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An Acceptable Loss

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Phil Coulson was no stranger to waking up in hospitals. It went along with the job description when you worked for an organization like SHIELD. Right after the bonus structure and before the division of holiday hours, there was a bit about on-the-job hazards that could lead to potentially severe injuries. And while it never explicitly stated, ‘you will probably grow familiar with waking up in strange beds to the sounds of IV drips and the smell of ammonia,’ one learned to read between the lines.

So waking up in the hospital bed didn’t surprise him in and of itself. What did surprise him was the fact that he was waking up at all. The last he’d checked in on the state of things, he had been impaled on the business end of a Norse God’s sceptor. So how on earth...?

He groaned, bringing a hand up to his brow, and hissed a little when the movement in his lungs sent a spike of dull pain through his chest. He cringed, wondering just how bad it had been. It had to have been close. He remembered bleeding out on the helicarrier, remembered telling Fury he was clocking out. He was pretty good at making those kinds of calls.

So how the hell was he alive?

Well. He wasn’t going to get any answers through inductive reasoning alone. He needed more data. And chances were, if he could just get his eyes open, there’d be someone there who could give it to him.

It took some doing, but after about seven minutes of good solid effort, he got his eyes open. He had to blink them a couple times before they were worth anything, but once they were, he began to take stock.

Not the helicarrier med bay. Not headquarters either. He frowned, wondering if the damage had been too extensive. Or maybe there had just been too many other people to treat, so they’d shipped some of them off-site?

He turned his head to one side (an endeavor that took another four and a half minutes’ effort), but there was nothing beside him to give him any clues as to what was going on here. Nothing but an empty plastic chair and, beyond it, an empty second bed in what appeared to be a completely empty room.

“Huh,” he thought, frowning a little. Had...had things not gone well in the last battle...? Were the others...?

“Oh, so you’re awake!” came a voice from the other direction, and he blinked, turning his head back the other way. Now he could see the door to his room, and what looked to be a middle-aged nurse, her graying hair piled on top of her head. “That would explain why your monitors are going crazy up there.”

Phil stared at her, trying to remember if he’d ever seen her in any of the Shield bases he’d ever visited. But she wasn’t ringing any bells. “S’w...” he tried, but his tongue had decided to swell to about three times its normal size, and he didn’t think he was going to get much more out of it until he had some water in his mouth.

“Ice chips only,” the nurse told him, reading his mind, and a moment later he felt one slip between his parched lips. He clamped down on it gratefully, forcing himself to suck it into water and not just swallow it immediately. When he’d finished it, she gave him three more, and by then, he was ready to rejoin the rest of the human race.

“Thank you,” he croaked. He didn’t sound great, but it was a start.

“Of course,” the nurse said, smiling gently at him. She reached out, doing something just off-screen with his IV, then returned into his line of sight. “Maybe now that you’re awake we can start getting some of your paperwork done!”

He thought for a second that maybe she was a SHIELD agent after all--who else would make a crack about paperwork?--but a moment later, she said, “Can you tell me your name, hon?”

He blinked at her. “My name?”

“Do you remember it?” she said, sounding sympathetic. “Poor dear, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t. You’ve been out for almost three months, did you know? Not the first one we got in here after that insanity in New York who couldn’t remember much. If I were there I don’t think I’d want to remember much either.”

Phil stared at her, trying to process what she was telling him. He’d been unconscious for three months--after New York, she’d said. What had happened in New York? And if he’d been there for three months...why on earth hadn’t SHIELD provided them with his medical information?

“What...what happened in New York?” he managed, deciding that was the best place to start.

“You don’t remember? Craziest thing I ever saw. Bunch of aliens attacked. But then out of nowhere, these guys show up--you’ve heard of Iron Man I bet, but did you know Captain America, that guy from those old comic books, is apparently back?” She shook her head, adjusting his IV tubing, and huffed to herself. “What is this world coming to? It’s like we’re living in a comic book or something.”

