"So...where do we take him?" Steve asked, once they'd cornered Loki and let him get his I surrender quip in. "The Helicarrier's falling apart, and I don't think the drunk tank at the nearest precinct is gonna hold him."
"I think I should get a shot," Clint said.
"What?" Steve asked.
"A shot. I think I should get a shot. I'm good not using arrows," Clint added, when Tony flinched. "I just think given what he did to me, personally, I should get a free hit."
"He destroyed half of midtown," Steve pointed out. "If we give you a shot we have to give everyone a shot and I don't have that kind of time."
"I can represent both myself and the people of New York," Clint replied. "I'm multi-talented that way."
Steve glanced at Tony and Natasha.
"Seems fair," Natasha said.
"I got my camera rolling," Tony added.
"Thor?" Steve asked.
"He has done the hawkeyed one great wrong," Thor intoned.
"Archer smash," Hulk ventured. Steve turned back to Loki, thoughtfully.
"Okay, get him up," he ordered, and Natasha and Tony hoisted Loki by his arms. "Hawkeye, no groin punching, kicking, biting, slapping."
"You can't be -- " Loki started, but Hawkeye said "Thanks, Cap" and gave Loki one of the most beautiful right hooks across the jaw Steve had ever seen. Tony, on Loki's right, staggered a little with the impact.
Clint stepped back, squaring his shoulders. "Okay, I'm satisfied. And the City of New York thanks you all for your indulgence."
"This still doesn't solve where to put him," Steve said. Someone was barking orders over his comm link; he pulled it off his cowl and tossed it to Hulk, who crushed it. "Thanks."
"I think I have a place," Tony said. There was a sudden groan, and a whooshing noise like a brief vacuum of air, and then Bruce lay on the ground, naked and unconscious. Tony sighed. "There goes Hulk. Couldn't have waited five minutes?" he asked, nudging Bruce affectionately with his toe.
"A place?" Steve prompted, taking off his uniform jacket and tying it around Bruce's waist.
"Yeah. Okay, here's the scoop. Thor, you take crazypants here, I'll fly escort and show you where to touch down. Natasha, you know where Stark Mansion is?"
"Somehow I thought you might," Tony sighed. "Cap, Natasha, and Clint take Bruce, we'll meet you there. Then shawarma."
"So you get to give the orders when they're fun?" Steve asked, hefting Bruce over one shoulder.
"Hey, I let you give the order for Clint to punch bag-o-cats," Tony jerked his thumb at Loki, who was nursing his bruised jaw, held up mainly by Thor's firm hand wrapped around his arm.
"Let me?" Steve asked.
"Dick measuring later," Natasha interrupted. "Come on, let's get the hell out of here."
Dick measuring? Steve mouthed at Clint. Clint gave him a thumbs-up and went to (as it turned out) steal a car for transport.
"My dad," Tony said, keying a complicated series of numbers into the front door of a huge mansion on the Upper West Side, "helped Oppenheimer build the A-bomb. Lots of people had bomb shelters after we dropped two of them on Japan. Someone bring you up to speed on that?" he asked Steve.
"I'm aware," Steve replied tightly.
"So Dad thought..." Tony led them into a dark, dusty-smelling front hall and through a side-door, "...he should build one that would actually, you know, shelter someone from the bomb. Down we go," he added, as the floor began to sink.
When the floor stopped, they were in a sub-basement of some kind -- an echoingly large room, in which lay an only-slightly-smaller metal cylinder. A huge door, easily ten feet in diameter, sat open at one end, revealing a long interior with foot-thick walls. There was nothing inside but a few metal benches and a mattressless bed frame, all welded to the floor of the chamber.
"I cleaned it out when it became evident that, not living here, I would not make it here in time should the big one hit," Tony announced, voice echoing off the thick walls. "Right decision, given that today I did a midair ballet with a nuke. Anyway, this thing was single-cast so there are no seams, cracks, locks to pick, or windows to break. There's a bucket to pee in. Do you guys pee?" he asked Loki, who remained silently dignified.
"This will suffice," Thor said. "Are there lights?"
"I prefer the dark," Loki murmured.
"Lights," Tony ordered cheerfully, and the interior of the shelter lit up. "Inside, menace to society. Okay," he said, turning to the others as Thor settled his brother inside and swung the huge door shut, locking the wheel in place with Mjolnir shoved through it. "Who wants drinks?"
Ten minutes found the Avengers one level up, in some kind of super-futuristic workshop that apparently Tony had installed and then forgotten about. Bruce was laid out on a cot in the corner, watched over by Thor, who had a morose look on his face and a large vodka tonic in one hand. Steve could feel aches and pains creeping up as the adrenaline wore off, and he could tell the others must be feeling the same; Clint had made a beeline for the large bathroom in one corner, dragging Natasha after him. Tony had followed with something called "margaritas" before emerging again.
