"Phil called off."
Phil Coulson is not the world's most reliable relative. The rest of the family are about to find out why.
Fair warning: This opening chapter only features the OCs...
I'm not sorry.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
"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.
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."
"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.
I started writing this all of two days before I saw the movie, and it's pretty much taken me this long to recover. I don't know how I managed to convince myself Joss wasn't going to kill Coulson :(
I did consider rewriting this to fit the movie, but I'm a sap, and want the Coulsons to live in a world where the worst thing that happens* is that Fury is a ruthless, devious, manipulative bastard. (As opposed to a universe where Joss Whedon is a ruthless, devious...)
*Weeelllll, until I hit the plot, that is. (Joss Whedon is my master, after all ;)
Coulson men have never been very demonstrative. That doesn't stop George yelling at his brother's voicemail for an hour, until Sarah has to take his phone away from him.
"You're scaring the kids."
"I'm scaring the kids?" He looks pointedly at the pile of unopened presents, abandoned when Sophie took one look at the television and fled back to her room. The TV is off now, mercifully, Sarah keeping tabs on what's happening in New York on her own phone. Not that this would keep the kids from finding out themselves, if something - happened.
Sarah's right, of course. Mark and Fiona are watching him from the doorway, Fiona quiet and wide-eyed, Mark with his arms around his sister and a careful expression on his face. It makes him look like Phil when they were kids.
"I'm sorry," says George. He sits down heavily, the anger knocked out of him. "It's okay," he says, hold out an arm towards them. Fiona leaps to hug him - Mark stays where he is, folding his arms and affecting a more familiar, judgemental expression.
"Don't be mad at Uncle Phil," says Fiona, her voice muffled against his shoulder.
"I'm not, honey," he says, ruffling her hair. "I'm just worried, that's all."
His phone rings, and George is on his feet before Sarah can read the screen. "It's your sister," she says. "Shall I...?"
"Laura, hi, it's Sarah -" She winces, pulling the phone away from her ear. "Yes, we just saw -" The sound coming from the phone increases in volume and pitch. "No, we haven't heard -"
Laura loves her family. No, really, she does. Even when she's trying to stop Nicky and Stevie from killing each other in the back of the car. Even if the reason they're fighting is because it takes 6 hours to drive to her brother's in New Jersey and they're not even halfway there, and she's damned if she'll pay for another breakfast when they'll be stuffing their faces on her sister-in-law's homebaking for the six hours after that. She loves her boys. She loves her nieces and nephew. She loves her brothers, and she even loves her sister-in-law, despite the impeccable homebaking.
She just has to keep telling herself that.
"Mom! He hit me!"
She loves her family.
"Nicky started it!"
She just really hates her life.
Something thwacks the back of her headrest, and she slams on the brakes. "That is it -" The SUV that's been tailgating her for the past four miles swerves around her with an indignant wail of horns. She glares at it for a moment, then back at the boys, abruptly quiet in the back seat, then at the off-ramp, temptingly close. "Fuck it," she mutters, ignoring the shocked chorus of "Mo-om" this provokes from the twins, and heads off the freeway.
They stop in the parking lot of possibly the last un-franchised diner in the state. It holds three truckers, one waitress and and a television turned up too loud on Fox News. Laura's life choices keep getting better and better.
"...frankly, Sally, this latest performance by the Avengers only serves to emphasis just how little we know about their organisation..."
Well, she thinks, at least there are at least 6 million New Yorkers having a worse day than her. Except they'll all be leaving the city, so the traffic is only going to get worse.
"No sugar, no cola, no caffeine," she says to the boys, who roll their eyes expertly.
"...These so-called 'superheroes' are bad enough, but it's the people they work for we should be worrying about..."
"What can I get you, hon?" The waitress doesn't look at them, entranced by the news.
"Coffee for me, water for these two -"
"...the 'internet' has taken to calling them 'Men in Black', but let me tell you, this is no joke..."
"No sugar, no cola, no caffeine," she repeats. "I'll, uh, I'll have eggs - over easy, please - and toast. Boys -"
The twins are oblivious, staring at the television.
"Boys, are you going to order? You're the ones who wanted to stop -"
"Mom," says Nicky, breathless.
"Isn't that Uncle Phil?" asks Stevie, eyes round.
"What?" She turns, sees the video still inset next to the frothing news commentator. In glorious HD. Her brother, Philip Coulson, minor government functionary, holding - aiming - a gun at something offscreen, looking no more perturbed than the last time she got him to break up the twins' fighting.
"...will someone tell me exactly who these alleged federal agents are accountable to? Because let me tell you, it is not the American people -"
"Y'know, on second thoughts, maybe I'll just take that coffee to go."
Sometimes she really hates her family.
...still not sorry.
Actually, I fully intended to bring Phil into this section, but then realised I needed to introduce Laura earlier, so... next time there'll be Phil ;)
And yes, I did just call Phil's slightly monstrous nephews Nicholas and Steven. To be fair, it's not as if he named them, and he does have a very good poker face. I'm not sure whether Captain America was ever named in all the memorabilia Phil's been collecting since he was a kid - if so, then little Stevie is the result of some subliminal conditioning on Phil's part. Nicky is pure coincidence, one that Phil's not sure whether to laugh or cry about.
