Phil Coulson is having a hell of a day.
It's tough enough herding his pack of superheroes through a difficult mission without the added complication of dangerously bad weather, but here they are, fending off the latest threat to the existence of humanity while the storm of the century rages around them.
He has the jet pulled back to the edge of the fight, the safest possible distance from the worst parts of the storm, but still they're having issues tracking the team's movements through the thick cover of the angry cumulonimbus clouds that seem to be located only over the city where the Avengers have been deployed. They already had less intel about the monster of the week than he usually likes, and now they're hovering over a city that's under siege from more than just monsters. It's a bad situation made so much worse by bad weather. Phil stands behind Hill in the cockpit as she flies, watching the storm, and waits for the tech team to fix the comm lines so he can talk to his people again.
At least the city was mostly evacuated before the worst of the attack began; they knew enough to get people out in advance. So that's something. He hates worrying about civilian casualties on top of everything else; he hates not being able to keep people safe, because that's why he does this job, and it's always a wrench when the reports come back with black and white numbers that he tries to ignore. He can't. Nobody can, not really, and there have been plenty of nights when he's stayed awake processing those awful numbers until well after the sun rose.
Those nights have been few and far between, these last few years: Clint has his own ways of coping with the stress of their jobs, many of which happen to be wonderfully well-suited to helping both of them sleep.
He keeps one hand on the back of Hill's pilot's chair while the other fishes in the pocket of his trousers for the miniature military-issue carabiner he has sewn into the lining of the left trouser pocket of all of his suits.
He tells the dry-cleaners that it's for his keys, but he's pretty sure they know better. He doesn't care, because Fury doesn't care, and if the boss isn't complaining then he doesn't really mind that he and Clint are SHIELD's most poorly kept secret, so much so that when he slipped up-- the only time he's slipped up-- in New Mexico last year and walked around for several hours with his ring on, nobody even blinked an eye. He'd wear it around all the time if he weren't concerned about losing the damn thing. With this job, it's a distinct possibility, so into his pocket it goes, latched securely onto the carabiner.
His fingers curl around the small circle of metal in his pocket and he smiles, albeit briefly, before turning to ask the techs about the lines again. The junior agents still sit up a little straighter every time he talks, which never ceases to be a source of amusement, even in tense situations like this one. When they have to give him bad news, they're practically perpendicular to the plane of the floor, and he just nods and tells them to carry on and get the comm lines back up ASAP, to which they all chorus, "Yes sir!" and redouble their efforts to patch him through to the team.
He turns back to the window and taps the wireless piece on his ear, running through emergency protocols and procedures as calmly as possible, steadfastly ignoring the very personal worries he has about Clint's safety.
This is, of course, why every other intelligence organization has frat regs. In theory, SHIELD has them too, but in practice he's not sure it's possible for the Director to care less about them, and even less certain that they would have survived Tony Stark's consultantship, if the office gossip is to be believed. Fury's response to Phil's attempt to resign over the unexpected direction of his personal life was to light his resignation letter on fire, grumble something about not fucking it up, and instruct him to call Hill in, because she officially owed him fifty bucks.
So far, they haven't fucked it up; they quietly moved in together and learned to live with each other while continuing to work together, and the world kept right on turning. They've survived long missions and undercover work, they've survived a legally binding marriage contract and a couple of anniversaries and even one short vacation together, and now they're surviving Phil's new gig as the Official Supernanny to the Avengers and Clint's new gig as an Official Superhero. After all of that, a little stormy weather-- okay, a lot of stormy weather-- is not going to be the end of things. Objectively, Phil Coulson, Unflappable Agent of SHIELD, knows that. Subjectively, Phil Coulson, Loving Husband of Clint Barton, worries.
Oh, Clint can take care of himself, that much Phil knows firsthand. Still and all, he's used to the hum of Clint's bowstring in his ear on missions, or at least the occasional wisecrack directed at him over the wireless comm line, usually followed by Clint's amused voice calling him "Boss," a term of endearment that Phil makes sure never goes unrewarded when they're finally alone again. He hadn't realized how much of an anchor that constant contact was until just now.
"I'm sure Barton's fine," Hill says conversationally, breaking into his thoughts.
He can't glare at her, because her back is to him, but he eyeballs the back of her head for good measure. Hill just smiles and deftly manuevers them around yet another wall cloud.
"Don't worry, sir," Hill says. "No one thinks you've lost your objectivity, and the junior agents are still uniformly terrified of you."
"I had no idea they ever were," Phil says blithely, and Hill snorts in response.
"Of course not, sir," she says.
Phil has suspected for a long time now that anyone who casts aspersions about his objectivity is rewarded with a short and pointed conversation with Hill, or possibly Natasha, who is as protective of Clint as Phil is, but not nearly as shy about it.
"Sir, our communication lines are finally back up," one of the junior agents reports, and Phil nods his approval.
"Okay, Avengers, give me the situation on the ground," Phil says, touching his hand to his ear. "We have zero visibility up here."
"We're taking more hits from this weather than they are, Coulson," Natasha says immediately.
"The Lady Natasha is correct," Thor confirms, and there's a loud screech that sounds like Mjolnir scraping against something made of metal. Phil winces. "These creatures change their shape at will. They are indeed a magnificent challenge!"
"Ladies and gentlemen, the god of thunder," Tony puts in. "Which is my point, Coulson: we have a god of bad weather out here and we're still getting kicked around. What the fuck is up with this storm? Jarvis?!"
"Detecting unusual weather patterns, sir," Jarvis reports. "This storm does not seem to be connected to any actual storm system."
"Fantastic. What do they have, a weather machine?" Tony mutters. "Coulson. What the hell are we doing about this?"
"Just stay in position, Stark, we're scanning the area now," Phil orders. Back in the jet, he leans over a junior agent to peer at a radar screen. "What do we know?"
"Nothing, sorry, sir," the junior agent says apologetically. "Mister Stark's computer is correct: this system is completely isolated, and we can't track a source. It doesn't seem to be mechanical in origin, unless the tech is so advanced that our scanners won't pick it up. It's like somebody wished for a hurricane and it just... appeared."
Phil frowns. This is getting worse by the minute.
"Coulson, we can't see anything down here, there's just too much rain," Steve shouts, his voice muffled by wind and rain. "Any chance of this letting up soon?"
"We're still working on it, Captain," Phil tells him, trying to keep his voice impassive despite his growing concern over this situation.
"Well, while you're working on it, please keep in mind that your childhood hero is wandering around down here in a lightning storm holding a giant metal shield, so work a little faster, please," Tony snipes.
"I am fairly certain that Steven's shield repels lightning," Thor puts in, unhelpfully.
"Thank you, Thor," Phil sighs.
"You are most welcome, Son of Coul," Thor replies, clearly pleased to be in the midst of battle, even if the storm is so bad that even the god of thunder himself can barely maneuver his way through the thick of it.
Phil straightens up and steps back over to the pilots' chairs.
"What's the word on the storm, sir?" Hill asks.
"Not good," he tells her, and she looks up at him, surprised. "Can you fly in this, Hill?"
"Yes sir," she replies confidently. "But if that gets worse it's gonna be a bumpy ride."
"Duly noted," Phil says, looking at the storm from the window of the jet. Two new tornadoes snake down from the clouds while he watches.
"Oh, fantastic, that's what we need, more debris. I need a better pair of eyes; where the hell is Robin Hood?" Tony demands.
"Watching you get the shit kicked out of yourself by nature, Stark," Clint jokes, and if Phil smiles a little at that, the other agents on the bridge know to ignore it.
"Barton, talk to me, what have you got?" Phil asks.
"Nothing so far, just bad weather and low visibility, boss," Clint replies, and there's a snap and a crackle as he switches over to their private line. "Sir, it is my opinion that you want to seriously consider getting us the fuck out of here."
Phil can feel the corners of his mouth turning down. "Is that your professional opinion, Barton?"
Clint's professional opinion is their private code, a small reminder from Phil to Clint that he respects him enough not only to ask, but also to listen and act accordingly. There aren't a great many people whose opinions Phil respects enough to solicit, let alone trust enough to make him rethink his own plans. The Director is one of them; Hill is another. When Steve Rogers finally woke up, he was rather immediately added to this very short list, but even with his devotion to his hero, Phil places Clint at the top of the list of people he trusts every time, and Clint, with his ability to see what nobody else can and a strategic intelligence that even Tony Stark noticed immediately, has never let Phil down.
