for the day.

"Where is he? Has he slept?" he asks.

"Mr. Stark is currently in the workshop, and has been awake for a total of twenty-seven hours," JARVIS responds. "I have attempted to suggest that he get some rest, but he has not been receptive to the idea."

Phil nods and walks to the kitchen to get some coffee. He'd quickly discovered that Stark's coffee machine is always on, and always brewing; it's amazing, and Phil wonders if he can steal it for himself when his assignment ends. "Has Hogan showed up?"

"Mr. Stark received an... emotional phone call from Happy Hogan shortly after returning yesterday. Mr. Hogan received a monetary bonus from Mr. Stark in apology, and is presently resting at his own residence."

Phil can't help but raise his eyebrows in surprise as he pours himself a cup of coffee. "He gave Hogan the day off?"

"He'll be back tomorrow; I just figure he's earned some rest," Stark says from behind Phil, eyeing him up and down. "Not all of us handle men firing autocannons at us with the same aplomb you do--did you sleep in that suit? In fact, do you own anything but suits? Caffeinate me."

"I'm not your butler, Mr. Stark," Phil chides. He chooses to ignore the remarks about his suit and pours Stark a cup of coffee anyway, which he then sets down on the counter, because Stark apparently has some sort of moral objection to being handed stuff, unless it comes from Pepper.

Phil sips his coffee and is unable to hold back the slight wince when he immediately scalds his tongue. Stark, on the other hand, dumps a ridiculous amount of sugar into his cup, then gulps down half of it in one go without so much as a twitch. Phil briefly wonders if his tongue is lacking both nerve endings and tastebuds. "So I've been thinking," Stark says when he puts down the cup. "Actually, I've been more than thinking, I've been doing, because thinking by itself is useless. And so I built an ice cream truck."

Phil blinks a little at the non sequitur. "What?"

"I built an ice cream truck," Stark repeats. "Kids love ice cream. At least I think they do. They do, right? Of course they do, why wouldn't they, and I'm fairly certain I loved it when I was a kid--I still do, really--"

"Wait," Phil says, holding up a hand. He might have to start making his morning coffee Irish. "You built an ice cream truck in your workshop?"

Stark stops muttering and stares at Phil. "Yes?"

Phil doesn't quite know what to say. "Why?"

Stark's still looking at him like Phil's not paying attention. "There's a lot of kids in that neighborhood."

"Oh," Phil says then, catching on. "Oh. That seems..."

Stark nods enthusiastically. "Great, right? Of course it's great, it's my idea. All my ideas are great. So anyway, I'm gonna head over this afternoon, wanna come?"

Phil refrains from pointing out that he's obligated to come anyway, and instead just says, "Sure."

Stark slaps a hand down onto the counter and heads back towards the workshop. "Great! Done deal! I ordered a stock of ice cream last night sometime; it should be here by noon. When the delivery guys get here, just put it in the hallway. I'll handle the rest, yeah?"

"I'm still not your butler," Phil says, but Stark's already gone.

Phil eats breakfast in front of Stark's massive bay windows, and then spends the rest of the morning staring at the security feeds. When Nick calls for an update at eleven, Phil once again demands his office chair as part of his debt.

"Get your own," Nick says.

"It's more satisfying if it's yours, sir," Phil says. "Why'd you put Natasha on this detail without telling me?"

"Because she asked me to," Nick responds.

"What?"

"She apparently doesn't trust the other idiots. I don't know if you've noticed, but the Black Widow has a soft spot for you, Agent."

Phil frowns. "That's..."

"Flattering? Intense? Unusual?" Nick asks.

"Disturbing," Phil concludes.

"Last I heard, she was helping Sitwell dig up information on the clowns who attacked you yesterday and bemoaning the fact that she couldn't head up the interrogation in person. She'll be able to call in her own strike team if another situation arises. Sitwell is still officially your second and your primary contact."

"So she's the muscle," Phil says, smiling. "I bet she loves that."

"To a frightening degree," Nick says grimly, and hangs up.

"Who's the muscle?" Pepper asks as she enters from the hallway.

"My mother," Phil says deadpan, facing her. "Meanest right hook in the continental US."

Pepper laughs, but her face scrunches up in a puzzled expression. "I honestly can't tell if you're serious right now."

Phil just smiles in return and doesn't comment further. "Did you talk to Mr. Stark this morning?"

Pepper nods and rolls her eyes. "The ice cream truck? Yes, he told me. It's Tony's way of trying to make things better. He means well, I assure you. In fact, that's why I'm here. I've brought over paperwork from Legal. Turns out, you still need permits, even if you're not actually charging for the ice cream."

She holds out the paperwork to show Phil, and he glances over it, mildly impressed with how fast everything has been put together.

As if reading his mind, Pepper arches one delicate eyebrow and smiles. "When Tony decides he wants something, he usually gets it."

Phil smiles back because he likes Pepper, likes how smart she is. "Can't say that an ice cream truck is the first thing that comes to mind where Mr. Stark is concerned, though."