“What happened?” he pressed, not interested in getting drawn into a ‘good old days’ debate, not the least because he wasn’t at all sure how much longer he’d be awake. He was pretty sure he was on the good meds, because his eyelids were getting extremely heavy again.

“Iron Man flew a missile into the hole in the sky where the aliens were coming out,” she said, shrugging. “And apparently that did the trick. It’s been nothing but clean-up in New York ever since. My tax dollars hard at waste.” She snorted, shaking her head to herself, then gave him a knowing smile.

He ignored it, trying to process what she’d told him. So Stark had managed to save the day--no surprise there--and Captain America had been there too. He wished he could have seen that. Maybe some of the news stations still had footage online?

“Ma’am?” he asked after a moment. “Did...were there others fighting too? In New York?”

“Oh, sure, lots of folks,” she said. “Fire department, police. And the rest of these guys--you know that one guy who goes big and green? He was there. A couple others. Some guy with arrows, some girl. They’re calling themselves something. Like a team--I can’t remember now.”

“The Avengers?” Phil guessed, feeling something ease in his chest. They’d made it, from the sounds of it. And if Clint had been fighting with them, then they’d found some way to get him back. Thank God.

“That’s the one. You’re starting to remember?”

“A little,” Phil agreed.

“You remember your name?”

“Greg,” Phil said, falling to one of his old aliases. “Gregory Clark.”

“Thanks very much, Mr. Clark.” The nurse jotted down the information, along with his date of birth and social; Phil knew if she searched for them, she would get a very comprehensive medical listing, records, insurance and even a credit history if she wanted one. Never let it be said that SHIELD didn’t take care of its own.

“Oh,’am?” he called, as she turned to leave.

“Yes?” she turned back to him, giving him a little smile.

“Uh...has...has anyone been by?” he asked. “Maybe a tall guy in a dark coat with an eyepatch...?”

She blinked at him, then her face softened in an expression he recognized as pity. “No, dear, I’m afraid not,” she said. “I think I would have remembered someone like that.”

“Yeah,” Phil said, feeling a strange sinking in his gut. “Yeah, you probably would.”

* * *

One month later

* * *

Phil climbed out of the cab slowly, paying the driver through the window, then moved to stand in front of his apartment building, trying to remember the last time he was there. He’d been on assignment--first in California with Stark, then in New Mexico, then out to the arctic when they’d unearthed Rogers--for weeks. And, apparently, comatose for three months after that, and in recovery for yet another month. It was really a good thing SHIELD pre paid the rent on their apartments; otherwise, he would be homeless right now.

As it was, he’d had to tap into the resources set aside for Gregory Clark to get himself back to New York. Somehow he’d ended up in a hospital in rural Pennsylvania, though how or why he had no idea. SHIELD had been completely mum since he’d returned from the dead. He’d tried a few of his old contact numbers, but none of them had gotten him anywhere. He guessed they’d been changed, after the incident in New York. Standard procedure. But he was usually kept in the loop about the new numbers.

Just another thing they’d forgotten, it seemed. Phil sighed, as he made his way slowly up his sidewalk.

It shouldn’t bother him, he knew. He hated himself just a little that it did. But waking up to an empty room like that had been tough. Tougher still were the weeks of difficult physical therapy as he tried to get his punctured lung to let him breathe properly, and rebuild the torn muscles in his back and chest.

When the nurse told him no one had been by, he’d thought at first it had been a security protocol. He honestly couldn’t think of one that applied in this situation, but in spite of the rumors to the contrary, he didn’t have the handbook memorized. Maybe there was something about isolating assets in the event of an alien invasion.

But as the days turned to weeks, he began to doubt it. He’d seen footage of the battle, and while the Avengers had apparently disappeared for a few weeks right after, they’d been together again--publicly--for nearly two months now, living in Stark Tower of all places. They’d been spotted in a number of places: eating out at Greek restaurants, attending fundraising functions, even filming public service announcements and visiting hospitals. PR stuff, and he recognized Pepper Potts’ handiwork immediately.

