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The Cabin

Chapter Text

The last three months had been hectic, to say the least. They had been called into battle a record number of times. It seemed that the supervillains of New York wanted to implement their dastardly schemes before the weather cooled down. On top of that, different members of the team were being scattered here and there across the globe, neutralising threats in enemy territory. Phil couldn’t remember the last time they were all in the same country, let alone in the Tower. And at this point, even the enhanced among them were starting to feel the strain.

Phil watched fondly as Clint and Pietro napped on the couch together. It was true, his family worked themselves far too hard. The aforementioned pair had spent all morning on the range, playing Arrow Tag. Pietro would run around at top speed while Clint tried to hit him with tranquillisers. They stumbled back to the common floor about twenty minutes earlier, and promptly passed out while Phil made them lunch. And they weren’t the only who working themselves to exhaustion. Tony was down in the lab for days on end, improving equipment, and designing new Stark Industries tech for the upcoming launch. He was living off a diet of coffee and adrenaline, reverting back to the way he was before the others had moved in. And they were only the ones in the Tower.

Bruce, Thor, and Wanda were in Romania, cleaning up the last of the abandoned HYDRA bases. S.H.I.E.L.D had chased the last of the major players out of the country, but there was still a lot of work to do. The three heroes were basically there as a clean-up crew, picking through the potentially dangerous wreckage for anything alien or Gamma related. It was pretty routine, but Phil’s caretaker instinct were still worried about his children being overworked. Natasha and Bucky were in France, assumedly not eating cheese and sightseeing. But, as Phil was not privy to what they were actually doing, it worried him less to think they were just enjoying the scenery. And Steve was on his way back from a trip to Wakanda. Some sort of political event, international relations and the like. Steve was representing America and the free world, kissing babies (literally) and the asses of rich old guys (hopefully figuratively).

Phil turned his attention to his cooking, mind still drifting to his wonderful chosen family. He was making Turkey Lasagna, an all-time team favourite. Putting his kids out of his mind, he focused on cutting the bacon into nice, even squares. He was, however, unfortunately good at multitasking, a side effect of many years as a spy, and he was soon back to thinking about the team. It was past time for a break. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d been able to relax. The Avengers were S.H.I.E.L.D’s first line of defence against all manner of bad guys. They needed a long holiday.

He threw the bacon into the pot with the other ingredients, stirring it a few times. A holiday was a good idea. It was about that time of the year that Fury demanded they all take their holiday days before the new year. And they had all earned a break. Phil looked out into the living room, and watched his boys sleep for a moment. They were still sleeping, Clint snoring like a blender, with Pietro lying practically on top of him. His boys looked peaceful, and he indulged himself a little longer, before turning back to his work. He wanted to sneak as many vegetables into the meal as possible before they woke up and tried to stop him.

Celery and capsicum joined the mix. Next came some canned lentils. They weren’t traditional, but they were Bruce’s favourite, and it was habit at this point. He drained the water off of them, and stirred them into the mix. He was debating whether or not he should put pumpkin in, too, when a flash of brown caught his eye. He looked up from the fridge.

Tony had finally come out of the lab. He looked tired, his hair sticking out at weird angles and his clothes wrinkled and scrunched up. Phil offered him a pleased smile.

“Hello, Tony.” he held up a piece of pumpkin from the drawer in the fridge, “Pumpkin in the lasagna?”

Tony made a disgusted look, shaking his hair. “Mr. Coulson, that would ruin it!” 

He poked his tongue out for emphasis. It made them both laugh. It also gave him a heads-up about Tony’s headspace. He was drifting somewhere between adult and child, and Phil was happy to let him float there until he was ready to decide.

Phil got out a couple of blocks of cheese, getting ready the grate it. The team unanimously agreed that you could never have too much cheese, so Phil always spent quite some time just preparing the cheese for the meal. Tony slid onto one of the stools at the bench.

“How is the new tech going?” 

“All done, actually.” Tony smiled. He had been working non-stop for the past two weeks, prepping the last of the new releases for sale. “There was a weird bug in the coding. He was a slippery bastard, but I squashed him.” 

“That’s good, Tony. I’m glad you fixed it.” said Phil. And he was. With the Stark Industries pressure out of the way, Tony would have more time to look after himself.

Tony hummed appreciatively, preening under the positive words. Phil started to spoon the meat into a casserole dish, and laying five pasta sheets over the top. The rich smell of spiced tomatoes and turkey filled the kitchen.

“I’ve been thinking.” Phil hesitated. He wasn’t even sure the team wanted time away from the Tower. They would probably be more comfortable in their own home.

Tony gestured for him to continue, “About what, Phil?” 

“I wondered if the team might like to take a holiday. To relax.” Phil moved his spoon as he spoke, looking like a mom on ’90’s television.

“Boy, I’d like to get away from it all for a while. Where were you thinking?” Tony had aged up into his adult headspace. He clearly needed a break as much as Phil thought he did.

“I hadn’t thought that far, yet. Somewhere quiet. Away from all the bustle of the city.” It would be good for all of them to get out of New York. 

“Well, Steve probably won’t wanna leave the country. Bruce would like somewhere with lots of nature about.” Tony thought for a minute. Then he snapped his fingers, having a true ‘a-ha!’ moment. “The Cabin!”

“The cabin?” he asked the brunet. 

“I bought this cabin, a couple of hours out of the city. I meant to use it as a holiday home, you know, but I never got around to it. It’d be perfect, quiet and secluded, but close enough that we’d be able to get back here if we needed to. Plus, who doesn’t love camping?”

Phil considered it for a moment. The cabin seemed like a good idea, and the thought of a nice family camping trip made Phil’s heart warm. 

They talked about it for a little longer, laying down some more solid plans. Tony started to make plans to connect electricity and JARVIS, and make it secure enough for everyone to feel safe. The lasagna cooked as they chatted, talking about the team and the holiday. Phil promised to discuss it with the rest of the team. 

After a while, when their lunch had cooked and cooled enough to eat, Tony went to wake the others. Pietro and Clint stumbled sleepily into the dining room, draped over each other and the brunet, smiling and yawning. They looked torn between annoyance at being woken and gratitude for sustenance. They all ate lunch in cheesy silence, everyone too exhausted to speak. 

Phil would mention the holiday when the others returned home.

Chapter Text

Surprisingly, Bucky and Natasha were to first to return. They arrived later that evening, faces plastered with grime and grins. It turned out, France had been pretty boring. The drug dealer they were supposed to be tailing had a heart attack on his way to meet the buyer. He had died peacefully on the way to hospital. The mission was a success anyway. They cornered the buyer, Jean Claude Blanc, in a marketplace near the centre of Paris. He was now on his way to S.H.I.E.L.D for interrogation, and the spies were free to rest and recuperate. Phil couldn’t help but laugh. They had spent a majority of their time enjoying the French scenery, even managing to sneak a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, that was now hanging on the refrigerator.

The rising sun brought Steve with it. Exhausted, he relayed the important details from the trip to the others over an early morning coffee. The most exciting thing the happened was that Steve had met the son of one of the palace guards, who was so excited that he wet himself. The photograph of that special moment also made the fridge door.

They received word from the others three days later. Bruce called to tell Phil that they were shipping out. Tony and Steve went to collect them when they landed. 

After three hours, Phil started to worry. They had been held up at S.H.I.E.L.D, while Bruce, Wanda and Thor were checked over by medical and harassed by Fury for information about the equipment they had managed to secure. It had taken them this long to get out of headquarters, causing them to get caught in the late afternoon traffic jam. Only now had they been able to give him a call.

“Sorry, Coulson.” came Steve’s disembodied voice from the phone, “We didn’t mean to leave you hanging like that. JARVIS says we’re about forty-five minutes out.”

“Very good, Captain. Have him update me if anything changes. Drive carefully.” said Phil.

“Yes, sir.”

The line went dead. JARVIS projected a map onto the wall, tracking to progress of car. They were crawling along, like turtles through treacle. Oh well, thought Phil, slow progress is better than no progress.

Bucky came into the living room. He slumped onto the furthest couch, spreading out into starfish position. He blew out a huge breath, sagging back into the cushions. Phil shot him an inquisitive look. Bucky smiled back.

“It’s good to be back.” he stretched luxuriously. “I missed you guys.”

Phil nodded to keep himself from getting too sentimental. Bucky had come a long way since he arrived at the Tower. He used to close his feelings off from the world, hiding behind a neutral mask, haunted eyes always watching, making sure no one ever got too close. It was understandable, but it reminded him of the way Natasha had been when she first landed in his care. The face of someone with too much to lose, who had already had everything taken from them. But now, Bucky would bear his heart for those he loved to see. Phil felt honoured to be one of those precious few.

They sat in companionable silence, enjoying each other’s company, before the brunet spoke again.

“Can we order in from Angela’s tonight?”

Angela’s Diner was a sweet little diner on the corner of fourth. They served homestyle foods with a fast food twist, and they were open twenty-four-seven. The Avengers had become regular customers there after stumbling into the joint at half past one after a long night of fighting bot monkeys in Manhattan. The owner, Angela, put them in the corner booth, and set them all up with bottomless coffee cups. The food was divine, and they were one of the only places that would deliver enough food for the whole team.

“Of course. Anything in particular?” They had been working their way through the menu, but a few constants made the list each time.

“Fried chicken and waffles?” Bucky made a pleading face, before adding, “Please?” as an afterthought.

Phil phoned the diner. He made small talk with Lauren, their usual waitress, before ordering their food. It was a pretty sizeable order, even for them. Lauren commented on it, asking if Phil was expecting someone. He confirmed her suspicions, before finishing his order off with a round of Strawberry Shortcake thickshakes. 

The team arrived home eight minutes later than expected. A crazy old lady had pulled out in front of them on the highway, causing a smaller traffic jam two hundred metres down from the first. She seemed blissfully unaware of the destruction she was causing, changing lanes at random until she found where she was going, ruining the afternoon for all those sharing the road with her. But, they were home safe at last.

Bruce looked thoroughly exhausted. They needed Hulk more than they had originally anticipated. He could sense gamma a lot better than Bruce could on his own, so the majority of time he spent in Romania was spent as the Other Guy. He was swaying where he stood, in need of food and sleep, in that order.

Wanda and Thor looked a little better. Wanda had appreciated being able to travel and feel like she was being useful again. She was starting to feel cramped up in the Tower all the time. And being able to help take down HYDRA was the icing on the cake. Thor had enjoyed the culture, and had successfully befriended almost everyone he met. They had managed to recover many valuable pieces of HYDRA technology for the goons in the Experimental Science Lab at S.H.I.E.L.D. The trip had overall been a success.

