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You’ll Find the Bright Places

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In retrospect, the truly surprising thing is that Tony Stark has apparently given him emergency access to the Mansion. Phil had keyed his radio, ordering “Lockdown protocols now,” and rattled off his SHIELD authorisation code. The Mansion – JARVIS – had obeyed him before Phil had even thought about the implications. And while he has no doubt that there are some basic similarities with the Mansion security and the high security at HQ (Stark did design them both), being authorised for one doesn’t give you access to the other. Agents have tried. Phil has been locked out of the Mansion on more than one occasion. (Stark can be petty.) But apparently in an emergency situation, he’s trusted to call the shots. Which was useful yesterday, because no one else was in any position to do that.

Phil has decided to focus on the surprising abatement of Stark’s distrust, rather than the nature of the emergency in question. The Director seems to have other ideas.

Fury temples his fingers together. “Tell me how this started?”

“It’s all in my report, sir.”

“I’ve read your report. I’ve also watched security footage from inside the Mansion, interrogated three enemy agents, and received six of the strangest post-incident reports I’ve ever read. And you have to be asking, do you think that’s something I say very often? In this job?”

“No, sir.”

“So. Let’s start from the beginning.”

 

*

His first thought was Loki, because Loki was always their first suspect when impossible things happened.

Phil had been in the kitchen at the Mansion, because Stark was screwing with him and keeping him waiting. Phil had been repaying the kindness by drinking copious amounts of their excellent coffee, and contemplating replacing the contents of the bottle of presumably expensive scotch with apple juice. He wasn’t normally petty but Stark brought it out of him.

All six of them had been in the room next door. They still didn’t play well together but the chance of an intra-team murder had at least been mostly averted. Phil was waiting for a signature on an expenses form; Stark had gone to check what exactly the justification had been for the destruction of that office building. He had claimed Banner would know, but Phil had doubted that, somehow.

There was a crash, and then a slowly accelerating tick tick tick. Light burst from under the closed door and Phil was through it, gun raised, before the shadows melted away. It wasn’t fast enough.

He called the lockdown and put a bullet in the black-clad enemy agent. The doors locked around them but he could hear noises inside the grounds. The magic had only been the first wave – the plan must be to send their men in right after. Once the primary threats had been neutralised.

 

*

Fury looks at him. “You took the shot before you realised?”

“I took the shot because he was aiming the weapon at me.”

“All right.”

“I didn’t think it would help the situation if I was-.”

“If you were a six-year old too?” Fury asks. His tone betrays nothing.

Phil is more than a match for his boss. “Given the effects of the device, I imagine I would have ended up seven or eight. Rogers is the youngest, and he looked to be about six. So far as I can judge these things.”

“Which would make Stark and Dr Banner eight, and the other three seven.”

Phil concedes this. “It was hard to tell with Thor. We don’t know what age he is now.”

“Nevertheless,” Fury says. “Grade schoolers.”

“Yes, sir.” Fury looks like he’s expecting further elaboration. “It was clear magic was involved.”

“I would think.”

“Sir.”

“I’m just curious, Coulson, what your first response was.”

Phil doesn’t quite shrug. “I followed protocol.”

 

*

People think Coulson is unflappable - that he doesn’t react with appropriate severity to the many unusual things that have been happening in the world long before Stark built himself a suit of flying armour and privatised world peace.

This is not true.

Phil chooses to panic quietly, on his own time, when the mission is over. He won’t deny that it’s unnerving to be suddenly faced with seven and eight year old versions of SHIELD’s premier team. But there wasn’t any point focussing on that now.

The emergency was still happening so he reached out his hand and said, “You all need to come with me now.”

Phil won a small, private wager with himself when Stark tilted his head and in a lighter version of his normal derisive tone asked, “Why?”

There was a thump on the outside door. Phil said, “Because there are people out there trying to kill you, and I’m not.”

Stark, even at seven-years-old (eight?) seemed unsurprised that people were out to get him.

Rogers was the one to ask, this time, “What? Why?”

