Phil Coulson has the best office job at Stark Industries (Medical). He has a frosted chrome-and-glass cubicle with an ultraviolet sterilizing cycle. His stainless steel work surface is easy to keep free of fingerprints and dust, and the display screens are voice-and-motion-activated. He enjoys suiting up in a new sterile lab coat each morning. He sets the climate controls for temperature and humidity precisely and knows there are no drafts in his workspace. He has his own, custom-ordered supply of powderless black nitrile gloves.
In short, this is paradise.
Nearly everyone in the building arrives for 0900, so Phil arrives precisely at 0745 and reverse-parks his spotless SUV in #37. A keyless fob lets him into the building, and the elevator takes voice directions. At 0750 he exchanges pleasantries with Stark Medical's majordomo and reception enforcer. No mistake: she has never been, and never will be, a secretary. (Phil's seen multi-million dollar deals gone sour because some business exec tried to send her for coffee, so she sent him to Critical Care with a broken wrist.) To everyone, she is "Ms. Romanov" although Phil knows her first name is Natasha, she is fifth dan in Karate and she prefers the horrible, burning kind of cinnamon hearts over all other candy.
"Good morning, Ms. Romanov."
"Morning, Phil," she looks up from her tablet and gives him a nod. Surreally, her desk is sporting a garish floral arrangement filled with improbable pollen-laden tropical things, garnished with a huge card scrawled in red ink. "THAT GUY WAS A DICK ANYWAY. THANKS FOR CANCELLING THAT DEAL. XOXO TONY"
Phil can read it even though he skirts the desk by a good six feet and Ms. Romanov sees his raised eyebrow and shrugs.
"You know Mr. Stark. He likes it when I show them who's boss."
"There is no question about that." Phil positions himself at a comfortable distance from the obscene bouquet where he doesn't have to look at it. "Has my Brodart's order come in yet? It was supposed to be in yesterday at 1600."
Natasha shoves the vase further down the desk (away from Phil; she knows all about his habits) and checks her tablet. "Didn't get here, I'm emailing you the tracking number so you can call them when you get into the lab. She checks over her shoulder in the direction of Phil's little glass-walled paradise.
The entire office is a maze of glass partitions and sliding doors, but the quirks of the design mean that from his lab, Phil can actually see a good percentage of the floor. He can see the elevators and reception area clearly, as well as his colleagues in Digital Records in their separate workspace. Today, he realizes, this means that he can see the flowers from his lab. The back of his neck prickles hotly. He swallows, his mouth suddenly dry.
Natasha's looking at him with a serious set to her mouth. "Is this going to be a problem?"
Phil winces. He curls his fingers into his palms, feels the tendons moving against bone, counts to ten. "Yes."
Natasha grins wickedly and takes a trash bag and sweeps the entire gaudy mess into it, then plunks it down on the floor in triumph. "Between you and me? Tony Stark has more money than taste."
"Thank you." Phil feels the tension uncoil from his sternum. "I'll phone as soon as I'm in."
"Roses," she says as he swipes his fob at the first set of glass doors, "No matter what anyone says, it's always roses."
At 0755, Phil exchanges his outdoor shoes for lab footwear and hangs his suit jacket in the clean room. He rolls up his sleeves (3 turns exactly) and washes his hands and face with colourless, odourless soap. He slits open the plastic-sealed labcoat and puts it on. Lastly, he gloves up.
The lab comes to life when he steps through the doors at 0800, the transparent display screens flicking on to show the day's workload and his communications inbox. Stark might have more money than taste, but his buyout of Dr. Banner's research facilities means that Phil has a verbal and holographic interface with his computer. He's taught the interface some ASL to make the hands-free thing work with the voicemail. He flips through the messages with a gloved finger in the air to retrieve the tracking number.
The phone buzzes in the lab space as he sets up for the day. He's careful about angles when he lays out his tweezers, mylar sheets, cutting mats and exacto blades, sets out the pumice roll and sable hair brushes. He checks the roll in his label printer. There's a click as someone picks up.
"Brodart International, Virginia speaking. How can I help you?"
"Hello Virginia. This is Phil Coulson calling from Stark Medical. I'm afraid my special order didn't get through yesterday. Tracking number AC-65927."
"Oh let's check on that shall we? I've got it here, you've got two packs of 49-467-001 window envelopes on order?" Phil can hear her key taps as she sorts through his file. "We shipped those on Monday and Customs cleared it, but I don't have a delivery… can you hold one moment?"
