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Hitch A Ride On The Back of a Butterfly

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“Excuse me, Agent Coulson? Ma’am?”

Phil looks up, smile already in place. “Good evening, Captain,” she says, beckoning Rogers into the conference room. No one else greets her in quite that way every day.

(Yes, Captain America greets her every day. Phil is trying not to be too ridiculous about it.)

“What have you got for me today, ma’am?” Rogers asks, clearly trying not to sound too eager. He fails, but Phil doesn’t tell him that, even managing to resist the raised eyebrow she would have given anyone else.

“1990-1995,” Phil tells him, flipping open a folder of papers and sliding it across the table to him when he sits down. “The First Gulf War, Rwanda, the ANC and AIDS. Plenty to keep you occupied.”

Rogers winces, then looks immediately contrite. “Can we start with something that isn’t a war?” he asks. “It feels sometimes like that’s all the history there’s ever been.”

“Of course,” says Phil, who’s starting to feel the same way. In the beginning, they’d brought in qualified History professors to help bring Rogers up to speed with everything he missed, but once it became clear that they were more interested in quizzing him than helping him, Phil had taken over.

Little had she known, thirty years ago when she picked World History for her minor in college, that she’d one day be making use of it to educate Captain America on the last seventy years of international history.

“Oh, hey,” Rogers says, reaching into the inner pocket of his brown leather jacket. “I forgot. Here. I made this for your little girl.”

He pulls a small bundle out of his pocket, wrapped in a clean dishcloth, and thrusts it at Phil, looking the sort of awkward that Phil was hoping they’d moved past. At least they can talk to each other now, which was more than they managed in the beginning.

“Thank you,” Phil says, surprised. She unrolls the cloth and reveals a small, neatly carved wooden spinning top. It’s beautifully painted in bright coloured blocks, a succession of figures silhouetted in black in the centre of each square.

“That one’s Athena,” Rogers says, pointing at one figure. “And that’s Atalanta and that’s Penthesilea. I figured since her mom is an awesome lady warrior, she might like it.”

Phil can’t help laughing. Rogers is so genuinely sincere about things; it’s a refreshing change from the rest of her life, which tends to be filled with banter and sarcasm.

Not that banter and sarcasm don’t have their place, obviously.

“That’s really very thoughtful of you, Captain,” she says, because it is. Ridiculously thoughtful. “Stephanie will be delighted.”

Rogers shrugs, cheeks colouring. “I don’t have a lot else to do,” he says, “and you’ve been real kind, helping me out with all the stuff I’ve missed.”

Phil opens her mouth to tell him that that’s her job then stops herself. It’s only partly true – mostly her job is getting him back into the world, making him an asset again – history tutoring doesn’t really fall into that bracket. She also doesn’t want to remind him that the only people in his life these days are the ones who are paid to be there.

“It’s fine,” she says instead. “I’m learning, too.”

Rogers smiles at her. It’s a very bright, very handsome smile and she has to take a moment to tuck the top away in her suit jacket, so she doesn’t do anything unacceptable like blush.

“Okay,” she says quickly, “So, the ANC. We’ll start there, I think. How much do you know about South African – ” Her radio chirps at her and she cuts off mid-word, frowning. Usually, no one interrupts her when she’s in with Rogers. “Excuse me a minute.”

“Sure,” Rogers says easily, though he looks curious.

“Coulson,” Phil says into her radio, turning away from Rogers’ too-bright gaze. The poor guy is bored senseless, she knows that, but she can’t go around breaking security protocols just because she feels sorry for him.

“There’s a situation in New Mexico,” Fury tells her crisply, voice cutting through everything else and bringing her up straight. “I’m heading there with Hill right now.”

“With the Pegasus Project?” Phil asks even though she knows the question is redundant. Unless the town that Thor and Loki levelled last year has suddenly woken up and decided to sue them, it can’t be anything but PEGASUS.

“With the Tesseract.” Fury sounds tired. “Barton radioed in twenty minutes ago.”

Phil lets out a slow, steady breath, refusing to worry just yet. “What do you need me to do?” She’s aware of Rogers moving around in her peripheral vision but doesn’t look at him.

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” Fury says, “it’s probably jackshit. You know how the science geeks freak out over the smallest thing.”

“Not our scientists, sir, and not Barton,” Phil says sharply, because there’s reassurance and then there’s patronising her to make her feel better. She isn’t anyone’s civilian spouse; she works better with facts.

Fury laughs humourlessly. “Fine,” he says, “be like that. You’re right; it’s probably not nothing. I’ll radio in when there’s news.”

“Roger that,” Phil says, then adds, “thanks for letting me know, sir.”

Fury makes a sound that she can’t translate and ends the call.

“Trouble?” Rogers asks from right beside her.

Phil only doesn’t jump because she has a long history of Clint and Natasha creeping up on her.

“No,” she lies, and pushes her hands into her jacket pockets, letting her fingertips brush the dogtags that Clint always leaves her with for safekeeping. They’re not his, they’re William James’ but Clint’s kept them since that Iraq mission. “No,” she repeats, “everything’s fine. As I was saying, the 1990s in South Africa…”

***

Somehow, Phil manages to get through today’s history lesson with Rogers without checking her radio.

This isn’t the first time Clint’s gotten into trouble while on mission and she’s certainly done it to him enough times as well. The Tesseract bothers her though; it’s so damn unpredictable and Clint wouldn’t have called Fury in if something big wasn’t about to go down.

Around dinner time, Rogers yawns, cracks his spine and offers her a sheepish grin. “Can we take a break?” he asks. “This is all really interesting but I’m starting to lose focus.”

“Yes, sorry, of course,” Phil says, shaking her head at herself. Just because she needs the distraction, there’s no reason to bore the poor guy to death. “Do you want to order some food up here?”

Rogers shakes his head. “I think the commissary is serving steak tonight,” he offers.

Phil makes a face. “Whatever you’re imagining, it won’t taste like that.”

“I know what mess hall food tastes like, ma’am,” Rogers reminds her. “But food’s food. You want to head down there?”

What Phil wants is to commandeer a chopper and follow Fury to New Mexico, but there are many reasons why she can’t do that.

“I do,” she decides, and stands up, falling into step beside Rogers. He holds the conference room door open for her and she lets him, but makes sure to hold the corridor door for him in turn.

“Sorry,” he mutters, ducking around her to go through first. “I was just being polite not, you know. I know you can open a door.”

Phil shakes her head at him. “I know,” she says and hits the call button for the elevator. Steve Rogers, born in 1917, has reacted much better to finding women in her and Hill’s positions than a lot of the twenty-somethings she’s had to train Quantico out of. But he won’t stop apologizing for being polite. It’s sweet.

The elevator arrives and they step in. Phil is just reaching for the control panel when the lights flash off then on again and an alarm blares from all corners at once.

“What’s - ?” Rogers starts to ask just as the PA system announces we have a level 7 emergency, all personnel to stations. This is not a drill.

Phil and Steve glance at each other. Her station in an emergency is in the command centre, but Rogers’ orders are to stay confined to barracks for anything above a level 4. Phil doesn’t have time to take him there.

“Stick with me,” she snaps, and punches the button for the sub-basement.

***

“What’s going on?” Phil demands, barrelling through into the main command room with Rogers at her heels. A quick sweep of the room shows her that she’s the senior agent here, so she heads straight to the techs clustered around a monitor in the corner.

One of the techs turns to her with wide brown eyes and a washed-pale face. “PEGASUS is gone,” he says hoarsely.

Phil feels her stomach turn over, just once, before she gets herself under control. “Gone?” she repeats. “Gone where?”

The tech steps back, giving her a clear view of the footage they’re watching. It’s a live feed, showing nothing but rubble and slowly clearing dust.

“What am I looking at?” Phil asks, impatient, even though she already knows.

A different tech touches the corner of the screen, tracing the line of a half-standing building. “This was PEGASUS.”

“Coulson,” a new voice calls to her before she can decide how to react. “You need to see this.”

Sitwell is sitting at a computer halfway across the room. Rogers is already standing behind him when Phil gets there.

“Phil,” Sitwell says quietly when she’s close enough to hear.

Phil shakes her head sharply. “Show me.”

He does. She watches, breath lodged in her throat, as a tall, dark-haired man materialises out of thin air, kills men and women she’s known for years, then presses his staff to Clint’s chest.

She doesn’t make a sound. If Sitwell looks at her, she doesn’t look back.

The man doesn’t kill Clint, but he clearly does something, because Clint puts his gun away. Clint would never do that.

There’s a conversation that she can’t make out no matter how hard she tries to lip read. Clint keeps far too close to the hostile’s shoulder at all times, and Phil would love to believe that he’s playing a con here, but there’s something different about his eyes, the way he’s standing, that tells her that this isn’t her Clint, right now.

Then Clint shoots Fury in the chest and Phil knows she was right.

She lets herself rest a hand on the back of Sitwell’s chair. They’re friends, no one will think anything of that; hopefully they won’t realise that she needs the support to stop her knees from shaking.

“The Director is fine,” Sitwell says quickly. “So is Hill.”

“Barton?” Phil asks, nails biting into the fabric of his chair.

“Status unknown,” Sitwell tells her, and Phil nods sharply before stepping back.

“Who was that man?” Rogers asks. Phil thinks he’s asking about Clint and can’t answer for the second it takes him to clarify, “The one with the staff.”

Sitwell clears his throat. “According to Director Fury, he said that he name is Loki. Of Asgard.”

Rogers barks a startled laugh. “Like in the myths?” he asks. “Seriously?”

Loki. Obviously. “Just like that,” Phil hears herself say, impressed by the levelness of her voice. Loki has Clint; Thor’s mad, cruel brother has Clint.

So it’s up to Phil to get him back, then.

“And Barton?” Rogers asks slowly. He’s damn sharp. Phil usually likes that about him.

“He’s a SHIELD agent. Sniper, weapons specialist,” Phil rattles off. “He’ll be an important asset for Loki, so Loki will probably keep him alive until he’s achieved his objective.” She turns to Sitwell. “Do we know his objective?”

Sitwell shrugs. “World domination, apparently. The Director’s ETA is ninety minutes; he’ll fill us in.”

“That’s too long – ” Phil cuts herself off. Clint’s in trouble, which is something she can deal with, but Clint is also not himself and he’s with a man who wants to take over the world. Her mind starts whirring, putting a plan into place. “Sitwell, you’re in charge. Tell Fury I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Stiwell nods. He’s not surprised and she didn’t expect him to be. Rogers, however, clearly is.

“Where are you going?” he asks, frowning at her like she isn’t living up to his expectations. Any other time and that would really hurt; right now she has other priorities.

Phil takes in the agents scattered around the room, who are all pretending not to be waiting for her to have a breakdown in the middle of the control room. She jerks her head toward the door and Rogers follows her.

“I have to get my daughter to safety,” Phil tells him quietly, steadily, once they’re out of immediate earshot. “She could be… The circumstances are such that she could be in danger.”

Rogers’ eyes soften. “Agent Barton is your – ” He cuts himself off. They’ve already had the yes, I have a child and no, I do not have a husband discussion. “He’s Stephanie’s father?”

Phil nods. She wishes Rogers would stop looking at her so kindly; she can curl up in a corner and rock when this is over, not before. “Clint would never hurt her, but what you saw on that footage… That’s not Clint. I’m not abandoning my post, Captain; I’m going where I’m needed.”

“Yeah,” Rogers says, “I get that.” He reaches out as though he’s going to pat her on the arm but drops his hand at the last minute. “Can I help?”

“Yes,” Phil tells him immediately, and he stands a little straighter. “Sitwell could use some backup until Fury gets here. He’s a great agent but he’s not a strategist.”

“Sure,” Rogers agrees, nodding. “I can do that.” He holds out his hand again, palm sideways this time and, surprised, she takes it, shaking it firmly. “Good luck, ma’am.”

“Thank you,” Phil says briskly, and turns away. She curls the chain of Clint’s dogtags around her fingers, wraps her other hand around the spinning top still sitting in her pocket, and breaks into a carefully controlled run.

***

In any given week, Stephanie probably sees more of her pre-K teacher and her bouncy teenaged babysitter than she does Phil or Clint.

Sometimes, that eats Phil up inside but, right now, it’s a good thing, because it means that both she and Billy, the babysitter, are used to Phil barrelling through the door, still in her suit, with her SHIELD ID flapping and her gun only just concealed under her jacket.

They’re probably less used to Phil sweeping Stephanie up into her arms and taking a moment just to breath in the No More Tears smell of her baby shampoo.

“Ms Coulson?” Billy asks, standing up from the floor and tugging on the ends of his hipster scarf while he frowns at her. “Everything okay?”

“Fine,” Phil says, giving him her best lying-through-her-ass smile. “I’ve just had a really long day.” She bounces Stephanie around in her arms until she’s sitting on Phil’s hip. “Anyone call or stop by today? Anything odd happen?”

Billy gets asked that question a lot, Phil realises, when he doesn’t even miss a beat. “No, nothing. I’ve got that list you gave me of weird stuff to look out for; I’d have called you guys, if anything happened.”

“I know.” Phil does the smile again. Billy’s a good kid and he never complains when she and Clint keep shitty hours at short notice. “Thanks.” She starts walking him to the door, barely letting him pause to collect his stuff. “I’m going to be home for a couple of days, but I’ll call you when we need you again, okay?”

“Okay.” Billy bops his head. He’s so damn affable; he wouldn’t last a day at SHIELD, but he’s a good babysitter.

“Mommy?” Stephanie asks, wrapping her arms around Phil’s neck and pressing her face into Phil’s collar. “What’s wrong? You look sad.”

“Of course I’m not, I’m never sad,” Phil tells her briskly. She bends down and untangles Stephanie’s arms from around her, dropping her back onto the floor. “Do me a favour, okay, and go pack up some of your things. We’re going on a trip.”

“Where are we going?” Stephanie asks suspiciously. She’s as much a fan of her routine as Clint is and she hates unexpected trips.

“To see some friends of mine.” It’s the best plan Phil can come up with, which doesn’t make it a good plan. “We’re going to ask them for a favour.”

“I’d rather stay here,” Stephanie decides. Phil agrees.

***

“I’m sorry, Agent Coulson,” JARVIS says, forty long and stressful minutes later, “I’m afraid Mr Stark is out.”

“No, he’s not, I just saw him land,” Phil tells him flatly. She doesn’t have time for Stark’s bullshit tonight.

Turning away from the still-stubbornly closed elevator door in the foyer of Stark Tower, she puts her hand on Stephanie’s shoulder and tries to smile reassuringly.

Stephanie keeps sucking on the strings of her hoodie and looking worried. “Doesn’t your key work?” she asks, voice muffled by the string.

If circumstances were different, Phil would tell her to spit the string out. Right now, if Stephanie’s found something reassuring in this whole mess, Phil isn’t going to take it away from her.

“It’ll be fine,” Phil tells her. “The door’s just being disobedient.” She raises her voice pointedly at the end of the sentence, not that JARVIS couldn’t hear her perfectly well anyway, and not that it’s his fault. It just makes her feel better. “Stand back a little bit, okay? And put your fingers in your ears.”

“Why?” Stephanie asks. Stephanie’s four; she asks why about everything. Normally Phil encourages that, but not today.

“Because I said so,” Phil snaps. Stephanie’s eyes get big and hurt and Phil’s chest throbs. Only once, though, because she’s running out of time, and feelings, even her daughter’s feelings, have to sit on a backburner for now.

She pulls a tiny, flat metal disc out of her pocket and presses the button to extend the legs, wiggling them at Stephanie until she smiles again, tentative and still unhappy, but the best Phil has time for.

This is one of Clint’s toys. He gave it to Phil before she left for Stark’s place in Miami last year, just in case Stark decided to lock her out of somewhere she wanted to be. She didn’t use it then, but it’s worth a try now.

The legs slot into the space between the call buttons, the thing flashes twice and then flashes twice again, this time with a muted click. After a second, the elevator doors slides open.

Stephanie squeaks, but she looks interested, not worried, when Phil checks on her.

“There was really no need for that, Agent Coulson,” JARVIS scolds.

“Sorry, JARVIS, but there was every need.” Phil takes Stephanie’s hand and pulls her into the elevator. When she presses the button for the penthouse, it starts up smoothly.

“Is this where you work?” Stephanie asks, staring up at the glass ceiling as the floors rush past around them.

“No, this is – ” Phil stops. She doesn’t have time to explain Stark. No elevator ride could be long enough. “Lots of other people work here, though.”

“Does Daddy work here?” Her hand is still in Phil’s, squeezing tight.

Phil forces her voice to stay level. “No, Daddy works with me, remember?” She pulls out her cell before Stephanie can ask any more questions.

Phil manages to get JARVIS to patch her through, and Stark’s Life Model Decoy imitation would probably have been funny at any other time, but Phil lost her sense of humour when a Norse god came to earth and started shit that Phil is going to have to put a stop to.

The elevator dings when it hits Stark’s floor, and Phil automatically puts herself between Stephanie and the outside world. Not that it does much good; Stephanie immediately pops back out again and ooohs loudly at all the shiny things.

Phil blames her father for that.

“Phil!” Pepper says, springing up from where she was canoodling with Stark on the couch. If Phil were Pepper, she would make Stark work so much harder for it. “Oh. And, who’s this?”

She’s smiling at Stephanie, bending down to be more on her level, which is the way Phil always thinks people should deal with kids, except that right now, Phil doesn’t want anyone within ten feet of Stephanie, not even Pepper.

“Hi,” Stephanie says, holding out the hand that isn’t tucked into Phil’s.

Pepper looks absolutely charmed. “Hello.” She takes Stephanie’s hand and shakes it very seriously. Stephanie looks kind of star struck. “What’s your name?”

Stephanie ducks her head, voice muffled into her hoodie.

Phil gives her arm a little shake. “Speak up,” she reminds her.

Stephanie pokes her head back out, wispy blonde bangs flying everywhere. “Stephanie Barton,” she says, clearer this time.

“What is all this?” Stark interrupts. “Coulson, why did you break into my house? Why have you brought me a child? Do I look like I want a child?”

Stephanie looks alarmed. “Mommy?” she asks, looking up at Phil.

Stark’s double take would be hilarious any other day. Phil hopes she can persuade JARVIS to give her the footage. She’ll show it to Clint.

Mommy?” Stark echoes, still staring. “Holy shit, Agent Scully, you’re a mom.”

Phil levels her least impressed look at him. Her least impressed look is pretty damn unimpressed. “Obviously.”