But if the Avengers weren’t in hiding, then any protocols about them visiting him in the hospital would have been moot.

It wasn’t that they’d been ordered to stay away from him.

They simply hadn’t come.

Phil sighed, slumping a little as he climbed the steps to his building. He wished, not for the first time, that he’d been able to find a place with an elevator. He was weak, muscles still in poor condition from three months of coma, and his chest ached.

It was stupid to be upset. He knew that. He shouldn’t have ever gotten attached enough to be upset. But...

But he’d almost died. He’d apparently coded three times, had no less than half a dozen surgeries, and been in a medically-induced coma for two weeks--and a regular one for another ten--all without a single visitor. Not one card, not one gift. Nothing.

It was like he’d vanished off the face of the earth.

Not even Fury had come by, which Phil had to admit hurt. He could have understood it, if the heroes he had taken such care corralling had been too busy to visit one aging handler. But Fury was his boss--had more than once called Phil his “one good eye.” Surely that counted for something?

But, apparently, it didn’t. Whatever illusion of friendship he’d allowed himself to harbor, it was just that: an illusion. And he wasn’t doing anyone any favors by clinging to it like a child to a teddy bear, least of all himself.

And so, as he’d powered through his physical therapy, he’d quietly rearranged his assumptions about his life. He always thought best when he was organized, and this had been no exception. As he’d painfully regained the use of his left arm and practiced breathing, he’d constructed a list of simple truths from the evidence at hand:

1. He had nearly died.
2. No one had visited him in the hospital.
3. No one had sent him cards or flowers, either.
4. The Avengers were not in hiding and had made several public visits to various hospitals and care facilities, particularly those housing victims of the attack on New York.
5. There were no known protocols that stated SHIELD should avoid him while he convalesced.

Conclusion: No one cared that he had lived. He had made a mistake in assuming they would. What he’d thought to be friendship was nothing more than tolerance.

He was alone. Purely, utterly alone.

Painful, yes. But Phil had never been one to shy away from truths just because they might hurt. He’d had to face the truth that he might have had to kill Clint Barton, if he’d come across him when he was still under Loki’s mind control. He’d faced the truth that when he’d taken the Phase 2 gun into the holding cell to confront Loki himself, he would likely not survive.

He could face this truth, too.

He finally reached his floor, and breathed a sigh of relief when he found his apartment key hidden where he’d left it outside the door. It still worked, and when he pushed open the door, his apartment was exactly as he’d left it. The last tiny shred of hope--that this had all been some kind of mistake--shriveled and died, floating away on his weary sigh. There was no mistake here. If they’d believed him dead, his apartment would no longer be in his name and his things would be gone.

He swallowed the lump that tried to clog his throat, telling himself that it, as well as the sting of tears in his eyes, was completely illogical.

He wasn’t a hero. He was a paper-pusher. He was a glorified babysitter. There was nothing he did on a daily basis that half a dozen other people couldn’t do better. There was nothing about him that couldn’t be replaced; nothing about him that would be especially missed. It was stupid to ever have assumed otherwise.

It was stupid to ever have assumed he’d been anything more than the barest of blips on the radar to the incredible people he’d been fortunate enough to work with.

Well. Phil Coulson was nothing if not a man who learned from his mistakes. He’d made them, that was obvious, but he could grow from this. He could quietly reassess his worth, and when he’d come up with a more reasonable figure, he could slip back into his life a little wiser for the experience. He could know his place, and learn to accept it with grace and dignity.

And he would. But first, slumped on his cold couch in his empty apartment and staring at the dust gathering on his coffee table, he would let himself be weak.

First, huddled around the knowledge that he was alone and unwanted, he would let himself cry, just a little.

Just once.

* * *

Phil returned to work three days later.

He would have returned sooner, but most of his suits were in need of a dry-clean, and he wanted to do some grocery shopping and settle in a little bit before heading back. There was no way of knowing just how far behind he would be with his paperwork; it seemed entirely likely that once he got back to the office, he wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.