“Because they’re bad people. And they think you’re dangerous.” Rogers looked down at himself and while he wasn’t as small as the pictures in his file made out, Phil understood why he would be confused. He took a moment to wonder why Rogers wasn’t as sickly-looking or as undersized as he should be at this age. But he was distracted by the other problem. “Clint Barton, if you don’t stop thinking about throwing that thing at me, you will live to regret it.”

Barton slipped something behind his back. Phil was pretty sure it was a coaster, but he had seen Barton incapacitate someone with less.

There was another bang, now right outside the door.

Banner asked, “How did we get here? I was…somewhere else.”

Phil took a deep breath.

Natasha was looking at the body. “Is he dead?”

“Yes,” Phil said. “Any more questions?”

Thor said, “Yes. Where is my brother?”

“I’m sure he’s around here somewhere. Why don’t we go and look for him, how about that?”

Thor nodded, slowly. “He gets lost. We should find him.”

Phil took the device from the dead agent’s hand. He needed to get a secure line and find someone who might know what to do with this. “Okay,” he said. “Away from this room.”

Stark folded his arms. “Who are you? Where’s my mother?”

“Not your father?” Phil asked, before he could stop himself.

“This is my mother’s house.” He folded his arms across his skinny chest. He muttered, “Dad’s probably in the office. But she wouldn’t just-.”

Phil cast around for a story that might make sense. “What if I told you your mother sent me to get you?”

“That’s not-.”

He was interrupted by the explosion outside.

Phil went to listen. “That was the front door.”

Stark jumped and turned to go to the other door. When he moved, his jacket shifted and there was a blue glow the size of his small fist showing through his shirt. That didn’t make sense at all.

 

*

Fury says, “That was the part that didn’t make sense?”

“Stark was injured in Afghanistan, in two thousand and eight. He shouldn’t have had the arc reactor at all, let alone a smaller version.”

Fury nods. “So you went deeper into the Mansion.”

“Yes.”

 

*

Phil blinked when Thor slipped his hand, trustingly, into Phil’s own. Phil supposed they didn’t teach little Asgardians to be wary of strangers.

Stark was running ahead, leading them to God-knows-where. There was probably a panic room in here somewhere.

Barton turned to look at him. “You’re from the government.”

Phil nodded, since it was hardly a secret, and saw Barton tense. He made for a small kid – Natasha was taller, and Stark of a height with him. He must have been seven or eight. Phil rewound. He softened his tone. “Not government like that.”

“You knew my name.” He bit down on his lip. Phil wondered why he hadn’t asked where his brother was too.

Phil said, “I know all of your names. That’s my job.”

Natasha turned to raise one eyebrow at him. It was marginally less intimidating when she came to halfway up Phil’s chest.

He looked down at her. “Though I don’t know whether you’re going by Natalia or Natasha right now.”

She startled and turned away from him.

Stark muttered, “Lots of people know my name,” though he didn’t sound very happy about it.

Rogers turned, from where had been intently watching Stark manipulate the locks on the door, to ask, “Mine too?”

Phil sighed. “Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, Thor Odinson. Anthony Edward Stark, and Howard Stark knows my boss. I very much wish I could prove that to you, but I promise you’re going to thank me later.”

“Lots of people know Dad’s name too,” Stark said. He got the last door open. “We can wait in here.”

 

*

“Remind me of your plan,” Fury says.

“Find a defensible position, establish a secure line, call for Hazmat back-up and protect the team.”

“Hazmat.”

“In case of magical contaminants.”

“You weren’t affected, and neither were the enemy agents.”

“It could have been just me, and the soldiers had helmets with masks.”

“How were you planning on protecting your – compromised – team, with just one gun?”

Phil said, “I improvised.”

 

*

Phil pushed the cabinet in front of the door. He tried talking to the house. “There must be a bunker here somewhere. Stark Senior was in the war.”

“Schematics are unavailable at this time.”

The kids gasped all at once. Rogers spun around looking at the walls. “Who’s there?”

There was an expectant pause. Phil guessed JARVIS was deciding how to answer that question.

Stark was trying to pry a panel off the wall. Phil grabbed his hand. “Stop that.”

“I’m trying to see-.”

“Not right now.”

“When?”

