The scent of almost-done triple-chocolate muffins suffuses the air. Phil wipes his hands on a paper towel and looks around in satisfaction. The bread dough is rising nicely in the tub covered by a warm towel, and the previous batch of scones is cooling on the wire trays he'd installed for this exact purpose. Everything is as it should be at three-thirty in the morning on a Wednesday. He's not expecting anyone to come into the coffee shop at this point, not at this hour in the middle of the week, but in about three hours there is going to be an unstoppable wave of bleary-eyed office workers swarming through the door, mumbling their orders and looking pitifully at Phil until he feeds them their morning dose of caffeine. Ever since he opened this place, he hasn't been able to watch a zombie flick in the same way again.
He smirks to himself at the thought as he pulls the muffins out of the enormous oven and sets them on more wire racks, then goes to check the level of coffee grounds for the start of the day. He decides to make himself a cup while he's at it -- he isn't going to sleep at this stage, not that he ever does for long; and he just plain likes coffee, the bitter taste of it, the scent that mingles with freshly baked goods and makes him feel at home. The shop is quiet around him, content, the only sounds the low hum from the refrigerator units and the soft click-clacking of laptop keys under the fingers of two of his fellow insomniac regulars, a writer and a journalist. That is, until they get drowned out by the grumble his prehistoric monster of a coffee machine lets out when he pulls the lever to start the espresso. It groans and shakes a little, the vibration coming up all the way through the floor tiles under his feet. It is a relic from bygone days, when his grandfather had set this place up well over half a century ago, a time when such machines had been the height of technology. Phil should replace it, god knows -- except that it makes the best goddamn coffee Phil has ever tasted, his vacation in Italy included. Besides, it might moan and grumble and threaten to give up the ghost, but it has never once let him down yet, and Phil lives in terror of the day that the thing finally decides it has had enough and releases its spirit unto some technology god that must watch over it. He is strangely fond of the temperamental old biddy, no matter how often it tries to give him a heart attack when it inexplicably refuses to work for certain customers (always the assholes, Phil notices). It feels -- warm, and homey, on the edges of his mind. Sometimes, late at night (or early in the morning, depending on a person's perspective), he swears he can feel the reassuring weight of his grandfather's hand on his shoulder, the peculiar fondness the old man had always shown him, when he watches the puffs of steam it lets out, listens to the quiet hum of its parts working in perfect order.
The thing gurgles crankily when he shoves the lever back up, hisses and splutters before finally, like a miracle from heaven, a thin trickle of coffee makes its way down the pipes and into the cup Phil has deftly slid under the nozzle. The smell of freshly brewed elixir teases his senses, and he closes his eyes like he always does at this time of morning, exhausted beyond all reason yet unable to sleep no matter how long he spends staring at the ceiling of his bedroom and counting sheep. When the cup is almost full, the trickle of water tapers off by itself, and he listens to the contented hum of the behemoth that has, for some reason, chosen him as its master's successor. He stirs in some brown sugar, splashes a good third of the hot milk jug inside; then he takes his cup to the side counter where he has the Nikkei Index up on his laptop, loses himself in wondering whether or not he ought to sell some of the Coulsons' excess shares before the upcoming industry report or after. Thanks to his mother, he doesn't really need to work for a living -- Claudia Coulson's stock portfolio is legendary, even more so in the years since her death, when her son had taken it over and increased its value by almost a third. They study the Coulson portfolio at Columbia Business School, even if Phil has only allowed them access to maybe a fifth of the data.
He is so engrossed in the closing figures that the cheerful jangle of the bell at the front door startles him, sets his heart beating faster. The two writers don't react -- they have earphones stuffed in their ears, oblivious to the world around them. The man who makes his way through the front door does so slowly, like it costs him something to keep moving. The suit he's wearing is really very nice -- would be nicer still if it wasn't for the creases running down the sides of his jacket, like it has spent the night carelessly thrown over the back of a chair -- and the wrinkles in his pants that hint of long hours sitting down. The man trudges to the counter, rubbing wearily at his eyes, throws his messenger bag down by the stool and climbs on top of it with some effort.
"Morning," Phil says, eyeing the bags under the man's startlingly blue eyes that feel like they're boring all the way through him. "What can I get you?"
The smile the man gives him is no more than a lift at the corner of his mouth -- an effort to seem amiable. "A bucket of your strongest coffee," he says hoarsely, Midwestern accent adding a hint of warmth to the words.
Phil leaves him rubbing a thumb over the creases in the middle of his forehead. Exhaustion emanates from the guy in waves, obvious when one looks. Phil wonders how many of the people he meets bother to see, would care if they do. There's something about the guy that makes Phil want to slip him something warm from the oven, watch over him as he eats it. It's not a foreign urge -- Phil is a baker by choice, not necessity. It's his vocation, and he has long come to terms with the fact that nothing fills him with more gratification than feeding people, making their day that much sweeter. He usually gives in to it, because not doing so is simply too much effort -- and also because he has yet to hear any complaints. The muffins are cool enough to eat without burning your tongue by now, and while he waits for the machine to spit out the coffee into the largest mug in the place he pulls one out of the pan, slides it onto a plate and sets it next to the man's elbow. The guy gives it such a suspicious look that Phil has to roll his eyes, lips twitching as he wrestles the mug away from under the machine's nozzle and plops it on top of its designated plate, slides it in front of the man. The look that receives is much less suspicious -- in fact, it verges on worshipful. Phil fights the urge to grin.
"Long night?" he asks instead, because he knows his customers, and this one is sending out a definite vibe that he needs to unwind, one way or another. Meaningless conversation with a stranger tends to produce pretty good results to that effect, in his experience.
The guy grunts in reply, face buried in his mug, drinking a third of it in one go. "Yeah," he says when he surfaces again, just as weary as before. "Yeah, you can say that again."
"No bed-time for you?" Phil asks mildly, non-committal. If he's wrong, the guy can just leave the conversation there, no pressure.
The guy eyes him for a second, the same suspicion that he had directed at the muffin clear in his eyes. His shoulders droop after a moment, and he sighs. "Nah. I have to be at work in--" he searches for a clock, looks down at his wrist when he can't find one on the walls--"three hours. I'm a TA, I have a lecture at eight-thirty and I haven't finished my notes."
Phil is a little surprised at the amount of information volunteered, but makes a point of not showing it. If the guy wants to talk, then Phil has nothing better to do than listen -- and let's face it, listening to that voice, low and scratchy as it is, is no hardship. He hums instead; kind of wants to ask what the guy is doing out so late if that's the case, but he's had one too many grumpy rebuffs in his time to make that mistake.
The guy finishes his coffee far quicker than Phil would have supposed, and asks for another immediately. Phil can't help but wonder where he's been tonight -- there's no smell of alcohol on him, nor cigarette smoke, though it's been a while since that was an indication of prior location -- so Phil can't make an immediate deduction. None of his business, anyway. He sets up the double shot again, stumbling a little when, to his amazement, the portafilter fits into the brewing group on the first try -- no sticking, no spilt grounds, just a smooth slide and a lock. Huh. Phil sends the man a sharp look that passes unseen; he is picking warily at the perfect muffin crust, turning it this way and that. Phil might be offended if he wasn't so bemused.
The coffee runs and Phil turns his attention to the cup, waiting for it to fill up. Out of the corner of his eye, something shifts -- when he looks, he sees the man shedding his jacket, baring a charcoal grey dress shirt that makes his eyes look enormous, black circles and all. It also makes the stubble on his jaw darker, and Phil has to force himself to look away again, because staring is creepy whether you get caught or not.
The machine sighs contentedly when the pressure releases, and Phil smiles down at it, only stops himself from patting it fondly with some effort. Wouldn't do to freak out the customers. By the time he pushes the full cup in front of the stranger, he's got a piece of muffin broken off and is sniffing it distrustfully.
"Just eat it," Phil huffs, stamping down his irritation in favour of amusement. "I'm not trying to poison you. You look like you could do with the sugar. You're not allergic to dairy, are you?"