As far as Steve could tell, Clint and Natasha were examining each other for serious wounds -- Natasha kept calling out "cracked rib" and "skull laceration" like she was keeping score -- while soaking in a large bathtub full of hot water. Tony tossed Steve a bag of ice as he walked past, talking into a cell phone, and Steve eased it against his throwing arm.
"Pep, seriously, I'm fine. Yeah, the old mansion. Well, look, they can't keep you in the air forever, find a field or something -- of course he can land in a field, I can land a private jet in a field with one good eye and my tongue. Yes, I do -- the point is, I cannot put on my jet boots and come to you, jet boots are out of commission for the day, so the mountain will have to come to Tony Stark. I know other couples don't have these problems and wouldn't that be boring? Okay look," Tony said, and cradled the phone against his shoulder while he started tapping screens madly, "I'm clearing you a flight path to LaGuardia. I'm sorry, were you sleeping with me for some reason other than my ability to hack the FAA? My best girl," he added affectionately. "Sure. Now, Nick Fury is calling and I'm sure he has some kind of supertech that can come through the phone line and throttle me so I'm going to hang up and hide behind Captain America. Yep, love you too," he said, and hung up briefly. The phone blared. "Fury, you have to stop stalking me."
There was a long silence, which was actually kind of a relief.
"Uh huh. Yep. No, we're good. Sure, okay, I'll tell them. Later, you said? Wait, I'm sure you said this could wait. You're breaking up, Fury, I can't -- " Tony hissed dramatically into the phone and hung up a second time.
"Good news," he announced to the room. "Clint, Natasha, are you fucking in my bathtub?"
"Stark!" Steve said, scandalized.
"If we are it's news to me," Natasha yelled back.
"I'm pretty sure even my dick is bruised," Clint added.
"God preserve me." Steve cradled his head in his hands. He felt Tony pat his shoulder.
"We'll get him a cup. Okay! You are all about to meet my glorious girlfriend and the CEO of my company, Pepper Potts, who is totally used to random naked people so don't worry about it. Cap, you'll like her, she thinks I'm a loser too," Tony added. "She's bringing the shawarma. Fury's probably going to show up at some point. In the meantime I have like a million dents to hammer out of the armor, so don't mind the noise."
"Not minding," Clint called.
"Tony," Steve said, grabbing him by the arm. Tony flinched. "You're still bleeding from a head wound."
"I do some of my best work while bleeding," Tony answered.
"Sit," Steve ordered, and shoved him into a chair. Tony flinched again. Steve pulled around the first-aid kit that a robot (a robot, Jesus Mary and Joseph) had left on the worktable next to the remains of Tony's armor.
"Why are you touching me?" Tony asked, perplexed, as Steve tilted his head around this way and that, ignoring his attempts to hold still.
"Testing range of motion," Steve said, peering into his eyes. Tony peered back. "Any stiffness or soreness?"
"I'm sorry, did you not see me crash into like a dozen buildings? I am a giant mass of sore," Tony replied easily. "Couple of aspirin, bottle of scotch, I'll be good to go."
Steve ignored him, pulling a cotton ball out of the first-aid kit and dousing it with rubbing alcohol, cleaning the blood off the cut over Tony's eyebrow.
"Aha!" Clint yelled. "Natasha has a broken finger!"
"It's just sprained," Natasha argued.
"Splint it and stop bragging," Steve ordered, taping a bandage over Tony's wound. He pulled down the ragged, torn edge of his flight undersuit and sucked air through his teeth. There was a four-inch gash over Tony's collarbone.
"Oh. Hey, ow," Tony said, as if it had just occurred to him.
"I can stitch this up," Steve offered.
"Like, with a needle? You're adorable." Tony scrabbled in the first-aid kit and came up with a little tube marked SUPERGLUE.
"Glue?" Steve asked.
"Special futuristic glue," Tony waggled it enticingly. "Look, either epoxy me up or gimme a mirror so I can do it myself."
"I'm almost positive Coulson said something about them having medication now for conditions like yours," Steve said, and the silence that fell over the room was heavy. He carefully finished gluing Tony shut and then set the tube aside.
"Sorry," he announced, ducking his head. "I...I forgot."
"It's okay," Natasha said gently. There was a splash, and then she appeared in the doorway of the bathroom, wearing a large towel with AES monogrammed on it. Clint leaned over her shoulder; he wasn't wearing a towel, but nobody seemed to care.
"Oh, hey, um, this is going to sound creeptastic but I'm pretty sure there's a closet full of my mom's clothing upstairs," Tony said to Natasha. "It's old but it's probably mostly Gucci. Two levels up, down the hall on the left."
"Old and Gucci beats shredded and smelly," she said with a shrug, and made her way to the elevator. Clint sat down on the stool next to Tony's and raised his arms as high as he could, wincing.
"Strap me up," he said.