“When you’re older, I promise, you can take apart the whole house. Right now we need to focus.”

Rogers was still looking at the walls. “The house talks?”

While Phil turned around to deal with that, Banner snuck behind him to get to Stark. By the time Phil had reassured Rogers that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with a house that talks (although a person might take issue occasionally with what it says) the two of them have removed a panel and are poking at the wiring. Phil sighed. This was a Stark who had already built an engine, and God knew what Banner had been up to at this age.

He pulled them away from the wall. “No,” he said firmly. “No taking apart the house.” Repetition better be key here.

There was a gunshot from outside, denting the door.

 

*

Fury asks, “And then what was your plan?”

“Get them to safety, eliminate the threat.”

“You couldn’t just wait for back-up?” Fury is infinitely patient.

Phil allows himself the edge of anger. “Back-up hadn’t arrived, and I didn’t have the time to wait.”

 

*

Banner tugged Stark down to the floor with him, both of them gasping.

“It’s all right,” Phil muttered. “It’s fine. Just let me get…” He inched his way to the door, getting between it and them. He waved them back. “Go stand over there.” He kept low to the ground. “JARVIS?”

“Unavailable at this time.”

Phil glared at Stark. “If you could grow up to be marginally less paranoid, that would really help me out. Okay. We’re going to split up.”

He spotted Natasha edging away.

“Not on our own. Natasha, stay with Bruce. Clint, I want you and Thor together. Tony, you’re with Steve. I want you to hide, okay?”

“You said not on our own,” Barton said.

“Exactly.”

“You’re on your own.” He looked, just for a second, like the man he would grow up to be, too stubborn for his own good.

Phil shook his head. “I’ve got all of you.” He tried a smile, but Barton looked unconvinced. “Moving on. Go further down into the basements, and find somewhere good to hide. I know you can do that. If you get into trouble-,” Thor was watching him solemnly, “-don’t try and fix it by yourself. Yell as loud as you can, and I’ll come and find you. Got it?”

Thor bounced on his feet. “A warrior would-.”

“A smart warrior knows when to wait for back-up.” He looked across. “St- Tony? Where would be a good direction for them to go?”

Tony pointed, gone quiet for a moment. “There’s- two stairways down and then left. All the doors lock.”

“Okay. And for Natasha and Bruce?”

Phil listened while Tony suggested and rejected three different hiding places before settling on the last one. Phil waved the other four away and then there was just Stark and Rogers.

Phil said, “You two as well.”

“I know where to go,” Stark said.

“Of course you do. Just remember not to lose Steve.”

Tony looked at him. Stark had no siblings, Phil remembered, and no young relatives he spent any significant time with. He was skipped through grades and wouldn’t have anything like a contemporary until MIT. Stark looked over at Rogers and took his hand. “I won’t lose him.”

“Good,” Phil said. “That’s good. Now go. I’ll give you two minutes and then- I’ll come and find you when I’m done. Don’t come back here, no matter what it sounds like.”

 

*

“There were eight of them,” Fury says.

“Eight what?”

“Enemy agents.”

“Yes.”

“How many rounds?”

“Twelve.”

Something which might be amusement crosses Fury’s expression for a moment. “Twelve.”

Phil matches him stare for stare. “Yes.”

 

*

He gave them long enough to get hidden, and then moved the cabinet away from the door. He stood away from it, and waited for the first of them to come through.

They weren’t smart: they aimed straight at the central mass of the doorway and Phil shot from a low corner. There were three of them and it took five bullets to keep them down. Phil bound their hands with tape and pulled the cabinet down behind him again when he went to find the others.

They hadn’t been expecting him: he took out another two with no particular trouble.

He was pulling the bandage tight around his arm when the sixth got the jump on him.

His gun was knocked to the other side of the room and the guy got Phil knocked flat on the ground. This one had the training to keep him down.

Phil’s head hit the ground with the force of the punch; he turned his head to spit out the blood.

The man smirked at him (they always smirk). “You could just tell me where they are. Make it easy on yourself.”

“Since we’re indulging in cliché: over my dead body.” He paused. “That would be your cue to say ‘that can be arranged.’”

