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I'd Ask For Directions If I Knew Where the Hell I Was Going

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It's about ten minutes to closing time at Sound Advice when the door chime sounds and a familiar young man walks in, shivering under a too-large coat and shrugging a battered messenger bag off his shoulder.

Phil smiles and reaches out to turn off the neon OPEN sign in the window. It's late, but he always has time for Bruce Banner.

They have a kind of a routine; Phil will ask, "seen any good shows lately," and Bruce will give him the highlights and they'll slip into easy conversation (usually; once or twice it's been stilted and awkward, and they gave up after a token effort) while Bruce lingers in his favourite sections, choosing new albums and taking the occasional recommendation from Phil.

Customers like Bruce are the reason Phil opened Sound Advice after his government job went sour and wasn't worth the blood, sweat and tears he put into it. He could have gone almost anywhere, with his credentials and the recommendations he'd have gotten from a number of his superiors. He was done with that kind of work, though; done with featureless suits and featureless offices and featureless file folders full of classified paperwork to be completed. Phil Coulson had put in his time with The Man, and he was ready for a change of pace.

So here he is, poor and in debt, working longer hours than he ever did for S.H.I.E.L.D., going home late at night to a dingy apartment with one window and a heating pipe that runs straight through his kitchen to the next building over (it taunts him; Phil can't afford to keep the heating on very often and he sometimes sleeps tucked up in the corner next to the pipe when it's too cold for a couple of blankets but not cold enough to justify touching the thermostat). Here he is moving boxes every morning, appraising records brought in by customers for purchase or for resale on commission, sighing as person after person comes in to ask about the latest radio top ten, only to find that Sound Advice is not that kind of record shop.

He realizes that he still hasn't said anything to Bruce, so he pushes aside a stack of postcards for a show next month and starts to ask what Bruce has seen lately, but the answer is already coming before Phil even gets the first word out.

"Saw The Gaslight Anthem at the Starlite Room on Friday," Bruce says quietly, flipping through a few records in Phil's alternative rock section. (Categorization is a fluid thing in the shop, no matter how hard Phil tries, but Bruce always seems to understand the labels, and when Phil asks if he found everything he wanted, the answer is always yes.)

"Heard that was going to be a good show," Phil replies mildly. He's reserved in his response, but he's hoping Bruce will tell him more; The Gaslight Anthem are a particular favourite, and Phil would have liked to have gone to see them himself. Unfortunately, shop hours, demands, and a not-quite-successful entrepreneur's budget have left him with less freedom to enjoy live music than he once had, and now he takes most of his pleasure vicariously, supplementing with studio recordings and the occasional complimentary ticket from old acquaintances.

Occasionally, it crosses his mind that he could give up the shop, go back to the work he's trained to do, and have the time and money to support his own musical habits. The thought never lasts, though; he values independence and hard work too much, derives too much pleasure from finding rare 7" singles in the boxes of dusty records his customers bring him, enjoys meeting other people with similar tastes too much to throw in the towel just yet.

People like Bruce, who is currently describing last Friday's show with broader-than-necessary hand gestures and a smile on his face that says he's still half at the Starlite Room in his mind. Bruce, whose taste in music partway mirrors Phil's and partway complements it, so that Phil takes nearly as many recommendations from him as he gives in return. Bruce, who never misses a week visiting Sound Advice, but often shows up several nights in a row, spacing out his purchases so that it's less obvious he's just there to hang out. Phil's not sure whether it's just out of misguided pity or whether Bruce appreciates the company as much as he does, but either way, they never mention it.

Today, he's ringing up three albums for Bruce – the newest 7" by the Lawrence Arms, along with CDs from The King Blues and Reuben – when he pauses, ducks out from behind the counter and heads for his acoustic section. "Have you heard these guys?" he asks, holding up the record so that Bruce can see the cover.

He shakes his head.

"On the house," Phil tells him, adding it to Bruce's small pile on the front counter. Sundowner will be right up Bruce's alley; he's always looking for acoustic recordings from his favourite bands, and Phil knows he likes Shearwater and Fleet Foxes, not to mention what he's buying today. He can't think of anyone more appropriate to end up with this album.

Briefly, Bruce looks as though he wants to protest, but checks himself before he actually says anything. Instead, he gives Phil a quick, jerky nod, accepts the bag he's handed, and disappears out of the front door and down the steps onto the busy sidewalk outside.

His soft "thanks" isn't really meant for Phil's ears, but Phil (years of listening and observing for S.H.I.E.L.D.) hears it anyway.

Sound Advice occupies the first two floors of a narrow, aged brick building in the university district. Well, technically it occupies all three floors, but Phil lives on the top one, sharing space with boxes and cockroaches and the heating pipe for the connected building next door, so the shop is relegated to the bottom two floors.

Not that it stays there; milk crates of records are stacked up against one wall of his bedroom, playbills and posters covering the table that doubles as both workbench and desk. There are rolls of paper for the cash register in his cupboards (why not? He doesn't use most of the space for food) and empty slipcovers missing their records piled on his bed (he doesn't even bother moving them anymore when he sleeps; he just retrieves them from the floor on nights when the dreams are bad and goes on with his day).

It's a good situation for the shop, though, and Phil is incredibly lucky he was able to get into this building. The university district is also the arts district, the heart of the town's nightlife, and the oldest part of the city, so the street outside Sound Advice is always bustling and vibrant, the crowds always the sorts of people who might take an interest in a somewhat-downtrodden independent record store. Phil doesn't sleep much, even on good nights, and he loves wandering the neighbourhood and taking in what's going on at the pubs and the nightclubs, gourmet dessert shops and greasy pizza joints, theatre spaces and outdoor performance venues and used booksellers and all of it open late, or even overnight, because between students and live bands and sleepless street wanderers like Phil, there's always business.

Tonight is much like any other night. Phil locks up the shop (three locks, one alarm; this is not a neighbourhood to be shy of caution), swaps his white shirt for a less-noticeable black button-down, jams a hat on his head (low over his eyes), and sets off down the litter-strewn sidewalk without any conscious goal in mind.

A block and a half from Sound Advice, he can smell pub food on the air, mingling with Greek and Mexican and Turkish, and he remembers that he hasn't had dinner. Or lunch. He had breakfast, he's pretty sure, or that might have been yesterday…

He ends up at a street cart selling hot dogs; it's all the change in his pockets will stretch to, but at least it's food, and once he's eaten he can forget about his body's basic needs and just focus on his surroundings. Ten o'clock; late enough that the sky is dark (or as close as it ever gets with the city glow lighting it up from below), but too early for most of the live shows to have let out. The jazz club isn't charging cover today and there is a crowd of all ages inside dancing. They've rolled back the garage doors at the front of the building, letting warm light and music spill out onto the street, and he stops for a moment to absorb it.