“If I never see another piece of alien weaponry again, it’ll be too soon.” remarked Wanda as she hugged her brother. 

The welcoming ceremony was cut short by the arrival of their order. It took Thor, Bucky, and Steve to bring it all up to the common floor. There were boxes and boxes of it, wafting delicious scents all throughout the Tower. Everyone was practically salivating by the time they made it to the table.

The atmosphere was the happiest it had been in weeks. The whole team was here, basking in each other’s company, like a true family should. They chatted about the missions, and life in general. The murmurs of the team where occasionally broken by the slurping of straws and scraping of cutlery, the sounds of home. 

After a while, conversation died down. Tony kicked Phil’s leg under the table. “Ask them about the holiday.” he whispered. Phil cleared his throat.

“Tony and I have been talking.” he began. The looked torn between concern and curiosity.

“About what, sir?” asked Steve, taking a bite out of his hamburger.

“Well, we’ve all been a touch overworked lately. We were thinking about a family getaway.”

The team was far more excited than Phil had expected them to be. Steve gushed about the idea of a family camping trip, which was something he had always wanted to do. The rest of the team thought time away from work sounded like a splendid idea. Phil promised to sort out the details in the morning.

The mood shifted from peaceful to sleepy as dessert was served. Bruce was nodding off since dinner, and ended up drifting off midway through his apple pie. The rest of the team finished up, Natasha putting the pie in the fridge for the sleeping man to finish later, and Bucky carried him up to bed. They all said their quiet goodnights, excusing themselves from the group, until only Tony remained. He gave Phil a warm hug, arranging to meet in the living room to make plans the next morning. Then he too went to his floor to sleep.

It was good to have all his kids back in the one place. Phil couldn’t wait for that holiday.

Chapter Text

The following days went by in a blur. Planning for a trip is hard enough on its own. Planning a trip for a team of superheroes and their handler is unfathomably harder. Phil’s head had been throbbing for days. It seemed, nothing could be easy when you worked for S.H.I.E.L.D.

Not five minutes after he had requested two-weeks leave for the whole team, Phil’s phone buzzed. He spent ten minutes angrily texting Director Fury. Apparently, if the Avengers took so much as a day off all at once, S.H.I.E.L.D would collapse and America would be left defensive to crumble into the ocean. At least that was what Fury seemed to think. 

Thankfully, Phil managed to persuade the other man into backing down. In four days time, they would be on their way to The Cabin.

Unfortunately, that caused more problems. The cabin needed to be Avenger-proofed. That meant adding security, bullet-proof glass, and larger furniture, not to mention installing JARVIS. A job like that would take time, something they didn’t have a lot of. Tony promised to work his magic, throwing his money at people. It got results, though. He travelled to the cabin two days early to oversee the preparations and lend a helping hand where necessary. That left Phil to man the fort at home.

Transporting the team was the next obstacle. Cramming nine people into a car, while fun, doesn’t obey road travel laws. And Phil, the fun-ruiner, didn’t want to get arrested in his holiday time. He was comparing car rental prices for ten-seater minivans when Steve reminded him they would have luggage. That just made his headache worse. After too long, he gave up trying to fit them all in one car, opting instead for two family-sized cars that would fit people and possessions comfortably. The rest was a few simple clicks on the rental website.

However, that left seating arrangements to organise. Most of team decided that they would age down in their time off. No doubt, some of them would age down in the car. To keep Steve and himself sane, that meant eliminating the most obvious problems. Even with two cars, it was hard to fit everyone happily. But, with a little help from the others and JARVIS, the puzzle pieces all came together.

The team each had their own concerns. Some were reasonable, others were downright ludicrous. Steve wondered if there would be enough food for them all at cabin for two weeks, especially the fussy littles. Natasha wondered if the cabin was assessable in case of emergency. Phil ordered groceries to be delivered for them and assured the spy that they would be safe. Clint wondered if he would get eaten by a bear. Phil hoped so.

It didn’t really hit him until the night before they left. He had been packing his things, and he realised. The long-awaited break was here. All his kids were home, and safe, and together. They were about to spend two beautiful weeks away. No worries, no one being called to somewhere far away, somewhere that he couldn’t protect them. He would be able to hold them all close to him. Keep them safe. No one could hurt them when Phil was there, not one person could even come close. And that was worth any amount of hassle. 

A quiet knock startled him out of his stupor. He turned to see who it was. Bucky was poking his head around the doorframe. His eyes glowed youthfully, his little self had come out to say hello.

Phil softened. His little boy was adorable.

“What can I help you with, James?” He placed the t-shirt he’d been holding into his suitcase. 

The boy stepped around the door, tugging on the edge of his dinosaur pyjamas. He edged shyly into the room, hiding behind his hair. He mumbled something indistinct. 

Phil abandoned his packing, and approached the boy. He knelt down, taking Bucky’s hands in his own. 

“What did you say, James? I didn’t catch it the first time.” he prompted.

“Tuck me in?” he mumbled again. 

He had always been shy about asking for things. The poor kid had come a long way. The fact the he had to come looking for Phil to ask showed how much he trusted his handler. Trust that the trek would not be wasted.

Phil took him gently by the hand. “Always, darling boy.”

Together they walked to the elevator. It whooshed up to the young man’s floor. As soon as the doors opened, he toddled off down the hall to the bathroom, the cuffs of his pants trailing on the floor behind him. Phil followed close behind.

The boy was standing by the sink, waiting for his arrival. He looked hopeful as he stretched his arms up to be picked up. Phil was saddened by the fact that he would never be able to carry the little one around, but, with a little help from said boy, he could lift him onto the sink. And that’s exactly what he did. He cupped his hands under Bucky’s arm, and hoisted him a little. Bucky jumped up onto the countertop, virtually unaided. It made Phil feel strong for a moment. The illusion of that strength was enough to make this real. For a fleeting moment, Phil had lifted this young boy onto the sink. 

He helped Bucky brush his teeth. The boy sat placidly and let him do it, kicking his legs gently. For the spy, feeling clean was a luxury he hadn’t been able to afford in a long time. Nowadays, luxuries like these were a fact of life. It felt good to feel clean and not guilty. Phil washed the years of dirt and blood from his mouth with tender care, leaving behind good memories and the promise of smiles.

“All done. Give me a big smile.” Phil tickled his tummy, pulling a giggle out of his kid. A soft, almost hesitant bubble of joy. The smile that followed faded quickly. Once more, his boy looked nervous.

“What’s worrying you?” coaxed Phil. Bucky shrugged. He rubbed his metal arm as he spoke, his Brooklyn drawl becoming more of childish lisp.

“What’re you ‘sposed a do iv I hurt someone when we’re ‘way?” he looked guilty, self hatred coating his speech.

And Phil. Well, if his heart broke just little when he heard that, you really couldn’t blame him. They’d come a long way, but the road was still ahead of them. Bucky was still confessing HYDRA’s sins for them, and getting no forgiveness from himself. He washed his hands with tears, with no comfort or absolution to hold him steady. Phil knew they’d make it to the end of the road someday, but for now, he’d just help put all the pieces back together.

“James, you don’t need to worry about grown up things like that. You and I both know you’d never hurt anyone on purpose. And I’ve packed bandaids. There’s nothing I can’t fix.” soothed Phil. 

He helped the boy down from the counter, leading him back to his bedroom by the hand. The boy still looked torn and nervous, but a part of him was ready to trust the man’s words. 

Phil tucked him into bed, and laid a kiss on his forehead. Before he closed his eyes, the boy asked one final question.

“Did you pack sunscreen, too?” he yawned. “Tony’ll need it for sure.”

Phil assured him he had. The boy was always looking out for his friends. Phil thought he was the sweetest younger brother anyone could ever wish for. 

With the family road trip looming over the horizon, Phil hoped that the boy could rest easy. It was going to be a long day.

Chapter Text

The buttery morning sun rose peacefully over New York, casting gentle golden rays through the windows for the Tower. The light of day woke Phil peacefully from his slumber. At least it would’ve, if a certain hero hadn’t already down that.

The tween had come thumping into the room five minutes earlier. Clint’s only goal in life seemed to be punishing Phil for whatever atrocities he must have committed in a past life. But, the eternal torment of the adolescent archer was worth it in the long run.

Said boy had been trying to pull Phil out of bed by his arm, complaining about the adult’s laziness.

“Uncle Phil, we’ve gotta go! C’mon!” He tugged more fervently on the man’s arm. Phil finally relented, and allowed the young man to pull him along, all the way to breakfast.

For the first time in living memory, Phil was the last one to wake up. He entered the kitchen to find the rest of the team - minus Tony - already there. Bruce and Steve were in the middle of making fluffy stacks of blueberry pancakes. Phil took a seat at the table. He exchanged some light chit-chat with Steve as the last of the cakes were cooking. After that, things started to ramp up for the day.

Pietro and Clint had already aged down. Being nine and eleven respectively, this posed some challenges. Phil was already glad they would be travelling in separate cars. The pair of them made breakfast a sticky affair, going a little sugar-crazy, and flooding their plates with syrup and cream. Phil had to keep a close eye on them. The two of them were prone to starting food fights. The memory of the last one still made him shudder. 

More of his breakfast made it onto Clint’s shirt than into his mouth, a wild grin on his face the whole time. He wolfed his stack of pancakes down, then leapt up from the table and dashed off to his room to finish packing. This was the most excited he’d been about anything in many years.

The rest of the team finished up their meals in less of a hurry. It was quiet and domestic. Slowly, each of the members excused themselves to finish the last of their packing, or the wash syrup out of a certain Sokovian’s hair in Thor’s case. Phil and Bruce packed the dishes into the dishwasher. Bruce nudged him gently with his elbow, leaning his head onto the other man’s shoulder. Bruce was always more tactile when he was slipping down. Phil encouraged this. The poor man had been denying himself positive touch for too many years, but seemed to accept it more readily when he was feeling little. It helped that his Uncle Phil was an excellent hugger.

“Tired.” murmured Bruce, wrapping a sleeve covered arm around Phil’s waist. His greying hair was all that could be seen of his face as he snuggled into Phil’s chest. He certainly was tired. No doubt about it.

“Maybe you should have a nap in the car, Brucie.” he rubbed the kid’s back. Bruce was ageing down fast. “Get your energy back before we get there.” 

The boy shrugged. “Mm, ‘kay.” he huffed out a sigh, before pulling back from the embrace. He blinked sleepily, suppressing a yawn.