The silent counterpart to Phil's solicitation of Clint's professional opinion is, of course, Clint's willingness to comply with the orders Phil gives him, even if he thinks Phil is wrong. If Phil had given the order, that night in New Mexico, Clint would have put an arrow into a god, and years before, if Phil had pressed the issue, Natasha would never have joined the team. But Phil trusts Clint enough to change direction as necessary, and Clint trusts Phil enough to stay the course when it's called for, and that's how they do what they do every day and still come home to each other.
Phil can hear a low murmur as Clint hums into his ear, thoughtful.
"My professional opinion? No, I won't go that far yet, but I can barely tell what the hell's going on, and if I'm not seeing it--"
"Understood," Phil sighs.
Phil hates calling ops. In all his years doing this kind of work, he's called a grand total of four, and one of those Clint had made him call because Phil had, in Clint's professional opinion, lost too much blood to continue.
Medical had backed Clint up on that when they got back in. Clint had attempted to make the lesson stick by punching him in the face after he'd recovered.
There's nothing quite like a punch in the face to make you realize that you love someone, really, and Phil smooths his fingers over his pocket and the reassuring shape of his ring.
"Coulson?" Clint asks.
"I'm here," Phil says. He stalks back over to the junior agent and the radar. "Can you tell me if this is going to let up?"
The kid sits up straighter, which Phil didn't even think was possible, and frowns. "Without knowing what's fueling the storm cell, sir, there's really no way to predict it."
"Okay, team," Phil begins, resigned.
"Shit, Coulson, there's a kid down there," Clint interrupts, back on the open line. "There's something strange about this kid. I know how this sounds, but I think maybe I found our weather problem. And that is my professional opinion, boss."
Phil's lips twitch. "Where?"
There's a very brief pause, a catch of breath that only Phil hears, and then Clint says, "Half-demolished building on the corner of the block. Looks like what's left of an orphanage, sir."
"Barton, that's a sad story, but I don't think we can spare anybody right now," Tony says. "And how can a little kid do this to the weather?"
"Explaining this shit is your department, Stark," Clint reminds him. "I just call 'em like I see 'em, and most of the time, I'm right."
"Giving you shit about it is also my department," Tony says. "Okay, let me see if I can find this kid. I hope you're right about this, Legolas."
"Negative," Clint calls. "She looks scared to death, the last thing she needs is somebody in a bigass robot suit. We need this weather to get better, remember?"
"Well, if you want someone who won't scare her, we can't send Romanov," Tony jokes, and Natasha fires back with something in Latin that Phil suspects is very, very vulgar.
"I love you too, sweetheart," Tony says.
"Focus up, please," Phil interjects. "Can anybody check this out?"
"I can try," Steve offers.
"Somebody who can fly would be a better option, the biggest tornado is pretty much parked in front of the building she's in," Clint says. "Sorry, Cap."
"I trust your judgment, Hawkeye," Steve replies.
Phil makes what is undoubtedly a very strange face in an effort not to smile at that.
"I fear no cyclones, nor do I resemble a mechanical man," Thor puts in. "Barton, direct me to this small Midgardian."
"Okay, but maybe we should send a Midgardian ambassador with you, Thor," Steve proposes tactfully, and Phil can hear Natasha's quiet laughter on the line before Thor answers.
"An excellent suggestion, Steven," Thor declares. "Who shall accompany me?"
Steve sighs. "Coulson, I hate to ask, but can you spare anybody up there? We really can't put two people on this right now."
"Send somebody who isn't an idiot," Clint says, on the private channel, and Phil knows exactly what he's asking.
"I'm on it," Phil confirms, and he's talking on the open line, but his words are more for Clint than anyone else. He briefly looks down at his expensive leather dress shoes and suit trousers and considers requisitioning a poncho, but this suit has gotten soaked for this job once before, and it isn't like Dolce doesn't have his measurements if he has to call in something new. Still, he cringes a little at the thought of it. "Thor? I'm coming with you, but I'll need a lift."
All things considered, flying with Thor, even in the middle of a monster storm, is still better than flying with Tony, who likes to have Jarvis play "Straighten up and Fly Right," and pretend to drop people, though Phil's pretty sure that last accidental tasering has fixed that problem. Even so, it's not a pleasant trip, and Phil's glad when it's over and Thor puts them down on somewhat solid ground in the center of the room where the kid is crouching, terrified of the monsters outside. She's tucked into the corner of what's left of a kitchen, her eyes a strange milky white, just like the color of her hair. Phil wonders if Clint is really right about this, if she's really responsible for the wild weather raging outside. It certainly could be so: he's seen much stranger things happen than a kid who can control the weather.
"She could be a daughter of Asgard," Thor says, and he sounds almost awed. "Barton has spoken truly: this child controls this storm, or I am not the son of Odin."
"Great," Phil mutters. Stopping a child-fueled hurricane was really not on his to-do list for the day and he has no idea how to go about it, but the first step is probably to talk to the kid, so he inches a little closer and hopes she doesn't panic and zap him with a lightning bolt, provided that's something she can do.
"Little one!" Thor's voice booms out, so loudly that a piece of drywall cracks and falls down behind him. "You must stop this! Our warriors cannot fight their way through this storm."
Phil fights not to roll his eyes. "Thor, you're scaring the kid," he says, waving Thor back. "Stand down."
"I will do as you say, Son of Coul," Thor declares, and he gestures with Mjolnir as he says it, but he complies with Phil's request and backs up to what's left of the doorway.
"Hello," Phil says, squatting down so that he's at eye level with the little girl, but still about a foot away. Slowly and carefully, he holds out his hand. "My name is Phil Coulson, and I'm going to get you out of here. Is that okay?"
The girl looks at him for a long, tense moment, then puts her tiny hand in his and nods. As he watches, her eyes shift back to a deep brown. There's an immediate corresponding change in the weather, and even Phil can't keep his eyebrows from lifting a little in surprise.
"Whoever did that, thanks," Tony says, over the comm.
"Well, that's a neat trick," Phil mutters, and the kid bites her lip. "I mean it, it is. Was that you?"
She bobs her head shyly, her teeth still digging into her lower lip, hard enough to draw blood if she's not careful, which worries him: he doesn't want her to hurt herself, he's down here to make sure that doesn't happen.
"It's okay," Phil tells her, and her eyes go wide in surprise, but she stops chewing on her lip, so that's something. He wonders if anybody's ever said that to her before, if anybody's ever told her it's okay to be who she is. Clint's breath is suddenly ragged in his ear through his earpiece, and he realizes that Clint is probably wondering the same thing, only Clint is reliving his own set of memories on top of it. "It's okay," he repeats, as much for Clint as for this frightened little girl, and when Clint sighs into the earpiece, he knows his message found its target.
"We should go, Coul's son," Thor advises, moving forward and laying his hand on Phil's shoulder. "Stark and the others cannot distract the enemy forever."
Phil nods briskly, his eyes still on the girl. He gives her small hand a reassuring squeeze, and then releases it. "This is Thor," he says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder towards his companion. "He can do what you do."
She looks up at Thor, her small features a mix of shock and disbelief, then turns her eyes back to Phil, who points at the ruined building around them.
"It isn't safe to stay here," he tells her. "Will you come with us?"
Her gaze is appraising, but it's also familiar, and when he hears Clint in his ear again, this time urging him to hurry it up, he realizes where he's seen that expression before.
It's the same look Clint gives people when he first meets them, the same look Clint gave him, years ago, on the first mission they ran together. It's the look of someone who doesn't trust people easily, because they've learned that it's not wise to do so. That look is difficult enough to see when it's Clint, but on a child, it's damn near heartbreaking. She's sizing him up, Phil understands, trying to decide whether or not she should trust him, and all he can do is wait for her to make up her mind.
Clint knows what she decides before Phil does, but that's not surprising: Clint sees farther than most people. He always has.
"You got this, boss," Clint says in his ear, and a few seconds later, she wraps her small fingers around his thumb and says, very solemnly, "Yes."
"Thank you for trusting me," Phil says seriously, and holds out his arms so he can pick her up. "We can't walk out because the building is falling apart, but Thor can fly us out. It's a little scary the first couple of times, but you get used to it."
"Not scared," she declares, but she still buries her face against his shoulder when Thor picks them up. He can feel her tiny fingers clutching his collar, and he gives her a gentle but firm pat on the back as Thor speeds them back to the quinjet, taking off to rejoin his compatriots in glorious battle as soon as they're safely aboard.