Pepper heads towards the workshop, balancing effortlessly on her heels. "You'd be surprised," she says over her shoulder, and her smile has turned fond and soft. "There's a lot more to Tony than people think."

Phil nods and thinks about the arc reactor that's ever-present, glowing from the center of Tony's chest and instantly the center of attention whenever Stark enters a room. He wears it like a badge now, ever since the press conference. Always visible.

"I'm starting to see that," Phil answers truthfully, and thinks about heroes.

*

The ice cream delivery arrives right after Pepper leaves, and Phil stares at the mountain of cardboard boxes in Stark's hallway. Stark comes bouncing--bouncing--upstairs, and starts hauling boxes away with great glee.

"What are these, even?" Phil asks, reading the labels.

"Ice cream," Stark says, with the Duh going unspoken.

"Cornetto," Phil reads. "Carte d'Or. Båt Is? Did you--import these?"

"Yeah," Stark says from where he's stacking boxes onto a luggage cart. "Why do you think it took twelve hours to get here? Six hours for the paperwork, six hours for the flight. Well, flights, plural." He scoffs. "Like I'm gonna serve kids basic choco tacos." Then he pauses. "Actually, there should be choco tacos in here somewhere, too, 'cause lets face it, choco tacos are awesome. I was morally obligated to keep choco tacos in stock."

Phil eyes the mountain of boxes again and almost considers helping Stark before the ice cream starts melting, but then decides against it because he's not Stark's butler, dammit!

Stark runs back and forth a little (and where he's storing the ice cream, Phil doesn't know, though he wouldn't be surprised to learn there's a walk-in freezer somewhere in the mansion), and when the boxes are all gone, he claps his hands together and nods. "All right, let's head out."

"Now?" Phil's eyebrows climb up.

"Yeah," Stark says, "It's 3 p.m. Afternoon sun and all, and school will be letting out. Perfect time for ice cream!"

Stark leads the way down to the workshop, and Phil is unable to hold back the smile that spreads across his face when he first sets foot into the bay.

"Don't touch anything," Stark orders. Phil's not having much of an issue following that order, too busy looking around, wide-eyed.

Stark's workshop is filled to the brim with gadgets. There are several desks, with various engines and electronics and hardware piled high. Along one wall, three Iron Man suits are lined up in display cases. Phil's fingers twitch and he's itching to go get a closer look, but Stark's already headed towards the part of his workshop that makes up the garage.

There, among Stark's Bugattis and Ferraris and Lamborghinis, stands an actual, honest to God ice cream truck, in white with red and gold accents, proclaiming StarKool along one side.

"Isn't she a beauty?" Stark asks, smiling. "I built her on a Chevy frame. She's got your standard freezer, music box, speakers, and so on, but I also added some... security features."

"You weaponized your ice cream truck?" Phil asks, incredulous.

"Not really," Stark says with a shrug. "She's more about the defense, really. Shields, defensive alert systems, alarms--a fold-out bomb shelter. That kind of thing."

Phil's not sure he heard that right. "A fold-out bomb shelter?"

Stark makes a face. "Well, it wouldn't stand up to like, a nuclear bomb or anything, but a regular sized bomb? Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And bullets. Holds about fifteen kids, maybe twenty if they're small."

Phil stares.

"What?" Stark asks defensively. "Do you think it's not enough? Should I make it bigger? I don't know how many kids are in that neighborhood. Oh God, I should probably make it bigger, shouldn't I? The kids probably have parents, after all."

"Stark," Phil interrupts, "you're good. Trust me. This is..." He searches for the right words. "This is perfect."

Stark looks relieved, and Phil marvels at what he's done in barely 24 hours. He wonders if he could convince Stark to let SHIELD's R&D look at his fold-out bomb shelter.

"So there's no weapons in this truck?"

Stark considers. "Well... there is one..." he trails off.

Phil nods to himself, and glances over at the armor display cases, taking note of the empty pedestal in the front. Looking back at the truck he can see it now, the bottom that hangs just a little lower, the side panels that are just a little thicker than normal. As far as weapons go, it's a brilliant solution, since he knows for a fact nobody can operate the suit besides Stark himself.

"Yes," Phil says in a decisive tone. "Perfect."

A pleased smile spreads across Stark's face. "I call her Vera."

Phil can't hold back the huff of laughter as he claps Stark's shoulder and pretends not to get that reference. "She's stocked and ready to go?"

Stark practically vibrates with excitement. "Yes, yes! Onwards!"

Phil feels vaguely self-conscious riding shotgun in an ice cream truck, but it's not the most embarrassing thing he's done in the line of duty, and he's sure he'll suffer worse in the future.

He does, however, chide Stark when he discovers Stark has torn down a serious portion of the ramp out (and the mountain) in order to fit the full height of the ice cream truck, reminding him of the security threat it poses.

"Got it," Stark says, then considers. "Maybe a collapsible truck? A convertible, somehow?"

Phil smiles as Stark continues plotting, and grabs a Cornetto for himself.