“Go get changed, sport. The cars will be here soon.” Phil gave him a pat on the shoulder as he left. 

The dishes washed quickly, because Tony had tampered with the dishwasher. Because this is Tony we’re talking about and he can’t leave well enough alone. Phil dried them in a comfortable silence, until JARVIS announced that the cars were ten minutes out. This started the mad panic. 

Phil raced up to his floor to collect his bags, making final checks to make sure that everything was where it should be. Next stop with Bruce’s floor, to make sure the boy hadn’t fallen asleep already. He hadn’t, and together they gathered the rest of the folks travelling in their car. Wrangling children was a little bit like trying to catch a wet bar of soap. It’s slippery, unpredictable, and likely to cause injury if you do it in the shower. But, Phil the Wonder Agent didn’t take no for an answer and excelled at dealing with stubborn idiots. He got all his charges into the lobby with time to spare.

He did a final headcount. Clint, Wanda, Bruce and Natasha were all there, along with their bags. They had three minutes to spare. At the two minute mark, Steve, Bucky, Thor and Pietro arrived. Phil did a final luggage check. So did the others, which was quite lucky, seeing as everyone expect Natasha had forgotten something. She stood patiently in the lobby with him while the others scrambled back into the elevator to collect their things.

The cars only just beat them back. Clint dropped out of the vent as they pulled up, panting and covered in dust, brandishing a portable games console. Bruce and Wanda returned as they started to pack their bags into the car. The poor boy was already falling asleep, eyes dropping shut every couple of seconds. He had himself draped over Wanda, who didn’t seem to mind in the least. She loved having a younger brother.

The cars were much more spacious than Phil had anticipated. It looked as if they could have all fit in the same car if they had needed to. The sheer mass of each vehicle was impressive. Bucky proved how large the seats were by laying across the middle seat of the first van. There was even room to spare.

Loading their things into the car was uneventful. The trunk of each van was spacious, and no one had packed too much. Steve and Thor had no trouble with the bags, hefting them over their shoulders with little effort. 

Loading their kids into the car was a little harder. Phil had decided it would be best of Clint took the front seat so he could keep an eye on him. This worked out fine for Clint, the tween had already climbed into it. Bruce tended to favour the middle seat, so Phil had placed him there, with the girls on either side. But, Bruce wanted to sleep, and there was no headrest on the middle seat. Wanda found the electric window far more entertaining than it had any right to be. Natasha was usually pretty well behaved, but fidgeted when she was ageing down. She must have been doing just that, because she was kicking the back of Clint’s chair idly. It took Phil two seconds to decide that he couldn’t put up with this for hours, and rearranged them all.

When everyone was buckled up safely, Phil pulled out of the Avengers Tower driveway, and began the journey. The kids were peaceful for a few minutes. Brucie was drifting off to the land of nod. Clint was playing a game on his console, skilled archer’s fingers jamming the buttons with precision and passion. Wanda was looking out the window over Natasha’s shoulder, watching the city speed past. Natasha sat cracking her knuckles. She was always nervous when ageing down, worried her training might come back to haunt her. It never had, and Phil was quite sure it never would. He shot her a grin through the rear view mirror. She cracked a subtle smile, the barest hint of teeth showing. All would be well.

Half an hour down the road, Phil turned the radio on quietly. His kids had been sitting in silence since they left, peaceful as clouds. A husky, male voiced crooned through the speakers, deep and rough. Clint started to sing along in a whisper. Phil looked over inquisitively. He hadn’t pegged Clint as the type to listen to this kind of music, but hadn’t pegged Thor as a country lover either, so maybe he was just bad at judging people that way.

The trip continued on, slowly. Steve and the others honked their horn loudly as they passed them on the highway. Clint put on a pout for five minutes because Phil wouldn’t let him beep the horn at them. Fortunately, Phil had prepared for this. He asked Natasha to pass him his bag, which he had filled with all sorts of sugary snacks. The boy’s eyes widened in complete disbelief when the older man told him he could eat a whole bag of gummy worms. The girls tries to throw hard candies into each other’s mouths. Most of them ended up on the floor. One of the ended up in Bruce’s hair. Their giggles were innocent and bubbly, and Phil found himself smiling with them as they tried desperately to get them aimed right. It was the type of joy Phil remembered from his own childhood.

“Are we there yet?” Clint asked some time later. His game console had died. 

“Look out the window. You tell me.” He’d been asking for the past ten minutes. Phil wanted to throw him into oncoming traffic, but the car doors locked in motion. 

“Let’s play a game. I’ll start. Once.” Wanda had initiated a game of One-Word Stories. This was popular with the whole team when they were flying back from missions. Everyone was familiar with it, and it provided hours of entertainment. Phil still chuckled when he read over the communications transcripts.

“Upon.” added Natasha.

“A.” said Phil.

“Time.” Clint chirped, a wicked grin spreading across his face. This would be good.

“There.”

“Lived”

“A.”

“Crusty.”

“Old.”

“Man.”

“Named.”

“Phil!” laughed Clint.

“He.”

“Was.”

“Very.” Phil wondered what adjective Clint was going to pick.

“Stinky.” Ah, yes. Very mature.

“His.” continued Wanda after she stopped giggling.

“Mother.”

“Was.”

“Quite.”

“A.”

“Looker.” Natasha wiggled her eyebrows. 

The story continued to deteriorate from there. Phil’s-Stinky-Butt (apparently one word, hyphenated, thank you Clint) got him banished from earth, with his mother and their dog, and they were forced to eat month-old Chinese food for life. An apple crumble came into it somewhere. They spent the better part of an hour playing it before Natasha and Wanda got bored and decided that poker sounded like more fun.

Bruce woke up, ate a couple of handfuls of caramel popcorn, then went back to sleep. Clint had found a length of ribbon somewhere and was making some complicated cat’s cradle designs. Phil allowed himself a few moments to watch his kids. They were all too precious to describe. The quirks, the attitude, the stress, he could do it all. They were worth more than life itself.

“Are we there yet?” No, on second thoughts, Phil hated his children. Especially Clint.

They drove for ten more minutes, the road turned into more of a dirt path, until they were pulling into the most beautiful cabin on earth.

There were pine trees as tall as pine trees could be surrounding the two-story house. It was all wood, polished and lacquered to perfection. There was a porch stretching around the upper story, a flying fox out of one window, and a large chimney coming out the top. It looked like a summer camp cabin, only bigger and more expensive. It was perfect.

They had finally arrived. The perfect holiday was about to begin.

Chapter Text

The others had already arrived. Steve had gotten lost, and managed to find a shortcut that cut their travel time down by a whole hour. Phil helped Thor with the bags, while Steve carried a still-sleeping Bruce up into the nursery.

The rest of the littles removed themselves from the car. Phil watched Natasha and Clint scope the outside of the building, checking for escape points and trouble spots. They were talking with their eyes, a language even Phil couldn’t decipher. They were like a pair of sharks, circling the cabin at ground level, working their way up, exchanging loaded glances here and there.

“Young James did the same thing.” said Thor as they watched the pair. “He seemed satisfied.”

As if on cue, James came running out onto the balcony. He had changed out of his travelling clothes, and looked positively gorgeous in his Finding Nemo overalls. His hair was flying all over his face, making him look even younger. He looked as though he was having the time of his life as he raced down the steps to greet his siblings. Wanda pulled him into a tight hug, taking his hand and leading him back up to the house.

The assassins finished their round of the premises, and stalked up to the house with the same easy grace that they did everything. Phil followed them up onto the balcony. He left them to do their thing, joining the others inside.

The exterior of the cabin had nothing on the inside. Phil almost dropped the bag he had been carrying when he saw it. There was two stories, connected by the polished wood stairs, with the perfect railing to slide down. Pietro demonstrated that fact, gliding smoothly down to the lower floor. He ran over to greet Phil, who ruffled him hair and kissed his forehead. The boy disappeared in a blur, undoubtedly off to find his sister.

Every surface was wood, polished to perfection, giving the whole place a warm, homely feel. There was a fire raging in the impossibly large fireplace, surrounded by beanbags and couches. Phil couldn’t wait to huddle up with his family.

Beyond the lounge was the kitchen. It reminded Phil very much of the kitchen at the Tower, with wide benches and a large oven. The cabinets were stocked with enough food for the whole team, and included personal favourites for each. Phil made sure to removed the coffee from anywhere the littles could find it. 

Clint and Natasha wandered in, continuing their scoping. The redhead was still on high alert, but the blonde seemed to be sure they were safe here. His shoulders had relaxed, and it looked more like he was exploring than checking for threats. 

Steve emerged, carrying the other super soldier on his hip, tailed by the twins. Wanda had changed into her play clothes, apparently settled in enough to age down. Pietro was giving her a grand tour, dragging her around by the hand, both of them laughing as they went.

The only person Phil hadn’t seen was Tony. He continued his round of the cabin, dropping the boys’ bags in their room, and his in his own, searching for the brunet the whole way. 

They crossed paths in the upstairs play room. The genius was covered in dirt and sawdust, with tools hanging off his belt as he installed something into the ceiling. He waved his foot at Phil, his hands occupied with his task. 

Phil waited patiently for him to finish, handing him the occasional bit or bob, until the ceiling panel was being reinserted, and the other man was climbing down from the ladder. 

“Is JARVIS up and running?” he inquired.

“Not just yet. The wiring in this joint is frankly screwed. I’ve had to replace most of it, and I’m

making do with what I can. There’s still a couple of hours work before I can really get him working. He is watching us through the cameras though, and he is fully routed in the nursery.” Tony puffed out a breath, “How was the drive up?”

“Pleasant. I only nearly killed Clint twice.” They laughed.

“That’s a record, Phil!”

They exchanged some more small talk, before Tony excused himself to do some more work.

Natasha seemed to be finished scoping to building. She was relaxing slowly, ageing down in intervals, getting ready for the weekend. Thor showed her to her room.

There was a period of quiet in the house. Tony was pottering around, equipment in hand, tinkering with the whole cabin. Wanda and Pietro were playing a complicated card game Phil wasn’t familiar with, enjoying the atmosphere. Thor, James, and Steve had decided to go for a walk in the forest, trying to wear the young one out. Clint, being Clint, was sliding around on the impossibly smooth wood floor in his socks, periodically crashing into the walls, cackling like a hyena on speed. Bruce was sleeping off the trip, the poor boy hadn’t slept much in weeks. 

Phil was just wondering if he should be worrying about Natasha when she joined them in the living room. She was wearing the Hello Kitty shirt Phil had bought for her when they first started age playing, with her red hair pulled into a messy bunch at the back of her head. She waved with both hands, kissing Phil on the cheek, before stalking off the find her brother. 