“Right, yes,” Stark agrees, still staring at Stephanie like he expects her to turn out to be a hologram. “Obviously, but. You’re a mom. How can you be a mom, you’re so – ” He waves a hand, presumably taking in her pantsuit and her gun and her seriously pissed off expression. “You.”

“Tony!” Pepper snaps. “That’s a ridiculous thing to – ”

“Did you know?” Stark asks, rounding on her. “Did you know they’d let Coulson spawn?”

Phil sighs. Not for the first time, she wishes Natasha were here rather than in Russia. Then she could have avoided coming to Stark at all.

“No, she didn’t know.” She shoots Pepper a look, which she hopes conveys that she’s sorry about that.

Pepper shrugs then raises her eyebrows. Phil is fairly certain that means tell me all about it later.

Stark still seems genuinely flabbergasted. Phil knows she doesn’t come across as stereotypically maternal, but she also knows she doesn’t need to. She’s a damn good mom. Most of the time, anyway; maybe less so when she’s bringing Stephanie into this insanity. “Okay, but. Did you go to a sperm back or does she have a father? Or a, or another mom?”

“Is Daddy here?” Stephanie asks, pulling on Phil’s hand. Obviously that would have to be the only part of Stark’s babble that she picked up on.

Phil smooths her hand over Stephanie’s hair automatically, ignoring the way Stark tracks the move, eyes wide. “Yes, she has a father,” Phil tells him. “Which is part of the reason why I’m here.”

Stark immediately puts up his hands, spinning around on one heel to face Pepper. “It’s got nothing to do with me,” he says quickly, “I swear I haven’t ever – ”

“Oh my god,” Phil sighs, reaching the end of her rope. “Stephanie, can you go and stand in that corner, please? Go as far away as you can, where you can still see me, and put your fingers in your ears.”

Stephanie looks mutinous. “But Mommy,” she protests.

Phil shakes her head. “I mean it.” She deliberately avoids looking at Stark. “That’s a Mom Order.”

Mom Orders are something Clint invented. They’re only to be used for real emergencies and Stephanie always knows to listen to them. Phil doesn’t usually use them in public, because it feels ridiculous to say.

“Fine,” she sighs, stamping her foot, before marching over to the far corner, dropping down onto one of Stark’s extravagantly plush armchairs, and folding her arms grumpily.

“A Mom Order?” Pepper asks, smiling. “That’s adorable.”

Phil feels herself blush. “Blame her father, not me,” she says. She turns around so she can keep Stephanie in her peripheral vision and lowers her voice. “Stark, you’re never going to hear me say this against so enjoy it now: I need a favour.”

“I don’t do favours for SHIELD,” Stark tells her immediately. “They don’t return them.”

“Not for SHIELD,” Phil says. “For me.” She sees their interests spike, and resigns herself to revealing more about her private life than she’s happy with. “This evening a SHIELD base was attacked and Stephanie’s father was taken prisoner by an enemy combatant.”

Stark flinches.

“I’m so sorry,” Pepper says quietly.

Phil shakes her head. “He’s alive.” She hopes. “But he’s compromised. He’s not himself. I need to get Stephanie somewhere safe immediately.”

“Surely he wouldn’t hurt her?” Pepper asks. “Not if – ”

Phil pushes the tablet she’s carrying into Pepper’s hands. “Plug that into JARVIS,” she tells her. “There’s a Norse god running around Earth, brainwashing the deadliest people I know.”

Stark barks a startled laugh. “Tell me you’re kidding.”

Pepper crosses to the nearest desktop console and they watch in silence as the video footage from PEGASUS shows up on the screen. Phil’s seen it before, obviously, but Loki’s bright, desperate eyes still give her the shivers.

“Shit,” Stark breathes. “You weren’t kidding.”

“No.” Phil folds her arms and lifts her chin. “Now, will you help me?”

“Of course we will,” Pepper says, talking right over Stark who, to be fair, looked like he was about to say the same thing. “What do you need?”

“A ride to Portland and absolute discretion.” God Phil hates having to rely on anyone else for her daughter’s safety.

“You’ve got it,” Stark says. He’s looking more at Stephanie than Phil. Phil wonders what he’s thinking about, but it’s not as though they have the sort of relationship where she can ask. “I’ll get Happy to drive us to the airport. You can trust him.”

Phil shakes her head. “Pepper can take us. If that’s all right?” Pepper nods. “There’s other information on that tablet, Stark. I need you to stay here and read it all, okay?”

“I’m sorry, what?” Stark demands. “You’re commandeering my jet and my woman and I’m expected to just sit here and what, do my homework like a good boy?”

“Exactly.” Phil nods.

Your woman?” Pepper asks, shaking her head. “Really, Tony.” She waves a hand down her body. “This isn’t even twelve percent yours.”

“I didn’t mean… it was a figure of speech!” Stark lopes over to her and starts talking frantically, waving his hands.

“Stephanie,” Phil says, holding out her hand. Stephanie scrambles up, sliding across the floor and pressing herself right up against Phil’s hip. She isn’t usually this clingy, but then Phil isn’t usually dragging her around New York way past her bedtime.

“Bye Spawn of Coulson,” Stark says, waving.

Phil rolls her eyes and directs Stephanie to follow Pepper back into the elevator. “Expect a call from Fury,” she calls over her shoulder.

“What about?” Stark demands.

“Watch the tapes, Stark,” Phil tells him and then the elevator doors close.

Stephanie tugs on Phil’s suit jacket. “Where are we going, now?”

Phil stifles a groan with effort. “To visit your grandmother,” she says. She ignores the way that Pepper turns to stare at her.

Really, it’s like everyone honestly believes she was grown in a lab.

***

“I didn’t know you were married,” Pepper says once they’re on the jet. She’d insisted on coming along with them even though she’d apparently been headed for DC until Phil stole her ride.

Phil stops herself from obsessively checking to make sure that Stephanie is strapped in, and looks up.

“I’m not,” she says, smiling slightly. “Although we’ve been engaged about six years now.”

Pepper makes a face at herself. “Sorry, I don’t know why I… I didn’t know you had a family, that’s what I meant to say.”

Phil shrugs. She’s more than used to people who meet her through SHIELD assuming she’s single and people who see her with Stephanie assuming she’s married. It doesn’t bother her unduly; it just gives her more of a read on them.

“Her father and I both work for SHIELD and she could be used against us. We made a decision to keep her existence on a need-to-know basis.” Not that that was hard; almost everyone who needs to know works for SHIELD anyway.

Pepper looks as though she wants to ask more, but isn’t sure it would be welcome. Internally, Phil sighs. She’s come to think of Pepper as a friend.

“Just ask,” she prompts. “We have to talk about something and I’d rather talk about this than what Loki might be doing to Clint.” Shit, she hadn’t meant to say that last part. She squeezes the bridge of her nose.

“Clint,” Pepper echoes gently. “What does he do at SHIELD? Unless that’s classified.”

“It is,” Phil tells her. “I can tell you that he’s a field agent. That’s how we met.”

Pepper smiles. “Was it romantic?”

Despite everything, Phil laughs. “Not even slightly.”

“Daddy got shot in the leg and Mommy got shot in the shoulder rescuing him,” Stephanie reports without looking up from her game. “Daddy fell in love with her then, but Mommy thought he was dumb because he didn’t stay where she told him to and got blood on her Gucci pants.”

Pepper covers her mouth, eyes twinkling. “Oh, I see,” she says, while Phil silently smacks herself in the forehead.

“Don’t listen to your father,” she begs. “And if you have to, please don’t ever repeat anything he says.”

“Yes, Mommy,” Stephanie says, smiling and clearly not meaning a word of it. She is so very much Clint’s daughter.

“She’s precious,” Pepper whispers, still smiling.

“Hmm,” Phil says, reaching out to tug on one of Stephanie’s braids. “She’s okay.”

***

“Philippa,” her mom says, blinking in surprise. She’s wrapped up in a heavy brown bathrobe and has what looks like a baseball bat clutched in her hands.

Well, it is three a.m.

“Hi, Mom.” Phil has Stephanie asleep in her arms and she desperately wants to sit down. Stephanie’s heavy now, not like when she was a baby and Phil could carry her around in one arm while answering emails on her Blackberry with the other.

Mom steps back. “Come inside, look at you, you’re not even wearing coats. Where’s your luggage?”

“No, luggage, Mom,” Phil tells her tiredly. “And no time for coats.”

Mom reaches out for Stephanie, and it’s ridiculous, but Phil has to stamp down on an initial urge of keep, protect before she can pass her over.

Phil shuts, locks, and bolts the door behind them, then triple checks each lock. When she turns back, her mom’s looking at her with her eyebrows raised.

“Living room,” she says, leading the way there.

Stephanie mumbles something, face tucked into her grandmother’s neck, but doesn’t wake up.

“I want to put her to bed first,” Phil says. She drops her purse on the table and starts rooting through it. “I have PJs for her in here.”

“You’re staying, then?” her mom asks, turning smartly and heading to the guest bedroom at the back of the house instead.

They get Stephanie settled quickly. Phil is fairly proud of herself for only scoping out entry points into the bedroom three times before letting her mom prod her away.

“Can she stay with you?” Phil asks, as soon as they’re in the living room. The couch they’re sitting on is the same one her mom’s owned since Phil was in her early twenties. It should be reassuring, but Phil isn’t sure she can be reassured right now.

“Just her?” her mom asks carefully. “Where will you be?”

Phil resists the urge to rub her eyes. She’s so tired. “I’ve got to head back to New York. There are things happening that I need to be there for.”

“When?” Mom asks. She picks up a bowl of fruit from the side table and offers it to Phil.

Phil’s about to shake her head when she realises how much she could do with some food right now. She takes a handful of grapes instead and munches on them mechanically. “Right away,” she says, “there’s a plane waiting for me at the Jetport.”

“No,” her mom says firmly. “You’re staying here and getting some sleep first.”

“Mom,” Phil starts, but her mom shakes her head, jaw set.

Since she started getting older, it’s easier sometimes to look at her and forget that she was once in the Air Force– both before and after Phil was born – but not right now. “Four hours, Philippa. I’m serious.”

Phil sighs. She’s forty-four years old and an agent of SHIELD. She can’t actually be bullied by her mother. But she really is exhausted.

“Four hours,” she agrees. She pulls her cell out of her pocket. “If the jet can wait.”

“It’ll wait,” her mom tells her firmly, even though she can have no idea. She waits until Phil’s called Pepper (they decide Pepper will fly to DC and Phil will catch the plane when it swings back for her) then asks, “Where’s your toyboy while all this is happening?”

Phil groans. “Mom, he’s not…” She stops herself. They’ve had this argument. “He’s in trouble.”

Her mom immediately looks concerned. For all that she likes to tease Phil about the decade Phil has on Clint, he’s managed to charm her the few times they’ve met.

“And you’re going to rescue him?” her mom asks, sounding resigned and not even slightly surprised.

“I am,” Phil agrees. She isn’t sure how yet, but it’s her job to get Clint out of trouble. It’s something she does as a hobby, too, these days.

Her mom hums, looking thoughtful. “Doesn’t that go against your agreement?”

“Yes,” Phil agrees, because it does and she is worried about that. “But these are extreme circumstances.”

When Stephanie was born, Phil and Clint made a deal that only one of them would ever be in danger at any one time. Phil is still Clint’s handler, but in the field he reports to Sitwell or Hill, not her. The deal is the reason why Clint was alone in New Mexico while Phil sat around SHIELD HQ, training up junior agents and giving Captain Rogers a crash course in this century.

Phil doesn’t know what difference it would have made if she’d been stationed at PEGASUS too, but she can’t help feeling that she could have done something, if she’d been there.

“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” her mom asks. The sun is rising outside and she looks tired, pale light casting shadows across the lines of her face.

Phil can’t tell her about Loki.

“I can’t,” she says, then makes herself laugh. “If it all goes to shit, you’ll see it on the news soon enough, anyway.”

“Language, Philippa,” her mom says, but mildly. She doesn’t mean it; she taught Phil all the curse words Phil knows. After a minute, she stands up. “I’ll get you a blanket.”

“I can get it,” Phil starts, standing up, too. Her mom puts her hand on Phil’s shoulder, pushing her back down onto the couch. Her hand stays for a second, not doing anything as obvious as squeezing, and then it’s gone.

Phil closes her eyes, tilting her head back against the couch. She’s so damn tired. When this is over, she’s going to kick Clint in the balls for making her worry and then she’s going to sleep for a week.

***

It’s mid-morning when Phil gets back to New York. Her neck aches from sleeping on the sofa, and she has the too-familiar nagging feeling of wrongness in her belly from having ducked out on Stephanie while she was still sleeping.

Still, she slides off her sunglasses and straightens her shoulders before marching into HQ. She’s so busy being determinedly fine that it takes her a second to realise that the place is unnaturally quiet. It’s a busy workplace full of large personalities; this kind of hush is unheard of.

“Where is everyone?” she asks the first person she sees, a young guy with curly, dark hair and a stack of files clutched in his arms.

“On the big floating aircraft carrier thing. Uh, ma’am,” he tells her quickly. “It took off an hour ago.”

“Shit,” Phil swears. She’d just assumed that they’d be leading operations from here or, at the very least, that Fury would warn her before taking off. “Who’s up there?”

“Everyone,” the guy says, shrugging. He rebalances the files then makes a face when they start to slide, bouncing them further up his chest. “Director Fury, Agent Hill, Agent Romanoff, that guy they dug out of the ice. Everyone.”

“Tony Stark?” Phil prompts. “And Dr Banner?” She helped Fury draw up the list; she knows who he’d try to bring in.

“Yup.” The guy nods his head enthusiastically. “Well, Tony Stark is kind of hard to miss but I think there was another dude too; Agent Romanoff brought him here first.”

Okay. Okay, that’s good. They have a good team up there. Phil just needs to find a way to get herself up there too.

“Okay, good, thank you, Agent - ?”

“Oh,” the guy says, trying to hold out a hand and ending up just wiggling two fingers at Phil, “Kidwai. Nay Kidwai.”

“Security clearance?” Phil asks. She doesn’t recognise him, which means he’s either very new or has very, very specialised skills.

He looks down, up, down again. “Level one,” he mutters. New then. Right now Phil will take what she can get. “This is my first week.”

Phil smiles at him, no teeth and no humour. “Welcome to SHIELD, Agent Kidwai. Who’s the Agent in Charge?”

“Uh...” Kidwai looks shifty all of a sudden. “We were told you would be? Ma’am. Agent Hill said to sit tight, wait for you, that you’d be in charge down here.”

Fuck. Phil is going to kill Fury; she wants to be on the Helicarrier, she needs to be on the Helicarrier. She gets why he thinks that grounding her is necessary; she would never let the partner of a compromised agent lead the mission to get them back, but this is different. She and Clint have always worked differently and Fury has always respected that before.

“Get me a secure line to the ‘carrier,” she snaps at Kidwai, and stalks down the hall to her office.

By the time she gets there, the phone on the desk is ringing.

“Nick,” she says, snatching the phone up. “What the hell?”

“Did you do what you needed to do?” Nick asks, no hey, sorry for grounding you without any warning.

“Yes,” Phil says impatiently, “yes, everything’s secure.” They don’t say Stephanie’s name on comms. “Now explain to me why you’re up there and I’m down here. I’m your damn number two, Nick.”

“Sure, you’re my number two,” he says, still sounding frustratingly calm. “Hill and I are on board, so it makes sense to leave you on the ground. Can’t put all our eggs in one basket.”

Bullshit. “Bullshit. You’ve never given a damn about that before.”

“We’ve never been on the brink of war before,” Nick counters, which does give her pause.

“You really think that’s what’s coming?” Phil asks.

She sits down on the desk. There’s an electronic picture frame next to her monitor. If she typed in her passcode, she’d be able to see a cheesy picture of Clint and Stephanie. They’re in Central Park, pink from the sun and grinning ridiculously over ice cream cones. She can’t face it right now.

“I do.” Nick still sounds calm. Phil’s a big fan of calm, but sometimes she wishes he’d use some damn inflection. “And in a war, sacrifices have to be made.”

“Meaning what?” she asks, leaning closer into the phone, like that’ll make his answer easier to take.

“There’s a chance we’re going to have to take Barton down,” Nick says, and he’s not so blandly indifferent now.

Phil swallows. “I accept that that’s a possibility,” she says levelly. “It’s less likely, though, if you let me up there to coordinate the search.”

Cheese,” Nick says. She listens to him breathe for a second. “Sitwell’s handling the search, and maybe you accept it, but I don’t want to be the asshole who ordered the hit with you standing right next to me, okay? Besides, we do need you down there.”

Phil’s fingernails are digging welts into her palms.

“Need me for what?” she asks.

“We have Loki - ” Nick starts.

“What?” Phil interrupts. “You couldn’t have led with that?”

“You didn’t give me a chance,” Nick grumbles. “We picked Loki up in Stuttgart. Then Thor flew in and we ended up with a two-for-one on Norse gods.”

Phil will follow up on the Thor point in just a minute. “Selvig?” she asks. “Barton?”

“Barton was in Stuttgart but we didn’t get him.” Phil loves him for telling it to her straight. “No sign of Selvig as of yet.”

Phil nods to the empty room. “Okay,” she says. “You’ve got Thor?”

Nick chuckles darkly. “Flew in, went ten rounds with Stark and Rogers, now they’re circling each other in the conference room like tigers in a cage.”

“That’s good. They’ll work it out.” Phil feels strange. This moment, this meeting of their potential Avengers is something that she’s been working toward for so long, but she can’t get excited about it. “Banner’s there too?”

“And Romanoff,” Nick agrees.

Phil closes her eyes. They were going to bring Stark, Rogers, Thor, and Banner in first, then introduce Natasha and Clint together, after those four had gotten their egos sorted out. Things move faster during wartime.

“What do you need me to do?” she asks.

Nick’s quiet for a minute. “Prepare for an invasion.”

That gets Phil’s eyes open. “An invasion?” she echoes. “There are twenty of us here at the most. I’m not saying we couldn’t make a dent, but I’m not sure we could defend the city.”

“Don’t worry about the large-scale fighting, we’ll handle that. I want you to look into what you can do on the ground. Evacuation, resistance, you know the drill.”

Phil looks out through her open office door. Kidwai is hovering just out of earshot, looking anxious for something to do. He’s so young and fresh; she wonders whether he woke up this morning expecting to be turned into a resistance fighter before nightfall.

“Okay, sir, we’ll be ready,” she says.

Nick makes that rumbling noise of his that’s halfway between a laugh and a growl. “Take care of yourself. We’ll check in when there’s news.”

“Same to you,” Phil says, and ends the call.