"Nah," the man says absent-mindedly, still eyeing the piece in his hand like he could divine the ingredients from looks alone.
Blue eyes level with his; Phil fights to hold them, a strange frisson of awareness skittering down his spine out of nowhere. He lifts an eyebrow.
The man smiles, still tired but more genuine than the last one; it makes his eyes crinkle slightly. Phil feels it like a punch in the gut. Then the man's lips open, letting the piece of muffin slide between them, and Phil has to brace himself against the counter. This is absurd; he has never felt anything like this before, certainly not for a perfect stranger.
A faint whimper echoes from the man's throat; Phil clenches his teeth.
"Holy shit," the guy breathes, stuffing half of the remaining muffin in his mouth. "Holy shit, this is the best thing I've ever put in my mouth," he says, still chewing. It should be disgusting, not strangely endearing. "Oh, man, I am never going to another coffee shop again."
Phil is stupidly pleased by the reaction. The man swallows, takes another bite. In no time at all, the muffin is no more than crumbs on the plate, and the man leans back, sighing with pleasure. "Thanks," he says quietly, tired eyes drifting closed. "Thanks, I had no idea how much I needed that."
"You're welcome," Phil says, equally quiet. This is what he lives for; it's perfectly clear that Phil has been of help here, however slightly. He doesn't mean to let the moment linger, like he's expecting something. He does not hit on customers, ever; he does not ask their names, or what they do, unless they volunteer the information first. But he can't help the small hope in his chest that the stranger will at least share his name.
It's rare that Phil is ever levelled such a wary look; but he can't deny that this man is cautious, much more than an ordinary-looking guy like Phil warrants. "Clint," he says at last, like Phil had said that last out loud, even though he's sure he hasn't. Clint offers him a large, square hand with long fingers that grip Phil's tightly, the perfect handshake.
"Phil," Phil says, following the man's lead. First names only. Fair enough.
"Thank you, Phil," Clint says again, voice still husky with weariness. "I should get going. Can I get another coffee to take away? Strong as you can make it."
"You sure that's what you want? I can make it so strong it'd be illegal in some states," Phil says, perfectly deadpan. Clint stares at him for a moment before a startled laugh bursts out of him. It makes his eyes twinkle, his mouth relax. It makes Phil's stomach flip, is what it does.
"Hit me," Clint says, the dare loud and clear.
Phil turns to his machine, stares at it, quirking a grin at its huff of determined steam. All right, then.
He hands Clint the quadruple latte, together with another muffin in a small paper bag. He is gratified to see most of Clint's suspicion has dissipated by the time he has paid Phil (and left almost as big a tip again). There's only gratitude in Clint's eyes as he shrugs his way back into his jacket and shoulders his messenger bag. The smile he gives Phil is still tired, still drained, but a touch less strained than earlier, that bit more effortless. He leaves without saying goodbye, without wishing Phil a nice day/night/morning; merely a nod, a press of his lips together, eye contact for 2.3 seconds before he's walking away.
Phil is left staring at his back as Clint slips out of the door and crosses the street, thinking about his reaction to a simple, insignificant kindness that cost Phil nothing whatsoever, and wondering when the last time was that anyone went out of his way for Clint at all.
"Hey, go easy on that. It's your golden goose; I've never tasted anything like the coffee it made for me."
Phil stops swearing at the not-so-little monster that is the La San Marco Disco Volante machine, a.k.a. the bane of his existence, and swivels quickly. Clint is leaning against the bar, looking as rumpled as the last time Phil had seen him, but somehow less frazzled. The smile he gives Phil looks easy, effortless.
"Hi," Phil says with a sigh. "You have perfect timing, if you want to see me lose what's left of my hair. This damn thing is the work of the devil. Sometimes I swear I can hear Gramps laughing at me."
Clint's smile widens; those crinkles in the corners of his eyes make an appearance again. Phil maybe loses a little time watching him, before Clint's eyes cut to the machine again. "This was your grandfather's, then?"
"Yeah," Phil says, can't quite keep the affection out of his voice. "He bought it when he started this place, back in 1953. It was one of the wonders of the neighbourhood, apparently. My Dad used to tell me stories about people lining up three deep to get a look at it. Even when I was a kid, we'd still get visitors from out of town to come and marvel at it. A marriage of flawless design and genuine Italian mastery such as this was hard to find."
Clint hums, amused, clearly humouring him. Phil wants to make a face, but the look in Clint's eyes is far from bored -- rather, dare he say it, almost affectionate. "Sure is a handsome thing," Clint allows, giving it a slow once-over that makes Phil's ears heat by proxy. It's true -- the Disco Volante is beautiful, metal body the colour of fire, levers visible when they're in their default position. Phil has long thought it to be the most wonderful thing he has ever owned, even more than his Mini Cooper of the same colour (he likes red, sue him).
"That she is," he concedes, giving in and patting the chrome top. To his shock, the machine hisses and hums back to life without another complaint, the blinking red light that has been driving him demented winking out of existence. "The hell's the matter with you," he grumbles, scowling. The machine gurgles happily -- it might as well be sticking its tongue out at him. "Damn thing."
Clint smothers a laugh by biting his lip. It's hellishly distracting. "You keep insulting her, no wonder she won't work for you. Will you, baby," he says, stroking a fingertip over the curve of the side. Phil chews on the inside of his lip and resolutely wrenches his thoughts away from the exceedingly inappropriate territory whence they had wandered.
The machine hisses again, blows out a cloud of steam. "Traitor," Phil mutters as Clint grins.
"Make me a coffee, will ya, darlin'?"
It takes Phil longer than it should to recognise that Clint is talking to his machine, not him. He arches an eyebrow even as he turns to comply, telling himself it's nothing short of idiotic to be jealous of a bunch of spare parts -- which is what the machine will turn into, if it keeps carrying on the way it has been.
Clint climbs onto what has clearly been designated as his stool, crosses his arms over the bar, and watches as Phil moves, the rhythm familiar and comforting: swipe the coffee in the portafilter, press it in, twist it inside the group, depress the lever. Sometimes he does it so unconsciously that he's staring at the coffee trickling inside the cup before he's aware that he's done any of it at all. When he slides the cup in front of Clint, he catches the edges of a small smile, cheek pillowed on his hand, staring at Phil's hands. It's... flattering. Yeah. That's all.
"Just the coffee tonight? Not that I'm complaining, you understand, this stuff is magic in a cup, but you can't feed me out-of-this-world muffins one night and leave me woefully pining the next, it's not right," Clint says, eyeing the cooling shelves covetously. Phil rolls his eyes.
"Demanding, aren't you?" he murmurs, plucking a croissant from the fresh batch he'd just pulled out of the oven and depositing it on a plate in front of Clint.
"Yep, that's me," Clint says happily, bending in half to sniff the heavenly scent of butter and pastry. "Wow, that smells fantastic."
"You're lucky you came in this late. I only make those for the morning crowd," Phil tells him.
"Yeah, my number ran late tonight," Clint sighs; a flash of weariness shows under the good humour. "However I will consider this just recompense for the fact that I'm not gonna even see my bed until the next time it gets dark."
"I thought you said you're a TA," Phil can't help but point out. It's not like he's memorised every single thing about their last encounter. That would be crazy and stalkerish and other things he is most certainly not.
Clint looks surprised that he remembers. "You know what a TA's salary is like, yeah? I got a second job like a month after I started."
The need to ask what the second job entails is uncomfortably strong. Phil manfully resists -- for all of two minutes, which is how long it takes for the itch to set in. "So when you say your number ran late -- I don't mean to pry, but I'm desperately looking for some way to derail images of you in feathers and a thong."
Clint smirks at that; possibly not Phil's finest, or smoothest moment. "By all means, if that's what you're into," he says, sly and suggestive. Phil levels him an unimpressed glare.
