Phil is going to miss New Mexico. Sure the heat is oppressive and he can't strip down to a t-shirt like everyone else if he wants to maintain Nick Fury levels of unflappability, there's nowhere to get good pizza, and he's pretty sure there are people cooking meth in the desert, but this was the first assignment that he's had complete control over. It was nice, being reported to instead of being the reporter
Thor disappeared in a beam a light, though, and without the hammer Fury ordered the facility dismantled (not a moment too soon, really, the UFO nuts were becoming difficult to deal with). Stark Industries jets have been brought in to fly everyone back to New York, on Stark's dime of course – Phil's pretty sure that that was one of Fury's conditions on making him a 'consultant'.
“This is a nice plane,” Clint comments as they settle in for the ride home.
“Apparently Stark's private plane has pole dancing stewardesses,” Phil replies, scanning the first page of his New Mexico reports for grammatical errors. Fury's kind of picky about that sort of thing.
“See, now why did you tell me that?” Clint gets up and crosses over to the extremely well stocked drinks cabinet. “At least the alcohol comes standard.”
Phil shrugs. “Sorry.”
They make good time over the midwest, half the time of a commercial plane, at least. The environment weeps, Phil's sure.
Once they're closing on New York, the buttons in his armrest begin to flash. He looks at them, and then at Clint, who's been asleep for the last hour, before carefully pushing the largest button. A holographic screen projects in front of his seat, and he just barely stops himself from jumping – fucking Stark. Natasha comes into view.
“You're finally in range,” she says loudly.
He puts his fingers to his lips. “Clint's sleeping.”
“Turn the volume down,” she says.
He pauses for a second, studying the keypad, before pressing the down arrow a couple of times. The bars on the screen correspondingly go down. “Okay,” he says.
“I am very glad to see you, Philip,” she says and smiles a little too much.
He narrows his eyes. “Why?” he asks after a moment.
“Because now you're back in New York airspace, Stark is your responsibility again.”
“I see. What happened?”
She takes a breath and rolls her eyes briefly skyward. “He has been extremely interested in our Captain America situation. He very much wants to meet Rogers.” When Phil frowns and opens his mouth, she nods. “Pretty sure he hacked into our system.”
“Oh. Well, good. What do you want me to do?”
“Pepper's away until Thursday, so you need to... handle him. As his handler.”
“I'm fairly certain he doesn't even know who I am. Last time we met he thought I was one of his accountants. At least he has reason to remember you.”
She smiles. “Well, thankfully Fury wants me working with Maria on the Avengers Initiative, not wasting my time babysitting Tony.” She clears her throat and glances away. “I'm sure you'll figure something out, you normally do.”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence.”
“...Coulson, C O U L S O N. Please tell Mr Stark to call me back on this number at his earliest convenience.”
Phil's pretty sure the PA doesn't even write his name down. In fact, Potts's replacement seems to exist solely to obfuscate the situation: 'oh, Mr Stark is in a meeting, I mean at lunch, on vacation. Camping, left his cell at the office'. Phil doesn't believe for one moment that Tony Stark of all people goes anywhere without at least three pieces of technology on him. He picks up the phone again and dials through to their surveillance division.
“Hi, it's Agent Coulson-” He lays his hand flat on the palm reader. 'Verified' flashes twice in green. “I need a trace on Iron Man's power source, and any phones registered to Tony Stark. Thanks.”
He's pretty sure that if Stark wants to go on an off the grid adventure, he won't be bringing along any phones registered in his name, but the arc reactor gives off a very particular sort of energy, and if he's lucky one of their satellites might be able to detect it. Nobody's seen Stark since Saturday, but nobody on his staff or at his company seems concerned, which suggests to him that this is a calculated disappearance and not one of Stark's benders.
There's a knock at his door. “Come in.”
Clint leans around the door frame. “Thought I should let you know, Cap just escaped and ran barefoot into Times Square.”
He takes a moment to process this. “Why?”
“They played a supposedly live radio broadcast of a game that he went to in the forties. He just... burst out of the fake wall. He's really strong.”
“That seems... easily avoided.” He hadn't thought that the acclimatisation plan was an especially good one, it seemed like it would just breed mistrust, and honestly, he's still a little wary of super soldiers after the Blonsky debacle. Mostly he's pretty sure someone in R&D is getting fired.
“Yeah. Fury wants you to debrief him, he's needed in D.C.”
“Of course he is.” He stands up. “Where's Cap?”
Rogers stands up when Phil enters the room. He salutes. It's odd.
“You can sit down, Captain Rogers,” he says.
“Sir,” Rogers acknowledges and sits back down.
“It's Agent, Agent Coulson. I should probably be saluting you.” Rogers smiles, and Phil pulls out the chair across from him to sit down. Rogers has been placed in one of their interrogation rooms; it seems like an overly aggressive gesture. “I'm here to debrief you. To talk to you about what's going on.”
“There's a lot to talk about,” Rogers says.
“There is.” He pushes a folder across the table to him. “This is some information that you should be aware of. Who the president is, technological advances, recent wars. I think my secretary threw in some pop culture too.”
Rogers opens the folder and flips through a couple of pages. “Camera phones?”
