The evening crowd at That's a Latte Books thins noticeably after seven pm on a late October evening. The weather's finally turned to winter so the door lets in a blast of cold air every time they get another customer. Phil's perched on the bar stool behind the counter, reading glasses in place, his nose in a biography of Steve Rogers that he really wishes would get to the fucking point already.
He's so frustrated with it that he knows Darcy can tell, because she's been laughing at him for an hour. The door allows another breath of cold air and he looks up, grateful for the interruption, to see his thin upstairs neighbor's sixteen-year old all bundled up in hat, coat, and gloves.
"How's it going, Marcos?" he asks, sliding the bookmark in place and closing the book.
"Not so good, Mr. Coulson." Marcos slips his hands in his pockets and hovers by the door. "I'm wondering -- well, do you have a minute?"
The shelves take up the entire back half of the shop, tall bookcases arranged in the classic used bookstore maze with an overstuffed armchair here and a small throw-pillowed bench there. There’s nobody still browsing as far as Phil can tell but it’s late enough that he ought to check anyway.
"Sure, come on back."
"You want a Mocha Man Outta You, Marcos?" Darcy asks, emerging from the kitchen with a dish towel and a gallon of two percent in hand. "Extra whipped cream?"
Marcos nods but he still looks worried and he doesn’t pull his hands out of his pockets. Phil gives him a reassuring smile, slides off the bar stool, leaves Steve Rogers: An American Icon next to the espresso machine and leads the way around the corner.
"Well, it’s two things." Marcos is a good kid, conscientious about school, picks up the groceries, and sharing a mocha with his little sister when they walk up to the park. Phil looks him over and notes the circles under his eyes. Well, if he's in trouble, at least he's come to get some help for it. But Marcos manages to surprise him by looking at his feet and saying, quietly, "So I was wondering, uh. I know you've got Darcy and you don't mind working the early shift, because you, you know. Live here. But do you-- do you have a few hours-- do you, uh, well. Are you hiring?"
Phil hides a smile and raises his eyebrows. "It's not a place to do school work," he says. "Especially not in the morning with the rush, but Darcy doesn't get to do much homework here either."
Marcos finally looks up and meets his eyes, nodding. "I could handle it," he promises. "I'd take it seriously."
Phil knows he would, too, but that doesn't make it a good idea. "Saving up for something particular? Or just looking for pocket money?"
"I, uh. Well, it might be related to the other question," Marcos admits quietly. He's still not looking Phil in the face and that's worrisome.
"Well, while you work around to asking it, I've been meaning to tell you I saw you running up on Tompkins yesterday afternoon. You're looking good out there. You still lifting?"
"Yeah." Marcos finally lifts his eyes to meet Phil's and he looks pleased at the praise. Phil's ran Latte Books for two years and Marcos imprinted on him early on after a heart to heart where Marcos had admitted to an intense hatred for high school along with a deep seated fear of college, and Phil in turn had promised to support him to the Rangers if that's what he really wanted. He's kept his grades up and taken up working out, and Phil wonders sometimes if he shouldn't be looking up Nick to see if he's got something for the kid.
Now he can see that younger Marcos, a little lost and scared but trying to be brave. "What's really going on?" he asks, quiet. "Money troubles?"
"Yeah." Marcos sighs, and the words come easier now that Phil's said the words first. "So has anybody said anything to you lately about the building?" When Phil shakes his head, he adds, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, "Like, the building being sold?"
Phil crosses his arms and rests his shoulder against the faded paper sign for Science Fiction M-Z. "Not a word. Sold how? It’s not exactly a buyer’s market."
And that's the thing, it really isn't. The historians may have decided to call it the Battle of Manhattan but the damage caused by the flying space whales wasn't confined to the island. Bed-Stuy still features shattered, boarded up buildngs and evacuation-related graffiti.
Marcos has grown up here and he nods. "A buyer's market is what my mom said, too. She was down at Abby's --" it's where Phil gets his hair cut, too -- "and they said rent's going up all over the neighborhood, at least double, and she'll hear about it real soon if she hasn't already. Property company's trying to evict all the residents, make room for condos."