"Yes, of course." Phil replies and there's a click as he's transferred to canned hold music. Today it's the best of the 80's. He hums as he checks the document delivery vault and the light is glowing green to show the contents have stabilized to the lab's Relative Humidity (50%: it's drying, but better for the paperwork because when he's done with it takes less time before he can send it to storage). He unlatches the vault and takes the first document to his workstation.
Dr. Bruce Banner is a world-renowned genius, but his handwriting and note keeping is notoriously awful. Stark had tried to impose a computerized system when he gained Banner as an asset, but Banner would have nothing to do with it. His notes were a vital part of his developmental process, so Stark worked with it. Before the documents came to Phil, they went to the scan lab where Jasper Sitwell and his interns digitized and rendered them. His job was to preserve them, give them a storage code and send them to the Archives.
Sometimes this was an easy job; a little stabilization, maybe a little bit of cleanup. Sometimes he had to scrape veggie tikka masala out of a notebook. (That was not a good day; he still can't eat Indian.)
Virginia pops back on the line. "Mr. Coulson? I have an update on your file."
"Go ahead." So far there's no traces of food on the document, but a couple of trace marks that some pumice should lift. This is doable.
"Our New York courier says your package is accounted for, but it was on the wrong shelf and missed the 6am truck. It looks like it won't be out before the end of the day today. There's no hold if you can make it over there today. Can I tell them to expect you?"
Phil's mouth twitches. "No. Wait, hold on. I think I can send someone." He gestures for the line to mute. "Call Ms. Romanov."
Through three glass panels, Phil sees her touch one finger to her earpiece. "Yes, Coulson?"
"My order's still at the depot. They can release it if we can send someone to pick it up." He knows that he's not doing a very good job of keeping the anxiety out of his voice, but he figures the less said, the better.
"Don't worry, I know a guy, private courier, very fast," she says matter-of-factly. She's already got her phone out, texting something. Phil counts one, two, three strained breaths. He hears the faint buzz of the phone through the comm. "Yeah. Give him an hour and it can be in your hot gloved little hands."
"I don't want to know how it gets here, please, if it can just be here in an hour." The clock readout says 0812 now, that's acceptable.
"He says no problem. Sending the P.O. now. " Natasha hangs up on him and Phil takes the line back.
"Yeah, Virginia? Someone's picking it up for me. He'll have the order number. Uh, thanks for tracking the order."
"It's no worry at all Mr. Coulson. We appreciate Stark Industries' business. I'm going to credit your account for the shipping. Is there anything fun I can throw into your next reorder?"
Phil likes Virginia. "I've had my eye on that Lucite label roll holder for a while now."
"The 002 or 004?"
"Oh, the 004." The unwinding roll holder makes Phil think of being at someone's house who puts the toilet paper on the holder the wrong way.
"Sure, I'm adding a note to your file. You will receive a complimentary 55-004-001 next month. Is there anything else I can hep you with?"
"That's everything, thanks." Phil glances at the clock again. 0815. Okay.
"You have a good day then," Virginia says cheerily. "Goodbye Mr. Coulson."
He motions the phone line dead and takes a moment to compose himself. Okay, the order will be here in an hour, he can begin the cleanup work on this document.
Well, it's not really a document.
And to be honest, it's not actually work. But Phil had completed the necessary forms two weeks ago when he'd brokered this deal, and Dr. Banner was at a conference in Geneva until Tuesday so the timing was right.
What Phil has had sitting in his document vault for a week and a half, slowly returning to 50% relative humidity, is a complete set of original-issue 1953 Captain America trading cards. They are a nightmare, conservation-wise. The paperboard of the time tends to be foxy and brittle. Phil cringes when he imagines the sugary stick of gum pressed into each wax packet, or the many grubby hands that traded the cards back and forth over the years. He's been working for years to assemble the 81-card set and only managed to score the last missing cards from an estate auction in Boston three weeks ago. The cards were found wrapped in a handkerchief at the bottom of a trunk, and while not perfect, the lot of eighteen covered the missing six cards he'd been looking for, as well as replacing several of his lesser-quality cards. He will sell the extras in a while, but for the moment, as of today, his set is complete.