This is what he does with his nights, walks the streets soaking up the atmosphere and life and revelry and other people's joy, so that when he goes back alone to his darkened rooms over his darkened shop, maybe he'll be able to take a little of it with him.

The proprietor of the fancy dessert restaurant on his corner waves at him, so he steps inside for a moment and flexes his stubborn fingers. It's only just gotten into deep autumn, not nearly cold enough for his hands to have become so clumsy so fast, but they are accustomed to years of office drudgery and still curl into perfect ballpoint-pen-sized claws at the slightest opportunity. And Death By Chocolate is a nice place, quiet and tasteful and with faint music playing over the speakers that isn't terrible (Phil gave the owner a decent selection of instrumental CDs; in return, she occasionally comps him a dessert on low-traffic nights, though that's not why he stops in), so he stays for a minute or two and lets his irrationally cold fingers warm up.

Sometimes he likes to look at people around him and try to place their musical tastes. There are a few who make it easy (band T-shirts, and Phil judges them perhaps more than he should, or flat caps and suspenders, and Phil thinks, those are my people); most are a little more of a challenge. The woman nearest him – probably pop music, radio hits and MTV lists. Her companion – not much of a music fan at all (Phil can never quite wrap his head around that kind of person). The two men at the next table over – classic rock, both of them, and probably good taste in it, too.

When he begins mentally matching them up to individual albums, he decides it's time to move on, and he ends up back at Sound Advice a little after eleven with nothing much to do besides work or go to sleep. The theatres are beginning to let out, next wave of people filling the streets, and finally, he sits in the dark in the storefront window of the shop, watching nattily-dressed theatre-goers and scruffy punk kids mingle on the sidewalk when the bars end their live shows and everyone leaves in search of air and greasy food and a few minutes' peace to sober up a little.

It's a strange world for him, this mixing and meeting of every class of human being. He's used to a staid, middle-class apartment befitting a staid, middle-class government employee, and before that, he was used to the underbelly of the city, shows that turned into drinking that turned into something more as he watched, never participating but unable to leave. He's not used to this great, mad rush of enthusiastic life in all its forms, and it occurs to him sometimes, like tonight as he sits and drinks it in, that perhaps this is what he's been missing all along.

When he does finally go to bed, far later than he ought and still in most of the day's clothing, he's exhausted and he's happy and he's sad and he is overworked and overwhelmed, but like the people outside his shop window, he's alive, and that carries him through pretty much anything, most of the time.

Three days go by before he sees Bruce in the shop again, which is not unusual. He gets other 'preferred customers' in the meantime; Steve Rogers comes by and spends an hour in the jazz section, Hank Pym tells him about a few new tricks he's come up with for vinyl restoration, and then Tony Stark shows up holding a neat cardboard box filled with CDs and limited-release LPs. It's obviously been packed by his assistant (Phil knows Tony well by now; he creates inspired chaos, not the careful order in which these albums have been placed), and Phil appreciates the logic of it.

There are several albums in there he'd like to stock, a couple he wouldn't mind owning for himself, one Bucky Barnes has asked him to keep an eye out for, and one he's pretty sure Bruce would like. So he strikes a deal with Tony for the whole box. As usual, Tony massively undervalues the collection and refuses to accept any more money than his initial request; Phil protests weakly, the same way he does every time, and Tony ignores it the way he always does. There's not much Phil can do (when Tony gets an idea in his head and starts talking, he's like a human juggernaut), so instead he pulls out a few CDs from Tony's reserved bin under the counter and hands them to him without charging because, really, how can he after the price Tony is giving him on the new stuff?

They settle into conversation (for Phil, casual; for Tony, slightly manic with his hands moving too fast and his words running over one another) about the Wacken Open Air festival in August in Germany. Tony is going (it must be nice to have that kind of spare money and time), and even though Phil is not much of a metal fan, he's still conversant in it, so they find some common ground. Neither of them is watching the clock, so when the store phone rings, they're both startled. It's Pepper, and she's none too pleased about the fact that Tony has been ignoring his cell phone for the past hour and a half. He leaves guiltily, something about a shareholders' meeting, and Phil puts The King Blues on the shop speakers, turned down low, and settles calmly into the afternoon.

That's when Bruce shows up, nodding his approval at the choice of music and unrolling a poster onto the counter. It's ragged at the corners, bits of packing tape still stuck to it where Bruce has obviously torn it off a lamppost or a wall, but he's pointing excitedly, shy smile firmly in place on his face, Imperial Leisure are playing, they never play outside Europe, they're coming here, and Phil has to hold up both hands to slow him down. He's never seen Bruce this excited about a show before, though he has to admit his own heart is beating a little faster, too.

"So are you going?" he asks, because there are practical considerations, price and time and transportation (Bruce's only wheels are an old bicycle, rusting at every joint, and Phil knows he prefers walking to riding it).

Bruce gives him a look like he's insane for even having had to ask the question. "Are you?"

He wants to. He really does; it's one of those shows that happens only once, and he's been in this kind of situation before. He knows he'll regret it if he doesn't, because he's still regretting the last time he made the tough call. But it's a Saturday night (always good business at the record shop) and it's far enough away that he's not sure how he would get there and the tickets are probably set at obscene prices.

And yet, he can't quite bring himself to just say no, the way he knows he should. So he compromises, sighing a weary 'maybe' instead and rolling the poster back up so he doesn't have to think too hard about it. It's a long way off yet, and nothing is set in stone.

Instead, he asks how Bruce liked Sundowner and gets a more enthusiastic response than he was expecting. He's gratified, of course – his shop isn't named for nothing – but seeing Bruce's pleasure warms him a little, sends a small thrill down him at the thought of having done that just by sharing a little music (a little of himself) with him.

Truth is, Phil has a neatly-labelled CD-R in a blank case under the counter. He's never mentioned it and maybe never will, but he knows what Bruce likes and if he's made a mixtape of some rare recordings ('compilation album,' he tells himself, so that he doesn't feel quite so much like a teenager with a crush), well, it's just in case.

In case of what, he doesn't know.

Bruce buys the latest release put out by Stomp Records without even asking Phil what band he's getting, and when he leaves, he lets Phil keep the poster he brought in. Phil tapes it up in the window, facing outward though he can still read it backwards with the late fall sunlight shining through the paper. A lot of his customers will be interested. Maybe it will sell itself out before Phil gets around to doing anything about it, and the issue will be moot. He'd like that. Easier to tell himself the decision is out of his hands than to look back and have to admit he made, at least by some standards, the wrong one.

Easier, too, not to think about the fact that he'd like, he'd really like, to go to a show with Bruce.

As it happens, he goes to a show that weekend, on a Friday night at a pub and rec centre in the West End. The place used to be one of his favourites; lately, they've been under new management and nothing is quite the same, but it's where the Dropkick Murphys always play when they're in town, and Phil always gets comped tickets because he's a seller and because he lets the street team plaster his shop in stickers and posters.

