It's the price he pays for the work he does. His suits die agonizing deaths on a regular basis; the grey one scorched away from his right side, the black pinstripe riddled with bullet holes, his favourite navy blue (worn to every wedding he's attended since he was twenty) covered in some sort of unidentifiable chunks of… whatever it was they were fighting in the harbour two Saturdays ago. And this one, the last of his basic blacks, held together at the shoulders and down one leg with loose stitching (Agent Simms' best) in bright orange S.H.I.E.L.D. parachute cord.
So this is why he's wandering down a broad, well-lit street in the Garment District in the Saturday morning sun, looking for something a little different than the usual S.H.I.E.L.D. Dolce & Gabbana. It's practically a uniform among the senior agents now, everyone owning the same two-button wool suit three times over and slowly creasing the knees at just the angle of a standard-issue office chair, slowly wearing a shine into the elbows where they rest against the edges of the desks. Phil doesn't buy into it, hasn't for years; he thinks he may have accidentally started the trend not long after promotion to his current rank, but ever since it became the de facto standard at headquarters, he's been buying a slightly different cut, wool voile instead of twill, a different lapel style, and he's tired of it. So is his budget, and he thinks that if he's going to be paying those kinds of prices for a suit, it might as well be something he enjoys.
He has few enough pleasures in life as it is; a well-tailored suit ought to be the least he can manage for himself.
Until about thirty seconds ago, the plan was to find a decent-looking showroom, buy a couple of suits off the rack and have them custom-fitted. He's only experimenting, after all, just stepping out of the dim halls of Dolce after years of steady loyalty, and he knows perfectly well that buying only two suits is just asking for trouble. He'll probably have to come back in a week and a half, knowing the way things usually work at S.H.I.E.L.D.
That was the plan until about thirty seconds ago, anyway, but he's just spotted something. Tucked away between vast fabric warehouses whose shelves are piled high with brightly coloured rolls of linen and satin, plain block-lettered sign contrasting with the personality-packed cartoon pictures on the thread and notions shops, is a dimly-lit shop that reads across its solitary storefront window, BANNER: MENSWEAR, ALTERATIONS.
Phil likes that. Brief, to-the-point, and – most importantly, on a S.H.I.E.L.D. budget already severely stressed by his current clothing expenses – doesn't look like it will be too costly. Still, appearances can be deceiving and nowhere moreso than in New York, so he approaches cautiously, pushes the door open with a gesture almost hesitant in its gentleness, and leaps six inches in the air when a shop bell tolls from over his head.
He's standing in a shaft of light that's somehow managing to pierce through the hazy glass over the door, watching dust motes drift through the air and wondering if the shop is staffed, when a head pokes out through a door farther back in the poorly-lit room and is swiftly withdrawn, only to permit the emergence of its owner in his entirety.
Phil doesn't know what he was expecting. The man who does his fittings at Dolce is young, fresh-faced, hasn't been working there long; before him, there was an elderly gentleman, portly and polished and so very Jeeves-and-Wooster that Phil felt immediately at home the first time he walked in as a young agent recently drawn into the S.H.I.E.L.D. inner sanctum. He's seen tailors working in shop windows in the Financial District, thin and drawn with greying hair or overflowing out of their smart clothing as they make expansive gestures with measuring tapes and twirl overwhelming moustaches.
The man who walks out of the back room of BANNER: MENSWEAR, ALTERATIONS is neither tall nor substantial. He's several inches shorter than Phil, with narrow shoulders under a neatly-cut shirt and messy hair that Phil would bet hasn't seen a comb in days or a barbershop in weeks, maybe months. He blinks a little behind square-framed glasses, then offers, "Hi, what can I do for you?"
The softness of his voice startles Phil; in retrospect, he can't picture anything different from the man in front of him, but he thinks maybe he was waiting for a shout, a vote of confidence, as it were, something that would tell him yes, he's in the right place here. It makes him hesitate, decision hovering between made and not quite there yet, before he settles on a single, deliberate nod and holds out an arm so that the lurid parachute cord is immediately visible.
"It looks like I'm in the market for some new suits," he says drily.
The shorter man (Banner?) nods, expression serious. "I can see that," he replies, and then it's 'what cut of jacket were you looking for?' and 'two-button is a good look on you' and 'did you know your trousers have too much break?' and Phil isn't entirely sure he can keep up with all of it, but the tailor (is he Banner or isn't he?) definitely knows what he's doing, and Phil is no longer wondering whether or not he is in the right place.
They're settling on fabrics – and Phil wasn't intending to invest in custom-tailored suits, not today, possibly not at all, given the average lifespan of what he wears, but he's the one who stepped into the shop and Banner (he's pretty sure it's Banner at this point) is competent in a way that's difficult to resist – when there's a crash and a jangle from the back room; Phil jumps back, startled, and the tailor rolls his eyes and sighs, but Phil can tell from the set of his shoulders and the faint grin on his face that it's indulgent, not impatient.
"If you break the shop, it's coming out of your salary," he calls into the gloom at the back of the store.
A voice returns fire. "I'm not breaking the shop. Would it kill us to have proper lighting?" and a head appears around the edge of the back room door, blond and tousled with an insouciant grin. "Oh, hey, customer. Hi."
The tailor sighs again. "My… assistant, Clint Barton," he tells Phil, which is remarkable considering he technically hasn't even introduced himself yet.
Phil holds out a hand (the tailor seizes the opportunity to drape a bolt of fabric over it and study the contrast against Phil's shirt). "Phil Coulson," he offers, and the man in the doorway nods, grins even more broadly, and comes out to shake his hand.