"We're still a little far from Fulton for that," Phil says, but he wonders about it. Part of his lease rides on him being the on-site property manager and he does his best but the building's already fairly run down with no real money for repairs. It bothers him so much he's actually considered making an offer to buy it, take it off their hands. Still, the pre-Battle gentrification and condo conversion continues along Fulton Avenue but that's far enough south that this neighborhood is still pre-Battle locals in older homes of dubious upkeep.
Marcos nods, like he'll buy that. He knows the quiet, friendly neighborhood is why Phil moved to this part of Brooklyn in the first place, back before the Battle. It's close enough to the sights but far enough to feel safe. And if he picked Brooklyn because of Captain America, well, nobody really needs to know that.
"Let's cross that bridge when we get to it, okay? I'm sure we'll figure something out." Phil smiles and is reassured at the way Marcos finally smiles back.
"Have you ever thought about buying the building yourself?" he asks, and Phil nods.
"I've given it some thought. I might inquire."
They're both momentarily distracted by a cheerful, "You have ten minutes til closing! Yeah, that means you, buddy!" from Darcy in the front room, and then Marcos says, quiet and honest, "We do okay, now. I'd just feel safer if I knew my mom wouldn't have to worry."
"I don't blame you." Phil straightens up and puts a hand on Marcos' shoulder to steer him back up front. "We took care of you for everything short of outright eviction in your lease so let me take care of it. You keep focused on school and the Army, and I'll handle the property problems. And don't you dare let your mom know we talked about it. You don't want to worry her."
"I wouldn't," Marcos promises, and his smile takes on more of his customary infectious grin. "Thanks, Mr. Coulson."
"Don't mention it." Phil returns his smile and waves him on up front, taking a moment to to clear the bookstore and pausing to lock the back door. Marcos is leaning on the bar as Darcy re-steams his mocha when he makes it back up font. "Darcy," Phil tells her. "Give it to him on the house."
"Yes, sir," she says cheerfully, handing over the paper cup. "Have a good night, Marcos."
"Night, Darcy," he says shyly, and gives Phil another smile as he sets the front door's bells to jangling.
Phil collects Steve Rogers and tucks it under one arm as he takes a dishrag and makes a round of the room, wiping tables. Their last customer finally decamps from his study spot in the front window and wanders up to the counter to order another cappuccino for the road. He's one of their laptop kids, early twenties, and carrying a backpack nearly as big as the one from Phil's Army days. He's often the last in the shop, lingering and giving Phil surreptitious puppy eyes until Phil finally kicks him out.
Thankfully, Darcy's taking care of that tonight. That's what he pays her for.
Phil finishes wiping the tables and goes to find a broom, passing behind Darcy as Laptop Kid gives her the puppy eyes.
"You know, it'd be really cool if you could keep this place open later."
"Flatmates too loud for you?" Darcy asks, her voice entirely unsympathetic as she steams the milk. "No internet access?"
"No," he replies. "It's just ... easier to study here. It's a nice place."
Darcy hands him the cappuccino and Phil hides a smile as the boy gives him one last sad look and disappears into the night.
"Annnnd we're closed," Darcy announces, and runs to flip the sign. "You got the rest of it, boss?" He does and tells her so, and she sketches him a salute before grabbing her stuff and vanishing after Laptop Kid. She's not in the neighborhood, has to make it down to Fulton and catch transit, so yeah, he's got the rest of it. He cleans the machine, checks the doors again, checks the loaded .38 under the counter, counts and safes the cash, and finally ventures out to slide down the metal storm door over the windows.
It's dark but plenty of people are out, and he returns waves and smiles. It's a nice neighborhood. He'd say he got lucky but he put a lot of time into finding the right place, and now that he's here ... well, he has the cash. He takes the stairs up to his apartment and thinks maybe it's time to be here to stay.
Staying is apparently freaking him out more than he'd thought because it's what he wakes up thinking about when he opens his eyes from a nightmare in the early morning hours and lies, sweating, stretched full length in bed, blinking at the alarm clock with his chest twisted tight and the taste of copper in his mouth. It's too warm inside and too cold outside so he compromises and descends to the shop, makes himself a coffee before selecting Night Watch from Science Fiction M-Z and tucking one knee up in the overstuffed armchair.