"I'm nine million percent sure I have underwear you can have," Tony informed him.
"First aid is a primary concern," Steve said, though he wasn't exactly comfortable with Clint's nudity either. Not as comfortable as Clint was, anyway.
"Okay, I'm going to...for some underwear and clothing. Hey, I totally have enough underwear for Bruce too. Thor, you good for delicates?" Tony asked, heading for the elevator. "Steve?"
"No room for them under the uniform," Steve said before he thought about it. A different sort of silence filled the room. He paused. "No, thank you, Tony."
Steve concentrated on strapping Clint's ribs carefully, glad that Clint, unlike Tony, seemed happy to be quiet. The only sound was Thor's occasional slurp from his drink and Bruce's soft breathing.
"Anywhere else hurt?" Steve asked, as Clint lowered his arms when the strapping was done.
"No. Thanks," Clint said. "Well, everything hurts, but nothing's broken. You?"
"I heal fast," Steve said.
"Want me to check you over?"
"No, I'm fine."
"Heads up!" Tony yelled, reappearing in the doorway, and suddenly the air filled with flying underclothes.
Bruce, fortunately, woke up before they had to dress him themselves. Natasha appeared in some kind of white jumpsuit that Tony declared "mod" before he herded them all upstairs to a lounge, and they settled in wearily on top of dropcloth-covered furniture. Tony poured drinks.
"No thanks," Steve said, when Tony offered him a glass of something with a faint blue tinge to it.
"Your loss," Tony said with a shrug. He settled onto a divan and flopped back. "So. Okay, I have a fun party question. Counting today, how many times have we collectively saved the world? Because I got one, two, three if you count blowing up a terrorist camp full of my own weapons of mass destruction, today makes four."
"Three," Clint moaned.
"One," Bruce said sadly.
"Which world?" Thor asked.
"This one," Tony said decisively.
"Does my triumph in the new state of Mexico count?"
"It counts, buddy, I'm counting it," Clint replied.
"Two," Thor said cheerfully.
"Nine," Natasha said. Steve blinked at her. "I started young. I'm counting the times it wasn't the western world I was saving."
"Seems fair," Bruce allowed.
"Should I just count the whole war as one?" Steve asked.
"I think you get at least four for that," Tony replied.
"Oh. Well, five, then."
"Twenty-four," Tony said. "One more time and we get some kind of prize, right?"
"Do we have to do it today?" Bruce asked plaintively. "I feel like I got run over by a giant alien worm. Oh wait, that happened."
"Well, I'm free for world-saving next Tuesday," Tony said.
Steve was opening his mouth to reply, formulating something inspiring and touching to say, when there was the sound of a door slamming.
"That'll be Pep, I'm on it," Tony said, bounding up from the divan. "Hey, Pep, oh my God, you will not believe who I saw naked toda -- "
They all heard the crash of Tony's glass hitting the marble floor.
Steve was up in an instant, darting through the door on alert; he heard rustling as Bruce and Thor followed, and felt more than heard Natasha join them. Clint whimpered I can't get up from his corner of the couch.
Tony was standing in the big central reception room, glass scattered around his feet, alcohol staining the cuffs of his pants. A woman that Steve assumed was Pepper was facing him, just inside the room, and next to her --
"Coulson?" Natasha asked, staring.
Phil Coulson, in a SHIELD sweatshirt and scrub pants, was propped against the woman, one arm over her shoulders for support, his free hand holding a plastic bag.
"So," the woman said, giving Tony a brisk smile. "I brought shawarma. And some hummus and pita chips, and this guy I picked up hitchhiking at the airport."
"Coulson?" Steve heard himself ask.
"The Son of Coul has been given eternal life!" Thor said, awed.
"Hi," Coulson said. "I would have been here sooner, but the subway seems to be down. Apparently a bunch of incompetent morons trashed half of Manhattan this afternoon. No hugs," he added sharply, as Bruce and Tony both started forward. "Severe internal injuries and also a significant concern for personal space. No hugging."
"Fury said -- " Natasha began, and then narrowed her eyes.
"I hear my Captain America cards were sacrificed for the greater good," Coulson said, a hint of regret in his voice. He seemed to notice what she was wearing, and cocked his head. "Wardrobe change?"
"I'm going to kill Nick Fury," Natasha announced.
"Someone please tell me what's going on," Clint called from the lounge. "Honestly, I can't get out of the couch."
Natasha, of course, was the kind of woman who could eat anything without dropping food on her white vintage Gucci jumpsuit. Steve got sauce on his uniform just trying to open the paper wrapper.
"Why are you in your underwear?" Coulson asked Clint. He was sitting a little stiffly on the couch next to Clint, holding a paper-wrapped flatbread in one hand. Clint had insisted -- yelled, really -- that Coulson was going to sit there, and no he wasn't going to move, and when Clint could stand up he was going to demand a free hit from Coulson, too.