Phil started to argue with himself. He’d brought with him a present for the pair, not planning to give it to them so early on in the trip. But, he reasoned, if he gave it to them now, they would have more time to enjoy themselves. Besides, they were both little at the moment, but he couldn’t guarantee that they would stay that way for the whole trip. It would be a waste to keep it from them. His mind made up, Phil sneaked up to his room, and retrieved the packages.

He called the pair into the living room, along with Pietro, who had finished the last round of whatever he and his sister had been playing. The three looked at him with unreadable looks, unsure of what was about to happen.

From behind his back, Phil pulled three Nerf Guns. The looks of pure joy that broke over his kids’ faces made Phil’s day. Clint was in disbelief, having been banned from using the toy guns while little following the Great Nerf War. Natasha had a mischievous glint in her eye, smiling sweet as sugar. And Pietro, well, he looked like he was gonna cry.

“Really?” asked the archer, hope twinkling in his eyes. Phil just nodded.

Clint was the first to reach out, and Phil handed the gun to him happily, also presenting him with enough bullets to shoot everyone at S.H.I.E.L.D. Natasha took hers gently, muttering her thanks as she studied the gun, pulling the trigger gently, testing the sensitivity of her new weapon. Pietro and Clint were loading their guns with the kind of speed and determination you could only expect from them. They were eager to start the game, clambering away to set up their nests, but Natasha stopped them.

“Wait!”

She shot Phil a look. An ‘I’m-waiting’ look. A ‘hurry-up-and-finish-speaking’ look. Phil shot her an expectant look, gesturing with his hand to show he wasn’t sure what he’d missed. 

“What are the rules?” she asked impatiently, crossing her arms. The juxtaposition of her pink-trimmed sleeves and the gun was simultaneously disturbing and hilarious. She rolled her eyes at her dumb caretaker. Of course, how could he be so blind. Natasha had always been a stickler for good behaviour, especially since they started to play. The kids always had rules when they played with dangerous toys. One too many windows had been broken by the youngsters, and Phil had put in place boundaries to keep his kids from accidentally killing each other. Or themselves. Or any one else for that matter. 

“Same rules as always. No intentionally hitting someone who isn’t playing. No aiming for eyes. Don’t break any windows.” he thought for a moment. “Don’t play in any room Tony’s trying to work on.”

Satisfied, he dismissed the trio, who thumped wildly away, like elephants in cement shoes. It was a cacophony. Which reminded him,

“And don’t wake Bruce!” he called.

“Dun’ worry, Ungle Phil, ‘m ‘wake now.” slurred the boy from the stairs. He yawned, continuing his slow descent. Thor had changed him into his pyjamas, and the slippery feet didn’t lend themselves 

to the polished floor boards that made up the most of the cabin. He was dressed in his Baymax onesie, a birthday present from Tony, who thought they had a lot in common. Bruce simply adored it, and Phil couldn’t really blame him. It made him look little a squishy marshmallow, and as he walked, the hood would bounce down over his eyes, drowning him in white fleece. 

He successfully made it to the bottom of the stairs, and shuffle-slid over to his uncle, stretching his arms up, demanding a hug. Phil scooped the boy up in his arms. Unlike James, he was light enough for the agent to carry. The Hulk meant his metabolism just burnt through food that fast.

Speaking of metabolisms, Bruce’s stomach grumbled.

“Hungry, Brucie?” He asked, bouncing the toddler affectionately. The boy giggled, nodding his head. Phil carried him into the kitchen, sitting him on the counter. He kicked his little white feet idly as Phil searched the cupboard for something to eat. 

“Fancy making a batch of cookies, Junior?” asked Phil, holding up a packet mix of chocolate chip cookies. The boy clapped his hands and nodded, smiling wide. The older man started to gather the ingredients. 

“Wanda help, too?” he asked softly. Phil melted. Bruce was good at a lot of things, but he seemed to be best at sharing and including others. 

“Great idea, Junior.” he turned his head to call out over his shoulder. “Hey, Wanda? You wanna help us with the cookies?”

“Yuh-huh.” She scrambled up from her seat in front of the fire, scattering cards forth across the floor as she went. She telepathically stacked them back into the box as she wandered into the kitchen to join them.

The cooking was fun. Wanda helped him the pour the ingredients into jugs, and let Bruce tip them into the bowls. His motor skills weren’t the best when he was little, so he ended up dropping them into the bowl most of the time. It was quiet and gentle, and tasty. Wanda kept stealing pieces of batter from the bowl for herself and Bruce when she thought Uncle Phil wasn’t looking. It made them both laugh, so Phil let it slide.

Phil was just finishing up stirring the batter when something hit him in the back of the head. He turned in time to see a Nerf bullet drop to the floor. The terrible trio had emerged, guns in hand. Natasha giggled at Phil’s face, looking a little guilty. Pietro was laughing without remorse, and Clint was looking at him with the face of an angel.

“What are the rules?” He said, brandishing the wooden spoon at them.

“Don’t shoot anyone that’s not playing.” supplied Wanda, popping more batter into her mouth.

“I missed.” monotoned the archer. It took about three seconds for his poker face to break. The tweens laughed in unison.

“Sorry, Phil.” smiled Natasha.

“Sorry Mr. Coulson.” agreed Clint, not looking at all sorry.

“What they said!” shouted Pietro, shooting Clint in the foot and taking off in the other direction. And with that, they were gone. The dulcet tones of the Nerf War crooned through the cabin once more. 

Phil set his other kids to work rolling the batter into balls to make the cookies while he greased the trays. Bruce was trying to roll perfect spheres, his sleeves pushed up to his elbows, and his tongue pushed out in concentration. Wanda wasn’t taking it nearly as seriously. She waved her hand at her younger brother, and beckoned him to give her the dough ball he had been sculpting. When he did, she rolled it a few times in her hand, before clapping her hand together violently, squashing it into a mangled pancake-like shape.

They broke into fits of giggles, having the time of their lives. 

And this, this was why Phil wanted to have a holiday. To enjoy his family.

Chapter Text

Phil and the kids ended up making four more batches of cookies. The kitchen became a hot, gooey mess. More of the dough was eaten raw by the little helpers than actually made its way into the oven, but it didn’t matter. If it made them happy, it made him happy. No need to spoil the fun.

The kitchen had to be evacuated mid-way through batch number three so that Tony could finish wiring JARVIS into there electronics there. It was a tedious job, and Bruce aged into a slightly older headspace in order to help his brother with the process. The two scientist spoke to each other in fast-paced jargon as they worked. Every twenty-five words or so, Phil would hear a term he vaguely recognised, swiftly followed by a dozen terms that he didn’t, presumably to make sure that no one else could ever understand them. The agent gave up, opting instead to follow his youngest daughter to the lounge, where she was playing cards again.

Wanda was determined to teach him the game she had been playing with Pietro earlier. She spoke at lightning speed, explaining the rules and setup and everything, while also shuffling and dealing the cards. He tried to keep up with her, but he couldn’t quite work it out. He’d played a lot of card games in his life, but this seemed damn impossible to follow. He wasn’t as young as he once was, and his brain simply didn’t want to try and comprehend the game at hand. The brunette was patient with him, forgiving his oldness and laughing at his stupidity. Every time he placed a card wrong - which seemed to Phil like every time he placed a card - she would giggle lovingly, hand it back to him, then proceed to wipe the floor with him, winning the game three moves later. It was a fast paced game of hand-slappery and quick thinking, and the girl seemed to be enjoying herself. They played for a long while, only stopping mid-way through round five the remove the cookies from the oven. The young Sokovian beat him twenty-two games to one. Phil was still in awe over the fact that he managed to win one. Even Wanda was surprised, and neither of them could even explain how it had happened. Happy accident, he supposed. He made a note to get JARVIS to try and explain it to him later.

A loud crash took their attention back to the kitchen. Tony was finished wiring in their AI friend, working him into a tricky spot behind the fridge. Unfortunately, that meant wedging himself on top of one of the overhead cabinets to get a good angle, and he had put his foot right in the middle of the tray of biscuits. The chocolate delights were massacred, their brown, sticky blood oozing over the bench and clinging to the bottom of the genius’ foot. Bruce was laughing so hard that he slipped headspaces, returning to his toddler state after a job well done. Tears in his eyes, Phil helped Tony wash the crushed cookies from his foot, and the man went on his way to finish up the last few rooms of the house.

It turned out, Phil had missed JARVIS more than he ever thought he would. The comfort of knowing that the disembodied voice could guide him through any task - and would willing do so if only asked - was soothing. After consulting with him, Phil determined that they didn’t have enough cookies to feed everyone. They were, however, out of packet mixes, and Phil was terrible at winging it. The crooning voice of the AI floated out from somewhere, offering instructions for an easy recipe for White Chocolate and Raspberry cookies, and guided them once more through the process. It was the first time that the kids could really get their hands dirty. Phil melted butter on the stovetop while Wanda and Bruce crushed raspberries. It was messy, and Phil had to drape a tea towel over Bruce to make sure his white onesie didn’t turn pink, but it was fun. Joyous, even. The kids never really got to relax like this. Even when they had days off from the job, the thought of being called in was always there. But here, in the cabin, there was no S.H.I.E.L.D., no super villains smashing up Manhattan, and no off-shore threats to drag his family away. Here, the could just be kids. Let off some steam and joke about.

Apparently, they could also get raspberry on the back of their heads and on their knees. Phil still couldn’t work out how they’d managed it. He scraped the fruit out of Bruce’s fine grey hair with ease, all the while trying to work out how on earth it had happened. His boy just giggled when he asked. Wanda had raspberry juice running down her arms, and it had even found its way onto her legs, bright red and dripping onto her fluffy, white socks. Oh well, you couldn’t save everything. The cookies came together nicely, and the kids had calmed down from their laughing fits by the time they had finished cooking. Phil pulled them out of the oven, looking up in time to see the others arrive home. Thor was carrying James in his arms, and Steve followed behind. James wriggled until he was set free, and ran over the kitchen bench, where he plonked down whatever he had been carrying. It turned out to be an insect carrier. Steve had enough foresight to take it with him when they left, meaning that James could enjoy one of his favourite hobbies: Looking at bugs. He had caught a beautiful blue butterfly that he named Sally-Ann, and he showed it proudly to Bruce. They two of them cooed and clapped, mesmerised in a way. Wanda was far more interested in Uncle Steve, who scooped her up in a hug when he saw her.

“How was your walk?” asked Phil.