He knows he's not sorry to be living in New York City minding a bookshop. He loves the reading, the bookselling, the conversations. He likes being safe, he really does, it's just ... he's just sorry, sometimes, that he's not out there, and maybe it's not so much just that he's not out there but that he no longer knows where out there even is. He opted out and now it's left him behind and he's apparently not particularly okay with that yet.
Nick would know what to say, he thinks, but he left Nick behind for a damned good reason and he's not sorry for that so he takes a sip of the dark roast and turns the first page of Night Watch, and can't help but smile as Sir Sam Vimes drops an assassin in the cacky.
Darcy doesn't work until noon so he's on alone for the morning rush. He showers, pulls on trousers and a blue dress shirt, pushes the sleeves to his elbows, and makes coffee and small talk with his regulars until the aching emptiness from the previous night's all but faded.
It’s ten past ten when the door opens when two guys in purple tracksuits just ooze in, and Phil suppresses a sigh. He’s been half-expecting this after the conversation with Marcos but he pastes a polite expression on his face and says, "Can I get you anything?"
"Yeah, bro. I’ll take an espresso," says the redhead, sliding towards the counter like his shoes are freshly oiled.
Phil smiles and flips over the two little cups. "And your friend?"
The kid in the blond buzz cut pauses in his prowl toward the back room to look up at the menu above Phil’s head. He looks fairly startled and Phil mentally puts him in the ‘unpredictable’ box.
"Bro! What do you want?" says the redhead.
"Something sweet?" Phil suggests, all mild-mannered helpfulness. "You like chocolate? A mocha’s always a good choice."
"Mocha’s good, bro?" the redhead repeats, and it’s like some sort of comedy sketch when his partner nods jerkily and vanishes into the bookstore.
Phil can only hope he’s not a closet Captain America fanboy inclined to swipe the collectibles.
"Got a letter for you, bro." The redhead’s face looks like he’s been on the losing end of at least one good fight but he moves like he’s comfortable, no swagger in sight, and he doesn’t get into a staring contest with Phil when he leans against the counter. He does makes a show of sliding an envelope out from under his open jacket and presents it between two fingers, but Phil figures a henchman’s got to take his pleasures where he can find them.
Phil takes it, keeping one eye on the espresso drip, and lays it flat so he can grab the two percent. It’s four pumps of the chocolate syrup into a paper cup and then he’s dumping the doppio into a cup and sliding it across the counter to the redhead, who takes a sip and gives him a wry grin.
"Damn, bro. Benjy, get out here, bro! Bro’s got your drink!" Benjy slinks out from the bookshelves looking a little lost. He pauses to fistbump the redhead before he, too, leans over the bar and watches Phil stir the steamed milk into the chocolate.
"Gonna miss you around here, bro," the redhead says, making what might be an appreciative face at his drink. He nods at the letter. "Gotta read it now, bro. Gotta let us know what you’re gonna do."
Phil tries to look a little hurt by their brusque manner but he also tops off the mocha with not a small amount of foam and hands it over to Benjy, who clearly missed out on manners lessons and does not say thank you. He says "Looks like some spendy stuff back there, bro," instead, and Phil thinks but carefully does not say, no, that would be the trading cards in the case upstairs.
Milk returned to the small refrigerator, he’s free to wipe his hands on the dish towel and open the envelope.
The letter’s short and very, very legal. It asks for a monthly figure that’s nearly three times what he currently pays and is just entirely outlandish for the area, much less the condition of the building. This is the sort of figure that he can afford to pay once or twice while he looks for another place, but not again. It’s also the sort of figure that’s not actually allowed by the terms of his lease.
"Sorry, bro," the redhead says again, and he does sound like he means it.
"Is your boss selling the building or just converting to condos?" Phil asks, keeping his voice curious and carefully unthreatening.
The redhead shrugs. "Bro, that’s not my business. New rent’s due on the fourth, bro. In cash."