He works with a magnifying glass and tiny paintbrush, working the pumice powder against the grubby mark on the corner of card 72. It's a smudged fingerprint in what he surmises is newspaper ink, haloing Captain America's head as he wallops an enemy soldier with his shield. Tricky work, but oh so satisfying when the shadow finally dissipates. The cards were collectibles not just because of their subject matter; the art was stylized and dramatic, a fine example of the postwar 'Golden Age' style just before censorship put an end to it.
As Phil works, he can sense the building coming to life around him. There's a special hum in the air supply, a filtered brightness as his coworkers get into their workspaces. He can see Natasha's desk (now devoid of Stark's bouquet) and the clockwork arrivals of the catered breakfast delivery for the boardroom for the Fridayday morning R&D brainsharing session. It's 0910. Usually, after the first clean of the day he'd fold the page into a document sling and put it in an envelope, generate a barcode label, reglove and continue onto the next page. The missing order had put a crimp in that plan, at least temporarily. He put the clean card into a fold of mylar to await further processing. Two minutes.
When the elevator doors open at 0911, Phil is almost beside himself with joy. There's a bike messenger with a bag slung over his shoulder and buckled around his hips. He's got a smartphone in one hand and he's grinning at Natasha.
Phil watches the exchange as she hands the courier the receipt log, and takes possession of the neat white tyvek-wrapped package he'd been expecting. He restrains himself from dashing headlong out of his lab and through the clean room doors, instead he saunters casually to the labelling desk at the nearest glass wall where he can watch the exchange.
The courier is wearing fingerless leather gloves and long sleeves under a ragged black tshirt, but has cutoff grey camo shorts on. He's wearing beatup Converse Chucks and there's a hot pink strip of kin tape stretching up one shin. He has a sweaty bandana knotted around his neck, and a scruffy, dark blonde not-quite-a-haircut. He can get away with the street clothes because he looks young, and Phil wonders just how Natasha knows him. His eyes are grey-blue.
Oops. Phil knows his eye colour because the guy is now looking right at him through three layers of insulating glass. He gets that little flush that happens when he gets uncomfortable, only this isn't discomfort, not quite. He doesn't look away. The guy motions at the package, then points at Phil. He sees the guy mouth the words "You?"
"What for?" This comes as a surprise, when Phil reads not what the guy's lips are saying, but what his hands say; he's asking in Sign.
Hesitantly he signs 'trading cards.' At least, that's what he hopes he's signing. In the old days before computers dialled his calls for him, Phil had learned enough Sign to talk to Sitwell and Natasha without having to leave the clean room. Stark had incorporated enough of the signs into the motion sensors for the comms, so some of it was old habits. He'd just never expected it to come back so suddenly.
"Trading cards?" The look of disbelief penetrates the layers of glass. (Also, the sign is different than what Phil thought it was. Not a name card sign, the guy uses a playing card gesture instead. Okay, noted.)
"Vintage Captain America." Phil signs back. "Complete set."
"N-E-R-D." The guy spells out. Then, "What's your name?"
"C-L-I-N-T. What are you doing in there?"
Phil shrugs. "Working."
The comm buzzes, startling Phil from his conversation. It's Natasha.
"Will you two stop making eyes at each other? Coulson, your package is here. What do you want me to do with it?" There's a note of amusement in her voice. He can see her head nodding as she takes the receipt log back from the guy - from Clint.
"Uh, can you open the outer wrapper - cut the end off with scissors, don't reach inside. The contents will be plastic sealed." Phil always requested this; the company was happy to comply. "If you have gloves, put one on so you can put the envelopes in a tray, otherwise tip the package so they slide out gently. I can take them in vault 3."
There was a huff as Natasha left her desk to gather the requisite supplies, and for a moment Phil was left staring at Clint again. Who had a lazy, mocking smile on his face.
"Why Captain America cards?"
"Long story." Phil shrugs. How he can put into words just what the cards mean to him - or put into Sign, even - would take him a while. "Later?"
"O-K." Clint bows his head briefly, taps something into his smartphone, then shoots him a wink as he ducks for the elevator. "Bye."
Phil stares after him until the document delivery vault whirs and beeps, then the light goes red. After fifteen seconds, it flashes green.
"Coulson? Tell me you're still awake in there." Ms. Romanov is already back at her desk, looking back at him with exasperation.