Phil was expecting the next few punches and he would maintain, later, that he had a plan. It was interrupted by a loud scream. High and scared and too damn young. Phil used the moment of distraction to roll them over and slam his elbow into the man’s solar plexus. The man gasped and Phil grabbed the nearest object to pull down onto his head. (Banner will forgive him for the broken microscope.)

Phil didn’t wait to tie this one up - he went running towards the noise.

Clint was dangling from the man’s hand, kicking out. Phil didn’t seriously think before diving at them. He bundled Clint away, barely taking in the wide eyes and yelp of surprise. Three shots: knee, stomach, throat.

The thug was tripped on his way down by a suddenly onrushing Thor and Phil wondered why he thought they’d be better at taking orders at this age.

With the threat neutralised, he looked back at Clint. “Are you trying to kill me?” He had near heart-attacks over Barton often enough when the man was on the top of a building with a bow in his hand. This was worse.

Clint hid his hands behind his back. “We were being a distraction.”

“You- what?”

“You were getting hurt. We heard…”

“You shouldn’t have been anywhere near me.” Phil exhaled slowly. “Give me your arm.”

Clint steps back quickly.

Phil knelt down. “He was swinging you around. Let me see if you’re hurt.”

“I’m fine. We should go. There’s more of them.”

They got maybe six steps down the hallway before it became apparent that Clint was limping badly. Phil got his hands under the kid’s armpits and lifted him into the air. He moved quickly enough that Clint had to grab on or fall to the ground. With Clint’s arms locked securely around his neck, Phil said, “Stay there.”

“Put me down.”

“If it’s any consolation, you’ll have a much better angle for killing people from up there.”

Clint laughed quietly. “Okay.”

 

*

Barton is still limping a little now, even after the magical reversal. He makes more noise than usual, coming into Fury’s office. Romanoff follows after him. Barton says, “Sorry, sir, I thought you had some follow-up on our reports.”

“I do,” Fury says. “Sit. Agent Coulson is just giving me his own follow-up.”

Barton doesn’t sit, he just leans on the back wall. Romanoff perches on the edge of the desk beside him.

“So,” Fury says. “All enemy agents apparently neutralised. I believe you were explaining how you lured Agent Romanoff out from inside the walls.”

“Russian,” Phil says shortly. It shouldn’t have worked, but he had already tried all of the entreaties in English he could think of before he switches languages.

“Sweetheart, I think,” Natasha corrects, smiling. “Possibly darling.” It’s still a dangerous smile, as hers all are, but it seems more amused at his expense than anything else.

Phil isn’t sure that either sweetheart or darling were the words he used, but all six of the team have claimed not to remember a thing about what happened. So maybe his report was mistranslated.

 

*

He coaxed Natasha down from somewhere in the roof (though he didn’t see exactly where she came down from) and asked her, “Where’s Bruce?”

“Starting fires.”

She turned out to have secreted Banner in what is actually one of his own labs, and Phil could imagine few more dangerous things. They passed the sites of the three small explosions and one of the remaining enemy agents.

Natasha announced herself on the way in. “It’s me, Bruce. Don’t fire.”

Bruce was holding two test tubes, one in each hand. He put them aside carefully. “All right.” He was a very calm child, though that shouldn’t really have surprised Phil. “Where are the other two?”

“I’m going to find them now. Stay here until I get back.” Banner picked up the test tubes again. “Try not to explode anything unless you have to.”

Clint and Natasha were eyeing up the exits. They were seven, Phil reminded himself, and eyeing up the exits. He hated his job some days. Thor picked up a specimen jar containing God knew what and tested it for weight. He said, “What if we have to explode something?”

Phil said, “Just don’t explode each other,” and went to find his wayward chicks.

It was one of the old labs, looking untouched for a number of decades. They must have been a few levels down, but Phil still found it hard to believe that Stark kept a lab of his father’s for so long without investigating it. Maybe he had forgotten that it was here until today.

“Tony?” he called. “Can you come out?”