Also, it may be obvious by now, but I'm not American, and don't really know where you'd have to start from to drive six hours to get to the part of New Jersey that's close enough to New York that the traffic gets screwed up by everyone fleeing New York every time there's an alien/robot/general evildoer attack. Let me know if there are any other obvious Briticisms :)
"I think that went quite well," says Stark, kicking one suited boot against the remains of something that Clint's going to call a giant robot crab in his report, official terminology be damned.
"Yes," says Natasha. "We only destroyed two city blocks. Legal will be so pleased."
"Ecstatic," says Coulson behind them, and Clint turns with a frown.
"How'd you end up here, anyway? Thought you had a family thing today?"
Coulson shoots him a bland look that Clint classifies as somewhere between 'disgruntled' and 'implacable rage'. "Hill called me in. There's a bug going round."
"Is it sentient?"
Coulson's expression shifts to 'You're not funny, but I won't kill you, because I like you'. Clint grins back at him. "We'll debrief back at the Tower. We've got transport for you-"
"C'mon, it's not even five minutes walk."
"Nice day for it," chips in Stark. "Now that the giant robot crabs have stopped tearing up Third Avenue, I mean."
Coulson doesn't bother saying 'no', just gestures towards the SHIELD response truck. Cap's already helping Banner climb in, both of them pointedly ignoring the Hulk-shaped hole in the building next to it.
"Indeed," says Thor, "It is a fine day - I believe I shall make my own way to the Tower."
"Yeah," agrees Stark, flipping the faceplate of his suit back down. "Why motor when you can fly?" He tips them a jaunty salute and takes off after Thor. Clint is idly tracing Stark's trajectory when he sees Coulson freeze in the corner of his eye.
He turns just as Coulson frowns minutely at the screen of his phone.
"What's up?" asks Clint, and Coulson shakes his head, bringing the phone to his ear. The tinny sound of an angry voicemail is obvious to them all, as is the absence of a wince from Coulson as he pulls the phone away from his ear.
Coulson steps away from the truck, phone still yelling at him, just as Natasha pulls Clint inside.
"It wasn't me," he says preemptively.
"It's always you," she says.
"Hey, be fair. These days it's usually Stark."
"True." She nods at Coulson. "Personal phone."
"Yeah. He had a thing."
"That doesn't look like a thing."
"No." As they watch, Coulson switches to his SHIELD phone. His back to them, his body language is easier to read. "Fury," guesses Clint.
"Something for us?" asks Cap, already reaching for his shield, and Banner mutters "Please say no."
"No," says Clint, Natasha echoing him, as Coulson snaps his phone shut and turns back to them, expression smoothly transitioning to the affable indifference he usually offers civilians. Clint can feel his own tension levels ratchet up at the sight.
"Agent Richardson will debrief you at the Tower," says Coulson.
"Who?" asks Clint, as the SHIELD agent at the front of the truck says 'I will?"
"What's wrong?" asks Natasha, and Coulson flicks her a tight, unconvincing smile.
"It's nothing. Just a PR snafu I need to handle."
"Phil -" starts Clint, but Coulson's already closing the door.
(Sorry this is so short - I realised I needed to start bringing in Clint's pov earlier than I'd planned. Hopefully there won't be such a big gap before the next update!)
Sarah has always known there's more to Phil than an over-commitment to work and an unerring ability to frustrate his brother, but this is not what she had in mind.
Sarah would be lying if she said she'd always thought there was more to Phil Coulson than meets the eye. The thing is, she did - she has always known there's more to Phil than an over-commitment to work and an unerring ability to frustrate his brother - but this - this is not what she had in mind.
I'm on my way. ETA 20min, reads his text.
She's known Phil for longer than she's known George - he was her friend before he was her brother-in-law, which is one of the reasons she doesn't automatically take George's side when Phil misses yet another family gathering.
20min = 20min or 20min = some time next week? she fires back.
She understands - in a way George never has - that at some point Phil had to make a choice, and he chose his work.
She respects - in a way George never will - Phil's choice, but she's always known it was the wrong decision. She's had fourteen years watching Phil with their kids and Laura's boys to confirm that it was the wrong decision.
She only had to watch two minutes of shaky news footage to realise that she's wrong.
Sorry, he texts.
She doesn't know Phil at all.
"He's on his way," she mutters to George. "Half an hour." He nods, his anger dissipated but still present. She kisses the top of his head, and he huffs at her.
"Twenty minutes," she says to Laura, who gives her a tight, frustrated smile.
Quarter of an hour later, the doorbell rings.
Fiona and the twins race for the door, but they're beaten to it by Sophie, whirling down the stairs to fling the door open and hurl herself at her uncle.
"Hey, kiddo," he says softly. "Sorry I messed up your birthday."
Sophie mumbles something indistinctly, face pressed into Phil's side. "I know, Sophie. I'm sorry," Phil replies.
The younger kids clamour for his attention, and he smiles down at them, before looking up to catch Sarah's eye.
"Okay, inside, all of you. Let your uncle sit down before you start pestering him." She herds the kids - sighing at the injustice - and George and Laura - also sighing at the injustice - back into the living room. Phil gives Sarah a grateful look, closing the front door gently behind himself. "Hey, Sophie, I have something for you." He holds out a small box. "Happy Birthday."