Oddly, this serves to produce another chuckle. Clint bites into his croissant, eyes falling closed as he chews blissfully. He washes it down with a gulp of coffee before clearly taking pity on Phil. "I'm a singer at Brandy's, over on 84th St. I fill in when there's a lull."
That would explain the husk in his voice every time Phil sees him, the late hours, the fine but inexpensive suit.
"Any good?" he asks, against his better judgement. This is interacting with a customer on a level that Phil normally avoids like the plague.
Clint raises his eyebrows at him. "Excuse you, I'm very good."
It's mild for a rebuke, but there's a confidence in Clint's voice that's undeniably attractive, sets off a curl of heat in Phil's gut.
Phil physically cannot help himself. "You'll have to prove it some time."
Silence. Clint's eyes bore into his, assessing, shrewd. It is a singularly awful experience; Phil feels like he's being peeled like the proverbial onion. Clint doesn't take his eyes off him even while he lifts his cup, drinking deeply. The shop is quiet around them; they are the only two people at this hour. The sky outside is still dark, but there's a hint of blue that filters through the air like a fine pinstripe. Phil waits, has to really dig inside to keep meeting Clint's gaze after the first thirty seconds. He'll be damned if he's taking it back.
Eventually the corner of Clint's mouth lifts, and he drops his eyes, only to peer back up at Phil a few seconds later through long dark-blond lashes. "Well. You'll have to make the effort to find out then, won't you," he says, and yeah, Phil knows a challenge when he hears one.
He sends Clint off with another bucket of coffee and a croissant in a small paper bag. Clint smiles, holds his eyes for another long moment that feels strangely fraught with tension, and leaves without looking back.
The last place Phil expects to run into Clint is his local academic bookshop -- but when he turns around, arms loaded with textbooks he wants to rifle through before deciding on the most useful one, there Clint is, sitting in a nook centered between a few bookshelves, a small, stressed furrow between his eyebrows and nose stuffed in The Dark Side of Risk Management: How People Frame Decisions in Financial Markets. Phil knows the cover very well -- he has that book in his office. A complimentary copy from the publishers, as it happens, since the author, Luca Celati, interviewed him for it a few years ago. He wonders whether he should say anything, whether it might make things awkward if Clint knew who he actually is -- and if he's reading that book, then Phil is willing to bet that the name 'Coulson' will mean something to him.
Before he can tie himself up in knots wondering whether to say hello -- after all, it's the first time he's seen Clint outside the coffee shop, and that's always tricky (what if Clint doesn't remember him? Phil won't lie, that would be a hell of a blow to his ego), Clint looks up and spots him. His forehead smooths out, and he looks gratifyingly pleased to see him. Phil surreptitiously exhales the air he'd been holding.
"Hey," Clint says with an easy smile that reaches his eyes and makes them crinkle enticingly, tucking a finger between the pages and letting the book close in his lap. "Fancy seeing you here."
Phil smiles back, and heads for the small table next to Clint so he can dump his load on it. "Hi," he replies -- and falters. What does he say next? 'It's good to see you' doesn't quite seem appropriate, although it really is good to see Clint, so good. He's wearing a pair of inky blue jeans and a thick Henley that clings to all the right places. Phil looks away, feeling his ears heat, because damn but Clint looks fine. He settles in the chair across the table from Clint, and racks his brains for more to say.
Clint, meanwhile, is eyeing his pile of books curiously. "I didn't know you were interested in finance," he says. There's something eager in his voice, something hopeful.
"It's a hobby, you might say," Phil says, prevaricating.
Clint raises his eyebrows. "You seem pretty dedicated to it," he remarks -- accurately, because there are six textbooks of varying sizes in the pile.
"I am. It's a family thing."
Clint nods, like that makes sense, which Phil is pretty sure it doesn't because he feels like he isn't making sense even to himself. But Clint is taking it in his stride, and he still looks genuinely interested.
"You?" Phil asks, and Clint blinks at him until he elaborates. "You doing research, too?"
"Oh! Yes, yes I am. I'm writing my doctoral thesis on risk investment, but I can't get hold of the case studies I need, so I'm down to picking through old books for scraps of information." He sounds frustrated, and that stress fold between his eyebrows is back in sight. Phil smiles sympathetically.
"Can I help? I know a bit about risk investment, my Mom worked in the field all her life, and I started picking things up while I was still walking upright under the table."
Clint smiles a little, and Phil wonders if it's at the image, or something else -- but there's no condescension in his face, even though Phil hasn't told him who his mom was.
"I like this book because it goes more in depth about the thinking processes of risk investors," Clint says, warming up to his topic. "God knows it's difficult enough to scrutinise reports and try to glean enough about their methods to reverse-engineer the original reasoning."
Phil finds himself nodding along, impressed. "That's the hard part, I've found. You can calculate percentages and likelihood of certain outcomes till the cows come home, but unless you have that ability to look at an opportunity and see all the rights and wrongs of it, not just mathematically but also historically, economically -- well, I guess what I'm trying to say is that investment management is far more than just relying on math equations and computer calculations, no matter how complex. What?" he asks, a little defensively, when all Clint does is stare at him.
"Oh my god, you get it," Clint breathes, starting to smile with a kind of excited joy that punches Phil in the gut a little. "All my friends look at me like I'm mad when I try to tell them this, I'd gotten to the point where I started to wonder whether I mightn't have lost the plot altogether. I can't tell you how relieved I am to find--uh, someone who understands."
Phil shrugs, trying not to show how pleased Clint's reaction makes him. "I grew up with this realisation, to be honest. It wasn't something that, I don't know, blindsided me one day. If it would help, I'd love to talk about it some more--"
Clint's phone thrills shrilly. He makes a dismayed face, pawing at his jeans pockets (Phil is trying not to stare, because damn if Clint in jeans doesn't look good enough to eat).
"I'm sorry," Clint blurts. "God, sorry, please hold that thought--Nat? What's up? What, tonight? Can't anyone else--oh. Oh, crap, is she okay? Well, glad to hear it, uh, yeah, okay, I guess I can make it--shit, I have to run home and change, look, just tell Fury I might be a bit late? I'm leaving now, but you know--yeah. Exactly. Oh, don't think I'm not going to collect on that, lady. Okay. No problem. Bye."
Clint thumbs the end call icon, and runs a hand over his face. "Fuck," he says, with feeling.
"Bad news?" Phil asks, trying to keep a lid on his curiosity.
"I have to cover a shift tonight, my friend's girlfriend broke her ankle, so Natasha has to help her get home from the hospital. Damn it, I'm so sorry. Please tell me we can talk about this some more next time?" he begs, blue eyes pathetically wide and hopeful, as if Phil needs the incentive to say yes.
"Of course, I would love to. I hope your friend's okay."
"Yeah, she's just a bit shaken, Pepper almost got run over by a car. She'll be fine. Okay, see you next week?"
It's Thursday tonight. "Sure," Phil says. "Too bad I can't get anyone to cover the night shift on such short notice, I'd have loved to come hear you sing."
Clint flashes a row of straight white teeth. "Your loss," he says smugly. "You should make more of an effort. I'll make it worth your while, I promise."
Phil resolutely refuses to read more into that than there is. "Next week it is, then."
Clint grins at him happily before grabbing his stuff and rushing off in the direction of the bookshop's front door, leaving his book on the table for the staff to put away. Phil fights with himself about trying to see what part exactly Clint had been reading, but decides that discretion is the better part of valour. Considering Clint's reaction today, maybe next time Phil sees him, he'll just tell him who he is -- or rather, whose son he happens to be. His concerns about this getting awkward seem misplaced; and besides, he finds himself wanting to help, to make Clint's life that little bit easier. He's surprised by how much Clint's obvious frustration with the available resources upsets him. Ridiculous, and yet... The least Phil can do is talk to him.
Phil spends the next few days polling his employees to find someone willing to take one of the night shifts that are normally his domain alone. Sitwell balks at the very thought, while Thor declares he'll do it if no one else agrees. Darcy, though, jumps at the chance.