The show is good. It's always good when it's these guys, and a couple of them recognize him from the stage and wave, and they play every one of his favourite songs, so it's a pleasant evening and he's able to put thoughts of work and his guilt at having closed the shop early to rest. He looks around, too, at the start of the show and when the band takes a break; there are a lot of familiar faces, greetings, offers of drinks (Phil doesn't drink and has no interest in starting), but none of the people he's particularly looking for are there.

Maybe he's only looking for one person, but still, Bruce isn't there.

After the show, one of the street team guys he knows waves him over, invites him into the green room backstage where the teams are meeting up. Phil follows, because hell, why not, and ends up with CDs and bumper stickers shoved into one hand, a bottle of beer he doesn't want in the other, and his cap well askew over his forehead. The gathering is rowdy and Phil's never been a member of a street team in his life (though it would appear he is friends with most of them), and so it isn't long before he's slipping out through the half-open door, CD in his pocket and beer abandoned, headphones firmly in his ears for the long bus ride back home.

It reminds him a little of his early days, before real, adult jobs and responsibilities, before salaries and cars and choosing apartments and all the things he did when he started working for S.H.I.E.L.D. That's all gone now, except the responsibilities; he sold the car and gave up the decent apartment to fund the mad escapade he now calls Sound Advice, and what he does now is not quite a job and is definitely not salaried. So he is back to scraping together bus fare, seeing obscure local bands in concert because they're cheap and play on the off nights, skipping meals because he can't afford them and his priorities for his money are elsewhere.

Phil may be a small business owner, manager, entrepreneur; he may be well-respected in the community and friends with people from all walks of life. But despite all of this, for all intents and purposes, Phil Coulson is, at age forty-something-he-won't-admit, still a punk kid.

A group of kids – actual ones, all still in their early twenties, Phil would lay money – from tonight's show are walking ahead of him, talking and laughing and jostling one another across the sidewalk and out into the (fortunately not well-travelled) road. He hangs back to avoid it, because he knows the type (always over-eager in the mosh pits, enthusiastic dancers, crowdsurfers, smartasses) and he doesn't feel like dealing with it, not tonight. He just wants to get back to Sound Advice and fit in a few hours' sleep before the Saturday morning rush of customers looking to barter, sell or trade.

Of course, he ends up sitting across the aisle from them on the bus, because that's just how his luck goes these days. They're grinning, high on life, and even as he slouches in his seat (gone the days of perfect posture, neat ties, polished wooden desks and leather executive chairs), he finds that he can sympathize with them just a little. After all, he can remember being them.

They scuffle a little, two of them rolling off the seat and into the aisle of the bus, which luckily is not carrying many passengers. When the bus stops at the end of Phil's street, six blocks from the shop, he has to step over them to get out. They grin up at him from the floor of the aisle, one with tousled brown hair swept back away from his face, the other blond with a spark in his blue eyes that lingers in Phil's memory as he locks up the door to Sound Advice behind him.

Sundays, the record shop is closed, in theory. It's the quietest day of Phil's week for customers, and he originally intended it to be the day he took off for doing accounts, for interim inventory, for buying himself groceries and paying his bills and just generally setting his life back in order after the whirlwind of the week. It's become something a little different, though.

It started out in the early summer, when the days began to be warm enough for Phil to open up the shop doors at night and on the weekends. People began to notice him working at his counter on Sundays and walk in, regardless of the OPEN sign conspicuously turned off or the hours printed on the window and the door reading, "Sundays: Closed." After a while, he gave up trying to point out that they were not, in fact, open for business, and just alternated working on his own affairs with helping customers.

His regulars are pretty good about it. Steve and Bucky are both always ready to jump in and help him shift boxes and restock his racks and shelves; Erik Selvig, a friend of Bruce's who always buys jazz, opera and – of all things – progressive rock and electronica, also has a good head for numbers and often helps out with inventory and accounts. Bruce will sometimes drop by, if he's not otherwise occupied (Phil knows that he's a scientist, and while he doesn't understand exactly what Bruce's research entails, he knows Bruce lights up and talks too fast and draws imaginary diagrams in the air when he tries to explain it, and so at least Phil knows it makes him happy).

He picks his groceries up in the evenings now, from the supermarket a few blocks east across the thoroughfare. It's a little more expensive than going to a generic grocery store and a little more inconvenient than bringing them home on the bus, but he usually moves enough merchandise on Sundays to make up the difference, and inconvenience never cost anyone anything. Besides, it's worth it. Days like Sundays are the reason he owns Sound Advice in the first place.

Today, he's forgotten about groceries altogether. He is far too occupied with pulling dusty milk crates down from storage on the second floor or in his apartment, retrieving albums one by one and sorting them into piles that Steve and Bucky enthusiastically rack. (Both of them are being paid for their troubles in music, though neither of them would dream of expecting compensation; Phil's seen Bucky eyeing up the limited-edition Scissor Sisters LP back behind the counter and he knows Steve well enough by now to pick him out a few classic northern soul records – he's got an album of the 'three before eight' that he thinks might suit pretty well.) Erik Selvig is muttering over Phil's sorry chequebook ("don't know how you stay in business, boy, giving away all your merchandise") and arguing a point of business with Tony ("no shareholders on Sunday, guess they all stay in their coffins or something").

Selvig is another of Phil's favourite customers. He's willing to try new things when Phil recommends them, he's grouchy and grumbling and Phil knows it's all an act, he tells Phil stories on slow business days (anything from childhood fairy tales to the plots of obscure grand operas) and most of all, he joined what Tony calls the Sunday chain gang without comment, without even asking, just pulled up a chair to the front counter and began attacking Phil's inventory lists.

He's also the only customer who's never accepted an album from Phil without paying for it. "It makes no sense, boy," he insists, as though he has to have enough business savvy for both of them to compensate for Phil's apparent lack, and presses money into his hand or puts it straight into the register. Phil's given up on trying, so now he just gives Selvig everything half off and calls it an 'employee discount' when the older man tries to protest. There are dark mutterings about Phil's surely-impending bankruptcy (they hit closer to home than Selvig knows, but Phil is fine, he's lived on less before), but in the end, the transactions go through, discount intact, and both of them feel a little assuaged.

Bruce finds his way to Sound Advice sometime in the early afternoon, when the sun is finally high enough to generate a faint hint of warmth and the line in front of the gourmet creamery has started to extend beyond its doors. He seems surprised at the activity in the record shop – most Sundays are quieter – but picks up a crate of merchandise himself and gamely begins stocking it on the shelves where Phil keeps the less-common albums. There's leftover lunch pizza (he waves it off, no, thank you, I already ate) and A Guy Called Gerald on the shop speakers and Phil, balanced on a stack of boxes at the far end of the room as he retrieves a pile of 78s from a top shelf, can do little more than toss him a quick, grateful smile and try not to drop anything from too great a height.