It's a little jarring when he does, because so far, everything sort of seems to fit into the quiet, low-lit environment of the shop – the walls are wood-panelled; the fabrics are all dark or muted earth tones; the fittings are subdued, aged brass tones; the tailor himself is dressed in brown trousers, a cream-coloured shirt and suspenders, of all things. Clint Barton, though, is wearing a bright purple vest over a yellow shirt; his trousers are grey, but have several patches of various colours scattered over them; his shoes are chequered black-and-white, and even his socks are a rather energetic shade of red. Not a single thing he's wearing appears to match anything else, and it seems so illogically ill-suited to the store that it almost cracks Phil's standard deadpan into a smile.
Fortunately, he is able (just in time) to save face, and he shakes hands gravely, saying, "Mr. Banner here – "
"Doctor," Barton corrects.
"Doctor Banner," and Phil didn't even know you could be a doctor of tailoring, but it's not the most unexpected thing to happen to him today, so he internally shrugs and externally goes along with it. At least it confirms his suspicions that this fellow is Banner.
"Dr. Banner was recommending suit material."
Barton nods. "I'm gonna sit this one out," he says, and gestures to his outfit. "For some reason, Bruce isn't too keen on my clothing choices."
"That's not a clothing choice," Banner says mildly. "You just asked me for my recommendations and then went out and bought the exact opposites of them all."
"See, I use your advice," Barton replies. "Just not the way you meant for it to be used."
"I think I'll stick to the standard options," Phil says. "I doubt my complexion is right for…" and he gestures to Barton, the way the man's just done to himself. There are whole paragraphs conveyed in that slight twist of the hand and Banner – in the first sign of real life he's shown since Phil walked in – actually laughs aloud. He holds up several swatches, charcoal and navy and basic black with a sheen to it that Phil notices immediately and doesn't think he's ever seen before and asks, "What about these?"
Barton peers at them from over Banner's shoulder, shrugs dismissively, and vanishes into the back room again. "New samples for you when you have time, Bruce," he tosses over his shoulder as the door swings shut.
As soon as he's gone, Banner assumes an apologetic expression and begins to say something, but Phil pre-empts it with a smile. "I'm not sure your assistant was overly impressed, but I like them," he says, fingering the swatches gently. They're all thinner fabric, precursors to three-season suits that will wear well in the New York heat, and they feel almost delicate under his hands. He frowns just a little, and Banner immediately picks up on it. "Not quite?"
"I…" Phil hesitates. He can't exactly explain his job – not only is it classified, but how in God's name would he ever manage to sum up what it is his suits have to endure? – so he chooses his words carefully when he says, "I may need something a little more durable."
Banner's grin has a wry twist to it that Phil doesn't completely understand. "I wouldn't worry," he says. "They're much stronger than they look."
A bespoke suit, Banner tells him, takes four weeks to fit. Phil's asked around at other places in the Garment District and been assured a complete custom outfitting in anywhere from six to ten weeks, but Banner promises him four and assures Phil that he isn't going to any additional trouble to accomplish it. He also says, "Call me Bruce," and laughs for the second time when Phil refers to his assistant as 'Mr. Barton.'
All in all, Phil is a little overwhelmed and more than a little impressed by Banner's – Bruce's – tiny two-man operation here, modest and unassuming and hidden away between large, flashy fabric shops and high-end tailors with gilt-edged signs and customers who arrive in Rolls Royces driven by chauffeurs already better-dressed than Phil has ever been. In the face of all this, Bruce's shop may be dusty and dark, may espouse 'shabby chic' more inadvertently than out of any deliberate intent, may not have the high polish of many of New York's finer establishments, and yet Phil thinks he may have found a diamond in the rough.
He's reserving judgment; after all, he's only been there once, and he hasn't even had his first fitting yet. Maybe he's got the shop all wrong, got Bruce all wrong, maybe this will end up being a mistake and he'll find himself back in the Dolce & Gabbana outlet before the month is out, but he's optimistic. Bruce knows his way around a measuring tape and a pair of shears; there's no reason he wouldn't be equally proficient with a needle and thread.
It's about two and a half weeks after Phil's first visit to BANNER: MENSWEAR, ALTERATIONS when Bruce calls him (212 area code, Phil notes, because he's used to picking up on details like that; either Bruce Banner is very lucky or his establishment has been in Manhattan for a long time) and tells him that his suits are ready for a baste fitting at his convenience. Phil gets the shop hours from him and, "Really? Nine to nine?"
"Well, if you can't make it in, I can work something else out for you, just let me…"
"No. No, I can make it in." His open surprise is at the extent of Bruce's hours, not at the lack thereof. True, most shops in Manhattan are open earlier (not that it matters much to Phil, whose workday begins at six o'clock on his later mornings), but it's rare for any of them to be open so late. "How's Saturday?"
Saturday, three weeks since his first visit, is fine, and he finds himself swinging the wooden door open around mid-morning with some trepidation. He's been standing in the street for some time, debating whether going in this early (there's hardly anyone on the streets who isn't hurrying by with some clearly-urgent errand) will make him look over-eager, but in the end, the late spring sun is hot on the back of his neck and the shoulders of his stopgap Massimo Bizzocchi suit don't fit quite the way he's used to, so he makes his way inside in the hopes that the sooner he has his initial fitting, the sooner he'll be out of off-the-rack suits and into something that drapes over him in the thoughtless, comfortable way to which he's not yet accustomed.
There doesn't appear to be anyone in the shop when he slips quietly inside, bell clinking softly but not announcing his presence with heavy tolling the way it did the last time he was here. Phil doesn't much like hanging doorbells; years of working for S.H.I.E.L.D. have habituated him to moving subtly and soundlessly, to the point where anything else makes him slightly uncomfortable. In this case, he settles on a dark brown leather chair behind a rack of ties and is prepared to wait in unobtrusive silence, except that his just-slightly-too-long sleeve catches on the rack and rattles it. Before he's even finished cursing the off-the-rack jacket, Bruce appears out of the back room and is halfway across the shop toward Phil, apologizing, "Sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't hear you come in." His hair is a mess, flopping over his glasses and poking out behind his ears in two or three different directions at once, and when Clint sticks his head out of the back doorway in a similar state of disarray, Phil blinks rapidly several times and puts together some pieces he hadn't realized were connected.
