The air is sweet and warm -- not humid or stifling but fresh, perfect. The French windows of the kitchen are wide open, letting in a playful breeze that carries the lazy sounds of the Avengers and Darcy Lewis chilling in Tony Stark's back yard, taking advantage of the unexpected lull in attempts at world domination that the fine weather had brought with it. There can't be more than a yard of clothing between the lot of them; never have there been tinier bathing suits in existence as are being sported right now. Good thing Tony's mansion is a) in the middle of nowhere, and b) has better security than most correctional facilities can boast (Phil is determinedly not making that connection, even in the safety of his own mind. His sanity can only take so much).
He's not outside, of course. He's sitting at the kitchen table, enjoying the weather as much as he'll let himself with a teetering tower of files to get through and no desire whatsoever to remove his clothes and parade around mostly naked, like his charges (except Thor. There's nothing 'mostly' about his state of undress, god help him).
Outside, the seven of them are sprawled on loungers by the pool, skin gleaming in the sunlight, looking like nothing more than a selection of the most perfect beings in existence. Steve dozes, face squashed into the back of his lounger, feet hanging off the edge and hands trailing over the warm tiles beneath. Stark's sitting up next to him, tapping at his ever-present tablet, black sunglasses failing to conceal the fact that he isn't doing nearly as much work as he pretends, seeing as how he can't take his eyes off Steve's back and the red, white and blue swimshorts he's wearing (under duress, but Darcy turned out to be impossible to say no to. Phil really ought to explore that phenomenon). Natasha's lying prone, one leg bent and arms over her head, black swimsuit making her pale skin shine ethereally in the light, reading Matthew Riley and sniffing disdainfully every now and again, and Bruce is sitting cross-legged with his laptop across his knees. Thor is playing with his hammer (thank everything holy that that isn't a euphemism), and Barton is lying on his back, arms stretched along the back of the lounger above his head, tiny, tiny shorts hugging his hips, wraparound shades over eyes that Phil knows are closed in a still-humbling show of trust. Darcy, meanwhile, lies on her front, breasts mashed into the wood and framed by her elbows until Phil wonders how anyone can be looking elsewhere, chin resting on her hands as she stares at Barton appreciatively.
Barton knows it, the bastard; that curve on his lips only comes out when he knows he's being ogled.
"I still can't believe you have a hawk tattoo," Darcy says, picking up the thread of conversation that Phil thought had already died a natural death. Her tone is mocking, but her eyes are anything but. Barton smirks.
"I can be proud of who I am," he drawls. The black ink curves over his hip, spiky tendrils flowing up his side and down under the waistline of his pants to form the body of the bird, wings solid and light at the same time where they caress his hipbone. It's a gorgeous tattoo; the contrast between sun-kissed skin and black, black ink is breathtaking.
More ink flows across his ribs on his other side, something that makes Phil fight hard not to grin full-out every time he sees it. ILLEGITIMI NON CARBORUNDUM, it says, don't let the bastards grind you down. It's nothing so much as an advertisement regarding Barton's many and varied issues with authority -- and other things Phil isn't supposed to know about, but he has eyes, and level seven SHIELD clearance, and access to Fury's personal files. There are scant few things he hasn't made his business to know about Barton already.
"Really nice lines there. You gotta tell me the name of your artist," Darcy says innocently. Barton's lips twitch; he stretches languidly, like a giant cat lying in a sunspot, and says nothing. Darcy pouts. She's been fishing for over half an hour already, but Barton remains frustratingly tight-lipped.
Phil tunes them out after that, monitoring tone of voice more than words. He's harboring tentative hopes of being able to finish his paperwork in peace, and for his gang of overgrown pre-schoolers to actually get some rest while they can, when he hears Darcy say 'tattoo' and 'ring' in the same sentence, and he stills. Barton only hums, but Darcy's like a dog with a bone when she finds something that doesn't make sense to her, and all he can do is sit there and watch the train wreck happen in slow motion.
"Why would you have a ring tattooed on your chest, though, over your heart, no less?" Darcy wonders, teeth worrying at her lower lip. Phil contemplates saying something to distract her, but it's far too late -- an interruption at this stage will only swivel her attention onto him, which he'd rather avoid under the circumstances.
Darcy's stifled gasp heralds the inevitable. He looks down at his paperwork and sighs in resignation.
"Oh my god," she says slowly, sounding awed and gleeful and faintly horrified. "Clint Barton, is that a wedding ring?"
It's remarkable how quickly the peaceful scene devolves into cheerful chaos. Stark's head snaps around, bright, vicious grin showing a hint of sharpened canines, like a predator smelling blood. Steve lifts his head, a line creased into the skin of his cheek but eyes clear like he hadn't just been napping (Phil revises his earlier estimate. He understands what the easy glide of warm sunlight over his skin must feel like for Steve, after the past seventy years). Bruce looks confused, while Natasha just throws Barton a look that packs volumes into 2.3 seconds.
"My friend, you have not told us of this felicitous occasion," Thor reproaches, sounding put-out. "I would congratulate your partner on their excellent choice."
"Wait, wait," Darcy cuts in, rising up on her elbows. Phil catches Steve looking pointedly away, cheekbones pinking. "Clint, I was kidding before, but seriously? Are--you're married?"
The disbelief in her voice makes Barton turn his head, arching an eyebrow, probably cracking an eyelid behind his shades. "The ring interferes with my grip," he says blandly, like he hasn't just dropped the bombshell of the century in the middle of the biggest group of gossips around.
The chaos spreads. The only person who isn't demanding details at the top of their lungs (Stark can get so obnoxious when he thinks someone's holding back on him) is Natasha, who settles down again and lifts her book over her face. Just before it shields her eyes, Phil feels the look she shoots him across the pool and through the windows like a dagger digging into his sternum.
He looks down, forces himself to halt the flush trying to climb his neck. He can't seem to keep his fingers still, though, thumb rubbing idly over the wedding band on his left hand, surface a little worn, comfortable notches he knows by heart, the nudge of the little raised arrow on the inside fitting a groove against the pad of his finger, soothing, grounding. He catches himself smiling down at form 48-C, feels his lips twitching, echoing the contented glow that suffuses him with every swipe of his thumb over the gold. It's the one secret that never fails to remind him just why he does what he does, that makes all the sacrifices worth it.
If he's the only one out of the two of them who can wear his ring all the time, well, he'll do it happily, for both of them, a visual reminder of just who it is that holds the other half of the pair.
Barton lets his head loll back against the lounger, seemingly ignoring the wild, heated speculations flying through the air. If that brings his eyes level with Phil's across the distance, and if Phil knows him well enough to guess they're gleaming behind the black lenses, and see the tiny twitch in the corner of his mouth, well.
It's nothing anyone else needs to know.