The Starbucks just off 7th Ave and 1st St was pretty typical fare. Open 5:30-11pm, 7 days a week, it was packed full of semi-awake, caffeine deprived customers at any given time.
Having worked there almost a year now, Phil was pretty sure he’d seen everything.
He was wrong.
Pairing: Clint Barton/Phil Coulson
Warnings: Violence, Explicit Language
The obligatory fix-it. Barista and amnesiac remix. I'm aiming high here people!
N.B. - Retrograde amnesia is rather rare, especially to this extreme and completely unlikely to happen in an injury like the one Phil sustained. Please forgive my indulgence.
Phil suspected the scent of coffee was permanently ingrained in his clothes.
No matter how many times he washed them, there was always the faint underlying hint of coffee beans pervading his closet. He consoled himself with the fact that it could be worse; he could be working fast food.
Dressing quickly, Phil left his apartment, locking the door behind him and automatically checking it twice before starting down the street. Baring any unforeseen events, he would easily cover the five blocks to work with time to spare.
The Starbucks just off 7th Ave and 1st St was pretty typical fare. Open 5:30-11pm, 7 days a week, it was packed full of semi-awake, caffeine deprived customers at any given time.
Phil worked the three to eleven shift. The spot was made available after a spectacular hissy fit and subsequent walk off by the previous closing manager, or so he was told through the employee gossip mill. Every once in a while, usually after placating yet another irate customer, Phil entertained the thought of doing the same, imagining exactly where he would smash each and every mug on his way out.
It’d been ten months since he started and already he’d outlasted a good chunk of the staff. Now that it was summer, he spent most of his time corralling students desperate to earn tuition money and post-grads unable to find a job and desperate to pay off their student loans. Most of them hadn’t ever served coffee before and sadly possessed little to no common sense, but Phil’s done more with less.
He didn’t mind the closing shift. The location was generally busy with people coming right up until close, and it kept Phil occupied enough that his mind didn’t wander. As an added bonus, he got to avoid the especially jittery customers who came first thing in the morning, blurry-eyed and clutching compulsively at their travel mugs.
He’d become fairly accustomed to the routine of the place by now; the day to day monotony interspaced with occasional bouts of absurdity that are part and parcel of any customer service job.
As usual, Phil got to the store early. The place was swamped with customers. As he walked in, the morning manager’s expression lit up like Phil was the second coming. He held back a laugh, quickly ducking into the back to swipe in. There was a calendar above the time clock and Phil realized with a start that it’d been almost exactly a year to the day since he’d been found and he paused, breath caught, but the sound of a breaking mug jolted him back and he brushed the memory aside with a practised air. He tied on an apron and walked out front, throwing himself headlong into the chaos.
He woke on a Wednesday. Mugging, they told him, faces as blank as the gaps in his memory. Nothing on him but the clothes on his back and the hole through his chest.
No one came for him.
The afternoon started off like any other. At the till, there was a line of people to the door and just as many people waiting for their drinks to be made. At the espresso machine, the new girl kept pulling decaf. Half the tables have yet to be cleared, the dishwasher was full, and Phil was pretty sure they’d lost a barista to the back room where she was sobbing over her latest break-up with her on again, off again boyfriend.
Phil grinned. Just the way he liked it.
Admittedly, some days Phil was tempted to sit back and just watch as the store spiralled into disarray. It reminded him of an old computer game he used to play. When he was younger, he took great delight in watching the entire trail of Lemmings cascade one after another into a brightly coloured explosion. Luckily though, those days were few and far between. Most days, he just rolled up his sleeves and waded into the fray.
He accepted the set of store keys from the frazzled looking morning manager and put the new girl on the till, quickly taking care of the backlog of drinks. Then, while the new girl kept the customers distracted by entering drinks at an agonizingly slow pace, he coaxed the other barista from the backroom (Yes, he is an asshole. Yes I realize he doesn’t deserve you. No, vehicular manslaughter is a bad idea.) and onto the espresso machine. That left him with just enough time to count out a second till to deal with the ongoing afternoon rush.
The next hour was a steady stream of customers and Phil was on top of his game, directing staff, dealing with customers, and cleaning up the mess the morning crew made of the place.
He’d just about gotten everything organized, when he heard Lemming One (the incompetent one) stifle a gasp. Phil’s head jerked up to see what she’d done now, but her eyes were on the entrance.
Tony Stark had just walked in.
Granted, Phil’s memory was quite limited, but even he could recognize this man. He’d spent days on Google reading about the Avengers, who had made their appearance shortly before he’d woken up in the hospital. The new feeds had been still abuzz with anything information they could get and Phil eagerly devoured article after article. He strongly suspected his former self had a bit of a superhero obsession and after the third night of lost sleep in favour of Google searches, he neatly documented #62) Possible crush on Captain America. into his spiral notebook.
The notebook itself started off as an idea by his therapists, a way to help Phil ‘find himself‘. The first page had his new address and phone number carefully jotted down, then degraded quickly into anything and everything he suspected may have been true of his old self. In the days following his hospital release, it was filled with half thoughts and distracted scribbles in cramped little block letters. Things like #3) takes coffee strong with two sugars, and #28) boxers, not briefs and #51) disturbing fascination with bad reality tv shows. Day after day, he reread each page, slowly trying to cobble together a picture of his old life.
He‘d definitely be adding today, because Tony Stark was in the store, trying to ordering his coffee and the summer students were useless in the back, covertly taking pictures of him on cell phones they weren’t supposed to be carrying and giggling in the corner and all the while, all Phil could do was desperately fight down the irrational irritation that’d popped up the instant he saw the man.
“No comments from the peanut gallery please.” Phil admonished the students distractedly before putting on his best customer service face and going to the till.