She takes a deep breath, then pushes to her feet, straightening her suit jacket and squaring her shoulders. “Kidwai,” she calls.

He appears in her doorway so fast that it looks like she had him on the end of a string.

“Has anyone done anything about Jane Foster, yet?” Phil asks.

***

It turns out that there are twenty-two people left at SHIELD HQ. Ten of them are administrative staff who haven’t had more than the mandatory basic weapons training, two are scientists who look like they should still be in kindergarten, three are field agents grounded due to injury, four are brand new recruits like Kidwai, two are janitorial staff, and one is Phil.

It could be worse, she decides, surveying them all where she’s called them into the largest conference room. They’re sitting around the big oak table and looking various levels of attentive.

“By now, you all know what happened with Project Pegasus,” she says, looking at each one of them in turn. “Intelligence says that the enemy agent - ” no point using ‘alien god’ before it’s absolutely necessary “ – is planning a large scale attack. If that happens, it will be up to each of us here, as well as at our sister agency on the west coast, to save as many lives and put as many obstacles in their path as we possibly can.”

“Ma’am.” One of the other recruits (baby agents Clint calls them) snaps his fingers at her. One day, when she’s less busy, Phil will take great pleasure in breaking him of that habit. “What does Director Fury say?”

“Director Fury says ‘fuck’. At least a hundred times every day.” Phil raises her eyebrows at him, making sure he can see he doesn’t impress her. “If you’re talking about what he has to say regarding this particular situation, he doesn’t say anything at all. Because I’m in charge.”

Phil keeps looking at him, but he doesn’t say anything else. Satisfied she’s made her point, she points at him and two of the clerical staff. “I want you three making a list of churches, mosques, school halls, anywhere with a large enough area to hold evacuees. Mark out the most defensible first.”

The guy snaps his fingers again. Once she could forgive, twice means he’s going to get those fingers broken at some later point in his life. Probably today.

Phil ignores him and selects another group of three. “You guys, I want you to find me a way to hack into television and radio networks. Preferably a way that doesn’t use a lot of power, since we don’t know when we’ll have to start relying on the generators. If there’s an attack, we’ll need a way to direct people to safety.”

“You want to expose us to the public?” Agent Finger Snaps demands. “We’re a secret organisation, ma’am.”

“Are we?” Phil asks turning to him, her eyebrows high. “I had no idea. And what point can you see in remaining secret if our city, or potentially our planet, is under siege?”

He frowns.

“Exactly.” She turns her back on him again and starts delegating tasks to the rest of the room. The janitorial staff take to being ordered around like field agents surprisingly well, and there’s only minimal grumbling from a couple of the admins.

Apart from Agent Asshole, Phil’s been left with a pretty decent bunch of people.

Soon, it’s just her left in the conference room, and she finds herself standing over a map of downtown New York, automatically cataloguing where Clint would position himself, if he were planning an attack on the city.

She meant what she said when she spoke to Nick. If SHIELD have to take Clint down, she’ll understand why. She won’t be able to keep working for them, and her friendship with Nick will be as good as over, but she’ll understand. Clint is excellent at what he does. He’s a huge threat right now.

The door opens unexpectedly, and she tries to look as though she’s studying the map for a reason other than momentary blind panic.

“Hey, super-secret spy lady,” says a voice, which Phil would never have imagined she’d be glad to hear.

“Darcy,” Phil says, looking up.

Darcy blinks, apparently surprised that Phil’s smiling at her. “Hey?”

Phil gets up and walks around the desk, stopping in front of Darcy and putting her hands on her hips. “How did you get in?” she asks.

“Um.” Darcy shrugs her shoulders, non-committal. “I may have lied to your front desk? Also wheedled. I can’t rule out some wheedling.”

Phil shakes her head. “SHIELD employees aren’t susceptible to wheedling,” she says, even though that she suspects that, if it’s Darcy’s particular brand of wheedling, they probably are. “Why are you here?”

Darcy twists the end of her striped hipster scarf around her hand. “I know I’m not supposed to know where your secret lair is, but it turns out that I did know and your guys swept in and stole Jane, and Erik isn’t answering his phone, so I thought I’d come down and find out what was going on for myself.”

Phil ends up just looking at her. She feels like she ought to reprimand her, but for what? The kid’s curious and smart; Phil’s not going to be the one who criticises her for that.

“I can’t tell you what’s going on and I can’t let you help,” Phil says. Darcy might be smart, but there are still rules. “You’re not an agent.”

Darcy sighs. “Can’t we pretend? C’mon, Coulson, did New Mexico teach you nothing? You know I’m going to find out.”

“We can’t pretend,” Phil tells her sharply. “That would be illegal. Come with me.”

She leads the way out of the conference room, Darcy muttering the whole way.

“I’ll just come back,” she warns. “Every day. Twice on Mondays, because Mondays suck anyway but I can make them suck so much more.”

If they survive to see another Monday, Phil will be delighted.

“Darcy,” she says. “Be quiet.” They’ve reached the entrance desk, currently being staffed by Agent May, who’s recently back from eight months in Syria and grounded because she broke an ankle taking down a drunk passenger on her flight home.

“Everything okay, Agent Coulson?” May asks. “This girl said she was your daughter, is that …”

Phil chokes on something that should be a laugh. She turns and stares at Darcy. “I am not old enough to be your mother,” she says, even though, fuck, she probably is.

“Ooops, sorry,” Darcy says, not sounding it. “Are you seriously going to throw me out? Mommy.”

“Stop it,” Phil tells her. “My actual daughter is four and still complains less than you. May, can you see a blank security badge on that desk anywhere?”

“Wait, what?” Darcy demands. “Your actual daughter? Since when do you have an actual daughter? Agent Phil, oh my god, it’s like I don’t know you at all. What’s her name? Can I meet her? I’m imagining a tiny version of you in her own tiny badass suit, just so you know.”

Phil doesn’t tell Darcy that, when Stephanie was a baby, Hill bought her a onesie that looked like a tuxedo. Instead she ignores her and keeps ignoring her, plucking a sharpie off the desk and writing quickly across the blank badge Agent May finds for her.

“Darcy,” she says once she’s done, straightening up and slipping the badge into a holder. “Come here.”

Darcy holds still, radiating suspicion while Phil approaches her and hangs the lanyard around her neck.

“What’s this?” Darcy asks, flipping it up to see it then twisting it around so she can read it the correct way up. “If this is some kind of teleportation… oh.” She blinks then lifts her head to stare at Phil. “Really?”

“Congratulations Temporary Agent Lewis,” Phil says and finds her first real smile of the day over how genuinely delighted Darcy looks. “And now, it’s time for your debriefing.”

***

Phil likes the noises that come out of a workplace when everyone is actually working. She finds it soothingly not unlike the buzzing activity of a Marine base just before deployment.

Darcy, to Phil’s complete lack of surprise, turns out to be a natural at people management and she soon has all of Phil’s research teams working as one coordinated unit. She also has the advantage of having encountered Loki before, so she understands exactly how serious a situation they’re dealing with.

“You okay?” she asks, looking up and catching Phil watching her.

“Fine,” Phil says, smiling tightly. There isn’t a lot for her to do until something actually happens, which is giving her far too much time to think.

“You sure?” Darcy asks. “You’re looking kind of like you did when you gave me my new iPod. Sort of constipated and tetchy.”

Phil rolls her eyes. “That iPod was twice the price of the one we took from you,” she says. Maybe Darcy will argue with her. That would be a lovely distraction.

“It was compensation for trauma and – ”

Phil’s cell phone rings, cutting off whatever else Darcy was about to say.

It’s Natasha’s private cell calling Phil’s private cell, and for a moment Phil’s frozen, too afraid to find out what Natasha wants to tell her that can’t be said on the public line. But Darcy is looking at her strangely, and Phil isn’t a coward, so she takes a breath and answers the call, walking away from Darcy and the rest of the people in the room.

“Natasha,” Phil says, refusing to let her voice shake but unable to stop it rising in a question.

“He’s back. I got Clint back,” Natasha tells her, not wasting any time.

Phil finds herself sitting abruptly on the nearest flat surface. The junior agent whose desk it was until a second ago blinks at her, then strategically relocates.

“Phil?” Natasha asks. “Did you hear me?”

Phil swallows. She can feel something bubbling up in her throat, as if she needs to laugh or sob just to let the relief out. “I heard. How is he?”

“Unconscious,” Natasha says, unconcerned. “He’ll have a headache when he wakes up, but he knew who I was before he passed out. If I have to keep on hitting him to make sure Loki stays gone, that’s what I’ll do.”

Phil is vaguely aware of Darcy hovering in her peripheral vision, and of Kidwai lurking just behind her. Phil tries to wave them away, but they don’t go.

“Thank you,” Phil says quietly. “You have my permission to hit him as many times as necessary.” She clears her throat and switches to the most professional voice she has, not because she doesn’t want Natasha to hear her vulnerable, but because she doesn’t want to be vulnerable, not right now. “How’s everything else on the ‘carrier?”

There’s a pause. “Bad,” Natasha says. Phil sits up straighter; if Natasha thinks a situation is bad then it’s bad. “We’re flying on one engine, Banner and Thor both disembarked involuntarily, Stark found out about Phase Two, so he stormed off too, and Loki’s in the wind.”

Shit. Fury must be pissed. “And Captain Rogers?”

“The only reason he’s still here is that he doesn’t have a way to leave. But I’m working on him,” Natasha says. She sounds thoughtful, which means she’s plotting something. “Phil? I’ve got to go; Clint’s waking up.”

“Sure,” Phil agrees quickly. “Tell him…” She trails off; anything she might want Natasha to tell Clint is something she should tell him herself.

“Yes,” Natasha says, as though Phil finished her sentence. Then there’s the click of her ending the call and Phil is left with silence.

“Everything okay, ma’am?” Kidwai asks, cautiously.

Phil stands up and claps her hands together. “I’ve got a new mission for the two of you,” she tells him. “Thor and the Hulk are in the wind. Track them down for me, as fast as you can. Darcy, focus on Thor in particular.”

“Ma’am,” Kidwai agrees, turning away. Darcy hangs back, looking worried.

Fuck, why does Phil always accidentally make connections with the people she’s sent to investigate? “I was lying when I told you that I was fine before,” she tells Darcy quickly and quietly. “But now I actually am fine, so please, help Kidwai.”

“You have so many secrets, boss lady,” Darcy says, shaking her head, but she shoots Phil a smile before following Kidwai to his desk.

Phil finally manages to force her hand to unclench from around her phone. She can feel the ridges from the plastic scoring her palm, and she still wants to scream, but Clint’s safe and, if she wants him to remain that way, she needs to keep going.

***

They locate Thor on the coast of Maine, and deduce from the sudden rush of 911 calls about meteor sightings that Banner landed just outside Phillipsburg, New Jersey.

Neither of them have a phone on them – Phil would be slightly less shocked to learn that Thor owned a cell phone than Banner, to be honest – and Phil doesn’t expect either of them to make their own way back.

She’s three seconds from dispatching agents to collect Thor, when one of the admin clerks sitting nearest the window suddenly jumps to his feet and starts cursing fluently.

“What is it?” Phil asks, striding over to join him at the window.

“Sorry, ma’am, but fucking hell,” the clerk says and points east toward Park Avenue.

Looming over everything, as always, is Stark Tower. But above that, growing steadily wider, is a blue-rimmed black hole in the sky, connected to Stark Tower by a narrow, glowing column of blue light.

“Fuck,” Phil agrees, and whips her phone out.

Stark doesn’t answer the first time she calls him, so she hits a couple of buttons and navigates her way quickly through to a backdoor that she installed while she was in Malibu.

“JARVIS,” she says once the call clicks through. “This is an emergency, I need to talk to Stark right now.”

“Mr Stark is doing barrel rolls over the Yukon,” JARVIS tells her, “and not in the best of moods.”

“Put me through to the suit,” Phil orders, and for once, he does as she asks without arguing.

“Hey, it’s Mama Coulson,” Stark says. He sounds bitter and furious, but at least he seems sober. “Fury send you to beg me to come back and play his little game?”

“Stark, shut up and listen to me,” Phil barks. “Are you running any kind of experiment at the Tower right now?”

“No?” Stark says, rather than prevaricating anymore, thank god. “What’s the matter? You send your retrieval team to the wrong place?”

“Loki just opened up an inter-dimensional portal from the top of your Tower,” she says, guessing as she goes along, but what else could it be and who else could be doing it? “Get back here, but don’t do anything stupid until backup arrives.”

“Son of a bitch,” Stark swears, and disconnects the call in a roar of repulsors.

“This is going to go so badly,” Phil says to no one in particular.

“Are you sure it’s Loki?” Darcy asks, stepping up beside Phil. Phil turns toward her just far enough to raise one eyebrow, and she makes a face at herself. “Yeah, okay, of course it’s Loki.”

As they watch, the portal finally finishes growing. Phil feels one kind of relief, because at least that means that Loki’s plan isn’t to have the Earth devoured by a black hole.

That relief lasts exactly long enough for the first dark speck to come flying through, rapidly resolving itself into something that looks angry and alien. Phil resists the urge to take an automatic step back.

“Agent Coulson, what are we going to do?” It’s the agent with the snapping fingers from earlier. Apparently alien invasion trumps his need to be an asshole.

“You alert the Helicarrier,” she snaps. “We need Thor and - ”

“I can go,” Darcy interrupts. Her eyes are still stuck on the scene outside. “There’s only seven… eight… twelve… there’s only a rapidly growing number of them, I’ll be fine.”

“You’re not going out there; that’s an order.” Phil is not sending unarmed civilians into a warzone. They’re not quite that desperate yet. “You’re going to stay inside here where it’s safe.”

She’s barely halfway through the word safe when there’s a crack, a flash of light, and a crouched human shape appears in the middle of her ultra-secure boardroom.

Phil hates this day, hates it.

Every gun in the room is levelled at the intruder at the same time. He’s just a kid wearing scruffy jeans and a black hoodie, and he looks terrified. Phil’s so busy reacting that it takes her a second to realise that she knows this person.

“Billy?” she asks, ignoring all the guns and dropping down onto her knees beside him. She stays just out of his reach, but she isn’t worried that he’ll hurt her. This is the boy she leaves her daughter with; she’s done background checks on him that are more thorough than most new agents receive.

Billy lowers the hand that he’d flung out toward the guns and stares at her.

“Ms Coulson?” he asks. He blinks, eyes flickering back and forth to the guns and the angry people behind them. “I don’t understand – ”

“How did you get here?” Phil asks. She wants to tell the other agents to lower their weapons, but that would be reckless.

Billy shakes his head. “I looked out the window and there were all these like, Orcs on hoverboards. One of them looked right at me and I freaked and… shit.” He scrubs a hand over his face. “I didn’t mean for this to happen again.”

“For what to happen again?” Phil presses.

Billy looks miserable. “Sometimes I wish for things, and then they happen.”

“Okay,” Phil says slowly. She doesn’t care that her babysitter is a mutant; she once left Stephanie with Wolverine and he turned out to be surprisingly competent at minding her. “What did you wish for?”

“I wished to be somewhere safe,” Billy says. He looks at her, and his expression is so scared and so hopeful that she groans to herself and sits back.

“Everyone put away your weapons,” she orders. When they hesitate, she glares, and that gets the job done. She offers her hand to Billy, bracing him to his feet. “Come on, kid, you’re going to be okay.”

***

“So, you know the mini Coulson?” Darcy asks. Someone found Billy a desk chair and he’s curled up in it, clutching a mug of tea, while Darcy sits on the edge of the table and swings her legs at him.

“Yes?” Billy asks hesitantly, shooting a look at Phil. She and Clint have him very, very well trained not to talk about Stephanie to anyone.

Phil gives him a resigned nod.

“I’m imagining tiny and badass, is that accurate?” Darcy presses.

“Sure.” Billy shrugs. “She’s cute. She’s four.” He looks over Darcy’s shoulder and everyone busily working away. “Is this where you work, Ms Coulson?”

“Sometimes,” Phil agrees.

“Clint too?” For some reason, he’s on first name terms with Clint but Phil cannot get him to call her anything other than Ms. She thinks it’s hilarious that Clint, who thinks he’s terrible at people, makes accidental friends so easily.

“Clint?” Darcy asks, perking up. “Is there a Mr Coulson? If it weren’t for the invading aliens and the fact that you won’t let me go out there and help, this would be the greatest day ever.”

Honestly, everyone Phil knows is far too fascinated by the fact that she has a family.

“Billy,” she says, “how accurate are your powers?”

“Um.” Billy frowns. “I don’t know, I’ve never really used them deliberately.”

“Do you think you could go somewhere specific, if I gave you an exact location?” she asks.

“I, I guess.” Billy shrugs. “I don’t mind trying.”

“Good, thank you. Darcy, do you still want to help?”

Darcy perks up. “I really, really do.”

Okay. Phil isn’t sure if this is a good idea or a terrible one. At least it will get them out of the city and somewhere safer. “Agent Kidwai will give you Thor’s last known location. I want you to go there, find him, and send him back here to help in the fight. Then I want you two to stay exactly where you are and, if the fighting comes that way, keep moving until you’re somewhere safe.”

“Coulson,” Darcy complains, “I only like the first part of that plan.”

“Jane’s in Tromsø. Go to her, if necessary,” Phil says, completely ignoring her. She waves her hand at them when they don’t move. “Off you go, talk to Kidwai.”

“Ma’am,” Darcy says, snapping off what’s actually a fairly accurate salute.

Phil tries not to smile and tries not to worry in pretty much equal measure.

***

Billy and Darcy call as soon as they hit Maine, which is about five seconds after they leave SHIELD HQ. Phil loves Billy’s powers; she wonders if SHIELD can put in a claim for him rather than letting Charles Xavier take him when this is all over.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as easily persuaded to help out as those kids were, and Phil ends up stuck on the telephone, making call after call and barely resisting punching a wall, as elected official after elected official tells her that they don’t need SHIELD’s help.

“There are aliens falling from the sky,” Phil says through gritted teeth, to some insignificant member of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. “Can you seriously handle that?”

“Ma’am,” a voice interrupts her from behind, before this latest idiot can say anything too asinine and completely blow Phil’s blood pressure, “we have incoming.”

Phil hangs up her call without saying goodbye and turns to the security screens.

“Is that a Quinjet?” she asks, hearing her voice crack slightly in the middle. It could be anyone flying it, she tells herself, it doesn’t necessarily mean -

“Hey, SHIELD HQ, don’t shoot, okay,” says a very, very familiar voice through the speakers. “We have Captain America on board and a whole fuckload of weaponry.”