"I want to know what you've been doing all night, Mister Coulson, to look so damn perky every morning when I come in," she states, arching her eyebrows at him.
He makes a point of avoiding letting her know just how close to the ball she is. Or that, if he has his way, she would not be finding out that night -- because whoever she might be referring to will not be coming in after his 'number' is up.
Now he just needs to find out when Clint's next work night is. The two times he'd come into the shop had both been early Wednesday morning, so it's a pretty safe bet that Tuesday nights he can be tracked down at Brandy's. Once Phil has made the decision to seek him out, Tuesday can't come soon enough. He feels almost giddy, like all the times he'd gone into his mother's study determined to win the fight to embark on the journey of learning from her. It had waged from the time he was five, he desperately eager to get involved, and she determined that he had a proper childhood before he was engulfed in the world of finance -- she'd known all too well just how easily it could eat your life.
She had given up when, at age eight and a half, Phil had presented her with his first five year investment plan, all properly typed up on his father's vintage typewriter. His grandfather had helped him with the graphics. Out of all the others that would come later, It was still the victory Phil savoured the most.
Now, though, the prospect of another victory teases just out of sight, this one almost as important. He has no idea why Clint has gotten so under his skin (even with that excellent brain, and the gorgeous figure he cuts in suits, and the way his eyes drift closed when he takes his first sip out of a fresh cup of coffee... Okay, perhaps he does have an inkling as to the why). Phil feels compelled to see more of him, to know more about what makes him tick, apart from good coffee and Phil's baking and sleek, temperamental coffee machines that have a damn crush on his broad shoulders and blue eyes, it seems.
Still, he doesn't need to understand all of the whys and whyfores to want to do something about it, so with Darcy set for the night, textbooks spread all over what passes for the staff table, Phil settles his jacket firmly onto his shoulders and makes his way down to 84th St., six blocks away. It's a nice night, chilly but fresh, May still hesitant to settle in properly on the tail-end of a rainy April. There's a flutter in his stomach as he turns the corner to reach the club; he checks that his tie lies flat, his cufflinks haven't snagged on the sleeves of his suit jacket, although there's really no need. He's made an effort tonight -- well. More of an effort. Shirts and slacks are his work uniform these days, have been ever since he was old enough to choose for himself. There's something about a shirt that fits, a finely tailored suit, that is like something clicking into place, makes him stand straighter; makes him feel invincible, like a suit of armour.
Tonight, however--tonight calls for the Dolce, midnight black. He can pull it off, though on many men it would look too severe. Phil carries it with aplomb, aided and abetted by the knowledge that the lining is white satin dotted with charcoal grey polka dots, playful and understated, complimenting his white-and-light-grey pinstriped shirt. He feels good, and he knows for a fact he looks good, so he pulls himself up and saunters to the front door of the club with the sure, unshakable knowledge that he has every right to walk inside, every right to see where this thing with Clint might take him.
The interior is loud, lights low and tempting whoever comes through the door to relax, unwind, let go. It's tastefully decorated, dark wood and polarised glass, chrome, the twinkling lights of the wall lamps reflecting softly over the gleaming surfaces. Phil doesn't actually stand out too awkwardly in his suit -- looks like the after-work crowd is out in full force, muted skirt and pant suits for the ladies, shed jackets and rolled-up sleeves for the men. The atmosphere is rowdy, excited, even this early in the week, for all that Phil has never really held down a nine-to-five job in his life. He's more the 'if I'm awake, I'm working' type.
The club is actually spacious enough to accommodate all the people without it feeling too overwhelming. There's a clear path to the bar that Phil follows, leans against the polished wood as he casts an eye over the small scene in one corner, empty but for a piano player right now. No sign at all of Clint.
"What can I get you?" someone asks from behind him, and Phil turns to find one of the bartenders watching him carefully -- much more carefully than Phil warrants, really. Phil elects to ignore this for now, until he's caught a clue about what's going on.
"Vodka tonic, with a twist of lime," he says. The bartender nods, and reaches below the bar. He's a little taller than Phil, not by much, maybe an inch or two. His hair is dark and messy, like he just rolled out of bed; the stubble rounds off the impression. It suits him, sets off his very blue eyes that dart between the drink he's mixing and Phil's face more than once. Phil raises an eyebrow the next time they make the trip, and the man's lips twitch.
"Here you are," he says, dropping a perfect curl of lime rind in Phil's drink, placing a pristine white square on the polished wood of the bar and setting the glass on top of it.
"Thanks." Phil pushes a $10 bill over and waves off the change. "I hear the singers here are pretty good. When do they start?"
"In a few minutes," the man says distractedly; then his gaze sharpens and he snaps his fingers. "Oh, that's where I know you from. You run the coffee shop a few blocks over."
"I do," Phil says carefully. The guy looks sheepish.
"Sorry. It just drives me nuts when I'm trying to place someone. Clint's been talking so much about your place that I had to see it for myself, so I went in yesterday. I think you were having an argument with your coffee machine, though, so we didn't get to speak."
Phil huffs a laugh without meaning to. "That is all-too-plausible," he says dryly, a self-deprecating smile tugging at his mouth. Clint talks about him? A warm curl of pleasure settles in his chest. He feels his face heat.
The bartender, when Phil looks back up, is grinning wolfishly. "Are you here to look for Clint?" he asks. Phil can practically hear the 'Someone's got a crush' that the sly tone implies. It doesn't help with his flush.
He swallows back the instinctive, damning defensiveness, and goes with, "Maybe." He thinks he sounds cool enough. The bartender's smirk suggests otherwise.
"He's off tonight. Swapped with Natasha, something about a paper that couldn't wait."
Phil can feel his face falling. "Oh," he says. He wants to cringe with the crush of disappointment in his gut. It might be ridiculous, but he'd been looking forward to hearing Clint sing -- to just seeing him again, if he's honest.
The bartender is watching him shrewdly when he looks back up. He offers Phil a sympathetic smile, which must mean that Phil has passed some test he hadn't even been aware of.
"You really like him, huh," he says. Phil's mouth falls open to automatically deny it -- before deciding not to bother.
"Yeah. Don't tell him?"
"Pal, it would make his night. 'Course I'm gonna tell him you came looking for him and went away all hangdog when he wasn't here."
Phil can't stop the cringe this time. God, he can't help making a fool of himself every time he gets interested in someone. He's such an idiot.
"Hey," the bartender says, leaning a little closer, eyes kind. "I wouldn't if I didn't think the feeling's mutual. He'll be sorry he missed you tonight."
It shouldn't make Phil feel better -- after all, he doesn't really know this person at all -- but if there's one thing he has learned from his years of running the coffee shop, it's how to read people. This person isn't playing him, he can tell that much.
"Thanks, I guess."
The man's eyes run up and down Phil's frame, slowly enough to make the back of his neck heat. "Oh, he'll definitely be pissed he didn't get to see you, all dolled up for him. Don't worry, I'll make sure he knows you put in the effort."
Phil experiences the bizarre urge to facepalm. This guy and Clint are definitely friends.
The place is starting to fill now, and there are more and more people coming up to the bar, jostling Phil's elbow and apologising. He's a little gratified to get a few lingering looks, too -- but it does mean that the bartender's attention is taken off of him entirely. Phil can sense it's time to move on.
"Thanks," he says, when there's a lull in the rush again. "Hope your shift goes well." He salutes the man with his drink, and makes to move away.
The man smiles, and surprises Phil by holding out his hand. "Bucky Barnes," he says. "I hope to see you around again, soon."
It's a nice smile, and the hand, when Phil grips it, is strong and sure. "Thanks. I'll definitely be back. Come back by the coffee shop with Clint sometime, if you like. And it's Phil, Phil Coulson."
Barnes, who had been about to drop his hand, tightens his fingers around it instead. "Phil Coulson? Any relation to Claudia Coulson?"
Phil frowns a little. "Yes, she was my mother," he says, confused.