During those days, he began to adjust to his new worldview, meticulously reviewing events in his head that he’d previously categorized as evidence of friendship, and analyzing them, looking for the flaws in his reasoning.

By the time he was nearly ready to go back, he felt he’d done a pretty good job of reorganizing things.

It still didn’t prepare him for the moment he’d seen Clint Barton across the street when he’d been picking up his dry cleaning. He’d stepped out of the cleaners, then frozen, seeing the agent sitting at an outdoor cafe and talking to Thor. Or rather, listening to Thor, while Thor boomed loudly about something or another. Clint’s eyes had flicked to his, and he’d waited, dry-cleaning in one hand and to-go cup of coffee from the very same cafe in the other, hoping that maybe...

Clint had gazed at him for a few seconds in utter stillness. But when Phil had tried a smile, lifting his coffee cup in a sort of wave, Clint had simply looked away again, jaw firming.

Thor, oblivious, had chattered on without a glance in his direction.

He didn’t think anything could be clearer than that. Embarrassed and ashamed, he’d hurried away, back to his apartment, and had avoided going out the rest of the day.

But he’d put it off long enough. It was time to go back.

His access card still worked, when he arrived at SHIELD’s headquarters downtown near Stark tower. He strode through the lobby, which was a generic sort of corporate lobby, with a receptionist behind a marble countertop who smiled blandly at him and asked if she could assist him. He shook his head, flashing his ID, and she returned her attention to her magazine, losing interest quickly.

Phil had always arrived early, preferring to get a start to his day without interruptions from the rest of the staff or the other agents. Today was no exception. He may have been gone, but that didn’t mean his routine had to change that much. He got himself coffee from the empty break room and headed toward his office.

His keycode still worked here too, so he stepped inside, setting his coffee mug on his desk. He had never kept much in his office at work, but he was saddened to notice the small fern he’d always kept in the corner was gone. Perhaps it had died without him here to water it?

He sighed, settling into his chair, cringing when he realized someone had adjusted it. Well. That would make sense. It wasn’t like they could stop doing paperwork just because he was out for awhile. Someone had been here working on things; the outbox was stuffed with paperwork that had been completed in an unfamiliar script. He glanced at it, cringing to note the mistakes, and sighed, deciding he would have to start from square one. It would be faster to start from scratch then try to fix this mess.

He’d been working for maybe an hour, falling into the familiar rhythm of the job, when he heard a familiar voice from the doorway--followed by the just-as-familiar sound of a gun being cocked.

“All right. Don’t move a muscle. You hear me? Not one damn muscle.”

Phil froze, instinct taking over, and swallowed hard, feeling his muscles tense as adrenaline surged through his veins. He looked up slowly to find Nick Fury standing, gun drawn, staring at him with the expression he usually reserved for the most villainous of evildoers (or Tony Stark).

“All right,” Fury said, voice a growl. “Stand up. Slowly. And let’s have those hands behind your head.”

“Sir?” he said, even as he went to do as he was instructed.

“Shut up,” Fury snapped, though Phil thought he detected a slight tremor in his voice. “I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing here, but believe me when I say I will not hesitate to pull this trigger the second you give me a reason, asshole. So shut up. And come with me.”

Phil swallowed, head spinning a little, bewildered as he let Fury walk him down the corridor. They got plenty of looks along the way, agents freezing to stare at him, but the first time his own steps faltered, Fury shoved his shoulder. “Keep moving, asshole, don’t look at them!”

Phil had to bite back a gasp as the movement sent pain shooting through his chest, and closed his eyes for a second, before gritting his teeth and focusing on doing exactly what the director told him. He had no idea what was going on, but he knew Fury well enough to know he would not be getting any answers until the director wanted to give them to him.

That was how he found himself settled in an interrogation room, hands cuffed in front of him, on the receiving end of a very stern glare.

Phil swallowed, wondering if he dared speak. He opened his mouth, experimentally, and drew a breath.

“Shut up,” Fury said.