Bruce spots him looking back and forth between the two of them and flushes, tips of his ears bright red and a 'so what' expression of almost-defiance on his face, but Phil is incapable of losing his equanimity and says matter-of-factly, "No, no, it's fine, you said something about a fitting?"
He thinks he catches approval on Clint's face, before the younger man disappears and re-emerges moments later with a pile of tacked-together fabric, first stages of Phil's eventual suits. The stitching is smaller than he was expecting, neater and more detailed than in the half-formed garments he's watched being put together in tailor shop windows, done in green basting thread instead of the white other tailors use.
Bruce sees him looking at it and explains, "It's supposed to be bad luck, using green thread. I don't think anyone else does it."
"My grandmother used to say green belonged to the Little People," Phil says, "and if you used too much of it, they'd get offended." As soon as he's said it, he feels like an idiot – why should his tailor care about his Irish ancestors' outdated folklore? – but it's too late, and then Bruce is nodding seriously, saying he's heard that somewhere and that green cloth was almost never sold in Ireland until after the turn of the century and wasn't there something about ruining crops? And all the while he's smoothing the preliminary suit jacket over Phil's shoulders, adjusting the hang of the sleeves and the roll of the lapels, and even though he looks almost a figure of fun in his charcoal-and-green half-outfit, Phil can already see that it fits him in a way his made-to-measure Dolce suits never have.
Not just see, but feel, too; there's no gap at the top of his sleeves, no looseness in the chest where his right shoulder is imperceptibly lower than his left. It's the kind of tiny triviality no one would notice, not even the tailors who have altered Phil's suits in the past, and yet Bruce has picked up on it and accounted for it before even attempting a fitting.
Phil is a little speechless, and somewhere in the back of his head, he's wondering if S.H.I.E.L.D. has any use for a trained tailor with an eye for detail that may rival even Phil's. When he comments on it, though, clearly impressed, Bruce is quick to set him straight. "Clint is the one with the sharp eye. He picks up on everything."
"Is that why you keep me around?" Clint asks, hearing his name and wandering out onto the shop floor where Bruce is working.
"Among other things," Bruce replies levelly.
"Your eye for colour, for instance," Bruce deadpans, and Phil has to bite back a laugh, because today Clint is arrayed in purple, red and black, and looks like some kind of cross between a rumpled carnival employee and a particularly tasteless vampire.
Completely unruffled, Bruce kneels down to mark something at the waistline of the second jacket, taking up a quarter-inch or so of dark fabric, and Clint comments, "You know, you could do all right in a navy," which is exactly what Phil was told by Bruce three weeks ago when he opted for the charcoal and the black.
"Maybe next time," Phil says, and it's fiscally entirely irresponsible of him to have his suits custom-tailored at all, given the way he uses them, and yet somehow when he says next time, he actually means it. He hasn't even seen his first two, and he's already expecting to be purchasing more.
Bruce mumbles something Phil doesn't quite catch, and when Phil gives him an enquiring glance and, "Pardon me?" he pulls the straight pins out of his mouth to repeat, "I think I'm done with the jackets, if you wouldn't mind trying the trousers now."
Clint already has them over one arm, running his fingers along Bruce's precise green stitching as he hands them off to Phil. "Fitting room's over there," with a gesture off to one side, and Phil gently pushes aside a row of neat tuxedo jackets and trim tailcoats to reveal a narrow door he hadn't even known was there.
When he exits a few moments later, moving carefully as if the trousers might fall apart at the slightest prompting (they won't, of course they won't, but it's a strange sensation to be wearing clothing that has technically not yet been made, and Phil is also not accustomed to a fit as close and well-cut as the one Bruce has tailored), he doesn't miss the approving sweep of Clint's gaze over him. It's kind of gratifying, in a way, and though Phil can't help glancing at Bruce for his reaction (whether to the trousers or to Clint's open appreciation of them, he's not sure), the tailor suddenly seems quite preoccupied with testing his chalk on a swatch of the suit fabric they've chosen.
The tips of his ears have gone bright red again.
He isn't expecting to go in again before Bruce calls to let him know the suits are ready, but he gets out of work early on Wednesday (in large part due to the successful suppression of an invasion of slug-like creatures who have left the majority of headquarters due for an intensive cleaning, but also, in Phil's private suspicions, partly because Director Fury is so goddamn sick of the new recruits who inadvertently caused the infestation that he'll seize on any excuse to shut operations down early just once). The spare time grates on Phil a little – it's a shame he's so caught up on his paperwork at the moment; he has no excuse not to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. – and it's almost without realizing it that he finds himself in Midtown again, walking up the street past warehouses displaying brightly coloured organzas and rich brocades, heading vaguely in the direction of his tailor shop without consciously intending to go there.
It's not until a familiar face appears beside him and Clint Barton says, breathless but nonchalant, "Oh, hey," that he realizes where he's ended up.
"Hi," is all he says in reply, because it's obvious that Clint has been running to catch up, and equally obvious that he's pretending he hasn't been.
"What brings you here in the middle of the week?" Clint asks guilelessly, the faintest hint of a tiny frown appearing on his face as he takes in Phil's choice of apparel – still the Bizzocchi suits, though this one is a medium grey and the black one he was wearing on the weekend has since suffered an untimely (and unpleasantly blood-drenched) death at the hands of an irritable minor god.
Such is Phil Coulson's life.