Barnes does drop his hand then, face going the kind of blank that's wondering what expression it should be making. "Oh, man. Small world."
Phil's frown deepens, and he's about to ask what Barnes means, when a very tall, very broad, very blond man calls his name from the other side of the bar.
"Buck, we need more vodka, do you think you could--"
"Sure, Steve," Barnes calls back, eyes softening in an entirely different way. Phil smiles to himself.
"Sorry," Barnes says, and he does sound honestly apologetic. "Gotta run. But hey, did you ever tell Clint your last name? 'Cos I'll hazard a guess he doesn't know it, otherwise he'd be losing his shit all over the place."
"I haven't told him, no," Phil says, still at sea -- although he's starting to get an inkling as to where this is going, and he's not at all sure how he feels about that.
Barnes sends him a sympathetic look.
"Clint's a Business PhD student at Columbia, did you know? He's doing his thesis on investment risk and decisions, or something like that -- I'll let him tell you, I'd only mess it up. Point is, he's basing it almost entirely on--"
Yeah, Phil thinks. If he's honest, he could have probably seen that coming from miles away, if only he'd been looking. "--On Claudia Coulson's investment portfolio," he finishes for Barnes, a heavy weight settling in his stomach. Is this why Clint's been coming by, getting to know him, getting him to drop his guard, to--
"Hey, no. Stop. Whatever you're thinking right now, I can pretty much guarantee that's not how it is," Barnes says, leaning over the bar for emphasis. "Look, I realise Clint's all but a stranger to you, but I know him. He's a good guy, and he's got principles that might as well be cast in iron. Trust me, if he knew, chances are he'd be avoiding you and freaking out about what to do about you so it wouldn't look like he was buttering you up for information. Yeah, okay, he's getting desperate, 'cos your Mom, she was one private lady, and he's been tearing his hair out how to go about finding more data, but he'd never, I don't know, seduce you for information or something."
Phil's not so sure. Yeah, he's probably being paranoid, but his mother had taught him much more than just finance -- had taught him, too, that sometimes, for all their good intentions, people do stupid things out of desperation.
Barnes looks--discomfited, like he knows he just screwed something up that was none of his business. He looks like he wishes he'd never opened his mouth. Phil wishes he could reassure him, but he can't right now. He just doesn't have it in him to pretend that this doesn't change things, to lie and say it'll be all right -- because it might not be.
"See you around," he says, tosses back the rest of his drink and walks away, ignoring the quiet, distraught "Fuck" he hears behind him. He's got some thinking to do.
Days go by, and Clint doesn't come to the coffee shop. Phil passes the sleepless hours thinking and thinking and thinking, until his brain feels swollen and overtaxed. He plays through each and every single interaction he's ever had with Clint, thinks back to Clint's initial reserve, his suspicion of Phil's motivations for being nice to him (it doesn't break Phil's heart. It doesn't), the way he'd opened himself up to Phil little by little, never asking for anything in return, never pushing for personal details, always being respectful of Phil's boundaries. He thinks of how excited, how relieved Clint had been to find a kindred soul, someone he could talk finance theory with who knew what Clint was saying, where he was coming from. Clint hadn't pushed him even then, not once, for more than Phil was willing to disclose -- like he hadn't thought he'd get it, even if he tried. Like he'd learned his lesson the hard way, been turned away too many times to count.
He thinks back to Clint crooning at his coffee machine, and quietly thanking Phil for the food Phil pushed at him, and how tired he looked every time he came in the shop, how alone.
It doesn't take long to agree with Barnes' conclusion. He isn't being played. Clint probably had no idea who Phil actually is, other than his legal drug peddler, a finance nerd, someone to talk to in the wee small hours of the morning while he's trying to stay awake.
Which, of course leads to the next question: what the hell Phil is supposed to do about it. Because he is Phil Coulson, Claudia Coulson's son and apprentice. He has the information Clint needs for his studies, and looks to be killing himself trying to find through the proper channels without resorting to underhanded dealings.
Would Clint even accept it from him? Would that break any chance Phil has of getting to know this intriguing guy who seems to have wormed his way into Phil's life and his thoughts in just a few short weeks?
Shit. Phil has no idea what to do here. So he does the only thing he can think of, confused as he is.
He calls his sister.
Maria picks up on the fourth ring, sounding half-asleep -- which is when Phil realises that it's five in the morning in London right now.
"I am so, so sorry," he says, feeling like an absolute idiot. He hadn't even thought to check the time -- this is how tied in knots Clint has made him. Jesus Christ. "I'll call again in a few hours. Go back to sleep."
"No," Maria mutters, and he hears the rustling of sheets and a quiet "Go back to sleep, darling." Fuck, and he must have woken Clive up, too. He is such a jerk. Then a door closes, and she's back on the line. "Phil. Hi. What's up?"
"God, I feel like an ass. It's honestly nothing important, it could have waited."
"If it's got you wound up enough that you didn't check the time on the three clocks on your wall, then it's important enough. I haven't talked to you for ages, how've you been?"
Phil considers the mess that his life has somehow turned into. "Fine," he says, then shakes himself. "I've been good. Great, even. The shop's doing well, the stocks are healthy. Things are good."
Silence on the line, and then the clink of porcelain on marble. "I didn't ask about the shop, or about the portfolio. I asked how you were. I know you, Philip Coulson, and I know your particular brand of evasion. So I can safely deduce that there's something that's got you all in a twist. Or is it someone? Oh, wow, this, I'm not even pissed anymore that you woke me up. Spill. Is it a she or a he?"
Phil lets his head gently drop into his hand. There's a reason why he hid in his office to make this phone call while Darcy finishes up out there and preps for the late night shift.
"It's a 'he'. And it's complicated."
"Is he straight?" Maria asks, while he listens to the comforting sounds of her packing the group of her espresso machine and switching it on.
"I don't think so. Or at least not entirely straight."
"Okay, then what's the problem?"
Phil closes his eyes, and starts at the beginning. He tells her everything, from the first time he'd laid eyes on Clint's wrinkled suit jacket to the past three days of chasing his own tail inside his head. Maria is quiet throughout, and doesn't interrupt, just hums now and again. She's so completely non-judgemental and unbothered that he finds himself telling her about how skittish Clint had been when Phil had tried to feed him that first night, about what Phil suspects it reveals about his past, that a stranger being kind to him was something to be wary of. (It makes something fiercely protective rear its maned head inside Phil, and stretch its huge claw-tipped paws.) She listens, and once or twice he swears he can hear her smile over the line.
When he's run out of words, she makes a sympathetic sound. "Oh, sweetheart. You're completely gone for this guy, aren't you."
"I barely know him," Phil contends.
"That doesn't mean a damn thing. Remember when I met Clive? The stories Mom told us about meeting Dad? We're genetically predisposed to fall head over heels in the space of less than a week."
"What do I do, Mar?" Phil asks quietly. This is her legacy as much as it's his, and he couldn't possibly justify making this decision on the basis of the inexplicable draw he feels for Clint.
She hums thoughtfully. "Well, you can either tell him, if his friend hasn't already, or you can let this fizzle off, which, the fact that I am acknowledging that this is an option does not mean that I won't fly over there and strangle you if you let that happen, brother mine."
Phil cringes. She would, too; and besides, let's face it. He does not want to do that.
"The other option I can see is that you donate an edited version of the latest report we got from Mr Sloane and the agency to Columbia Business School. That way it's public property, and your boy will have perfectly legal access to it. After that, the ball's in his court. He's got what he needs, so it takes away any necessity to butter you up for it, if that had been his intention. You'll be just Phil and Clint."
Phil blinks, and blinks again. It's the perfect solution -- it helps Clint, and it addresses the huge pink elephant Phil had magicked into the room with the two of them. After that... Well. It wouldn't be the first time Phil has taken a risk on the chance of a massive return.
However. "Are you sure you're okay with me doing this?" he has to ask.