Sophie lights up, and hugs her uncle again. When she opens the box, she looks confused. "What -"
Sarah misses Phil's whispered explanation, Fee's frustration at the delay manifesting in a shrill "Uncle Phil!" When Sarah's done shushing Fiona, Sophie is staring at her present with obvious awe.
Phil leans down and presses a kiss to the top of her head. "C'mon, kiddo. Come help me face the inquisition."
Fee and the twins question him blithely, and he answers even their wilder enquiries with complete seriousness. "No," he says without a trace of a smile. "I don't have any superpowers. I just make sure the people who do can do their job."
Sophie hardly says a word, just sits squeezed in beside Phil on the couch, turning the little trinket he'd given her over and over in her hands. Her only question is the first to make him smile. "The Captain's a great guy. He's a true hero. They all are," he adds, his gaze flicking up from the kids momentarily.
"Even Tony Stark?" asks Mark. Sarah chokes back a laugh. Trust her eldest to say what all the adults are thinking.
Phil's smile goes rueful. "Yes. But you didn't hear it from me."
And so it goes, until Phil's apologetic "I can't tell you, it's still classified" - classified, classified - starts to outnumber his answers. Fiona is starting to droop, although she's obviously willing herself to stay awake, still calling questions to her uncle as Sarah drags the kids upstairs.
"You should have more girl Avengers," she calls through a yawn.
"We're working on it," says Phil, and Fiona nods, satisfied.
Sarah can't tell if he's lying. She doesn't know him at all.
"Well, that explains all those missed Thanksgivings," says George, because he doesn't want to start yelling just yet.
Phil's always been so damn careful with the kids. He doesn't coddle them, he's just - careful. George never really noticed this until Phil carefully makes the kids swear that they won't repeat anything he tells them.
They agree eagerly, and Phil answers their questions with complete sincerity. Watching his brother tell the kids about superheroes, and how it feels to help save the world, George can almost believe that Phil's just a guy who's managed to achieve his childhood dream of meeting Captain America.
He can't tell if anything Phil says is true, but he doesn't give a damn about any of the things he's telling the kids. He guesses that's Phil's aim, as he - carefully - doesn't tell them anything that they'd get into trouble for repeating. Phil talks about the Captain, and Tony Stark, and the rest of them, and doesn't say a single thing about what he's been doing for - how long?
He has no idea how long his brother has been lying to him.
He is glad of Phil's care, though, when it lets them send the kids to bed smiling, chattering about the Avengers and how awesome it is that their uncle gets to work with them every day. The whole thing makes his blood run cold, and he doesn't want the kids to know that.
It's nothing to the realisation that Phil's planning to treat them with the same care. Waiting for Sarah and Laura to finish wrangling the kids into bed, Phil wears what several of George's disgruntled colleagues and ex-girlfriends have called the impenetrable Coulson facade. George knows better - the expression on Phil's face is far more inscrutable than anything George has mustered in courtrooms or awkward dates.
"Well, that explains all those missed Thanksgivings," says George, because he doesn't want to start yelling just yet.
"No, that's just because I wanted to avoid Aunt Beryl," says Phil with a smile, but it's fleeting, and he slips back into that same calm, mild expression.
Laura is more direct. "How long?"
"You realise there's still a lot I can't -"
"How long have you been lying to us, Phil?"
Phil doesn't hesitate, exactly, but he takes the time to look at each of them in turn, before telling the room, "I was recruited from the Corps."
Eighteen years. Before George and Sarah married. "You've been working for - 'SHIELD' for eighteen years?"
"Eighteen next March." There's a whisper of pride in Phil's voice, although his expression doesn't change.
"We thought you did logistics, Phil. Logistics," says Laura. "I thought it was even duller than accountancy."
"The L is for logistics."
"Logistics for superheroes," says Sarah, disbelief still clear in her voice.
"That's a relatively recent development."
"How recent?" asks Laura.
Phil drops his gaze. "Not that recent." When he looks up again, his expression is contrite. "I'm sorry. I never meant for you to find out this way."
"Or at all, right?" says Laura, her voice fizzing with anger.
"The Avengers were never going to be low profile. I was going to - I got clearance to tell you, I just - it's complicated." For the first time, Phil's composure slips, and he gives a frustrated shrug. "The last few months have been pretty hectic -"
"Oh my god, Phil," snaps Laura, throwing up her hands. Then the anger slips off her face. "Oh my god," she says again, softer, and George realises what she's thinking at the same time as Phil.
"Last May, when -" he starts to say, and the words catch in his throat.
Phil already has his hands up placatingly. "It's not -"
"You were there, weren't you? That's how you got hurt, it wasn't just bad luck that you were in New York - you were in the middle of it. Jesus, Phil -"
"I -" Phil tries a smile, but George can see straight through it, even as his brother says, with forced cheer, "SHIELD has a hell of a medical team, George. Laura -" Phil reaches out to their sister, but Laura backs away, and Phil breaks off the movement, smoothing down his tie. The smile's gone. "I was better off there than if I'd been a civilian."
"If you'd died -" starts George, and Phil tries to cut him off.
"If you'd died, would we ever have known? What you did, I mean?"
"Would we even have known you were dead?" George regrets saying it the moment it's out of his mouth, because Phil goes very still, and in anyone else, that would be a flinch. When he moves again, smoothing down that already smooth tie, it's jerkily, unsettled.
"Yes," he says, but George can't help but push the issue.