Phil grabs the radio before anyone else can. “Was that supposed to be reassurance or a threat, Agent Barton?”

There’s a beat of silence and then, “Just telling it like it is, ma’am.”

Phil smiles and curls one hand into a discreet fist, fingernails pinching her palm to get her breathing to stay steady. “Talk to me, Barton. Have you got a plan?”

“Yep,” Clint says. She can hear explosions going off around him and Natasha yelling something furious in Russian. “Well, the plan was don’t get shot down, but we’ve messed that up, so now it’s find somewhere good to land real quick.”

Phil feels she should probably be more worried about that than she is, but she’s sadly used to Clint and Natasha getting themselves shot out of the sky. “Try not to land on anyone’s head,” she advises and Clint laughs.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says. There’s a long pause filled with bangs, crashes and cursing and then he comes back online. Phil notices more and more people looking over at her, listening in expectantly. “No heads were harmed in the making of that landing.”

Phil lets herself smile again even though twice is normally more encouragement than she likes to give anyone, even when they can’t see her. “Well done,” she says archly. “Now go kick some ass.”

“Ma’am,” he agrees and the radio goes dead.

“Huh,” Agent May says, leaning close and dropping her voice. “‘Ma’am’. It must be pretty damn kinky in your house.”

Poor Agent Kidwai, coming up behind them, drops all his paperwork.

***

While Clint, Natasha, and Captain Rogers are handling the first wave of aliens, Phil straps on all the weaponry she can reasonably carry and steps out onto the street, determined to get to Stark Tower one way or another.

She ignores the fact that she feels like she’s leaving defenceless kittens behind her, and orders Kidwai to lock every door. Stark’s still MIA, Thor’s not back yet, and someone needs to handle Loki.

JARVIS lets her right into the Tower then spends the whole elevator ride up trying to caution her against doing anything, in his words, “reckless.”

“I do appreciate the concern, JARVIS,” Phil says, putting a fresh clip into her Sig and making sure she has more ammo easily accessible. “But I’m all out of superheroes right now.”

“Mr Stark is on his way,” JARVIS says apologetically, like Stark is late for a ball or a fashionable soirée and it’s embarrassing him. “He’s delayed by the fighting over Midtown but shouldn’t be much longer.”

“That’s great,” Phil tells him. It is. Sort of. “But God knows how many more of those things Loki’s going to let in while we wait.”

“Understood,” JARVIS says. “We’ve reached your destination.”

“Thank you,” Phil says. “Can you disable the ding?”

“Ding disabled,” JARVIS says and the elevator door slides open smoothly and, more importantly, silently.

One thing that can be said for Stark Tower, is that it’s a very difficult place for supervillains to hide. Sadly, that means it’s also a very difficult place for the good guys to sneak up behind them.

Phil spots Loki easily. He’s standing on the roof, watching Selvig tinker with a large metal device that’s clearly controlling the portal in the sky. He looks regal and smug and Phil wants to smash his face in with the butt of her gun.

Instead, she keeps low to the ground, drops to her knees behind Stark’s bar, and tries to come up with a way of getting to Loki without being seen. Face-smashing is a more personal desire, which will have to come later.

She risks another look around the bar and finds herself looking straight into Selvig’s face. Selvig’s eyes flare and Phil curses, ducking back out of sight, gun drawn.

She waits. Nothing happens.

When she looks back again, Selvig is taking a screwdriver to his machine as though he didn’t notice anything. That’s interesting. She wonders if Selvig’s actually covering for her, or if her presence just doesn’t seem relevant to his Loki-addled mind.

Either way, Phil isn’t getting anywhere by hunkering down here. She can see a path between the bar and the back of Stark’s couch, and then another from the couch to the doorway. After that, she’s not sure what she’s going to do, but she’s a SHIELD agent; she’ll wing it.

She lifts out of her crouch onto the toes of her shoes, and prepares to make the first run. Before she can move, a hand shoots out of nowhere and shoves her back down.

Phil has her gun up and in her attacker’s face before she’s whipped her head around.

Tony Stark is staring back at her, looking like he wants to be amused by the gun in his face but is actually ready to piss himself.

“What the fuck?” Phil hisses. “Do you want to get shot?”

“Not particularly,” Stark says slowly, eyes still on the barrel of the gun. A petty part of Phil wants to keep it pointed at him, but she lowers it instead. “Nice reflexes.”

Phil ignores him. “How did you get here? Where’s your suit?”

“I took the back way up, wasn’t sure where exactly I’d find Draco Malfoy there.” Stark waves toward the window and Loki. “And my suit’s kinda damaged. It’s getting fixed. It’ll be okay; I’m sure you’re weeping inside.”

“Your suit’s damaged?” Phil echoes. “So you’re not going to be able to fight with us?”

“I’ll fight,” Stark says, actually sounding offended. “But not with you, well, maybe with you, but not with SHIELD and not with Captain Boyscout and the rest of Fury’s merry men.”

“Stark.” Phil sighs, resting her hands on his shoulders and ignoring the look she gets for that. “Captain Rogers is a good man; you’re going to need to fight alongside him today.”

Stark snorts. “Says you.”

“Yes, says me,” Phil snaps at him, then remembers to keep her voice down “I’ve been working with him for months now. He’s a good man.”

Stark raises his eyebrows. “Right,” he says slowly, “it’s like that, is it?”

Phil forces herself to breathe out slowly, count to ten. She can’t yell at him right now, as much as she’d like to.

“No, Mister Stark,” she says, low and steady. She knows he’s heard that tone from her before and should know to react to it. “It is not like that. I’m not telling you to trust him because I’m sleeping with him or…” Dammit she can’t believe she fell for that. “Which you know full well. You’re just trying to get a rise out of me.”

Stark looks startled, like he didn’t expect her to be able to read him so easily. “Huh,” he says eventually. “Interesting.”

“Fascinating,” Phil agrees flatly. “Now, do you have another suit?”

“I have another suit,” Stark agrees, “but it’s still powering up.”

She smacks him on the arm. “Go make it power up faster.”

Stark starts to rise to his feet, then hesitates. “You’ll wait here?”

“I’ll wait here,” Phil lies.

He looks at her closely, then nods once before ducking through a doorway behind the bar that Phil would swear wasn’t there yesterday.

She waits for the door to swing closed, then gets to her feet. Enough of this creeping around bullshit. She’s only a spy when she absolutely has to be; she was a soldier first.

She readies her weapon and walks toward Loki.

He turns slowly toward her before she reaches the door, which ruins her dramatic moment of surprise, but she doesn’t let herself falter.

“Surveying your kingdom?” Phil asks, as she steps through the plate glass door and out onto the balcony. Wind whips at her hair, and the unmistakable smells of a battle fill her nose.

“Agent Coulson, what a lovely surprise,” Loki says, stepping toward her.

Phil raises her pistol. “That’s close enough,” she tells him, making sure she’s still out of range of his spear. She’s not getting Clint back only to lose herself.

“Of course,” Loki says, inclining his head. “Although I mean you no harm.”

“Sure,” Phil says. She uses her free hand to point up at the sky, never taking her eyes off Loki. “I suppose that’s just a peaceful intergalactic delegation.”

Loki shakes his head. “No, that’s my army. But once the Earth belongs to me, I will have no quarrel with its people. I wish to free you, not to terrorise you.”

“Free us?” Phil asks. “Is Doctor Selvig free?”

Loki doesn’t fall for a trick as obvious as that, doesn’t look over his shoulder, and his expression stays serenely insane. “Freer than he has ever been. Just as Agent Barton was free before Agent Romanoff’s unwelcome interference.”

Phil doesn’t flinch.

“Oh but look at you,” Loki purrs. “You come to me with only one meagre weapon to defend yourself, and you try so hard to appear unafraid. Agent Barton was right about you.”

Phil lifts her chin. “If you think I’m going to ask you what Barton told you about me, you’re going to be very disappointed.”

Loki smiles. It’s thin and absently cruel. “Agent Barton,” he says slowly, “told me everything. And soon he will be mine again, to once more tell me whatever I ask. Would you not like to join us? Your daughter, too, of course.”

One horrified part of Phil cannot believe that Clint told this bastard about Stephanie; the rational part understands that he didn’t have a choice. “That’s never going to happen.”

“But you came to me,” Loki says, eyebrows drawing together slightly. “You cannot possibly expect to best me, yet here you are. What else can you truly desire other than to join me?”

“I don’t know.” Phil shrugs. “I was kind of just planning to kill you.”

Loki laughs. Phil hopes she does get to kill him. “I remember you from New Mexico, you know,” he says, as though they’re having afternoon tea and reminiscing. “You walked up to the Destroyer with only your little metal voice enhancer and you did not appear afraid. You would make a fine addition to my army.”

“What if I just shoot you?” Phil asks, honestly curious. “A bullet to the head’s got to hurt you the same as anyone else, right?”

“Please don’t,” Loki says and knocks her backwards off her feet with a casual flick of his wrist.

Hitting the wall of windows hurts like hell. Her shoulder takes the brunt of the impact, pain jarring down her arm and up her neck. Her vision swims, and she lands heavily on the floor, winded.

She let her gun drop in the fall because she didn’t want to accidentally shoot Selvig or herself, but it lands close to her elbow and she quickly grabs it and slides it into her waistband.

Loki stalks toward her, using his spear like a cane. He looks more like Lucius Malfoy than Draco, she thinks hazily. She twists around and sits up, halfway to her feet when he lifts his cane and knocks her back again.

She grits her teeth and stays down.

“I am losing patience, Agent Coulson,” Loki tells her, looming over her. “And I do not require your consent to bring you into my fold.” He shifts his hold on the spear and spins it around.

The pointed tip moves toward Phil’s chest, just as he did to Clint, and she doesn’t think about lulling Loki into a false sense of security anymore, just reacts. She grabs her gun from her belt and whips it around, knocking the spear aside before it can touch her.

Loki growls under his breath, posture going stiff and cold. Phil’s pretty sure she’s about to get killed not recruited.

“Maybe you should learn to take no for an answer,” she says, and scrambles to her feet. Her gun’s still clutched in her hand, not that she thinks it’s going to do her much good.

“Agent Barton said that you would be difficult,” Loki says. “I told him that I’d have to kill you if you refused to cooperate and he said that he understood.” He grabs her arm, forcing it backward and up against the wall. He’s damn strong, stronger than any human she’s come across.

Phil doesn’t say anything. She’s done fighting with this bastard.

Loki lifts his spear again. “Such a shame. Goodbye, Agent Coulson.”

Phil keeps her eyes open and her eyes on Loki’s face. She hopes that whoever finds her body knows to break it to Clint straight.

“Hey,” Phil hears, “heads up.” And then a blast of light hits Loki straight in the side.

He goes down onto one knee, giving Phil enough time to break free of his slackened grip, knee him in the chin, and twist away. She looks up, expecting Iron Man, but what she sees is Stark, one gauntlet on and a flattened out smile on his face.

“Okay, there?” he asks. “Miss me?”

“Fine,” Phil says, ignoring the pounding of her heart. “Where the hell’s the rest of your suit?”

Stark shrugs like it’s no big deal that now they’re both out here more or less unprotected. “Almost ready.”

“Mr Stark,” Loki purrs, rising to his feet. “How nice to see you again.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, it is, isn’t it?” Stark casts a look at Phil. “See, he missed me.”

“Shut up, Stark,” Phil says.

Loki has stopped looking charming, and has shifted to looking like the murderous psychopath that he is.

“You should really not have done that,” he says sadly.

“Just saving you a world of hurt, buddy,” Stark says, backing up. “You don’t want to threaten Agent Supermom; she’s got a taser.”

“Ah, but I have something much, much more powerful than that,” Loki says.

Stark makes a slow and obvious appraisal of the spear. “What, your big pointy lightsaber? Eh, I’ve seen bigger.”

“No,” Loki says, “not my staff. Me.” He grabs Stark around the throat, lifting him off the floor.

Phil levels her gun, but Loki moves too fast. One second Stark’s face is turning purple and mottled, the next, Loki thrusts his arm out and drops Stark right off the top of the tower.

“Stark!” Phil yells, throwing herself forward.

She flings one arm out over the void, fingertips just grazing the heel of Stark’s boot, but there’s no way to maintain a grip. She feels sick as she watches him fall.

“You son of a bitch,” she grates out, rounding on Loki.

He smiles thinly. “A shame, but -- ” he starts, before something comes flying out of the room behind them, zooms over their heads, and races down after Stark.

It’s his suit. Thank god.

“You know,” Phil says, sliding closer to the edge of the platform. It’s windy up here and she has to dig her fingertips into the floor to keep her balance. “This whole invasion thing? It’s not going to work out all that well for you.”

“And why is that?” Loki asks patiently.

“Guys like that, like Stark?” Phil points down behind her. “Like him and Thor and Captain Rogers, they’re the kind of guys who win. You’re not.”

Loki shakes his head. “What a quaint and romantic notion,” he says. “And here I thought you were a woman of science.”

“Me?” Phil asks. “No, I’m a soldier. And soldiers believe in heroes.”

She’s at the very edge of the balcony. This is probably a terrible idea. “Hey, JARVIS, tell Stark to catch me,” Phil says and throws herself backwards, right off the edge of the Tower.

She falls. It’s cold and the wind whips at her skin, but she isn’t actually worried. Clint does this kind of thing all the time.

There’s a rush of sound over the roar of the wind, and then she’s caught in metal arms. Her face ends up smashed against the cold glass of Stark’s arc reactor.

“Holy fuck, don’t do that,” Stark says through the Iron Man mask. “I only just dodged becoming a grease spot on the sidewalk and then you had to try it, too.”

“I had faith in you, Mr Stark,” Phil says, even though that’s by far the nicest thing she’s ever let herself say to him. “I couldn’t exactly stay up there.”

“Point. It was all getting a bit Game of Thrones, wasn’t it?” He’s hovering about twenty feet off the ground. Now that Phil’s got her breath back, she really does not like being clutched to his chest like a damsel in distress, so she squirms, shifting around to a better position.

“What the hell are you doing?” Stark asks. “Are you going somewhere?” A stray shot fires from a passing alien ship and they rise ten feet to avoid it.

“We need to get to the others,” Phil says. She’s managed to get onto his back now, one arm looped around his neck. “Let’s take some of these bastards down.”

“I told you, I’m not playing with the other freaks,” Stark grumbles, but he still rises high
above the buildings, searching the ground below.

There’s a cluster of alien soldiers flying in formation over Grand Central. Stark turns toward them, then pauses in mid-air.

“Sure about this?” he asks over his shoulder.

“Very sure.” She’s still feeling the effects of the adrenaline from her fall and she can’t resist adding, “I bet I can kill more of the bastards than you can.”

“Yeah?” Stark starts to fly toward them. “What do you bet?”

“I’ll give you two hours with whatever tech we recover from the aliens, before I hand it into SHIELD.”

“Deal,” Start crows. “Wait, you really don’t think you’re going to lose, do you?”

Phil double checks her magazine and fires a shot past Stark’s shoulder, winging an alien and sending it flying into the side of the nearest building. “No.”

“Hey, no fair, we haven’t started yet,” Stark says, and rolls sideways, gauntlet out and taking down two with one blast.

“Get closer into the middle of the group,” Phil yells in his ear, just as the aliens finally spot them and start to converge.

“Doesn’t look like I have a lot of choice,” Stark shouts back. “Watch your back.”

“Please,” Phil says, then ducks her head when a shot comes within an inch of her temple.

Shooting down aliens is fun. Phil always suspected it would be, but she was starting to doubt that she’d ever get the chance to try it.

“That’s four to me,” Stark says. “Oh no, how sad, you’ve only got three.”

“Not for much -- ” A smaller, scrappy alien leaps from its hover bike and lands on Stark’s chest. Phil clocks it over the head with the butt of her gun, then shoots it in the ear before Stark can fire his gauntlet. “-- longer.”

Stark’s chest plate is covered in goo. “Fuck, these things are disgusting.” He turns around in a slow circle. “Did we get ‘em all?”

“For now. Let’s find the others before -- ” A dark shape overhead obliterates the daylight and Phil looks up, then up some more, to find a brand new squadron bearing down on them.

“Jesus,” Stark mutters. He rolls them, putting himself between Phil and the incoming repulsor beams. He jerks when they score a direct hit, losing altitude in a rush before he can stabilise.

The heels of Phil’s shoes brush concrete.

“Land,” she orders and he does without question, which surprises her. They duck down together behind an upturned car, and Phil curls her hand around the shoulder of the Iron Man suit, keeping Stark down and out of the way while she shoots down three of the half-dozen incoming.

“I’m fine,” Stark grumbles.

“Talk to me when you can stand up,” Phil says. Her clip’s empty, so she stoops back down, reloading and checking the damage to Stark’s chest plate at the same time.

Stark flips back his visor. “Power’s at fifty percent,” he says. “I’m good.”

“Good.” A shot bounces off the side of the car and the chassis shifts, slamming into Phil’s hip. “Fuck.”

“Your turn to get down,” Stark tells her. He rises up and shoots one alien out of the sky. Phil slams her clip into place and takes down another one, but there are so many and she’s not sure they’re going to get them all before one of them gets in a lucky shot.

“Stark, hack into the SHIELD comm frequency and tell Rogers where we are,” she says.

Stark makes a disgruntled noise. “We don’t need him; we doing fine.” A shot catches him on the back of the helmet and he stumbles.

“Fine, yep, we’re doing great,” Phil mutters. She raises her voice. “JARVIS, can you hear me?”

“Oh, no fair,” Stark protests. “We’ll have these assholes dealt with in a second or -- ” He stops, looking up. “Or maybe he will.”

Phil looks where Stark’s staring and sees a red and gold shape come streaking through the sky toward them.

Thor barrels into the midst of the aliens, taking down two and scattering the others so Stark and Phil can easily pick them off.

“Seven,” Stark yells gleefully.

“Nine,” Phil shouts back.

“Friends.” Thor lands between them, cloak billowing and armour glinting in the sun. “My Lady,” he adds, bowing. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”

“Thor,” Phil says, inclining her head. She spent a lot of time in New Mexico last year trying to convince him that she wasn’t a lady; then she met Sif and realised that it didn’t mean he thought any less of her.

“Are you well?” he asks.

“We’re well,” Phil says, after a quick look at Stark. “Loki’s up there, causing havoc.”

Thor nods gravely. “Of that I am aware. Can I give you a lift to safety before I join the others?”

“Yeah, you should take her out of the -- ” Stark starts.

“No, thank you, I’m staying here,” Phil interrupts.