Maria sighs. "Phil. I've been trying to tell you this for years. I loved Mom and Dad as much as you did. I'm proud as hell of everything Mom achieved, and of course I want to see it protected. But this paranoia that's got you in its grip now is exactly what I'm talking about. I don't want to live like that, Phil. I don't want you to live like that. I don't want my, our children to live with this kind of thing always hanging over their heads. I'm not saying you give away all of Mom's secrets. But this will at least give us a chance to breathe, to live without the constant vigilance. It's exhausting. Do you know how long it took me to get over myself and accept that Clive wasn't after me because of my last name? Just thinking about what I'd be missing now if I hadn't wakes me up in a cold sweat at night."
Phil lets the silence stretch. She's right. Of course she is, she's his sister and a Coulson woman. She's always right.
"Okay," he says at last, and is surprised by the overwhelming sensation of a weight falling off his shoulders even as he says it, as he accepts it as the way forward. "Okay. I will, then. Thank you," he adds, trying not to let his voice break over just how fucking relieved he feels right now.
"I love you," Maria says fondly. "Now go get your boy. I have to wake Clive up and shower and get to work."
"Love you, Mar," he says, smiling, and lets her get on with her day.
He spends the rest of the night tearing apart the latest five-year portfolio report from the investment agency he and Maria have on retainer. Yes, so it came out last year, and it concerns the five years prior, but it's still brand new information that isn't publicly available. It's perfect for the job. By nine in the morning his eyes are drifting closed and he's losing time a little, so much so that a worried Thor conscripts Sitwell and the two of them manhandle him into his office and onto the sofa that hogs one of the walls, big enough to nap on comfortably, as all of the staff will attest. He sleeps for hours, and wakes up refreshed and raring to go. By the end of the day, he's got the report finalised, drafted a covering letter, printed all two hundred pages of it, and had them bound. He calls a courier, stuffs the whole thing in a large padded envelope care of Professor Hubbard, the Dean of Columbia Business School, and hands it over before he changes his mind.
And then he waits, and spends the rest of the evening indulging in a quiet, highly contained breakdown. He just plain can't believe what he's done. All this time, all these years of jealously guarding his mother's legacy, just to turn around and open access to her investment strategies, her approach to risk, the way her mind worked, to anyone who wanted it -- he feels like he has betrayed everything she stood for, like he ought to be shot for treason.
"I did it, oh god, I did it, Mar, fuck what the hell have I done," he blurts over the phone, at the slightly more civilised time of six-thirty a.m. London time on Friday morning.
"Phil. Breathe," she instructs briskly, with more than a hint of amusement. "I'm proud of you, bro. I know it's going to take you a while to stop feeling like you pressed the End-Of-World button, but you did a good thing. For you, for us. For the family. For those Business students hell-bent on picking the world apart to see how it works. They'll worship you."
"I don't want to be worshiped," he wails quietly.
His sister laughs. "I know. Stop freaking out. Okay, I was going to wait to tell you this until the next time I saw you, but you need the distraction now more than you need the surprise later. Congratulations, Philip Coulson, you're going to be an uncle."
All thought in Phil's head grinds to a halt. "Oh my god," he says, feeling a grin take over his face and split it in two. "Oh my god, Mar, congratulations! When is it due?"
"In six months. We only just found out a week ago, and last time we talked didn't seem the right time to break the news."
"So that's why you were so focused on the family importance of this." Once again, the weight in his head, in his heart, seems to dissipate into no more than quickly fading mist. Maria always knows just what to say, just how to make things better. All of a sudden, Phil's perspective shifts; he sees the effect of his actions from the other side, through the calm, carefree life of kids unencumbered with the heavy weight of familial responsibility. The legacy will always be there for them, but it won't be the be-all and end-all thing that had consumed most of Phil's life.
"I'm so, so happy for you and Clive," he says, trying and failing to keep the giddy joy out of his own voice. "You guys are going to be amazing parents."
"And you're going to be the cool uncle who is 'the only person who gets them'," Maria laughs. Phil can just imagine the happy glow that must be bathing her from within. "Now, if you're done losing your shit, I have to go get ready for work. Again."
"Sorry," Phil says unrepentantly, through the most ridiculous grin. "Give my love to Clive."
Yeah. He's done freaking out about what he's done; now he can start freaking out over the outcome of it.
He gets some more sleep that night, more in the past twenty-four hours than he has had in a good long while. There might be something to Maria's theory. He still spends most of the day in the shop, alternating between paperwork and ordering supplies and wrangling the blasted San Marco, which has been almost unbearable this past week. Phil refuses to make the connection between its apparent sulk and Clint's absence, because, just, no. That way lies madness.
He's elbows-deep in its mechanical innards when he registers the hush, and looks up to find Darcy staring covetously at Clint -- hair mussed beyond recognition, looking a little wild around the eyes, both of his hands braced on top of the front counter.
"I need to talk to you," Clint says. His voice, whiskey-rough and low, raises a blast of heat well below Phil's stomach.
"Okay," Phil says, willing his hands not to shake as he replaces the cover on the machine -- which, goddamn it, hisses contentedly and starts happily gurgling away. Phil spares it a glare, but this is neither the time not the place.
"Darcy, the floor is yours," he says, and Darcy rolls her eyes at his geekery while sending Clint another interested look.
Phil leads Clint back to his office, fighting with the urge to wring his hands like a schoolboy. He squeezes them into fists instead, and stuffs them in the pockets of his slacks. Clint follows him in, then turns and closes the door of the office behind them. Phil swallows.
But then Clint just stands there and stares at him, like he's trying to see inside him and through to the other side. Phil bites his lips shut and waits him out, reminds himself it's Clint's move now.
"Why did you do that?" Clint blurts at last, cheeks flushing. "I know what Bucky told you. I can only imagine what you must have thought. I didn't think you'd want to see me again, ever."
Phil blinks. "Clint, you didn't do anything wrong. You didn't even know who I was before I told Bucky."
Clint's eyes widen, and his hands uncurl from the white-knuckled fists at his sides. "You believed that?" he asks, and Phil's heart breaks right in two at how lost, how surprised he sounds that Phil would believe that he didn't have an ulterior motive to come around. Phil wonders what Clint must have been through in his life that he would just assume that someone would drop him like a hot potato at the slightest excuse.
Phil finds himself helplessly wanting to reassure him, to make that look go away.
"Of course," he says, does not allow hesitation to enter his voice at all.
"Oh," Clint says, small and shocked. "Oh, I--thank you."
Phil forces away the knee-jerk reaction to ask what exactly Clint is thanking him for. Easy. Easy, Phil.
"You're very welcome," he says, hoping not to spook Clint. "But I would have extended the same courtesy to anyone my coffee machine likes. It's an excellent judge of character, even when I'm not."
Clint narrows his eyes for a moment, but then his mouth twitches into a smile at one end. "That doesn't explain why you did what you did. Forgive the presumption, but I fail to believe that you just up and decided to make my--my career, you must know this--out of the blue."
Phil sighs. Of course he should have expected that Clint wouldn't just take Phil's actions as his due.
"You're right. I wouldn't have done it for just anyone." He dares to hold Clint's gaze, watches surprised understanding flood it, watching Clint rein his reaction back like it might change Phil's mind. Phil has to say this; this is the time, this is the place. He has to say it, so that Clint knows, so that whatever Clint decides to do, at least he'll have the full picture.
"Look. Yes, it's a bit of a U-turn from our previous policy of my mother's legacy. And yes, you being you has a lot to do with it. But it was time. You were just the catalyst for the change that has been dogging our footsteps for years now. My mother was a brilliant woman, the finest financial mind I have ever come across. But safeguarding her achievements, always wondering if the person you're--interested in is only interested in you because of it -- it gets lonely, Clint. It turns us into paranoid people questioning our own shadows. At least this way -- well, if anything was to happen between us--not that I'm pushing or anything, um, I'm just--if there's a chance for something, I want to, I need to know that it's because of me, not what I represent.