"Sorry, sorry. Yeah. The vault's timed in." He sheds his current pair of gloves, puts on a new pair and unlatches the vault. The plastic-sealed package is perfect, containing twenty acid-free, polyester window envelopes in two sets of ten. "Thanks, Ms. Romanov. These are exactly what I ordered." Phil lifts the package out of the delivery tray, places it on the static mat for thirty seconds, then takes it to the appropriate station.
"You owe me a coffee for getting it over here so fast. Don't forget that."
"Give me your Starbucks account number, I'll put an automatic renewal on your card for a year." Phil can't go into an actual, physical coffee place most of the time. There's too many people and too much spillage. "It's the least I can do."
She huffs a laugh and cuts out.
In the end, it takes Phil seven hours to clean, prep and store the cards. He usually works through lunch, no matter what the labour laws say, because it's easier to be a bit hungry than it is to go back through the clean room. At 1620, he's mounted the last card in the doublefold mylar (positioned perfectly so it's visible in the envelope window) and placed it in numerical order. There are now 81, near-mint (slight foxing), humidity-and-acid controlled 1953 Captain America trading cards, together at last. A complete set.
He pauses for a while, looking at the small, shoebox-sized carton that holds his collection. There's something intensely satisfying about creating a whole out of disparate and scattered parts, something that scratches Phil's deep-seated need for order. With this under control, he feels he could tolerate any bouquet Stark might throw Natasha's way. Almost.
He's humming the best of the 80's under his breath as he puts the packed carton lovingly back in vault 1 (accessible from the lab only, and locked to everyone but him). He'll have to book some time with Sitwell so he can photograph the cards for his website. Mental note.
It's 1637 when he folds the lab coat, rolls down his sleeves and fastens the buttons. He changes back into his impeccably-polished shoes and shrugs into his suit jacket. He swipes his fob at the doors and they open.
"Hey, Phil," Sitwell is just coming out of his lab, balling his own coat up in both hands. He waits for Phil to deposit his garment in the proper receptacle (technically the laundry, but the coats that Phil gets are always brand new) before overhanding his from seven feet away. Phil flinches as he misses the shot and flops to the floor at his feet. "Saw your message board post. Finally got the whole set, huh? Gotta Cap them all?"
"Yeah," Phil chuckles (even though he's inwardly appalled that Sitwell just grabs the lab coat off the floor and stuffs it into the laundry bin with his bare hands). "That trip to Boston was really worth it."
They walk together for the length of the pale glass hallway into the break room. The walls are frosted three quarters of the length and there's a light well in the ceiling that makes up for the lack of windows. Phil gets a sealed bottle of "meal replacement" out of the fridge and takes his usual seat (third table from the door, back against the frosted glass). It only takes a little bit of sanitizer gel to make him feel comfortable about the bottle today, and he allows the alcohol a full sixty seconds to evaporate. The first sip of the freshly-opened bottle is wonderful after so long in the lower humidity lab. He pulls his phone out of his suit jacket to check his messages.
There's a pile of notifications (mostly duplicates from the large-screen inbox in the lab), but a few from his personal email address. He answers a few emails about his latest website update where he celebrated winning the auction. The blog he runs about card collecting averages 200 hits a month, which isn't a ton, but it's a hobby. Phil had also given his number to a collector at the auction who was interested in the extra cards. Then there's a couple of texts from a number he doesn't recognize:
646-555-2797: u don’t have to rply but I want to know abt the cards
He figures maybe it's the guy from Boston.
BLOCKED: I'm selling the extras in a couple of weeks. If you're interested there's an auction at Northcourt.
646-555-2797: no I mnt u and them nat gave me ur number how come she gets free coffee fr life what about me?
It's Clint. Phil gets that not-uncomfortable flash of warmth across his face and he manages to contain himself. He takes another sip of his mineral water. His phone buzzes back.
646-555-2797: I understand if u don’t want to talk
BLOCKED: Not that. I just didn't expect you to have my number.
646-555-2797: we go way back nats a friend
BLOCKED: Ms. Romanov doesn't have friends.
646-555-2797: well shes got me
Phil takes a deep breath and curls his fingers into his palms, counts to ten with his nails. He carefully composes his reply.
BLOCKED: I don't have friends either. There's a reason I work in the document lab. I don't like people that much.
Or touching most things, Phil thinks belatedly. Or eating things with textures. Or being late.
646-555-2797: yeah I like the fishbowl thing looks fun what are u doing aftr work if u don’t have friends I guess ur not busy?!
