Fury had been harping on about better photo ops, but Phil didn't really need the heart attack. Granted, Clint striding out of the smoke with two kids, one a blond boy he was holding fetched up on his hip and the other darker haired and being towed along by the over-sized shirt he was wearing would make excellent copy, but Phil hadn't known if Clint was alive or dead for a whole three minutes.
That was three minutes too long.
"Where the hell did you find those?"
Clint just shakes his head. It's possible his hearing's shot from the giant explosion that buried the street in dust and debris. Phil has to wait until he gets closer, amused that the dark haired boy Clint's dragging along actually looks annoyed, little arms crossed and scowling. The blonde boy on the other hand is the right kind of adorable for their PR machine and he doesn't look at all worried about being carried.
"Where the hell-?" he starts to ask again but Clint jerks his head, not here. Clint's eyes dart around, taking in the clustered news media that are always too damn close to the action for Phil to be comfortable.
Phil sighs. Clint is probably the one that's the least comfortable about the attention the Avengers garner apart from Natasha, but he'd been in on Fury's dressing down just like the rest of them about playing nice. "Give me this one," Phil says, holding a hand out at the sullen kid. "Get some photos taken with the one actually happy to be rescued, then we can head back for a debrief."
"No touching me!" the sullen kid shrills, scowling harder and Phil just blinks at him.
Right before it dawns on him what this actually is.
"Oh my god," Phil groans, smacking a hand over his face just as a tiny Tony Stark marches up to him and very determinedly and with great gusto, kicks him in the shin.
The media loves it.
"I just want to keep him forever!"
"Darcy, put Steve down," Phil orders, watching Steve blush furiously as Darcy sweeps him up and cuddles the daylights out of him. He's still Steve is the thing, completely mentally intact if not physically all there. Darcy had appeared right after Steve and Tony were cleared and sprung from isolation.
"I'm cute too," Tony complains as Darcy sets Steve down with a pout.
"She's not letting you near her boobs regardless of size, Stark," Clint says and Tony pokes his tongue out at him.
"My friends!" Thor booms. He'd missed the fun, having been called back to Asgaard by his mother right before the explosions and the... shrinking. "I had heard you had been brought low but I had not known how literally."
"Haw, haw," Tony grumbles as Thor reaches out a large hand and pats Tony on the head. Tony looks furious, launches himself at Thor but Natasha catches him deftly and holds him, pin-wheeling arms and legs and all. While she thinks he's distracted Darcy's been sidling closer to Steve, actually has her arms scooped back under his when Phil spots her, shakes his head.
She humphs and flounces out of the room.
"Apart from this being hilarious, what's this all mean?" Clint asks, dropping a companionable hand on Steve's shoulder. Tony has given up trying to attack and is hanging loose in Natasha's grip, looking pathetic.
"I'm still me," Tony says. "Give me a day or so to build a new suit and we'll be back to business." He looks thoughtful for a second, odd since he's still dangling. "Hey, smaller might actually mean faster."
Phil catches out of the corner of his eye Steve's wince. Tony might not be limited by a size differential but Steve certainly is. Phil's read his file, knows this is probably Steve's idea of a nightmare coming true.
Jane appears in the infirmary doorway with a puzzled look on her face. "Darcy said something about me needing to come and hug Steve because it would be good for my soul," she says. She looks up from the tablet she's holding, spots Steve who had been edging behind Clint's leg and her face just melts into this weird, gooey adoration. "Oh my god."
"I'm going to start getting a complex," Tony gripes.
"I can tie my shoes."
Phil just stares at Steve's tiny feet for a second before he lets out an embarrassed huff. SHIELD had come up with miniature versions of the training uniform, lord knows why they had sizes that small, and it had been automatic to drop to one knee when Phil had dug the small shoes out of their box. "Sorry, yes, of course," Phil says, hands the shoes over when Steve makes gimme hands.
Thankfully Steve looks more amused than annoyed.
"This has to be some kind of magic, right?" Steve asks as he hunkers down and makes quick work of his laces. Tony's been kind of clumsy, not used to the changes in his body yet but Steve's adapted quickly. Phil suspects it has something to do with the serum. Steve might be strong for his size, they'll have to do some tests.
"I'd say so," Phil agrees. "I think if anyone had come up with a fountain of youth in a lab they'd be wasting time weaponizing it since they could pretty much rule humanity by bottling the stuff."
Steve huffs a laugh at that, looks up at Phil through blond, shaggy bangs. He's got pretty much the same face as a kid, far too solemn for his years, the hints of how handsome he'll finally be already there. "We don't know that this isn't permanent."
"We don't know it is," Phil counters. "We don't know anything at this point."