"And of course I'm not expecting anything here, for god's sake don't even think you're under some kind of obligation, please don't -- but, um. I would... really like it if there was a chance. I like you. I'd like to get to know you better. I'd like to--try, at least, to see if there might be something more."
He shuts up then, and looks down, because his face is on fire, and he has never felt so exposed in his life. Is this how people feel all the time, throwing caution to the wind? It's awful. His heart is trying to break out of his chest, and he feels like he's breathing too fast but there's no oxygen left in the room at all. Clint isn't saying anything. Phil debates whether it's worse to imagine all the horrible things on Clint's face, or see them for himself. In the end, he simply can't bear it any longer. He looks up.
Clint is just as flushed as him. His mouth is open, a little red, maybe from biting it? Phil pushes that image away, because he just can't right now.
"You'd want to?" Clint says faintly. "With me?"
Phil tries to hold back his smile, and fails. "Yes. Yes, I would. If you would."
"I would," Clint blurts, before Phil has even finished speaking, like he can't bear Phil to not know. "I would so much."
They stand there, staring at each other again. Clint's grin is tinged with disbelieving joy, and Phil can't even hazard a guess what his own face must look like right now.
"Okay then," he says. He hardly recognises his own voice. He doesn't think he has ever sounded so--so fond in his life.
"Okay," Clint breathes.
Which is when Darcy comes crashing through the door.
"Boss, oh my god, I am so sorry, but the machine won't work again and I have a line of five people and I think Thor might break it if he hits it again and oh god, please come, I like my job, I don't want to have to look for another if the machine blows up this place."
Clint just looks at Phil with these half-lidded eyes, amused beyond belief.
"You," Phil says, walking past him and snagging his (extremely firm, extremely shapely) arm. "Come with me. It likes you better than it does me."
"Now, you know that's not true," Clint says, but he doesn't sound convinced.
As soon as the two of them make it within sight of the machine, it whistles and hisses out steam and starts working like it has presently been dismantled and put together again with all its parts properly cleaned and oiled.
"If it makes you feel any better, I like you better," Clint murmurs in his ear. Phil can't breathe for a moment. "But, um, don't tell it that," Clint continues quickly. "I like the coffee it makes me."
Phil has never wanted to kiss another person more in his life. Clint's body is a long line of heat against his back, and Phil is becoming uncomfortably aware that everyone in the shop is looking at them with various expressions of sly amusement.
"Oh, crap, is that the time? I'm so, so sorry, I have to run, I'm working tonight, I just wanted to see you before I went in," Clint blurts in this mile-a-minute way he has, smiling sheepishly when Phil turns to look at him. "I'm sorry. I have to go change, I'll be late as it is."
"Can I come see you?" Phil asks, giving in to the sudden temptation.
Clint's entire face lights up. "Please," he says immediately. "Please do. I should get a break around nine-thirty."
"I'll be there," Phil promises, and Clint sends him a blinding smile before rushing out of the door.
"Wow, Boss," Darcy drawls. "I approve of your taste."
"Indeed, Mr Coulson. Your boyfriend is very visually-pleasing and manly. My felicitations."
"Dear god," Phil groans to himself, and goes home to shower and get changed himself.
Phil elects to wear a different suit than the last time he went into Brandy's. This one is a Brioni he's been saving for a special occasion. Maria had bullied him into getting it the last time he was in London, and all Phil can do is thank her silently for her efforts and make a note to send her flowers tomorrow if this works out. It's an inky blue colour, with notched lapels and very thin pinstripes that highlight the excellent cut of the fabric and make him look even taller. He's wearing a plain white dress shirt for a change, and a light grey patterned tie, letting the suit speak for itself. It's easily the finest piece he owns. He feels ever-so-slightly overdressed in the full three-piece ensemble, but he has made his peace with the fact that apparently he wants to impress Clint enough that he doesn't care what other people think of him. Yes, he knows the kind of look Bucky, if he's working, is going to give him when he walks into the bar; but fuck it, it's not every day that you, uh, reach an agreement affecting the rest of your life (as far as Phil is concerned).
Clint had said he'd be free around half-nine, but Phil has been primed for weeks, close to a month now to hear him sing, and he gets there as soon as he can, shower and fussing over his clothes allowing. It's already busy when he walks through the door; the place is buzzing with people, mostly around Phil's age and younger, with a few older patrons here and there. There's an energy about the place, particularly centered around the red-headed singer in a chic black dress that is wooing the crowds with her smoky voice in the corner by the piano. She's just finishing her song as Phil starts making his way to the bar, so by the time he reaches the polished wood of the counter he can just about make himself heard. He doesn't see Bucky, but the tall blond man from the other night is there, sending Phil a look of recognition from where he's mixing a tray of cocktails. Phil smiles, and leans on the bar, content to wait his turn.
The first notes of "New York State Of Mind" float through the air a moment later, and the crowd goes wild. Phil smiles, letting the mood take him -- until, that is, he hears that voice. A little rough, just the right kind of deep, it reaches into Phil's gut and pulls some string that has him close to shaking. He closes his eyes and forces himself to breathe, just breathe through it, to let that voice slide inside his mind and take him on a trip down the Hudson, up over the banks and into the city, down well-known streets that suddenly look brand new, like he's seeing them for the first time through the eyes of the singer. It's--he can't even explain, can't quantify the feeling that swells in his chest.
"He's good, your boy," a familiar voice says nearby, and Phil opens his eyes to see Bucky smirking at him and placing what looks like a vodka tonic, twist of lime in front of him. "On the house. I'm sorry I meddled where I shouldn't have. I'm really glad you two worked things out."
Phil, still a little shell-shocked, picks up his drink and takes a healthy swallow from it. "It's okay," he says, when he's sure he can speak again. "No, you probably shouldn't have told me, but on the other hand I suspect we would have screwed this up monumentally if left to our own devices. It looks like we've both got a bit of baggage to bring to the table."
Bucky's face twists, like he smells something unpleasant. "Yeah, no, I'm so not touching that one, and I don't really know you well enough to comment, but I'll say this: you're more right about Clint than you know."
Lovely, Phil thinks, but he smiles anyway. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
"Yeah, I'm starting to get that," Bucky says easily, and then drifts off to help the next customer while Phil sits there, and listens, and listens.
It doesn't feel all that long when Clint thanks the audience and passes the mic to the red-headed woman again. He takes the bottle of water he'd been sipping from as he sang and makes a beeline for Phil's place at the bar. Phil had had no idea Clint had even noticed he was here.
"Hi," Clint says happily when he reaches him. "My god you look gorgeous."
Phil swallows. The room has suddenly grown way too hot. "Thanks," he manages. "You sound amazing."
"Told you I was very good," Clint says smugly, but his face can't quite hide how pleased Phil's compliment has made him. "Come on."
Strong fingers wrap around Phil's hand, and Clint leads him away from the stage and around the corner into a smaller, much less crowded room. There's even a free booth tucked away in a corner, and that's where Clint takes him, sliding along the leather seat behind the table. Phil follows; the space is narrow enough that their thighs press together from hip to knee. Clint does not look like he minds. Instead, slowly enough to give Phil time to back away if he wants to (Phil does not), he slides a hand over the jacket of Phil's suit, appreciatively patting the fabric.
"You can't even know what you were doing to me, leaning back against the bar, sipping a drink and looking like that. I almost fumbled a couple lines, I was so busy staring."
Phil blushes again, and bites his lip. Clint's voice is low, just a shade hoarse, exactly like he sounds when he comes into the coffee shop very late at night. "Thanks. My sister made me get this suit," he says, for lack of anything better.
"Then she has my undying gratitude, but I didn't just mean the suit, Phil."
Phil looks up from where he'd been staring at the long, firm line of Clint's throat, and tilts his head in question. Clint stares at him, and then shakes his head.