Thor nods gravely. “I will not insult you by attempting to convince you otherwise,” he says. “I hope to see you after we are victorious.”

And then he’s gone with another swish of red cloak and L’Oreal hair.

“Huh,” Stark says, watching him go. “Gotta love a guy who can make an entrance and an exit.”

Phil rolls her shoulders, stretching out the tension from the battle. “Let’s find the others,” she says. “Come on.”

“They’re two blocks that-a-way,” Stark says, pointing. “JARVIS has been keeping an eye on them. Your boy’s rescuing kids from a bus, apparently. Does that make you go weak at the knee?”

Phil doesn’t bother to answer, just starts running.

***

The scene that they find is no better than the one they just left. Phil announces her presence by shooting an alien in the neck. Rogers had already knocked it down, but it looked as though it was about to get back up and Phil is not feeling trusting of alien soldiers just at this minute.

Rogers looks up, does a double take when he sees her, then grins. “Good afternoon, ma’am. Having fun?”

“This is the most fun I’ve had in minutes,” Phil tells him dryly. “Duck.”

He ducks and she shoots an approaching alien over his head.

“Good shot,” Stark says from behind her. He clanks over to stand beside her and nods at Rogers. His visor is down. “Captain.”

Rogers nods back, jaw tight. “Mr Stark.”

Fuck. Phil needs to fix this. “You two,” she says, “think you can work together long enough to take down that... whale thing?”

It is a whale thing. She’s not sure what else to call it.

Stark looks at Rogers who looks back at Stark. “I’ll go high,” Stark says. “Who knows what the jump’d do to your knees, old man.”

“Let’s see, shall we?” Rogers says, after a pause where Phil wonders idly if he’s just going to punch Stark in the helmet. He jumps, catches the bottom of the whale with one hand and swings himself around.

Stark curses under his breath and takes off after him.

Phil watches them go and shakes her head. Then an alien soldier appears from behind her and hits her in the shoulder with his weapon.

She goes down to one knee, already twisting, and manages to grab the other end of the spear, pulling at the same time that the alien thrusts, so it ends up flying over her shoulder and onto the ground. Phil jumps up, ignoring the pain in her shoulder, grabs the spear with her left hand and stabs.

It makes a really jarring noise as it dies.

“Coulson!” she hears someone yell, Natasha she thinks, but there are another two coming and she doesn’t stop to check. She kicks one in the face before it can get too close, but the other takes advantage when she lands off balance, and sweeps her knees out from under her.

She lands on her back on the sidewalk, breath knocked out of her, and the humming pain in her shoulder flaring to life. The alien that knocked her down is leaning over her; its grotesque excuse for a mouth is stretched wide like it’s laughing at her. Or maybe it wants to eat her.

Phil gets her gun in its face, close enough that the recoil is going to catch her no matter what she does, and pulls the trigger.

Nothing.

“Shit,” she mutters to herself and sticks the barrel in its eye instead.

It roars and lashes out at her, scoring a long line down the back of her hand with its fingernails.

“Coulson!” she hears again and then the alien above her spasms, the electric buzz of a taser shaking it off its feet. Not Natasha.

Phil kicks it away and rolls up onto her knees.

“Darcy, what the hell are you doing here?” she demands, bracing her good hand against her shoulder while she staggers upright.

“Saving your life,” Darcy says with a shrug. Then she grins and bounces on the spot. “This is way more fun than I expected.”

“You were supposed to stay in Maine,” Phil says. She grabs Darcy’s arm and pulls her back out of the path of an incoming alien, which lands in a heap right in front of them, eyes wide and dead.

“Sorry!” Rogers calls out from above their heads.

“Eh, Maine’s boring. Thor brought us back. Well, he brought me back. Billy said he’d find his own way. Did you know that he can fly? How cool is that?”

Darcy is quick and efficient at reloading her taser. Phil knew she was right to make her a temporary agent. (And she knows it isn’t going to be temporary. She isn’t that naïve.)

Still. “You were supposed to stay safe,” Phil says. “Safe and out of the way.” Another alien falls beside them, this time close enough that Darcy’s boots get splattered with brain matter. She makes a resigned face and shakes it off.

“Come here,” Phil says, grabbing Darcy’s sleeve and pulling her out of the road, across the sidewalk, and into the shadow of an abandoned storefront. “Keep back, stay out of direct sight of any of these bastards.”

“What, no,” Darcy scoffs. “These assholes want our planet? I’m taking them down.”

Phil rubs her face with her hand. There’s gore on both so it doesn’t make much difference. “If you get yourself killed, it’s on you.”

“Noted,” Darcy says brightly. She pats Phil on the shoulder. “You’re the best.” Her gaze drifts past Phil and her eyes widen. “Oooh, who’s the hottie with the arrows?”

Phil turns to look. If there are two hotties with arrows roaming New York, she’s going to be really surprised.

Clint is standing ten feet away, arrow nocked and ready. He’s dirty and sweaty and bleeding from a couple of cuts on his arms, but this is the closest she’s gotten to him since this whole mess started, and she just wants to put her hands on him, check that he’s really all right.

Sadly, they’re both busy saving the world, right now.

As she watches, Clint pulls an arrow from the chest of one alien, spins and stabs it into the eye of another one.

Phil smiles. “That’s Clint Barton,” she says, “greatest marksman in the world.”

Darcy laughs, not sounding entirely certain why that’s funny. “Oh look out, incoming,” she says, just as a third alien goes for Clint, while he’s still freeing his arrow from the second one’s skull.

Phil shoots. She isn’t quite good enough to make a kill shot from this distance, but she distracts the alien and gets Clint’s attention, which is enough.

He kills it with his boot knife, then straightens, lifting his hand to shield his eyes from the sun. Phil watches him watch her and smiles slightly.

Clint doesn’t move, just stares at her.

Phil takes one step toward him, aware that this isn’t the most professional thing she’s ever done, but goddamn it, she deserves to be unprofessional for a moment. Then a shadow passes over her, blocking out the sun, almost obscuring Clint from sight, and she stops to look up, instead.

It’s an alien whale ship, flying so low over their heads that everyone ducks. Its tail area is on fire, twisted and thrashing angrily and it’s obvious it’s going to come down.

Phil holds her hand up to acknowledge Clint, still following the ship’s path with her eyes. It’s heading for one of the buildings her team identified as safe for evacuees, and she hopes to hell that they haven’t set anyone up in there yet.

A blue-streaked shape is following close behind, shooting bolts of energy.

“That’s Billy,” Darcy says, grabbing Phil’s arm. “Shit. What’s he doing?”

What Billy’s doing is getting in closer to the whale, zipping around its front end, maybe trying to get its attention. There are energy blasts coming at him from its crew and the last thing Phil sees before they disappear behind a skyscraper, is Billy faltering, the blue light around him flickering out.

Three seconds later, there’s an almighty crash, plumes of smoke and fire lighting the sky.

“Shit,” Phil and Darcy say at the same time. Darcy starts to run toward the crash site and Phil cannot, will not let her go alone.

Phil looks helplessly toward Clint. There’s nothing she wants to do more than shirk her responsibility and fight alongside him instead. But she wouldn’t do that even if it weren’t her fault that Billy’s here.

She meets Clint’s eye across the smoking pavement and makes sure he’s looking before she touches her hand to her mouth and blows him a kiss. It has the desired effect. Clint laughs, flips her off, then turns his attention back to the aliens. Which is how it should be.

The crash site is a mess. One building is flat and the side of a second is crumbling. People are streaming out of the door of the half-standing building, and someone that sounds a hell of a lot like Kidwai is shouting orders from around back.

“Agents,” Phil shouts and a half-dozen heads pop up, all of them covered in building dust and a couple of them bleeding.

“Agent Coulson, ma’am.” Agent May comes limping toward her. “Good to see you.”

“I told you to wait at base for my orders,” Phil tells her, reaching out absently to help an old guy navigate his way over what looks like a fallen staircase.

“Yeah.” May grabs his other arm when he totters, and together they get him safely on the sidewalk and heading for Kidwai, who’s finally appeared, clutching a clipboard in one hand and an MK48 in the other. “We were pretty sure you must be dead, so we improvised.”

Phil nods. “Good thinking,” she says and hides her smile at May’s shocked expression. “Did you see a kid come down with this thing? Billy? The one from earlier?”

“We saw him on the approach, yeah,” May says, shaking her head. “No idea what happened to him when it crashed but I’m pretty sure he was onboard.”

Phil curses. “Thanks. Okay. Keep doing what you’re doing, I’m going to – ” She raises her voice. “Darcy?”

“Over here!” Darcy shouts. “I can’t find him.”

Phil joins her at the starboard side of the fallen whale. Half its crew are crushed under it, dead or writhing toward death. Three of her agents are taking care of two others and a third looks suspiciously tasered.

Darcy looks worried, arms folded tightly across her chest as she kicks at rubble and fallen aliens both.

“I hope he’s not dead,” she says, looking up at Phil. “He won’t be dead, right? He’s magic.”

“He won’t be dead,” Phil promises, even though that’s a stupid promise. She can’t stand the thought of finding sweet, awkward Billy lying dead in all this mess any more than Darcy can. “You keep looking around here. I’ll head that way.”

Darcy nods but Phil’s only moved a couple of feet away when a new voice calls, “Hey? Hey, I need some help.”

Phil turns and finds a big blond kid striding toward them. In his arms, he’s holding a crumpled mess of torn jeans and dark hair.

“Billy!” Darcy shouts, and runs toward him.

“Careful,” Phil snaps, catching her arm and pulling her behind Phil while they both jog over.

“What?” Darcy demands. “Big, blond and heroic isn’t an alien invader.” She tips her head as they reach him. “Are you?”

The new kid frowns, shakes his head, and obviously decides not to ask. He kneels on the ground, Billy still carefully supported across his lap. “I was coming down to help and I found him staggering around. He just about managed to tell me where he was heading before he passed out.”

“Thank you,” Phil says.

“Teddy,” the kid offers.

Phil smiles at him reassuringly. “I’m Agent Phil Coulson with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. We’ll take care of him from here.”

“I’m Agent Lewis,” Darcy pipes up, clearly just because she can. She’s checking Billy’s vitals in a surprisingly professional looking way. When she notices Phil watching her, she rolls her eyes. “What? After the last time, I took a first aid course.”

“Can I help?” the kid, Teddy, asks. “I mean, what’s even happening?”

“Alien invasion,” Phil says succinctly, and earns a pair of raised no shit eyebrows, which means this boy is going to fit in fine.

There’s a sudden shifting of rubble, and a muted bang. Phil closes her eyes, giving herself five seconds before she has to turn around and investigate.

“Agent Coulson,” someone calls.

“Can you stay with Billy?” Phil asks, standing up. She looks from Darcy to Teddy and back. “Both of you?”

“Phil,” Darcy starts but Phil shoots a quick look at Teddy and she stops. “Yeah, sure, we’ll take care of him.”

Phil nods at her. She’s sure Teddy’s just the helpful kid he seems to be, but she’s not leaving Billy alone and defenseless with a stranger. She has enough people to worry about, today.

“Get somewhere sheltered,” she tells them, and heads back into the action.

***

Phil loses track of time while they work to free people from the building. She steals a comm link out of a baby agent's ear, so she can keep tabs on the battle, even if listening to Clint call out plays from a rooftop makes her want to tell him to step out of the line of fire this instant.

But she isn't Clint's handler in this, and if Clint wants to be in the thick of things, even after everything that's happened, that's his decision to make.

Then there's an odd silence in Phil's ear, a sudden stretch in the tension, and Natasha's voice comes through, tight and strained. "Can anybody hear me? I can shut the portal down."

Phil automatically opens her mouth to respond, then closes it again. She isn’t the one calling the shots when it comes to Natasha’s mission today, either.

“Do it!” Captain Rogers orders, but then Stark’s voice is cutting through, sounding the sort of serious that Phil has never heard from him.

He’s picked up a nuke from somewhere. Phil almost feels like laughing. She wants to sit down on the sidewalk and have a minor breakdown.

A nuke.

That’s exactly what they need.

“Phil,” Darcy says, sliding up beside her. It’s no surprise that she’s found herself an earpiece, too.

“It’s going to be fine,” Phil says, forcing her voice to stay steady and confident. “We’ve got the best people in the world up there.”

“Oh, yeah, no, I know.” Darcy gives Phil her own version of a reassuring smile in return. “But like, aren’t you a tiny bit worried? Because I’m a tiny bit worried.”

“A tiny bit,” she allows. She steps back onto the street, far enough back that she can see the top of Stark Tower. It’s too high and the angle’s wrong for her to be able to make out what’s happening up there, but she strains her eyes anyway, looking for a flicker of movement.

A tiny blur that might be Iron Man rockets across the sky, heading for the portal.

“Fuck,” Phil says, watching him disappear inside.

“Fuck,” echoes Clint in her ear. She doesn’t know if he heard her.

Darcy’s hand slips into Phil’s. Phil isn’t sure who’s reassuring whom, since Darcy doesn’t know Stark. Still, Phil gives Darcy’s hand a squeeze. Then the seconds tick on and Stark doesn’t reappear, and Phil finds her grip getting tighter.

“Close it.” Captain Rogers’ voice is heavy.

“God damn it, Stark,” Phil breathes.

Natasha has never let sentiment get in the way of reason, so Phil isn’t surprised to see that she doesn’t hesitate. The link from Loki’s machine to the portal severs immediately.

All around Phil, agents start chirping, talking into their radios. “Hostiles are down, ma’am,” someone calls. “Agent Coulson, hostiles are all down.”

“Excellent,” Phil says, eyes locked on the portal as it grows smaller and smaller, shrinking Stark’s escape route down to almost nothing.

“He’s going to be fine; he’s Tony Stark,” Darcy says.

“Not this time,” Phil starts to say, but halfway through she sees a tiny dot appear, blinking into existence just as the portal winks out. “Yes.” She laughs. “This time too, apparently.”

“Told you,” Darcy crows, then flings herself at Phil, hugging her around the neck and nearly strangling her. “Yay, the world didn’t end!”

Phil laughs louder, hugging Darcy back, even though it’s undignified and Darcy doesn’t need encouragement. “Guess it didn’t.”

***

Phil’s body is aching from the roots of her hair down to her toes by the time she gets back to Stark Tower.

She sets up Darcy, a still woozy Billy, and Teddy (who has so far shown no signs of being a deranged murderer, but she’s still going to run a full background check) in one of the lower levels, and heads up to the penthouse.

“Ma’am,” JARVIS says as soon as she steps into the elevator. “You should be aware that Loki is upstairs.”

Phil only just resists the overwhelming desire to fall down on her knees and scream. “Loki?” she asks flatly. She just watched Stark run a suicide play with a nuclear weapon. She is definitely going to punch Loki in the face this time.

“He’s… incapacitated presently,” JARVIS says delicately. “But I took the liberty of mounting a guard.”

“Thank you,” Phil says. She’s curious about what kind of guard an incorporeal AI can achieve, but JARVIS has been a good ally and it feels insensitive to ask.

Then she walks out of the elevator and has her answer. Loki is unconscious and sunk into a body-shaped crater in the middle of the floor. Standing over him are three of Stark’s bots, all peering down at him closely and making little chirping noises to each other.

“Wow,” Phil says. “JARVIS, that’s…”

“They wanted to help,” JARVIS says, sounding almost embarrassed. “Shall I send them away?”

“No.” Phil walks up to Loki and kicks him, not particularly gently, in the shin. He doesn’t wake up. “No, let them help, if they want.”

She pulls out her gun and sits down cross-legged between the two who she thinks are DUM-E and Butterfingers, gun on her knee, just waiting for Loki to wake up.

In her head, she replays the pictures of Clint’s face, of Stark’s fall, of the dozens and dozens of broken, bleeding people she saw today. Some part of her is hoping that Loki wakes up and gives her an excuse to test just how immortal he is.

“Can I get you anything, Agent Coulson?” JARVIS asks, after a pause.

“An ice pack if you’ve got one? And, later, I’m going to need a scotch bigger than my head,” Phil says, meaning it.

“Understood,” JARVIS says. “DUM-E will fetch you some ice.”

The little bot beeps twice, sounding annoyed to be asked to move, Phil thinks, but he zooms away quickly enough, coming back in record time with a large, blue icepack. The way he bumps it curiously against her back and neck and face, suggests that he has experience applying ice to various parts of people.

Phil thanks him and accepts the pack, and doesn’t think about that.

“Hey,” comes a quiet voice out of the shadows, and then Natasha sits down next to Phil, not blinking at the bots around them. “Share?”

Phil hands over the ice pack, watching Natasha while she’s distracted applying it. She doesn’t look too bruised, but she does look exhausted. Phil supposes everyone in New York looks exhausted at the moment.

“Everything okay up top?” Phil asks. “Selvig?”

“Sleeping,” Natasha says, then revises that with a little shrug of her shoulders. “Unconscious. But he should be fine.”

Phil smiles at that, turning to look at Natasha full on. “You saved the world today, Agent Romanoff. How does it feel?”

Natasha snorts. “I closed a portal.”

Phil doesn’t push; she knows how Natasha is about accepting praise. “And got Clint back. Thank you for that.”

That makes Natasha grin. “I’m not sure that counts toward saving the world.”

“Don’t tell him that,” Phil says. She rolls her shoulders. “Am I getting old or is saving the world getting more tiring?”

Natasha’s quiet for a minute. “The world’s getting harder to save.”

Phil nudges her with an elbow. “Which is why we have the Avengers.”

“Am I an Avenger?” Natasha asks, looking Phil straight in the eye. “Is that the plan?”

“That’s the plan,” Phil says, because she knows better than to say if you want to be to Natasha. Natasha doesn’t think in terms of what she wants to do, only what she has to do.

“Okay,” Natasha says. Then she smiles. “I suppose I had a little fun today.”

“Punching aliens in the head?” Phil asks.

Natasha’s smile is enigmatic. “Exactly.”

“Agent Coulson, Agent Romanoff,” JARVIS interrupts, “Mr Stark and the others are incoming.”

“Thanks,” Phil says. She’s too tired to stand up again. She picks her gun up, just in case Loki’s lying in wait. So far, he hasn’t shown any sign of moving, but you can never be too sure with trickster gods.

It isn’t long before she hears the sounds of the Tower waking up, the elevators purring and loud voices floating over to her.

“Huh.” Stark’s voice is the first she hears clearly. Obviously. “That is oddly hot. Does anyone else think so?”

Phil doesn’t look his way. “If anyone else does think so, they’d better keep it to themselves.”

“Sorry, ma’am,” Rogers says, followed by the sound of clanging metal.