The way Clint smushes all his words together puts Phil on edge, but that's kind of what he saw from three panes away earlier this morning, all layers of not-quite-togetherness. He thinks about those blue eyes and the goofy, challenging smile. Surprisingly, it makes him feel okay.
BLOCKED: There are three acceptable locations within walking distance of the office that I will drink at. Coffee, beer or wine?
646-555-2797: think a pint would be good after the day I'm having is I can meet u 5ish if I don't have to change
BLOCKED: No, there's no dress code. I will be in the lobby at 1700. FYI I don't shake hands, nothing personal.
646-555-2797: understood but those black gloves r kinda sexy reminds me of tattoo artist :DDDD cya soon
It's nice that Phil doesn't have a briefcase, he can't actually take work home even if he did, so he doesn't have to drop anything off at the car. But he never leaves early, so he stops to talk to Ms. Romanov on his way out. He stands at the appropriate distance, no longer concerned about rogue pollen from foreign flora.
"I never had doubts about your efficiency, but I admit I was a little concerned this morning," he says to her. Agitated. He was very agitated, but he knows that Natasha knows that so there's no point in saying it. "Thank you for helping me out."
She doesn't look up from the email she's typing, but she says "You want to know how I know Clint, don't you?"
"Now, did I say that?"
"Not in as many words. But I can tell." She hits 'send' and swivels on her chair to face him. The concentration of her gaze pins him like a bug. "One, you never talk to me on the way out. Two, your routine is five minutes early. Three, in case you didn't notice, you two were getting on like a house on fire."
"Okay, you're right. But you gave him my number."
"It was on the order info for your card stuff. He just asked to make sure it was your cell and not a work number." She leans forward and scrutinizes his face closely. "Phil, are you going on a date?"
"No!" That flush is back, hot against his cheeks and prickling across the back of his neck. "You know I don't date people. We're going for a drink, that's all."
"Did you agree to it beforehand? Most people call that a date." She shrugs. "You could do worse. He's a nice guy. He's… unpredictable. I know how much you like that."
Phil laughs, half nerves, but half something else. Anticipation? "I'll let you know how it goes." He's not getting that feeling of overwhelming panic and doom, so something must be going right.
The look she gives him says 'you'd better,' but her voice says "Good luck" instead.
Then it's 1658 and Phil's heading down in the elevator to the lobby. Usually he takes the express that goes directly to the parking levels, but this time he's sharing with employees on other floors. He recognizes a few of them from organized social events, but is grateful they all seem engrossed in their phones too much to try starting a conversation with him.
Phil endures the itchy silence until the elevator beeps at the lobby and everyone piles out. He's the last to exit, careful not to brush the doors with his arm on the way. He hadn't told Clint exactly where to meet him here, the lobby is slick and mirrored and there are too many pillars.
But it's okay. Clint's leaning with his bike against one of the rough grey slate panels, watching him like a hawk, one hand hooked through a link of steel chain that's padlocked around his waist. His battered bike helmet is latched onto the outside of his courier bag. Phil signs, and says, "Hello," as he crosses the lobby.
Clint mirrors him, then as Phil gets close to him says, "Hey, it's okay, I got my ears in now," and tilts his head to the side so Phil can see the bright purple hearing aids tucked behind his ears. "Just try to talk at me, I'm still deaf as shit and I miss stuff sometimes." Then he looks Phil up and down (and he's so very obvious about it). "You look really nice. Are you sure there's no dress code where we're going?"
"Uh," Phil starts, stops, then tries again. "Excuse me, I'm really bad at this. I always dress like this. I've been going to this bar for a long time. They know me, you'll be fine."
"Cool," Clint nods, "You lead the way."
It's a three-block distance to walk (two south, one west) and a few yards into a pedestrian lane where Clint locks his bike to a gas meter cage with the heavy chain from his waist. They try to make small talk, which is awkward with the rush hour traffic. Phil discovers that Clint talks with his hands half the time anyway, so they use a mishmash of words and sign (it's not that far to the pub, isn't traffic ridiculous, good thing they're walking) until they're actually seated at a relatively-quiet booth. Clint slides in across from Phil and gives him a look.
"You know, you're not really what I expected at all," he says, "Usually office suits are so uptight, don't want to know where the mail comes from, who's that punk kid in the express elevator, go out the back stairwell kind of guys. You're different."
"Oh, believe me, I'm uptight." Phil's itching for some hand sanitizer just sitting there, but he breathes through it. "I have being uptight down to a fine science."