"Oh, George, don't," says Sarah, catching his arm. It's only then that he realises that his hands have clenched into fists.
"Yes." Phil finally meets his eye again, and says, "First thing you learn in SHIELD: the benefits are great -"
"What the hell, Phil? You think I give a damn about your insurance?" Now he's yelling. "I don't want to have to tell my kids their uncle is dead."
Phil twitches as if he wants to turn away. Instead, he says, "I can't tell you that what I do isn't dangerous." He smiles, aiming for disarming and missing by a mile. "Would it help if I told you I'm very good at what I do?"
"We don't even know what that is. And don't say 'I help the superheroes do their job', Phil, because if there's anything I know about this SHIELD, it that they're not the damn Boy Scouts. Christ, Phil, people are saying they don't answer to any level of government."
"C'mon, George, don't be paranoid. There are always checks and balances -"
"And I notice you can't actually deny it. Can you tell me anything about what SHIELD does? About what you really do?"
He can see the twitch in Phil's jaw that means he's trying not to lose his temper. He's almost relieved to see it. "I'm sorry I've had to lie to you about my work," says Phil. "I'm sorry that there will always be things I can't tell you about my work," he continues, and George realises that, for the first time today, he can tell whether Phil is telling the truth or not.
"No, you're not," he says.
Wanting Phil to lose his temper is not, George realises, the smartest thing he's done today. But then, Phil doesn't lose his temper. He takes a breath and straightens up, the hand that's been resting on his tie dropping to his side. His expression is bland and unassuming once more, but when he meets George's gaze, his eyes are steely. "No. I'm not."
"Phil," says Sarah. Her voice shakes, and she stops when Phil turns his newly cold gaze on her. He doesn't look at Laura at all.
"You're right. I have never wanted you to find out what I do. There are things that you don't want to know that I have done, and may still have to do. I am sorry that you found out like this," he adds. "But I will not apologise for the work I've done to keep this - this country safe."
"That's not what -" George starts to say. That's not what he meant, not really. He doesn't want an apology, he just wants to know - something. More than the careful stories Phil told the kids. He wants to know if Phil is still his brother.
"I'm going to leave now," says Phil. "New York was attacked today. Nobody was killed, but it made an awful mess." There's a hint of quiet sarcasm in his voice that should be familiar, but isn't. "Part of my job is to ensure it gets cleaned up."
Well, that went horribly, horribly wrong for everyone involved...
Also, ugh, sorry, so much standing in a room not moving around. Next time there's plot, and consequently action.
If Phil is in the Avengers Tower, there's no reason for his Stark-built tracking device to say he's in New Jersey.
Clint prides himself in his ability to read Coulson's affable inscrutability (and in the finely-grained levels of annoyance he can provoke).
Phil, his brow furrowed and eyes downcast, is unreadable.
Clint bumps his shoulder with the coffee he's brought, carefully selected for Phil from the desk of an unsuspecting SI intern, three floors below. Phil's expression eases momentarily, and he takes the cup with a nod of thanks. Then he sniffs the coffee, and freezes, before popping the lid from the cup with a bland expression Clint's fairly sure hides horrified suspicion.
"This isn't coffee, Barton," says Phil, levelling a betrayed glare (mild disappointment on anyone else) at Clint.
Clint grins back at him.
The glare turns inquisitorial. "What is this, Barton?" Phil sighs. "And who did you steal it from?"
Clint shrugs hugely. "Dunno. She looked like a soy caramel latte kind of gal, though."
Phil turns his glare on the blameless coffee. Clint's about to risk another sally when his phone starts bleating at him. With a curse, he fumbles it out and stabs at 'Answer' before it can reach "Feared by the bad!" - or the man who programmed it can override Clint's choice, just as he's clearly sabotaged the silent mode. He honestly wouldn't put it past Stark to just start talking to him, regardless of whether Clint actually answered his phone.
"You got eyes on Coulson?"
He looks across at Phil, poking at the froth in his coffee with a begrudging expression. "Yeah...?"
"I'm assuming he's okay, then."
"Yeah, but I'm sure he'll be touched to hear you're asking after him." Across the table, Phil raises a questioning eyebrow.
Stark sniffs. "His tracker went off. Tell him to drop it off with me before he leaves. And tell him to stop letting the SHIELD lab rats screw with my tech." He hangs up before Clint can reply.
"What'd Stark want?" asks Phil.
"Your panic button's malfunctioning. He thinks R&D's been messing with it. You - Phil?"
For a moment, Clint could swear there's a look of fear in Phil's eyes. "Call Stark back," he says sharply, standing, his own phone already to his ear. "Tell him to start tracking it."
Clint obeys, Stark's phone ringing out as Phil says, his voice thrumming with tension, "George, it's Phil. Call me when you get this." He hangs up, dials again.
Stark's phone keeps ringing out - Clint doesn't bother leaving a message. He calls Banner instead, one ear on the messages Phil's leaving. "Sarah, it's Phil-"
"Clint?" says Banner, just as Clint hears Phil say "Laura, it's Phil-"
"Put Stark on."
Banner chuckles softly. "What did you break? He's been muttering dark things about New Jersey..." In the background, he can hear Tony yell, "It shouldn't even be possible to break my tech that badly."
And then he hears Phil say, his voice gentle, "Mark, it's your Uncle Phil. I need you to listen carefully. When you get this message-" Fuck, thinks Clint, realisation dawning.