Phil closed his mouth again.

After about five minutes of awkward silence, there was a scuffle in the hallway, and the sound of loud voices raised in argument. He couldn’t make any of them out, though, until the door suddenly opened, and Tony Stark burst in.

“Okay, where,” he was growling. “Where the hell?”

Barton was close behind. “You have got to be--oh fuck, what the fuck!” The last was said as he caught sight of Phil, and he spun around and slammed his fists into the wall. Phil glanced at Fury, but was surprised when the director didn’t even flinch, instead deepening his glare at Phil.

Phil swallowed, bewildered and actually a little frightened. And, as the rest of the Avengers (minus Thor) poured into the room, the reactions didn’t get any better.

“I don’t know what this is,” Rogers said, folding his arms over his chest and giving Phil a look that could freeze oceans, “but I do not appreciate it.”

“Fury,” Natasha said, and it was a question and a threat all at once.

“Not me,” Fury said, still glowering at Phil. “We don’t know anything more yet.”

Phil swallowed, wondering if he was ever going to be allowed to speak on his own behalf, but not at all certain he should try until someone gave him the go-ahead.

“Banner?” Fury said at last.

Bruce stepped forward, holding a strange contraption toward Phil and frowning at it. “Nothing unusual, sir,” he said at last, sounding hesitant. “Initial readings suggest...authenticity.”

“Authenticity?” Clint snarled. “What the fuck, Banner?”

“I’m sorry,” Bruce said, shrugging. “But...whatever’s going on here, if that isn’t Phil Coulson, someone’s doing a damn good impression.”

“Wh--what do you mean, if that isn’t Phil Coulson?” Phil stuttered.

“Agent Phil Coulson is dead,” Tony said, eyes just as cold as Steve’s as he glared down at Phil. He folded his arms over his chest, and arched an eyebrow at Phil. “Yet here we are.”

“Here we are,” Fury echoed.

“I...dead?” Phil said, looking back and forth amongst them and swallowing again. “I’m not...”

“You’re not him,” Barton suddenly grated, lunging toward Phil across the table, hands outstretched as if he meant to strangle Phil. Phil raised his own arms in defense, but was saved from having to fight him off when Steve caught one of Clint’s arms, holding him back.

“Let me go!”

“Calm down, Clint,” Steve said, voice soft and far more compassionate than Phil would have expected, given how many interrogation protocols Clint was breaking.

“As you can see,” Fury said, his own arms folded over his chest as he continued to glare daggers at Phil, “we find ourselves in a bit of a situation here. You seem to be harboring the illusion that you are Agent Phil Coulson. Unfortunately, Agent Coulson died four months and six days ago.” He spread his hands, palms up. “You understand our problem?”

“Who the hell are you?” Clint growled.

Phil swallowed, staring up at them, and something in his heart began to tighten with hope. “ I was dead?” he whispered, something close to a smile curving his lips.

“You are not him!” This time it was Natasha’s fist that slammed into the table, and Phil actually yelped a little, stunned by the demonstration from the usually-quiet assassin.

“I...I am him,” he said, too startled to respond any other way, even though, in retrospect, he should have expected the response that got him.

He didn’t even see the punch coming. But he tasted the blood, felt the swelling of his jaw, and saw Tony massaging his hand, lips curled into a snarl as he scowled down at Phil.

“Don’t you ever say that again,” he snarled. “Phil Coulson was a hero. He died defending what he believed in. I don’t know who or what you are, but don’t you dare compare yourself to him. You might look like him, you might even sound like him, but you are not him.”

Phil swallowed, tasting copper, trying not to let Tony’s words bring tears to his eyes. Phil Coulson was a hero. He wanted to laugh; he wanted to cry. They really thought...?

The events of the past few months suddenly came into much clearer focus, and the cold loneliness that had encased his heart began to crack.

“Barton,” he said suddenly, turning toward the young man still held firmly in Cap’s grip. “Remember what I told you in Singapore?”