There were cabinets against the wall. The lower door of one of them swung open an inch. Phil crouched down. Tony’s eyes – bright, startled – peer out at him. Phil pulled the door open further. Tony had his hand cupped under the head of one of the little robots, the way he will later hold a welding torch or- no, definitely, the way another child might comfort a pet. Phil wondered briefly how the robot found Tony down here, but he supposed they were smart enough to figure that out.

Phil beckoned to him. “I need you to help me find Steve.”

Tony squeezed out of the space. He waved the robot away. “I hid him.”

“I bet you did.”

Tony grabbed Phil’s wrist and dragged him up a set of stairs.

“This is a garage,” Phil said. “Tell me you didn’t hide Steve in a car. What if they stole it?”

Tony reached into his pocket and turned up a bundle of wires. “It won’t start.” He pulled Phil towards one of the cars and knocked a rhythm on the trunk.

Steve knocked back. “Can I come out?”

“That wasn’t the secret knock,” Tony hissed.

Phil just about managed to swallow his laughter and opened the trunk of the car. “We’ll let you out anyway I think.”

Steve clambered out of the trunk. “We got one of the bad guys, did Tony tell you already?”

“No, he didn’t.”

Tony glared at Steve. “He jumped in front of one of them.”

“He was creeping up on you!”

“I knew he was there.”

“No you didn’t!”

“Yes I did!”

“Boys.” Phil tried to steer them back upstairs.

Tony bumped Steve’s arm and grabbed hold of his hand again. “I guess I should say thank you anyway. Even if I did know he was there.”

Steve smiled brightly at him, apparently ignoring the last part. “You’re welcome.”

 

*

Thor and Rogers turn up in Fury’s office. Apparently their reports are now communal. Phil tries to enforce team meetings regularly, but holding detailed debriefings together only leads to arguments and thus disaster. This looks unlikely to be an exception.

Rogers asks, “Did you put that in the report? Tony and me fighting?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Phil closes his eyes. “The next person to ask me ‘why’ has to finish filing the report on this.”

Barton laughs quietly and Natasha elbows him.

Thor says, “I don’t understand. Since arriving in Midgard, I have been encouraged to ask questions. Jane tells me it is the best way to eliminate doubt.”

Fury suggests, “It depends how many you ask.”

Thor’s expression turns troubled. “Loki was always spoken of as a much more curious child than I.”

 

*

Thor looked at him. “Where is my brother?”

“I don’t know,” Phil admitted.

“You said you-.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“We’ll find him,” Thor said. “Son-of-Coul, we must find him.” Phil had got Thor to stop calling him that probably no more than two weeks ago.

“We will,” Phil said, “I promise. But we need to wait now.” He was exhausted. The teams had to be somewhere close. Even with JARVIS on lockdown and blocking communication, they had to know something was going on by now.

Clint was still not right on his leg, and Phil was mostly unsurprised to watch Steve walk over to him and lend his shoulder.

Natasha watched the two of them critically before she said, “Don’t lean on it.”

“We’re not going far,” Phil said. “Somewhere to sit down. One of my teams is going to find us.”

Tony’s protest is half-hearted. “My father-.”

Steve murmurs, “I want to go home.”

Truer words. “I know,” Phil said. “I know, I know. Everything’s all right.” They had found their way to one of the sitting rooms.

“We’re staying here?” Bruce asked.

He hadn’t heard another sound in hours. Phil nodded at Tony. “Try asking the house if all the enemy agents are down.”

Tony frowned back at him but obeyed. “House?”

“Master Stark.”

“Are there any more of those guys?”

“No,” JARVIS answered. “That threat has been neutralised.”

Phil said, “So can you open the doors?”

“Authorisation required to end lock-down.”

“He’s right th-. Never mind. Apparently we’re having a slumber party.”

They tumbled down around him to sit on the floor, most of the way towards sleep already. Phil was tempted to do the same, but he couldn’t guarantee the threat was over.

 

*

“I don’t know why JARVIS didn’t accept my authorisation,” Stark says. Of course, the last two have found their way to Fury’s office as well.

Bruce says, “You weren’t the same person that created him, he had no reason to assume yours were binding commands. Especially in our positions where the possibility of magical or biological compromise renders the line between normal and altered states so…” He trails off.

