The Red Hen was a coffee shop down a side street in New York that Carl Castorena had run since inheriting the place when he was midway through pastry school. He’d played up its bare brick walls and inbuilt shelving with mismatched plush sofas and thrift store cushions. It was the sort of place poetry recitals might have been held, if someone had wanted to organise one. It catered to the usual independent coffee shop clientele: mostly people who liked to tell him that they hated Starbucks and didn’t mind paying 50 cents more for atmosphere and ‘sticking it to the man’. It had a certain hipster leaning, even if Carl was loath to admit it, though they had their fair share of businesspeople and random tourists too. Their fair share of all kinds of people, really. It was a nice place, and Carl was proud of what it had become. Even if it wasn’t the french patisserie of his dreams, it was always nice having people eat his cakes.
Carl didn’t notice the man as anything other than the regular office suit with a briefcase until the fateful day some asshole tried to rob the place. The Hen was a tiny place, and they only kept around a hundred dollars in the till at any given time anyway, so what this guy was thinking coming in with a gun Carl could only wonder.
He didn’t even get to ask, since before the guy had even opened his mouth he’d been knocked to the floor unconscious by a thick book about World War II history, tossed from the book-corner. Then Mr Suit - Phil, if his to-go order name was to be believed - was clicking his briefcase closed and stepping over the man offering an apologetic smile and a shrug. He didn’t even look back once he’d left the shop.
He didn’t come back for a while after that, but when Pedro came up with some ludicrous concoction called a Captain Americcino, concentric circles of red strawberry flavour and blue mint flavour syrup on top of white foam with a thin white chocolate star in the middle, he returned. He sat in that same corner and worked quietly, nursing the lurid coffee that Carl insisted was on the house. When he commented on his good aim, it was waved away as inconsequential. “My hand slipped,” Phil said, “sorry about the mess.”
After that, he became a regular again, if he had been before. It wasn’t Carl’s way to pry into the lives of customers, but Irma, tiny little Mexican punk kid Irma, who hadn’t even been there during ‘the book throwing thing’ and had conflated it in her mind into an epic event, loved to pry. She’d throw questions at the man every time he came in if Carl wasn’t fast enough to serve him first. “Is Phil your real name? Are you a ninja? Olympic shotputter? What do you do for a job?” He’d smile thinly and ignore the questions, sometimes deflecting with the tiniest scraps of probably-lies that Irma would then obsess over. But it didn’t put him off of coming in, and now that Carl’d noticed him, he seemed to always be in the corner, working on a laptop, reading through files, jotting notes in margins. Sometimes he’d just read one of the tatty old books there and drink coffee in that way some people had where it almost looked like a commercial: fingers wrapped around the cup, eyes closed to breathe in the aroma, looking visibly relaxed after their first sip.
He had seemed unpredictable with the times he came in, but once Carl started paying attention, a pattern emerged: sometimes Phil came in soon after opening for a takeout cup, sometimes late morning to eat over a laptop before the lunch crowd took his table. Often, especially once it began to get cold, he’d come in late, holing up and reading a book before leaving just before closing time without having to be asked. His pattern seemed to be to work in the day and read in the evening.
So it seemed somewhat out of the ordinary when Phil sat there for an hour, drinking a coffee followed by two camomile teas and a book, in the middle of an afternoon. A folder sat on the desk but was ignored, and Phil kept glancing at the clock over the back of the counter. It was odd seeing him like this: impatient.
At around 4.45 another customer came in and positively swaggered up to the counter. He looked a little out of place wearing beaten up leather boots and black jeans that had seen better days. A tshirt riddled with holes and cut off sleeves, wrists adorned with bracelets and bands that clonked on the counter when he rested his wrists on it. Irma actually licked her lips as she pushed Carl out of the way to serve the man, showing off her tattoos as she made a plain black coffee with as much finesse as one could with such a simple drink. He winked at her when he paid, like something out of a high school movie. The bad boy.
They both gasped when he sat down opposite Phil.
The folder was passed between them and Bad Boy promptly took the paper from it and began folding it up, making Phil bristle. It wasn’t unusual for people to conduct business meetings and transactions there, but this seemed different. It was like they were sizing each other up. What on earth kind of job did Phil have if he was meeting this guy to hand over a folder? Perhaps the man was a courier - an incredibly late courier - or... or an escort? Irma quietly chattered away to Carl with theories about what was going on, venturing over to see if either wanted a free refill - something the Hen didn’t even do - coming back with vague suppositions that Phil was trying to get him to work for him or his company. Skynet, she always called it. Carl shooed her away to check on how many boxes of paper cups they had left in the backroom.
