Another mutant bombing was reported in San Francisco today. Unregistered Super Humans engaged in an assault against the ASHRU (Anti-Superhuman Regulation Unit). There is no word yet if the Unregistered Super Humans were connected with the terrorist group known as S.H.I.E—”
The radio cut out.
It was dry and dusty all the time in New Mexico where Pepper’s Place was set up. It was in a town just a little too far from the main highway to get much traffic, but just close enough that the town continued running in its own dusty way. Tony was okay with dust, he was okay with the hot wind and the blunt landscape. The emptiness he once thought of as eerie had become a pleasant balm against memories of the overcrowded streets of Malibu and New York.
The jingle of the diner’s bell pulled him out of his faraway thoughts. He gave a charming smile, “Phil, just in time to pay your bill.” Phil smirked at him pulling off his sunglasses and brushing off some dust. He said nothing to Tony’s blatant suggestion and sat down at the counter.
“Usual Tony,” he pulled out a paper and began to read. Tony heaved a sigh and dinged a little bell.
“Phil’s usual!” He called to the back.
“Is he going to pay?” Came the reply.
“Are you going to pay?” Tony asked. Phil gave him that creepy look that said ‘I’m a patient person, but I will put poison in your coffee when you’re not looking if I don’t get my coffee, eggs and pancakes right now.’ Tony was always amazed at the depth of that look.
“Going on his tab!” Tony called back.
There was an annoyed grunt, but it was accompanied by the sizzle of eggs on the fryer.
It was a Sunday and Sundays were always dead slow for Pepper’s. Everyone was at home or Church or sleeping. They were the only place open in town on Sundays and every Sunday Phil Coulson would come here for a meal that he didn’t pay for. Tony was fairly sure that Phil had money. He had a fairly good suit (and who the hell wears suits in this weather?) and nice sunglasses and his shoes didn’t have any holes in them. Tony once asked what Phil did when he wasn’t ripping them off. Phil replied he was in Human Resources with a scary half smile which made Tony pretty sure what he thought of as Human Resources and Coulson thought of as Human Resources were entirely different things.
On the cover of the paper Phil was reading was a picture of a torn up sky scraper and a headline that read like WHEN WILL IT END? It was a reprint of a Daily Bugle article according to the bottom of the page. Tony didn’t really care, but he wondered who had taken the photograph briefly. It was the same anti-mutant tripe the Bugle was always spouting. He wondered if it named Spiderman as the menace behind this bombing as well.
Once Phil was done with his eggs Tony decided he would go to the garage, no one else was going to come today and if they did Bruce and the boys could handle it.
“No that does not go in the batter Dummy!”
Tony peeked under the serving window to see Bruce kindly berate the robotic arm.
“You have to be firm with him or he’ll never learn,” Tony chirped, “Tell him if he doesn’t smarten up I’ll use him as an oversized hood ornament. That’ll get his attention.”
Dummy gave a sad little whirl. Bruce rolled his eyes.
“He doesn’t mean it. You’re his favourite although he’ll never admit it.” Bruce long ago had come to terms with the fact that living with Tony meant babying inanimate objects filled to the brim with personality.
“Don’t tell him things like that! He doesn’t need an ego!” Tony protested, but didn’t deny it. Dummy made a few happier whirls and messily stirred some pancake batter.
That was another great thing about Phil… actually scratch another, it was the only great thing about Phil, he didn’t question that the kitchen staff was made up of Bruce and three robotic arms: DUM-E (The Original), You.2 and Butterfingers the Second.
“You hear the news today?” Phil asked and that make Tony jerk up hitting his head on the serving window.
“Son of a—” He rubbed his head wincing in pain. DUM-E tried to reach through the window and wrap tinfoil around his head.
“No—no don’t do that I don’t need—yes okay, okay thank you, thank you very much!” He grabbed the tinfoil pulling it off his head and moved away from the clingy robotic arm-- still rubbing his sore head. He eyed Phil. Phil never spoke unless prompted other than a ‘have a nice day’ before he left the premises.
“What news?” Tony asked carefully. He wasn’t the type that liked news because of all the different forms it came in. There was irrelevant news that paparazzi spewed out, people around here weren’t really into that as much as in Malibu thankfully. There was old news, news that got repeated so many times that during the town’s game of telephone it became entirely different news that you’d still end up hearing over and over for three months before the story finally died. That type was popular here. God was that type popular here. There was bad news. That was the news Tony especially liked to avoid because whenever someone asked him if he heard the news it was bound to be the old kind or the bad kind.