Not that he can say so, of course, and certainly not to a civilian, but Clint's smile is open and friendly and he's matching Phil's pace as they walk, waiting expectantly for an answer, and then Phil finds that he doesn't mind – no, he enjoys – the company, so he has to come up with a response of some kind. Fortunately, there's something he's been considering lately (an indulgence; a completely and utterly hedonistic impulse that he knows perfectly well he should ignore, and yet here he is), and Phil, who has flawless impulse control, who performed better in resistance-to-interrogation training than his instructors, who has budgets and accounts and life plans and an office so neat interns are afraid to set foot in it, says, "I've been thinking about some shirts."
"Oh, sure," says Clint, "are you gonna drop by, or – " as he suddenly realizes that might not have been Phil's intent at all, and his immediate mental about-face is clearly visible in his expression " – were you on your way somewhere, I didn't mean, I – "
"No," Phil cuts in quickly, "no, I was on my way," which he wasn't, but now that he thinks about it, yeah, he kind of was.
"Cool," says Clint. "I'm actually just – there's a place here that does great deals on designer end-cuts for shirts and pocket squares, Bruce sends me at least once a week. You could come with me. If you want."
It's not as though Phil has anything else in mind, so, trying not to think too hard about what it might say about him that his choice of rest and relaxation is to follow his tailor's assistant around the Garment District, he nods. "Sure. I'd," and it's strange, but true, "like that."
The grin on Clint's face brightens, loses all of its anxious undertones, and Phil feels an odd sort of pride in that he's done that, been the cause of it, simply by agreeing to walk with him for a little while. Clint is almost subdued this morning, burgundies and greys making him look a regular Wall Street up-and-comer, were it not for the combat boots and the wide, chequered suspenders he's paired with them. Phil shakes his head, because he can almost see where Bruce's influence ends and Clint's own sartorial choices take the wheel, and then the thought strikes him that it's probably kind of weird to be judging a tailor's (assistant's) tastes in clothing.
It occurs to him to wonder if Clint has many friends other than Bruce. Then it occurs to him that that's not the sort of thing most people wonder about their clothiers' shop workers.
Certainly, it's none of his business.
Clint keeps up a cheerful (mostly one-sided; Phil's end consists largely of nods and unexpectedly sincere smiles) conversation as they walk, dragging Phil off to fabric shop windows when he sees something of potential interest, waving to people across the street who all respond in kind whether they appear to recognize him or not, pointing out places of interest (to tailors, at least: "those guys have dupioni you can't get anywhere else in the world," "that place carries the most durable thread known to man," "Bruce swears by those guys for buttons,") and then, when Clint runs out of things to say, they let the conversation lapse while they stop in at the designer fabric warehouse. Clint picks up a number of bolts of material seemingly at random, "this one here, and that one over there, and can I have a look at the one up on the shelf second from the top, say, is that a noil?" and if Phil, even for a moment, had the notion that perhaps Bruce hired Clint for reasons other than his proficiency as a tailor's assistant, it's banished now.
When they finish, Clint is breathless again, eyes sparkling, pleased with his purchases. "Got more than usual," he says, stacking the rolls of fabric on the counter. "Help me carry it in?" and Phil takes an armful of the cloth (his suit pinches in the shoulders and he tells himself he won't be wearing off-the-rack for much longer) and sets out beside Clint for the last leg of the journey back to the shop.
Clint kicks open the back door to the shop, the crashing sound it makes as it hits the far wall now familiar to Phil's ears, and calls into the empty space, "Look what I brought back!"
The answer is faint from the front. "I'm in the middle of a fitting, Clint, give me a few minutes."
"I brought you a fitting!"
"What?" and Phil catches Bruce's almost-inaudible 'excuse me' to whatever customer he's serving in the other room before he puts his head around the doorframe and does a double-take (a real, honest-to-God double-take; Phil didn't think those happened outside cartoons) when he sees Phil. "I, uh, your suits aren't ready yet, I haven't…"
"I know," Phil says quickly. "I'm not here for that, I just – "
"He was looking for shirts," says Clint, "and I just picked up some amazing end-cuts. There's this one pinstriped grey poplin, made for his shoulders, you'll see."
Bruce tells him it'll be a half hour or so; Clint offers him a Dr Pepper out of the mini-fridge in the back room; Phil drops his head into his hands and mutters something about not wanting to be any trouble and coming back later. Clint and Bruce both assure him that it isn't any trouble, quite the opposite, and Phil goes on sitting at the work table, amongst scraps of cloth and bits of thread and wayward straight pins of all shapes and sizes, out-of-place and quietly struggling to decide between knowing he doesn't belong here and being pleased that they've decided for some reason to let him be here anyway.
Clint, as it turns out, is absolutely right with his selections. Phil and Bruce end up settling on the pinstriped fabric, as well as a blue so pale it's almost imperceptible and a crisp white that Bruce describes as 'classic.' It's as Phil is holding out the last length of cloth to be taken and cut that Bruce frowns the same way Clint did earlier and asks, "What are you wearing?"
Phil looks down at himself. Grey, off-the-rack stopgap suit that fits – well, just fine, really, for a suit that hasn't been tailored at all, but feels strange and unwieldy now that he's used to having his clothing altered. "Massimo Bizzocchi," he says, and there's a definite note of apology (or perhaps it's just embarrassment) in his voice. "Just temporarily."
He nods, shrugs out of the jacket that doesn't quite fit like it ought to, and lets Bruce take it, frowning and picking at the shoulders, the yoke, the side seams underneath the sleeves. Finally, he reaches for a pair of tailor's points and slices the jacket open entirely along one of the side seams.
Phil's equanimity is being sorely tested.