"How is it that you don't know how gorgeous you are?" he murmurs wonderingly. Phil looks away again, because good god, he's really not. But Clint slides his fingers under Phil's chin, along his jaw, nudging his head back up.
When Clint leans in, he smells of fresh sweat mingling with traces of his woodsy cologne, a combination tailor-made to punch Phil in the gut with how much he wants this, how much he wishes he could feel Clint's skin on his instead of the pale blue shirt he's wearing. Clint hadn't had the chance to shave before going in, it seems, and his stubble tickles Phil's lips, the top of his cheek. Phil can't do anything but sit there, frozen in place so he doesn't spook him away, and let Clint press his lips to his, dry, soft, pliant. It's the chastest kiss he's even been a part of, so he doesn't understand why it lights a fire inside him that threatens to consume him. He can't hear a single thing, even though a moment ago people had been chattering loudly at the next table over, and the music had been assaulting his eardrums. It's all a background buzz now, unimportant -- not when he has Clint's chest pressed to his, Clint's shoulder braced against his own, Clint's nose touching his cheek. He stays stock-still, and lets his lips open just a little, move against the caress of Clint's mouth. He can't breathe; the air tangles in his throat, barely reaches his lungs; he feels lightheaded.
He thinks he whimpers when Clint pulls back, though he'll forever deny it afterwards. Clint is smiling, a burst of brightness across his face, just this side of hesitant. Phil blinks, tries to clear his vision, but it's a struggle to focus, and so he stops trying; he doesn't need to see anything but Clint's face in that moment, anyway. Clint blinks, too, eyes dropping back to his mouth; then he smiles and leans in again, pressing another kiss to his lips. Phil lets himself sway forward this time, into Clint's space as Clint's hand comes to rest on his arm, slides around to splay between his shoulderblades, keeping Phil where he is using nothing more than the warmth of his palm, his flexing fingers. They kiss leisurely, unhurriedly; there's something decadent in the way their mouths slide together, like they have all the time in the world just to get used to this sensation. Phil tilts his head just a little, turns into it, and Clint follows his lead, shifts a little closer.
A shiver racks Phil's body from head to toe, in a way that he can't hope to hide; there's no way for Clint's hand at his back to miss it. Clint smiles into the kiss, lets out this tiny, pleased sound, so soft that Phil might miss it if he weren't pressed to him, if he didn't feel the vibration across his tongue. It knocks all the air out of him, and he gasps into the kiss, opens his mouth wider.
He expects Clint to surge forward, take what advantage Phil's lapse of control gives him. He doesn't. He takes Phil's lower lip gently between his, nips at it, swipes his tongue across it, and pulls back.
"Breathe," he whispers against Phil's wet lips, stealing another kiss before he draws back. Phil does as he's told, sucks in an inhale that physically hurts, fills his lungs with the scent of Clint, brings back awareness of his surroundings. He might have felt embarrassed, humiliated even, by how viscerally Clint is affecting him, if he hadn't been able to see Clint's blown pupils, the way he licks at his lip like he wants to draw Phil's taste inside his mouth. His hand has slid away from Phil's back and come to rest over Phil's arm that has somehow ended up wound around Clint's waist. Clint's not pushing it away; instead, he seems to want to hold it there, keep it from moving, elbow tucked over Phil's wrist.
"I have a number coming up," Clint says quietly, voice thrumming through Phil's chest. Phil blinks, breathes in again, gets his bearings, straightens his spine. He starts to let go of Clint, a strange shyness creeping over him out of nowhere, but Clint doesn't let him get far. "Will you still be here when I'm done?" he asks, really asks, like he doesn't know--
Phil doesn't have to think about the answer; it rises from the soles of his feet, up his calves, rushes through his lungs until the "Yes" is out, hanging in the air between them, unhesitating and unmistakable. "I'll wait."
Clint looks at him a moment longer, eyes crinkling at the corners, soft where they stay on Phil's. "Okay."
"Okay," Phil breathes. He has no idea what exactly he has just agreed to, but the thing is, he doesn't care. When it comes to this man, the answer will always be Yes, whatever form that takes.
He slides out of the booth to let Clint out, who follows reluctantly. "I'll be a while," he warns.
Phil steps closer and presses a last kiss to Clint's lips. "I don't care," he whispers just loud enough for Clint to hear. Clint gives him a thrilled grin and grabs his hand again.
"Take care of my man," he tells Bucky when he leaves Phil back at the bar, where he'd found him before. Phil's entire face flames again. This is getting ridiculous, but he can't keep his heart from trying to escape his chest at Clint's words. They're doing this.
"My pleasure," Bucky drawls, and wags his eyebrows when Clint scowls at him and makes the universal 'I'm watching you' sign at him. "Honestly, it's like Steve isn't standing six feet away from me," he says to Phil, rolling his eyes once Clint leaves. Phil doesn't bother to reply; he's saving his energy for not looking too besotted.
The end of the night comes eventually, and Phil waits patiently for Clint to say goodnight to everyone and be ready to go. Everyone sends him knowing looks, but he finds with some surprise that all he can feel is smug. He does finally get officially introduced to Steve (Rogers) and Natasha (Romanova). They seem like nice people. Phil's looking forward to having the chance to see for himself.
At last, Clint is ready to leave. He shrugs into his jacket, plain black tonight, and turns in the direction of the coffee shop without being told. About half a block away, his hand tentatively finds its way into Phil's. Phil winds their fingers together, and holds on, pretending not to see the smile Clint is trying to hide. He's pretty happy with Clint's choice of direction. Yes, Phil wants him -- dear god does he want Clint -- but it seems a little too early, a little too fast. Phil is perfectly okay with slow, especially if it means more of this, of Clint walking a shade too close for casual, thumb running absently over the side of Phil's hand as he talks to Phil about his friends, who knew whom first, who is going out with whom. Sure, Phil knows (hopes) they'll have this later, too, for the rest of their lives if Phil can wrangle it; but this is nice. 'Slow' means that every single thing, every touch, every look is new, and special for it.
Phil thinks that maybe Clint will walk straight past the coffee shop and keep going, but Clint surprises him by slowing down and pulling the door open for him.
"I want a coffee," he tells Phil's questioning look. "One of Marcie's coffees."
"Who?" Phil asks reflexively, because there is no one on his staff list with that name.
"I meant your machine. She looks like a 'Marcie' to me. Don't you, darling?" he purrs at it, and the thing damn near wags its tail.
"Are you seducing my coffee machine?" Phil asks, faux-outraged.
Clint shrugs. "You said it yourself, she likes me best."
Phil turns to Darcy, who'd volunteered to take the late shift after Clint had left earlier, and dares her to comment. She holds her hands up, the "No way" written all over her face, but her smile is wicked.
"One coffee coming up, Mr..."
"Clint. Clint Barton," Clint says, holding out a hand for her to shake. Phil is not jealous that it was Darcy who got Clint's last name out of him. Not at all.
"Go on home, Darcy. I'll take it from here," he says dryly.
She gasps. "Boss, are you cutting out on your date?" she asks, scandalised.
Phil lifts an eyebrow at Clint, who just looks amused. "Since my 'date' would rather cozy up to my coffee machine than me, he can make his own way home."
Clint laughs. It's startlingly sweet and carefree. "Don't be jealous, sweetheart. You know I like you best."
"Okay," Darcy says briskly, swiping her coat and bag from under the counter. "I'm out of here. I don't need to watch my boss flirting with his boyfriend, however cute he is. You're on your own, Phil."
"Night," Phil calls after her, while Clint just laughs some more.
"Alone at last," Clint says meaningfully. Phil sighs, and starts packing up Marcie's group. She'll never respond to anything else now that Clint has gone and named her. She works as smoothly as a machine a tenth of her age; soon enough, the smell of freshly brewed coffee fills the space between him and Clint.
Phil looks at him through the fragrant steam rising from the cup he places on the counter, meets Clint's warm, dancing eyes over the expanse of polished wood, and knows that this, right here, is all he will ever need for his life to be complete.