"Why not?" Clint replied. "Saved the world, naked time now. Anyway, technically they're Tony's underwear."
"You can keep them," Tony said. "Bruce, you too."
"I was planning on it," Bruce said. "These are great. Stretchy."
"So did you even get to see us be awesome in your name?" Clint asked Coulson.
"I watched most of the fight from the recovery room," Coulson said. "I especially enjoyed the part where Mr. Stark french-kissed a nuclear bomb."
"I've kissed worse," Tony said.
"We're aware," Coulson replied. Tony looked annoyed.
"You want to explain why you were dead?" Bruce asked. "Some of us had genuine emotions about that."
"Wasn't my plan," Coulson answered. Clint's hand crept over towards his shawarma and he shoved him back with an elbow without looking. "Though I may, in the heat of the moment after being stabbed with a magical spear, have mentioned something about the six of you needing a rallying point."
"Don't ever make me the rallying point," Pepper whispered to Tony. Steve wasn't sure the two of them could get any closer. They were sharing a chair. A small overstuffed chair.
"This meat is excellent!" Thor said. He was treating the flatbread like a wrapper, eating the meat out of it and leaving the bread untouched. "How is it prepared?"
"On a spit," Clint replied.
"Fit for a warrior!"
"Director Fury took it upon himself to...imply that I was injured more seriously than was the case," Coulson said. "And splatter my trading cards with blood," he added.
"For the love of God, I will buy you a new set of creepy fanboy collector's cards," Tony said.
"You could just give me yours."
"No, he can't, his are framed in lucite," Pepper said. Tony actually looked embarrassed.
"How bad is it, anyway?" Clint asked, poking Coulson in the side. Coulson grabbed him by the wrist and Clint yelped.
"Nerve bundle," Coulson said smugly.
"Coulson," Natasha murmured.
"It's not bad. No major organs. Golf game is probably going to suffer," Coulson said, releasing Clint's wrist. "But I got to strike at evil from beyond the grave, so it balances out." He set his food aside -- in Clint's lap, to Clint's evident delight -- and leaned back. "You want to tell me where you stashed Loki?"
Tony gestured at the floor with a pita chip.
"He's in the basement," Steve added, when Coulson frowned.
"Handcuffed to a radiator?" Coulson asked.
"Locked in a bomb shelter," Tony supplied.
"Why?" Coulson asked.
"Because it's there," Bruce said.
"Tony assured us it could hold him," Steve said.
"It does have kludge appeal," Bruce added.
"Low-tech solution to a complicated problem," Tony translated for Steve, without being asked. Steve nodded soberly.
"What are you planning to do with him?" Pepper asked Coulson.
Coulson leaned forward carefully, lacing his fingers together. Steve heard him hiss a little in pain.
"The Avengers Initiative is a SHIELD-sponsored project, funded and advocated for by SHIELD," he said slowly. "In theory, you report to me, and I report to Director Fury."
"But?" Bruce said, looking intrigued.
"Technically I'm still dead, as the result of some relatively poor work on SHIELD's part containing him," Coulson said. "This Initiative is bigger than any single person, if it's still holding. You need to make a call. Are you Avengers, or are you freelancers for SHIELD?"
Steve looked around the room. Clint was suddenly very absorbed in his food. Natasha was looking at nobody in particular. Tony had his hand laced through Pepper's and was looking down at their fingers. Bruce was watching Coulson. Thor was looking at the ground as if he could see through it to where his brother was imprisoned. Heck, he was a god, maybe he could.
"Avengers," Steve said. "Clint?"
Clint looked up sharply. Steve raised his eyebrows. Clint, out of all of them, probably wanted it and didn't think he'd earned it.
"Avengers," Clint said in a small voice.
"Avengers," she said.
"Yes? What?" Tony looked around.
"He's in," Pepper said.
"I was perfectly happy being a poverty-stricken no-name," Bruce sighed. "Avengers."
"Yea, Avengers," Thor said.
Steve looked at Coulson. "Now what?"
"If you don't think SHIELD can hold him, better come up with something that can," Coulson said. "I hear Asgard's got a room with no doors. Just a thought." He glanced around the room. "You should probably put some pants on, Barton."
Nick Fury, despite all rumors to the contrary, was not an unreasonable man. He was willing to admit that some of the problems he was facing right now were of his own making. And he'd known Phil Coulson long enough to know the man hadn't gone rogue or suffered some kind of nervous breakdown.
But god damn, could the asshole not leave a note?
The first thing, the very first thing Fury had done when Coulson woke up from surgery, was brief him and give him his new orders: play dead and keep quiet. (The second thing was to put a SHIELD research team on the hunt for new Captain America trading cards. Fury wasn't a fool.) Coulson had agreed, and settled in with a non-networked tablet to do a formal write-up of the plan and outline future steps. Fury had left him there, satisfied that Coulson was on board and he could devote his energies to other matters.