Bruce seems to realize that perhaps what he's doing requires an explanation, so he gestures over the back of the jacket – "It didn't fit, it was pinching across your shoulders whenever you moved your arms, I can fix that in ten minutes" – and sketches out what he's doing over the fabric with long, clever fingers and delicate movements. Phil doesn't exactly follow what he says, but if it makes the store-bought suit a little more tolerable until he has ones that fit him properly, he'll take it. He trusts Bruce.
There are things going on with Phil's jacket, thread and seam tape and thin trimmings of grey Super 120, and Phil is nervously watching Bruce's fingers fly when a strong hand lands on his shoulder, grip almost reassuring in its certainty.
"Mind if I play some music?" Clint asks, leaning in to ask softly without startling him. It doesn't really help; the quiet voice, the hand, the close proximity, make Phil's muscles freeze up involuntarily and it takes him several seconds before he manages a tight nod. Music is good. Music is a distraction.
It's definitely a distraction when Clint's music selection comes over the tinny, crackling shop speakers. "Is this The Toasters?"
Clint grins. "Secret Agent Man." He doesn't seem at all surprised that Phil recognizes the music, nor bothered by the fact that he's basically using it to have a go at Phil and has been caught. He's kind of humming a little, tapping his fingers against his leg, immersed in the beat, and Phil – well, Phil kind of wants to say, what are you implying, or, I didn't know you were into this kind of music, or maybe, you know, I saw these guys live once (which he did, as a much younger and more directionless man, and it's been a while since he thought about that), but at the same time, it feels like it would almost be an interruption.
He notices, though, that Bruce's movements with needle and thread seem to have fallen into rhythm with the music as well.
The tailor is as good as his word, and despite the change in pace (and Clint's move to tapping first on the work table, then on Bruce's shoulders), it's barely a track and a half over the speakers before Bruce is lifting up the grey jacket, picking off a stray thread from the back and brushing away the finest of the fibres he's trimmed, holding it out in Phil's direction with the clear suggestion that he try it on.
He does. It's an instant improvement. He can shrug his shoulders, move his arms properly (he tests his ability to draw a gun from several holster locations while avoiding looking like that's what he's doing, but Clint is already playing "Havana (This Gun for Hire)" to accompany him and Phil decides that, at this point, he has pretty conclusively been made – so after a moment's pause during which he really should have thought better of it, he plays along, straight man in the James Bond opening credits, damning look directed straight at Clint down the barrel of a gun he isn't holding. Clint laughs aloud and even Bruce is grinning).
He should have thought better of it, but there's something about a well-fitted suit and good music and maybe there's something about being here, as well, Clint's infectious enthusiasm and Bruce's shy smile and the disconnect between this dim, dusty, old-fashioned microcosm and the rest of the world outside. Phil doesn't know; he's not sure what it is, he only knows that yeah, he played James Bond for a few seconds to the sound of The Toasters and it was great.
And now he's clearing his throat, straightening his lapels, didn't break face, never happened, he'll deny it if he's asked and Phil is a master of resistance to interrogation. Clint is grinning so broadly Phil is sure he's going to split down the middle any second now, and Bruce is nodding, tucking away his tools back into the leather pouch where they're kept when he isn't using them, still smiling.
Phil has the strange, sudden thought that here, of all places, he fits in.
Clint doesn't ask him for permission to play music anymore; as soon as there are no more stiff-backed, stuffed-shirt customers in the store having trousers altered and tuxedos fitted and pocket squares folded into neat Dunaways and four-point crowns, he heads for the stereo in the back and puts on something good, firm, with a rhythm so good it's distracting as Bruce tries to chalk out alterations on Phil's clothing.
And it is Phil's clothing at this point, not just the two suits he originally commissioned. Those are both still in his rotation, the grey Bizzocchi consigned to the bottom of the Hudson River during Victor von Doom's latest attempt on the Holland Tunnel. He's been lucky with them (he says so to Bruce and earns a rare, bright smile from his quiet friend), but that won't hold forever, so he orders two more of the basic black and one in a charcoal self-stripe that Clint swears he would propose marriage to if it were a person. Then there are the shirts, four more plain white Windsor-collared royal Oxfords to match the first (Bruce gives them to him half-price, 'group discount,' he says, and pretends not to hear Phil when he points out that he's one man, not a group), and now Phil is considering a sport coat and thinking ruefully of the shortfall on his per diem from S.H.I.E.L.D. for clothing and personal effects expenses.
Clint is absolutely making fun of him with the music as he stands to be fitted, too; Phil knows it and Bruce knows it and he can tell Clint knows that they are both aware, and yet neither of them makes a move to curb the habit. It's good-natured, all of it, and Phil is outwardly deadpan and privately amused at the six or seven different covers of "Secret Agent Man" Clint finds, alongside everything from Guided by Voices to ELP. He's creative – Phil has to give him credit – and everything he plays is good, and it gets to be habit that Phil will show up at BANNER: MENSWEAR, ALTERATIONS on a Saturday if he's not busy and act as a tailor's dummy for Bruce, whether for his own suits or for other people's, because Bruce says it's easier to pin on someone else than on himself, and Clint is far too energetic to stay still for long when there is music and when there's Phil to serve as an excuse for him not to have to.
One day, Phil comes in wearing his best dress clothes, dark-suit-white-shirt-black-tie formality of a colleague's funeral, and Bruce offers his sympathies; when Phil explains that they hardly knew one another, Clint puts on Madness' "In the City" and Bruce pins a full white-tie dinner outfit on him without a word. Another day, he slumps in, pale and exhausted after too many long days of paperwork and too many missions that end in the special sort of success that means even more for him to do, and Clint plays The Planet Smashers' "This Song Is For You" on repeat because no one's really listening, and Bruce doesn't pin anything at all that day, just sits opposite Phil at the work table and watches him with concerned eyes.