He actually has something for Bruce, though; not the mix CD that will probably live behind the counter forever, but something else. He's admired the patches on Bruce's messenger bag before, most of them rare, some vintage, all from bands and labels and venues that make Phil shiver with envy. This, though – and he's digging in one of his counter drawers to find the crumpled white envelope, neat ballpoint lettering reading simply, "Reserved" – this is something Bruce doesn't have.

When he gives it to Bruce, it's almost negligent ("here, I got this the other day; I thought you might like it") and he walks away before Bruce even has the chance to open the envelope. It's just a patch, no big deal and he doesn't want Bruce to think it is, but it's rare. Only members of the Twisted Wheel back in the 1960s had these, and they're not the standard commemorative design from the club's closing in 1971, so there are maybe a few hundred of them in the world. Phil is pretty damned pleased he ran across one at all, much less that he got it for a ridiculously low price (considering) and already had the perfect recipient in mind when he bought it.

He doesn't chance looking up from what he's doing again for several minutes, and when he does, he looks at everyone else before letting himself look at Bruce.

Bruce is still staring at the patch (good, Phil thinks, that means that he probably knows what it is), and he doesn't appear to have moved (less good, Phil thinks, what does that mean? Should he say something? Do something?). It's only when the rest of the shop's occupants fall quiet that he seems to remember where he is and abruptly looks up.

"What are you all looking at?" he asks with a rueful smile, puts the patch (envelope and all) into his back pocket, and goes back to aligning records on the shelf.

It's much later, after Steve and Bucky have gone home and the rest of them are putting their heads together over a list of available albums from a private dealer, that Bruce brushes his fingertips along Phil's arm so gently they can both pretend it never happened, and says, "Thank you."

Phil shrugs. It was just a patch, except that he and Bruce both know it wasn't.

Wednesday night is not a good night.

Phil sleeps and wishes he hadn't; he wakes up at two o'clock in the morning, and at three, and three-thirty. Each time, he's tangled tighter in the strangling sheets, the record sleeves scattered farther across the room. He remembers the nightmares, every molasses moment with his breath dragging across his lungs like knives as he watches the things he can't stop, can't change, and he's torn between wishing he didn't remember and wondering if the mystery would be worse.

Around four o'clock in the morning, he gives up altogether and treads softly down the stairs to the shop. Most of the time, he can fool himself into believing he left his job for nice, normal reasons (and he did; no freedom, no individuality, no life, or so he tells himself), but the truth is, it's the times when the job stopped being so featureless that haunt him in his sleep. He can swear with his dying breath that that's not why he left, but it will never be completely true.

Caught in a mental state that's somewhere between zombie and living man, he spends about three hours poking through racks of records and CDs in his most popular sections, finding anything that has been misplaced and filing it correctly. It's tedious work, the kind he normally avoids if he can find some other job to do instead, so it's perfect for the shape he's in right now. A little after seven, he calls it quits, spares the expense for a long, hot shower and a scalding cup of coffee (black, brewed too long; he'll take all the help he can get today), and opens up Sound Advice a half hour early, though he knows full well it won't bring him in any extra customers.

He rarely thinks about the nightmares while he's working, though he often thinks about the reason for them. By the light of day, fully awake and rational, it's easy to see it in his head like an educational documentary, showreel designed to convince him of one thing – not your fault, Phil, none of it your fault, you did all you could and then some. Accidents happen.

By day, sure, but by night, asleep or nearly so, it's not so neat – not tidy – not convincing at all. At night, it's all screaming and sand and mud and bright spatters of blood like a cliché across his shirt, and his tie is ruined, and he's lost all of his men. At night it's not an accident and there is never absolution, rational or otherwise. At night they die again, and he wants to die with them, and can't.

Because Phil is a masochist and his weapon irony, he puts on Inspiral Carpets' "Sleep Well Tonight" while he works.

He isn't expecting to see Bruce today – he's been around a lot over the past couple of weeks, after all – but he is pleasantly surprised around half past six when his chime sounds and it's Bruce's outline in the doorway, silhouetted against the dim grey light of a late fall evening with rain on the way.

"Hi," he says, dropping his bag on the counter. He doesn't need to add, you look like hell; Phil hears it anyway.

"Hi," Phil says back and spends a minute or two wracking his brain to come up with an appropriately jokey addition, something that declares loudly and clearly, I'm fine, whether it's true or not. His traitorous brain gives him nothing, though, so instead he just lapses into silence. They stay that way for a little while, Bruce flipping idly through a rack (he's not even reading the titles; Phil can tell that all the way from the counter), Phil leaning against the wall by the cash register, wondering if it's appropriate to leave a customer unattended if the customer is Bruce and the reason is more coffee.

Finally, he just asks (even though he knows the answer), "Seen any good shows lately?" It feels good to invoke their old routine, and Bruce, looking up from what he's (not) doing, gives him what might almost be a smile.

"I'm seeing Ten Second Epic tonight," he offers, which startles Phil a little. It's not that he doesn't think the music is to Bruce's taste – the scientist's preferred genres range nearly as far across the board as Phil's – but he knows they're playing at a community hall on the North Side and he really wouldn't have thought that that was Bruce's scene. It's an area notorious for being a rough neighbourhood, habitually host to hardcore bands and aspiring metalheads, and while Phil knows perfectly well that Bruce can handle himself in a mosh pit, this is a slightly different attitude.

"Good luck," he says, which is what he's supposed to mean, not say in words; he's gone and messed it up. It's sincere, at least, and Bruce seems to take it that way (faint grin, nod, quick thanks; Bruce spends a lot of his time thanking Phil, and shouldn't it be the other way around?). Phil is a little envious and a little worried and if he could spare the time again so soon he'd offer to go too, but he can't. Especially not given that he's working as much as humanly possible lately on the off-chance that he figures out a way to get to Imperial Leisure (with Bruce, his brain adds without permission, and he tells it to shut up).

That night, he goes to bed with a Ten Second Epic album on repeat, worried about nightmares and worried about Bruce and so exhausted that he slips into a dreamless sleep before he can spend too long thinking about either.

He spends all day Friday checking the door, because Bruce promised to come in and tell him about the show. Phil ought to have known better; now that he knows Bruce has said he'll come, he'll be jumpy and distractible until it happens. He should be doing up his end-of-year reports or putting in re-orders or deciding on new album purchases. What he does instead is write out the tablatures to a collection of rare acoustic tracks he's got kicking around (at least one of them is on the mix CD he never mentions), because it's easy and it's (vaguely) useful and it occupies his mind.

Bruce walks in. Phil freezes in shock.