"What you gonna do with all those books, bro?" Benjy asks, taking a sip of his mocha, and Phil inwardly sighs.
"Well, " Phil says slowly, choosing his words with care. "I’ll have to have somebody come down but I’ll obviously want to have a new place leased before I start boxing anything up."
"So we can expect rent for November, bro?" the redhead asks.
"You’ll have the rent right on time," Phil tells him. "Just like usual."
"All right, bro." The redhead finishes off his espresso and politely holds out his cup, which Phil takes to casually drop into the plastic bin under the counter. "Sorry to do it to you, bro."
Phil puts a little sadness into his smile and keeps a worried eye on Benjy, who’s decided the mocha’s acceptable but who hasn't stopped looking furtively towards the bookstore.
Neither of them offer to pay but he doesn’t say a word, just watches the redhead herd his partner out the door. It’s only when they’re safely gone around the corner that he collects the piece of paper and takes another look at it. It’s clearly meant for a tenant who hasn’t managed to wrangle a custom lease but at this point Phil’s not sure if that’s going to really be worth the fight.
He slides the piece of paper back into the envelope and props it against a stack of paper napkins under the counter. He’ll figure out what to do about it later. First, he figures he'd better check and see which of the Captain America collectibles have disappeared under Benjy's jacket.
Phil's just wiping crumbs off the armchair when the front door bells jangle. He pauses to reshelve a battered copy of The White Dragon before stepping out front. His newest customer isn't a regular; Phil's never seen him before and he's pretty sure about that because he would've remembered those arms. The guy's good looking -- ridiculously good looking, actually, though looking not a little rough around the edges. Between his loose-limbed slouch and his messy blond hair he looks like a mountain lion that just fell out of bed, and Phil's glad his default setting is set to 'bland mild-mannered coffee dealer' because he knows he's going to look twice.
The guy's built for functional strength under ass-hugging cargos and a purple and black hoodie; he's carrying some kind of oversized instrument case on his back and he's got both hands jammed in his pockets as he pulls up to a stop in front of the counter and stares up at Darcy's list of drinks.
They're interesting drinks, Phil has to admit, mostly heavy on the syrup but also on the puns. They change regularly and they're usually good for a laugh, even from the regulars. Probably especially from his regulars. Phil likes to think he cultivates a certain kind of clientele.
Phil's going to miss his regulars if he ends up going under.
The guy looks him over as Phil rounds the bar, paying enough attention that he's either sizing him up or checking him out; well, Phil figures, at least the guy's not wearing a tracksuit, and the word "bro" hasn't passed his lips.
"What can I get you?"
He watches as the guy's mouth quirks in a grin and his lips form the words, "What's a Pony Espresso?" Oh, Darcy would be pleased, Phil thinks; it's one of her favorites.
"My assistant's special," Phil says, and watches the guy blink. "The dark roast, aged since dawn in a pot we never wash. Tastes like the dregs after night shift for those who are addicted and won't drink it any other way."
The guy nods, slowly, lips twisted like he's not sure it's a joke. "How is that even legal?"
"It comes with a waiver and a non-disclosure agreement," Phil promises, and feels something in the pit of his stomach flip when those lips quirk into a grin.
"I think I'll just stick with a latte," the guy says. Phil flashes him a smile and he sees the guy relax a little. Well, maybe he'll turn out to be a reader; Phil'd appreciate some regular eye candy.
The guy shifts awkwardly. "... sorry I haven't come in yet. I know you've been here a while."
"Two years in December," Phil agrees, sliding the cup into the machine and reaching for the two percent.
The guy shifts the case on his back and leans against the bar, casually intent in a way that puts Phil on edge, and for good reason as the guy continues, "Couldn't help but see those guys coming out. They giving you any trouble?"
Phil uncaps the milk and makes eye contact; the guy doesn't even blink, just looks right back at him and Phil would bet money this guy's seen a uniform in his day because there's that mix of honest, intense determination that he hasn't seen since the Army.
"How much they want?" the guy asks.