When the Bad Boy had left, Phil tucked the folded paper into his pocket before sitting back and just watching after him, staring past the window long after he’d revved away on some too-loud bike. And that was even weirder: Phil not doing anything, not even drinking coffee or reading. Just sitting there as if in a daze.
Eventually, he thanked them both and left.
His name was Clint, they discovered a week later, when he came in to the Hen again. Gone were the tatty jeans and cut off shirt, replaced with what looked like training sweats. He winked again at Irma when she openly gawped at his arms, displayed from rolled up sleeves. The guy was clearly in love with his arms, Carl thought. Phil was outside, jogging on the spot and doing stretches. For a guy always in a suit, he looked more at home in sweats than Carl might have imagined.
“Out for a run?”
Clint put his change in the tip jar as he replied, “Somethin’ like that.”
They saw Phil a few days later when he holed up in his corner to read a book about medieval weaponry and nurse two ‘Slappuccinos’, three-shot cappuccino concoctions that Carl had been against but that had proved popular amongst the morning crowd. But it was already getting dark. “You want another?” Carl asked, slotting some discarded books back into the bookshelf next to him.
He looked tired. “Oh, gosh no,” He looked around him and appeared to notice the place was empty. “Wow, sorry - I didn’t realise how late it’d gotten. I’ll get going soon.”
“There’s no rush. You can take that book with you if you want. So long as you promise to bring it back.”
“Yeah, it’s the least I can do after-” Carl nodded towards the counter, above which hung ‘the book of doom’ as Irma and Joe-the-delivery-guy had dubbed it.
Phil huffed a laugh. “Thank you, that would be... really useful. I’ll get it back to you tomorrow.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
“You can call me Phil. You’re Carl, right?”
“Sure am,” Carl smiled, “listen, I’m sorry about Irma always prying,” Irma had gone home hours ago, it was just the two of them there now.
“Oh it’s alright. She’s quite taken with Clint isn’t she?”
“She isn’t subtle,” Carl conceded.
Phil chuckled pleasantly. “Thanks,” he waved the book as he stood to gather his things.
“No problem, Phil.”
“No way! He told you to call him Phil?! He’s totally going to invite you to be part of his underground alien mafia conspiracy, Carl.”
“I really don’t think that’s-”
“The Illuminati!” Interrupted Joe, still cluttering up the place an hour after coming in to make his delivery.
Irma pointed at him and nodded, wide eyed. “Joe, we should totally stalk him and find the secret lair he lives in with Arms.” Arms was her nickname for Clint.
“Or you could get on with your actual jobs?” Carl suggested dryly. They both rolled their eyes.
Under the impression that Clint was Phil’s trainer, it was a surprise when the next time they saw him he was wearing a suit and carrying a fairly large briefcase. He looked hopelessly out of place in the thing, shifting his shoulders and surreptitiously trying to push up the sleeves.
“You look smart,” Irma said, writing Clint’s name on a cup with a needless flourish.
“Eh, thanks,” he replied, “I feel like a trussed up turkey or something.”
“Going somewhere special?”
“Yeah, I have a job interview, kinda.”
“I don’t wanna jinx it.”
Phil and Clint returned together again, which threw all the theories that had been flying around into the trash. Clint was wearing black combat trousers and a tshirt while Phil was in his usual suit. Clint was worked up over something, and Phil was trying to quiet him down. “That asshole, Phil! What a fucking douchecanoe! There’s nothing wrong with my stupid ass forms! Sitwell can sit on it.”
“Clint, please keep your voice down,” Phil said, clearly nearing the end of his tether, “this is a public place. I thought it would be good to get out of the office for a break but I’ll have to take you back if you don’t calm down.”
Clint huffed and leant back in his chair, sulkily looking over at the bookshelf. After a moment he reached and pulled a book out about American wildlife and began paging through it idly while Phil worked on some papers. After a little while, Carl noticed Clint working on some paperwork of his own.
“So they work together I guess.”
“Dammit I should start working the evening shift.”