There are two things Phil takes in immediately when Bruce comes through the door. The first is his face. It looks a little like someone has disassembled it and then inexpertly tried to put it back together; one eye is swollen shut, dark bruising around its edges, there are cuts on his chin and his forehead, there's a scrape along one side that makes it seem as though he was dragged. He's limping a little, too, carrying himself with one shoulder hunched over farther than the other. Phil aches just watching him move.

The second thing Phil notices is that Bruce hasn't come alone. There's someone following close behind him – and when the new guy looks up, Phil realizes he's seen him before, on a nightline bus home from the Dropkick Murphys show, on the floor in the aisle making a fool of himself with a group of his friends.

And now he's running around after Bruce, who is in pieces.

Phil meets Bruce's only open eye and says evenly (it's an effort), "What happened to you?" The profanities a younger Phil would have inserted are implied.

"This is Clint," Bruce replies, stepping aside so that Phil can see the younger man more clearly. He looks, because Bruce wants him to, and it isn't until then that he notices Clint looks pretty roughed-up, too.

The blond ruffian sticks out a hand. Phil suddenly feels like a father meeting his daughter's first boyfriend and shudders internally; perish the thought.

"At the TSE show last night," Bruce is explaining, "there was a fight. And I might have gotten a little… involved. Accidentally," he hastens to add, because Phil is his bartender, his barber, his confessional, his friend, and Phil knows more than anybody else about the unwise things Bruce used to do in anger. He has a better handle on it now (when he first told Phil what he was like at Clint's age, Phil couldn't believe it), but he knows his history still haunts him, and he's making it quite clear that his involvement this time was not by choice.

"There were a lot of guys," Clint adds. "Big guys."

"Clint helped me out," says Bruce, and he's smiling (at Clint, not sidelong off into the distance the way he so often does with Phil), and maybe there's an irrational surge of something when Phil sees that – anger, jealousy, frustration, Phil doesn't know.

He knows that what he should be feeling, what any decent friend would be feeling, is gratitude toward Clint for being backup for Bruce. Not disappointment that he wasn't there to do it himself; not resentment because someone else picked up his slack. Not the echoing thought that if he'd been there, Bruce wouldn't have gotten hurt at all (which is probably ridiculous; he doesn't even know what happened).

So he wipes clean hands against the front of his jeans for want of anything else to do with them, then shakes Clint's hand for the second time, trying to put as much sincerity as possible into it. "Thanks," he says. "I've kind of gotten used to having him around."

Clint's gaze skates between the two of them, his brow furrowing with a question he doesn't ask. Phil makes no move to answer, either, and then Bruce – oblivious to all but the tension – catches Clint by the elbow and drags him off (entirely without protest) to Phil's extensive ska punk section.

That's how Phil Coulson meets Clint Barton for the second (first official) time. All of his first impressions from the Dropkick Murphys show turn out to be right, but they turn out to be spectacularly wrong as well.

Clint is a knockabout, a roughhouser, young and reckless. He is raw around the edges, speaks before he thinks, and has no qualms about stating his opinions. He's exactly the kind of kid Phil was worried would make trouble for Bruce, except that he's done exactly the opposite. And despite all of his trumped-up attitude and quick smartassery, Phil is finding that he rather likes Clint.

Not just because of the Bruce thing. (In fact, the Bruce thing is the one part of this that Phil is still having trouble with, and he's kind of annoyed at himself for it.) No; Clint is actually an incisive music critic who's heard everyone Phil ever mentions and has an opinion (or twenty) on all of it. He knows his stuff, too. His thoughts don't always mirror Phil's or even Bruce's (and he seems to like it better when they don't), but he backs them up with real evidence, allusions to other bands and terminology that sounds like it comes from an actual music education.

Which Clint doesn't have. As far as Phil can get anything out of him (he's talkative, but not about himself), he dropped out of high school to do 'other stuff,' most of which seems to have been plugging his brain directly into some kind of music black hole and resurfacing several years later having attained nirvana. (But not Nirvana; Clint says they are "good, but too formulaic.")

So Clint becomes a regular at Sound Advice, rarely buying (Phil can't figure out where his money comes from, or even if he has any at all), but always fitting neatly into the shop environment. Not for long, of course; just long enough to render Phil and his customers unsuspecting, and then he cannonballs into the middle of things, singing along to rare singles in the listening booth, vigorously demonstrating his low opinion of an expensive record Phil is considering buying, introducing Erik Selvig to Alkaline Trio (Phil apologizes and applies an even steeper discount to his purchases than usual; Selvig laughs it off and Phil finds him outside the shop half an hour later, deep in discussion with Clint over the relative merits of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins as frontmen for Genesis).

He learns the systems Phil uses, too, the way he categorizes music and how he stores his vinyl and the order in which he does the inventory. Before Phil is really conscious of what's happening, Clint is spending longer and longer hours at Sound Advice, and he's spending them all working. The store hasn't been in such good shape since Phil started it.

Phil knows he should be grateful to Clint, just like on the first day he set foot in the shop, and he is. Ninety-nine percent of the time.

The other one percent of the time, Bruce Banner walks in and before Phil can say a word, Clint asks, "Seen any good shows lately?"

The other one percent of the time, Clint doesn't need to ask because he and Bruce go to shows together now.

The other one percent of the time, he thinks of things he's been trying to remember to tell Bruce, except that when he looks up to say something, Clint and Bruce are at the far end of the long, narrow room, earnestly discussing a CD or laughing over an old record sleeve with questionable art.

Phil isn't jealous.

He really isn't. Jealousy implies that he has something he is afraid to lose, and that's not true; he doesn't have anything, not really. Phil isn't jealous.

But he is envious.

He's ready for a good day. Business has been steady, if not stellar. Sound Advice is running smoothly, assisted by Clint and the Sunday chain gang. True, he hasn't had a lot of free time or a lot of cash to spare, but it's been worth it. And he's been saving. And he's been thinking about closing up the shop one Saturday – just one; it's not egregious; he won't bankrupt himself, despite Selvig's predictions – and going to see Imperial Leisure with Bruce.

So he's ready for a good day when he wakes up early (no nightmares, no dreams at all) and throws open the door to Sound Advice. Which, admittedly, is a mistake (it's late enough in the fall that calling it winter wouldn't stretch a point) and he shivers and lets it fall shut again, but that does nothing to deter his mood.

Nothing does, in fact, until halfway through the afternoon. Bruce and Clint are in, sitting shoulder to shoulder on the steps beside the listening booth, alternately talking softly and listening to records Clint puts on. Phil is stepping around them to fetch new independent-release CDs for his front-of-shop display rack. He pauses for a moment, mid-stride, because it is a good day and some of his most trusted (and favourite) people in his small music inner circle are having a conversation with a soundtrack, and he thinks he'd like to listen in for a moment.