And one day, it's the middle of the week and not Phil's usual visit at all, but there were things, tall and metal and with circular blades protruding from their articulated limbs, and Tony Stark may have been impressed by them, but it's Phil who's had to head up the assignment to subdue them, and it's Phil who's been fighting them with a woefully-inadequate anti-tank missile launcher, and it's Phil whose charcoal suit (the first one Bruce ever custom-measured for him) has been sliced open across the back and down one arm, and it's Phil, too, who may not entirely have escaped the blade himself and is apologizing for the damage to the suit and for bleeding on Bruce's carpet and for all sorts of things that don't matter at all, but he isn't exactly clear-headed at the moment, and this is the first and only place it occurred to him to go.
"Okay," says Clint, "okay, easy, you're fine," and Phil nods in agreement, only he would like to close his eyes now, please, surely debrief can wait a few minutes, after all, it's not as though Stark ever shows up on time…
"Hey," Clint continues, "no, don't do that, don't go to sleep, I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to let you do that, you're hurt," and he's got something pressed to Phil's shoulder where the buzz-saw blade cut deepest (no, Phil thinks, not the broadcloth, don't get blood on that, but he doesn't have much of a say in the matter and the words of protest don't come out of his mouth the way they line up in his head).
"I'm fine," is what he manages instead, which is ridiculous, because he's barely stringing sentences together, but he is an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and it's important to maintain the façade at all times and Director Fury won't be pleased if he doesn't make an effort, but Director Fury isn't here, this is just him and Clint and where's Bruce because it's Bruce's shop and he should be here and Phil knows he isn't making much sense, he just needs to rest and…
"Here, drink this," he hears Clint instructing from a very great distance, and when the cold edge of something presses up against his lower lip, he obeys without hesitation (coughs, chokes, but swallows), because if Clint is trying to compromise him, then he's been running a very long con, and Phil is relatively sure he's already at least somewhat compromised as matters stand anyway.
Whatever it is Clint gives him burns on the way down, but it works, and Phil comes back to himself a little, only to see the expensive broadcloth Clint's still holding to his shoulder, completely ruined.
"I'm fine," he says again, and means it a little more now, has the energy to put emphasis behind the words, pushing away the cloth from his arm. When he does, though, a fresh trickle of blood snakes down to soak into the torn edges of his jacket, and Clint frowns as he replaces the makeshift bandage.
"You should be at a hospital or something, that looks bad, you're not in good shape, Phil," and his sentences are running together the way they always do when he's worried or over-excited or scared.
"No, it's… just need a couple of stitches," says Phil, because S.H.I.E.L.D. medical is very much not a prospect that appeals to him right now; he doesn't want to go anywhere, just wants to stay here and lie low for a while, where no one will come to him for paperwork or mission summaries or anything at all. "Lend me a needle and thread?"
Clint stares at him, incredulous. "Are you kidding me? I'm not letting you anywhere near anything sharp and pointy, not like this, no way. Go see a doctor." But even as he says the last few words, he's already relenting a little; Phil's guessing he's no great fan of medical care himself. "Or… c'mere, let me see," and he lifts the broadcloth carefully away from Phil's arm and shoulder and examines the ragged tear while Phil tries very hard not to look like he's wincing before Clint has even touched it.
Pressing the cloth back over the wound, Clint frowns, biting his lip. "It should be Bruce," he says, "he can do this, I just cut the cloth." They don't have much choice, though; it's Clint or nothing, because despite his earlier insistence Phil can't even reach the injury, much less perform just-this-side-of-minor surgery on it, and Bruce is not in the shop that afternoon, out replenishing their suiting stock.
So it's Clint, then, and he disappears into the back of the shop for a minute, leaving Phil to look after himself as best he can while listening to rummaging noises, the squeak of poorly-oiled drawers, and the occasional muttered oath not quiet enough to escape sharp ears. When he reappears, it's with a flat box of glittering needles ("leather needles," Clint explains, "they seemed like the right kind of thing") and a spool of Bruce's familiar green basting thread.
Phil raises an eyebrow. Clint says defensively, "hey, it's durable, okay?" and then, when he thinks Phil has stopped paying attention, adds softly, "and Bruce uses it for luck."
A hospital would clean and disinfect the gash. A doctor would anaesthetize before he began stitching. Clint is neither, and he makes a few failed attempts at applying antiseptic from the shop's little first-aid kit before giving up, digging out the bottle Phil's drink came from earlier (brandy, Phil sees, now that he's a little more himself), and pouring it liberally over Phil's shoulder and down his arm without warning.
The hiss Phil lets out at that is outright alarming; the burn is worse than the injury, worse than being run through with a bladed weapon (which he has been), worse than – but now he knows he's exaggerating; nothing is worse than the time Director Fury stood at the side of the S.H.I.E.L.D. gymnasium and watched Agent Romanova wipe the floor with him three times running without even breaking a sweat.
Still, the alcohol presumably does its job. Clint begins stitching, and Phil is… actually almost pleasantly surprised. He was mentally gearing up for this, preparing for a world of hurt worse even than the brandy, but that seems to have hit some sort of tipping point for him, because whatever Clint is doing to him with the needle is subsumed by the ongoing low burn across his back and arm, so that it's barely perceptible by contrast.
And Clint's fingers are strong against his skin, Clint's breath warm on the back of his neck, and Phil is pretty damned sure these are things he shouldn't be thinking about, and yet.
He's exhausted again by the time Clint ties off the thread, trembling from the effort of maintaining consciousness and ignoring the pain and pretending he's not already completely wrecked from the mission itself; those might be Clint's hands wrapping his ruined suit jacket back around him, might be Clint's shoulder he's leaning on as he slips into sleep, but it's definitely not, can't be, Clint's dry, chapped lips pressed against his forehead as he drifts off.