Carl suppressed a shudder at that thought. Morning Irma was one thing, Irma bouncing off the walls the entire day would be too much for one man to bear. Besides, after lunch there weren’t many customers, certainly not enough to warrant a whole other person watching over the place.
Irma did manage to catch Phil and Clint a few times together after that, though it was rare for Clint to accompany Phil. They usually worked on papers in mutual silence, though occasionally Phil would lean over and point out something that Clint would either sigh and roll his eyes at or silently absorb. Clint always drank black coffee: no milk, no sugar. Phil still tried whatever wacky thing had been lovingly illustrated on the board that week. Sometimes they’d have slices of cake or a pastry but it was always the coffee. Had it been anyone else, Carl might have minded them staying so long with only one or two coffees a piece, but Clint seemed strong, if his arms were anything to go by, and they’d seen Phil’s uncanny skills, so they almost felt like store security.
The sullen sulks seemed to die off, though Clint was given to muttering quietly about various people the two of them seemed to work with, either being shushed by Phil or quietly agreed with.
Every now and again in the morning, Clint would come in alone and buy take out coffees for the two of them, the two most opposite coffees imaginable. If Irma was there she’d spend the whole time drawing an epic masterpiece in sharpie on the side of Clint’s cup.
“Alright, I’ll give you law enforcement. Maybe they’re detectives.” Carl conceded. The ongoing debate had flared up again after Joe swore he saw Phil’s gun holster in the bathroom.
“Yeah, detectives like Batman’s a detective,” Irma said dismissively. “No, they’re definitely either master criminals or they work for the X-files.”
“People don’t work for the X-files, Irm. The X-files was a made up set of - oh my god I’m not even getting into this with you again!”
“I bet they’ve revealed all their secrets to you like ten times and they just do that weird Men In Black light thing and you forget it all. It would explain so much.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Carl sighed. “Either way you still have to go wipe down the tables.”
When the Battle of New York happened, it had been the middle of a normal day, so while streets raged outside, Carl, Irma and Joe huddled in the stock room around the tiny TV Carl watched on slow days. Mostly it was a revolving news cycle of confusion and terror, the three of them numb from what they were seeing on the screen and hearing right outside the barricaded door.
“Holy fucking shit. That’s Clint!! Guys! Look!” Irma cried, tapping the screen, “Phil’s guy! Arms!”
They crowded back around and agreed that the man being shakily zoomed in on did indeed look like Irma’s favourite customer.
“Who the hell are those people? Tony Stark and Captain America, it’s like something out of a comic book!” Joe exclaimed, watching as more shots of these oddball heroes fighting off whatever the hell those alligator-looking things were went by. “Is that guy green?”
A week later, The Avengers were still front page news, six heroes and their assorted cohort from some organisation called SHIELD. And Clint was there too, the goofy guy who had first seemed like a laid back punk had helped save the city, maybe even the world, from an alien invasion. Pedro came back from his travels and helped with the few repairs the shop needed, listening patiently to Irma’s stories about ‘Hawkeye’ and inventing list upon list of new feature coffees. The store wasn’t too badly damaged, though custom was slow for a long while with people avoiding even the unscathed parts of the city. When they didn’t see Phil or Clint, Irma had her theories but it seemed that since Clint at least was a famous hero, their need for a quiet coffee was outweighed by their need for security. There were various naysayers that held the Avengers in disregard, after all.
One quiet day, two weeks after the Battle, Carl noticed a man in sunglasses standing on the other side of the street. He took out a cup of black coffee to the man, pleased to see his hunch was right - it was the hero archer.
“Hawkeye, right?” Carl grinned, holding out the coffee. “You know I’m sure you’ve had it from plenty of people but I just want to say, thank you. For what you guys did. You’re a hero.”
After a long pause, Clint unsmilingly replied, “Thanks,” before taking a long drag of the scalding hot coffee, surely burning his mouth, but making no reaction.
“You wanna come inside? Grab a slice of cake? On the house.”
Clint looked down at the coffee in his hand, picking at the seam of the cup with a bitten thumb nail. Carl waited anxiously for him to respond.
“No. Thank you. Another time?” He answered eventually.
“Sure! I know Irma’ll be glad to see you,” Carl looked back across the street to see Irma pressed against the glass with wide eyes. “Any time, ok? I mean it.”
Clint nodded before turning and walking away without saying goodbye.