“Marvellous.” smiled Thor. “Young James found many interesting creatures. Your world is so much more alive than it seems.”

They spoke some more about their trek, including talking about the lake that they had found along the way. Bucky had fancied a swim, and Steve was only just too slow to stop him from sitting down in the water. The boy was still damp from the waist down. Phil made a note to take the kids down if it wasn’t too cold the next day. Some time later, the terrible trio threw themselves exhausted onto the couch. They had been running around for hours, and judging by the looks on their faces, they were all in need of a good long nap. Tony also found his way to the kitchen, having finished up the wiring.

“Dinner?” he asked, perching on the leftmost barstool. Phil could have kicked himself. They had spent the last three hours baking, and not once had dinner even crossed his mind. And it had left him without the energy to make anything else to eat.

“Cookies and ice cream for dinner?” asked Natasha hopefully, batting her eyelashes. And Phil was only human, so he said yes.

Ice cream sandwiches made excellent dinner. The younger littles were most excited, not having to each vegetables, and getting to eat dessert first. They were all parked outside in the outdoor dining area, spooning scoops of ice cream onto still-warm cookies, with sprinkles and syrup for everyone. It was an even messier affair than breakfast and the baking experience combined, but much more subdued. Everyone was worn out from travelling. Tony had decided not to age down that night. Too much stress, he had said, trying to slip down when he was so physically exhausted. ‘You’d just end up with an overtired brat’ Phil recalled him saying. Steve agreed, unsure of whether he would age down himself the next day or not. Phil assured him that there was no pressure to if he didn’t feel like it. They ended up cuddling on the couch, Bruce curled up in his lap, with Natasha on his side. The team turned the lounge into a communal hug pile, dosing off in front of the fire.

Chapter Text

Steve woke in the early morning hours. He had slipped down into his headspace during the night, feeling very young. He knew that he should wake Phil, but the man needed sleep, and Steve was a big enough boy to take care of himself. His stomach growled loudly. It seemed a midnight snack was in order.

Steve crept down the hall, stealthily walking down the stairs, silent as the dew. He was good at sneaking around in the middle of the night and not waking people. He did it all the time at the Tower.

Midnight munchies were a common problem for super soldiers. Their metabolisms worked on overdrive. While this had its obvious benefits, it also had side effects. Late-night snacking and fridge raids were just part of the package. 

Steve had been so focused on being quiet that he hadn’t noticed he wasn’t alone. His baby brother was following close behind, brown hair bobbing as he stealth-toddled behind his brother. They were both being followed by Tony, their cool older brother. He held a finger to his lips, shushing them before they blew the whole mission. 

The three little crept into the kitchen with the kind of grace that would make Nat and Clint jealous. They had made it to their destination without waking to whole house. 

“J, turn to lights to thirteen percent.” whispered Tony. The other two kids may have enhanced vision, but he sure as heck didn’t. Plus, he always managed to get Bruce to eat his carrots for him, so his night sight wasn’t the best. The lights came on slowly, casting a gentle glow over the kitchen.

“Hey, boys.” he whispered to his brothers. “Hungry?”

“Yup.” whispered Bucky, clambering up onto the counter, and waiting for the others to get out some food. Steve just nodded, going first to the fridge. Tony beelined for the cupboard, looking for something sweet. 

Tony had kind of neglecting his eating habits while he was fixing up the place for the others. He supervised the furniture delivery, and the reenforcing of the glass, making sure the workers he had hired were of top quality, and also making sure none of them went blabbing to the press about their whereabouts. He didn’t particularly want their vacation ruined by some journalist, snapping pictures of their family time. After he’d overseen that, he needed to set up the house to install JARVIS. That was a full-time job, and he had barely slept, let alone eaten anything in his time here. So, when he saw Bucky and Steve trekking down to the kitchen for a snack, he decided to join them. He was starving, and craving some sugar.

Steve begun to pull things out of the fridge at random, his stomach grumbling loudly. He needed something to eat, like, five minutes ago. But, unfortunately, nothing in the fridge was ready-made, and Steve wasn’t much of a cook. He had been forbidden to use the stove when little the last time he had tried to cook, and ended up burning pasta. He looked over at Tony to see if the other boy had had any more luck. 

The eldest boy had found Lucky Charms in his search, and had already started to pour three bowls of it. Steve pulled some milk out of the fridge, handing it to his brother with a smile.

“Thanks, Squirt.” he said, ruffling Steve’s hair. Bucky giggled at the pair of them. He loved his brothers, and he loved them even better when they weren’t fighting. They made the best siblings in the whole world, and they were the best at hide-and-seek when they got along. Bucky hoped they would never fight again, ‘cause he wasn’t sure he could pick sides this time. He loved them both way too much to do something like that.

But he wasn’t going to worry about that now. Mr Phil had told he him he didn’t have to worry about adult things when he was feeling little, ‘cause little boys were too young to need thoughts like that to weigh them down. That helped him relax. Mr. Phil was always right, especially when it came to things like what he and the team needed. So he put the thought out of his mind. Thinking of Mr. Phil, he was sure the guardian had hidden some chocolate around here somewhere, and he sure wanted some right now. Wobbling onto his feet, he began to search the cupboards over his head. Sure enough, his favourite S.H.I.E.L.D handler had pulled through, with sweets of every description tucked away in the back corner. He reached out a hand for them, but stopped himself.

“Hey Mr. JARVIS?” he asked quietly.

“What can I help you with, young Sergeant Barnes?” the AI chirped quietly.

“Are we ‘lowed to eat these or nah? Did Mr. Phil say any’fing ‘bout ‘em?” he slurred his words a little, nervous about getting into trouble. He didn’t like being in trouble, it made Mr. Phil sad at him, and that made him sad, and that made Mr. Phil more sad, and that just made him feel sadder still. It was a vicious cycle.

“Agent Coulson informed me earlier that the same rules apply at home.” JARVIS answered. Bucky just nodded. He knew the rules. No processed sugars between eleven p.m. and seven-thirty a.m., unless you have just come off a mission, or otherwise specified. 

“Thanks, Mr. Jarvis!” he smiled, waving at the closest camera.

“You are welcome, young Sergeant. Might I suggest, if you are in need of sugar, there is a punnet of raspberries in the second drawer of the fridge.” The AI responded.

Bucky punched the air. He loved raspberries. Almost as much as he loved sweets. They were the best fruit to ever have existed ever in the history of the earth. They were so good. The best. And he needed them, right now. He slid off the counter, walking over to the fridge to received his fruit.

Steve had decided to have some of the left over cookies with his cereal. He grabbed three of them, offering one to Tony who declined.

“No thanks, Squirt. Cereal’s more than plenty for me.” said the brunet, carrying two bowls to the table. He placed Bucky’s, the one in the Thomas the Tank Engine bowl, at the head of the table, and sat down to the left of this little brother’s place. Aforementioned little brother slipped happily into his chair, hands clutching a container full of raspberries. Tony chuckled. Of course, the boy was obsessed with those things. He could devour a whole tub on his own if left unsupervised. Clearly Steve had helped him to measure a reasonable serve. The blonde was the other’s impulse control, and always had been.

They all ate in happy silence, slurping milk and cereal, along with raspberries and cookies and glasses of juice that Steve poured. Tony’s eyelid started to droop. He was enjoying his brothers’ company, but he soon found that sleep had claimed him.

Chapter Text

Terrible monsters chased Bruce back into consciousness. That was one of things that sucked about being a superhero; something is always trying to kill you. Nightmares sucked as an adult, but they sucked way worse as a kid. And right now, they were sucking even worser than ever.

He hadn’t even noticed he was crying until he tried to cry out. All he managed to do was sob loudly, and that made him cry harder because if he couldn’t call out, he couldn’t get help. He was stuck in his crib in the dark in a strange room he didn’t really recognise. That was almost as scary as his nightmare had been, and Bruce found himself sobbing harder and harder, gulping for air like a he was drowning.

But he wasn’t as alone as he seemed. JARVIS had noticed his plight, and had alerted the very best person for the task of calming him down. And that man was Thor.

He crept down the hall, steps as quiet as possible. Rounding the doorframe to the nursery, he saw his son. Poor Bruce was huddled into the corner of his crib, blanket slipping out of the bars. The boy’s stuffed giraffe, Jessie, had fallen out of bed during the night, landing in the middle of the plush blue carpet. The dear child, he had nothing with which to comfort himself, he could cry all night. And that was just not right. No one deserved that.

Footsteps silenced on the plush rug, Thor walked to the side of the crib. 

“Come here, Käraste.” he whispered. His boy looked up, big brown eyes red-rimmed and filled with tears. His little face was enough to break your heart, full of love and pain and covered with tear tracks. He softened, hiccupping out a breath. Slowly, his arms raised, and Thor was all too happy to pick him up.

The first thing he noticed was that the boy was cold. He must have tossed himself about in his sleep, no doubt trying to escape whatever had been trying to harm him as he slept. Reaching back into the crib, Thor retrieved one of the blankets, wrapping it gently around Bruce. The boy shivered with cold and gratefulness, tucked under the taller man’s chin. He nestled in closer, still crying.

“Try to calm down, little one. You’ll bruise your lungs like that.” He patted the boy in the back. To give the boy credit, he really did try. But it had been a ing hard night, and he just couldn’t. He wanted to, he did, and that made him want to cry more, but he needed to calm down.

“Papa?” he whispered between hefting breaths.

“Yes, Bruce, it’s Papa. I’m right here.” He rocked the boy gently. 

His breathing evened out over the course of several minutes. Every couple of breaths came with a start and a gasp, but he was getting there. He had thankfully stopped shaking, and was warming up nicely. The boy was very brave, and Thor was ever so proud of him for his ability to bounce back the way he had.

When Bruce seemed to have calmed enough, Thor tucked Jessie into the boy’s chest. He made a sound of calm remembrance, pulling his beloved giraffe closer to himself, before snuggling back into the warm mass of his Papa’s torso.

They continued their gentle rocking for several minutes, breathing in the quiet, until Bruce had finally settled. He wasn’t drowsy, nor was he making any attempt to go back to sleep.

“What troubles you, young one?”

Bruce mumbled something into his chest. 

“You’ll have to speak up, Käraste. I cannot hear you.” He chuckled, bouncing him up and down with care, moving him closer to here him better.

“Bad people taked you ‘way from me.” he murmured sadly, “And they hurt you and called you bad an’, an’, an’ I couldn’t help and you di’n’t love me ‘nymore and you left forever ‘cause I’m bad.”