He wakes up.
He's pretty sure it's not the first time; he remembers soft voices, and he thinks they might have been talking about him. He's fairly fuzzy on the rest of the details, though – why he's here (did he walk here himself? No one would have brought him here; why would they?) and what exactly happened in between the buzz-saw robot things and waking up for the second (second?) time in one of the leather chairs in his tailor shop.
There are things he remembers, scattered moments out of time – a sunlit street; Clint's letting him into the shop; asking for a needle and thread; and, oh.
This is not okay. It's time for him to leave.
Standing takes effort, ironic considering that's what he usually comes here to do for hours at a time, but the lance of pain that shoots across his shoulders and down his left arm is an extenuating circumstance and he allows it. One hesitant step forward is enough to prove to him that he can stay upright, two are enough to prove that he can walk, and on three he's trying to decide whether he ought to say something or whether it would be better to just leave things alone and try to somehow shift sideways into a reality where the past twenty-four hours never happened. Four steps and the ancient floorboards creak under him, and then the decision is moot, because Bruce and Clint appear in the back room doorway so quickly Clint nearly trips over Bruce and there is a brief fumble for purchase before they both lock wide, anxious eyes with Phil.
"I'll, uh," Phil begins, because he feels like it's his responsibility, and also because he isn't sure he could handle anything Bruce might have to say to him. "I'm sorry." It's not even a little adequate, he's left blood all over the carpet and ruined a roll of expensive fabric and he might have done something with Clint or to Clint or the other way around, he's not sure, only he knows that's ruined, too, somehow, and I'm sorry, I'm sorry is the only thing he can think of to say. "I'll pay for the cloth, for everything, and… I guess I'll… I'll go."
He can't remember the last time he was this inarticulate. He's chalking it up to the loss of blood, but that's probably just covering for the real reasons, and before he can make the situation any worse (could it possibly be worse?), he leaves.
The door swings shut behind him with a peal of the shop bell.
He hates those bells.
He's back at work, probationary, pending medical clearance. There is paperwork – there is always paperwork – and although he's technically been given time limits for sitting at his desk, the work needs to be done, and Phil needs the distraction.
A week and a half ago, he sent a cheque by overnight mail addressed to Bruce Banner and Clint Barton. He's been around them long enough to have a rough idea of how much a length of broadcloth like the one he bled out onto costs, and he won't be ordering anything custom-tailored for a while. Still, he feels better with that taken care of; now he's free to find another place to buy his suits, because while he may not be visiting BANNER: MENSWEAR, ALTERATIONS anymore, his job – when he's back in the field full-time – will continue to take the same toll it always has on his clothing.
Except that he doesn't want to find another place to buy his suits.
He's been putting it off for over two weeks now, rotating his one remaining Banner bespoke suit with a couple of borrowed Dolce made-to-measures that wrinkle across his shoulders (he tells himself that the looseness will help with the bandages underneath, with healing) and fall too low on his wrists and drape far too generously over his frame. He ought to go out and replace his wardrobe; there are a lot of things he ought to do, and yet here he is, sitting at his desk and getting caught up on the maze of paperwork left behind by his rather inconvenient battle damage.
When his cell phone rings, he almost doesn't pick up. The only person at whose command he jumps lately is Director Fury's, and Fury would have tried his office phone first. Curiosity overcomes, though, and he hits the call button a split second before taking in the number on his screen.
This is a mistake.
He has to swallow before he can speak, and then, "Phil Coulson," he answers, as neutrally as possible in the hopes that maybe it will discourage extended conversation.
"Phil, hi, it's Bruce. I… your suits are ready." He sounds none too keen on the idea of extended conversation himself.
Phil hasn't forgotten them, two black, one charcoal; he'd just assumed he wouldn't ever hear from Bruce again after sending the money (which reminds him, the cheque still hasn't been cashed, so if he's actually going down to the shop, he might as well ask about it then).
"Oh," is the intelligent reply he settles on. "Do you want me to come by to pick them up?"
"Yeah," says Bruce on the other end, and his voice comes down the line hollow and uncertain. "That would be good. Anytime you want."
"I can be there today after work."
He can almost picture Bruce's serious nod, glasses slipping askew on his face, as he says, "We'll see you then."
Phil isn't sure if it's better or worse that Bruce has said 'we.' On the one hand, the prospect of a one-on-one conversation with Bruce is more than a little nerve-wracking. On the other, the prospect of a one-on-one conversation with either of them in the other's presence is necessitous of a far stronger adjective, and Phil doesn't know if his mental faculties would survive.
Still, he has a five o'clock deadline for this stack of requisitions before he can move on to a much more daunting appointment in the Garment District. He could spend the next few hours dwelling on the few dozen words he and Bruce exchanged, trying to wring out any scraps of meaning he can from the sentences, inflections, pitch and tone of Bruce's voice, or he could get his work done and get on with things and studiously not think about anything that comes after until he's actually there. It's what works for him on emergency missions when he hasn't had time to set up a detailed plan of attack; he might as well employ the same tactic here, too.
Five thirty-seven, and he's rocking back and forth on his heels on the pavement in front of the shop sign, dustier than ever, BANNER: MENSWEAR, ALTERATIONS. From what he can see through the dim storefront window, there's no one else inside, and he's standing at an angle now so that they won't see him if they happen to look out.
He just needs to think about this for a second.
No, thinking at the last minute never improves on anything.
He pushes open the door, walks inside like he's never been away, makes it nearly to the back before all the air leaves his lungs at once and he deflates, going from Phil Coulson (loyal return customer and friend to the shop staff) to Phil Coulson (maker of stupid mistakes, who by rights shouldn't set foot in this shop again) in a matter of seconds. And of course, immediately after that, Bruce comes out of the back with a stack of suits draped over one arm and his eyes alive with apprehension.