Clint did come by after that, usually in sunglasses, which Carl supposed was to avoid paparazzi and being recognised by people in the street all the time. Usually he would have a black coffee to go, paying for it even though Carl was adamant that he should have it for free, even with the magic-marker-and-glitter ‘free coffee for life’ card that Irma made him.
One evening, he came in just before closing and sat in the corner he usually sat in with Phil, who none of them had seen since the Battle. He drank his coffee quietly whilst Carl packed up the rest of the shop, cashing out and wiping down tables. They didn’t tend to prod him too much, even Irma was sensitive to just how withdrawn he seemed now, and he tended to respond to questions with “It’s classified,” or simply ignoring them in favour of continuing to stare out of the window, so it was a surprise when he spoke unprompted.
“Phil died,” he said quietly, holding his cup in two steady hands.
Carl stopped sweeping, frozen. “That’s terrible. I’m so sorry, Clint.” When he didn’t say anything more, Carl continued, “we wondered why he didn’t show up anymore. What happened? I mean, wow, sorry, it’s probably classified, I shouldn’t have asked.” Carl swallowed nervously, he was terrible with things like this.
“It’s ok, he died during the Battle. He died a hero. A real hero.”
Carl hovered, unsure of what to do exactly. “Is there anything I can do?” He wanted to put his arm around Clint or pat him on the back or something, but just stood there feeling helpless.
“No,” Clint replied, with a small grey smile. Then he looked up, right at Carl’s face for the first time since he’d come back. “Do you guys take book donations?” Clint glanced at the shelves to his side and back to Carl.
“Sure, I guess,” Carl said. Most of the books had been second hand from thrift stores. Clint just nodded once before saying thank you, leaving three dollars under his cup to pay for his free coffee.
The next day, when Carl opened up there was a wooden crate full of expensive glossy books about Captain America somehow just inside the locked door. Some of them were signed.
Another week passed, Clint coming in occasionally to get coffee, still largely silent. Carl had told the others about Phil and Irma was a little gentler with Clint when he came in, which was strange to watch. Pedro, who hadn’t met him before and only had their stories to go on, couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
One day, Clint came in and ordered two coffees to go. Carl turned to see him not wearing his sunglasses and looking somewhat like his old self again, tired but with the tiniest hint of the huge smirk his face had been covered in the first time he’d walked in. The second coffee was Pedro’s ‘Hulkatron’, complete with green foamed milk and flavoured with pistachio syrup. Carl’s brow furrowed at the unusual order for Clint, solely an americano man, but suddenly imagined Clint at a gravestone, pouring the coffee out for his fallen friend and didn’t ask. When Clint paid for the coffees, Carl added the money to the special box he’d put aside for all the cash he insisted on paying them for the coffees they kept trying to give him for free. If it got to enough, they’d ask him where he’d want it to be donated. Otherwise, perhaps a nice new chair for their corner.
But Clint came in the next day and ordered two coffees again. And the next. The next day he took Pedro’s new invention: something flavoured with lemon zest (of all things) and called Thor’s Hammer. The one served in the shop was topped with an elaborate foam drawing of lightning, which would sadly be ruined as soon as the lid was put on, but Clint took out a phone to snap a photo of it before slipping the lid on and leaving his cash.
His demeanour was entirely changed from the morose, mourning one Carl and the rest had gotten used to. It was good, on the one hand, but rather sudden.
“I promise you, Carl. Phil is alive! C’mon! He always used to get Ped’s weird-ass sweet coffees and now Clint’s buying them for him!” Irma insisted.
It was odd, but still... “So why isn’t Phil coming here anymore? If he’s alive?” Carl asked. Irma rolled her eyes.
“Conspiracy,” Joe interrupted, stacking another box of lids on the counter.
But Phil did turn out to be alive.
Looking older than he had before, he came in one day with Clint, slowly moving towards a table by the window til Irma accidentally-on-purpose spilled coffee on the people who were at ‘their’ table by the bookcases. Clint followed neatly behind, like he was ready to catch him if he fell, but clearly trying not to be too obvious about it.
“It’s good to see you,” Carl said, placing their unordered coffees - one americano, one Arc Reactor hazelnut triple shot latte - on the table.
Phil’s face cracked into a tired grin. “Carl, it’s good to see you too.”