"New rent's tripled," he says, and looks down, pours a single latte's worth of two percent into the metal measuring cup, slides the milk onto the counter. "November first, but it's not a problem for me," though he immediately thinks of the Rosa upstairs. "My neighbors, either. I’ve taken care of it."
"Just you and them in the building?" the guy says, grin gone, eyes turned tired, but speculative. "You the super?"
"And you're sure you're gonna be all right?"
"Let's just say I'm not running a coffee shop for the money," Phil replies, working the shots into the milk.
The guy hums like, hey, maybe he's not going to really argue with that, and he takes the paper cup with a brief thanks before making a startled noise when he catches sight of the little design Phil’s drawn in the foam. "That's an arrow?" he half-asks, half-just says, and Phil can't decide if he's baffled or bemused.
"It's that or a heart," Phil teases, telling a little white lie. He's got the hang of flowers, too.
"With two years of practice, you must be a slow learner," the guy drawls, but there's no rancor in it.
"I usually delegate. Let my minion handle it," Phil, watching the guy cover his surprise with another grin that may or may not make Phil's heart skip a beat. All right, well, this is just ridiculous.
"But which one of you handles the puns?"
Phil smirks. "That's all her."
The guy smirks right back and then shifts his weight, slides a hand into a pocket and comes up with a couple wadded five dollar bills. "How much do I owe you?"
Phil makes change, which ends up in the tip bottle, and the guy pauses for a little too long at the spice bar to add what just looks like a dash of cinnamon.
He's not smiling when he turns back to look at Phil but there's a genuine puppy dog feel about him. "Tripled," he repeats, and Phil nods.
"I've got it handled--" he starts to say, but the guy gives him both an exaggerated shrug and a rueful smile.
"I'm just saying, these aren't guys to mess with."
"I know." Phil doesn't say anything else, just tries to communicate in as low-key a fashion as possible that he really does have it handled. And he does. He'll figure it out.
"All right," the guy finally says, and gestures with the cup. "Well, thanks for the coffee."
"You have a good day," Phil replies, and totally watches the guy's ass on his way out.
The tables and chairs fill up with browsers and lurkers as the afternoon wears on. Darcy texts to ask if she can come in late and he texts back that it’s fine but it turns out to be not very fine, really, when an hour later he's so on edge that every jangle of the door has him jerking his head up.
Darcy finally rocks up at half-past two; she takes one look at him and promises she'll help him close. It’s Rosa he’s waiting for but he ends up giving Steve Rogers another hour of his attention because there’s no way she’s off work til half-six; when she does show, she's clutching the same piece of paper he’d got and she hands it over as she sits down, weary, at the bar.
"This can’t apply to us, Phil," she says. They don't really stand on formality, for all that he's their building manager; he’s unclogged drains, replaced screens, and single-handedly put down a mice infestation for her. "And I know you wouldn’t have anything to do with this."
"Darcy, sweep up pointedly under Loiterer Number Two, would you?" Phil doesn’t even have to look in the guy’s direction; Darcy has a scary sixth sense for who’s nursing an empty cup and strong opinions on what to do about them. She grabs the broom with a jovial "Sure thing, boss!" and he steps up behind the counter to make Rosa a Girls Java-na Have Fun.
"Everything’s going to be fine," he promises her, making eye contact and hoping she believes him. She must because she sags a little. "It’s just boilerplate," he adds. "Probably printed out a hundred of them to get a good deal at the office supply store."
"It did look like it," she admits. "It looked like something half the neighborhood got this morning. Do they not look at the individual leases, Phil?"
"They were goons, Rosa. Grunts. I’m not entirely sure they even know how to read."
That earns him a smile. He caps the Java-na and sets it down in front of her. "On the house," he says, feeling fond. "How’s the family? And the unit? The windows need sealing now that the weather’s turning?"
"We’ve put up the plastic and it’s doing fine. That bathroom faucet’s still leaking."
"I’ll take a look in the morning."
She gives him a brief, grateful smile. "You’ll have to remember to look at the fridge. Marcos was so proud of his chemistry test on Tuesday that he let me hang it up." She pauses, sips at her drink. "I know he’s hoping to spend some time down here studying this semester. He’s got his SATs next month."