And that's when his mood shatters and his good day goes all to hell, because they're talking about the Imperial Leisure show. They're making plans for the Imperial Leisure show. The show that Phil was supposed to be going to with Bruce. Except, apparently, not now.

He feels a little like an idiot for assuming.

Without a word, he steps past them again – they don't even pause in their conversation, save to shuffle to the side a little more – and begins stacking the CDs in the display. They don't know that he's heard them, and he's not going to disturb their planning session. It was silly of him anyway, the saving up and the thinking he might take a day off – on a Saturday, of all days. Of course he won't.

So that's the end of Phil's good day. Bruce and Clint are quite happy, though, and there's a shot of guilt through him – why would he begrudge them that? – so, more out of guilt than any real preference, he puts on Streetlight Manifesto for them and tries to forget the way he's feeling, because it isn't fair. Not to them, and not to him.

The next day, he decides he wants to wear a tie.

It's a decision he reaches every couple of months, once he's gotten past the last failed attempt. He gets ready for work, puts on a collared shirt, and stands in front of the long-untouched tie rack in his closet.

He'd like to wear them, he really would. The problem is that every time he puts one on, it's back to nightmares, the ghost of blood soaking the front of his shirt. He'll manage to wear one for maybe five, ten minutes before it begins to choke him, before the need to wash fragments of bone and brain matter from his skin becomes overwhelming.

The tie comes off; Phil breathes, eyes closed and one hand fisted in the (clean) fabric of his shirt. Not today, then.

Phil is used to 'not today.' He's been accepting 'not today' for long enough now that it's commonplace, long enough that he doesn't really expect things to get better. Long enough that he knows standing in the closet doorway staring at the tie rack isn't going to help (might make things worse, might not), and that trying again is pointless and will just leave him wrung out.

But he's thinking of Clint, who came in with a narrow black tie yesterday, and by the time he and Bruce left, it was Bruce who was wearing it.

None of that, he tells himself, matters. It's not important. What's important is that he needs to get back up to speed on inventory. What's important is that he needs to put in a new order with one of his favourite independent labels. What's important is that he needs to queue up a new playlist for the shop, something with a little more ska to it, a little more punk, gearing up for the Imperial Leisure show in a week and a half. Which he won't be attending. It doesn't matter that, as of about a week ago, he has enough money for a ticket and a ride. It doesn't matter that, a couple of days ago, he was still thinking that he could take a shop holiday on the Saturday afternoon and it wouldn't put too great a dent in his business. It doesn't matter that, just yesterday, he almost went up to Bruce while he flipped through the new-and-rare shelf, almost said, "So, Imperial Leisure," almost asked (will you go with me?) – but now he knows better.

None of that matters, and yet he's pulling a different tie off the rack, black and silver, narrow stripes, and sliding up the four-in-hand until it sits just right under his collar, and he stares down at it, and he breathes, and he breathes.

Until he can't, and even though he knows it always ends this way, he's angry when he pulls the tie off and throws it back over the rack (doesn't hang it up properly, because why should he? It's not like he's ever going to get to use it again). The tie is not important (shouldn't be important), but it seems like something much larger than it is, seems like Imperial Leisure and Clint and Bruce and everything he was uncertain of when he started Sound Advice all at once, seems like giving up.

He has a shop to run.

Bruce doesn't come in that day, and Phil spends most of his time getting caught up on work. Clint, as usual, shows up and disappears into the back of the store, where Phil finds him sorting stacks of records out of corrugated cardboard storage boxes Phil just hasn't had time to get to yet. It's a quiet day, comfortable, and it's a chance for Phil to let himself even out a little. Easier, he tells himself, for things not to matter quite so much when the shop is calm and he can get his priorities straight again and there's no constant reminder of what it was that mattered in the first place.

He goes out that night, stops in at Death By Chocolate and sits at a table in the window, nursing a Mexican hot chocolate because it's the cheapest thing on the menu. Nothing in his demeanour is in any way conducive to conversation, and even the owner of the dessert restaurant – after a failed attempt at friendly conversation, to which Phil responded with a cursory "hi" – leaves him pretty much alone for the majority of the evening. (Twice, she refills his drink. He knows refills aren't supposed to be free, but he isn't in the mood to argue, so he just sticks a twenty-dollar bill under the saucer; it was going to pay for a portion of his ticket next weekend, but he's not going to a show anymore, so he can afford a hot chocolate or two. He notices, too, that she switches the ambient music to one of his CDs, and it's a small gesture, but one that he appreciates.)

Over the next week, he goes back to his former schedule, long shop hours during the day and long walks through the university district at night. He's missed it, though it wasn't obvious to him until he started again; the sounds of the people in the streets and music in the bars, shouts from tiny upper-floor apartments to more-than-a-little-drunk friends down on the sidewalk, food and cigarettes and car exhaust on the air, snap of cold as winter's encroachment on fall can't be denied any longer, he's missed it all. It's good for him, he tells himself, and carefully doesn't think about why he hasn't been doing this lately.

Getting back to the shop on a Friday morning after no sleep, several hours of terrible live music from a local band at the Elephant and Castle (he knows the owner; Britpop and alt-rock, mostly classic stuff) and a questionable sandwich from the donair place down the block is like he's finally alive again after months of being only halfway there. He lets himself drop into the uncomfortable chair behind the counter, picks a random record out of a half-empty crate he's been stocking (A Certain Ratio, which surprises him, and he slips it onto the turntable because it's pretty good stuff) and flicks the switch on the OPEN sign to on even though it's an hour early. After all, this is his record shop. He's the boss here.

He's the boss here, and he's been so worried about open hours and sustainable overhead costs and surviving and Bruce and Clint and far too many things that he's forgotten why he has Sound Advice in the first place. His shop is doing well, he has a loyal customer base and a good location, there's a ticket in his mailbox to a show at a new downtown music lounge that has mod club nights on weekends, and this is what it's about. This is what he wants out of his life. A little freedom, a little music; it's not much to ask, and everything else is just bonus material, deleted scenes – some good, some bad, none of it necessary.

It's a pleasant thought as he works. Friday evenings are always busy and he's making recommendations all over the map to regulars and brand-new customers alike; someone has an old copy of a custom Motown mix Phil's been wanting for a while, and someone else needs him to pull out his entire Garotos Podres discography. (Truth be told, he thinks it's kind of cool that anyone is asking for his foreign vinyl collection at all.) Tony comes in with another box of rare albums and Phil spends a half hour flipping through them and figuring out a fair price and a good selection of trades. Bucky is dragged in by Steve, who buys the Motown mix before Phil has even shelved it, and Hank Pym picks over Tony's box and leaves with about half of the contents and an empty, threadbare wallet.