They left them there to sit quietly, sipping coffee and not saying much, til Phil pulled a book out of the shelf next to him. “Is this mine?”
The visits picked up, and theories abounded about Phil’s mysterious rise from the dead. It seemed rude to ask, “how come you aren’t dead after all?” so none of them did.
After a month or so, Phil began coming in on his own in the mornings again, picking up two coffees instead of one, and paying even though he’d been given his own glittery Free Coffee card. He started looking less old, the bright sparkle in his eyes came back and the stiffness he’d been moving with soon loosened and it was as if he’d never been dead at all.
“Why do I have to fill out this form?” Clint asked Phil, and it was almost like it was a year earlier, Clint griping over a form with the sky darkening outside and neat stacks of papers on the table between them.
“It’s protocol. A change of status.”
“We haven’t even been on one date yet,” Clint grumbled, and Carl bent down behind the counter to hide his shocked face. Somehow in the last year he’d been completely sucked in by Irma’s obsession, and he knew she’d go crazy at this little tidbit of information.
“Terrible,” Phil said, late one evening, wearing a suit like always but somehow looking different, less on duty and more at ease.
“It was good! Carl, tell him Inception is a good movie.”
Phil rolled his eyes and Carl was torn. “I enjoyed it, didn’t you?” Carl answered, frothing milk.
Phil pursed his lips before answering, “I’ll admit, it had its merits-” Clint huffed exasperatedly, “-but the science...”
“Jesus you sound just like Bruce!” Clint said, grabbing their coffees and pushing Phil back out the door, making him laugh and push back so they jostled shoulder to shoulder as they slipped out of Carl’s line of sight.
Another time they came in late, Clint in a suit too, with what looked like pasta sauce on his shirt. “Don’t ask,” he told Irma. “Do you have any kind of dessert?” he said, peering up at the menu board for possibly the first time since he’d come into the place.
“Sure, everything in the cabinet is made fresh daily. And there’s ice cream if you want it, too.”
“What do you want, Phil?” Clint asked, peering into the cabinet while Phil settled into his usual spot.
“Whatever you want, they’re all good.”
“Can I get a slice of that one there?” Clint pointed to the most elaborately decorated cake in the case.
“Sure,” she replied, cutting off a far too generous portion and handing it over on a plate. “You want two forks?”
Clint paused for a moment before answering. “Sure, why not.”
“Are you really not going to eat any more than that? It’s so good, Clint.”
“Eh, it’s nice, I’m just..”
“Sweet enough already?”
They both snorted.
“Carl,” Clint said, wearing jeans and a tshirt like the first time he’d come in, albeit far less tattered.
“Hi Clint, the usual?” Carl replied, already tamping down coffee grounds for the machine.
“Actually,” Clint began, “your cakes... do you sell ‘em whole?”
Carl set the machine running and felt under the counter for a notepad. “Sure, I have some out back or I can make them special. Birthday or something?”
“Uh, something like that. It’s actually for a wedding? This is like my one job, and since I know Phil loves the cakes here I figure I can’t fuck it up too-”
“You’re getting married?!” Came Irma’s voice from the back room as she bounded out and around the counter to hug him. Thankfully, he didn’t floor her, taking the hug with a bashful grin.
“Yeah,” he said, gently untangling himself.
“Do you have an engagement ring!?” She asked, grabbing his hands to look.
“No,” he replied, embarrassed, taking one hand and rubbing the back of his neck.
“Irma!” Carl warned, and she clapped Clint on the back and punched him on the arm before sidling away.
“Congrats,” she said, standing there grinning awkwardly.
“Americano and a special,” Carl prompted, and she kept grinning at Clint as she made them.
“I’m sorry. That’s amazing news... You and...”
Clint blushed. “Phil, yeah.”
Carl beamed back at him. “Congratulations. That’s awesome.”
Carl talked Clint through the cakes in the cabinet and told him which ones Phil most often chose before taking Clint’s order and explaining that since all those free coffees had been paid for, this cake would be on the house and he wouldn’t hear otherwise. Clint still paid for the coffees.
A month later a red Ferrari parked outside and Tony Stark himself came in to pick up the cake. “I’m the only one with a car,” he explained, looking at his phone while Pedro and Carl loaded it carefully into the passenger seat. Carl didn’t say anything when Joe turned up and snapped a photo with his phone. Irma would be devastated at having missed that.