"You're... really fucking good with kids, Coulson," Clint says, and Phil is glad this is a private channel, because it means that nobody else can hear the warmth in Clint's voice when he says it, and that's something he's never really felt like sharing. "Previous practice herding a bunch of divas come in handy, there?"
"No, but I was an Eagle Scout," Phil says, and Clint just snorts.
"Let's clean this up," Phil orders the team, back on the open channel, and they do.
She tells them that her name is Ororo, and she refuses to move from Phil's lap the entire ride back to New York. Clint sits next to them and talks quietly with her, and Phil listens to them speak about family and loss without ever actually saying anything specific. Phil supposes it's easy enough to recognize a kindred spirit.
She falls asleep with her head on Phil's shoulder and her hand in Clint's. When she shivers in her sleep Phil just nods at a passing junior agent, who doesn't waste a second finding a blanket.
When they get back to HQ, Phil leaves Ororo with Clint and goes to talk to the Director.
"So you brought back a kid," Fury says, without preamble. "Are we giving civilians free rides in the quinjet now?"
"Sir, in Barton's professional opinion, the civilian in question--" Phil begins, but Fury waves him silent.
"I heard," Fury says. "Controlling the weather. Nice trick, if it's true. I'm not convinced."
"I hope you're not suggesting that we frighten a four-year old child in an attempt to test this phenomenon," Phil says crisply.
"I thought maybe we'd talk to her first," Fury says. He raises an eyebrow. "Relax, Coulson. Nobody's going to hurt the kid, but we do need to know what she's really capable of."
"Are we assessing her abilities with any particular purpose in mind, Director?"
"For now we're just trying to make sure that she's not going to destroy our building," Fury says. "You don't think someone who can control the weather might be useful to us in the future?"
Phil doesn't reply immediately. He can see Clint outside in the hallway, talking to Steve and Hill, a sleepy Ororo in his arms, one tiny arm clinging to his neck while she reaches out and points at the star on Steve's uniform with the other. Clint says something to her and she giggles, and suddenly Phil feels like someone wrapped a hand around his heart.
Every so often, the world changes, the circumstances of life forever altered by a seemingly innocuous event that turns out to be the start of something that's much bigger than the people living through it. Once upon a time, Steve Rogers walked into the Stark Expo, Tony Stark boarded a plane, Thor set out for Jotunheim, et cetera, et cetera, and now here they all are, a band of heroes, saving the world, thanks only to an unlikely collection of innocent moments that set them all on a path to a life with an entirely different purpose.
Phil didn't know when he woke up this morning that he'd be having one of those moments today, but there's Clint holding this little girl and laughing, and yes, the world is suddenly very different. His life is suddenly very different, and it's a strange realization to be having in front of his boss, really, but when the world realigns he supposes it's never entirely convenient.
It's been a long time since he really wanted a family and even longer since he thought it was an actual possibility, but he seems to have accidentally stumbled into one, if only he can manage to keep it together, if Clint will trust him enough to give this a try. His hand comes to rest over the ring in his pocket.
"If you've got a problem, Coulson, I want to hear it," Fury says.
"She's just a kid, sir," Phil says finally.
"Yes, she is," Fury agrees. "Doesn't mean her powers might not be useful to the Initiative, when she's old enough."
Phil sighs. This is a snap decision, this decision to take care of this kid, but it's not like he's unused to quick changes in this line of work. He's more than used to rolling with the punches, he just needs an opening, and this is probably the best one he'll get, so he takes it.
"If we're going to make her a part of the Initiative, sir," he says, slipping his hand into his pocket, "she'll need a handler. Somebody with experience."
Fury knows exactly what he's doing, and Phil knows that he knows, but they've worked together long enough that they don't have to acknowledge it beyond the look that Fury gives him.
"You think you can handle that? This is a little kid, Coulson."
"I've got experience with kids," Phil says, shrugging. "Unless you don't think Stark counts."
"No, that counts, he's a perpetual five-year old," Fury says, mildly amused. "As for the other kid: medical's running tests; she stays here for now."
"Sir," Phil starts to say, but Fury gives him a look, and he leaves it alone.
"Coulson, if the kid can do what you say she can do, you're not taking her out of here until we're sure she won't take out a city block with a tornado."
"Yes, sir," Phil says, nodding, but he's disappointed and they both know it. "I'll make sure she gets to medical without incident."
"Coulson. Visit the kid whenever you want," Fury says, just as Phil reaches the door. "She should get to know her handler."
"Yes, sir," Phil says again, but there's a smile on his face as he steps out into the hall.
Over the next several weeks, Phil's in medical more than he's ever been in his entire SHIELD career. He checks in on Ororo whenever he has a free minute, and sometimes even when he doesn't. He's unhappy about the barrage of tests they're putting her through, but if he can't stop Fury from running them, he can at least be around to hold her hand while they do.
Ororo has learned not to be leery of Thor, who to Phil's great surprise actually comes to see her every day, usually bearing some form of gift, and Phil finds that he is more grateful than ever for Jane Foster's tireless efforts to teach Thor Odinson the ways of Midgard.
"Jane explains to me that you no longer gift small children with weapons here," Thor says, as they watch Ororo unwrap a set of coloring books and markers.
"I'm sure it was a lovely, ah, dagger," Jane says, patting his arm, making a face of I'm-so-very-sorry at Phil.
Phil understands from the nurses that Jane always sticks around to make sure that any sagas Thor decides to entertain Ororo with are age-appropriate. So far, Ororo hasn't had any nightmares about bilchsteim, but Phil has a speech already prepared for Thor in the event that she does.
He comes in one afternoon to find Darcy helping a giggling Ororo hang posters and brightly colored fabric on the previously boring white walls of her hospital room.
"I hope you cleared this with medical, Lewis," Phil says, but before Darcy can even finish rolling her eyes, Ororo shouts, "Phil!" excitedly and runs over to grab his hand and haul him around the room so she can show off all of her new things.
It's going to ruin his professional credibility for Darcy Lewis to see him smiling like this. He makes a mental note to scowl at some junior agents later, but for now he devotes his attention to Ororo's discussion of her favorite colors-- orange, turquoise, and yellow-- and how nice it was of Ms. Darcy to bring her pillows that were those colors.
Phil raises an eyebrow at Darcy, who shrugs and says, "Pepper called the nurses; she made some notes. She made a lot of notes, actually, it was kind of freakish how organized they were."
Phil nods. "I see," he says. He looks down at Ororo. "Did you thank Ms. Lewis?"
Ororo nods enthusiastically. "Yes! Can I play my songs now?" From the pocket of her dress, she unearths a brand new iPod and holds it up for Phil's inspection.
He takes it gently and looks it over, checking the volume and making sure Darcy hasn't loaded it with anything too insipid, then hands it back and nods his approval, at which she bounces away to a pair of bright orange beanbag chairs and collapses into them, headphones in her ears. Phil frowns at Darcy. "You gave her an iPod?"
"No, actually Tony did? But like, he doesn't want anybody to know that he's nice, so he said to say it was from me, which was a stupid idea 'cause obviously I was just gonna tell everyone anyway." Darcy shrugs and puts her hands in her pockets.
"Has he been down here to see her?"
"Noooo," Darcy wheedles, swaying from side to side. "I think maybe Thor said something about telling stories to The Child of Asgard," she pauses to tug her hands from her pockets and make wiggling motions with her fingers at that, "and Tony was trying to be a di--"
Phil clears his throat loudly.
"Oh, right, sorry. So Tony was being Tony, right, to Thor, and I think he was going to record it and like make fun of him or something, who even knows, but he got Thor to bring in a phone so he could Facetime the whole thing and don't tell anybody I told you this, but Tony totally loves her. I mean, he should, 'cause she's fu--"
"Fantastic and totally adorable, duh, G-man, what did you think I was going to say," Darcy says smoothly.
"Stark paid for all this?"
"Yeah, but like, don't freak out or whatever, this place really needed a makeover. This room was the worst, okay. Somebody had to do it." Darcy says. "Like you were going to? No offense, dude, but I don't think you have any idea what little kids like in bedroom décor."
"I was a little kid once," Phil says.
"Whatever. Maybe you were little, but you weren't a kid," Darcy says. "I'm pretty sure you were born in a suit."
Phil doesn't correct her. He's just happy that there's apparently still one person in the building who doesn't know about his trading card collection.
