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with this ring

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When Phil finally realizes he's conscious and not dreaming, he takes a moment to be deeply impressed with the competency of the SHIELD medical teams. Then, without opening his eyes, he takes his usual survey of himself, starting at the top and working his way down. Head's pounding, throat's dry, chest is oddly numb, arms and legs seem to be--

His ring is gone.

His eyes snap open.

Nick Fury's sitting at his bedside. That's not unexpected. The director's quick, relieved smile is a little surprising--but then, the last thing Phil remembers is bleeding out on the floor of the cell room, so maybe not all that surprising, really.

"Where is it?" Phil asks before Fury can say anything. His voice is rough and cracks on the vowels, but he's audible.

Fury frowns, clearly not understanding, then Phil manages to twitch his left hand. Fury's eye flicks to it. He deliberates for a moment, then sighs. "I gave it to Barton."

Phil's head swims. His vision greys at the edges from the panicked rush of adrenaline in his presumably-already-drugged-to-the-limits bloodstream. "You told him I was dead." It wasn't a question. Phil's ring would have been the only proof Clint would have accepted, the lie the only reason Fury would have taken the ring in the first place. Fury and Clint both knew Phil would never have taken it off. Not with breath left in his body. He'd promised.

"Loki punctured your lung, so technically you're fine on that front," Fury said, and Phil hadn't realized he'd said that out loud, but it didn't matter.

"Let me see him," he demanded, trying to push himself up, but he didn't have the strength. Fury put a hand on his shoulder and guided him back down into the cushions, wincing at the wild beep of the heart monitor.

"Phil, calm down, you can't just now."

"Fuck that," Phil hears himself say, excuses it with the drugs and the trauma. "I want my wedding ring back, and I want to tell my husband I'm not dead."

Fury sits back in his chair and sighs, frowning at him with the kind of look Phil's never had pointed at him before. "It's...complicated, Phil."

"You owe me," Phil says. He doesn't care how harshly it comes out--he's literally put his life on the line for SHIELD for years, he's given everything to them, he should be able to make a demand of his own from his goddamn deathbed--

Fury glares at him, but his voice is surprisingly soft. "You don't even know how much, but it's complicated, Phil."

That pulls him up short, just the tiniest bit--how much, then? "What happened?" he asks after a moment, making some show of relaxing back into the pillows and letting Fury see it. He'll lie back--just for now--and listen.

But then he wants his damn husband.

- -

Looking back, Clint can see why Natasha hadn't told him until after they'd won the battle. He'd had his bow pointed at Loki's head, for fuck's sake. If he'd known Loki had killed Phil--


No point crying over wasted chances now, he supposed, but he was still seething. Still furious that she'd waited fucking hours to tell him Phil was dead. Furious that he'd had to come back to the helicarrier and find Fury waiting for him with just a ring in his hand. No I'm sorry, no we'll let you see him (the biggest fucking opposite of that, in fact), just a ring and a I'll understand if you need to take some time.

Clint reaches up and runs his fingers over Phil's wedding ring, hanging on a chain around his neck. It doesn't really calm him. He's not one for sympathy leave--he's not one for leave at all, unless it's the enforced kind. The kind you get from punching the director of SHIELD in the face.

That had calmed him down.

It had also impressed Stark enough to invite Clint to stay at his place while he was exiled from base. And since Clint sure as fuck wasn't going back to his (and Phil's, he thinks, then forces down that thought and the surge of bile it sends to the back of his throat) place, he's currently perched in the wreckage of Stark's penthouse, staring out at the slowly rebuilding expanse of the city. It's actually sort of nice here--yeah, the top floor's trashed, but there are, like, fifty others, and Stark does like to live in the lap of luxury. Banner's here, too, the lure of ten floors of R&D too much to resist, and he hasn't gone green once. He makes a damn good curry, too. Rogers drifts in and out, and Natasha comes to see him nearly every day. He knows she's keeping tabs on him, making sure he's not breaking down from grief or whatever, but he doesn't really have enough left in his emotional bank account to spend on caring.

There's a crackle of broken glass behind him. The volume and pace of the steps tell him it's Stark, and a moment later the man appears in his peripheral vision, two glasses of scotch in his hands. Without a word, Stark sits on the ground next to Clint, his legs stuck out in front of him, and passes one of the glasses over.

They drink in silence for a few moments, and Clint's a little surprised by how companionable the quiet is. He's a little surprised by how much...less painful the past few days have been, actually, being in the Tower with these people. Not being completely alone, even though he's got no one left in the world to call family.

Eventually Stark glances over at him, his eyes going to the slim silver ring on the chain, that Clint's still holding on to, and he watches Clint's fingers move restlessly on it for a minute. "So who was he, exactly, to you?" Stark asks finally, and Clint realizes he's never actually told them. The 'h-word' had never passed between him and Fury in the very public exchange that had landed Clint's ass on the off-duty roster. Natasha knew, but the others--he'd never said it out loud.

It sticks in his throat when he tries to say it now, and instead, he turns slightly and hikes up his shirt to show the tattoo of a matching ring on his ribs. "Jewelry was a field liability," he says, his voice approximating normal, and Stark's eyes shadow with understanding.