"Put Stark on now," snaps Clint.
"You're on speaker," says Banner, abruptly serious.
"You need to start tracking Phil's panic button."
Stark sighs melodramatically. "I am tracking it, because I cannot for the life of me work out how they managed to break it so badly it's showing up in New Jersey."
"It's not broken."
"But you said -"
"Phil's here." He flicks a glance at Phil, staring blankly at his own phone. Quieter, Clint says, "He has family in New Jersey."
Clint hears Bruce say "Oh, no," softly. There's silence, then a terse "Right. Tracking," from Stark.
Phil's phone rings, just barely rings before Phil answers it. "Laura." A little of the tension leaves his voice. "Laura, are the boys with you?"
"Alright," says Stark. "I'm sending through the remote tracking code."
"Send it to both of us," says Clint. Phil says "You remember what we talked about, before the trial?"
"Mm," says Stark. "I'm sending it to everyone."
"Laura, stop, no, it's not - I -" Phil takes a breath. "I'm sorry. It's not him. But I need you to get somewhere safe, okay?"
"That should be it," says Stark, just as Clint's phone chimes. He flips his phone to look at the screen, the new app already on, map zooming in on the little pulsing spot that marks the location of Phil's tracker. It pulses, and moves north.
He holds it up for Phil to see - Phil nods his acknowledgement, his attention on the call. He writes something on a scrap of paper. "I've got it. I'm going to send someone to you, Laura. Don't trust anyone unless you're sure they're from me."
Natasha slips into the office beside Clint. She doesn't say anything, just holds up her own phone, the same map displayed. Her eyes don't leave Phil as Clint mutters, "Someone's targetting his family. No details yet."
Phil ends the call, and for a moment, looks utterly lost. He doesn't startle when they step towards him, but it's close. "Tasha, can you -" Phil stops, and visibly pulls himself together. He holds out the scrap of paper. "I need you to go to this address."
Clint brings his phone to his ear once more. "You still there, Stark?" he asks as Phil says "Tell her I sent you, and that - she still owes me for the damn comic." Natasha nods.
"Yeah. Put us on speaker. I'm gonna patch Cap and Thor into the call."
"Add Natasha," says Clint. "She's heading out." Her earpiece is already in. She hands the slip of paper back to Phil, address already memorised, and squeezes his hand once before turning for the door. Her shoulder brushes Clint's as she passes.
"Done," confirms Stark. "Where you headed, Widow?"
"Pittsburg," says Phil. "My sister is in Pittsburg."
The room goes silent.
"Tell us what you need, Agent Coulson," says Steve, command voice already in place.
Phil shakes his head. "This isn't Avengers business-" He's interrupted by a babble of protest from the phone, Stark and Banner talk over each other, a rumble of discontent from Thor. Clint bites his own tongue, knowing it won't help. Phil already knows he can count on him.
"Cut it out, guys," says Steve, and even Stark shuts up. "Phil," he continues, "of course this is Avengers business. We can be on that tracker in 15 - just give us the word."
"I - we need more intel..." Phil trails off.
"I'm rerouting one of my satellites to get a visual," says Stark. "JARVIS is cross-referencing possible destinations against SHIELD's latest local intel reports-"
"It's stopped moving," says Clint.
"What? Wait - JARVIS, can you -"
"I believe Agent Barton is correct." The AI's cool tones come from a nearby speaker, echoing slightly across the call. "The tracker has not moved for 1 minute 23 seconds, which is longer than can be accounted for by local traffic conditions."
"What's in that area, JARVIS?" asks Steve.
"It is a largely industrial area, Captain. The tracker has stopped outside a warehouse that all records indicate to be abandoned."
"Really," says Stark. "I think we need to update those records."
"Yes, sir," agrees JARVIS.
"Alright," starts Steve, and then Phil's phone rings.
There's a dreadful note of hope in Phil's voice when he answers. "George?" Then his expression blanks out, and he says, "This is Agent Phil Coulson."
He listens for a moment, then switches his phone to speaker. "-after all, it would be a foolish man who believed that any organisation working with Mr Stark could not eavesdrop on a private telephone call." The voice is unremarkable, accentless. "And I want you to be very clear on this point, Agent Coulson - I am not a foolish man."
There's a snort of derision from Stark, quickly stifled.
"What do you want?" asks Phil.
"I wish to speak to you. I don't intend to elaborate on this point - we have your brother and his family, and you have no doubt realised their safety is entirely dependent on your cooperation. And that of the Avengers."
The voice may be accentless, but its tone is pure arrogance. It's the first thing that's given Clint any hope for Phil's family.
"The tower is under surveillance, as is SHIELD headquarters. If anyone other than yourself attempts to leave, your family will suffer. Comply, and they will be released unharmed. A simple choice, Agent Coulson. You have one hour."
"Where -" starts Phil, but the voice cuts him off.
"Not a foolish man, remember, Agent? You know where we are." The call cuts off, and a second later, so does the pulse of the tracker.
Into the silence, Steve says, "You catch that, Natasha?"
"Yes," she replies. "I'll be discreet."
"They won't notice Natasha, but the rest of you -" Phil shakes his head. "I can't risk it."
"Please," says Stark "You think we can't hoodwink someone who thinks he's 'not a foolish man' but tries to pull a stunt like this?"