"With the serum-" Steve starts to say, looking pained but Phil's quick to cut him off because he knows what Steve's afraid of.
With the serum he doesn't seem to be aging.
"If it's magic, we don't know anything. You guys could pop back to normal tomorrow."
Steve looks dubious, but eventually he nods, standing and doing a little spin. "How's it look?"
"Bizarre," Phil says and Steve snorts.
"I want to go home. We're not quarantined and we're not contagious. There's no point cooling our heels here," Tony's arguing when Phil enters Fury's office. Tony is standing on a chair, leaning over Fury's desk and looking incensed. Fury's sitting back with his hands laced over his stomach, unimpressed.
"They'll be with agents," Phil interrupts, knowing he's taking his career in his hands by taking Tony's side in any argument. Fury's good eye darts to Phil, narrowing. "Do you really want a miniature Stark bouncing around the hallways?"
"We don't know what this is, whether it's some kind of attack-"
"It's an attack," Phil says and both Tony and Fury stare at him. Phil just returns their looks mildly. "We haven't figured out what sort or by who but it's definitely an attack. They'll be just as safe in lock-down at the mansion instead of here, it's the same security systems after all and none of our early warning systems compare to Jarvis."
"You volunteering for babysitting duty?" Fury phrases it like a question but Phil hears the order in it anyway.
"I was volunteering Barton and Romanov but strength in numbers is probably prudent."
"I don't need a babysitter. I haven't needed one since I was this age last time," Tony interjects.
"Fine, stay here," Phil says, gives him a no skin off my nose shrug.
"This is starting to piss me off," Tony announces, hopping down from the chair and storming from Fury's office.
Clint and Natasha are in street clothes when Phil meets them outside headquarters with Steve and Tony trailing in his wake. Happy pulls the car up, doesn't say a thing when he trots around and opens the door for them. There's a little strain around his eyes when Tony passes that Coulson interprets as him desperately wanting to, though.
When they get back the mansion, Tony makes straight for the drinks cabinet in the main living room. "No way," Phil says, pulling him up by the shoulder.
"I'm not actually five," Tony snaps, hands still outstretched towards the cabinet, pawing at the air.
"Your body is. There's a good reason kids don't drink."
"This is unbelievable," Tony grumbles, redirects towards the kitchen.
"No coffee either!" Phil calls after him, hears Tony swear colorfully and at great length as he goes.
Steve clambers up onto the couch and settles back with a tired sigh. His feet barely reach the edge. Phil glances behind him, sees Clint trying to fight a grin as Steve yawns in a way that almost devours his whole face and rubs at his eyes. "I think I might just-" Steve kind of slumps over sideways and he's snoring quietly a few seconds later.
Natasha comes back from the kitchen a few minutes later, lugging Tony who's passed out just as soundly. She drops Tony next to Steve and then looks back at Phil. "Think this is a side affect?" she asks, gesturing at the sleeping boy-versions of their teammates.
"Probably of being tiny and not knowing their limits," Phil says. "I don't think it's anything more sinister than that."
"What is this anyway?" Clint asks, following Phil to the kitchen. Natasha stays behind, picks up a book and settles herself in the corner of the couch not taken up by sprawled limbs. "I mean, what the hell, I was there too and I'm fine."
"That's why I think it was an attack, it was targeted."
"You think maybe Loki?" Clint asks, chewing on his lip. Phil knows Clint hates this kind of thing. There's nothing to fight, nothing they can do but wait and worry.
"It does has his particular flair, yes," Phil agrees. "Thor's gone to see what he can find out. I swear, sometimes I would trade having Thor around for not having Loki."
Phil abandons his laptop when JARVIS interrupts him, saying, "Sir, maybe you should intervene," as the AI pops an image up on the bottom corner of Phil's screen of Tony and Steve wrestling madly. Steve delivers a mighty, open-handed slap to Tony's head as Phil watches in disbelief and Tony throws back his head and bawls.
"Hey, what the hell?" Phil demands, finding them both in Tony's workshop downstairs. Steve is standing away from Tony who is still wailing, looking startled.
"I don't... I'm not..." Steve's blinking rapidly, looks like he's about to start crying any minute also. Phil crosses to Tony who holds his arms up and Phil ducks down to scoop him close automatically, doesn't even think about it. Tony curls into him, snuffling for about thirty seconds before he suddenly jerks away, almost hard enough to wrench himself right out of Phil's grip.
"Um, you can put me down now," Tony says, sounding much more himself. There's still tears on his face as Phil sets him on his feet and steps away, not knowing who's more embarrassed.
"He had a screwdriver I wanted and I just... it kind of devolved from there," Steve offers, face screwed up in a perplexed frown.