"Fuck," he says after a long moment. "I'm sorry."

"Yeah." Clint knocks back the rest of his scotch, ignoring the actual, physical ache in his chest. He wonders if this is how Stark feels all the time, something cold and hollow in his chest working in place of a heart.

Stark opens his mouth to say something else, then clearly thinks better of it and looks away. He gets his feet under himself and stands, but hesitates before walking away. "So, Banner's making hot pot," he says almost tentatively. "Steve's here, Romanoff's probably lurking in the rafters or whatever. You should come down, Clint."

Clint stares out at the city for a few more moments. He does not want to go drop raw meat and vegetables into a pot of soup with a bunch of people walking on eggshells around him. He wants to scream, wants to shoot something, wants to jump off the goddamn roof, wants his fucking husband back.

But he's also hungry, and that fucking husband that's not fucking here wouldn't want him to starve himself pining like something out of a medieval epic.

"Why the hell not," he sighs, and follows Tony back downstairs.

- -

It's a good thing Phil can't move his arms too much without tearing his stitches right now, or Nick Fury would need another eye patch.

"You said when the Council made their decision--"

"Putting us on temporary commission is not making a decision." Fury's arms are crossed over his chest, and Phil has a feeling this is going to be a long fight. "It's going to have to be a little longer, Agent Coulson."

"I don't think the Avengers are going to suddenly decide they don't want to fight together because they find out I'm alive," Phil says heatedly.

"That's not what this is about anymore," Fury says, his gaze boring into Phil. "If that was the only reason, I'd have told them when the mission was over. The Avengers Initiative needs to be constituted before I can wipe clean a lot of things we did under the table without any serious repercussions."

Phil glares at him for a very long, very tense moment. "And I'm one of those things."

Fury's shoulders drop ever so slightly. "You know how we work, Coulson."

Phil lays back in bed, his hard gaze moving to the ceiling. "Yes. Sir."

He doesn't speak again, and Fury marches out swearing under his breath a few minutes later.

Phil tries not to think about the lack of weight on the fourth finger of his left hand.

- -

There's a tense moment when Hill has to call Fury in to sign off on Clint's reactivation of duty forms.

But the director just comes in, glances over the papers, and signs them. He flicks a look at Clint, who is clean-shaven and completely sober (thanks to Natasha and Steve's combined efforts, but Fury doesn't need to know that--or he had a legion of spies tell him already and just doesn't care, either one). "Nice to see you holding together, Agent," Fury says.

Then he notices the chain around Clint's neck, the ring tucked inside his uniform collar. His eye narrows, and he turns to Hill. "Jewelry's a field liability, Agent Hill, if you forgot to note that in his form."

Hill's voice is blander than Clint's ever heard it. "I hadn't noticed it, sir."

Clint hates her on principle for taking Phil's job, but he can't help feeling a little warm towards her in that single moment.

Fury's head slowly swivels on his neck to fix Clint with a needle-sharp glare. "The second it becomes a problem, Barton, it's off."

"Won't be, sir," Clint says, his voice dripping with as much insubordination as he can muster, and Fury stalks out of the room.

Hill doesn't say anything else about it, just hands him the form and says that'll be all, now get his ass to the firing range and start getting back in shape. He was hoping she'd say that.

He loses track of hours down there. It's good. It's perfect. He can forget time, can forget the ache in his chest, can forget everything but the bow under his fingers and the target in front of him.


Except when he moves in just the right way to press the ring under his shirt to his skin, and it's never been there before and it's too different, too fucking painful. It makes him want to throw up, and he has to take a few moments to get his breathing back under control before he can shoot straight again.

Maybe he came back too soon. Maybe he should have waited, waited until every third thing he saw in this base didn't remind him of Phil like a knife twisting in his gut. But even as he thinks it, he knows that's fucking stupid, he's never been one to wait for wounds to heal before ripping them right back open, not without someone there to make him lie back and take a break, and Phil's the only one who ever did that for him.

Natasha watches his back, yeah, but she's always been fine with just sitting back and letting him learn from his own mistakes when shit blows up in his face.

She finds him on the range a few hours later, pulling arrows from the target to refill his empty quiver again. She doesn't say anything, just sits down with her weapons case and starts cleaning the contents, taking them out one by one, disassembling and reassembling, rhythmic, not too close but close enough.

He's fine with that.


- -

The first day Phil's well enough to sit up in bed, he rips out two stitches trying to get at the nurse's communicator.

He gets another three days stuck on to this prison sentence for that, but it was worth a try.

"I will keep you sedated, Coulson," Fury threatens him.

"Or you could save the expense and damage to my liver and just let me see my husband."

"Soon, Phil," Fury says, and Phil ignores him. Nick Fury lies. Phil's learned that by now.

- -

Phil has been dead for two and a half weeks when Fury calls all the Avengers into the briefing room. The Initiative's been given the official go-ahead, he tells them, and Clint wonders why this is such fucking big news. Who gives two shits about the Council anymore? The Avengers are a thing, they can't stop them.