In short, everything is the way Phil likes it. He doesn't have the time to spare for thinking about tomorrow evening's show, doesn't have the wherewithal to wonder where Bruce and Clint are because they're usually around on Friday nights, doesn't have the energy to pursue that particular train of thought in any of the directions it might consider going. He's happy running the shop and happy to exhaust himself doing it, and all in all, Friday is a good day.

It's after eleven o'clock before he finally turns off the OPEN sign in the window, and after midnight before he shuts off the store lights and climbs the old, creaking stairs to his third-floor apartment. It's a chill night and he has money left over from the show ticket that never needed to materialize, so as he passes the thermostat, he pauses to notch it up into the seventies (a liberty he rarely allows himself before the deep snow, and sometimes not even then).

The knock on the shop door, followed by the actual doorbell, comes just as he's finished adjusting the thermostat, and he sighs. Twelve-thirty on a Friday night; it's not the first time he's had a drunken visitor at an hour when most reasonable business owners are in bed, but it's always a little irritating, especially when he can't pretend he's already asleep.

Instead, he goes and opens the door. Given the hour and the location, he's expecting the usual (college kid from the bars, either knocking at the wrong entrance or wanting to buy an album from this one band they saw once in Portland at this really awesome club, they had this crazy hair and they were called something with, like, screw in the name or maniacs or something), but what he gets is Clint, stumbling over the threshold and slurring, "You should be asleep by now."

"I was just going," says Phil. "My doorbell rang."

Clint nods. "Saw your light," he says, voice breaking oddly over the last word. He swallows and speaks again. "Sorry."

Phil feels kind of awkward with them both hovering in the shop entryway, and Clint is acting a little strange, and it's late, so he pushes the door closed behind Clint and invites him up into the apartment. He doesn't really have anyone over (there's not really anyone to have; his friends are the Sunday chain gang and the odd leftover colleague from S.H.I.E.L.D. whom he never sees), so the fact that the rooms are small and dimly-lit and have exposed wiring in the walls has never seemed to matter until now.

When Clint sits in the lone chair at Phil's table-desk-workbench, Phil flips the kitchen lightswitch, and that's when he realizes Clint is bleeding from somewhere under his hairline, that he's blinking a few too many times against the light, that the stumbling and the slurred speech are perhaps not solely the products of too enthusiastic a night out.

"What happened to you?" he asks, shades of what he asked Bruce weeks ago, the first time he met Clint. At the same time, he's running water over a washcloth (well, a dishrag, but it's all he's got, and Clint isn't looking overly picky at the moment), wiping blood from Clint's temple and checking under his hair with quick, efficient movements so that he can see how far the damage extends.

He must put pressure in the wrong place, because Clint hisses and pulls away, scrubs the back of his sleeve across his face and says it's nothing, nothing happened, he's fine.

"You were fighting?" Phil asks, and it's not really a question; he refrains from appending the implied again, though they both know it's there.

Clint nods, but as Phil rinses the dishrag and wrings it out over the sink, he mumbles, "What's it to you?" and Phil – who has been having good days, who has been burying everything he wants to forget in long work hours and nights spent wandering the streets, who has put away everything else because he knows where the limits are to what he can have – has had enough.

"What's it to me?" he repeats, very quietly. One look at his face should tell Clint he's made a mistake, but Clint isn't firing on all cylinders right now, and to be honest, Phil isn't entirely sure that he is, either.

There's an attempt at a mutter, something that sounds an awful lot like, "none of your business."

"What's it to me?" Phil asks again, but this time, he's leaning over Clint, both hands resting on the table curled into fists, knuckles bloodless. "You knock on my door at midnight, come into my house – " he's overlooking the fact that he invited Clint in " – you spend all your time in my shop, you drag Bruce around with you everywhere you go – " which is neither fair nor entirely true, because it's Bruce who brought Clint to Sound Advice in the first place, and in any case, Phil is possibly saying more than he means to by this point " – you get him hurt – " definitely untrue, and Phil is still in Clint's debt for having fought in Bruce's defence " – and you want to know why it matters to me that you go out and get into fights and show up at my door like the walking wounded and where's Bruce?" Because that's really the heart of the matter (or is it?), that Clint gets Bruce into trouble, or he might, or maybe he doesn't at all; Phil has no idea, but he's tired of never seeing Bruce alone, tired of never hearing about shows from Bruce anymore, tired of having to justify to himself why Clint makes him so happy and so angry at the same time, and so maybe he's lashing out a little more than he should. Or a lot more. At the moment, he doesn't care.

Despite the fact that he's the one who's just sustained a blow to the head, Clint's filters are not nearly so far gone as Phil's, and he just looks at Phil for a moment and then growls, "Nice to see you're so worried about Bruce."

"Fuck you," Phil says slowly, evenly, "yes, I do care about him."

"Fuck you, I do, too," is Clint's simple reply. "And at least I show it. How do you think we even met? Fighting just like this, that's how, and I saved his ass that night, you know. Where were you?"

And if 'what's it to you' was a mistake, then this is a fuck-up of epic proportions, because Phil backs off right away, swallows hard, Clint is right, he should have been there and he wasn't; he knows he should have been there and he wasn't.

But Clint doesn't seem to be paying attention to the effect those words had. He's pissed off now, and he's not done yet. "You spend all your time in your goddamn store. If you care about Bruce or anything else, why aren't you ever around? What's the point of setting your own hours if you never fucking take any time off?"

"I was trying to take time off!" Phil says – no, he's yelling now, or at least, he's as close as he ever gets, raised voice and a dangerous glint in his eyes. "There's the goddamn Imperial Leisure show and Bruce wanted to go, and I was trying to find the money for a ticket and arrange things so I could spare the day off from the shop, only that hardly matters now, does it, he's going with you, so I might as well work. Why the hell not?"

When he stops to draw breath, there's dead silence. Clint is staring at him, and goes on staring, and Phil is breathing hard but has run out of words to say.

"Shit," Clint whispers, "shit, you have no idea, do you?"

He wants to ask what it is he has no idea about, but he doesn't want to ask Clint, and he suddenly doesn't feel much like talking at all. The energy, the anger, has evaporated just as quickly as it arose, and he doesn't have the strength to sustain a long, drawn-out argument. Not with Clint, not with anyone. He just wants to curl up and go to sleep, or maybe die, or maybe listen to 808 State turned up as loud as it will go on the shop speakers and not think about anything ever again, at least until morning.

Clint is talking again, though, and Phil can't help but listen. He's saying something, Bruce got you a ticket, he's had it for weeks, I thought you knew, I'm friends with one of the guys who did the street marketing and we can get a ride up there with him, all your regulars are coming in to help close up the shop early tomorrow, God, you didn't know about any of it, did you… but Phil is still stuck way back on 'Bruce got you a ticket' and 'he's had it for weeks' and those few words are turning themselves over and over in his head as his brain refuses to kick in.