He makes sure Ororo isn't listening to her music too loudly, and he kisses the top of her head before he leaves.
On a hunch, he reminds the medical staff on the way out that Consultant Stark is not actually cleared to remove Ororo from the premises, and Tony sends him a moderately irritated email later that afternoon about how every little girl should attend a monster truck rally once in her life.
I invited Pepper and Steve, Tony's email reads.
They have nearly as many rules as you do (read: you people really need me to liven up your boring day-to-day lives), it would have been fine (read: actually fun, unlike what usually passes for fun with all of you).
Clint reads the email over his shoulder and laughs. "One of these days, I'm gonna get Tony very, very drunk and explain to him in detail how fun you are."
Phil pushes his shoulder against Clint's chest and smiles. "Is your new goal in life to get Tony Stark to blush?"
"Do you think I could?"
They look at other for a long moment and then shake their heads.
"Nah," they say together.
After a few weeks with no foul weather or related incidents, Phil convinces Fury that Ororo's world can widen just a little, at least enough to include some of the safer areas of headquarters as well as the occasional highly supervised visit to a park.
Tony, with his continual litany of Fun Things Kids Probably Like To Do That Tony Stark Can Pay For, like monster truck rallies and really loud rock concerts, remains on the No Fly list, which Phil sternly reminds medical is a literal No Fly list. That lasts until the night when Tony turns up at Ororo's room with Thor and Jane and a pair of special Stark Industries telescopes, interrupting their evening tradition of Storytime With Phil to invite her to see a meteor shower.
"Pleeeeeeeease," Ororo says, and after a moment's careful consideration, during which he glares at Tony in an attempt to dissuade him from having even a thought of shenanigans, Phil puts aside May I Bring a Friend? and says, "All right."
Ororo gives a little cheer and throws her arms briefly around his neck before clambering off her bed and scampering over to the others. She tugs on the bottom of Tony's blazer.
"Uncle Tony?" she asks.
"What is it, Weather Girl?" Tony says, and Phil would tell him not to call her that, but she doesn't seem to mind the nickname.
She beams up at Tony and points over at Phil. "May I bring a friend?"
Of all Ororo's visitors, it's Steve who surprises him the most. Phil stops in to see how she's doing, and there's Steve Rogers, Captain America himself, sitting cross-legged on the floor of Ororo's room, teaching her how to play jacks. He's still not entirely accustomed to seeing his childhood hero in the hallways of his workplace every day, and this is just really several steps beyond that.
"Phil, Phil, I can play jacks now, watch," she says, and scoops up the tiny ball to demonstrate.
"She's really good at it," Steve says, and Ororo beams and opens her small hand, revealing a handful of jacks. "She wins every time."
"Thank you," Phil says quietly, and Steve just smiles. He pats Ororo's shoulder and gets to his feet, careful to avoid the jacks scattered out on the floor.
"I'll be back tomorrow, okay," Steve promises. "I have to find us a set of checkers, and maybe some cards. Do you know how to play Go Fish?"
She shakes her head, and Steve grins. "It's great, you'll love it. See you tomorrow, Ororo."
"Goodbye, Uncle Steve," she says, wrapping her arms around one of his legs in a brief hug.
"See you later," he calls. "You too, Phil."
Clint has been conspicuously absent in all of this despite what Phil had believed to be his initial enthusiasm. If Phil mentions Ororo at home, Clint listens, but he's guarded and thoughtful and not at all forthcoming with his own feelings on the subject.
But then one afternoon when Phil has a free minute to head down to medical, Clint is there, sitting in the corner on one of Ororo's beanbags with a sketchbook and a set of charcoal pencils, drawing whatever she asks. He's working on a sketch of Pepper-- "Her hair is red, though," Ororo says insistently, while Clint smiles at her and reaches over to smudge some charcoal dust on Ororo's nose-- when Phil walks in.
"Hey, boss," he says, without looking up. "My buddy Ororo here is a pretty great artist, did you know?"
"No, but now I do," Phil says, and Clint glances at him briefly and winks. "What are you drawing?"
"Phil, Phil, I'm learning perspective," Ororo says, very seriously. She holds up her own notebook proudly, and he smiles.
"That's really good," he tells her, and she grins. "I guess Clint's a good teacher, huh?"
She nods her head. "He's a better drawer than me, but that's okay. Clint drew me a pony, see," she says, rummaging through the pile of papers in front of them to locate it. "See?"
"It's very nice," Phil says, and Ororo waves him over, picking up more and more sketches from the floor.
"Look, look, he drew Ms. Darcy, and here's Uncle Thor, and Uncle Steve, and look, another pony!"
"Figured it was better than bringing a real one in," Clint jokes, and Ororo giggles.
"The nurses would be mad," she whispers conspiratorially, her fingers over her mouth.
"Probably so," Phil agrees.
He would have stayed longer and entertained them both with his badly drawn stick figures, but his phone buzzes insistently and he has to make his apologies and run off to put out some fires-- in this case, literally, as a Banner-and-Stark experiment turns out to be the reason for the phone calls.
The collection of drawings on Ororo's wall grows steadily over the next several weeks. Every time Phil comes in there's something new, each of them with Clint's loopy initials scrawled into the lower right-hand corner.
Clint doesn't talk about it, but one morning when Phil goes to get the milk out of the fridge, there's a charcoal drawing of Ororo stuck onto the freezer side with a magnet.
"It's a good drawing," Phil says, pouring a splash of milk into his coffee cup. "Nice shading."
"Is this the conversation where you tell me not to get too attached?" Clint asks.
"No," Phil says. "Are you?"
"Absolutely not," Clint says, and Phil decides it's probably best to leave it at that for now.
He's trying not to ink in Clint's opinion on the matter just yet, because he suspects that he knows what Clint's doing. Clint is doing exactly what he did for the first six months of their relationship: throwing himself headlong into love, terrified that it'll disappear if he doesn't keep his eyes on the target, but still attempting to maintain some kind of cover, just in case everything goes horribly wrong.
Clint is far too accustomed to things like love going horribly wrong, and Phil has lost more than one night's sleep pacing the floor over that.
It is both far too soon and far too late to ask Clint about all of this. Clint may be failing miserably at maintaining any emotional distance here, but that doesn't mean he isn't trying, standing here in their kitchen with his arms crossed, insisting that he absolutely isn't attached to this kid, not at all, when already knows their lives are changing. Clint isn't stupid, he sees it, just like he sees everything else: he's just stubbornly avoiding it until he can't any longer, and all Phil can do is wait for an opening.
He gets his chance a week later.
He and Clint are finishing up a late dinner of leftover Chinese in his office when the alarms sound. Phil's phone is buzzing in his pocket but he doesn't even bother checking it: the flickering lights and the sudden crash of thunder tell him everything he needs to know. They race down to medical, taking the stairs as fast as they can.
There's a wall missing and most of the glass is out in the windows, and one of Ororo's doctors is standing outside her room, shouting at her over the roar of the wind.
"What did you do," Phil demands, but he doesn't even wait for an answer: he'll file the forms to send this poor kid to some remote outpost tomorrow, but for the moment he needs to concentrate on calming Ororo, or there's a good chance there won't be any medical staff to yell at later.
He has no idea how to get her attention, but it ends up being easier than he anticipated: when she sees the two of them standing outside what used to be the door to her room, the destructive weather ceases, but when she looks around and sees the aftermath, she starts to cry.
Phil and Clint pick their way across the floor, avoiding broken glass as best they can. Ororo reaches up for him, sniffling, and he bends down to pick her up. She hides her face in his collar and holds on tight while Clint pats her back reassuringly.
"We'll need to check her for injuries," says one of the doctors, and Phil just stares at him until he backs slowly out of the room. "Uh. Whenever you're ready, of course, sir."
"Are you hurt?" Phil asks, the side of his cheek resting gently against the top of Ororo's head.
"No," she hiccups.
"Can you tell us what happened?" Clint asks, and his voice is soft and level, but the way his jaw is set tells Phil at a glance that he's not any happier about this situation than Phil is.
The medical staff is about to have a very, very bad day.
Ororo shifts in his arms and sniffles some more. "They gave me some medicine and I didn't like it and I didn't want to take it and I told them no and, and, and, you weren't here and I was scared and I'm sorry," she wails.
"It's okay," he says.
Her voice is shaky and muffled against his collar when she speaks again. "Are you mad?"
"Not at you, honey," Clint assures her.
"Certainly not," Phil agrees, smoothing her hair down. "This is not your fault, do you understand? Your doctors should know better."