The poor man had been through too much. The child inside him had suffered through it as well. His Bruce was a strong, kind man. Unfortunately, the world likes to break good people. And they had gotten to Bruce before he could save him. But, instead of looking at what he could not do, he thought of what he could do. He huddled the boy closer in his arms.

“There will always be bad people in our lives, my love, it is a fact of who we are. But they have not the power to take me away from you. Nothing short of death will stop me from coming home to you. And even then, I will always be here. My ghost always watches.”

The sentiment was there, even if the words bordered on disturbing near the end, and Bruce found himself comforted by them. His Papa was here, and the bad people weren’t and he was loved. That was enough. It would always be enough.

Exhaustion started to take the boy. He yawned, tucking one arm around his carer’s neck, and the other tucked around his shirt. He snuffled and sighed, relaxing his tired muscles and preparing once more for sleep.

Thor rocked him in the darkness for a short time, debating whether to put him back in his crib. But he couldn’t make himself. He loved his boy too much, and right now he wanted to hold his beloved close by his heart, if only to prove that he was there. The nights were long and cold here, but he found himself less bothered when ones he loved surrounded him.

His mind was made up. He would spend the night with his little man. The armchair in the corner of the room caught his eye. He crossed the room, and sat down slowly, so as not to wake the baby. Bruce snuffled at the movement, but stayed peacefully asleep. The chair was soft, velvet upholstery soft and welcoming. Thor spread the blanket the was covering Bruce over himself as well, settling into a slow rock.

It reminded him of his own childhood. His mother, gentle and kind, carrying him in her lap as she rode her horse through the field on Asgard. A time without war. A time full of love. Family, Thor decided, was the most perfect and beautiful thing a person could have. Even if it was broken. And the family he had here, lacking the bond of blood but not the bond of brotherhood, was a gift he hadn’t deserved. And he cherished it.

He was taken by sleep soon after.

Chapter Text

Phil woke to the sound of rain. When he looked out the window, he found that it was much worse than that. It was sleet. That meant keeping the children inside the house that day. He hoped that he was ready for eight bored youngster in the one place. 

He slipped out of his pyjamas, cursing the cold as he went. He threw on his thickest clothes, trying to warm himself up some. He instructed JARVIS to ignite the fireplaces around the cabin. The AI answered in affirmation, and flame kindled to life in the room soon after.

With the cold beginning to abate, Phil turned his attention to breakfast. Making a mental inventory of everything in the fridge, he made his way to the kitchen. He passed the nursery as he went, and popped his head into the room to check on Bruce. He wasn’t surprised to find that Thor was there, holding his boy and dozing in the armchair. Someone mustn’t have slept well, but it was hard to tell who. They looked at ease now, and that was all that mattered. 

Wanda and Natasha must’ve heard movement, as they were both peaking out of their bedroom door. He wasn’t surprised that they were awake. Neither liked the cold much, and life had conditioned them to rise at the slightest sound. The youngest waved at Phil. He waved back.

“Good morning, ladies. Did you sleep well?” he asked.

“Yup.” Wanda nodded. Her pigtails bobbed with her head.

“She was out the whole night, Phil.” Natasha confirmed. She avoided mentioning her own sleep, but Phil left it be. If she needed help, she’d come to him.

“Would you like breakfast?” he asked. The growling of the girls’ stomachs answered for them. Natasha giggled, and pulled her sister back into the room, mumbling something about getting dressed. He knew they would join him in the kitchen in no time at all.

An unexpected scene met him when he descended the stairs. Tony, Steve and Bucky, asleep at the dining room table, the evidence of a midnight snack surrounding them. Occurrences such as this were not wholly uncommon, but he usually only found one nighttime nibbler at a time. It was cute, Tony had he head on the table, hand still clutching a spoon, while Steve had collapsed leaning back in his chair, crumbs on his face and shirt. He must have aged down during the night. Bucky, well, he was splattered with raspberry from top to toe. The boy loved his berries.

He began to clear up mess, placing all but Tony’s spoon in the dishwasher. He didn’t want to risk waking the boy trying to wrestle the utensil from his grip. That turned out to be a mistake. Tony woke up, stretched, and tried to rub his eye, hitting himself in the face with his spoon. The noise he made following the incident woke the others. 

“Mornin’, Uncle Phil.” croaked Steve, his Brooklyn accent painting his words. 

“Good morning, Steven. Are you hungry?” he smiled as the boy nodded, “I’m just about to make something.”

“B’ekfis sc’amble?” yawned Bucky. If there was anything he liked more than raspberries, it was eggs and beans. That saved Phil from trying to come up with a different idea so he nodded, and began to gather the ingredients.

Tony walked over, grabbing at his caretaker with his arms, demanding a hug. Phil was more than happy to oblige. Tony rarely sort out physical affection, and while their hugs were few and far between, Phil cherished every one. He smoothed the young man’s hair down, until his hand was batted away.

“You’re throwing off my vibe, Mr. Coulson! How’m I supposed to look punk rock with my hair neat?” he whined playfully.

“By wearing leather and eyeliner.” he quipped at the preteen. “Which you can change into before breakfast. Make sure your brothers get dressed, too, please.” 

Tony smiled, muttering something. Phil knew he appreciated the responsibility that came with a task as simple as dressing his brothers. It made the boy feel useful, allowing him to relax without feeling like a burden. He grabbed his brothers’ hands, leading them upstairs to dress them. Tony was truly a good boy, even if he pretended he wasn’t.

Wanda was the first down the to the kitchen. She had her dragon hoodie on, a pink, fluffy monstrosity that Clint had gotten her for her first birthday with the family. She adored it. Phil was happy it had cooled down enough for her to wear it again. The orange wings flapped up and down against her back as she shuffled into the kitchen. 

Natasha and Steve were next, arguing heatedly about whether it was raining or snowing. Natasha was arguing that ‘this is hardly snow’, while Steve was adamant that this was a little more than rain. He was gesturing wildly out the window. It was clear that the redhead knew he was right, but she was enjoying winding him up to much to stop. Phil pointedly refused to join in the argument. JARVIS helpfully pointed out that it was sleeting. It did little to help the argument, they continued to debate the finer points of weather.

Tony led Bucky down next, pursued by Thor and Bruce. Bucky was wearing his pirate onesie, the fun one with the beard attached to the hood, while Bruce was wearing his sailor onesie. Phil had a sneaking feeling that Thor and Tony had done that on purpose. The contrast was adorable. 

Thor joined him in the kitchen, cracking eggs into a bowl. The kids took their seats around the table. All except for Tony, who began to set the table quietly, without having to be asked. A ball of sadness and appreciation was alight in Phil’s chest. The boy craved validation and care, always working hard to impress. Phil wished he could do more for him.

His thoughts were interrupted by the thumping and clattering of Pietro and Clint. The boys were the last of their merry medley to come down to the kitchen. They were still in their pyjamas, and Phil sent them back to their rooms to change. He was sure that Pietro had poked his tongue out on the way back up the stairs, but he ignored it. Let the boy have some healthy rebellion, he told himself.

They stomped back into the kitchen shortly after, and Clint complained loudly that he was ‘dying of starvation and practically dead already’ as he slumped down at the table. He and Pietro began banging their fists on the table, knife and fork in hand, demanding food. They were quite the pair, and persuasive too, as Thor bribed them with an extra piece of bacon each so they wouldn’t upset the toddlers with their noise. It was a pointless bribe, because the toddlers in question had started a sword fight with their spoons in true pirate fashion.

Phil served a portion of the scramble onto each plate. Extra for the super soldiers, no bacon for Wanda, and perfectly even portions for everyone else. He served himself a plate, and handed the saucepan to Thor. It was unorthodox, but it worked. 

Breakfast, for the most part, was uneventful. Steve managed to get syrup behind his ear, though, causing Clint to laugh so hard he choked on his own food. This caused the whole table to laugh, including eventually Clint himself. Natasha laughed so hard he had to excuse herself from the table to calm down.

They ate in comfortable quiet until Pietro spoke up, “Hey Uncle Phil,” he said, mouth full with eggs, “Weren’t we ‘sposed to go to the lake today?” 

“Pietro, don’t speak with your mouth full. And yes, we were, but look at the weather. It wouldn’t be safe.” Phil thought that this might happen. He had promised that the kids could have a run around in the woods that day if they went to bed without a fuss. But, Mother Nature answered to no man. 

“What’re we gonna instead?” the blonde asked.

“Well, what do you want to do?” He left the sentence open for suggestions. He had no idea what to do with a cabin full of littles when it was snowing. He’d leave it up to them.

“Like, anything?” The boy had a glint in his eye. An ‘I’m-up-to-no-good’ glint. Phil rolled his eyes internally.

“Within reason.” he clarified, pointing his fork at the kid. Pietro threw his hands up in defeat, a cheeky grin cracking over his features. The boy sat thinking. This was clearly a difficult decision for him to make.

“Can we play sardines?” he asked after a minute. The rest of the kids cheered with delight, begging Phil to let them. The game was too hard to play in the Tower. They usually had to limit it to one floor, and it hard to find places worth hiding in that hadn’t been used many times before. But, here at the cabin, there was more space. On top of that, there were many rooms Phil hadn’t even been into. The game promised to be a fun one.

“Of course.” he answered. His kids cheered.

“When?” asked Steve, red in the face with anticipation.

“After breakfast.” promised Phil. The whole table began eating again with gusto.

Chapter Text

They all gathered in the living room shortly after they had eaten. They all agreed that it was a good neutral space, because it was open plan and had no places worth hiding in. JARVIS was forbidden from helping the older kids, but allowed to assist young Bucky, who insist on going alone. Bruce was perfectly happy to be teamed up with Thor though, and they would be the first to hide.

So, there they all sat, eyes closed on the rug in front of the fire, waiting. The sound of a bell tinkled throughout the room, JARVIS’s signal that a hiding place had been chosen. Everyone scattered from the room, heading in every direction to try and find the pair of Sardines.

Phil opted to take upstairs. He had a sneaking suspicion that Thor and Bruce were hiding in the playroom. It seemed an appropriate place to start the game. After all, they were playing. He walked a little faster than he normally would. He, too, was excited to josh around like a child again. Let his hair down, as it were. 

He reached the playroom, second on the left, and crept inside. The room, at first glance, was empty. It was also empty at second glance. It continued to be empty for the entire time Phil was in there. His hunch was wrong. 

He tried the nursery. And the bathroom, and the master bedroom, guest bedroom, and the adjacent ensuites. They weren’t anywhere. Phil took his search downstairs. He ran into Wanda he went, who was heading upstairs to continue her own search. 