"Who the fuck cares?" he asks. "The Council doesn't change a damn thing, what's so special about them saying you can do whatever the hell you want with us?" He is so far past giving a shit if Fury wants to bench his ass for insubordination again. He hasn't thrown a "sir" in the man's direction since his first day back; he just barely does what he's told, and only if Cap's the one who asks him. Fury didn't let him see his husband's body. Fury can go fuck himself. Idly, Clint wonders if he's finally starting to self-destruct. Phil would be able to tell. But Phil's not exactly here.

"It means," Fury begins through gritted teeth, "that we now have the ability to close a certain number of still-open files." He's pissed but he's clearly trying to be patient with Clint, and that's so jarring that Clint actually doesn't know how to process it. "Including the last operation from the incident with the tesseract."

Clint's heart does a funny little jerk. "What?"

"I thought we wrapped all that up weeks ago, sir," Cap says, his brows drawing together.

"There was an ongoing background op," Fury says, his eyes still on Clint. "We're finally able to declassify it."

Clint's on his feet without making the conscious decision to be. Natasha's hand barely registers on his shoulder. There's a hollow rushing pounding in his ears, and he knows it's stupid to hope, Fury hasn't said anything about Phil, but--what else could be going on, Clint's clearance is high enough that he would have known--

Fury explains.

Clint decks him again.

- -

Phil hears voices yelling in the hall outside his room, and sits bolt upright in bed. The heart monitor kicks into overdrive. He ignores it.

There are a few very loud thuds against the wall, then a split second of utter silence before the door slams open.

"Jesus fucking Christ, Phil," Clint says, his voice shattered, and Phil feels the words like a blow under his heart.

"Clint," he says, and then Clint's there, kissing him, hands shaking as they clench on Phil's shoulders. Phil kisses him back like he's drowning, his hands tracing Clint's face, relearning the map of him, finding the new lines and smoothing them away.

Clint breaks away with a gasp that might be a sob, resting his forehead against Phil's and squeezing his eyes shut. There aren't any tears, but Phil brushes his thumb over Clint's cheek anyway, letting his breathing match Clint's, letting Clint's hand cover his and find the pulse point in his wrist.

"You," Clint says, sounding like his throat's been scraped raw, "are alive. Fuck, Phil, it's been weeks--"

"I'm sorry," he says, kissing him again, and it's inadequate, it's so inadequate that he doesn't know what the hell to do with himself except kiss Clint over and over, murmuring words of apology and love whenever their lips break apart for even a second. Clint's shaking against him, and finally Phil just pulls him close and holds him, lets Clint feel the bandages through the paper-thin hospital gown and the steady beat of his heart.

Something hard hits Phil under the collarbone when Clint shifts against him, and Clint straightens suddenly. "Oh, that reminds me--" He reaches under his collar and finds a thin silver chain, pulling it free.

Phil feels the tension drain out of him at the sight of his ring. "There it is," he says, unable to keep the relief from his voice, and Clint almost laughs, snapping the chain and taking Phil's hand in his free one.

Clint sides his ring onto his finger, and Phil can breathe again.

They hold hands for a very long time, their eyes locked on each other, before Phil finds his voice again. "I hear we won."

"Because of you." Clint squeezes his hand, and there's a shadow of grief under his gaze that Phil needs to erase. There'll be time now, though. He's alive. They have time.

"I love you," Phil says.

His husband smiles, slow and warm, and the ache finally disappears from Phil's chest. "Love you too, sir," he says, and kisses him again.

Phil remembers something, then, and pulls back slightly. "Did you knock out the guards in the hall?"

Clint shrugs. "Maybe."

He goes for another kiss, but Phil stays back. "I was expecting Fury with you."

"I hit him again," Clint freely admits, his free hand coming up to scrub at the back of his neck. "But he really had it coming."

"It was magnificent," a voice says from the doorway, and Phil looks up to see Natasha, Banner, Stark and the Captain. Stark's grinning broadly. "Twice in as many weeks, Clint, I'm gonna have to throw you a damn party."

"Tony's been enabling my horrible life choices," Clint tells him, and Phil can't stop himself from rolling his eyes.

"So you're alive," Natasha says, the intensity of her gaze belying her matter-of-fact tone. "And have been. All this time." It's good to see her, too.

"Fury is a manipulative bastard," Banner says like he's just now realizing how true the statement is. "I mean, we knew, but wow."

"It's good to see you, Agent Coulson," Captain Rogers says, his smile impossibly bright, and Phil's heart monitor gives a traitorous spike.

Clint snorts with laughter, burying his face in Phil's shoulder. "Get out, you guys," he says over his shoulder, "you can have him when I'm done. Spousal privilege and all that."

"Tell him to move in," Stark calls over his shoulder as Natasha steers him and the others out of the room, just getting the words out before she slams the door.

Phil frowns at his husband. "Move in?"

Clint shrugs. "The tower, it's a whole...thing, we can--" He breaks off, shakes himself, and says firmly, "Later," leaning in to kiss Phil again.

Phil runs his thumb over the underside of his ring, and smiles against Clint's lips. Later.