"I think they will soon enough," Clint says. He holds out his arms and jerks his head toward the doctors in the hallway. "Do your thing, Agent Coulson. Me and my buddy here are just gonna chill out for a sec and draw a little, right, kiddo?"
She nods, lifting her head from Phil's shoulder, and Phil carefully hands her over to Clint.
"Take no prisoners, okay," Clint jokes.
"Copy that," Phil says, and stalks out into the hall.
"Is anyone out here seriously injured?" he asks, and they shake their heads. He points at a mostly undamaged room across the hall. "Good. In there. Now."
He had a drill sergeant in boot camp who terrified the entire company with his angry tirades, but Phil has always found that rage is much more effectively delivered to subordinates when it's delivered calmly, quietly, and with the confidence of someone who doesn't necessarily need force to back up whatever threats he's issuing, but who certainly doesn't mind using it if called for.
"I have no idea what you hoped to accomplish in there," he says, closing the door softly behind him, "but I hope you've all learned a valuable lesson about following protocol."
"Sir, Director Fury instructed us to--"
Phil barely even raises an eyebrow, and the doctor stops speaking abruptly.
"I'm aware that you have your orders, but I'm her handler. Effective immediately, if you want to so much as adjust the temperature in her room by a fraction of a degree, I expect a phone call and a form requiring my written approval before you change it. This is a direct order from a superior, and if you even think about violating it for any reason that does not involve immediate action necessary to save her life, within ten minutes you will be on a plane to the Arctic Circle to put band-aids on penguins for the next three years while I sit upstairs in my nice, warm office and watch The Deadliest Catch, is that clear?"
"Yes sir," they chorus. One of them even salutes.
It's nice to know he's not losing his touch.
He calls for a team to come help with clean-up, then returns to Clint and Ororo to find that Clint has cleared the glass off of her bed, where the two of them are sitting there doodling. Ororo seems to be in much better spirits; she's even smiling a little.
He hates to leave her here any longer, but they'll have to check her out and make sure she's uninjured before he takes her anywhere.
"I know they're not your favorite people right now," Phil says, sitting carefully on the bed, "but the doctors need to make sure you're okay."
"We talked about it already, she's cool," Clint tells him. He prods her arm gently with the round end of a crayon. "Right, little lady?"
She sighs. "Yes. But I don't like them anymore."
"That's perfectly understandable," Phil says. He holds out his hand, and she takes it. "Come on. Let's get these xrays over with, okay?"
"They can't just leave her locked up in medical," Clint's saying, while they watch the med techs through the glass. Phil tenses up every time anybody comes near her, even if it's just to give her a drink of water, and he knows there's an angry knot in his shoulders that's getting worse the longer they have to stand here.
Clint sighs and kicks lightly at the wall. "This will happen again and again, if they keep doing this. She's a little kid, she shouldn't be locked up in here."
"I wasn't planning on leaving her here," Phil confesses, and Clint finally takes his eyes away from Ororo to look over at him. "Not after what happened this evening."
"Uh huh," Clint says, waiting for an explanation.
"She needs a handler," Phil says. He's aiming for nonchalance, but Clint knows him better than that.
"She needs a home," Clint corrects.
"We can't give her both for a night?"
Clint studies him with that familiar appraising stare. "A night, yeah, okay," he says, crossing his arms and turning back to the window. "But kids need stability, Coulson, they need people who are around, and I don't know if you've noticed, but we're not those people, so I hope you're not getting ideas about a house with a white picket fence."
Phil's quiet for a minute after that, processing. More than a few of the junior agents see him as a bit of an emotionless robot, and he's fine with that most days because everything around him runs more efficiently that way, but just because he's subtle about it doesn't mean he doesn't feel, and deeply, and since the truth is that he's always been a white picket fence kind of guy, well, Clint's last remark has hit a target Phil's not even sure he was aiming for.
"Shit," Clint says suddenly, his whole body turning to face Phil. "You were, weren't you?"
"Of course not," Phil says, sliding past Clint with all the brisk efficiency he can muster. "They're done with the xrays, I'm going back in now."
"Phil," Clint says, his hand half-raised. "For fuck's sake, Phil, you think maybe you could talk to me about this stuff?"
"There's really nothing to talk about, Barton," Phil says blandly, his hand on the keypad of the door. "Like you said, it's only for a night, we're not her parents."
"Right," Clint says, hesitantly.
Phil thinks they'd be very good parents, actually, if Clint could refrain from teaching the kids how to hide in the rafters and he could refrain from doing eighteen background checks on anyone who might have to interact with them. Of course, there's the possibility that Clint really doesn't want any of that, at all, and the time to have had this discussion with Clint was probably some time ago, not that it's something that would make him reconsider their life together. Nothing could.
"Look," Clint says, rubbing the back of his head with one hand, an agitated motion and a sure sign that he's frustrated. "We can hash this out later, and don't think we won't, but in the mean time: did you have a plan for where she's gonna stay, at our place?"
"I radioed ahead. There's a team at our apartment right now, rearranging my office."
Clint raises his eyebrows at that-- he knows what a sacred space Phil considers his home office to be, and he knows exactly how important something would have to be for Phil to give that up-- but he doesn't say anything, he just waits for Phil to continue.
Phil slides his suit sleeve up his wrist and checks his watch. "They have another hour; I thought we might take her for ice cream. She's had a bad night. I think she deserves it."
Clint looks at him then with an expression that's more than appraising: Clint looks at him like he's sighting a target, adjusting for variations in airspeed and wind resistance. There are times when Phil likes that look, but this is definitely not one of them.
"Okay," Clint says finally, shaking his head. "Yeah, okay. Let's do this."
The ice cream place around the corner from their apartment is, predictably, chilly inside, and Phil is glad that they managed to salvage most of Ororo's clothes from the wreckage of medical before they left, including the bright blue cabled sweater that she's wearing now-- a gift from Pepper, as he understands it; the flannel shirt underneath is from Jane, and the shoes, which feature a highly sophisticated memory tracking system so that the wearer can never get lost, have Stark Industries written all over them.
It's an interesting outfit, but there's a lot of love in it, and Phil hides a smile behind his hand as he watches Clint entertain Ororo with magic tricks and stories about his time in the circus.
Clint doesn't talk about his pre-SHIELD life very often, and certainly not in this much detail, but Ororo seems to be enjoying his stories, and Phil is enjoying listening to both of them.
He thought that his window of opportunity on having this kind of life had passed him by a long time ago. There was a girl in college in what feels like another lifetime, but he was hell bent on the army and she was equally passionate about moving to a city with a higher population of hippies, and it just hadn't worked out, something he's grateful for every evening when Clint slips into bed beside him. But even with Clint, it's difficult, because their professional lives barely allowed them time to figure out that they were both rather stupidly in love with each other, let alone discuss the possibilities and problems associated with adopting a kid or two.
Yet here they are, empty ice cream cups scattered out on the table in front of them and this sweet little kid sitting between them, laughing as Clint pulls nickels from her ears and tells her about his life as a sideshow, and Phil is suddenly remembering interminable vacations with his own parents, stuck in the back of the Studebaker with only one Captain America comic book, counting the mile markers to their destination and listening to his mother and father politely bickering over the directions to the beach. He hadn't really appreciated it at the time.
He wonders if Ororo would. More to the point, he wonders if Clint would want any of that.
He supposes he'll know soon enough.
The team did a good job with his office-- when they walk in, it looks like it's always been Ororo's room, like she's always been a part of their lives, and she's so adorably happy about all of it that Phil isn't even slightly put out over the loss of his private workspace.
Phil suspects, as he looks around the room, that Pepper paid them a visit as well: the SHIELD teams are organized, but they don't usually pay attention to principles of design in setting up a room, nor do they hang priceless works of art in a little girl's bedroom.
The Jackson Pollock is a nice touch, though. It's a nice representation of his Spring period.
Phil fields a few irritated phone calls from the Director while Clint shows Ororo around their place and gets her settled in.
Before they put her to bed, Phil makes sure she knows where they're sleeping, just in case she has a nightmare or she wakes up scared in a strange new place.
"If you need anything at all, just knock and we'll hear you," Phil tells her, crouching down so he's at her eye level.
After Ororo is in bed and asleep, they go through their usual evening routine, Phil sifting through mission reports on the couch while Clint slouches companionably next to him. There's a tension between them that Phil knows they both feel, but they ignore it until later, when they're both getting ready for bed, because neither of them of have rules about going to bed angry.