"It's not a stunt, Stark," snaps Phil.
"We can't let you go out there alone," says Steve.
"With all due respect, Captain," says Phil, his tone colder than Clint's ever heard him use on any of them, still less on Steve, "it's my family, and it's my call."
"It behooves us not -" starts Thor.
"I'm telling you to stand down, Avengers, and let me deal with this. I'm not going to argue. Don't have time."
He knows Phil's right, but that doesn't stop Clint scrambling for any kind of alternative than letting Phil, so obviously shaken, go up alone against an unknown enemy. He knows they're all thinking the same thing.
"Take the Mercedes," says Stark. "I just updated the shielding. Stick Barton in the trunk, they won't know he's there."
Clint catches Phil's eye, willing him to agree. After a moment, Phil nods. "Okay. I'll take Barton. The rest of you stay here until I give you the go-ahead, is that clear?"
There's a mutter of consent from the others, and Clint ends the call.
Phil's expression is a blank mask - Clint knows it hides the furious calculation that Phil applies to any mission gone wrong, but he daren't ask what else Phil's thinking. He doesn't know how to give the kind of comfort Natasha could, can't even bring himself to ask if Phil's okay. Instead, he says, "I'll grab my gear, meet you at the car." Phil nods, and Clint flees.
He takes the stairs to his floor two at a time, dialling as he goes. This time, Stark answers immediately. "Is it just me," he says, "or did Foolish-Man sound like the sort of guy who builds giant robot crabs in his spare time?"
"You picked up on that too, huh?"
"Have fun with that."
"You can get past their surveillance, right?"
"I could. Cap and Thor, not so much. I'm working on it. JARVIS is working counter surveillance - we'll find a blind spot. Be with you in no time."
"Got your tracker? I know you superspies don't like -"
"I've got it, Stark. You'll know if we need you to be unsubtle."
Stark gives an unamused laugh. "That we can do."
"Oh, and Stark? Turn my goddamn phone back to silent."
I realise I have a lot of people talking over each other in this scene - let me know if anything doesn't make sense.
Stark phones can do pretty much anything, right? Right.
Stark has a long list of terrible archery-related jokes, and he's working through them methodically.
He hasn't seen his mom and Fee and Soph since they were dragged into the building, maybe an hour ago.
His dad still isn't moving.
Ugh, I am so sorry this has taken so long. I swear I'm not trying to take exponentially longer gaps between posting.
Added a few tags (you may want to check 'em? Nothing really terrible happens, but...)
Also, I'm posting this in a mid-election night daze, so if it's actually completely incoherent, please let me know.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
They've been tied up about five feet apart, in chairs facing each other, in the middle of a what must be a warehouse. Their kidnappers are ignoring them for now, but Mark's given up trying to loosen the rope around his wrists. He hasn't seen his mom and Fee and Soph since they were dragged into the building, maybe an hour ago.
His dad still isn't moving.
"Dad, you gotta wake up. Please."
He doesn't give a, a fuck that his voice breaks on the last word, because he sees Dad's eyelids flutter.
He can see his dad waking up, confusion slipping into anger as he realises where they are - remembers what's happened. Anger and fear.
Mark thinks maybe he should be more scared by that than anything else, but their kidnappers have guns and leather coats that look a lot like uniforms, and Mark has had an hour to wonder what's underneath the heavy canvases at the other end of the warehouse. His dad's a property lawyer. Mark's not that surprised that he's scared.
Before he can really think about what he's doing, he smiles at his dad. He doesn't think to hard about the expressions that cross Dad's face, because it settles into a smile, too, just barely.
"Ah, you're awake," calls a voice from across the room, and Mark knows his own expression falls at the sound. "How timely."
The kidnappers - the ones who'd pushed into their home, knocked Dad unconscious and dragged them into a waiting van - were scary. Terrifying, really. Or so he'd thought, until they dragged him in front of their leader.
He walks over to them slowly, half his attention on the Starkpad in his hand. "Your brother has just arrived," he continues, and sweeps the tablet up so they can both see it. In the washed out camera feed, his uncle is standing, arms outstretched, as one of the kidnappers pats him down. Two others have guns trained on him. "Uncle Phil," their captor says to Mark, brightly.
For some reason, that makes his dad twist in his chair, straining at the ropes. Mark wants to say "No, don't," but he can't speak.
The man doesn't look as dangerous as the others - he's not tall, not obviously strong. But he smiles at them, and his voice is almost friendly when he says, "If you try to escape, I will destroy you."
It should be absurd, but Mark believes him. He can see that his dad does, too, because he goes very still. The man claps his hand on Dad's shoulder as if to reassure him, and says same things he'd said to Mark when they arrived.
"Just so we understand each other - I have no interest in you or your family. You are here merely as leverage. As long as your brother complies with my requests, you will be unharmed. But let me be clear - if you make trouble, your son will be the first to suffer. After him, your daughters in turn. Then your wife."
The man leans close. "I do not relish the idea of harming your children, but neither do I make empty threats. I'm sure you will not endanger them. I hope for your sake that your brother holds their safety above his loyalty to SHIELD." He gives a little mocking sigh. "Although, by reputation, he is very loyal."
One of the other kidnappers approaches. "He's clean."