He stared down at the security footage of Phil Coulson quietly, calmly, and unobtrusively stealing a SHIELD sweatshirt from the medical wing locker room and walking out. Nobody questioned him. Nobody even looked twice at him. Coulson had an uncanny knack for blending in and Fury wondered, not for the first time, if Coulson had some powers he wasn't telling SHIELD about. Probably not.
"Where'd he go from there?" he asked.
"Camera footage from outside suggests he was heading to the airport," the tech said, sounding baffled. "He shook all camera contact before he reached LaGuardia. If he made it there, he kept to blind spots."
"The airport?" Fury asked. "The fuck does he think he's flying?"
"Mr. Stark's cellphone is still putting us straight to voicemail," another tech called.
"Can you tell who he's talking to?"
"Seems to be the head of the Maria Stark Foundation." The woman smiled hesitantly. "He's putting grants in place for reconstruction."
"Ms. Potts is on the phone with the city commissioner," a third tech called. "She's arranging for salvage of the..."
"Well, she's calling them Space Whales," he said. "The large alien ships."
"She seems to be implying Stark Industries will pay for their removal and storage."
"Oh hell no. The last thing I need is Stark cannibalizing sentient alien spacecraft for parts. That man is one well-placed electrical shock away from supervillainy."
"I'm afraid we can't break into either call, sir. Mr. Stark is...very vigorous about his telecom security."
"Get Romanoff on the phone."
"She's not picking up, sir. Barton either."
One of the techs called up a map on the big screen. All the Avengers cellphones were clustered in a single location, including the child-friendly one with big buttons and no functionality aside from speed-dial, which they'd given to Rogers as a training phone.
"Get me a car," Fury said.
He reached Stark Mansion -- he hadn't been here since he was a young man being recruited by Howard Stark -- just in time to see Loki and Thor disappear in a beam of light that split the sky. He waited, because he was a tactician, until everyone had stopped looking up like idiots before he spoke.
"Gentlemen," he said. "Ladies."
The Avengers, as one, turned to him with darkening faces. Natasha spat a few choice words about his parentage in Russian. Clint bent down and picked up a rock about the size of his thumb. Fury had no illusions about Clint's abilities; he could put that rock through Fury's good eye and into his brain without assistance.
"I need a word with Agent Coulson," Fury said.
Coulson put a hand on Clint's, taking the rock out of his palm, and tilted his head at the mansion. "Go back up," he said. "I'll be along."
The Avengers looked spiteful but obedient, which was at least an improvement over spiteful and aggressive. They trooped down the path back to Stark Mansion, some of them turning occasionally to glare.
"Good cop, bad cop," Coulson said.
"I assume I'm the bad cop," Fury replied.
"If you'd oblige, boss," Coulson replied with a small smile.
"And you have some kind of plan that involved sneaking out of medical less than a day after major surgery?" Fury asked calmly, but he threw his arms up and waved them around angrily like a lunatic.
"I do," Coulson replied, slumping into an attitude of penitent subservience. From the windows of the mansion, it would look like he was getting read the riot act. It seemed unnecessarily theatrical to Fury, but he was willing to bow to Coulson's plan long enough to find out what it was.
"Care to share it with me?" Fury asked.
"At the moment they're pretty happy I'm alive," Coulson replied, shoulders slumping further. "That'll last about as long as it takes me to give them an order they don't like."
Fury pointed at him, snarling, and said quietly, "They seem to be getting along."
"For now. Their trust in SHIELD is pretty shaken by Phase Two." Coulson shrugged, then winced.
"Easy, Agent," Fury said, pacing back and forth furiously. "Don't pop your stitches."
"Noted," Coulson said, with a smile the Avengers, watching from above, couldn't see. "But they trust me."
"As you said, for now."
"And their emotions are running high right now. Will be for a few days. I can parlay that into a stronger power base. Tighter bonds with them and between them."
"You realize you're putting yourself up as chief cat-herder."
"I prefer to think of it as holding the leash on the biggest, meanest dog in the park," Coulson replied.
Fury considered this, scowling at him for effect. "That's a lot of power in your hands."
"Better mine than yours, boss. If you were the World Security Council, who would you rather have riding herd on the Avengers -- Nick Fury, notorious megalomaniac, or little Phil Coulson, the paper-pushing bureaucrat?"
"You think you can handle them?"
"I think I am handling them, sir. I've already given Thor his orders. We now have a man on the inside in Asgard. He's agreed to gather intel and relay it back to us when he returns."
Fury stopped pacing, narrowed his eye, then started again. "You need me to be hands-off?"
"Hands-on, but not quite in the same way," Coulson replied. He paused. "Have you been made aware of the...Space Whale situation?"
"I've been apprised," Fury said.