"You told her about the circus," Phil says, evenly, smoothly, like it's not much of anything, just making conversation.
Clint flops onto the bed and starts unlacing his boots. "Noticed that, did you," he says, tugging off one boot. "So. Are we finally having the conversation where I tell you not to get too attached, Coulson?"
Phil raises an eyebrow in response: last names are office protocol only, and neither one of them slips up very often at home. Usually it isn't a slip, and Phil knows this isn't, but he concentrates on taking off his tie and hanging up his jacket and figures that Clint will say more when he's ready, which will hopefully be sooner rather than later, but with Clint it's really fifty-fifty on these things.
"We've gotta talk about this eventually," Clint points out.
"I know, Barton," Phil says, and the significance of his last name isn't lost on Clint, either.
It's difficult, maintaining his typical calm exterior when what he actually wants to do is lose his temper for once in this relationship, because this is important to him for reasons he hopes he doesn't have to explain, and while it's true that he should have brought it up earlier, it's also true that Clint could be a bit more understanding about the whole thing.
He doesn't say anything else, and neither does Clint, which is, apparently, going to be their default position in times of conflict. The stalemate over the Tivo, which they both now consider to be an incredibly stupid thing to have fought over, yet the thing that was still the center of their only actual argument to date, lasted forty-eight hours and ended in a particularly fantastic evening, but the Tivo is hardly as important as an actual person, so Phil really couldn't begin to speculate on the duration of this mutual silent treatment.
He really doesn't have anything to say if Clint doesn't, so he closes the wardrobe and goes to take a shower. Clint's still sitting on the bed when he's done, which he considers to be a good sign-- if Clint's avoiding a conversation, Phil knows he'll be up in the shadows on the roof of the building.
"Sorry," Clint says finally. "That didn't come out right, before."
"It's okay," Phil tells him. "Are you?"
"Not really. There's a lot of old shit floating around up here right now," Clint says, waving his hand next to his head. He sighs and holds his hand out, and Phil sits down next to him. "You gave up your office, Phil."
"Noticed that, did you," Phil says, lips quirking, and Clint bumps him with his shoulder.
"Jackass," he says.
"Never denied it," Phil replies.
"We're gonna have to buy her shit, if she's going to be here for any length of time," Clint points out, and Phil nods along and tries not to get his hopes up, because Clint continues to look unhappy about this situation. "I mean, I know they brought in some things today, but god, Phil, she'll need more clothes, and I don't know anything about that for kids, and she should probably go to school, and what if she wants to do things, like soccer or something, and we have to go save the world? And what do you feed kids, I mean, we eat whatever the hell we want and it works out okay, but I don't think you should feed four-year olds spicy-as-fuck ma po tofu, and oh, Jesus fuck, Phil, we're going to have to stop cursing, goddamn."
"That's really more your problem," Phil says, and he can't help it, he laughs.
"Shit, Phil, this isn't fucking funny," Clint says, but it is, actually, and it's a relief to feel like maybe this conversation is going to resolve whatever strange conflict has been floating around since they found Ororo, so Phil keeps right on laughing. "Seriously."
"Seriously," Phil says, wiping a tear from his eye, "Clint, do you really think we can't figure that out? We save the world for a living. Surely we can handle one kid."
"I know that," Clint says. "But can you just let me freak the fuck out for a second without laughing at me? This is, you know. A big deal. Tell me you're not a little concerned."
"I'm not sweating the details," Phil says, and Clint acknowledges the truth of that with a slight shrug. "I'm not sure about the rest of it. I do know that it's a big responsibility, that isn't lost on me, Clint."
"If you're actually telling me that you're worried, then it's official: I'm not the only adult here who's flipping his shit, am I," Clint says, and Phil stares at his feet for a second before answering.
"No," he admits. He declines to add that he'd be a lot calmer about this whole situation if only Clint didn't seem to be so conflicted about it.
"It's just one night," Clint says, shaking his head and standing up. "That's what we agreed on. It's one night, we don't have to rethink our whole lives for just one night."
"True," Phil says slowly, drawing out the word, waiting for Clint to circle back around to the point, which is, of course, that's Phil would be perfectly content if it weren't just one night and apparently Clint wouldn't, which is the reason they're having this conversation.
Clint's walking the floor in front of the bed now, which would be enough on its own to tell Phil that he's worked up, because Clint Barton doesn't pace. He sits still, he thinks, he plans, and he watches, but he does not pace. Pacing is really more Phil's milieu, not that he lets anyone except Clint know that he's ever stressed enough to do something as human as pace.
Clint gestures to himself as he walks. "It's fine, it's one night, we just did it because we're nice people, or at least you are, and I have a lot of sympathy for the poor kid, because I've been there, but that's gotta be it. You don't, I mean, we can't have a family, look at our lives, and anyway, we've never talked about it like it's an actual possibility. Nobody just comes home with a kid, it's not like we found a puppy, she's a person."
"Never said otherwise," Phil says, resisting the urge to get up and pace right along with Clint. He settles for sitting as straight and still as possible, even holding his breath so he's not moving. It's a strange role reversal, really, and he isn't enjoying it.
"Right. Except you gave up your office and I told her about the circus, so... fuck." Clint sits right back down.
Phil lets go of the breath he's been holding. Perhaps it's time to give up on this particular dream. "Clint, if it really isn't something you want us to do, or if, in your professional opinion, this is something we aren't equipped to do, then..." He pushes his shoulders down away from his ears. "We won't do it."
"What? No, don't even think that, I care about her as much as you do, Phil, even if I've been trying not to, for your sake, hell, maybe mine, too, for both of us."
"I don't understand," Phil says.
"Yeah, well, I'm fucking this conversation up, so that's no shock to me," Clint sighs. "Look, there's a million ways this could go badly. And it's not that I don't want to do this at all, it's not that I don't want to do this with you, okay? I'll pack my shit and we'll find a house in the fucking suburbs, white picket fence and all, if that's what you want, but that doesn't mean I don't think about the ways this could get seriously fucked up, it doesn't mean I don't worry, because dammit, Phil, I don't want you to get hurt."
"You're worried about me," Phil says, blinking rapidly from the shock of it. He doesn't know why he didn't see it before. Maybe he needed another punch in the face.
"Damn right I'm worried. You and this kid, Phil, you were just...instantly close. I've never seen you do this before, this is new," Clint explains. "I love you; I worry. Pretty sure it's in my job description. I put it out of my head when we're on an op, I take off my ring just like you do and I try to be a superhero, but the rest of my day, I just want to know you're okay."
"I'm okay," Phil promises. He reaches for Clint's hand, and Clint reaches back. "You're sure you've never seen me do this before?"
"You know I don't see so well up close," Clint says, shuffling his feet a little.
"Well, just so we're perfectly clear: this is what I look like when I love someone," Phil says.
"Copy that," Clint says quietly, and Phil leans over and kisses him.
They sit for a few minutes, fingers laced together, thinking.
"I guess if we were gonna have a kid, it was probably gonna be something like this, wasn't it? I hope we're not terrible at this," Clint adds.
"Look at it this way: it can't be worse than keeping Stark in line," Phil points out, and Clint chuckles.
"God, yeah, I can't even imagine." Clint stares at their hands for a moment. "You were in with Fury; I wasn't. Are they-- are they gonna take her away from us, Phil? Turn her into some kind of experiment?"
"It's a possibility," Phil admits, because lying won't change that, and he hates admitting it aloud, but it has to be said. Clint's hand pulls away from his, clenching automatically into a fist, and underneath his tshirt Phil can see the taut lines of his muscles tensing.
"They don't have any fucking clue about any of it," Clint swears. "We can't-- Phil, we just can't let them do that. If we're a family, then we're a fucking family, and we're staying together and I don't give a fuck about anything Fury or anybody else wants. We can't let them do that; she's a person, not a lab rat, and she deserves a home, okay, a real one. Every kid does. Please."
It's the barely audible please that really just breaks Phil's heart, there at the end. There are plenty of things that Clint keeps to himself, mostly about his childhood, and out of respect for this person that he loves, Phil doesn't pry. It's not important that he know the details: if he did, he's not certain that he wouldn't make a weekend trip to Iowa or leave a few anonymous tips with Homeland Security, an agency which usually just makes him chuckle, it's so inept. Still, he's sure that there are people from Clint's past who deserve, at minimum, a visit from a cadre of their secret agent dilettantes, and at most, well. At most they deserve a visit from him, personally.