Clint scowled, but Phil thought he saw a flash of something in his eyes. A wary kind of hope. “Singapore?” he whispered.

Phil nodded in encouragement.

"What's going on?" Steve asked, as Clint continued to stare at Phil. "What happened in Singapore?"

"We were...I...I was captured," Clint whispered, swallowing. "Interrogated. They gave me drugs, and...and I didn't know what was real. What to trust. When he found me..." Clint bit his lip, beginning to shake.

“What?” Bruce asked.

“He said not to tell him anything until I believed it was him,” Clint said, hugging himself now.

"I told you it was all right if you couldn't trust me yet," Phil pressed. "Because I'd be there when you remembered how to trust yourself."

Clint covered his mouth with one hand and turned away, muffling a sob.

“We had a funeral,” Tony said slowly. “We buried you. We...had a memorial.” Was it Phil’s imagination or was Iron Man actually shaking?

Phil bit his lip. “I woke up in the hospital,” he said softly. “About a month ago. I...I thought...”

“Wait a second here,” Clint said, lifting his hand, voice breaking just a little. “I...are we believe him? Is this...?”

“You’re the one who flipped out when he said ‘Singapore,’” Tony said.

“I did not flip out!”

“Yeah. ‘Cause the word ‘Singapore’ always makes you cry.”

“Enough,” Steve said, stepping forward and peering at Phil. “Sir...what did you say to me when you were bringing me to the helicarrier?”

Phil blushed, wishing someone else had asked him something--that had been embarrassing enough the first time. But he squared his shoulders. “I...I said I’d...watched you while you were sleeping.”

There was a beat of silence, before the rest of them broke into various levels of amusement. Fury’s lips twitched; Clint actually grinned. Tony Stark chuckled, and Steve’s eyes filled with warmth. “That’s pretty much it, verbatim,” he said, looking up at Fury.

“It does sound like something Phil Coulson would say,” Fury agreed dryly. “But information can be acquired. You weren’t alone in that jet. There was a pilot. We don’t know how deep this thing might go.”

“What about Singapore?” Clint pressed.

Fury shook his head. “After the things I’ve seen, it’s not enough to know that this guy knows what Phil might have known,” he said. “I’m going to need--”

“My friends!” The booming voice from the corridor was immediately followed by the door swinging open, admitting a very pleased-looking God. “I received a message from Jane that you needed me to--” he halted, catching sight of Phil, and his eyes went very wide. “Son of Coul!” he cried, sweeping forward, arms outstretched. “You live!”

“Hold it there, big guy,” Tony said, gripping Thor’s sleeve. “The jury’s still out on that one.”

“I do not understand.”

“We don’t know if it’s him,” Steve said softly. “It could be a trick of some kind.”

“A trick?” Thor frowned, looking at Phil, then moved forward, leaning very close. Phil tried not to recoil, even when Thor’s nose was nearly brushing his own. He swallowed, as the god’s eyes bored into his, apparently searching for something.

“My friends,” he said, voice solemn as only a god’s could be, “this is indeed the Son of Coul.”

“How do you know that?” Clint whispered.

Thor drew back, smiling down at Phil. “His soul resides within him,” he stated, reaching out to touch Phil’s chest. Phil flinched slightly, when his fingers brushed against the still-healing wound, but he smiled up at Thor nonetheless, grateful. Thor smiled back gently.

Tony, who had apparently seen his flinch, strode forward himself, reaching out and pushing Phil’s jacket off his shoulders. Then, looking up into Phil’s eyes, he slowly, carefully unbuttoned his shirt, pushing it aside, and lifting the undershirt.

The scar stood out, red and new, just over his heart. He heard the collective gasp of the others in the room, but his eyes were captured by Stark’s, deep and intense and very, very close.

“What’s your first name?” Tony whispered, reaching out and laying his fingertips just above the scar.

Phil swallowed, and smiled, tremulously. “Agent,” he murmured.

Tony’s grin could have outshone the sun. He laughed, shaking his head, and then--to Phil’s utter shock--lunged forward and kissed him. Hard.

