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No Stranger Like A Brother

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Checking his emails in bed is a bad habit, George reflects. It's liable to leave him irritable before he's fully awake. But he picks up his phone to shut off the alarm and, precisely because he's not fully awake, taps his way into his emails without thinking of the consequences.

"It's a bad habit, you know," mutters Sarah beside him.

"What?"

"Don't play dumb. I've been listening to the 'ptk, ptk, ptk' for fifteen minutes."

"Sorry." He leans over to kiss her, and she snorts in disgust.

"Delete it."

He covers his Blackberry instinctively. "What?"

"That angry email you've been writing."

"How do you know it's angry?"

"You type angry. 'Ptk, ptk, ptk.'"

"I don't type angry."

"Ptk, ptk, ptk," Sarah repeats, emphasising each 'ptk' with a prod at George's arm. "Delete it."

With a sigh, George hits 'cancel'. "Phil called off."

"Again?"

"Yeah. Sends his apologies."

"Let me guess - work, can't be avoided, terribly important, there's this bug going round, his boss is counting on him..."

"Something like that."

"I'm sorry," says Sarah, curling her arm through his.

"It's not me he's letting down." It's not like skipping out on Thanksgiving and Aunt Beryl's annual meltdown. It's Sophie's birthday Phil's missing - she's twelve, and quite old enough to take it personally.

"He'll make it up to her."

"He better." It's all the worse that it's Sophie, because she won't sulk like Mark, nor pitch a fit like Fiona, but she'll still be brokenhearted. "He better buy her a goddamn pony."

"We don't have room for a pony, George."

There's a shriek from downstairs, and he shares a long-suffering look with Sarah. "Your youngest is calling," she says.

"I can't smell smoke, I'm pretty sure we're okay for now."

She raises an eyebrow at him. He deadpans back, and her eyebrow twitches higher.

The impasse is interrupted by another yell. "Daddy, Daddy, come see!"

Sarah breaks into a smile. "See, she's specifically requesting you, dear."

Sophie's door is still closed, and he chickens out of waking her. Staggering down the stairs, he realises the TV is on, the sound mercifully low, but the explosions from one of the kids' inexplicable Japanese robot shows still distinct. "Fee, honey, what did we say about the TV, huh?"

Fiona rolls her eyes at him. "Daddy, it's the news. It's totally educational. Besides, just watch -"

George finally registers that what's on the screen, while involving inexplicable robots, also has 'Live footage from New York' scrolling across the screen. He suppresses a sigh. "Let's not, okay?" Six months of Avengers coverage has left him - not jaded, exactly, but he can't help feeling they've brought all the crazy robot-builders out of the woodwork themselves. "How 'bout you switch channels and I go see what's for breakfast." He turns away from the TV. "Maybe I'll make Surprise Waffles," he adds around a yawn.

"Daddy, look!" Fiona tugs at his arm with surprising force, spinning him round. Acquiescing, he looks. They've switched to another camera, this time on the ground, at what he suspects is an unwise distance from the action. The Avengers are clearly visible, despite the explosions, but the picture is dominated by a huddle of dark-suited and heavily armed federal agents in the foreground. In their centre, clearly giving commands with an air of unflappable calm despite the dust on his suit and a thin trail of blood running down his temple -

"Uncle Phil!" says Fiona, brightly.

"Sarah!" yells George.