"It's a possibility, but it's never going to happen," Phil says, his voice strange in his own ears. He reaches over again to grip Clint's hand. "That's a promise."
"Is it now," Clint says, studying Phil's face, not that there was any need: close up or far away, Clint usually has him all figured out. If it were anyone but Clint, that closeness would make him uneasy, but as it is he just feels warm all over, not to mention pretty damn lucky, because there aren't many people in the world who can say they married a superhero. It's certainly never something he expected, but that's been his whole relationship with Clint from start to finish: always unexpected, but never more welcome.
He supposes the same thing could be said for the two of them and Ororo, and maybe, if he's feeling particularly generous, the whole team. They're a strange little family, but what family isn't, really?
"So what's the code word, Agent Coulson?" Clint asks, and Phil has to smile, because they're old campaigners and he won't have to explain these details. He doesn't have to tell Clint that he's got spare cash and fake identification for the three of them stashed in a hidden car registered under another name, he doesn't have to tell Clint that there's enough ammo in the trunk of that car to start World War III, and he doesn't have to tell Clint that there is nothing he won't do to keep them together and keep them safe, and if it comes to it, probably nothing the rest of the team won't do to help them.
Phil clears his throat. "Did you program the Tivo? There's a River Monsters marathon on Discovery."
"God, I love you," Clint laughs, and Phil smiles at him. "Although I would have bet money that you were going to ask me for donuts."
Phil shrugs. "That wouldn't work. I might actually need you to get me some donuts."
"That is very true," Clint acknowledges. "You know, we should probably also have some kind of disaster protocol or something. I mean, it isn't every kid who can bring the house down if she has a tantrum."
"House?" Phil asks, looking around the bedroom of their apartment.
"I meant our metaphorical house," Clint says, but his tone is teasing, and Phil takes a shot in the dark.
"This place is in a fairly good school district," Phil says innocently.
"Are you fucking kidding me? We can't send her there," Clint says. "They've got absolutely no arts program."
"I see," Phil says, smirking.
"What? Don't look at me like you caught me with my hand in the cookie jar, 'cause you didn't. I knew this was a thing the second you picked her up, I've just been sitting around here waiting to make sure it wasn't gonna crash and burn."
"I don't think we have to worry about that," Phil assures him. "And apparently you don't either, if you've been looking up school districts. What else have you been up to?"
Clint leans back on the bed, arms behind his head. "I know what I know, and I know how you like plans, baby, that's all. And anybody can use google."
"I see," Phil says.
"I told you, I knew it was a thing. And I thought you knew, too," Clint says, nudging Phil's hip with his knee until Phil slides back and lies down next to him. "I just didn't want it to fall apart. You're not the only protective person in this relationship."
"Fair enough," Phil says.
"Next time we accidentally adopt a kid, maybe we could have this conversation a little sooner," Clint says pointedly.
"Okay," Phil says easily, propping himself up on one elbow. "Clint Barton, will you raise this kid and any future kids we may happen to find with me?"
"Why, Phil Coulson, I thought you'd never ask," Clint grins. "It would be my genuine pleasure, boss."
"Good," Phil says, and he leans down for a quick kiss that lasts quite a bit longer and involves a good deal more groping than he had anticipated, not that he's complaining.
"Shit, we've got a kid now," Clint says, pulling away. "We'll have to be quiet."
"Could be hot," Phil suggests. "We do have precedent for that."
"We really need to revisit that library," Clint laughs. He wiggles his eyebrows at Phil. "What are you doing next weekend?"
"We have a kid now," Phil reminds him.
"Right, right," Clint says. "Whatever, I have plans anyway."
Phil frowns at him, curious. "Plans?"
Clint shifts over and grabs his iPad from the nightstand, sliding his thumb across the panel and handing it over.
"These are houses," Phil says, flipping through the pictures. "They're nice houses. And they're all for sale."
"Noticed that, did you," Clint drawls.
"You really have been busy," Phil murmurs.
"You took a long shower," Clint shrugs.
"So you decided to use that time to look at MLS listings. Before we had this conversation, you were looking at houses, several of which have white picket fences."
"That's about how it went. Like I said, I know what I know. Ain't no shame in my game, Phil," Clint says, grinning, and Phil groans.
"You can't teach Ororo to say things like that," Phil grumbles.
"I'd be way more worried about the shit Uncle Tony will teach her to say," Clint laughs. "And let's not even get started on Aunt Natasha."
"She can never babysit," Phil says immediately.
"God no," Clint agrees, chuckling, but then his expression turns serious. "Phil. Let's say we do want this, we want this kid to be part of our family. What if she doesn't want us? What then? She should get a say, this is her life."
"Then we'll get her what she does want," Phil says.
It takes them a week or so, but eventually they settle into a routine: they're both up and at 'em at the usual hour, they give themselves half an hour for morning coffee and conversation, then Phil wakes Ororo while Clint cooks breakfast for the three of them, which they eat together, as a family, before it's a quick scramble to suit up for the day and head out into the world to do what they have to do to keep the Earth safe for another twenty-four hours, which as it turns out, is not a job for which the Avengers have to log many daily hours.
As a kid, Phil always wondered what superheroes like Captain America did with their days off, how they filled the hours between the times they were fighting the bad guys and saving the world. As an adult, he realizes that his childhood daydreams about Steve Rogers rescuing kittens from trees and volunteering to help old ladies cross the road were actually pretty accurate, at least with regards to Steve: being a superhero is kind of a full-time gig. Still, Steve's daily round of good deeds aside, the day-to-day life of a superhero, Phil has learned, is a good deal more boring than he ever contemplated as a child. Clint's days are fairly free now that he's an Avenger, and now instead of spending hours at a stretch sitting somewhere out of sight, thinking and observing, he takes Ororo to the park, the library, even some museums.
Phil meets them sometimes on his lunch break, and occasionally she comes back to his office with him and watches cartoons on Clint's iPad while Phil works and Clint heads out to the range or to spar with Natasha or test some new ridiculous invention of Tony and Banner's.
For the times when they're both busy, Ororo spends her time away from them with a rotating schedule of babysitters that Phil and Clint trust to be responsible adults more often than not, meaning, of course, that Tony never takes a turn, though that doesn't preclude him from dropping in on whoever happens to be looking after her.
Wherever they've been, they all come home at the end of the day, one of them cooks dinner, they eat together, they talk about their days. She folds in easily to their post-dinner downtime, curled up between them on the couch with a picture book or a sketchpad and crayons while Phil reads his nightly round of sitreps and Clint props his feet up on the coffee table. Their arms overlap on the back of the couch behind her.
The day will come, of course, when they have to go off and be heroes, and Phil isn't looking forward to leaving her behind, though certainly she can't come along.
"Darcy could take care of her if we have to saddle up and go be good guys," Clint says one night after Ororo is asleep.
"Possibly," Phil says.
"She tasered a demigod," Clint reminds him. "That's pretty badass. Plus, Ororo loves her."
"Point," Phil says, and promises to give her a call.
They do a trial run, and Darcy comes over while they go out to dinner and try not to check their phones every thirty seconds.
"God, we're bad at this," Clint laughs, after the fourth time they catch each other sneaking a glance at their phones.
"We'll get better," Phil says resolutely, and they do.
Ororo is sound asleep when they get back in.
"We had fun," Darcy reports. "We watched a movie and we worked on a jigsaw puzzle. We may have had a spontaneous dance party in your living room. We're not sorry."
After a month, it's easy, and after two, it's like their lives have always been this way. It's all entirely unremarkable, except that it isn't, and more than once Phil catches Clint surveying some little family tableau with a kind of affectionate awe that he's sure is mirrored on his own face.
Eventually, the three of them have a discussion about trying to make all of this permanent, during which Phil and Clint try and fail not to tear up as Ororo clings happily to their legs, and the next day, for the second time in his career, Phil tries unsuccessfully to resign and Fury lights his resignation letter on fire.
"Coulson, you really have to stop doing this," Fury says, as the last of the letter goes up in smoke.
"This presents a substantial conflict of interest, sir," Phil says. "It seemed like the most appropriate course of action."
"You could have asked to be reassigned," Fury points out.
"I don't really want to be reassigned, sir, at least with regards to the Avengers Initiative. I know you've been considering promoting Ms. Lewis; I thought she might be a more appropriate handler for Ororo at this point."