"I don't mean this--" Clint brushes his palms together, signing 'clean,' "--Whatever this thing is you've got going. I mean, how come you care about trading cards so much?"
"Like I said, it's a long story, but if you really want to hear it?" Phil's encouraged by Clint's enthusiastic nodding, "Okay, well let me order something first. This will take a bit."
Clint orders a draft pint of cranberry apple cider (this place does amazing microbrews) and Phil orders his usual: a bottled India pale ale with the cap still on. The waiter knows enough to put a bottle opener next to the bottle when serving, too. The sanitizing gel routine doesn't even faze Clint, which Phil guesses is another plus he can add to the 'things to remember about Clint' list.
Clint even waits patiently for the alcohol to evaporate, and then Phil can pop the cap off his bottle. Phil raises the bottle in a mini-toast, and has a dainty sip. Clint takes a good pull off his pint.
"Oh, this is fantastic. I'm going to have to remember this place." He takes a couple more swallows, wipes his mouth on his sleeve and looks at Phil expectantly. "Okay, come on, storyteller, it's your turn."
Phil takes a calming breath, and starts. "You know that stereotypical kid, asthma, always sick, never good at sports… that was me." He feels slightly awkward, like maybe this is sharing too much, but he manages to continue. "My Dad used to bring me comics when I couldn't go outside. I liked Captain America best because Steve Rogers was like me when he was little. At least until the super soldier serum. "
Clint says "So basically I was right about you being a nerd."
Phil blushes, and laughs, "Yeah. Guilty."
"You're lucky. Comics are the best things to read. We didn't have a lot of that kind of stuff when I was growing up." He sounds a little wistful, but it's glossed over with a dash of bravado. "I kind of collect stuff too. Not like you! I don't have a special room or anything. I just like reading them and having them around."
"Well that's the best way to read them. I collected too, for a while, but now I can get things in digital, it's easier," Phil confides. Well, easier for him because he doesn't have to worry about humidity and ph levels with digital copies. Or wearing gloves. "Anyway. Captain America was pretty popular when I was reading it, mostly because they had started reprinting the older wartime stories as well.
Clint nods. "Yeah I remember that, then he fought the Nazis?"
"Or the Commies. Sometimes sentient apes. Well, the comics always had ads for stuff in the back. You know, like x-ray glasses and pocket submarines and stuff. There was one for a company selling old packs of trading cards and I sent away for some. The gum was terrible. But the cards were really cool. I'd never seen art like that before." Phil pulls his phone out of his pocket and flicks to his photo album files. "Here, I'll show you. The Comic Code Authority banned so much stuff right after these cards were released, and so much stuff got censored." He tilts the phone across the table so Clint can see, then scrolls through the card photos for a few moments.
"Wow, I didn't know Captain America got to kick Hitler in the balls and get away with it," Clint giggles.
"Well, not after 1953. Most of the cards were stopped during distribution because of the Code, so a lot of retailers didn't even get any. That's why the cards are so rare. The company sat on them for a while, sold a few crates to dead stock places like I got mine from, but mostly they were pulped or incinerated." He knows the figures by heart, and reciting them is almost a mantra. "Only 27% of the printed cards ever reached the commercial market, and of that maybe 10% through retailers. The rest leaked out as side-door deals. There was a big haul in 1988 when a paper recycler found a box of unopened packs in a warehouse. Those went for auction at impossible prices. I didn't get any of those."
"Impressive. How come you know all this, are you writing a book or something?" Clint asks him. He's leaning forward to see the phone, very carefully not touching. Phil likes that.
"My combined Masters and Doctorate was on the conservation and preservation of disposable printed entertainment materials." The title was a lot more complicated than that, but that's basically what it was. How to not let comic books and trading cards rot away, by Doctoral Candidate Philip J Coulson.
"Ok, you're a doctor in nerdery. That's pretty awesome." Clint's grinning and Phil feels a flutter of something happy in his chest. Most people take his degrees so seriously, or ask him why he did a degree in something so trivial.
"It's a little dry for light reading," Phil says. "I mean, I can get you an electronic copy but it's not a lot of fun unless you like tracking high-acid paper stock through manufacturers and recyclers for approximately 150 years."
"If you do a greatest hits version I'm all over it," says Clint, "But if there's no pictures, I'm probably not going to look at it. Besides if I sit down to read I usually just fall asleep. If you couldn't tell my day job's kind of rough."