"You need to let Stark have one. Just one," he added, when Fury genuinely reacted in outrage. "Try to get them all, let me talk you into letting him have one. I'll make sure Rogers and Potts supervise."
"Rogers? The man who can't go near Stark without trying to claw his eyes out?"
"Rogers," Coulson said.
Fury threw up his hands again, rolling his eye. "Okay. This better work."
"It will." Coulson closed his eyes briefly, wincing, and Fury prevented himself from going forward to steady him. "I think I should go back up. I'll report in tomorrow with a status update."
"What's your next move?"
Coulson smiled, though his face was a little chalky. "Give them what they want."
Fury nodded. "Look after yourself, Agent."
"Don't worry. Barton's like a duckling, he's following me everywhere. It's adorable, really."
Fury stalked off, satisfied that he'd given a good performance. Coulson was utterly trustworthy; if he thought he could handle the Avengers best by keeping them at odds with SHIELD, Fury wasn't going to argue.
Phil made it halfway up the stairs to the back door of the Mansion before he had to stop and grip the handrail tightly. He was pleased when nobody came out to help him, but when he finally got to the top Clint was hovering in the entrance, Natasha behind him.
"What was that all about?" Clint asked, as Phil made his way back to the lounge, where the others were awkwardly pretending they hadn't been standing at the windows watching.
"I may have left the infirmary Against Medical Advice," Phil answered, easing himself back into the couch. He rubbed his temples. The wound ached, and he was stiff from holding himself with his weight on his good side. His head was killing him. "Stark, do you have any -- "
Stark tossed him an orange bottle. Phil shook out a pill and dry-swallowed.
"What's Fury's verdict?" Steve asked.
"Death by hanging," Bruce suggested. They all looked at him. "Too soon for dark humor?"
"Well, I'm alive again, all evidence to the contrary," Phil said. "And on probation, but you're still my responsibility."
"And our orders?" Natasha asked.
"I'm sorry, we just saved the world, we don't get orders," Stark said. "We get a round of applause and some fucking respect."
"Clint and Natasha will be returning to SHIELD for new duty postings," Phil said. His two agents glanced at each other. "Local work only, no undercover. Natasha, I need you to go to Tromsø, brief Foster on events, and bring her back. Clint -- "
"I always wanted to be someone's personal bodyguard," Clint said, dropping back into the couch next to him. He gave Phil puppy-eyes, which was unfair but amusing, given Phil was inclined to humor him anyway.
"We'll discuss that after we go over proper protocol for leaping off high buildings," Phil said. "Here's proper protocol: don't."
"Yes, sir," Clint replied.
"Banner," Phil said. "Considering Stark's offer?"
Banner and Stark looked at each other.
"How did you..." Banner began, and then waved it off. "Never mind."
"I hope you are, because SHIELD has some...concerns about your presence overseas," Phil said.
"Am I a prisoner, Agent Coulson?" Banner asked.
"Of course not. But Homeland Security might find they have you on a no-fly list if you try. And we'd like to strongly encourage you to consider a position in R&D with Stark Industries."
"Come on, Gamma Lad, we'll get you a lab of your own," Stark tempted. "All the cool toys and a romper room for the other guy. No, I'm serious," he added, when everyone stared at him. "We have a proving ground out in Wyoming. Left over from the bad old days, never bothered selling it. If half the Stark armory didn't make a dent, Big Green can't lower the property value."
"Done, then," Phil said, before Banner could answer. "Stark, how entrenched are you in California?"
Stark sucked air through his teeth. "Pretty much moved. Just have to port JARVIS over and sell off the place out there. We're good here," he said, glancing at Pepper. She gave him a smile and a nod. "Good to go. Oh, hey, which reminds me, those big alien space whale things -- "
"Captain," Phil said, cutting Stark off. Steve straightened his shoulders. "Plans?"
"I..." Steve glanced around. "Well. I guess they'll need...workers for the rebuilding."
"Seriously?" Stark asked. "How are you even real?"
"Stark's a high-profile target," Phil interrupted.
"Yeah, that's why I have the big shiny suit of armor, you might have seen it -- "
"We need you to be eyes and ears on him," Phil finished.
Dead silence. He was beginning to enjoy this, or possibly that was the painkillers talking.
Steve glanced at Stark. Stark looked at Steve. Pepper smiled brightly.
"You are going to love it, I promise," she said. "Tony's only annoying on days that end in Y."
"I'm never annoying," Stark said.
"You're at least eighty-eight percent annoying," she said. "Phil, I'll take him from here."
"Thank you, Pepper," he said.
"Again with the Phil," Tony complained.
"In that case, this meeting is concluded," Phil continued doggedly. "Everybody get some rest."
"Bed and board's on me," Stark announced. "Find a bedroom, make yourselves at home."
"Are you going back to the Helicarrier, sir?" Clint asked.
"Not tonight," Phil said wearily.