Stark says, “I was still me. Just, you know, smaller. Coulson, back me up.”

Phil considers this. “You were more aware of each other than strangers, yes. I don’t think it was an amnesia equivalent.”

Fury raps his knuckles on his desk. “So you don’t think they were juveniles.”

“I think they were children, I just don’t think the spell was sophisticated enough to accurately recreate their memories at a precise age. They should all have been extremely disorientated, dragged from their homes. But they managed to function together anyway. So I think on some base level they were aware of each other as non-hostile, yes.”

“And you,” Stark adds.

“Excuse me?”

“You think if you’d just picked the six of us out of our respective timestreams and thrown us together in a house - which, by the way, sounds like a bad reality TV show - anyway, you think we’d have followed you around the place?”

“No, I don’t. But then I don’t expect to throw the six present versions of you into a room and have my orders obeyed.” At least one of them drops their gaze from Phil’s.

Fury coughed. “So you fed them and told them to take a nap. I get that. I would probably have done the same thing. It’s the next part that makes me a little more curious.”

“Sir?”

“Fraternizing with enemy combatants.”

Phil freezes. “I’m sorry, sir?”

“Semantics, I know.”

Phil had expected questions but nobody can seriously claim he made an error in resolving the situation. It worked, and no one died. He says, “I have level seven clearance, the only person here higher is you, and I am authorised to negotiate on SHIELD’s behalf, with whoever I need to.” He exhales.

Fury holds his gaze. “You didn’t elaborate on it in your report. Your reasoning.”

Stark demands, “What the hell happened at the end then? You two are acting like Coulson went double agent on us. You didn’t, did you? Because that would be unexpected. You’re nearly as strait-laced as our good Captain over there. My world view would be shaken.”

Fury takes the time to glower at Stark before looking back across the desk. “There’s surveillance equipment in all the common areas in the mansion.”

“Yes, sir,” Phil agrees.

Fury turns the screen around. “So tell me what I’m looking at.”

 

*

 

He sat on the floor, with the kids asleep around him. Clint stirred and Phil hushed him automatically. Clint murmured, “-left?”

“No one left. Go back to sleep.”

Clint blinked once, slowly, and curled back up again.

Phil looked into the corner of the room. “I know you’re there.”

Loki walked out of the shadows. “Agent Coulson. You’re an unexpected man.”

“I try.”

“How are you finding babysitting duty?”

“It’s a funny thing.” Phil’s hand strayed towards his gun, brushing Tony’s shoulder on the way. He had one shot left, and if he got this wrong… “I don’t think you did this.”

Loki’s face betrayed nothing but mild confusion. “And why not? It seems just like the sort of thing I would do.”

Phil hummed. “Perhaps. But not this way.”

“When did you decide this?”

“When I realised-.” He looks over at Steve, who was lying on the other side of Tony. His cheeks were flushed pink with sleep and he could be any other little boy, overtired by a long day. “He’s about six. I’ve read his file. And I don’t think you would have needed to.”

“No.” Loki didn’t read minds, but he could make it look like he did.

“It’s the other things too,” Phil said, “but Rogers was the first. He wasn’t a healthy kid. If he’s the age I think he is, he was nearly dying just about then. But he is, and they are, all well enough. If this was you-.”

“You think I would be more cruel.”

“I think this doesn’t suit your purpose. It doesn’t hit at your brother, and it doesn’t- look, there’s maybe one functional upbringing between the other five of them but Thor’s only worried about one thing right now.”

“This is very-.”

“If it was the team you were worried about, you wouldn’t need to get all of them. And you know that. All you would need is to do this to Steve Rogers. You think we get a single rational thought out of Stark if he has to sit there and watch Captain America die? Hawkeye and Widow would be halfway across the world trying to find and kill whoever did it, Banner would be working himself to death over the genetics and the cure, and Thor would be tearing down the skies. If it was you, and that’s what you cared about, you wouldn’t have done it like this.”

“And if that wasn’t what I cared about?”

“All day,” Phil said, because this was starting to annoy him. “All day, no matter what was happening with the guns and the bodies, all he asked was where you were. He wanted to find you, in case you needed help. That was the only thing that worried him. But I don’t think that’s reason enough for you to do this.”