Phil thinks the letter must have rattled her more than she’s letting on because as far as he knows there’s never been any question of Marcos being immune to Darcy’s philosophy of pay for it, drink it, and move right along, buddy. Still, he tries to reassure her. "We like having him around," he promises. "He’s welcome anytime."
They talk aimlessly about family a little more until she’s finishing her drink and Phil clasps her hand in both of his. "I’ve got a friend of a friend who’s a lawyer that I’ll call. You let me worry about this, Rosa. You’ve got enough to deal with."
She tries her best to smile before heading back on upstairs. Phil looks up to see Darcy’s dubious expression. "Should I be worrying about this?" she asks, brandishing the broom at him. Loiterer Number Two has held out against her cleaning assault but he's definitely hunkered down behind the laptop. "And on that note, when are you gonna tell me what this might be, anyway?"
Phil sighs but he’s saved from explaining by another customer pushing open the door and-- ooh, it’s his mountain lion from that morning, sans instrument case but wearing that same hoodie over a loose pair of jeans that still managed to show off the line of his--
He twists away from Darcy’s sharp elbow and ignores her knowing, widening grin.
"What can we getcha?" she asks, as the guy shoves his hands in his pockets and makes a show of looking up at the menu. Anywhere but at Phil, which is interesting... but Phil shoves away any conclusions and takes the wet rag back to the sink.
"So, you have a name?" Darcy asks deftly, so that Phil won’t have to. He knows she’s going to give him no end of grief later.
Phil looks up from wringing hot water out of his dishrag and the guy’s looking at Darcy with an aw, shucks smile as he answers easily, "Clint. And you are?"
"Darcy." Darcy's smile is more than a little sharp and Phil's pretty proud of her just then. What are your intentions in our little establishment? he wants to ask, partly because the logistics part of his brain is telling him this guy's probably more than a little involved with the tracksuit boys and, well, partly because he just wants to get to know him.
"Well, Clint, it’s three bucks for ‘just a latte’."
Clint swaps crumpled dollar bills for the latte and smirks a little at the foam art. "Aw, bird." When he looks back up it's to give Darcy a grin that makes him look younger, less tense, and absolutely adorable. "You're totally the mystery minion."
Darcy smirks right back and says something witty about Phil's having a thing for super heroes and how that really just makes her a sidekick, but Phil's not really listening because then he'd have to be mortified and he's pretty sure he can't fire Darcy or he'll never have anybody to calm him down or close the shop. Not like he's got a social life anyway, but still.
"Every superhero needs a sidekick," Clint agrees sagely, lingering to look over the lonely scone sitting in the display case. "So, you guys ever have any leftover muffins?" he asks. "You know, ones you gotta throw away at night cause of the health code?"
"Phil doesn't end up with extra muffins," Darcy says, sounding affronted on his behalf. "He's an ordering ninja."
Phil isn't sure whether he ought to feel mortified or flattered but Clint looks just amused. "But," he says slowly. "Aren't you guys closing up, like, right now? What if nobody buys that scone in the next five minutes?"
Darcy beams at him. "But you're going to buy it."
Clint makes eye contact with Phil like he’s checking in, like he’s looking for clues, but Phil just puts on his best bland, who, me? face, and then that cheeky grin is back as Clint fishes another two bucks out of his pocket. "Don't have a chance against the ordering ninja," he says. "You two have a good night."
"Stay safe," Phil says, thinking of tracksuit boys, and it earns him another intrigued look from Clint before Darcy waves him off and goes to roust their last late-night loiterer. Before Clint hits the door, though, he turns back to say, casually, as if just checking, "Phil -- the thing today?"
"Got it," Phil assures him, even though saying it makes him feel like maybe he doesn't, and he opens his mouth to say something else but Clint's already shrugging like it's nothing.
"All right. Have a good night," he says, and the door jangles behind him.
Darcy gives Phil a look that is positively delighted and he decides he really needs to take a walk through the bookstore to make sure there aren't any miscreants. Or, you know. Witnesses.