“What the hell, Stark!?” he heard the cry behind him, and then Tony was gone, dragged away (laughing like a lark) by a furious-looking Clint Barton, who looked ready to take a swing at the billionaire.

“It’s him,” Tony said, giggling madly. “It’s him! It’s Phil!”

“That doesn’t mean you get to kiss him!”

“It’s called initiative, Barton,” Tony looked incredibly smug. “Try taking it sometime.”

Clint scowled, then whirled on Phil, glaring at him. Phil saw the tears in his eyes, the stubborn set of his lips, and swallowed. “Uh...”

“Sir,” Clint said, “all due respect, please shut up.”

And then it was Clint’s lips on his, crushing their mouths together in a fierce kiss.

It was some time before the ensuing commotion died down.

* * *
* * *

Misfiled paperwork turned out to be the ultimate culprit.

Phil couldn’t help but smile at the irony, reclining on the couch in Stark’s tower and watching the newsreels of Avengers footage he’d missed out on in his coma.

Someone had put his name on the wrong form, and the result was a case of mistaken identity fit for a soap opera. The hospital in Pennsylvania had been overflow, much closer to the Helicarrier’s location than anywhere else large enough to treat the kinds of wounds that had come out of Loki’s attack.

Phil sighed, shifting slightly, and smiled wider when he felt the arm around his waist tighten. He glanced back, feeling himself flush a little at the sight of Steve’s face so close behind him, relaxed in sleep.

He shifted again, adjusting himself more comfortably back against the Captain’s chest, then glanced down at the others.

Clint lay pressed against his other side, snuggled in under Phil’s arm. Tony sat on the floor in front of them, head resting back against Phil’s thigh; he had caught Phil’s hand at one point, and laced his fingers together with his own, turning his cheek to rest against it. Natasha was perched at the other end of the couch, one hand curled around Phil’s bare foot. Thor rested next to Tony, his hand laid against Phil’s knee, and Bruce was curled on Tony’s other side, his head rested against the arm that Tony had claimed for his own.

They were all asleep.

Phil bit his lip, feeling a soul-deep kind of joy spreading through him. He sighed softly, remembering the stricken looks on their faces when they realized their mistake, and what it had meant. When Phil had spoken of awakening alone to the empty hospital room, they had each looked as if he’d punched them in the gut.

That would have been enough to lay his doubts to rest. But ‘enough’ was apparently never enough when it came to these remarkable people.

They had moved him into Stark tower immediately, with little fuss. He was staying in guest quarters for now, while Tony (much to Phil’s chagrin) was re-designing a floor specifically for him. Fury had insisted he take a longer leave to completely recover, and had offered him the position of permanent liaison to the Avengers upon his return. He had accepted on the spot, and the looks on their faces when he’d told them crushed his already-assuaged doubts into dust.

Now, it seemed, the team had adopted him as their personal mascot. He’d been embarrassed at first, and had even asked Fury about it, wondering when their guilt would abate enough that they no longer felt obligated to spend so much time with him. Fury had simply smirked at him.

“No one ever feels ‘obligated’ to spend time with their hero,” he’d said.

Phil smiled, when Tony stirred, and squeezed his fingers gently; Tony squeezed back, angling his head toward Phil’s hand and pressing his mouth against his fingers, before drifting back to sleep. Phil smiled wider, letting his other hand resume stroking Clint’s hair.

And, as he listened to the news in the background, he mentally composed a new list:

1. The Avengers thought I was dead, held a memorial service and even dedicated a memorial park to my memory.
2. They have refused to rename the park, except to take out the word ‘memorial.’
3. They have insisted I live with them, and they are usually close at hand.
4. Every single one of them has, at one point, either hugged or kissed me--or both. Some quite a few times.
5. I am now in the middle of the biggest superhero cuddle ever.

Conclusion: They might just love me as much as I love them.

He smiled, closing his eyes, and let himself drift to sleep, secure in his heroes’ collective embrace.

* * *