“Ow,” Stark grumbles. “That was a compliment. And don’t punch the suit.”

“Careful, Stark,” Natasha says, and Phil wonders if Stark can hear the affection under the exasperation. “Coulson can kill a man with a bag of flour.”

“What about a woman?” Stark asks.

Phil doesn’t have to look at Natasha to imagine the expression on her face. “Why kill a woman when you can recruit her, instead?”

Phil stands up slowly, aching everywhere. “Who’s on Loki duty?” she asks, glancing over. The six of them are standing close together, leaning in to each other for support, and for all the dust, bruises, and blood, they really do look like a team.

It’s the Hulk who steps forward, circling around her warily before squatting down beside Loki. He pokes him with one thick green finger, frowning when Loki does nothing more than flop limply.

“Hi there,” Phil tries, because it’s ingrained in her to make an ally of absolutely everyone possible. “I’m Agent Coulson.” Hulk’s eyebrows draw together. “I’m Phil,” she corrects herself. “It’s good to meet you.”

Hulks frown relaxes and he nods once with a firm grunt. He pokes her in the back, like he’s trying to direct her over to the others.

When Phil looks up, Stark’s smiling and even Rogers looks amused. Phil barely spares them a glance before all her attention zeroes in on Clint. He looks terrible, worse than earlier, eyes bruised and body stiff.

“Clint,” Phil says quietly, stepping into his space.

Clint swallows and nods back. “Hey.” His Adam’s apple bobs when he swallows. He’s clearly shaved recently, but he missed a patch on the side of his jaw. “You okay? You look like shit.”

“That’s no way to speak to your baby mama, Robin Hood,” Stark chides.

“Shut up, Stark,” Phil says, without turning around. She touches Clint’s shoulder lightly with her knuckles. “You look exhausted.”

Clint licks his lips. “I’m okay.” He just keeps looking at her, like he wasn’t expecting to see her again. “Are you okay? He said he was going to -- ” He cuts himself off abruptly. “Where’s Stephie?”

“Safe,” Phil says quickly. “With my mom.”

Clint laughs shakily. “Fuck.” He closes his eyes, nods. He looks over her shoulder and tenses when he remembers that everyone’s watching. His mask of Clint Barton: Cocky Bastard visibly slides back into place. “Hey. So. I met Captain America. He’s shorter in person.”

Behind her, Phil hears Stark snort before Rogers hushes him.

“So are you,” she says, which isn’t her best effort, but it makes Clint smile anyway.

“This is adorable,” Stark says, making an obnoxious heart with his hands. “And please, feel free to continue this later, but there’s a megalomaniacal Norse god embedded in my floor. Other people can see that too, right? What am I supposed to do with him? Pepper won’t let me keep him. She doesn’t even want a potted plant.”

Before anyone can come up with an answer, there’s a wheezing cough from Loki’s direction, and Clint has his bow out and ready in the blink of an eye.

“Hey, look who’s awake,” Stark says.

“Brother.” Thor strides forward, quickly backed up by everyone else.

Phil steps back, letting them finish what they started.

***

“For fuck’s sake, Jasper,” Phil groans, rubbing a hand over her face. “Are you seriously telling me we can’t go home?”

Sitwell shrugs one shoulder. He came with the team Fury sent for Loki, but he didn’t go back with them, probably because Thor refused to let Loki out of his sight and he needed two seats to himself in the transport vehicle.

“I mean, you can,” he says, “but your whole block’s closed off and you’ll need to explain to your neighbours what makes you so special, if you just walk in.”

Phil throws a look across the room at Clint. He’s leaning one shoulder against the wall, watching them with the kind of sharp, intense focus that means he’s three seconds from passing out.

“I don’t care,” he tells her. He rubs the back of his head with one hand, and Phil frowns at the tinkle of what she’s pretty sure is glass falling to the floor. “I’ll sleep in the street, if you want.”

“Little bit of a martyr complex going on there, Barton?” Stark asks, coming into the room and clapping his hands together. “Why don’t you just sleep here tonight?”

Phil waits, but he doesn’t follow it up with any kind of wink or innuendo; it appears to be a genuine offer.

“We can’t,” she says anyway, and ignores the looks she gets from both Clint and Sitwell which clearly say why not?

“Sure you can.” Stark waves a hand. He’s dressed down in jeans and a t-shirt and doesn’t look any the worse for his near-death experience, except that his eyes and his waving hands are wilder than normal. “We have spare rooms. Hell, we have spare floors. I’ve got Banner doing some kind of zen thing on my balcony, and and I’ve already got that Lewis kid set up in a room for the night.”

“She should go home,” Phil says automatically.

“She doesn’t want to,” Stark says, “and anyway, what’s else is going to happen? She already survived the end of the world. Honestly, Agent, you wound me; I’m just trying to be nice, give a home to the homeless and – ”

“Fine, we’ll stay,” Phil sighs. “Will you stop talking?”

“I will,” Stark agrees, and bounces out of the room, talking a mile a minute to JARVIS about, Phil’s pretty sure, thread count and comforter thickness.

“He’s a trip,” Sitwell says, watching Stark go and shaking his head. “Rather you than me.” His cell beeps, and he looks down at it. “Ramirez says that mutant kid you were worried about is out of the hospital.”

Phil smiles. “Good,” she says, feeling a knot of worry loosen. “You took the other one home, right? Teddy Altman?”

Sitwell shakes his head. “Nope,” he says with a grin. “Kid wouldn’t go anywhere but to the hospital with the other one. So I guess I’ll be taking the both of them home now. When did I become a fucking taxi service, again?”

“Make sure they tip you,” Phil says dryly, clapping him on the arm. “See you tomorrow.”

Sitwell glares at her, then turns to Clint for some sort of nodding, and a clap on the shoulder that Phil thinks means glad you’re back.

Clint nods in return, so obviously he understands.

As soon as it’s just the two of them left in the room, Clint starts looking anywhere but at her. His eyes travel over the walls, the floor, the probably-priceless art hanging over the two fireplaces.
“Nice place,” he says. “Room for a dog or, like, one of those house rabbit things. Stephie would love one of those.”

“Clint,” Phil says.

He shakes his head quickly. “Don’t. I seriously do not want to talk about it. You have no idea how much I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Room’s ready,” Stark calls cheerfully, before Phil can tell Clint that he needs to talk about it. “Can I take your cases? Your coats? Oh you don’t have any? Never mind, two floors up, take your pick, don’t forget to tip the bellhop.”

Phil thinks that here is also someone who desperately needs to talk. Maybe Pepper will get back soon, or maybe Banner is secretly great at listening. She hopes so. She can’t fix everyone tonight, and Clint’s her priority.

“Thanks, Tony,” she says, clapping him on the shoulder. She means it, even though she does get a little spark of enjoyment from his flabbergasted face.

“Um, you’re welcome,” he says, rallying after a moment, but Phil’s already leading Clint into the elevator by then.

When Stark said he’d given them a floor, Phil had assumed he meant part of a floor. She really should have known that he meant the whole thing. There are two bathrooms, a bedroom that’s about the size of their entire townhouse, and a hastily put-together room full of children’s toys.

“He knows we’re not actually moving in here, right?” she asks, not sure if she’s asking Clint or JARVIS or herself. No one answers her.

“Phil,” Clint says, voice very even.

Phil pivots on one heels and crosses back to him. “Come here,” she says, and he does, stepping into her arms and clutching the back of her shirt, jarring the amazing collection of bruises running down her left side.

The hug only lasts a second before he stumbles back, out of her reach, expression some awful combination of wretched and sheepish.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I don’t actually think I can… I can’t, I can’t, um.” He gives up, scratching his shoulder and fiddling with the straps on his vest.

“How about you tell me what you need,” Phil says steadily. Inside, she’s terrified that she’s not going to be able to help him, but she was his friend and his handler for a long time before she became anything else; she knows how to try.

“A minute,” Clint blurts. “Can you like, can you go talk a walk or something? Just for a minute? I need a minute.”

Phil nods. She can give him that. “You take the first shower,” she says. “I’m going to call Mom, check on Stephanie.”

She expects him to say that he’ll hang back and listen in, but instead his expression gets even tighter, and he just leaves the room. Phil watches him go and has to wait a good few minutes before her voice is steady enough to make the call.

***

By the time Clint’s showered and Phil’s mom has put together Phil’s emergency with the battle in New York and made a very accurate four, it’s late and Phil’s ready to drop.

Instead, she sits against the headboard of the queen-sized bed Stark gave them, and watches Clint pace the room.

“Stephie’s okay?” he asks. He’s asked five times now.

“Mom says she’s fine,” Phil tells him patiently. “Look.” Her mom sent her a picture of Stephanie, fast asleep with her mouth open and both arms wrapped around her Captain America bear. Clint hasn’t looked at it yet, and he won’t look at it now.

Clint looks at Phil instead, staring at her for a long minute, not really meeting her eyes, focused, she thinks, on the wonky bridge of her oft-broken nose.

“I think I need another minute,” he says at last. “I’m just gonna.” He points over his shoulder, vaguely. “Can you stay right here and let me have one more minute?”

“What are you going to do in your minute?” Phil asks. She forces herself not to sound hurt that Clint won’t let her help.

He smiles a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Nothing permanent,” he says. “Don’t worry.”

She watches him go, and manages to wait for him to leave before turning around and kicking the bed frame, hard. Then she clears her throat, straightens her shoulders, and breathes. Getting furiously angry sounds cathartic, but it isn’t going to help Clint.

Instead, she strips out of her dusty, sweaty suit, and goes to take a shower. Clint’s minutes tend to take an hour, and she needs some way of distracting herself.

***

Once Phil has showered, changed into a t-shirt she borrowed from Pepper’s closet and a pair of Stark’s sweatpants (she’s decidedly not tall enough to wear Pepper’s), she goes on a Clint hunt.

There was a time, back when they first met, when she thought he was difficult to predict. That lasted all of five hours, and now, ten years later, she knows exactly where to find him.

He’s sitting on the tower’s flat, lower roof, a wary ten feet from the remains of Loki’s machine. His back is pressed against a low wall and one leg dangles off into nothing.

“I’ve already fallen off this tower once today,” Phil tells him, walking over and sitting next to him. “If you make me do it again, I’ll be very unimpressed.”

“You don’t fall off shit,” Clint says, then looks up, blinking slowly. “You fell off the Tower?”

She makes a so-so motion with her hand. “Well, I jumped.”

Clint smiles very slightly. “I thought jumping was banned.”

“For you.” She smiles back even though his smile hasn’t lasted. “Not for me.”

It’s a bright evening for early May, but they’re still 1500 feet in the air and the breeze up here is cool. There is gooseflesh all along Clint’s bare arms, and the edges of his visible cuts are more purple than red.

Normally, Phil would chide him into putting on something warmer or just put her arm around him, but the mood’s wrong for either of those at the moment.

Instead, she pulls out her phone and starts to check her emails. For a day when ninety percent of SHIELD’s staff were busy saving the world or trying not to die, Phil has a surprising number of meeting requests.

She’s pleased that Tom on the west coast is having a birthday today, but there’s honestly no reason for him to have sent out an all staff email about the cake he brought in.

“Molly in accounting wants to know what Stephanie would like for her birthday,” Phil reports, keeping her voice bland, as though it’s one of a hundred mornings where she’s checked emails over a quiet cup of coffee in bed.

Clint sucks in a sharp breath and turns his face all the way away from her.

“She still has two months,” Phil carries on carefully. “I’m not sure why she’s worried.”

“Phil,” Clint says tightly. “Can you stop talking about Stephie?”

Phil frowns and pushes up onto her knees, putting her hand on Clint’s shoulder. “I could,” she says. “Why would I want to?”

“Because.” He’s shaking. She doesn’t think he’s crying, but he’s certainly trembling as though he could be. “Because. Because I told him about her. Loki. About her and you and Tasha and every fucking thing that matters to me.”

“Of course you did,” Phil says. “He was controlling you. It’s not as though you had a choice.” Saying that, thinking about what it means, makes her feel nauseated, but she makes sure her voice stays steady.

“I told him about Stephanie,” Clint repeats. He lifts a hand and scrubs it over his face. She can only see part of his profile, and she wants to force him to turn around, but he’s been forced to do too much lately.

“And she’s fine.” Phil slides her hand up from his shoulder and cups the back of his neck. He takes another shuddering breath.

“He said he was going to bring her to me, if I did good with the Tesseract. And I thought that that was awesome, because life with him was perfect, and then Stephie would have a perfect life too.” Clint reaches back and puts his hand over Phil’s, holding on so tight that her fingers ache.

It’s nothing compared to how her chest is aching, though.

“Barton, listen to me,” she orders. “None of that happened. And I was never going to let it happen. You and I are a team, remember? When you were compromised, the first thing I did was get her to safety.” She shifts closer and fits herself against the back of his shoulder, wrapping her arm across his chest at an awkward angle. “If Loki had taken me, do you think I’d have been able to resist him?”

“Obviously. You’re Phil Coulson,” Clint says, but she can tell he doesn’t totally believe it.

“Selvig opened a portal to another side of the universe and let in an invading army,” Phil presses. “Because of Loki. No one’s blaming him. Do you blame him?”

“Stop.” Clint shakes his head, hair brushing her temple. “Stop being rational. I don’t need rational.”

“You do,” Phil says firmly. She keeps holding on to him. He’s so close to the edge of the roof, and while she’s not worried about him falling, she’s just worried about him, period.

“I couldn’t find you on the helicarrier,” Clint says after a long silence. “I thought for sure you must be there, but I couldn’t find you.”

“After you woke up?” Phil asks carefully.

Clint shakes his head again. “Before. I wanted to recruit you for Loki.”

Of all the things Phil’s heard today, that’s low on the list of things she’s going to panic about. “That’s only fair. I did bring you into SHIELD.”

The sound Clint makes isn’t a laugh, but it’s close. “You’re so calm. I know you’re Phil fucking Coulson, but could you freak out just for a second?”

“Later,” she promises, because she will. “You’ll probably wake up in the morning and find me rocking back and forth with Cap’s shield in my lap.”

It’s definitely a laugh, this time. She kisses the side of his neck as a reward.

“Where were you?” Clint asks. “If you weren’t on the helicarrier?”

Phil smiles into his shoulder. “Do you want the abridged version?”

“No.” He scoots backwards slightly, enough that both feet end up on solid ground. “Tell me everything? Distract me?”

Phil can do that. She moves too, pulling him in until his head’s on her shoulder. “Wait until I get to the part about Billy Kaplan,” she says. “You’re going to love that.”

***

Phil’s standing at the window, staring out at darkness and the burning embers of falling buildings, when she hears firm footsteps and a gentle swishing approaching her.

“My Lady,” Thor says, stopping beside her.

Phil glances across at him and nods. “Thor,” she says. She’s tired enough that she almost asks whether it’s his hair or his cloak that swishes. “Can’t you sleep?”

He looks down at the city and takes a moment to answer. “I have not tried.”

“Yeah.” Phil can’t blame him, since she did try, but now she’s out here in the hallway, guarding the door while Clint also fails to sleep, torturing herself by studying the battlefield over and over.

She’s been in SHIELD too long; she’s out of practice at seeing things like a soldier should.

“My Lady,” Thor says.

“Phil,” she interrupts him. “Or Philippa, if you have to.” She doesn’t mean to snap, but she’s strung out and everything feels as though it’s grating against her skin.

Thor nods. “Lady Philippa,” he says, which isn’t at all what she meant, but there’s only so far she can push without being rude.

Phil turns to the side, facing him, and forcing herself to put her back to the city. “Are you all right?” she asks.

Thor straightens, which is when she notices how hunched he’d been before. She’s used to him looking regal, always a prince, even when he was standing alone in a dusty town in New Mexico.

“I sought you out in order to extend my apologies,” he says, then bows his head, waiting.

“Your apologies?” Phil asks. “You didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, you fought beside us. We should be extending our thanks.”

“No.” Thor glances away from her for a second, and in the dim light, he looks exhausted. “My brother threatened your planet, your safety, and attempted to take your shield-mate from you.”

“My...?” Phil starts then works it out. “Clint. You’re not to blame for that. You’re not your brother, Thor.”

Thor nods, but doesn’t look convinced. He hasn’t stopped watching New York. “You protected my beloved and ensured her safety and I could not do the same for yours. After the assistance you gave me the last time I was on Earth, I feel I have let you down.”

“That’s stupid,” Phil assures him, since she doesn’t have the energy to be more tactful. She makes sure to smile at him to soften it. “Loki’s responsible for his own actions. We don’t blame you, or Asgard, for what he chose to do.”

“You’re very kind,” Thor says gravely.

Phil remembers the boy she met in New Mexico, and thinks that this business has aged him as much as it has any of the rest of them.

“It is a magnificent city,” Thor says after a while. “Is this where you were born?”

“Me? No, I’m from Chicago. It’s west of here.” At his interested look, she goes on, trying to work out how to explain Chicago to someone who’s only been to Earth once before. “There’s a lot of sports and pizza and a really big lake.”

Thor smiles. “I should like to see it, one day.”

Phil knows he’s just being polite, like any visiting dignitary, but she still smiles back. “You should stick around a while, see Earth. Visit Jane.”

Thor’s smile turns sad. “Nothing would bring me greater pleasure, but for now, my place is on Asgard.”

“I thought you might say that.” Phil pats him on the arm. She’s not really in the mood to appreciate the muscles she finds there, but they are very impressive. “There’ll always be a place for you in the Avengers, if that changes.”

It’s not really her place to make that offer, but she doubts Nick would mind having a Norse god on his payroll.

“Thank you. I will be sure to keep that in mind,” Thor says solemnly. It’s possible that he’s just being polite again, but she gets the feeling that he’s not, that he does mean it.

“I’m glad,” Phil tells him, then prepares to make her excuses, since he looks like a man who needs some quiet time.

Before she can, the door to their borrowed rooms opens, and Clint steps out. He’s stripped down to his boxers and t-shirt, and the creases down the left side of his face hint that he might have gotten a little sleep. Phil hopes so.

“Oh. Hey, there,” he says, when he spots Thor. “Phil, you coming to bed ever?”

“Yes, I’m coming now,” Phil says, watching him sway carefully in place. If he got some sleep, it wasn’t much. “You’ve met Thor? Thor, Clint Barton.”

Clint scratches the back of his neck. “Yeah, we kind of met earlier.”

“Indeed we did.” Thor steps forward and offers his hand to Clint, shaking enthusiastically. “It was a pleasure to fight by your side, Agent Barton.”