"You might not be able to process complex emotion the same way you do as adults," Phil says. Whenever he's on shaky ground he likes to go analytical. "Kids are more reactive."
"If JARVIS is going to interrupt my shower for tot-wrestling, the least you could do is not break them up before I get here," Clint says from the doorway. He's wearing a towel and nothing else and Phil feels his mouth go a little dry. "Oh my god Stark, are you crying?"
"Shut up," Tony snaps, passing a sleeve over his face. "Steve sucker-punched me in the side of the head. That would bring tears to your eyes too."
"I'm really sorry," Steve offers.
"You're both not particularly rational at the moment," Phil says. "We'll take turns monitoring you, just in case there are any further... altercations."
"See what you did," Tony hisses at Steve who looks tragically chagrined.
"Tony threw a tantrum when I said he couldn't have scotch for dinner," Natasha reports about as blandly as she would any other mission. "Apparently I'm now the devil."
"She-devil!" Phil hears a voice from behind the couch.
"I'm staging a sit-in!"
"In your own living room?" Phil asks and the top of Tony's messy hair appears above the back of the couch, followed by his eyes. "Where's Steve?"
Steve appears beside Tony, holds up a small fist. "Solidarity," he says.
Phil tries not to laugh because that would just be encouraging them.
"Bruce gave them candy," Clint groans as Phil finds both Tony and Steve jumping up and down on Clint's bed, laughing hard. They collide mid-air and both topple off the bed in different directions.
This time Phil can't hold the laughter in.
"Should they be so exuberant?" Thor asks as Tony and Steve come tearing past them. It's Phil's shift and he's had about three hours of blissful peace as Tony and Steve had once again been unconscious but they'd woken raring to go like they'd just been recharging for more carnage.
"I am starting to worry a little about their-" Phil grabs Steve as he does another lap because he's trailing a loose shoe lace and it's a recipe for disaster. "Hey, lace up, Rogers."
Steve hunkers and his hands hover over his laces for a second before he closes them in fists. He looks up and Phil would rather in his life have never seen such fear on such a small face. "I can't... I can't remember how," he says.
"We didn't even realize it was happening, it was so quick," Phil says, cell phone gripped between shoulder and the side of his head. "Tony's regressed completely. Steve's still pretty much himself, he's losing bits and pieces though. We think maybe his mental faculties are being protected by the serum to a degree."
"Is there anything we can do?" Fury asks.
"It's nothing that can be treated medically," Phil says. "We need to find whatever or whoever did this. I'm not sure this is something that's going to reverse on its own." Phil watches Clint turn Tony upside down, hold him by the ankles to Tony's absolute delight. Steve's trying to be more reserved but Phil can tell that he's about thirty seconds away from demanding to have a turn too.
Phil had never suspected that of them all, Clint would be the best at wrangling kids.
"Did Thor have any luck?"
"He's pretty sure this is Loki, but we don't know why he's done something like this. He's trying to track Loki down. Jane's helping. She's been developing a way to track him."
"You don't sound convinced this is Loki," Fury notes.
"It just... this seems a little juvenile."
"Don't get attached," Phil warns. "I have it on good authority that he grows up into a loud-mouthed, drunken genius with delusions of grandeur."
Clint just offers Phil a sideways grin as he ducks his face down so Tony can wipe away the traces of stray foam with a towel. "I'm just trying to instill good facial hair habits early," Clint says. "I mean, haven't you ever wanted to just hold Stark down and shave that thing off his chin?"
"Banner's running him through some memory exercises. He thinks maybe we can slow the progression of whatever this is, at least with Steve. He's starting to get a little... spotty."
Something bumps up against Phil's foot and Phil looks down to see a small bunch of wires and metal trundling away on wheels, chirruping to itself. "Wow, he wasn't kidding about starting early," Phil says.
"I helped," Clint says and Tony rolls his eyes, so much an adult gesture that Phil is reminded that even though Tony's regressed to being a kid, he's still a pretty damn bright kid.
"I said I could do the soldering myself," he says. "Clint wouldn't let me."
"Safety first," Phil says, offers Clint a grin.
Phil feels more than sees Clint appear behind him, there's a touch announcing his presence to his arm even though it's not necessary but Phil appreciates it.
"We thought the serum might protect him to a degree, but so far as we can tell we're dealing with magic here. It wasn't certain that he would remain... intact," Phil says.
"It just doesn't seem ... evil," Clint says, holding his arms out. Darcy passes Steve over. It's such a smooth transition, not even waking Steve, that Phil figures they've done the move before. It's actually kind of sweet, right up until Steve kicks in his sleep and gets Clint right in the groin.