"Yeah I was really impressed how quickly you took care of my delivery this morning," Phil says, a little hesitantly. "The thought of biking in this city terrifies me." He's not sure if it's weird to admit that. There are a lot of things that are terror-inducing about the city, the least of which is cycling in it.
Clint grins and stretches his arms over his head, twisting like a cat. "Yeah I'm pretty awesome that way. I dunno, it's not bad. I get knocked around a bit sometimes but I'm good at seeing the holes in traffic. " He raps on the table with his black-gloved fist. "You know, knock wood? There's no such thing as a traffic jam when you're on a bike. It's all just angles and aiming where things aren't."
Phil knows a bit about that; it's how he navigates the world most of the time, making sure his shoulder isn't going to brush the lady walking towards him on the sidewalk, being careful to slip into the revolving door when it has enough momentum to carry itself around. He's uncomfortable in his own skin so much of the time that the lab is a safe haven for him. But weirdly, right now, he's okay with Clint too.
Then Clint's pulling up the corner of his shirt and showing Phil a wine-red bruise along his ribs. "Except when assholes don't look before they open their car doors into the bike lanes. There's only so much of that I can handle. But I got your package there on time, right?"
"Shit, that was because of me? " Phil can't help himself, the words just escape from his lips.
"Technically it's because of Nat. You were just the bonus at the end." Clint grins, and Phil feels a little flush of excitement in his chest, and bits his lip to hide the smile. "What?"
"I like that I'm a bonus. That's an interesting way to look at it." There's so many ways to say that Clint's wrong, that's not the truth, but Phil keeps them to himself.
"Huh, ok, let's see." Clint holds up one hand and starts checking things off on his fingers. "So I meet a good-looking guy with a cool job who has maybe the nerdiest hobby ever, who is the sharpest dresser I've ever met, and he agrees to go out for drinks with me even though it's pretty obvious he's got issues around that? And then he's surprised when I like him?" Then he stops, and frowns. "I mean, unless you don't lean that way? You're not secretly married or anything, are you?"
"Oh, god, no," Phil finds himself actually laughing at Clint's outburst, "I'm not married. You read me right, I just don't really date people. Haven't dated. In a really long time. There's -- I have rules." It sounds a little flat the way he says it, but Clint's nodding in encouragement so he tries again. "Not rules about you, they're my rules. About a lot of things, and other people make it really hard to follow the rules properly, and then I get stressed out and they usually end up giving up because it's easier." When he says this, a physical pain flares behind his sternum, where the anxiety usually starts. Phil presses a palm against his chest to keep it there.
Clint weighs these words carefully, his finger moving in a small circle on the tabletop, following the wood grain around a knot.
"Okay," he says after Phil's waited an agonizing ten years. "So then here's the question. Do you want to see me again?"
It's a struggle, it's always a struggle, but Phil pushes down on the anxiety, nods and says "Yes." Clint grins. "Yes, I do. "
"Can I keep texting you?"
Phil nods. "Yes. If it's during work hours there will be a delay."
"And can we go out to places? Like, Phil-acceptable places for drinks and stuff, and maybe comic book stores?"
This makes the hard knot of anxiety lessen a little. "Yes, I have some places we can go. "
"Cool, I have some comic book stores. What else?"
This was the first thing that often came up, and Phil wavers a moment. "I reserve the right to hand-sanitizer and gloves at any time. No mocking me for it."
"Can I make some rules for me, too?" Clint asks him, more than a little seriously. "I mean, I don't think you breaking any of them is going to be a thing, but just so we're even?"
Now that's something that hadn't happened before. Phil smiles, an actual, real smile this time and not cut off in the middle. "Please, go ahead."
Clint mimes writing an imaginary list, but it's like he knows that Phil's paying strict attention to this and that he's going to have to remember these later. "Okay, one, I love my job and the job comes first. Two, I never answer the phone. Texting only. Three, uhm, my favourite colour is purple? I'm terrible at rules." He shrugs. That sounds acceptable to Phil. "Oh, and four, if either of us gets uncomfortable we get a time out." Clint's brow wrinkles briefly, but then he smiles, and then Phil knows things are going to be okay.
"I think we're even."
Clint raises his pint glass in a salute, then they both drink together. It feels like something new, and something real is happening. Even though it's a little scary, Phil likes it.