“Yeah, uh. Yeah, you too.” Clint gets his hand back from Thor and does the shrug-smile move that he always does when he wants to be friendly but doesn’t have anything to say.

“Thor, if you don’t need me?” Phil says, walking over to Clint’s side.

Thor bows. “Good night, Lady Philippa. I will see you in the morning.”

“Good night,” Phil says, then follows Clint into the bedroom.

“Lady Philippa,” Clint echoes softly once the door’s closed, then slips his arm around Phil’s waist. Phil appreciates that he waited until they were in private to do it, even though she wouldn’t have objected, just this once.

“Yes, Barton, laugh it up,” Phil says, turning and pulling him into her arms. “Back to bed?”

Clint sighs into her hair. “Might as well,” he says, but he doesn’t pull away, so neither does she.

***

In the morning, Odin makes it very, very clear that he wants Loki back right now, and when Odin makes things clear, even Nick Fury jumps to.

It’s Avengers business, so Phil hangs back. She spends some time puttering around Stark Tower, making herself a second pot of coffee, and checking in on the cleanup efforts. Her little band of baby agents are out on the streets again today, which makes her feel bad about not being with them. Maybe she’ll see how Clint is when he gets back, then go down there later.

Pepper arrives just before lunch, looking travel-rumpled and hollow eyed.

“Damn air traffic control,” she says, sitting down opposite Phil and pouring herself a huge mug of coffee. “They wouldn’t let us land until 3 am, and then Happy couldn’t get the car to me because of the traffic.” She leans forward over her mug, lowering her voice. “It’s really awful out there, Phil.”

Phil nods, turning her own mug around between her hands. “I know,” she says, “I saw it.”

Pepper’s quiet. “I don’t know how you do what you do,” she says at last.

“You get used to it,” Phil says. She doesn’t add what it’s cost her to get to that place. “And a lot of people rallied around and really came out to help, yesterday. That makes it more bearable.”

“I suppose so,” Pepper agrees, still subdued. “We had the television on in the plane, you know? I saw what Tony did.”

“He didn’t have a choice,” Phil says. It feels strange standing up for Stark, but then her whole life is strange.

Pepper almost-smiles. Phil suspects that it’s her boardroom smile. “I know that. I wouldn’t have expected him to do anything else. But I don’t think I can watch him do it over and over, if that’s what our lives are going to be like now.”

“You get used to that too,” Phil says. That part’s a lie. She’s never gotten used to seeing Clint risk his life.

“Oh my god,” Pepper says, looking horrified. “Your partner. I never asked, if he was – ”

“He’s fine,” Phil interrupts. She likes Pepper, but it would be a betrayal to tell anyone how very not fine Clint is. “You’ll meet him soon, if you’re sticking around. Stark’s offered us a room here until we can get back home.”

“Oh I’m definitely sticking around,” Pepper says. “I need to throttle Tony, and then.” She colours a little. “Well, you probably don’t want to hear what else I’m planning to do to him.”

Phil laughs. “I don’t, but I bet he does.”

“Don’t tell him.” Pepper’s smile turns a little evil. “I need to punish him for scaring me to death, first.”

“Seems reasonable,” Phil agrees, standing up. “More coffee?”

“God yes.” Pepper hands over her mug. “There’s a hundred year old scotch up there somewhere too. I think we’ve earned it.”

***

Phil’s rubbing muscle cream into her bruises, when the bathroom door slides open and Clint sticks his head in.

“Hey,” he says, smiling at her crookedly in the bathroom mirror.

“Hey,” Phil echoes. “Everything go okay?”

Clint shrugs one shoulder. “Loki’s gone. Thor’s gone. I’m pretty sure Stark’s about to get spanked. So a pretty okay morning.”

He steps forward and holds his hand out for the cream, so Phil hands it over. They’ve done this for each other more times than she can count, but they rarely need to do it simultaneously anymore. He’s quick and efficient at rubbing it into all her bruises, making her groan when tight muscles finally start to unlock.

“Did you get any sleep last night?” Clint asks, sliding her bra strap back into place once he finishes with her shoulder.

“Sure,” Phil lies. “Some.”

“‘bout as much as me, huh?” he says. He sweeps her hair off the back of her neck and kisses the top of her spine.

She looks at his reflection closer. He does look tired.

“Want to go back to bed?” she asks. “We can pretend we’re Stephanie and take a nap.”

Clint presses his face into the top of her head. “Napping sounds fucking spectacular,” he says. He wraps his arms around her waist, sagging. “Why am I so tired?”

“I don’t know, did walking ten minutes to Central Park tucker you out?” Phil asks. They both know that’s not the reason.

“Fuck you,” Clint says softly, leaning all the way into her and resting his head on her shoulder, his hands laying flat over her stomach.

“You’re clingier than your daughter,” Phil tells him, putting her hands over Clint’s hands.

For what’s got to be the twentieth time since he came back to them, Clint flinches slightly at the mention of Stephanie. He turns his hand under Phil’s, lacing their fingers together.

“I’m pretty sure I felt it when he left,” he says, barely loud enough to be heard. “Like, I shouldn’t have been able to, because Tasha had already knocked him out of my head, but it felt like something, I don’t know, snapped? When they were gone.”

“Probably just relief,” Phil says, shrugging. She doesn’t know how Loki’s magic works, but she’s definitely going to find out.

“Yeah.” Clint presses in closer, opening his mouth against her skin. She stays still to start with, not sure what his end game is, then he starts to suck on the patch of skin under her ear and she shivers.

“Are you hitting on me, Barton?” Phil asks.

“Seducing you,” Clint corrects. “I’m classy and shit, okay. I seduce.”

Phil laughs and tries to turn around. He doesn’t move back, just keeps kissing her neck, so she tips her head to the side and lets him. “Aren’t you just getting a mouthful of arnica, now?”

Clint’s laugh hums against her skin. It’s so good to hear it. “Yeah, kind of. It doesn’t taste as bad as you’d think.”

Phil wants to ask if he’s feeling better, but she doesn’t want to ruin the moment, since it’s probably only temporarily. She can’t imagine the kind of relief he must be feeling at seeing Loki go off-planet.

“You wanna?” Clint asks, rocking his hips up against her ass. “I promise I’ll make it good.”

“Well, with a promise like that.” She looks at their reflections in the mirror, and isn’t surprised to see that Clint doesn’t look as relaxed as he sounds. He looks better than he did last night though, and she thinks they both might need this.

Phil drops her hands to her pants and opens the fly, shoving them down her hips to pool at her feet, then reaches back to do the same with Clint’s. It’s an awkward angle, and she ends up fondling his dick more than she’d meant to, but neither of them are complaining about that.

Clint’s hands shift down to her thighs, one sliding up and into her underwear. She widens her legs and grunts when he drags his middle finger down the crease of her cunt. It takes her a minute to start to get wet, but when she does, he hums happily and slides the tip of his middle finger into her.

“You don’t need to be so fucking gentle,” Phil tells him, except that his forehead is against her shoulder, breath warm and slow against her back, and maybe he does need it.

He pushes his finger in all the way, making another pleased sound when she tightens around him. He takes a long time with the second finger and then even longer with the third.

Phil doesn’t think Clint’s deliberately teasing her, but it feels like it. She’s soaked and throbbing when he pulls his fingers free and she decides she’s finally had enough of this passive bullshit.

She twists around, the sink digging into the small of her back, and grabs Clint’s dick. He curses and bucks into her hand.

“Bed,” Phil says, giving him a squeeze. “Right now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Clint says throatily. She grins sharply and doesn’t let go of his cock, palming him the whole way back to the bedroom.

When they reach the bed, Phil gives Clint a push and sends him sprawling on his back, boxers tented and cheeks flushed.

“Lose those,” she orders, shimmying out of her briefs while he obeys.

“You’re the hottest woman in the world,” Clint tells her sincerely, getting himself naked.

Phil crawls up the bed and straddles his hips, grinding down on his dick, just for a second, just because she needs the friction.

The head nudges against her clit and sometimes she likes the feeling of that better than penetration, but not today. Today, she needs one of them to be inside the other, and this is the fastest option.

“I’m going to ride you,” she says. “If you had something else in mind, tell me now.”

Clint shakes his head, eyes locked on her. “Nope, no, that sounds pretty much perfect.” He reaches down and wraps a hand around his cock, holding it away from his body.

One of the things they’d learned quick once they had a daughter was the art of a fast, silent fuck, but Phil doesn’t want that today. She wants Clint’s brain filled with nothing but her and them. She wants to claim him and make sure he remembers he’s still hers.

She puts her hand over Clint’s and sits down on his cock, lowering herself slowly until their fingers are wet and slick and tickled by her pubes, then she guides his hand away and sinks down all the way. Clint’s cock is thick and it stretches her, making her groan softly in the back of her throat.

“Fuck,” Clint curses. His hands slide up her thighs, gripping restlessly at her skin until she can’t stand being still any longer and has to move.

She can do squats for hours and it’s easy for her to ride him, but that’s not going to work for her today. As good as Clint looks, flat on his back and arching up helplessly into her, she needs him closer than this.

“Sit up,” she says, leaning over him and kissing him, shifting back until he follows her, propping himself up on his elbows and reaching for another kiss. “Sit up for me, please, c’mon.”

Clint sits, stomach muscles bunching and flexing distractingly, his arms coming up around her so they stay joined.

“Better?” he asks. “This what you wanted?”

“This is definitely what I wanted,” Phil agrees.

She stretches her legs out behind him, crossing her ankles behind his ass, and wraps her arms around his shoulders. She kisses him, rocking her hips down into his almost as an afterthought. Skin to skin, they’re warm and a little sweaty, Clint’s chest hair springy against her breasts.

“Don’t ever do that to me again,” she says. He doesn’t ask what, just slides his hands up her spine and holds on.

“Got no plans to,” he promises. He kisses her on the corner of the mouth and shifts under her, restlessly. “You comfortable? You want a cup of coffee, maybe the newspaper?”

Phil laughs and punches him on the shoulder. “We are having a damn moment,” she tells him. She leans back, gasping when his cock shifts inside her. “And now the moment’s over. Let’s fuck.”

“I love you,” Clint says sincerely.

“Yes,” Phil says, tangling fingers in his hair so he won’t try to look away. “Yes. You do. I love you, too.”

“Fuck, Phil,” Clint says and moves in closer, angling to catch her mouth. He kisses her slowly, licking her lower lip into his mouth and shifting his hips at the same time. There isn’t a lot of space for Clint to do much, not with the position Phil has put them in, but he manages a slow thrust up.

“Shit,” Phil says. He’s managed to hit exactly the right spot. “There.”

“There?” Clint asks, doing it again.

Phil tightens her grip on his shoulders, blunt nails digging into his shoulder. “I swear, if you don’t start fucking me faster--”

“Yeah?” Clint asks. Another slow thrust. He’s laughing softly against her cheek. “What’re you gonna do?”

“Fuck myself,” Phil says and starts to meet him thrust for thrust.

It’s slow and a little clumsy; they’re both too tired and sore for anything too elaborate, but they come a couple minutes apart with their faces pressed into each other’s shoulders, and Phil’s more than happy with that.

Shit,” Clint says, flopping back onto the bed and wincing when Phil climbs off him.

Normally, Phil would hustle them both off to shower, but for once, they don’t need to worry about Stephanie stumbling in on them in the middle of the night, and besides, Phil’s reluctant to break this mood.

She stretches out on her back and lets the sweat air-dry from her skin. When she’s feeling less hot and sticky, she reaches out and pokes Clint’s shoulder.

“I’m pretty sure you promised to love, honour and cuddle me after sex, Barton,” she says.

Clint rolls over and flings an arm across her stomach, resting his head on her shoulder. “I never did,” he says. “You haven’t married me yet.”

Phil smiles up at the ceiling. Clint always does this. Out of the two of them, he’s the one who most wants the contact after sex, but he’s also the least able to ask for it. “It was implied, when you agreed to move in with me.”

“Yeah?” Clint asks, shifting closer. His voice is growing heavy with sleep. “If I’d known, I’d’ve stayed in my classy SHIELD cell. Me an’ the rats.”

“There are no rats at SHIELD.” Phil puts her hand on the back of Clint’s head and pets his hair. If she can, she’s going to chase away as many nightmares as possible.

He’s quiet for so long that she thinks he’s fallen asleep, and she’s well on her way there as well, when he looks up at her.

“You think maybe I could call Stephie later?” Clint asks.

“Yes,” Phil says. She strokes Clint’s bangs off his face. “She’d like that.”

“Yeah.” Clint lies back down. “Me too.”

***

Breakfast the next day is a strange one. Clint and Phil try to do their usual routine of ignoring each other until the coffee’s kicked in, but they’re joined at the table by Pepper who wants to be a decent hostess and make small talk and by Darcy who never shuts up anyway.

“It’s very nice to finally meet you, Agent Barton,” Pepper says, handing him the marmalade.

Clint hates marmalade, but he takes it anyway. Phil slides it away from him before he succumbs to awkward politeness and ends up ruining his toast.

“Totally,” Darcy chimes in. She’s been flicking her eyes over Clint since he sat down. Phil doesn’t mind; Clint’s damn handsome and she likes it when other people appreciate that.

“Thanks, um.” Clint grins lopsidedly, completely and accidentally charming the way he always is. “Call me Clint.”

Pepper smiles and turns her attention to asking Darcy about her major. Clint sighs silently and sinks back in his seat, knocking his knee against Phil’s.

Phil drops her hand down and squeezes his thigh. She knows that making nice isn’t Clint’s favourite thing at any time, but now, when he’s still only partly okay with what happened, it must be even worse than it normally is. Phil wishes they were back in their own home.

“Where’s Stark?” Phil asks, talking over Darcy who’s telling the table - for the second time - that Phil deputised her and didn’t give her an end date so she’s totally a SHIELD agent forever now, right?

“He had to run an errand,” Pepper says. “He’ll be back soon. It probably has something to do with Doctor Banner; Tony seems determined to make him stay with us.”

“Forever?” Clint asks. “Banner seems like kind of a private guy.” He looks over at Phil. “And Fury’s probably going to want him back at some point, right?”

Phil shakes her head. “Nick told him that he only needed to work with SHIELD until the Tesseract was found. And the Tesseract has been found.”

Clint snorts. “Right. ‘Cause Nick always tells the truth?”

“Right,” Phil says, looking at him levelly until he rolls his eyes and flicks a corner of his toast at her.

Phil bats it out of the air back at him, hitting him on the top of his ear. She picks up her coffee and takes a prim sip, ignoring Darcy’s delighted laughter.

“Attention,” booms a voice out of nowhere. Phil jumps, then pretends she didn’t. “The Coulson-Bartons are required on the landing deck.”

“That’s not JARVIS,” Darcy says, frowning.

“That’s Tony,” Pepper sighs, and gets up, motioning at them to follow. “I don’t know what he’s up to now, but it’s usually safer just to go along with it.”

Phil gets up too, bringing her coffee with her because she doesn’t want Stark thinking that she just leaped to obey his summons.

“I hope it’s not another alien,” Clint says, keeping pace at her elbow. “I have had my fucking fill of aliens.”

“It won’t be an alien,” Phil says, with a certainty she doesn’t feel. It would be just like Stark to present them with a robot Chitauri and think it’s a great gift.

A helicopter is sitting on the landing pad when they get to the half-destroyed top floor of the Tower. Colonel Rhodes is standing beside it, talking to Stark, with his hand on the shoulder of -

“Stephie,” Clint says.

Stephanie whips around. She’s wearing her PJs with a coat zipped up over them, her feet shoved into socks and sandals. Either Phil’s mom has gone crazy or she had to get her dressed in ten seconds flat.

“Daddy!” Stephanie screams at the top of her lungs, and breaks away from Colonel Rhodes, running through the half-open glass door and flinging herself at Clint.

Clint drops down onto his knees and wraps his arms around her, fingers on the back of her coat in a white-knuckled grip as he clutches her to him.

“Tony, what did you do?” Pepper asks behind Phil.

Phil wants to know that too, but she can’t take her eyes off her family long enough to find out.

“Me?” Stark asks, shoes clicking on the floor and marking his approach. There are boots too: Rhodes. “I didn’t do anything. But did you know that Rhodey here is a friend of Grandma Coulson? I didn’t.”

Phil looks up at that, catching Rhodes’s eye and smiling. “James.”

He grins back at her. “Phil. Your mom sends her regards; she wants you to call her.”

“I bet she does,” Phil agrees. Rhodes was her mom’s favourite protege for years, so for years, all Phil ever heard was, “of course you don’t need a man, but if you have to have one, what about that lovely Rhodes boy?”

Clint still hasn’t let go of Stephanie, and she’s starting to get restless, peeking over his shoulder at Phil.

“Clint,” Phil says, putting her hand on his shoulder and squeezing.

Clint shakes his head. His hair is three shades darker than Stephanie’s and they almost look like they’re blending into one person. “Gimme a minute,” he mumbles, and turns his face away from Stephanie’s, into Phil’s hip.

Phil looks up at Pepper, who’s looking at the three of them with a soft expression on her face, and catches her eye.

“James,” Pepper says, “Have you had breakfast? And you need to come meet Darcy. I think she’s guarding the waffles.” She starts to steer Rhodes away, then stops, looking over her shoulder. “You too, Tony.”

“But,” Stark sighs, then stops. “Fine. But I want to hang out with the mini-Coulson soon. Think of all the insider information she must have...” His voice trails off as he trots off after Pepper and Rhodes.

As soon as they’re alone, Phil gets down on her knees opposite Clint and peels Stephanie out of his arms and onto her lap, still close enough for Clint to touch.

“Why’s Daddy sad?” Stephanie asks, reaching up and wrapping an arm around Phil’s neck, sharp elbow jabbing Phil in the collarbone.

Clint laughs. It sounds thick and hoarse to Phil. “I’m not sad, Munchkin,” he says. His eyes are red, but his smile is definitely genuine. “I just wasn’t expecting you. I’m real glad to see you.”

Stephanie pulls one leg up, sole of her shoe flat on Phil’s clean pants. “You’ve been gone for forever,” she says.

Clint’s smile wobbles before reforming. “I know I have,” he says seriously. “I met a whole bunch of cool new people for you to hang out with, though. You met Mr Stark? You know he’s Iron Man, right?”

“Really?” Stephanie asks dubiously. As someone who Phil indoctrinated into comic books very, very young, she loved it when Iron Man first burst onto the scene.

“Cross my heart,” Clint says. “Ask your mom; he’s her friend.”

“He is not,” Phil says, scandalised, but Stephanie’s leaned back and is staring up at her, so she sighs and admits, “he’s sort of my friend.”