“You don't need to worry about that right now. I assume Colonel Fury laid out the basics for you: it's August 31st 2010, we're in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters in New York. We're an organisation that coordinates with people such as yourself. I would like to personally apologise for what happened earlier, our goal was to minimise the trauma inherent in this situation.”
Rogers nods, eyes lingering on the folder. “It's not your fault.” He looks back up, and it occurs to Phil how young Rogers is – just twenty five with little military experience outside of the HYDRA mission. Certainly no experience of the sort of political wrangling that's about to rain down on all their heads. “Could you tell that lady I scared and those men that I... knocked out that I'm sorry.”
Coulson almost smiles. He spends so much time trying to debrief people who are extremely adverse to being debriefed that it feels odd to have one of these meetings go so smoothly. “It comes with the job, but I'll tell them. Now, do you have any questions?”
“I- I don't know.” He thinks for a moment. “What happened to Howard? And, and Peggy?”
Phil winces internally. “Howard Stark passed away in 1991, but he had a son, Tony, who is... rather similar in character,” he says in his most professional voice. “I believe Agent Carter is currently in a nursing home in Florida.”
“How old is she?”
“I would guess she's about ninety five now.”
“Oh.” He falls silent.
Phil waits it out for a couple of minutes, but it's clear that Rogers is struggling with this. He pushes his chair back. “I'm going to get you some food. And some shoes. I won't be long. Why don't you read about Ronald Reagan becoming president.”
Rogers looks puzzled as Phil leaves the room.
The moment Phil makes it past the biometric scanners on Wednesday morning, he's swept up by a general tide of activity.
“Coulson,” Fury says as he passes, hardly raising his voice but still packing in the same intensity as if he'd yelled for him. Phil moves to his side as quickly and smoothly as he can. The commotion of people in the foyer part like the Red Sea as Fury makes his way to the elevator. “We have located Dr Banner. Agent Barton is meeting us at the helipad.”
Phil feels queasy at the mention of the helipad – he does not approve of helicopters, they are far too light and doorless.
They step into the elevator; pressure pushes down on him as it shoots towards the roof. “He's been spotted at Cornell University, where Dr Ross has recently joined the biology department. Local S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are being dispatched to the scene.”
“Are we going to be able to subdue him if he isn't amenable to coming with us?”
Fury smiles wide, “Well now, that's the fun part,” he says. And Phil completely believes that taking down a fifteen foot green monster is what Fury considers fun, much the same way that Phil enjoys fantasy football.
They make it to the roof in moments. Fury strides over to the helipad, leaving Phil in the dust. “Out,” he orders to pilot, who scrambles out of his seat as if his life depended on it.
“You're looking a little green today,” Clint says, hefting his arrow case into the helicopter.
“Shut up.” He climbs in after Clint and swiftly secures his seatbelt around him.
“If I can't use a little Hulk-related humour now, when can I?” The grin slowly fades from his face. “But seriously, do not throw up on me.”
Phil grips the bottom of his seat as Fury takes them up. “That happened once.”
In the end, the stun guns, tasers, and heavy artillery are unnecessary, mostly because Fury ambushes him while he's with Dr Ross, and he's clearly unwilling to put her in danger again. The swarm of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents gets him agitated though, and he's barely holding it together.
“Dr Banner,” Phil says over his shouts, “if you do not calm down we will be forced to sedate you.”
Phil's words don't even make a dent in his consciousness. Phil does not like the set of his shoulders.
“Dr Banner,” Fury booms, casting the entire room into immediate silence.
Banner squeezes his eyes shut and opens them again. “Who are you?” he says slowly.
“Colonel Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. We're a paramilitary group, and we are your only hope.”
“What does that mean?”
Fury leans into his face. “That means, the US army is very interested in you, and I don't think they'd put you in the general prison population.”
The vein in Banner's neck throbs, and the sweat that rolls down his forehead has a decidedly green tint.
“Don't threaten me,” Banner says, barely above a whisper.
Phil pulls a syringe out of his pocket. He waits until Banner leans in, a green blush spreading across his neck, to plunge the syringe in his jugular. The sedative is enough to bring down several elephants, but they've never tried it on a Hulk.
Banner sways for a second in his seat, then slumps forward.
Phil smiles apologetically at his boss. “I'm fairly certain that he was about to rip your head off, sir.”
Fury sighs and stands up. “Most people are. Let's get him back to headquarters.”
Banner comes round several times on the trip back to New York. Thankfully he's in a ground transport and not the helicopter, because Phil imagines that the helicopter would not stand up very well to either the size nor the weight of an angry Dr Banner. By the time they've got him back to the facility, restraints have become necessary – specially designed metal straps keeping him flat to a gurney. The arm, leg, and chest straps do look rather barbaric, but Phil values the continued use of his limbs more than he's concerned about appearances.
It's unfortunate that Captain Rogers was scheduled for a check up in the infirmary at the same time, though. Fury looks, well, furious at the whole situation, and waves Phil over to him.
“Captain, how are you today?” he asks. Rogers looks concerned; Phil realised quickly from yesterday's briefing that Rogers is not good at hiding his feelings – all his emotions play out clearly on his face.
Rogers peers around the curtain at Banner. “Apparently they don't use little hammers to test reflexes any more. Is he okay?”