"I'll take that into consideration," Fury says. "You also know I'm not ever going to accept one of these letters from you, right?"
"I had hoped you wouldn't, sir."
"If the two of you adopt this kid, are you gonna get in Lewis's way?"
"Absolutely," Phil says. There's really no point in lying.
"Dismissed," Fury says.
Later that afternoon, Clint comes into his office, laughing, and reports that Hill stopped Fury in the commissary to victoriously collect her fifty bucks.
The day the adoption papers go through, Clint decides they are throwing a party for their daughter, by god, and Phil is only too happy to comply.
Most of the team shows up, even Natasha, who has up until this point been somewhat skeptical of this entire venture.
She kisses Clint on the cheek and hands Phil a bottle of wine. "Congratulations," she says. "I attempted to find a suitable toy for her, but I had to abort that mission."
"You got kicked out of FAO Schwarz, didn't you," Clint says, and Natasha ignores him, but she doesn't deny it. Phil wonders what that story entails.
"So I bought you some wine," Natasha's saying, "and I'll make you a promise: if anyone ever tries to hurt her, I'll hurt them first."
Neither of them seem to know exactly what to say to that, but they're rescued by Hill, who came in just after Natasha. She reaches out and tugs Natasha's arm, pulling her away from the doorway and into the living room, where Pepper and Darcy are having what looks like an unintentionally hilarious conversation with Selvig and Fury. "Romanov. Have you ever even met a kid?"
"You know, it may not seem like much, but Nat doesn't do that for just anybody," Clint says, watching the two of them head for the table of drinks.
"What, hurt them?" Phil jokes. "I feel like that's not uncommon."
Clint nudges him with his elbow. "No. Make them family."
"Seems to be a lot of that going around recently," Phil murmurs, and Clint smiles, but any reply he might have made is interrupted by Thor, who strides into the room carrying an enormous gift-wrapped box.
"Uncle Thor!" Ororo shouts.
Thor beams at her. "Hello, little one! Jane and I have brought you a mighty gift!"
"Don't worry, it isn't dangerous," Jane whispers, and Phil nods his apprecation.
"What do you say?" Clint asks, before Ororo can get too far into unwrapping her present.
"Thank you, Uncle Thor," Ororo says dutifully, and then looks up at Clint. "Can I open my present now?"
"Sure," he says, and she gets to work on opening the box, which turns out to contain a set of flannel pajamas covered in lightning bolts and a miniature replica of Mjolnir.
"Now we match!" she says, and before Clint or Phil can object, Thor hoists her onto his shoulders, declares his need for sustenance, and wanders away to find food, Ororo giggling delightedly all the while.
"Be careful, please," Phil calls, in much the same tone that he uses when he's chasing after all of them in a futile attempt at debriefing.
"She'll be fine," Clint says.
Tony arrives fashionably late, not that anyone is surprised, with an apologetic Steve close behind, and Ororo has Thor put her safely on the ground so she can hug Uncle Tony.
"Hey there, Ororo," Tony says, offering her his palm for a low five. "We didn't get you anything because we didn't know what you wanted. How would you like an entire toy store?"
"Tony," Steve gasps. "You can't just buy other people's kids toy stores."
Tony looks genuinely confused. "Why not?"
"I can't take you anywhere," Steve laments.
"Baby, I think I've made it pretty clear that you can take me anywhere," Tony says, and Clint slaps his hand to his forehead.
"Stark, could you not, maybe, in front of our four year old daughter? I think it's pretty clear that we have no problem with dudes boning, but for fuck's sake, she's four."
Phil closes his eyes and puts his hands over Ororo's ears. "Barton," he sighs.
"Oh, shit," Clint says. "I just said 'boning' and 'fuck,' didn't I?"
"Also shit," Ororo adds helpfully, and everyone laughs.
It's a good party: Thor doesn't intentionally break anything in an attempt to procure another beverage, Tony doesn't say anything terribly untoward, and nobody gets drunk enough to think it's a good idea to leave Banner voicemail messages with Jolly Green Giant puns, an unfortunate incident for which there is, sadly, precedent, though not at any of Phil's parties.
While the others listen to Thor recount some glorious tale of battle, with occasional edits from Jane for four-year-old-appropriate-content-warnings, Tony pulls Phil aside.
"I was joking about not getting her anything," Tony says. He opens his suit jacket and pulls out an envelope. "I was not joking about the toy store, but Steve shot me down. Killjoy. Anyway. I think she'll probably appreciate this more in about fourteen years, so here."
Phil takes the envelope and slits it open. It is, as he suspected, the bank statement for a trust account, but there are quite a few more zeroes on this statement than he had anticipated. "Stark, you realize there's enough here to send at least twelve kids to college."
Tony shrugs. "I adjusted for inflation," he says easily. "Just, you know, do me a favor, Coulson, and let her be a kid. Talented people, they grow up too fast."
"When did you grow up, exactly?"
"You thought I wouldn't notice that you just called me talented," Tony says. "But I did."
Phil just shakes his head, and Tony grins and slaps him on the back.
"She's a lucky kid, seriously," he says.
Phil looks around the room at the rest of them, considering, briefly, whether or not a more unlikely group of people has ever come together in the history of the world. They're still a strange little family, a roomful of second chances if anyone's ever seen one. Most of them shouldn't even be alive, let alone sitting here drinking his beer and bringing his kid presents, but here they are, doing exactly that, each of them making the most of lives they never expected to stumble into.
"Maybe we all are, Stark," Phil says, and goes to join the others.
Phil is on the couch, reading, when Ororo comes in, a curious expression on her face and a stack of cards in her hand.
"Why do you have pictures of Uncle Steve?" she asks.
It's a credit to the intensive training programs that he's endured in his lifetime that he doesn't panic when Ororo's slightly sticky fingers offer him his stack of vintage Captain America trading cards. Clint is across the room at the bar, humming to himself while he cleans up the leftovers of their dinner, and even without looking Phil knows that Clint's trying not to laugh.
"They're trading cards," Phil explains, picking her up and gingerly taking the cards back. He fans them out so she can see all of them. "Near mint. Slight foxing around the edges."
Clint, he notices, is mouthing the words right along with him.
"Mint?" Ororo says, peering at the cards. She looks up at him and blinks, then says slowly, carefully, like he's the small child in this situation: "These are not mints, daddy."
At that, Clint does actually crack up. "You are absolutely right, sweetheart," he snickers. "They're not."
"They're not mints, they're in mint condition. Well. Near mint. It means they're almost perfect," Phil explains, and she wrinkles her nose, considering this.
"But why do you have them, though?"
"When I was your age, a long time ago, I used to read stories about Captain America--"
"Are they like Uncle Thor's stories?" she asks, utterly delighted, and Phil frowns. He is given to understand that from Ororo's singular point of view, Uncle Thor tells the best stories, which makes him a little grumpy, really, because he's got some good ones, too, though he's willing to admit that maybe they suffer a bit in his retellings. Clint says it's the fault of too many sitreps, and maybe he has a point: Clint's stories are good, but his sitreps are terrible.
"No," he sighs, and Clint's laughing again, but quietly, this time. "But yes. Because they were about heroes, like Thor's stories, and Captain America was mine."
"Is he still your hero?" she asks, and Phil meets Clint's eyes for a moment.
"Sure," he says, "but every so often, your dad does all right."
"Thanks," Clint chuckles, but there's a softness around the edges of the word. "You gonna adopt Cap as your hero too, huh, kiddo?"
"It'll probably be Uncle Thor," Phil says, and he almost keeps the irritation out of his voice. Almost. "Or Stark."
"No, silly," she says, yawning and resting her head against his shoulder. "You're my hero."
Phil just sits there with absolutely no reply to make, mildly stunned by the magnitude of that simple sentence. He's just a guy doing a job; he's nobody's Captain America. He tries to say so, but the words won't really come, so he stays where he is, silent, listening to Clint's quiet humming, until finally she falls asleep and he can very carefully pick her up and carry her to bed.
"She out?" Clint asks, when he comes back into the living room.
"Like a light," Phil says, dropping down onto the couch next to Clint.
Clint grins at him. "And you carried her to bed, you big hero."
"I admit that I didn't see that one coming."
"Really?" Clint looks over at him, surprised. "I had that one down a long time ago."
"You know what you know, right," Phil says quietly.
"Yeah, well, what can I say, Phil?" He leans over and kisses Phil on the cheek. "Me and Ororo, we've got a lot in common."