The cabin was oddly quiet. The rain drowning out most of the noise into a dull haze, and the cabin felt peaceful. Almost as if no one was in there at all. Phil accepted defeat. He had never won this game, he was frankly crap at it. It was fun, frustrating and completely impossible for an adult to win. 

He checked the kitchen. There wasn’t much by way of hiding places in there, but he was sure some determined young ones could fit themselves into the cupboards. They weren’t there. They weren’t in the dining room, or under the steps. He was running out of places to look. 

Lastly, he checked the laundry. It was a small room, tucked in next to the stairwell, but it was surprisingly spacious. At least it would be if it wasn’t packed to the rafters with superheroes. The only people missing were Tony and Wanda. The rest was crammed in behind the ironing board, or on top of it in Clint’s case. Bucky offered him a happy wave, clapping soundlessly at him, evidently excited that Phil had managed to find them. It made him smile, and he waved back. He squashed in against the wall. Time crawled on. 

Wanda found them next, muttering in Sokovian, no doubt berating herself for not checking the laundry. It took several more minutes before Tony found them. If there was someone as bad at this game as he was, Tony took the title. He swaggered into the room, smiling like a dork. He surveyed the team, then went off to find his own hiding place.

And so it continued. Tony hid in the playroom, inside the clothe teepee, and was not found for a long while. It seemed an obvious hiding place, and yet, they were all stupid enough to miss it. Phil lost that round, having completely skipped over the room in his search. On his turn, he hid in the master ensuite, inside the claw foot tub, and waited for the others to find him. It was gruelling, the minutes dripping by like treacle. Bucky found him first. Steve followed soon after, remarking that ‘adults pick the boring hiding places.’ The rest followed quickly.

It was nearing time for lunch before they stopped. Natasha had found the most amazing hiding place, so amazing that no one had been able to find her. They had to get JARVIS to tell her to meet them in the living room. She appeared to be very happy with herself, and refused to tell anyone where she had been hiding. 

The kids were exhausted, a little hungry, but overall very happy. Just they way Phil liked it.

Chapter Text

They had eaten lunch. The kids were all happy. Everything was fine. Phil would swear to it. Everything had been right as rain when he had ducked upstairs to change Bucky. He had been gone for about six minutes, four minutes longer than he had expected it to take, because the little rascal had decided to go for a run with no pants on. Thankfully, he hadn’t tried to descend the stairs. But, six minutes was all it took. 

When he returned to the dining area, the scene that met him was a shock. Tony was shoving Clint, clearly riled up something awful, an angry and harsh look on his face. Clint had his arms folded, equally as mad, ready to strike. 

Natasha beat him to it. She socked Tony hard in the jaw, causing him to stumble into the kitchen table. Phil had been on the receiving of one of those such punches. They were brutal, even if you did deserve them. The only problem with that was, Phil couldn’t determine if Tony had deserved it. 

Phil turned to Bucky, tearing his attention away from the group for only a second. The tot hated violence and fighting, and it hurt him even more when it was his friends doing it. The boy had big, fat tears in his eyes. Phil sent him back upstairs, telling him to wait in the nursery. Bucky was a strong boy, and the man was confident that he would be able to hold himself together while he sorted out the problem.

He turned his attention back to the group. He had only looked away for five seconds to help Bucky, but things happened fast. Pietro had tried to pull Natasha away from Tony, and she had elbowed him in the gut, causing him to cry out. He stumbled, holding his middle and looking hurt and angry. That made Wanda upset. She turned to run outside, hoping to get away from the chaos, and knocked over Bruce, who started to cry. Before Phil had even reached the bottom of the stairs, Thor had started to yell.

Everything went still. No one moved. The Asgardian realised his mistake, but it was too late to change his actions. When they had first started to care for the littles, they had spent hours setting up ground rules, discussing triggers, trying to avoid situations like this. The first rule they had ever written was ‘Don’t yell.’ Not in anger, not ever. None of their kids could take it. And now, he didn’t know what to do.

Tony was the first to move. He was shaking, a full-body tremor, memories long hidden breaking into the front of his mind. He turned towards Phil, trying to retreat to his room.  And Phil made his first mistake. He thrust out his arm, trying to keep Tony downstairs, trying to fix whatever had just happened. The boy flinched something awful, shrinking in on himself. It broke his heart, watching the brunet look at him with fear and pain in his eyes. He had never wanted to remind the boy of Howard, and now he had. He had ruined years of trust in a second. 

Tony fled. He was out the door before anyone could stop him, swinging over the porch railing and out of sight. He ran into the woods, being pelted by the rain. Phil wanted to chase him, needed to catch him and help him and apologise, but he knew that would make things worse. Tony would come back when he was ready. Phil turned his attention to the children inside. 

Thor had picked up Bruce, cradling the boy, whispering to him in a language Phil didn’t understand. The resilient young boy seemed to be calming down. He didn’t appear to be injured, just badly shaken. Bruce hadn’t had the best life, but he was trusting and forgiving, and Phil was sure that he would bounce back. He was still crying, but that was to be expected. 

The others looked worse. Steve was standing back from the group looking worse for wear, teetering between little and big. He had tears in his eyes, but he wouldn’t cry in-between headspaces if he could help it. Natasha looked guilty. She was clenching and unclenching her fists, looking at the ground. Clint looked lost. He was looking at Phil pleadingly. The boy needed to be held and comforted, but he wasn’t asking. He wasn't saying anything. That was a had sign. Pietro was crying. And Phil didn’t know who to go to first, or what to do. This had never happened before. He needed to make sure it would never happen again. 

He wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come. He choked out a question, not even sure what he had said. He waited for someone to answer. No one did. No one could.

He was lost. He couldn’t deal with this, and yet, he was the adult here. He had to. He took several deep, steadying breaths, settling himself. He turned to Thor.

“Thor, please take Bruce upstairs. It’s nap time, and I think it would do him some good. If you can, put Bucky down for one, too. Put the starlight on.” he said, emotionless and clear. He could deal with his own feelings later. For now, he was needed here. The man nodded, carrying Bruce on his hip. He turned to the group.

“Pietro, you and I will go and find Wanda in a minute. When we do, please take her to your room, and stay there until I come and get you. If her clothes are wet, please see that she changes out of them.” 

The mutant nodded, calming significantly. He was clearly worried for his sister. Phil wanted to reassure him, but he wasn’t sure he could. As of that moment, he wasn’t sure what sort of state Wanda was in, and he didn’t want to comfort the boy with hopes or lies. 

“Natasha, please go to your room and wait for me there. I will need to talk to you. Try to calm down, it will do you some good.” 

She stalked upstairs, muttering an apology to Pietro on the way, who nodded to her. She stopped as she reached Phil, torn between asking for a hug and knowing she didn’t deserve one. He placed a hand on her shoulder, offering just enough comfort for her to know that she was safe. 

“Steve, if you are feeling little, please go and lie down. If you are feeling big, please empty the dishwasher and begin preparations for dinner. If you aren’t sure, feel free to do either. I will come find you when this is over.”

The man nodded. He walked upstairs also. Phil turned to the last boy. Clint looked tired and broken. He wouldn’t meet Phil’s eye, not even when he called his name.

“Clint, please sit down. I want to talk to you, but it will have to wait until after we’ve found Wanda. I don’t mind where you want to sit, but please do not move until I get back.”

The boy nodded dully, slumping into one of the dining room chairs, resting his head on the table. Phil rounded on Pietro, and they both walked out into the rain. It was bucketing down, but thankfully, it was all water now. They did a lap of the porch, and then descended the stairs. Wanda was sitting under them, in a dry patch. She was dry, and Phil suspected her powers had been involved. Pietro scooped her up, and dashed inside as a blur of colour. Phil went more sedately, preparing himself for what was to come. 

Clint was exactly where he’d left him, slumped on the table. Just looking at him, he knew that today would be one of the hardest in his life. He sat down in the seat across from the boy. He looked up, tears already in his eyes. 

“Clint, I want you to tell me what happened. Leave nothing out.” He folded his hands in front of himself, waiting for the boy to start speaking. It took some minutes, but he eventually told him.

“Tony said he wished he’d had you for a dad, that you were the best thing that had ever happened to him. I told him that was stupid. He got mad and said that I was being mean, and I told him he deserved it, and he pushed me and said he’d give me what I deserved, and I pushed him back and told him the only reason any of us hang around him is ‘cause we live in his house, and he told me that he could throw me out at any time and no one would stop him ‘cause no one loves me, and we started shoving and then Tasha punched him and hurt Pietro and Wanda ran away and Bruce was crying and Thor shouted at us all and you came back.” 

Clint stayed quiet for a moment. Phil didn’t know how to respond. They’d had fights before, but never like this. He had to get to the bottom of it.

“Clint, why did it upset you when Tony said he wishes I was his father?” he asked. Clint shrugged.

“Tony had a dad. And a mom. And I had nothing and he can’t even be grateful for it. He doesn’t get it and he shouldn’t want it ‘cause he already had all the things,” he trailed off to a whisper, “and I had nothing.”

It was true that Tony had it all when he was young, but it hadn’t been sunshine and rainbows. Tony suffered the way Clint did, albeit in different ways. He had every right to want to change his life, and so did Clint. He explained this. Clint only shrugged.

“You told Tony he deserved it when you were mean to him. You told him that none of us truly want him around. Do you believe that?” he asked.

Clint shook his head, flushing red.

“Why did you say it if you knew it wasn’t true?” Phil knew he was on the right track, because Clint was taking a while to answer. The young man was trying desperately to do the right thing, even though he knew he’d be in trouble for what he’d done.

The boy was shouting all of a sudden. “BECAUSE YOU LOVE HIM MORE THAN ME!” 

With that, the boy broke down into sobs. Deep, racking, angry sobs. He buried his face into his arms and shook, gasping for breath as he did. Phil was shocked. He had no idea how to respond. He stood and rounded the table, pulling the boy up into his arms. He held him in his arms. Clint threw his arms around him, clawing at his the mans arms, trying to pull him closer somehow. He stood and cried, until there was nothing left.

“Clint?” Phil spoke softly. The boy looked up at him with red eyes. “Is that what all this is about? You think that I love you less than I love the others?” 

Clint nodded. Phil’s eyes filled with tears. How could he have failed him like that? He was the worst caregiver on earth. 

“Clint, I want you to listen to me, this is very important. I love you more than anything on earth. I don’t love you any more or any less than your siblings. And nothing you do can or will change that. I love you, and you have no idea how sorry I am that you didn’t know that.” Phil took a break to hug the boy, who was crying again, more in relief than anything else. After a moment he pulled away.