“Wow, that’s so cool,” Stephanie says. She twists around and tumbles off Phil’s lap, using the side of Phil’s thigh as a starting block to propel her onto her feet again. “Can we go see him? Can we? Please?”

Phil looks over at Clint and gives him a See What You’ve Done, Now? glare. He wrinkles his nose at her then leans in and kisses her. She moves into it immediately, but he pulls back after a chaste brush of lips.

“Thanks,” he says.

Phil frowns. “What for?” she asks. She takes the hand he offers and they brace each other to their feet.

“Kind of... everything?” Clint says, with an awkward shrug. “You know.”

“What are you talking about?” Stephanie demands. “Why is this room all broken now? It wasn’t when we were here before.”

“Because Mr Stark is remodelling,” Phil tells her, which isn’t quite a lie. “We’re staying here for a few days, before we go home. Is that okay?”

They stop in front of the elevator and Phil lets go of Stephanie’s hand so she can press the call button. “Maybe,” Stephanie decides. “Does that man still live in the ceiling?”

“I do indeed, Miss Barton,” JARVIS says, making Stephanie squeal in delight.

***

Because Phil has the sense she was born with, she doesn’t let Stark anywhere near Stephanie unsupervised. Unfortunately, that leads to a morning spent chaperoning what is essentially a play date between the two of them.

Clint curls up in the corner of one of the three couches in one of Stark’s three living rooms and watches quietly. Which leaves Phil to be the only adult saying, “Stark, don’t ask her that,” and “Stephanie, don’t answer that,” by rote, while Stark sprawls out on the floor and builds what Phil thinks might be a tiny robot out of blunt-ended strips of aluminum and lots of nuts and bolts.

“Are you really Iron Man?” Stephanie asks. Her attention’s been captivated ever since Stark started building.

“That depends,” Stark says, “are you really Stephanie Barton?”

She laughs. “Yes.”

“Then I’m really Iron Man.” He pinches his thumb between two sides of a vise and hisses, shaking his hand out, but he manages to catch his curse before it’s more than half formed.

“What’re you making?” Clint asks, stretching out a foot and poking Stephanie in the cheek with his toe. She turns around and gives him a seriously unimpressed glare; the one Clint claims she got from Phil.

“Helper bot,” Stark says at the same time that Stephanie says, “Robot elf!”

Stark grins. “Or a robot elf. That works too. Every girl needs one.”

“Of course they do.” Phil sighs, leaning back into her chair. It’s obvious this isn’t an argument she’s going to win, and if Stephanie ends up with something half as helpful as Stark’s bots, she’s not actually going to complain.

There’s a knock at the door just then, and Captain Rogers puts his head around the door, actually saying, “Knock, knock,” as he does so.

“I just wanted to let you know I’m heading out,” he says then stops, looking at Stephanie. “Hello? Who are you?”

“Captain,” Phil says, “This is Stephanie, my daughter.” She suddenly remembers the toy that Rogers gave her, before all the shit went down at the Pegasus Facility. It’s still in the pocket of the jacket she was wearing then. “Stephanie, this is - ”

“Captain America,” Stephanie says, jumping up and approaching Rogers cautiously. She gets as far as Clint’s outstretched legs and puts her hands on his knees, staring at Rogers with the safety barrier of her father between them.

“Hello,” Rogers says, getting down on his knees in front of her. Clint lowers his legs, but Stephanie maintains her grip, fingers curled in the fabric of his jeans. “Your mom’s told me a bunch about you.”

“You’re supposed to be in the ice,” Stephanie tells him. “How did you get out?”

“Stephie,” Clint says, before Phil can, but Rogers shakes his head.

“The people your mom and dad work for got me out,” he says, easily enough.

Stephanie considers that for a minute then smiles. “Tony’s making me a robot,” she says, “come see.”

She finally lets go of Clint and holds out her hand for Rogers, who takes it after a quick look at Phil.

“Aww,” Stark says. “Isn’t that nice. Steve and Stephie.” He stops, hands hovering over the tiny robot. “Wait. Steve. Stephie. Stephanie. Steven. Coulson, did you name your kid after Captain America?”

Phil shrugs and refuses to blush, so Stark turns his attention to Clint. “Barton, you let her name your kid after Captain America?”

Clint shrugs in pretty much the same way that Phil did. She thinks he might have taught her that move, come to think of it. “What’s wrong with that?” he asks. “If she’d wanted to call her Antonia, then we might of had a problem.”

Stark claps a hand over his heart. “I’m wounded. Relieved to see you can crack a joke, but wounded.”

On the floor with Stephanie, Rogers is blushing, but he’s looking at her and smiling, too. “I’m honoured,” he says quietly.

Phil doesn’t entirely know what to say for a moment. When she named Stephanie, she never in her wildest dreams imagined getting to tell Captain America about it.

Clint nudges her. “Our lives are weird,” he whispers. “Also, you’ve got stars in your eyes.”

“Shut up, I do not,” Phil says, but she knows she does.

***

Later that afternoon, Phil picks her way through the disaster of downtown, to the relatively untouched part of the city where Billy Kaplan and his parents live.

She finds him sitting in his front yard, reading a book and looking bruised, but otherwise none the worse for wear.

He stumbles up as soon as he sees her coming, right hand fiddling nervously with a cuff on his left wrist as they approach each other.

“Hi, Billy,” Phil says lightly. “How are you feeling?”

Billy shrugs one shoulder. “I’m fine.” He glances back up at the house and lowers his voice. “Mom and Dad think I just got caught up in the fighting, like collateral damage? You’re not... are you going to tell them what really happened?”

“You should tell them,” Phil says, watching him go pale. “But I’m not going to, no.”

He actually slumps in relief, leaning into the side of his front porch. “So why’re you here? Not that, not that you’re not welcome. I mean, would you like to come in? Dad’s home and - ”

“I can’t stay,” Phil interrupts, taking pity on him. “I just wanted to check and make sure that you were okay and to let you know that someone from SHIELD is going to contact you pretty soon.”

“What about?” Billy asks, folding his arms defensively.

She raises her eyebrows. “The fact you can fly and teleport and... I’m assuming that’s not all?”

“Shh,” Billy hisses miserably, even though Phil pitched her voice low and knows she wasn’t overheard. “Are they going to lock me up? I don’t wanna be locked up; it would ruin my GPA.”

“Well, we can’t have that,” Phil says. “And no, no one’s going to lock you up. You’re fifteen; the most they’re going to do is put you on a list and then come knocking in three years to see if you want a job.”

“A job?” Billy asks doubtfully. “Like what you do?”

“More like what Clint does,” Phil says then holds up a hand to forestall his next question. “Which he can tell you about next time you sit for Stephanie.”

Billy’s head snaps up at that. “You still want me to babysit for you?” he asks. “Like, even though I’m all.” He makes what Phil is fairly certain are called spirit fingers.

“Even more now I know that you’re all... that.” There’s no way she’s copying that gesture. “I don’t see how Stephanie could be safer.”

Billy smiles, looking shyly pleased. His cell phone chimes before he can say anything, and he glances at it, blushes, and looks even happier.

“Teddy,” he says, when Phil stays silent rather than asking. “From the uh... from the Battle? He’s been texting me to check up on me since it happened.”

“Has he?” Phil asks blandly.

Billy flushes brighter. “It’s not like that,” he says quickly then he frowns. “I don’t think it’s like that. Do you think it might be like that?” He looks so young and hopeful that Phil hopes it is like that. One good thing deserves to come out of all of Loki’s carnage.

“I’m an expert at superheroes, not dating,” Phil tells him and doesn’t add that, in her experience, superheroes are much more straightforward than love.

“Mmm,” Billy agrees, attention caught up in what looks like a rapid-fire text exchange.

Phil laughs and shakes her head. “I’ll call you,” she tells him. “Stay out of trouble.”

“Totally,” Billy says, interrupting his texting just long enough to look up and flash her a grin. “Always.”

“Right.” Phil snorts, turning away. Now she understands why Billy gets along so well with Clint.

She’s no more than four houses down the sidewalk, when her cell rings.

“Director,” she says, “having me tailed?”

“Would I?” Nick asks. “By which I mean, would I waste resources when I know exactly how damn long it takes you to debrief someone?”

“I wasn’t exactly debriefing him,” Phil says. She starts heading toward the subway on the assumption that it’s got to be better than taking another taxi, judging by the condition of the roads. “He’s a kid.”

“Which is why I estimated a third of your usual time.” Nick sounds quietly smug. Phil thinks he should be too busy to be smug. “He going to be a problem?”

“Not at all,” Phil says. Two girls walk past her, arm in arm, talking excitedly about the Avengers. It makes Phil stop for just a second and blink at how surreal that is.

Nick makes a thoughtful noise. “I still say we should hand him over to Xavier. I know he bugs you, but he’s good with kids like that.”

“Do you remember how long it took me to find a babysitter we were all happy with?” Phil asks. “I’m keeping Billy.” That’s not the reason she doesn’t want to lose him to the Xavier school and Nick knows it, but he doesn’t push. Instead, he switches gears.

“I need to talk to you about SHIELD Central,” he says. “Since you staged a fucking mutiny and all.”

Phil frowns. “When did I do that?” she asks. She was running on empty toward the end of the Battle, but she’s sure she’d remember that.

“I don’t know what you did,” Nick tells her. “But you’ve got half the staff there second-guessing orders and asking when Agent Coulson is going to be back. I’ve also got three janitors, an HR Manager, and a catering guy wanting to take the field agents exam. Phil, what the fuck did you do?”

“Nothing,” Phil protests. She gets out of the way of an oncoming segway and grins. “Really? That many want to be agents?”

“You sound like a proud momma bear,” Nick growls. “There’s no need to sound so damn happy about it.”

Phil tries to make suitably chastised noises, but fails. Nick would never believe it anyway.

“So, do you want the damn job?” Nick asks.

Phil only just manages not to walk into traffic. “Which job?” she asks. She’s genuinely confused.

“Heading up SHIELD Central.” Nick pauses for a moment. “That wasn’t what you were maneuvering for?”

“No,” Phil says. “The Avengers. I’ve always been maneuvering for the Avengers.”

Nick chuckles. “Well now you’ve got a choice. Maybe we should have this conversation face to face.”

“Yeah,” Phil agrees. It’s very rare for her to be nonplussed. “Friday?”

“See you then,” Nick says and hangs up, like he hasn’t just rocked Phil’s world.

***

“Seriously?” Clint asks.

“I know,” Phil says.

He tilts his head, looking at her. “Huh.”

Phil shrugs. “I know.”

“You’re not going to take it, right?” He leans forward on the couch and clasps his hands together.

“Aren’t I?” They’ve snuck away to a living room on a different floor, where they won’t be overheard. Natasha has taken Stephanie out for ‘girl time’, which will either mean shopping, or baby self-defence classes or, most likely, both. “It’s a good job. More money, more stability.”

Clint nods along. “Sure, sure, but you’ve wanted the Avengers for forever. I mean, you’ve wanted to handle Captain America way longer than that, right?” He winks.

She glares. “You’re not funny, Barton.” She was thinking about this the whole way home. She still can’t decide what the right choice is, which is unusual for her. She normally makes up her mind very quickly and hardly ever lives to regret that. “Anyway, I can’t take the Avengers. It would go against our pact.”

“How so?” asks Clint, who’s frowning.

“We can’t both be involved in the same missions. What would Stephanie do?”

“No, but.” Clint keeps frowning. “I’m not an Avenger.”

Which is the exact moment that the door opens and Stark comes in, one hand over his eyes. “Are you fucking?” he asks. “JARVIS told me where you were but he wouldn’t tell me what you were doing. Please tell me you’re not fucking in my seventh best living room?”

Clint looks at Phil and raises his eyebrows. She shakes her head. No they’re not going to make it look like they were fucking just to traumatise Stark.

“Open your eyes, Mr Stark,” Phil says.

He carefully lowers his hand and squints open one eye then the next. When he sees that they’re at opposite ends of the same couch, Phil’s feet tucked under Clint’s thigh, he makes an exaggerated expression of relief.

“What are you doing then?”

“Plotting world domination,” Clint says.

Stark looks between them. “I’d believe that.”

Phil isn’t in the habit of inviting other people to make her decisions for her, especially not Tony Stark, so all she says is, “We’re discussing the Avengers Initiative.”

Clint gives her a look. “And who’s going to be the SHIELD liaison for you.”

“Us,” Stark says, frowning at Clint.

“Yeah,” Clint replies slowly, “you. That’s what I said.”

“No, no.” Stark waves a hand around. “You said ‘you,’ but you meant ‘us’.”

Clint looks over at Phil. “I’m definitely missing something here. Or you both are. I’m not an Avenger. I was never on the list.”

“List schmist,” Stark says dismissively. “You fought with us, you’re one of us.”

“You were on the list,” Phil says quietly. She meets Clint’s eye and smiles slightly. “I wasn’t allowed to tell you, but you were always on it.”

Clint looks stunned. Either Stark sees that and decides to give him a break, or Stark doesn’t notice and goes back to what he came in for. “Never mind all that, forget it. I’m having a party, you’re coming.”

“A party?” Phil asks dubiously.

Stark nods enthusiastically. “Avengers, significant others, a few other people I don’t hate. Bring your spawn; there’ll be jello and magicians and all that shit. Maybe I could invite a Jonas Brother. Are they still cool? What are those British ones called? Due South, or something?”

“One Direction?” Clint offers, still sounding distracted.

Stark claps his hands. “Yes, them. Does Stephanie like them?”

“Please don’t hire a boyband for our daughter,” Phil says, knowing it’s probably a lost cause. “We’ll never be able to match that for her next birthday party.”

It’s Stark’s turn to look confused. “Why would you need to?” he asks. “I’ll just hire them again then, too.”

It’s oddly endearing that Stark sees himself as part of Stephanie’s future birthday celebrations. That, or terrifying.

Phil sighs, giving up. “Do what you want. You will anyway.”

“Probably,” Stark agrees. He claps Clint on the shoulder. “Come on, Robin Hood, you and Maid Marion have skulked in here long enough. I want to show you what I’ve been working on with your bow.”

That gets Clint’s attention. “You’ve been working on my bow?” he demands.

Stark makes a so-so motion with his hand. “Agent Romanoff did mention you might get precious about that.”

Clint jumps to his feet, stopping at the last second to turn back to Phil. “Talk later?” he says.

She nods, laughing at how fast a threat to his precious bow can get him moving. “Later,” she agrees.

Once he’s gone, she pulls out her phone and sends Nick a text: you’re a bastard.

Nick isn’t one to text, but he’s also not one to miss an opportunity. answer by the end of the week, Cheese. ;)

Forget everything else that’s happened this week; Phil thinks she may be emotionally scarred by Nick Fury using a winky face.

***

For once, Stark’s idea of a small party matches Phil’s. This is something of a shock; she’s been to some of his parties in the past.

There are no speeches or photocalls or anything else that would cause Clint to run for the hills, just the five Avengers left on Earth, Pepper, Rhodes, Darcy, and a few other people Phil doesn’t know. There is a magician for Stephanie but – so far – Phil hasn’t seen any boy bands.

If she’d known it was genuinely a quiet affair, she would have tried to get Billy an invitation. It would have been an impressive first date for him and Teddy.

It’s a rooftop party, muted lights and a few well-placed rugs to cover the mess that Loki and his army left behind. Phil gets a drink and leans back against the railings, watching Stephanie drag Clint around and make him introduce her to everyone there, even the people she’s already met.

Since Clint is much more comfortable around people when he can use a four year old as a buffer, Phil doesn’t step in to rescue him.

“How is he doing?” Natasha asks, appearing at Phil’s elbow. She’s dressed for an early summer evening, blending in as though she’s one of Stark’s party-goers not an Avenger herself.

“Passable,” Phil says. “How are you doing?”

Natasha smiles and raises her beer glass to Phil. “Better than passable,” she says. “We stopped a madman and saved the world. On the whole, I’m satisfied.”

Phil knocks her glass against Natasha’s. “I’ll definitely drink to that,” she says. They spend a minute watching people together, enjoying the silence, then Natasha asks, “Has anyone asked how you’re doing?”

“Me?” Phil raises her eyebrows. “Why would I be anything but fine?”

Natasha gives her a steady look. “Coulson,” she says, “you know that’s never worked on me.”

Phil thinks about it. “I’m tired,” she decides. “I’d like a vacation. But I’m not going to get a vacation so why cry about it?”

“True,” Natasha agrees. Phil has always liked her pragmatism. “Damn, I think Stark has spotted me.”

Phil laughs at her. They drank a lot of alcohol together that summer they were both in Malibu with Stark. “Go see him before he comes over here,” she says. “I’m having a peaceful evening.”

Natasha narrows her eyes, which means retribution later, but makes her way over to Stark, who wraps an arm around her waist then immediately drops it and calls over a waiter with a full tray of champagne as an apology.

Phil watches them, smiling to herself, until Clint makes his way over. Stephanie is asleep in his arms, her legs dangling by his waist and her face tucked into his shoulder.

“Hey,” Clint says, leaning against the railing at Phil’s side. “Cool party.”

“I’ve definitely been to worse,” Phil agrees. “How are you getting along with the team?” She reaches over and fastens one of Stephanie’s jelly shoes, which has somehow come undone. This kid can shed clothes like nobody’s business, which Phil is sure is somehow Clint’s fault.

Clint looks at her out the corner of his eye. “That wasn’t subtle, Coulson,” he says. “And we’re getting along fine. They’re all kinds of weird, huh?”

We’re all kinds of weird,” Phil points out. She watches Clint try to shift Stephanie into a more comfortable hold and wince no matter where he settles her. “Give her to me.”

“You’re bruised too,” Clint points out, but he hands Stephanie over, leaning into Phil’s side once she’s got Stephanie secure against her hip.

“Way I see it,” Clint says, once they’re all settled, “either we both pick the Avengers or neither of us does. I know I couldn’t be involved, if you weren’t.”

“But Stephanie,” Phil starts. It’s her only real counter-argument.

“Yeah.” Clint shrugs. “Maybe it’s dumb, but I feel like she’s safer now, with all these crazy assholes looking out for her, than she ever was before. And I always thought we kept her pretty safe.”

Phil looks out across Stark’s roof. It’s a ridiculous building. Tony Stark is a ridiculous man. All the Avengers are odd in their own ways, little quirks that will make them a challenge, but a fascinating one, for whoever takes them on. And god, Phil wants it to be her.

“Avengers?” Clint asks, bumping his arm against hers.

Phil rearranges Stephanie against her shoulder and bumps him back. “Avengers,” she agrees.

/End