Loki raised one eyebrow.

“Because you already know that. You wouldn’t have needed a spell.”

The world hung still on the edge of Loki’s fragile smile. He said, “I am not the only one who would stand against you. Not even the only Asgardian.”

Phil filed that away under Diplomatic Status/Trans-Dimensional/Potential Problems, and went back to the more immediate problem. Thor was sleeping less than ten feet away from them. Phil said, “But you could fix it.”

Loki took one step towards Thor, and then another. The low light haloed around him as his silhouette shrank. He was a slight child, kneeling down on the floor. “Brother?”

Thor woke up smiling. “Loki!”

“Shush,” Loki quieted him. “You mustn’t wake-.”

Phil passed his hand over Natasha’s hair, she slept so lightly.

Thor talked rapidly. “You were gone, and I thought you were in trouble, and then there were men with weapons and this is Midgard. Loki, how did we get here?”

Loki folded himself in against Thor’s side. “Shush. We’ll be home in the morning.”

“Did you do this?” Thor asked.

“No,” he said, “It wasn’t me. But sleep. I know how to fix it.”

 

*

Fury stops the recording.

Thor is smiling. “It wasn’t Loki,” he says.

“Yes, all right, for once the magical hijinks weren’t caused by your little brother, Thor, we’re all very excited.” Stark is more uncomfortable about this than Thor.

Rogers shushes him. “We still need to find out who caused it.”

Phil nods. “And we will. But I have a lot of work to catch up on. And you still owe me an expenses claim, Mr Stark. So if we’re done here?” He looks at the Director.

“You did well,” Fury said levelly.

“I did my job.”

Clint cuts in, “I’m not sure ‘over my dead body’ is in your job-description.”

“What happened to not remembering anything that happened?” Phil asks.

Steve shrugs. “We’ve been getting pieces.”

That’s the last thing he needs. “Good,” he says. “Fine. File amended reports. Sir?”

Fury nods at Phil and he stands up and leaves. He hears Stark demand, “That’s it?” They trail him down the hallway.

There’s a slight tug at the sleeve of his jacket. Natasha smiles at him. “Come and get breakfast with us.”

“Lunch, really, by now,” Bruce amends. “But you should come.”

Tony slings his arm over Phil’s shoulder. “It’ll be a reward for not killing any of us. I’m reliably informed I was a devil-child.”

Steve objects to this. “Your parents couldn’t have said that.”

“Not to my face. That was the nannies,” Tony says. Steve doesn’t seem much happier with the amendment.

Thor is still smiling. Phil has to say, “This doesn’t mean we can just leave him alone. One good deed isn’t a get out of jail free card.”

“No,” Thor says. “I understand.”

He doesn’t, Phil knows, but if this has been another of Loki’s ploys, Phil will not force the point today. He’s tired and he knows things now he would rather not.

Clint walks up beside him and taps the back of his hand. “I’ll drag you out with us if I have to. It worked before.”

“I really should get back to work.”

Clint shakes his head. “No. Partially because Steve would pout, and that’s sadly no less effective on a grown man. And partially because we’re trying to say thanks and apparently you’re missing the subtext.”

“Thank you for what?” Phil asks. “My job is to ensure the functioning of this team.”

Tony calls over his shoulder. “No one has ever accused us of being functional. Not even you. We’re actually cool with that.”

They’re good with it today, and tomorrow they will be back at each other’s throats for things about each other that cannot be changed or fixed. Phil spends large amounts of his time trying to hold together these pieces that were never designed to fit. But if tomorrow they’ll be fighting again, the day after that maybe they won’t. And today everyone is alive and mostly well and currently arguing about whether to order pancakes or waffles. Phil points out, “You don’t all need to order the same thing.”

Clint grins at him. “See, this is why we have to keep you around - to keep the team functioning. And to prevent pancake-related fatalities. I’m ordering waffles, by the way.”

Phil has wanted a good coffee since the middle of yesterday afternoon, but he’s willing to be persuaded into waffles too. Today seems to be that kind of day.