“He has... anger management issues. If you're done, I'll walk back to your quarters with you.”
Rogers shrugs on his jacket and stands. A wave of vertigo washes over Phil: Rogers just seems so damn tall, like he could just squash Phil. Which he could.
“I know that looked bad,” Phil says, as they step out into the hall, “but Dr Banner suffers from a... condition that makes him extremely strong when he's angry. It's not always possible to calm him down any other way.”
“I understand,” Rogers says, but his uncertainty is obvious. It wouldn't be the first time that someone's thought that S.H.I.E.L.D. is some kind of evil government organisation. People watch way too much TV.
“Have you read any more of the folder I gave you?”
“Yeah, and one of your agents showed me the internet. I still don't really understand it.”
Phil laughs. “You're not alone in that, Captain.”
“Steve,” he says. “I'm not really a captain any more, anyway.”
Phil starts to tell him that it's protocol to call their 'guests' by their proper titles, to prevent inappropriate relationships forming. Natasha says inappropriate relationships will be formed whether or not first names are used, but Phil is firm on maintaining professionalism. Which means no punching the clients, no matter how tempting. He starts to explain this, but is interrupted.
“Agent Coulson, who is definitely not one of my accountants!” Stark announces, drawing the attention of everyone in the hall. “It's good to see you.”
“Mr Stark, you are not authorised to be in this area.” There's nothing particularly confidential on this floor, but on a point of principle, Stark should be held to the rules the same as everyone else, damnit.
He spreads his hands. “I was looking for the washroom.”
“There are no public facilities on this floor.” Phil puts himself between Rogers and Stark. “I'm really going to have to insist that you leave.”
“I have business with Fury.”
“Then call his secretary and make an appointment.”
“But I'm here now,” Stark says, in a tone that suggests that Phil is somehow incompetent for not realising this.
“That would be more of a comfort for me had you returned any of my or Agent Romanoff's calls.”
“Well, life is full of disappointment, Phil.”
Rogers snorts. “You really are like your father.”
Stark's demeanour changes at the mention of his father, just for a second, but Phil is trained to pick that sort of thing up. Of course Tony Stark would have daddy issues.
“Captain America, I presume?” He doesn't presume, he's known all along. Probably seduced a new agent into telling him where Rogers was.
A lot of people are going to get fired this week.
“Well, Steve's fine,” Rogers says.
Phil raises his voice over their meet and greet: he does not want another soul to be caught Stark's net. “If you continue to refuse to leave this area I am going to be forced to call security, Mr Stark.”
Stark sighs dramatically and throws his hands up. “Fine, fine. But I don't see why you're allowed to be friends with him if I'm not.”
Phil wakes up face down in his pillow. It's light, but his alarm clock isn't going off, and he has the morning off. He feels blindly for the edge of his blanket and pulls it up over his head.
His phone rings, shuddering across the bedside table. “Damn it,” he mutters, and snatches it up.
It's even worse than he feared. He flips the phone open. “Mom.”
“It's so nice to hear that you're back in New York. Did you have fun in the desert?”
He knew he forgot to do something. “Who told you?” That doesn't sound good. “I mean, I'm sorry that I didn't call you.”
“Your nice Colonel Fury called me this morning to let me know, he thought you'd forgotten. He's a perceptive man, it seems.”
“Colonel... Fury?” He rolls over onto his back and stares up at the ceiling. This can only signal the beginning of some kind of horrible psychological warfare from his boss.
“Nick visited me while you were away,” she replies breezily. “He put up my shelves. He is a very attractive man. The eye patch really adds an air of mystery.”
Phil pulls the pillow out from underneath his head and presses over his face. Definitely psychological warfare.
“You're about to get a new daddy,” Clint says over his coffee.
“That's not-- I. No,” Phil says, but Clint only laughs.
“He's right, you know.” Natasha flops down onto the couch next to him. It's her favourite couch at this Starbucks, which just happens to be the most secret branch of Starbucks, if not the only one. Rumour has it that Fury liked Caramel Macchiatos so much that he just had them install a Starbucks within the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility.
“Next thing you know he's going to be sending you to your room and giving you an allowance.” She sips carefully at her mug – she likes the experience of drinking coffee out of a mug instead of a paper cup like Clint, she says. Mostly she likes to drink it in such a way that everyone's eyes are inevitably drawn to her.
“He already does both those things,” Phil says sadly.
“Then, my friend, you're fucked,” Clint points out helpfully.
He sits for a minute in quiet contemplation. He'd been working for the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer when Fury hired him. Or more accurately, when Fury had had him fired from the DoS, then hired him. He'd been in Moscow with the US ambassador to Russia at the close of the Cold War, at a very civilised party, when the ambassador and several other people were neatly assassinated right next to him at the dinner table. He'd kept it together enough to pull the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs under the table and away from the dancing red dots before a military helicopter had crashed through the ceiling with team of commandos led by Colonel Fury.
Afterwards, Fury offered him a job and he declined. A week later he had a pink slip in one hand, and a job offer in the other. He's pretty sure it was then that he began to lose his hair.
Since then, he supposes that Fury has been a father figure to most of the agents; a very demanding, manipulative, and angry father, but a father nonetheless. And Phil has definitely been fucked for a number of years.