"Hi," he says, gesturing with the arm that holds the suits as though he's trying to prove to Phil that they really are here for a business transaction. "These are yours. Just need to do the final fitting."
Phil nods. He knows the process, has had it done twice himself and watched Bruce do it to half a dozen other customers meanwhile. Chances are slim that his suits will need any further alterations; they didn't last time, he hasn't gained or lost any weight, and before two weeks ago, he was in the store every weekend being measured and pinned and draped all over with other people's suits. He doubts that Bruce and Clint between them will have allowed any problems to slip through.
Still, he stands rigidly in front of the mirror while Bruce checks the side seams on the first jacket, then the shoulders (fingers moving gently across the yoke and down the sleeve where Bruce knows Phil is still nursing an injury), then the waistline, and it's while Bruce is preoccupied with the line of the pockets and can't possibly make eye contact that he says, "I'm glad you're okay."
"I'm fine," Phil says, because he can't think of any other way to answer that. "It was nothing, I don't know why… I'm sorry I made it your problem. I wasn't thinking very clearly."
Bruce waits for him to finish, then says again, softly, "I'm glad you're okay."
Phil swallows hard and waits for the punchline.
"Clint was pretty messed up when I got back. He thought you were going to die or something."
"It was just a cut."
"You lost a lot of blood. Most of it onto my carpet."
Phil winces. "Sorry about that." He tried to account for it when he was writing out the cheque, but who knows? He has no idea what it costs to get blood out of vintage carpet. Maybe that's not even something that can be done.
"It was due for a cleaning anyway."
The jacket meeting with Bruce's approval, he hands Phil the next one and there's a brief silence while Phil laboriously extracts himself from one and puts on the other. Bruce ends up helping with the left sleeve, because although Phil can do it for himself, it turns out that it's a lot less painful with a second person providing assistance.
"I'm not going to cash your cheque, you know."
"I'm good for it," Phil replies automatically, meaning not that the cheque is good (Bruce knows that by now; Phil has been a customer of his for long enough), but that he wrote it for a reason, that it's part of an apology he needs Bruce to accept.
"I know you are, but I'm not cashing it. You don't owe us for anything."
"I – " but Phil has neither the wherewithal nor the will to argue. There are things he's far more worried about that Bruce hasn't mentioned yet, and acquiescence seems the fastest way to cut through all of this and get to what Phil knows must be coming.
Unless Clint hasn't said anything. Unless Phil has to be the one to bring it up. Unless he was imagining it all and none of it really happened and oh, God, wouldn't that be a relief, but Phil's life is never that easy, and he's just about steeled himself to fire the opening salvo when Bruce says, "You really did have Clint worried."
He holds his breath.
"There aren't a lot of people he cares about. Long story, not mine to tell. But I guess he's decided you're one of them."
Phil swallows again. This is the question he's been needing to ask and dreading, the question whose answer he was so sure he knew until a fortnight ago.
"You and Clint are…" and he never even says it, just trails off and makes a useless hand gesture that means nothing. "Aren't you?"
Bruce looks at him for a long moment, then takes the jacket off his shoulders (still careful, mindful of the damage that hasn't yet fully healed) and pulls something out from the bottom of the pile of suits. It's navy blue fabric, the kind both Bruce and Clint swore was the perfect colour for him, the kind he'd been meaning to ask for the next time he needed a new suit. He hands it to Phil, trousers and jacket, and waits until Phil has them on and is standing in front of the mirror with no idea what's going on.
Gentle hands move along the shoulders of the jacket, settling them into place, and Phil can tell instantly that this suit is cut to his measurements, like the ones he commissioned. "Clint and I go together," Bruce says. "We fit pretty well. Like this suit."
Phil looks at it in the mirror. It's a nice suit, cut slightly differently around the ribs than he normally has, lapels at a little bit of a different angle, but it's a nice suit.
He nods hesitantly, uncertainly, not sure what Bruce is trying to say.
Bruce says, "It's a three-piece suit," and hands Phil the waistcoat that matches to the rest.
There's a long silence as Phil stands in front of the mirror, wearing two-thirds of a suit and with a waistcoat folded in one hand. He sees it now, the way the suit almost fits on its own, but not quite; the way the jacket and trousers work as an ensemble, but are completed by the waistcoat he isn't wearing.
It takes him nearly five minutes, working on his own, but he gets the waistcoat on and replaces the jacket over it.
"Now do you see?" Bruce asks softly from beside him.
The fit is perfect. Phil doesn't need to be bludgeoned over the head with any more symbolism; he sees.
"You're not allowed to do that anymore," Bruce says, and there are thin, calloused tailor's fingers interlacing with Phil's. "The going off and getting injured and not seeking proper medical attention."
"Clint did pretty well," Phil manages, voice hoarse for no reason he can fathom.
"Don't ever make me do that again," is the response from the back of the shop, and Clint is standing in the doorway, watching Phil and Bruce with wary eyes. He doesn't stand there long; Bruce tilts his head as if to ask what Clint is doing all the way over there and Clint joins them, gaudy plaid suit jacket offset by the simple navy blue of Phil's and the subdued earth tones of Bruce's shirt and suspenders. He's a warm, solid presence at Phil's side, for once not too restless to simply stay, not too wound up to relax into the arm Phil rests over his shoulders.
"I won't," he says, "I promise, no more metal buzz-saw monsters," and of course, he can't promise anything of the sort, but what he really means is, I won't scare you like that again, I'll be okay, I'll always be okay.
That, too, is an impossible promise, but there are a lot of things in Phil's life right now that are impossible, and they all seem to have come up anyway, so maybe he should spend less time worrying about impossibilities and more time believing in them.
It seems to be working out for him so far.