"Hey, bee tee doubleyou, we are going to dry dock that motherfucker and pimp the hell out of your ride," Stark called as he left the room, Banner trailing behind him. "Get Fury on notice, I am going to do indecently awesome things to the Helicarrier. ROGERS! MOVE IT OR LOSE IT!"
Steve glanced at the doorway.
"Really, sir?" he asked Phil.
"If you kill him you'll only be doing me a favor, and if you don't I'm sure it'll build character," Phil replied. Steve nodded thoughtfully and hurried out.
"I'll catch an early flight tomorrow," Natasha said.
"Take the day if you need it."
"Nah. Air travel always loosens me up," she said. She kissed his cheek -- Phil didn't know how to react to that, in all honesty -- and left.
"So, you need some help out of the couch or are you going to stand more on dignity than I did?" Clint asked.
"Help me find somewhere to pass out," Phil ordered, and Clint eased him out of the couch carefully. "How are your ribs?"
"Present and accounted for," Clint said cheerfully, as they made their way slowly down the hall. He kept talking, but Phil didn't pay much attention; whatever painkillers Stark had on hand, they were good, and Clint was talking to hear himself talk. The next thing he was really aware of was lying in a bed in some random anonymous room in the mansion, watching Clint make up a second bed for himself on a nearby couch. He was almost asleep when he heard Clint flop down, grunting, and then say into the silence:
"So how much of a fast one did you just pull on us?"
Phil smiled a little. "Only as much as I had to."
"How much of a fast one did you just pull on Fury?"
"Oh, I've been saving that up for a while."
"How long do you think it'll take Stark to figure out we got played?"
"If we're lucky," Phil mumbled, "The tenth of never."
"He has some very interesting, very specific blind spots."
"Shut up and go to sleep."
He heard Clint snort. "Yes, sir."
Phil woke to the smell of coffee, which meant things were looking up.
He opened his eyes and gave himself a moment to reorient; when his vision finally focused, he was staring at Clint, who was standing at the window throwing pennies through it with calculated aim. He considered pushing himself up, but the burning pain in his chest decreed otherwise.
"Are we under attack?" he asked. Clint didn't even turn.
"Nope," he said, throwing another penny. There was an angry squawk outside. "Just bird-hunting."
"Don't let PETA catch you," Phil grunted, sitting up. He pressed a hand over the large white bandage taped to his chest, breathing through the pain. Clint offered him a mug of coffee and his phone.
He had three hundred and five voicemails. The first was from Fury, informing him that he was routing all PR inquiries to Phil.
"I probably deserve this," he sighed, deleting the message.
The second was from...
Phil was never going to get used to getting voicemails and phone calls from a computer program.
"Agent Coulson, this is JARVIS," the voice said. "Mr. Stark has asked me to monitor your telecommunications. You have three hundred and three new messages. Two hundred and ninety-eight are from various news outlets. I've taken the liberty of queuing up the five non-media-related messages following this voicemail. If you wish to discontinue this service, please notify Mr. Stark."
The five messages that weren't from reporters demanding information out of him were from Maria Hill (two) and SHIELD medical (three). He deleted everything.
"So what are we doing about PR?" Clint asked, grinning.
"Better question, where's my shirt?" Phil replied. Clint grabbed it from a nearby chair and tossed it to him. Phil pulled it on, wincing, and took another slug of coffee.
When they got to the kitchen, Stark was there, announcing "No comment, no comment, no comment" as if he were giving a lecture. Phil leaned in the doorway and watched him explain modern-day PR techniques to Steve Rogers, while Banner looked amused in the background. Listening to Tony Stark talk about maintaining a public image was like listening to Genghis Khan give a lecture on nonviolent protest, but on the other hand his advice was surprisingly sound.
"Phil, back me up here," Stark said, and apparently his punishment for fake-dying was going to involve being on a first name basis with Tony Stark. "We're full-on no-comment, right?"
"For now," Phil said, sipping his coffee. "I haven't been fully briefed on the situation, but the Director's put me in charge of our public image -- "
He swallowed wrong, a little too much at once, and his throat tensed, muscles pulling down and across his chest, tugging on the wound. It felt like being stabbed again. He set his coffee on the nearest flat surface with perhaps a little more force than he should have, rubbed his chest absently, and tried to relocate his thread.
Bruce Banner was standing in front of him with two pills in his hand.
"It's a little better than the horse tranquilizers Tony keeps around," he said, with a gentle smile. "The other one's an antibiotic."
"Thank you," Phil murmured, downing the pills with some coffee and deliberately not asking where they had come from. "As I was saying, one possible route we can take is to provide no information at all. It's not generally my favorite -- "
" -- but it's an option." Phil said. "The down side is that the press will eventually figure things out."
"You don't have the press in your pocket?" Clint asked. Steve had his Horrified Captain America face on.