“Speak of the devil,” Natasha murmurs, scooting down in her seat. Phil looks up to see Fury stride into the café, setting the baristas in frantic motion. Fury stares hard at the glass cabinet of food, then points to their tiny cupcakes.
“And one of those,” he says, then turns around, as if he could feel them looking at him. “Staff meeting at three,” he says, like it's a threat.
“Yes, sir,” they chorus.
“I'm scheduling some training days next week,” Fury says. He slides a folder down the table to Phil. “I want you to oversee it. Apparently some people need a refresher course in non-disclosure and checking your homework before you hand it in.”
“That's probably for the best, sir.” He flicks through the folder quickly before putting it into his briefcase, and taking out one of his own. He hands it to Natasha, who hands it down the row to Fury. “I need you to approve the month's budget before I can authorise new equipment being purchased.”
Fury takes a pair of glasses out of his pocket and slips them on. “Give me the run down of the important stuff,” he says as he scans the first page.
“I need a new bow,” Clint interrupts. He's been very agitated about getting a new bow, and Phil was hardly likely to forget after the amounts of texts Clint sent him last night.
Fury looks up and narrows his eyes. “Why?”
“Mine was broken when we took Dr Banner in yesterday,” he says. Then adds, “sir.”
“Fine.” Fury's eyes drift back to Phil. “What else?”
“Dr Foster's requesting two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for equipment and consultation with some of the scientists involved with the Large Hadron Collider. And Miss Lewis wants to be reimbursed for her lost iPod.” The iPod that he accidentally trod on and broke. Thankfully, he was alone when it happened, because an incident like that would greatly reduce his ability to command respect. “And Mr Stark is requesting three million for 'stuff'.”
“That's what he put on the form.” God only knows why he needs any grants, let alone that amount. Phil's pretty sure he's just testing the boundaries of his consultancy, like a child throwing its rattle out of the stroller for the fiftieth time in a row; Phil just wishes Stark would test it out with someone else.
The look of concentration on Fury's face as he reads the appropriate page seems like it could ignite the paper. “I'll deal with it. Anything else?”
“We need to discuss the maintenance of washrooms and shared shower facilities,” someone at the end of the table pipes up. There's an audible groan.
In the morning, while picking up his Caramel Macchiato, Fury gets a call from D.C.
“Damn Congress,” he mutters, looking down at his cellphone. “Can't get anything done.”
Phil can feel Fury watching him as the he empties his fourth sachet of Splenda into his coffee. Natasha thinks it's a disgusting habit, but she drinks Guinness at staff parties, so really, they're on equal ground.
“Coulson.” Fury is at his side, looking in silent judgement at Coulson's coffee. “Get your things, we need to get to the airfield ASAP.”
“I'm coming with you to D.C.?” The thought of spending some time at the halls of Congress again is a pleasant one; a chance to relax.
Fury doesn't look back as they get into the elevator. “No, you're going to stay on the plane and go on to LA.”
“Oh,” Phil says, and the elevator doors open again on the parking lot.
“I need you to check up on Stark and find out what this three million is supposed to be for.”
“Oh,” Phil says again, taking the cup Fury hands him when they reach Fury's car. “Shouldn't we be taking separate planes, then?”
The car unlocks with a beep. Fury takes his coffee back and gestures for Phil to get into the passenger seat. “We all have to do our part to be green, Coulson,” he says.
“Well, I- Yes, sir.” The car locks itself automatically once they're in, metal guards sliding up to protect the back windows. Phil's seat abruptly reclines. Fury guns the engine.
Phil wishes the the feeling of impending death wasn't such a familiar one.
Phil has to take a boat to get to Tony's mansion. A boat, and then a hike up the road to the main gates. He's sure the man chose to live here just to screw with people.
There's a couple of seconds delay when he pushes the buzzer for the intercom.
“Greetings, Agent Coulson.”
“Jarvis” Phil says.
“If you are here for Mr Stark, I regret to inform you that he is not presently at home. Can I take message?”
“Fury's not going to be happy unless I get eyes on Mr Stark. You know what bosses are like, Jarvis.”
“That I do, sir.”
Phil likes talking to Jarvis – he likes to think that if Stark can program a courteous personality like this one, he must have some redeeming features. “So, can you call him?”
“I'm afraid he is out of cellular range. You can come in and wait, if you would like.”
Of course he is. There are probably worse things than lounging around Stark's mansion, though. Certainly beats standing out here in the sun. “Sure.”
He's allowed into reception room number one, the one for guests that only has the Picassos and Warhols, not the Pollocks. Jarvis directs him to a couch, the red one, not the beige because 'that one has just been cleaned'. There are cups and a jug of water on the coffee table, curiously chilled as if it had just come out of the fridge, next to an array of magazines with Stark's face on them. Wired, Forbes, Men's Health, Time, Better Homes and Gardens.
“Would you like something stronger, sir?”
“Can't drink on the job.”
There's a pause, then Jarvis replies, “I am not familiar with that phrase, but I will take your word for it. Would you care for some music? I have everything from Bach to P Diddy.”
Phil suppresses a laugh. “Not right now, thank you. I think I'll read about how Mr Stark maximised the potential of his garden.”
“Oh, that's a good one, sir,” Jarvis says, before lapsing into silence.
Once Phil has read about Stark's garden, money, childhood, and workout routine, and has paced all the accessible parts of Stark's house at least three times, he comes to the conclusion that he's being jerked around. What a startling revelation.
“Mr Stark isn't coming back here today, is he?”
“It seems not, I'm afraid.” There's a smug air to Jarvis's voice; definitely the Tony Stark coming out in him. “I will contact you the moment he arrives home.”
“No offence, but how do I know that he won't just reprogram you?”
“He would never.” The AI sounds shocked.
“Sure.” Phil collects his jacket and waits for Jarvis to open the front door. “Tell Mr Stark he can't avoid me forever.”
“I will be sure to pass that on, Agent Coulson.”
Condescended to by a disembodied AI. All in a day's work for the highly respected Agent Coulson.
He doesn't relish the thought of telling Fury that he's failed, yet again, to get a handle on Stark, so he puts it off as long as he can; walks slowly through the halls to Fury's office. He's the only one.
Clint descends on him from seemingly nowhere. “Fury is shitting bricks,” he announces, falling into step with Phil.
“He already knows?”
“Already knows what? Don't you know? We lost Captain America.”
“Wait.” Phil stops Clint with a hand on his arm. “Run that by me again?”
“Well, I guess we didn't lose him so much as he was kidnapped by Tony Stark earlier this afternoon.”
He takes a moment to soak it in. Clint tries to look sympathetic. Finally, Phil says, “I'm going to die.”
Of course, he doesn't get to go home Friday night. Nobody does. Everyone with the appropriate clearance is rounded up and either sent to a computer terminal or brought into Fury's office to be yelled at before being dispatched to 'drive around calling his name', as Clint puts it.
“We need an Amber Alert system for superheroes,” he says.
Phil doesn't respond. They've just left one of Stark's New York residences, treated to the same brick wall of confusion and nonsense that surrounds everything Stark does. It's eight in the morning and there's been no trace of him since yesterday afternoon. Fury made it pretty clear that he was quite willing to clean house if his weekend continued to be ruined. He had tickets to the opera Friday night.
“That was too soon,” Clint says. He waits for a second, then elbows Phil in the side. “Come on, let's check out Stark's restaurant, maybe they're having waffles. They had waffles in the forties, right? I mean, Cap probably has to eat a lot, so...”
Phil opens the car door, looking up one final time at Stark's Park Avenue townhouse. “If we stop by IHOP, will you stop talking about food?”
“I will,” Clint says. “Until lunch.”
“Sometimes I wish I never joined S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Phil says, picking at the remains of a carton of fries – breakfast, pancakes; lunch, McDonalds; if the job doesn't kill him a heart attack will. “Mostly since 'I Am Iron Man'.”
“You were in the Foreign Service, right?” Clint asks around the straw of his milkshake.
“And didn't you get hired after someone killed your boss in front of you?”
Phil takes a moment to reply. “Well, yes, but most of the time it was a pretty stable job. At least I didn't have to deal with playboy billionaire geniuses.”
“Did they ever catch the guy?”
“No, Fury said it was rogue K.G.B. operation, but no one ever saw the shooter.”
“Sounds like he did you a favour.” Clint looks at the expression on Phil's face and rushes on. “I mean, you probably would have worked for the next ambassador, and they probably would have gone after him too, so the odds are you'd have been shot in the face at some point.”
“No, I mean...” Clint pauses, letting his hands do the talking. “Fury's pretty good about rescuing people from bad situations. Didn't Natasha used to be in the K.G.B.?”
“Supposedly. She almost broke the arm of the last guy who asked, though.”
“Yeah,” Clint replies, smiling wistfully. “That was a fun Christmas party.”
Midtown is in gridlock by the late afternoon, which Phil would usually chalk up to the usual rush hour snarl if not for the many police cars around the block, both marked and unmarked. He flashes his badge to the nearest beat cop directing traffic away from the traffic jam.
“Officer, what's going on here?”
The officer frowns. “Let me see that badge again.”
Phil sighs and holds it out again. “We need to get through here.”
“I've never heard of... S.H.I.E.L.D.?” the officer says slowly. “I'm going to have to call my sergeant.” He backs off, his interest in them vanishing.
“It's just a bank robbery,” Clint says, hand to his headset.
“Are you listening to the police radio? The NYPD don't like it when we do that.”
“Fuck 'em. Go down West 56th and cut them off at 7th Avenue.”
“Clint, this has nothing do with us.”
“The superheroes can't have all the fun.” He reaches into the back of the car to get his arrow case, then settles back in his seat, grinning.
Phil rolls his eyes. This could get them both fired, but seeing as they're probably both fired anyway, he backs up and pulls onto West 56th without a backwards glance for the officer. As they pass between buildings, he catches glimpses of the getaway car barrelling down West 57th.
In his peripheral, he can see Clint moving; when he turns to look at him, Clint is in the process of climbing out his window with his bow and arrow.
“What are you doing?!” he yells.
Clint grips the frame of the rolled down car window, shifting until his legs lock around the back of the passenger seat. He rests his bow in the roof of the car. “Just keep driving!”
As they approach 7th, the hand gripping the window frame lets go. Phil holds his breath and thanks God that he can't see what Clint's doing. There's a brief whistling, then the getaway car careens to the right before its front right tire explodes. It ploughs into a store front and stops.
Clint slides back into his seat. “These new arrowheads are awesome.”
“That was incredibly dangerous!” Phil shouts, then takes a breath. “When was the last time you saw the department shrink?”
“But it was fun, right? Right?” He hits Phil on arm. “Come on, at least smile.”
Phil bites his lip; he is not going to encourage Clint's more reckless personality traits, Natasha does that just fine for the both of them. “Come on, Rambo, we better check in with Fury.”
Apparently stopping armed bank robbers from fleeing the scene of a crime isn't enough to get oneself off Fury's shit list. Words like 'irresponsible' and 'out of our jurisdiction' are thrown around, not to mention 'we have bigger things to worry about' and 'I'd expect this from Clint, but from you, Coulson?'. It's like that time he let his best friend cheat off him in elementary school: his father wasn't angry, just so disappointed.
Fury's pretty angry, too, though.
The ringing of his office phone wakes him in the early hours of the morning. He grabs at the handset.
“Hello,” he says into the speaker. “Shit,” he says, turning the phone the right way up. “Hello?”
“A Ms. Potts for you, sir?” the operator says.
“Shit,” he repeats, “put her through!”
“Agent Coulson,” she says coolly. He swears that she's been picking up some of Stark's more infuriating behaviour recently. “How may I help you?”
“Where have you been?” he says, more aggressively than he means to, but honestly, she's been unreachable for over a week, and he's pretty sure that as Stark's right hand woman, she's not allowed to ever be without her Blackberry.
“I was visiting family in the Bahamas. They just moved out there. What's wrong?”
He's pretty sure he knows where her family got the money for that move. “Your, your...” It's an open secret that she and Stark are in a relationship, but he doesn't want to get her on the defensive so early on in the conversation. Questioning her integrity is a good way to never get an appointment with either of them ever again. “Mr Stark kidnapped my superhero.”
“You have a superhero? Well, who is it?”
He scrubs a hand over his face. “Captain America.”
“I see,” she says. She doesn't sound the least bit surprised, as if she finds out that long dead wartime superheroes turn up in 21st century New York all the time. “It seems like it would be quite difficult to kidnap Captain America, if I'm remembering my World War Two history classes correctly.”
“There's footage of Mr Stark escorting Captain Rogers out of the building.”
“And nobody noticed this happening?”
“He created a diversion in one of our labs.” Diversion is a weak word for punching Dr Banner in the face and then taking off running when the Hulk came out to play.
“Well, you have to keep a closer eye on Tony than that. He really is like a child,” she chides, as if it's Phil that's the child.
“I am well aware of that, Ms. Potts. All I need is any hint as to where Mr Stark might be at--” He looks at his watches. “--five twenty five in the morning.”
“I really can't say.”
“Can't or won't?”
He can hear the smile in her voice as she says, “Agent Coulson, you shouldn't be so suspicious of people.”
“It's served me well to this point,” he says through gritted teeth. He forces himself to say goodbye to her before slamming the phone into its cradle, twice for good measure.
Several hours later, Natasha walks into his office and stares at him. He's on the phone with Colonel Rhodes, who, like everyone else in Stark's life, is unconcerned by this disappearance.
“He was missing for five days, once. He came home with one of those hats with the corks. I think he'd been to Australia.”
Natasha continues to stare at him. He waves her off. “This situation is a little more pressing than a drunken binge, Colonel Rhodes. Captain Rogers is vulnerable because of his lack of experience in this time period.”
“I'm sure Tony's looking after the Captain,” Rhodes replies, unable to keep the excitement out of his voice. It had taken him several moments to compose himself when Phil had first mentioned Rogers.
Natasha taps her watch.
“Well, if you could call me if you hear from Mr Stark, I'd be grateful, sir.”
“Of course, Agent Coulson,” he replies, his voice getting distant as he hangs the phone up – Phil still catches him whispering Captain America! happily before the line goes dead, though.
“Get up,” Natasha says.
“I just have to call down to Surveillance and see if they've picked up any energy signatures off the arc reactor...” he says, pushing papers around his desk in search of a pen.
“Philip,” Natasha says. He looks up; she's standing with her hands on her hips, feet apart – the battle stance, Clint calls it. “Get up and come with me.”
“Where are we...?” he begins, standing up against the protests of his back.
“We are leaving this building before you start bleeding out of your ears,” she tells him matter-of-factly. When he reaches her at the door, she tugs on the collar of his shirt – the tie long since abandoned – and tuts. “You look like hell.”
“Where are we going?” he repeats, biting down the urge to tag 'Mom' on the end.
“We are going to go eat something and drink alcohol.”
“Natasha, it's--” He looks at his watch and winces. “--nine AM.”
“And that's why I'm going to spike our drinks with this.” She slips a flask of something out of her pants pocket for a moment.
He raises his hand, waving his finger at her half-heartedly, thinking of something to say. Finally he settles on, “That better not be Guinness.”
“--he's just a very, very...” Phil tries to dredge up a word that encapsulates the enormity of his feelings. “Bad person.”
He's not exactly drunk, but he is definitely more pleasantly buzzed than he should be at midday.
“Tony's not so bad,” Natasha says. “I mean, he's a nightmare, sure, but his... arc reactor is in the right place.”
Phil laughs. “If you say so.” Through some series of events involving the food in every fast food place Natasha wanted to go to looking absolutely disgusting, they ended up at her apartment. Less of an apartment, more of a ridiculous penthouse. Clint maintains that it's from K.G.B. money, and he'd certainly know, having spent quite a lot of time here.
“I just don't see why anyone would willingly submit themselves to his insanity.”
“Some people like a little insanity.” She smiles at him like he's prey, showing all her teeth, then shakes her head. “I think most people who spend time with him have to spend time with him. Like Potts. I guess it's like Stockholm Syndrome after a while.”
He shifts slightly away from her on the couch; she kicks his leg with her foot. “I guess his mother loved him, at least,” he says. A mother's love, after all, is unconditional, no matter how awful you are – or that's what his mother says, anyway.
He should really call his mother. She's started talking about moving to a retirement village, because 'it's not like any of my kids visit me any more'. She wants to get out of New Jersey and go somewhere she can wear shorts all year round.
He jerks his head up. “Florida,” he says.
Natasha leans over and takes his spiked cup of tea away from him. “Probably a bit premature to be planning your vacation.”
“No, no, I've been looking at this the wrong way. I've been trying to work out where Stark would go, and completely ignored where Rogers would want go.”
“Okay,” she says. She sets his cup down on the coffee table and pats his knee. “Well, don't beat yourself up about it?”
He pulls himself up on the couch. “I told Rogers that Peggy Carter was in a nursing home in Florida. Maybe... maybe Tony Stark does have a heart.”
She looks at him approvingly. “Hold that thought.” She jumps up and disappears into her bedroom for a minute before returning with her laptop. She sits back down on the couch, scooting closer to him, and places the computer on the coffee table between them. She boots it up, typing fast enough that he can't catch any of the many passwords the computer requests. She opens a browser, does some more quick typing, and brings up the rotating S.H.I.E.L.D. logo.
“You aren't allowed to access these files outside of the headquarters, you know,” he says.
She pokes him with a sharp elbow, and leans into the screen. “Get your phone, narc.”
He pulls his cell out of his pants pocket. She's already pulled up Carter's old service record. “Sunrise Mansions,” she says. “305-779-3456.”
He fumbles keying in the number, but manages it without Natasha's intervention. It rings through after two rings. “Hello, Sunrise Mansions,” a cheerful voice says.
“Hi, I'm looking for someone.”
“One of our residents?” the woman says. “I'm afraid we can't give out any information about our guests, sir, but if you leave your name and number, I can look into it.”
“No, it's...” He decides to just come out and say it – the alcohol has dampened his diplomacy skills. “This may sound strange, but has Tony Stark visited you recently?”
“Oh! Well,” she hems and haws for a moment. “Well yes, he and his nice friend caused quite a stir around here.”
“Last night around eight PM, I think. We'd just closed to visitors.” She doesn't sound particularly upset about this flagrant disregard of the rules. “Landed his little plane right on our golf course. It looked like one of those 1940s planes, but it certainly went fast enough. Some of our guests were very excited to see it.”
He mouths 'light aircraft' at Natasha, snapping his fingers and pointing to the laptop. She leans away from him.
“Who are you snapping your fingers at? New Mexico really went to your head, didn't it?”
He feels a blush rise to his cheeks. “Sorry,” he whispers as the woman on the line asks if he's still there. “Yes, um, and what time did they leave?”
“I think it was about eight this morning.”
“Okay, one more question: did either of them say where they were going next?”
“No,” she says, and his face falls. Natasha pats his shoulder, ear close enough to his cell to hear the woman. “But... I did hear Mr Stark say that they were going to get the best pizza in the US.”
“Thank you, you've been a lot of help,” he says hurriedly and hangs up before she can question him. “So, good pizza. New York, I guess?” he says.
“Howard Stark used to own an airfield where he tested his planes on Staten Island,” she says. He hadn't even noticed her bringing up Stark Senior's record. “Doesn't say who owns it now.”
“How do you do that?” He continues before she can answer – not that she would in anything other than mysterious Natasha-speak. “So, it takes six hours to get from Florida to New York by commercial plane? Shave off... an hour because it's Stark, and they left at eight this morning.”
“One o'clock,” she says. “It's twelve twenty five.”
They share a look. This can mean only one thing.
“Helicopter,” he says.
The airfield is empty when they touch down. Phil struggles out of the helicopter at the earliest opportunity, Natasha laughing behind him. He presses his knuckles against his eyes, trying to regain some sense of equilibrium, which would hard even without the helicopter ride and the couple of draws he took of Natasha's flask of unidentified alcohol, the way this week has been.
“Ten past one. I hope we're right,” he says.
“Yeah,” Natasha agrees, having jumped out of the helicopter smoothly beside him. “We just hacked into S.H.I.E.L.D. files, and then commandeered a military helicopter. That's probably treason.”
“Wonderful,” he mutters.
They hunker down in the only structure on the field, a small hut with a tiny kitchenette and blueprints of every kind of World War Two plane Phil's ever heard of, and some he hasn't.
“This is Howard Stark's stuff,” Natasha says. “He signed every single one.”
“Doesn't surprise me, considering his son.” He leans against the counter as best he can in the small space. “God forbid he not get accolades for everything he does.”
She joins him against the counter. “You really have to get over this thing you've got about Starks.”
He lets his head fall back. “I know.”
They stand in companionable silence for a few minutes, Phil contemplating how he's going to explain this whole situation to Fury, from being unable to control his most important charge to losing Captain America to causing the further break down of relations with the NYPD to drinking on the job. Fury's yelled at him about everything bar the drinking already, but Phil's going to have to write all this down in report next week. He's of half a mind to start and finish it with 'it was Tony Stark's fault'.
God only knows what Natasha contemplates – probably guns.
The roar of a plane overhead makes the floor beneath his feet shake. He says a silent prayer before they both run out on to the field, in time to see a old-fashioned light aircraft bearing the the stylised 'Stark Industries' logo on the side touch down and drift several hundred feet before rolling to a stop. It's a textbook landing – he would expect nothing less.
The hatch releases but doesn't open. Phil gets within a dozen feet of the plane, then crosses his arms over his chest and waits.
A foot, a leg, and then Stark's smug, smiling face emerges. “I didn't know we were getting a welcome wagon,” he says, dropping to the ground. He smoothly his t-shirt down primly. It says 'Sea World' on it.
Phil doesn't move or speak. Stark pulls a face, “Oh, is this angry Agent Coulson?”
Rogers follows Stark out, and at least has the good grace to look worried – there's a blush colouring his cheeks and he digs his hands into the pockets of his jeans, which he didn't have when he left headquarters.
“Get in the helicopter,” Phil says as evenly as he can manage.
Rogers looks at his feet, Stark, then back to Phil and says, “Yes, sir.” before scurrying towards the helicopter – as much as a man of his frame can scurry, anyway.
“Did I get him back before curfew?” Stark asks.
Phil takes a deep breath, and smiles as widely as he can.
“Well, that's unnerving,” Stark says. “I didn't know that you knew how to smile.”
“Thank you for bringing Captain Rogers back in one piece, Mr Stark.” Smiling this wide is starting to hurt his face.
“You are quite welcome, Agent Coulson.” He cocks his head to the side; a sly smile spreads over his face. “You are buzzed. Don't try to deny it, I know what alcohol consumption looks like.”
Phil feels his jaw tighten. Stark looks inordinately delighted.
“Good afternoon, Mr Stark,” he says. He turns on his heel and walks the short way to the helicopter. Rogers watches him nervously as he climbs in.
“I'm really sorry if I caused any trouble for you, sir...”
Natasha slides into the seat on the other side of Rogers. “I think it would be better if you didn't say anything, Captain.”
“Oh. Okay.” He folds his hands neatly in his lap and stares resolutely at the back of the pilot's seat.
As soon as he's able to extricate himself from Fury and the swarm of people that collect around them when Phil and Natasha return to headquarters with Rogers, Phil abandons a mortified Captain Rogers and heads to his office to pass out on the couch. He sleeps for six dreamless hours until it begins to get dark outside. When he wakes up, his every muscle protests at his frankly shoddy treatment of them over the past couple of days. It occurs to him that he hasn't changed his clothes since Friday morning, and that Stark's going to get years of mileage out of this incident.
Phil jumps, head snapping to the doorway. He swallows a strangled noise of surprise. “Colonel Fury,” he says, and stands up, trying to shake the sleep off him.
Fury flips the light switch on. “I hope I didn't wake you.”
Phil squints. “No, sir, you didn't. I should probably... apologise...”
Fury rolls his good eye. Which is off-putting. “Can it, that was good work. Little late, but I'm sure that won't happen again.”
It's a statement, not a question. Phil jumps on it. “Of course, sir, this is never going to happen again.”
“I wouldn't go that far, Tony Stark's still Tony Stark. Speaking of--” His brows draw together. “We had a long talk, about protocol and government grants.”
“That's great, sir.”
“I've been thinking of moving S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters somewhere more secure for a while now, but this incident has sealed the deal. I'm going to have this place refitted for the Avengers Initiative.”
Phil blinks at the change of subject. First rule of S.H.I.E.L.D.: you go wherever Fury goes, physically or mentally. “Very good, sir.”
Fury's mouth gets tight. “Stark's going to use the three million to develop a helicarrier for S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“Carrier, yes.” Fury steps forward and pats him gently on the shoulder. “Sorry, Phil.”
“That's... that's...” He squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, then opens them again. “Great.”
Fury's attention has already left the conversation; he's looking down at his phone with an expression that straddles the line between happiness and annoyance. “It appears that Dr Foster has succeeded in getting Thor back.” He looks up, and must catch Phil's unchecked look of horror at the idea of dealing with the God of Thunder right at this very moment, because he says, “Go home. I don't want to see your face until Thursday.” He frowns when Phil doesn't move. “Get out.”
Phil resists the urge to hug him, but it's a close thing.