The leader just raises an eyebrow at him, and the kidnapper flinches. "We're sure, this time. No tracking devices. No phone. They won't find us when we move."
"Bring him in."
When they bring Uncle Phil in, every gun in the room is turned on him. Uncle Phil doesn't flinch. He barely glances towards where Mark and his dad are tied up. Mark looks at his dad, and finds that he's not watching Uncle Phil at all. His face isn't as blank as Uncle Phil's, but it's getting there.
Dad likes to think he has the straightest poker face ever. It's not true, mostly. Not when you know him. Uncle Phil's the same. The way Dad lost his cool about Uncle Phil's job is just the latest example.
Mark's only seen his dad truly angry maybe a handful of times. That's when the poker face comes out, as if Dad doesn't want to waste energy on showing how he feels, just draws it all in so he can concentrate on whatever - whoever - has earnt his rage. The first time he saw it, Mark was too young to understand. Now he's seen it often enough to be glad he's never been on the receiving end. He's never seen Uncle Phil angry.
He's pretty sure he's seeing it now.
"Agent Coulson! It really is a pleasure. I am so looking forward to talking with you."
One of the other kidnappers approaches Uncle Phil warily, holding more of the plastic ties that're holding Mark and his dad, but the leader waves him away.
"I think we can dispense with restraints, don't you? I believe we have enough here to ensure your cooperation."
Uncle Phil nods. "I'll need proof that the girls and their mother are unharmed," he says. His voice is mild.
When Dad gets angry, he takes you apart with - well, with the letter of the law. Uncle Phil works for SHIELD.
"Of course, of course. Here," says their captor, holding up the tablet once more. Mark can just about make out his mom and his sisters. They're huddled close together, and he can't see their faces but he can tell that they're scared.
"Thank you," says Uncle Phil, reaching for the tablet, and their captor hands it over. Uncle Phil watches the camera feed for a few moments, before letting his hands drop to his sides. "I suppose it would be useless to ask you to release them now that I'm here."
Mark isn't stupid - he knows that all this is happening is because his uncle works for SHIELD. It's only now that he realises quite what that means.
"Quite useless," says their captor, with that creepy little smile, and Uncle Phil just nods, his mouth set in a thin line.
Their captor may be terrifying, but Uncle Phil is dangerous.
"Mark," says Uncle Phil, not looking his way. "Close your eyes."
"Don't look up," says a voice above them, quiet and even. Sarah manages to stop herself from looking up, but can't help pulling the girls closer to herself. They stare conscientiously at their feet. "I'm here to get you out," continues the voice, "but first I need to rig the cameras so they don't notice."
She resists the urge to nod. She resists the surge of relief.
"I'm gonna need you to sit there for just a minute more, okay? And don't make any sudden movements."
Sarah sits, and counts every breath her daughters make.
"Okay, that's us," says the voice finally. They look up in time to see their rescuer twisting out from a vent in the ceiling. He lands neatly in front of them, and gives them a brief, almost reassuring smile before unslinging a bag from his back and kneeling to unpack it. "Agent Clint Barton, ma'am. Your brother-in-law sent me to get you to safety."
Sarah has a hundred questions, and none. The girls are quicker to speak, anyway. "You're Hawkeye," says Sophie, disbelieving, and Fee adds, "Where's your bow?" before Sarah can hush them.
He huffs as if biting back a laugh, and the grin he gives the girls this time is far more convincing. "It's not much use in air ducts," he says, sitting back on his heels. Sarah realises then that most of his bag is taken up with a quiver. "But I brought it anyway," he says with a smirk, and holds up what looks like a bundle of broken strips of metal. Then, with a twitch of his arm, it opens out into a bow. The girls gasp.
"We're not going out through the -" Sarah stops, and gestures helplessly at the vent above them. She already knows it's an absurd idea.
His expression smooths out. "No ma'am." He gives her the unreassuring smile again. "I'm going to take you to the roof. Fastest route out of the building from here."
"And my son? My husband?"
"Agent Coulson has that in hand, ma'am." He doesn't bother with the smile, this time, and she finds herself believing him. She doesn't want to consider the alternative.
"Uncle Phil's here?" asks Sophie.
"Of course," says Barton.
"I told you," Fiona whispers to her sister. Then, ever practical, she asks, "How do we get off the roof?"
Barton pulls something small and metallic from a pocket. "I put in a call to a couple of guys I know." Squeezing the device, he mutters, "Time to be unsubtle, Stark," and Sarah suddenly recognises the device he's holding. "You've seen one of these before," he says, holding it out to Sophie.
She pulls back. "They found it," she says, a tremor in her voice that makes Sarah want to hurt the men who brought them here.
Barton nods seriously. "And we found you." He holds it out again, and Sophie takes it. "Keep it safe, and when Iron Man gets here, tell him he needs to make a better panic button, okay? One that the bad guys can't find."
Fee sniggers, but Sophie still looks apprehensive. "Won't he get mad?"
"Yeah. It's pretty funny." Both girls smile. Sarah could hug the man. "You ready to get out of here?" he asks, and they nod.
"Wait - won't there be guards outside?" asks Sarah.
"Not for long," he says, and doesn't smile, but there's something sharp in his eyes that makes her suddenly, fiercely glad. "Stand back." She pulls the girls back across the room.
He pulls an arrow from his quiver, touching the point to the lock, and it fizzes, acid eating through the metal.