"Contrary to popular belief, I don't rule the world," Phil said, very carefully sipping his coffee again. "The wisest course would be for all of you to stay quiet -- that'll be easier with Thor absent -- "
Stark and Banner laughed.
"And to allow SHIELD to issue a press release," he finished, as Pepper walked into the room and handed him a sheet of paper. Phil looked down at it.
"Morning," she said, grabbing Stark's hand and lifting it, and the coffee mug in it, to her mouth. She sipped, kissed him, and settled down next to Steve, giving him a reassuring look. "Natasha left that for you before she took off for Toronto."
"Tromsø," Phil corrected absently. God bless Tasha Romanoff. "Well. Here's a press release. I'm off to release this to the press."
"So what do we...do?" Steve asked, looking a little forlorn.
"You have your orders, or your rounds of applause," Phil added, with a glance at Stark. "Go, little birds, fly free. When we need you, we'll call."
"What about you?" Pepper asked.
"Oh, someone always needs me," Phil said, folding up the press release.
"Um, actually, that brings up a point," Stark said, rocking back and forth on his feet. "In terms of logistics it doesn't make a lot of sense to, uh, spread out, and Banner's bunking at Stark Tower anyway, and I assume Captain No Underwear -- "
"Hey!" Steve growled.
" -- is going to take his bodyguard duties very seriously, and I've seen what you people at SHIELD call quarters on the Helicarrier -- "
"Anyway, Pepper thought -- " Tony stumbled as Pepper elbowed him in the side. "That is, she thought and I don't disagree -- seriously stop that, I'm all bruised," he said when she elbowed him again. "What is wrong with you? This is abuse."
"Save it," she said, and rolled her eyes. "We thought that considering Stark Tower is going to need some renovation anyway, we should clear a few floors for -- "
"Avenger use," Stark said.
" -- homes for our teammates," Pepper kicked him gently in the shin. Stark scowled. "Sorry, he's permanently emotionally stunted. So you're all welcome to stay in Stark Tower. Some of the less destroyed-by-evil floors for now, and your own living spaces once we've assessed the damage and begun rebuilding."
Clint gave Phil a nervous, hopeful look. Steve seemed utterly bewildered by the idea.
"I'll make the arrangements with SHIELD," Phil said.
"That includes you, Resurrection Man," Stark muttered.
"That's very kind of you, Mr. Stark, Pepper," Phil replied evenly. "In that case, disperse and reassemble at your leisure."
Stark took out his phone and wandered off, presumably to arrange things. Pepper followed, talking over and around him in the peculiar way they had, and Clint punched Phil gently in the shoulder and went to call for transit to the Helicarrier. Banner glanced at Steve and then followed Stark.
Which left Phil standing in the kitchen with Captain America.
"They confuse me," Steve said. "Tony and Pepper."
"They confuse each other, that's nothing new," Phil replied, easing into a seat.
"Sorry about your cards," Steve added, and reached into the pocket of his uniform jacket. He pulled out a wad of stained, dented-up paper and offered them to him.
"Wonder if they used my blood," Phil said thoughtfully, accepting them. "Little more than foxed around the edges now."
"On the other hand, bona-fide battle damage," Steve said, and gave him a grin. Phil flipped the first one over and saw writing on the unbloodied corner.
Cpt. Steve Rogers.
"It's important people have faith in us," Steve said, as Phil sifted through them. He'd signed each of them, wherever there was room. On one he'd written Sorry I look like such a yuck in this one. On another, Kilroy was here.
"I figure fake-dying for your country is a pretty small fraternity," Steve said, looking down at his coffee. "Welcome aboard. No secret handshakes."
"Thank you," Phil replied.
"You taking Tony up on his offer?"
"Well, never being at an apartment in Stark Tower would be an upgrade over the apartment I'm never at now," Phil replied. "Relax while you can, Captain. I imagine you'll need it."
"Sir, yes sir," Steve said, and stood. "I'm going to go make sure Stark doesn't blow anything up. HEY STARK!" he called, as he left the kitchen. "CAN I HAVE ONE OF YOUR PHONES? MINE'S STUPID."
"YEAH WHATEVER YOU WANT," Stark yelled back. "WE'LL PUT A FLAG ON IT OR SOMETHING."
"MAKE SURE YOU GET THE NEW ONE," Banner added, as Clint came back into the room. "IT HAS VOICE RECOGNITION."
"STILL WORKING OUT THE KINKS ON THAT!"
"Transport in five minutes, boss," Clint said. Phil tucked the cards carefully into the folded press release and took a last slug of coffee. "Natasha texted, she's got Foster. She'll see us back at the Helicarrier. Foster thinks she can use the energy signatures from Thor's last trip to build a stable portal."
"All right, I'll be there in a moment," Phil replied. Clint nodded and ducked back out. Phil allowed himself a moment of peace, then carefully got off the kitchen stool and went to join the others.
These were his people now, after all.