“Why did you think I didn’t love you?” he had to know how to fix this. 

Clint rubbed the back of his neck. “You read the others stories and tuck ‘em in and dress ‘em and stuff. You feed Bucky ’n’ Bruce, and you tell Tony he’s a good boy an’ you don’t do that with me.”

Phil was surprised. He never would of guessed, Clint was always so independent. But the more he thought, the more obvious it became. No one ever did those things for the boy. Of course he’d want them.

“I never knew you wanted those things. We need to talk about this, and maybe try a younger age. I’m sorry I let this happen, but now we can fix it together. I hope in the future you’ll tell me when something is.” He cuddled the boy again. Clint calmed down in his arms.

“Sorry, Phil. I didn’t mean to.” 

They broke from their embrace a minute later. Clint looked much better, almost as good as new. But, he still looked like he had something to say. Phil was about to ask him what was wrong, but the boy surprised him by answering the unspoken question.

“Can I call you Dad?” he whispered. And there was only one answer for that.

“Yes, Son. Of course you can.”

_________

 

He knocked on Natasha’s door, preparing to have a similar conversation with her. She opened it on the first knock and surprised him by launching into speech.

“I know what I did wrong. I took matters into my own hands when I should have waited for you, and I acted out instead of trying to neutralise the situation. I caused two people pain. I shouldn’t have punched Tony because it wasn’t my place and he hadn’t deserved it, and I shouldn’t have elbowed Pietro because he was doing the right thing and he also didn’t deserve it. I know you told me to wait in my room and I’m sorry but I went and apologised to Pietro already and we made up and he isn’t hurt, and I need to apologise to Tony and you but I can’t apologise to Tony because he’s not here and I’m very worried about him because the storm is getting worse and he might get sick or hurt. So, I’m very sorry and I know what I’m supposed to do if this ever happens again. Can we go find Tony now?” 

She hardly stopped for breath. But, Phil was very impressed with her. It had taken a long time to come to a place where she could admit to and solve her own problems. He accepted her apology. And he was certain that she was right. It was very important to find Tony.

“Tasha, I do believe you’re right. Can you go and find Steve for me? Ask him how he’s feeling. If he feels up to it, he may come and help find Tony if he please. If not, tell him where I am, and stay and look after him. Okay?” 

She nodded, speeding off to Steve’s room. Phil ducked in and checked on the toddlers on Thor, letting the man know where he was going. Thor offered to go with him, but declined, instead asking him to stay home with the kids. Thor agreed that one of them should stay behind. He also checked on the twins, who had bounced back like rubber balls. They were playing a game of cards, and were both content to stay at home. He was glad they were alright.

He met Natasha in the hall. Steve had slipped back down, and she was going to stay with him and make sure he was alright. He thanked her, pulling on his boots and coat. It looked bad out there.

Clint came running into the room, pulling on his own coat. “I’m coming with you. I’m gonna fix this.”

Phil knew there was no arguing with him. They set off into the rain.

They trudged through the mud, rain beating their faces. Clint suggested that Tony would go to the lake to calm down. Phil thought that was a likely thought. They set off in that directions.

Twenty cold, wet minutes later, and they found Tony. Clint rushed over to him, pulling him into his arms. He apologised over and over, and Tony returned them just as many times. They stood and embraced for a while. Phil beckoned them over. 

“I’m glad you boys have sorted this all out. I think the whole ordeal is punishment enough. Now Tony, Clint and I had a talk, and he’s thinking of trying a younger age. If that’s something you’d like, please let me know.” 

Tony looked thoughtful, considering the idea. “I think I’d like that.” He smiled.

“And I’m gonna call Phil Dad now, and I though maybe you’d wanna have him as your dad, too,  and we could be brothers and stuff.” Clint blurted. Tony nodded, pulling Clint closer.

“Brothers.” he declared.

They made short work of their trip back to the cabin. Everyone was waiting downstairs for them. Hugs were shared by them all, apologies given and received, and the bond that connected them all strengthened by the struggle. 

Thor promised to get dinner on while the three watery wanderers washed themselves. The crisis was over, and Phil knew what he had to do next. All was well.

Chapter Text

Everyone seemed to have settled down nicely when Phil and the boys returned home. Bucky had aged up during his nap, and was thoughtfully preparing dinner with Natasha and Steve.
Tony and Clint squelched off to the shower at his request. It would be a shame to cut the vacation short because someone had fallen ill. He also needed to wash the cold rain away, but he was sure it wouldn't kill him to wait. He instead set himself to slicing shallots into delicate rings for Bucky.
The kitchen was warm and crowded as they tried to cook. Bucky was browning turkey mince in a pan, preparing a dish Phil didn't recognise. Natasha was helping him cut up all kinds of different vegetables, while Steve was tasked with carrying them over to the stove so Bucky could add them to the dish.
Tony came downstairs after a while, followed closely by Bruce. They both looked tired and hungry, sniffing deeply when they came close enough. And they weren't the only ones. The twins followed their noses, too, and Phil found himself swamped by littles. Not that he truly minded, he was just glad the chaos from earlier had abated.
He excused himself to go and rinse off, meeting Clint halfway up the stairs. The boy looked giddy, grinning toothily as he passed. Phil ruffled his hair lovingly, looking forward to trying a new dynamic with his boy. The archer ducked his head, showing away with a blush. It made him look impossibly young, and it made Phil's chest tighten with love. Life was going to be good.
The shower was just what the doctor ordered. Hot and steamy, it relaxed and refreshed him all at once. He could feel the day dripping off his shoulders, trickling down the drain like it had never happened.
He changed into dry clothes as quickly as possible, eager to return to his family. He was, however, stopped by Thor on his way back down stairs.
"Brother Coulson, I fear my presence will not be appreciated at dinner tonight."
Phil was confused. He'd never seen Thor look so disheartened, and he couldn't work out where such an idea had come from. It dawned on him after a beat; Thor had yelled sat the kids, and had broken rule one. A moment of conversation proved that.
"I fear that the good tidings between us have been lost. I do not wish to make them uncomfortable." Thor spoke gloomily.
Phil laughed despite himself. He wasn't sure what had gone wrong in Thor's mind, but somewhere along the way, he had forgotten that they lived when some of the most forgiving people on earth. He explained as much. Thor was not quite convinced, but he still joined him downstairs.
Dinner was almost ready, and the family sat around the table, waiting out the last few minutes. Thor apologised to the children, and he was forgiven wholeheartedly. The atmosphere in the room was light with love. They had put the day behind them, and Phil couldn't have been prouder. All was well.

Chapter Text

Phil had been sitting by the living room fire since the children had gone to bed. They may have been able to put the day behind them, but he was still fretting. Things had turned sour so quickly, and as far as he could tell, the whole situation could have been prevented had he been a better father. He spent hours lost in his mind, berating himself for all the things he could have done differently for all the months leading up to this day. Anything he could have done better. Things he should have been.

Lost in thought, he didn’t hear Clint descend the stairs. The man had surfaced, worried about his handler. The day had gotten out of hand, mostly thanks to him. And Phil had swooped in and fixed everything. And if Clint knew his handler, the man now needed his help. 

He was right. Phil was on the couch, staring off into space, looking tired and haunted. Poor guy was probably finding ways that this was all his fault. He cleared his throat as his approached, rousing the man from his stupor.

“Hey, boss.” he greeted.

“I thought you were in bed.” said Phil. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Nah. Needed to check on you. Make sure you weren’t beating yourself up too hard.” he smiled, before turning his expression more serious. “You holding up alright?”

Phil took a while to answer. He dropped his head into his hands, scrubbing the his palms over his face.

“How did I get it so wrong?” he whispered, and then louder, “I’ve let you down, Clint. I don’t know how to make it right.”

Clint crossed to floor towards him. He dropped down onto the couch next to him, and pulled Phil’s arm around him. And there they sat, Phil’s quiet tears soaking into his shirt. This was what they had needed all day, even if they hadn’t noticed. Minutes ticked by, until finally, Phil pulled away, wiping his eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be. These things just happen.” said Clint, “But, the great thing about mistakes is, you get to fix them.” 

Phil smiled, “You are absolutely right, Clint. How would you like to proceed? Take as long as you need.”

This was how Tony found them, still pressed close together, thinking. He joined them silently, curling around his brother’s other side. He had aged up as he slept as well, and what he wanted now was to know what was going to happen in the future. He was lucky they were all thinking the same as him. 

Clint spoke first. “I like how you are with Bucky. He just sorta,” he gestured around with his hands, “acts on instinct, and you just go with it. But I don’t think I wanna be that young. It’s too scary to, like, give yourself over to someone like that. I don’t think I could do that.”

Tony jumped in when he finished speaking, “I think I’d like being carried around. You don’t hug us older kids as much as you do with Bruce and Bucky.”

And the list went on. 

“Can you tuck us into bed?” asked Clint.

“And read us stories?” followed Tony.

Phi assured them that they could try anything they wanted. Anything for his boys. Anything at all, as long as they were happy. 

They talked until daybreak. The conversation left Phil in a better mindset than he had been the previous evening. Clint and Tony also seemed more settled, too. They knew what to expect from the days to come. Phil sent them back to bed, promising to come and get them for breakfast. 

Both boys had agreed to trying to age down a little further, and Phil had plans to ease them into it during the day. He hoped to make them comfortable enough to at least tuck them into bed that night, but that required some preparations.

After an hour or so, he went upstairs and woke Thor. If they were going to do this, they needed all hands on deck. Thankfully, Bruce and Bucky had both awoken big, and were more than happy to lend their assistance and their nursery. Phil fell neatly into the role he knew well: team leader. He delegated the task of breakfast to Bruce, and instructed Thor and Bucky to wrangle the kids when the woke. 

He started in the nursery, picking clothes for his young boys. Tony was closer to Bruce’s build, and Clint to Bucky’s, making it easier to choose outfits for each of them. It was still a hard task, however. He was walking a fine line between making the boys comfortable, and dressing them for the ages they had decided to try. It took him longer than he would have liked, but he was happy with the results. 

He set up some activities in the living room for later in the day. It was still raining outside, and he wanted to keep his kids happy. He set out colouring books, blocks, a jigsaw puzzle and some action figures for the younger kids, as well as hooking a gaming system up to the television for the tweens. He hoped that the variety would give them a chance to explore. 

He was nervous. He wanted this experiment to go well, wanted his family to feel happy and safe and cared-for, but he wasn’t sure if he was going in the right direction. He hoped he wasn’t trying too hard. He also hoped the boys wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

It was no use to wonder. He would have to wake the boys and find out.