And of course there was the good news… which was no news at all. Tony’s favorite.
“Order up.” Bruce didn’t bother ringing the bell. He came out of the kitchen wiping his hand on the worn stained apron he sported when he was cooking. He looked tired and rumpled in his apron--he looked tired all the time which made Tony tired just looking at him.
Tony handed Phil his food. Phil took a sip of coffee.
“Government base going to be set up forty miles to the south of here. You boys might be getting more business.”
Bruce, to his credit looked uninterested although the light caught his eye in a funny way and made his kind hazel eyes look like a fierce green.
“Finally paying customers!” Tony said overly enthusiastic. How had they missed this? How the hell had they missed this?
“Where’d you hear that?” Bruce had asked his calm voice cutting through Tony’s bluster.
Phil sipped his coffee again, “I’m a gossip, what can I say?”
“Yeah, you’re a regular gossiping housewife,” Tony said sarcastically.
“That’ll bring nothing but trouble to this town,” Bruce said with one of those painful looks that made Tony want to hug him. Tony couldn’t remember the last time he had ever wanted to hug someone—like, actually hug someone because they needed a hug, not because he wanted to make out with them. Bruce was a man in constant need of a hug. Even Tony Stark could see that.
“I bet S.H.I.E.L.D. is already setting up shop twenty miles north,” Phil drank down the rest of his coffee, “Looks like this sleepy little town’s going to get shaken awake.”
“More customers, we’re fine with this,” Tony said, but his arrogance didn’t bleed through as strongly as it usually did.
Phil pulled out a thick wad of bills and placed it neatly on the counter. Two years worth of Sunday breakfast and then some.
“I’ll be leaving—keep the change.” Phil got up replacing his sunglasses.
“Wha—what the hell does that mean!” Tony asked in outrage. He stared at the neat pile of money and knew it meant there would be a change and it was a change Tony wasn’t going to like because he didn’t think he could take it if next Sunday Phil Coulson didn’t walk through the doors of Pepper’s Place and order a meal he’d never pay for.
“Sorry boys, been transferred,” Phil shrugged. He turned to face Tony and Bruce. His sunglasses covered his expression, but there was a note of sympathy in his tone.
“You need to be careful,” He looked especially hard at Bruce when he said this which turned Tony’s stomach. This was Phil; Phil was the Sunday customer who never paid. He wasn’t… he didn’t know… he couldn’t. Phil’s head tilted to Tony, “Robots are cute, but they might catch attention, the unwanted kind. Now if you’ll both excuse me.” He tilted his head one last time and left, perhaps for good.
Bruce’s breathing was too even and controlled. Tony felt his brain crash back and forth between the news of the army base and the hint that maybe Coulson was more than a creepy regular that worked some company job.
He moved to Bruce who had started breathing harder.
“We can go out,” Tony suggested quickly, “Let him stretch his legs.”
“NO!” Bruce shouted slamming his hand on the counter. Tony winced, but didn’t take it personally. This was Bruce’s way; this was how he kept his usual tired cool. Tony was used to being yelled at and it didn’t hurt at all. Not really. Not when it was Bruce.
“No,” Bruce repeated quieter now. He placed a hand on Tony’s shoulder bowing his head.
“Does this mean we can close on Sunday’s now?” Tony asked seriously.
“Yeah,” Bruce agreed with a half-hearted chuckle.
“Did Phil Coulson just give us get out of town as fast as you can money?”
“I think he did, either that or he’s actually a fantastic tipper.”
“Doubt that… So are we going to?”
There was a long silence, “I don’t know…” Bruce said softly, “This is our home and… for the first time since it happened I feel like...” Bruce laughed at bit bitterly, “I feel like I have something to lose now.”
Two years ago Bruce never would have said that. He would have already packed half their gear by now. Tony was both pleased and alarmed by this.
“If they catch wind of the Other Guy—”
“Tony, we’re geniuses.” And Tony smiled because that didn’t get pointed out as often as it used to.
“Yeah, you’re right, I’ll work something out.”
“We’ll work something out,” Bruce corrected patting Tony’s shoulder. Hazel eyes met dark brown and a rare cocky smile appeared on Bruce’s face, “I’m going to keep you safe.”
“Hah, that’s my line partner,” Tony snorted meeting his grin.
“Tony,” Bruce took a deep breath, “Let’s let off some steam.”