He realizes he's staring at Clint, sags back against the counter because there's only one chair, and when Clint finishes talking, Phil drops his head into his hands and slides down into a sitting position. He doesn't look up; he doesn't move for a long time.

There's a nudge at his foot, and when he finally raises his head from his hands, Clint is standing over him and poking at him with the toe of one shoe to make sure he hasn't died. Phil isn't sure what to do or what to say or how to deal with any of this, so he just sits there for a few minutes before he manages to ask, "Why would you do that for me?" Because Phil knows Clint only hangs around Sound Advice because of Bruce, even if he does come in alone sometimes, even if he has kind of grown on Phil, this evening and the whole issue with Bruce notwithstanding.

Clint crouches down to eye level with where Phil is sitting and makes sure Phil is looking at him before he says, "Because Bruce likes you."

Oh. For Bruce. That makes sense.

"And I like you."

Phil can't blink. He can't even seem to pull his eyes away from Clint's, the way the steady blue gaze draws him in – and this is wrong, he can't be drawn to this, Clint and Bruce quite clearly have a, a thing, some kind of thing, or don't they, but Clint is already breaking the tension and the eye contact by grinning and standing up. He offers a hand, but he nearly collapses as he's pulling Phil up and Phil remembers with a sudden rush of guilt that has nothing to do with the tension that Clint is here because he's hurt and Phil has been ignoring that to tear him a new one for the past half hour straight.

"You can't," he says, shifting his weight so that he's supporting Clint instead of the other way around, "you're hurt, you need to…" and somehow, that fumbling assemblage of words becomes Clint asleep in Phil's bed, record sleeves swept carelessly onto the floor, while Phil dozes restlessly sitting upright in the lone kitchen chair next to the heating pipe.

He's not sure if this is a step forward or a step back, but any kind of step is going somewhere, at least.

Imperial Leisure are playing to a larger crowd than Phil would have expected, crowding the floor and overfilling the booth seats in the underground club. It's been years since he was here, not since he was spending every weekend at shows and missing meals to pay for the tickets. Bruce's eyes are wide, not because of the location (he's been here before, and far more recently), but because he wasn't expecting a turnout like this either; Clint is grinning broader than Phil has ever seen, and when they reach the bottom of the narrow staircase, Bruce slings an arm around his waist to help him even though he doesn't really need it. He doesn't seem to be feeling any major after-effects of the previous night, despite the blow to the head and the scarcity of sleep. But he reaches back to grab Phil's hand and drag him along as well, and Phil follows, confused and wondering if he should really be here at all.

Then they're on the floor, watching the openers set up to play, and Clint leans over without warning and kisses Bruce. After the initial moment of startled shock, Bruce kisses back, and Phil decides he is pretty damned sure he shouldn't be here.

Ivyrise are playing to open, which is a weird choice, but Clint looks thrilled and lets go of both of his companions to dance. He is ridiculous on the floor; Bruce cracks up just watching him and Phil can't help but swallow down a smile that is part vicarious enjoyment, part wistfulness because he almost wishes he had the same level of gleeful abandon that Clint seems to generate just by existing.

Bruce grabs Phil's hand where Clint has just let go, and Phil bites his lip and tries very hard not to jump to conclusions, because he has no idea what the hell conclusions he would jump to in the first place. When Clint comes back at the end of the first set, he's breathless and happy, and Bruce and Phil separate to let him back in between them, but he just laughs at both of them and pulls Phil down for a kiss before going to stand at his other side.

Phil and Bruce look at one another and the unspoken words are just about tangible between them, are you okay. Neither of them seems quite sure of the answer, but nothing has gone wrong yet, or nothing Phil and Clint haven't handled between them, nothing Bruce ever needs to know about, so Phil blinks a few times and allows himself a cursory nod, so tight and so vanishingly small that they can both deny he ever answered a question they never really asked. And Bruce grips Phil's fingers even more tightly than he has been (which isn't much; after all, Bruce's hand strength is hardly noteworthy), and they settle in for the show, the three of them together.

Sound Advice is closed on Sundays, in theory. It's a day when Phil is supposed to be able to leave the OPEN sign off, leave the doors locked, spend an hour and a half nursing a morning coffee with no guilt whatsoever. It's a day when customers are supposed to walk by, not stop and knock for entry; a day when regulars are supposed to wave to Phil through his storefront window, not push open the front door and greet him with a wide smile and a second cup of coffee in a cardboard mug; a day when Phil is supposed to sleep in, not roll over in bed at seven o'clock in the morning and poke Bruce in between the shoulder blades, get up, you know people are going to start piling into the shop an hour from now.

That's what Sundays are supposed to be, but in practice, they've become something a little different.

Nowadays, Clint is up before the sun, rattling and banging in Phil's sorry excuse for a kitchen. Phil has no idea how he can possibly need to make that much noise just to generate two cups of coffee and a glass of orange juice, but he's not going to argue if it buys him ten more minutes before he has to get up.

Nowadays, Bruce mutters at Clint when he has to get up, burying his head under the pillow and mumbling something entirely unconvincing about the shop's being closed on Sundays and his not needing to go to work today and leave me alone, Clint, I'll get up when I'm good and ready, wait, hang on, are those pancakes, did you make pancakes?

Nowadays, Phil doesn't much care whether or not he ever closes up the store and takes a day off, because Clint makes his coffee exactly the right way and Bruce chooses the music for the shop speakers every morning before he leaves for work, and there are no nightmares and Phil thinks that one day soon he might go to work in a tie, and Sound Advice was good before, but now Phil can't really imagine wanting to be anywhere but here.

This Sunday, he's pre-empting Bruce's job, loading a CD into the shop stereo. Normally, he'd let Bruce choose, but this CD is special and Bruce doesn't exactly know about it yet. It's the one Phil has been keeping behind the counter, waiting for the right time to slip it into Bruce's messenger bag along with his purchases, but even the best-laid plans are bound to go awry with a force of nature like Clint Barton shaking them up, and Phil figures this works just about as well. He's had to change the CD a little anyway, tweak a track here and there, add one or two new things. After all, it isn't just for Bruce anymore, and just like Phil's record shop Sundays, just like his someday-maybe plans with Bruce, things have gone a little differently than he'd thought they might. That tends to happen where Clint is involved.

It's a new kind of routine, one where Bruce comes down from upstairs instead of in through the shop doors, one where he leaves to go to work and finds his way back to the store in the evenings, one where Clint spends his days working for Phil officially now instead of informally, one where Phil doesn't have to wonder about what-ifs and one-days and quickly-averted gazes and the thousand tiny hints and guesses and failed approaches. One where they're all happy, which feels strange and unfamiliar, but not bad, and Phil intends to keep the sensation for as long as he can, for all of them.

It's a new kind of routine, but it's a good one.