Clint makes a pained squeak and only just manages to toss Steve at Phil before he collapses to the floor in a ball.
"Oh yeah, he does that," Darcy says.
"Not right now, though," Clint says, biting his lip and looking pensive. Phil sighs, rubs a hand over his face, weary down to his core.
"Not right now, though," he agrees.
They'd been called into SHIELD to have Thor set something down on the conference room table in front of them with a triumphant flourish. "I have to agree with Agent Barton's assessment," Phil says.
"It was plucked from the Justice Tree," Thor says, looking as peeved as he ever gets. "It took a great deal of time to track it down."
"Why are we tracking down branches from Justice Trees again?" Clint prompts. Steve and Tony are back at the mansion with Darcy, the rest of the Avengers assembled around the table. It feels weird to Phil to be missing Tony's interruptions and Steve's attempts to curb them.
"It was plucked from the Justice Tree by my brother," Thor says. "He used the magic within the very tree to further his own mischief."
"He did do this then, Loki?" Banner says. He's inching towards the stick, Phil knows he's just dying for a lab and some alone time with it.
"Not... exactly," Thor hedges.
"What's that mean, not exactly?" Clint demands.
"He retrieved the branch but he gifted it to another. There was a boy who felt wronged by us, who wished that we would feel as small and helpess as he when his father was incarcerated by our hands."
"Small and helpless... aw hell," Clint groans.
"How did he find this boy?"
"He was one of many," Thor says. "Loki was... generous."
"You mean there's more than one of these things out there?" Phil demands, feeling dread, cold and sure curl a fist in his stomach.
"I believe so, yes."
"Fantastic," Clint grunts, shares a what the hell, now look with Phil.
"That's about the size of it," Phil confirms. "Thor couldn't find a way to be sure, he's tried."
"They'll just age normally again if they're stuck like that though, right?"
"Stark, yes probably. Rogers we're not so sure."
"Because of the serum?" Fury says and Phil nods. "Great. And you want me to decide what to do?"
"We can't really do nothing," Phil says. Clint had hurried back to the mansion as soon as Phil had taken custody of the branch, saying something about wanting to make his goodbyes. Phil had let him, knowing Clint had gotten attached to the smaller versions of Steve and Tony despite Phil's warnings.
Hell, apart from Natasha, they all had.
"Just, leave it with me," Fury says, looking resigned.
"You have a problem," he says.
"Yes, it's you playing keep-away with my drink," Tony complains.
Phil leaves them to it, finds Clint in the kitchen nursing a cup of coffee and looking sad. "Do I need to buy you a puppy or something?" he asks, amused.
Clint snorts into his cup, rolls his eyes. "They were just fun as little guys, is all," he says, shoulders coming up around his ears, defensive. "I never really had, like, anyone to look after before."
"I have a niece," Phil offers, drops onto the kitchen stool next to Clint and jostles him with his shoulder. "You could borrow her."
"That sounds kinda creepy," Clint says. "Wait, you have a niece?"
"Do you have a picture?"
"Not on me," Phil says.
"You're a terrible Uncle."
"That's what my sister keeps telling me."
"I bet you send extravagant gifts but never see her."
"Oh my god, are you channeling Janey now?" Phil says, horrified as Clint chuckles. "I have my hands full looking after you people."
"You could take a break, go to...?"
Clint pulls a face. "Go to Stuckey and actually see the kid."
"Every time I think about it some world-ending crisis comes up. I've stopped trying."
"They could come here."
"I'm not having Janey and Tess anywhere near here," Phil says, horrified. "There are tree branches that apparently de-age people and lord knows what else."
"How about a road trip, then? No planning, just spur of the moment. Less planning means less chance of being interrupted."
"That's your logic?" Phil asks, doesn't really want to admit how tempting that sounds. Clint stands, hops about like some overactive teenager.
"Let's load up the car and go," Clint says. There's something open and hopeful on his face that Phil finds incredibly endearing.
"You want to come with me, to Stuckey? I don't think they even have a Starbucks."
"It'll be great," Clint insists. "I don't exactly have a home town to travel back to."
Phil lets out a long sigh, Clint is very hard to resist at the best of times and Phil does have piles of leave just begging to be taken. There's usually at least a week's gap between horrendous incidents so they're due for a break. "If I take you home, Janey's going to be impossible and she'll think we're..." Phil makes a gesture between them.
"That a problem?" Clint asks. He's wearing his trademark cheeky grin, Clint's always been a smiler by nature, but he's also got a dull red painting his cheek bones.
"Fine," Phil relents, gets a hand tucked into Clint's belt and yanks him forward, is pleased by the way Clint just comes when pulled. "But I'm driving."