"Girls," says Sarah, and they look at her, eyes wide. "I need you to keep your eyes on me, okay?"
Part of the reason - the reason not relating to RL - for this taking so long was that I originally meant the first part to be from George's pov, and could not get it to work. It was easier to write from Mark's pov, except for the fact that he's supposed to be a 14-year-old boy, which is something I'm not, nor ever have been, so. Yeah.
Also, I have no idea if my bad guy - Foolish-Man - works. He's supposed to be a stereotypical comic-book villain seen from the more grounded perspective of my OC, but I don't know if that comes across, or if it just seems like he's a - well, a stereotypical comic-book villain (it's intentional!).
Also it's 4am.
Clint's been in fucked up situations with civilians before.
*Jedi hand wave* It hasn't been six months since I last updated...
I am so sorry! I have no idea how it took this long to write all of 800 words (well, okay, I do, RL and my inability to stick to one fandom being the main reasons. Mea culpa, mea culpa...)
Thank you so much for all your comments (I'm kind of too embarrassed to reply to them at the moment...)
This also isn't quite what I intended to follow the previous chapter with, but George is being impossible to write, and I wanted to get something out here before
ChristmasI saw Iron Man 3, so you're getting Clint instead:
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Clint's been in fucked up situations with civilians before. Innocent civilians, even. This shouldn't be any different. It should be easy, almost. Nothing focuses the mind like the knowledge that the life you're trying to save is actually worth saving.
The kid takes after their mother, but the older girl - Sophie - has these serious blue eyes, and Clint can only think what do I say, what do I tell him if we don't -
A flash of movement at the end of the corridor, and Clint looses his arrow before he's really registered it. The kidnapper dies with a sound of inquiry caught by the arrow in his throat.
There's a soft intake of breath behind him. Not from the girls - they're obeying their mother, eyes not leaving her. And by the time he turns back to them, Sarah Coulson has schooled her expression into something resembling calm.
'Ready?' he mouths at her, and she nods. He doesn't ask if she's okay.
The stairwell is as empty as he left it, but they only have minutes before someone comes to find out why the guards aren't checking in. He motions Sarah to follow him through the doors, then sends them up the stairs ahead of him.
This part of the warehouse has four floors - they're on the second, with no-one above them. The rest of the kidnappers are in the main space beside them, spread throughout the old storage floor. This is the only stairwell, so if anyone comes, they'll be beneath them, an easy target.
He's wrong, of course.
The door on the third floor crashes open before they've even reached the landing below it. Clint, half a flight below the Coulsons, doesn't have a clean line of sight, not for another two steps, not until the kidnapper has seen them, and starts to raise his radio, and thank fuck, thank fuck for stupid kidnappers who don't know when their payday is screwed, and move too slow -
It's not a clean shot.
Clint loses line of sight again as the man falls, and has to barrel up the stairs to finish him. He sweeps the corridor beyond, cursing himself. There's no-one else there, but he's not taking the chance again. He needs to clear the next floor, too.
Sarah Coulson and the girls are frozen on the landing below him. He can't leave them there. Can't leave them. Fuck.
He pulls the body back through the door, shuts it. There's nothing he can do about the blood.
"We need to move fast," says Clint, coming back to them. It snaps Sarah's attention away from the door, at least. "I'm going to be beside you every step, okay? But we need to move fast, and we need to move now." She nods.
They move, and Clint would take the stairs two at a time, but the girls can't. He knows he could carry one of the girls, but not both, and besides, he'd be weaponless. What do I say, what do I tell him -
The door on the top floor stays closed. No-one follows them. He burns through the lock on the door to the roof with his second acid arrow tip, and hopes to hell that the sound on the other side is what he thinks it is.
The roof is empty, and for a moment Clint's heart sinks. Then the air shimmers, and suddenly Thor and Iron Man are standing in front of them.
"See?" says Stark, a note of triumph in his voice. "I told you it'd work on Mr Magoo here."
"You did no such thing," replies Thor. "But it is a cunning device. He was quite fretful at the possibility your keen vision would see through it," he continues, addressing Clint and, for once, not the surrounding rooftops as well, "even though our enemies did not."
"Great. Awesome," snaps Clint. "You got somewhere to take them?"
"Yeah. Bruce is sitting this one out for the sake of local real estate prices. We'll take them to him," says Stark. "Kids with me, Mrs C with Thor. Sorry, ma'am," he adds, and Sarah chokes on a laugh.
The girls hang back, and their mother has to push them towards Stark. "It's okay," she says. "I'll be right behind you."
"Hey," says Stark, and even with the distortion from his mask, his tone is uncharacteristically gentle. "Let's get you out of here, okay?"
They leave their mother's side, finally, and Stark scoops them up and takes off in one smooth motion. They wink out of visibility as they go.
Thor holds out his arm for Sarah Coulson, but she holds up a hand to stop him, and turns back to Clint.
"Get my boys out." She holds his gaze for a long moment. "All of them."
As Thor launches into the air, Clint hears the first sounds of gunfire from the building below. What do I say, he thinks, if I can't?
Right. Will be seeing Iron Man 3 tomorrow (yay!) and then I will totally kick George's ass into line and it will not be another six months before the next update. (If it is, you can kick my ass in turn ;)
...Jesus, I just realised that the last time I updated this, this was still a fix-it fic D: