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The Small Sin of Apathy

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Phil's cell rang; the tone was the one every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent had designated for Director Fury. The ringtone was non-negotiable and answering was required, unless one was dead or Tony Stark. Coulson knew that Fury's on-going battle with making Stark behave and play nice was only one of Fury's perks of the job.

Phil always answered his phone, other than two occasions when he'd been unconscious. "Coulson."

"We have a situation," Fury said. Which, of course they did. If Fury ever called to chat about football matches or inquire after Coulson's health -- that would be Situation 1271: Fury Is Under Someone Else's Control. There was a plan in place for it.

"Yes, sir," was all Coulson said. He loosened his tie and leaned back in the driver's seat of his car, letting himself think fondly of going home and having dinner in his own kitchen. He'd done it yesterday. It had been nice.

"We have reason to believe an alien invader has captured one of the Avengers," Fury continued, and Coulson was suddenly sitting upright, hand gripping tighter on his cell. Then he blinked, and processed Fury's tone. Urgent, but not panicked. He was calling in Coulson, not a full strike squad or containment unit.

Phil took a deep breath and forced himself to stay calm.

There was a pause, then Fury said, "I need you to go over to the Avenger's Mansion and assess the situation and take appropriate measures."

"It's at the Avengers Mansion?" Phil interrupted, feeling very confused. "Why can't the other Avengers perform a rescue?" He knew for a fact all of them were in the city and that there were no active missions for any of them. Whether that meant they were all at the mansion, he didn't know, but surely it would be faster for Fury to call the Avengers to find this alien intruder and rescue their teammate.

He tried not to ask which one. Phil's heart was pounding in his chest and he had to take another deep breath, let it out silently. It didn't matter which one. It couldn't.

Fury sighed, and he sounded exactly like he did after meetings with Stark. Phil wondered if that meant Iron Man was the hostage. "I spoke with them. They said they don't see the problem."

Phil processed this. Finally he could only ask, "Am I missing something, sir?"

"I think it will be easier if you head over to the mansion," Fury said, and he still sounded urgent but he also sounded distracted, like he'd already forgotten this conversation and was moving on to his next crisis.

Phil cleared his throat. "Are you being held prisoner, sir, or under any outside influence?"

There was a bark of almost-laughter. "Code 9 Alpha 12 Black Dog," Fury said, rattling off the all-clear code. "I'm fine, just get over there and look after your boy."

Coulson was reflexively saying yes, sir, when Fury's last words hit. Clint. He didn't even try to object to Fury's phrase, because if Clint were in danger.... Except if Clint were in danger Fury would be calling in the Avengers or a strike force or something and he'd said the other Avengers didn't see the problem. Either they were all under some mind control -- or something hinky was going on.

He was going to blame Clint for that word creeping into his vocabulary. Then Phil started his car and drove to the Avenger's Mansion as fast as he could.

~~~

Half and hour later he was standing in the main lobby of the mansion, telling Jarvis he was fine, didn't need any coffee or tea or beer, and hung onto his jacket when the butler offered to hang it up.

His attention was on Clint, however, who was standing at the bottom of the wide staircase with his arms out-stretched. From one arm a small sloth was dangling. Beneath the other, Natasha was crouched, holding out a piece of a banana. The small sloth was slowly making its way along Clint's arm towards the treat, swinging back and forth as it crawled, upside-down.

Phil asked Jarvis, "Didn't anyone tell you all that's not a sloth?"

"Yes, sir," Jarvis nodded. "Thor was so kind as to point it out. They had quite the conversation, I'm given to understand, though according to Thor it was a bit one-sided. The small creature is apparently--"

"An infant, yes," Phil nodded. "An infant Prequllia, which resemble earth sloths but are actually parasites. They take over a sentient host and force him or her to do their will." Phil glared. "Didn't anyone think to try rescuing Clint?"

"Oh, please," Natasha said, standing up and brushing her fingers on his pants-leg as she walked over. The sloth was holding onto the food with one hand and swaying dangerously as the other three paws clung to Clint. Clint lifted his arm and bent it towards himself, scooping up the Prequilla before it fell from its perch. The thing settled on its back and happily continued eating.

Natasha cast a look back at Clint. "We offered to rescue him dozens of times. But someone has to babysit until its parents arrive and we thought.... Well. Come here." She crooked a finger at Phil and began walking back towards Clint. Phil followed, formulating the plan to rescue Clint and Natasha as well as Jarvis from the mind control of the alien creature. Perhaps there were more, hiding? Or perhaps this one was unusually strong and could control more than one human at a time.

Clint was still focused on the alien sloth, grinning down at it as the thing chewed, dropping half of its banana onto the floor.

"Wait for it," Natasha whispered.

Suddenly the sloth moved its arms and legs and Clint shifted his grip, then ran his fingers over the thing's stomach. It wriggled, and Clint laughed.

Phil blinked. Never mind the shock of seeing Clint laugh, but Phil couldn't recall ever hearing him look and sound so sincerely delighted. Natasha was grinning and nodding and saying, "See?"

"What the hell is going on?" Phil didn't shout, or threaten to shoot the alien, as much as he was beginning to want to.

"That's all it does," Natasha simply said.

Phil looked at her, forcing his hand away from the butt of his pistol. "Excuse me?"

She waved a hand at her head. "The mind control thing. All it wants is its tummy tickled."

Phil waited. After a moment, Natasha shrugged.

"It's a baby. We're feeding it, it's safe and warm, and Thor told it its parents are on the way -- which they are. Another couple of hours, we think; Thor wasn't sure how long it would take. So all it's making Clint do is tickle it, and then he laughs, and...." She gave Phil a smile. "We thought you'd want to see."

Phil looked at Clint, who was staring down at the alien sloth in his arms, lifting it aloft again and turning it slowly around. The thing looked delighted, and began inching its way along Clint's arm again. Clint was grinning, his expression happy and unconcerned.

Phil pinched the bridge of his nose. "So the emergency is that Clint is being forced to entertain a baby sloth and you thought I'd think it was cute."

"Pretty much," Natasha said. "Tony said showing you the videos would be enough, but we over-rode him and called Fury."

Phil inhaled deeply, and counted to ten. In three languages. "So while I thought Clint was in actual danger, I've just been called here to watch them play?"

"We figured if you didn't hurry, you might miss it. Fury said he'd make sure you didn't think it was too bad." Natasha frowned. "He didn't, did he?"

Phil sighed, and just sat down in one of the chairs, facing Clint. He opened his mouth to say that he expected them to never, ever do this sort of thing to him again. Then Clint reached down and tickled the alien baby sloth again, and it wriggled, and Clint let out a laugh.

"Is he going to be embarrassed by this, afterwards?" Phil asked.

"You know I can hear you, right?" Clint said, suddenly. "They asked me that before they called you. It's not doing anything to me--"

"Except make you tickle it," Phil said, and he wondered if maybe this wasn't a drug-induced hallucination.

"It's more like a suggestion," Clint said, grinning at the sloth. "It's not very old, and it doesn't seem able to control me very well. I can hear it thinking at me, and I resisted it a few times, while Tony and Bruce were testing it out. They didn't let me out of containment until I'd proven I could resist."

"Wait, you've already--" Phil shot a look at Natasha, who was giving him a very innocent look back.

"We are trained professionals, you know," she said, dryly. "We deal with mind-controlling aliens at least five times a year. And mind-controlling humans a dozen times, aliens that use subtle persuasion and charm, three times in the last six months and humans who rely on charm to make us do whatever he wants -- every single day, and if we didn't have Steve to sit on him, we'd all be part of the Stark Army." She smiled at him, and Phil shivered.

He told himself it was the thought of Tony being in charge of them all, and not the shark-like quality of her smile.

Then he realised that at some point all the tension had drained from him until he was relaxed and no longer on alert. "Jarvis, I'll take that coffee, thank you."

"Of course, sir." Jarvis nodded and vanished through a side door. Phil looked over at Clint, and leaned his head back on the high back of the chair. He'd probably be able to get dinner here, he realised, though dining at home had the advantage of being quiet. No Avengers wreaking havoc around him, trying to barter for butter and salt and fight over the last baked potato.

Clint laughed out loud again as the sloth wrapped itself around Clint's shoulder and appeared to be trying to climb onto Clint's head. Phil finally let himself smile. He was still going to get them back for this, however. A mission someplace far from a single civilised amenity and nothing to actually hit would serve them right.

Well, not Director Fury. Maybe not Natasha. But everyone else was going to think twice before giving him a heart-attack.

The tiny sloth turned its head and blinked at him, and Phil could almost hear a thought forming at the edge of his mind. Tummy, he thought he heard, soft but insistent. Tummy tickle.

Clint tickled the thing's stomach and then laughed, and in his mind Phil could hear the echo of laughter. The corner of Natasha's mouth twitched, and Phil finally allowed himself to smile.

"All right, it's a little cute." And a video would have been a pale imitation of reality. He accepted a cup of coffee from Jarvis, and settled in to watch.

Clint was definitely going to owe him a few special favors after the baby went home.