Stark took one look at him and froze. “Coulson?”
Phil blinked, but responded politely. “I’m sorry sir, but I think you may have confused me with someone else.”
Stark studied him carefully, eyes narrowed and Phil fought the urge to fidget under his scrutiny. After a beat, he drawled, “Sure I have. And Romanoff is just my harmless little legal aid.”
Caught off guard, Phil rocking back slightly on his heels, lips pursed, and having absolutely no clue how he was supposed to respond. The moment stretched on awkwardly. And on. For someone who was rumoured never to shut up, Stark was doing a fantastic job of proving everyone wrong. They`d crossed the line into weird a long time ago, so after another beat of silence, Phil finally prompted, “Can I take your order?”
“Are you shitting me? We’re actually going to do this?“ Stark searched Phil’s face incredulously, looking for who knows what, but he doesn’t seem to find it. “Ok no, you’re not kidding. Of course not. That makes perfect sense, because Fury is a fucking lying liar who liars. I cannot believe I fell for it, that manipulative bastard. One good eye, my ass. Holy crap, Pepper’s not going to believe a word I say.”
And Phil, who’d been listening to Stark’s muttered conversation with himself and was starting to have some serious doubts about the man‘s supposed genius, smiled his best customer service #3 smile (his decide now or move the fuck out of the way smile) and asked, “Sir? Would you still like any coffee?”
“Jesus Christ, Coulson.” Stark swore and then at Phil’s distinctly unimpressed look, he sighed, “Fine, I’ll play.”
Phil had no idea what argument he just won, but he’d heard that Stark’d been a little off his rocker since he flew that nuke into another dimension, so he mentally shrugged and took Stark’s order. While he was rattling it off, Stark proceeded to take out his phone and flip through it, which automatically dropped Phil‘s opinion of the man another 50 points, but Phil was nothing if not professional and he keyed in Stark’s order without pause.
Stark lingered at the cash afterwards, looking like he wanted to say something, but Lemming Two (the emotionally unstable one) finished up his order (venti soy vanilla latte, triple shot, half sweet, extra hot - I mean it, it better scald my tongue hot, and no foam) and slide it across the counter with a slight flush. She giggled when he winked as he swept up his coffee and left, obliviously to the cloud of whispers that trailed him out.
The buzz that followed Tony Stark’s appearance settled quickly and soon the staff were back to the routine of order, cash, and fill.
That evening, Phil received another unusual customer.
She was a people watcher. Most people don’t come to coffee shops alone. Those who did brought the paper or books. They sat at the tables with earbuds crammed in their ears, heads buried, and did their level best to ignore the existence of everyone else in the store.
Not this one.
He dubbed her London Fog after the tea she ordered and the way she sifted through the crowd, near invisible despite the shock of vibrant red hair that fell in waves to her shoulders and her beautifully confident body. Everything about her should catch your eye, but somehow she wisped away to the corner and disappeared into the background, positioning herself to study the entire shop, hands curled around her mug, taking delicate sips past full blooded red lips.
No one paid her any mind but Phil. And though he never once caught her eyes on him, he couldn’t shake the prickle across the back of his neck that told him he was being watched.
Memory loss due to oxygen deprivation and traumatic events. Usually the memories came back, they said. Try to surround yourself with things that were familiar, they said. But as the days and weeks rolled by with no sign of progress, they slowly started to talk about other options.
Phil settled in Brooklyn because the nurse knew a nice elderly couple who were renting out their basement. He worked at the Starbucks because #2) can‘t function without coffee is underlined multiple times in his notebook, right under #1) raging dislike of early mornings. As it happened, he walked in for a coffee one day and managed to walk out with a job. The first thing he bought after paying rent was a computer and an internet connection.
Both the Brooklyn Public Library and Prospect Park were in easy walking distance of his apartment. Some days before his shift he’d walk to the library, pick out a book, then find a shady spot in the park to read. He liked espionage for the unintended humour and liked history because it reminded him he hadn‘t forgotten everything. When he felt indulgent, he picked up comic books and hid them in between the pages of his hardcovers.
The days fell into a well ordered routine of work, research, and physiotherapy and Phil acclimatized quite well, considering the extent of his memories originated from a point a little over a year ago.
But sometimes in the dead of the night he could feel the walls start to close in. Those nights, Phil would sneak up to the rooftop and stay perched half frozen and staring at the jagged skyline of Manhattan, seized by an untameable restlessness and a longing for something he didn’t know he’d missed.
Late one night, after Phil was well into his shift, a guy walked in who Phil was pretty sure had never been to a Starbucks before, judging from the way he stared at the menu board with undisguised bewilderment. In fact, Phil amended, he’d be willing to bet that he’d never been to a coffee shop in the 21st century before, as the blond came to the counter and asked in a puzzled but polite voice if they just had regular coffee anymore.
“Mild, medium, or bold?” Phil asked.
The blond looked pained.
Phil laughed “Newbie?” He was tall and spectacularly built, but also intriguingly shy for someone with his looks. He looked vaguely familiar but Phil couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
“What gave it away?” The blond answered dryly.
“Must have been your astounding command of our drink board.” Phil joked, smiled kindly to take the edge off, “So what brings you to the dark side?”
“A friend sent me a text. Said he found something I‘d be very interested in.”
“I‘m going to assume he didn’t mean the drip coffee. Unless your friend has a fascination with coffee machines.”
The blond laughed, catching Phil‘s eye and grinning widely. To Phil’s utter embarrassment, he flushed unwilling in response. Good looking and nice. That should be criminal. Oblivious, the blond continued, “He actually does have some pretty unhealthy obsessions with all things mechanical. Really, at this point, nothing would surprise me. So what would you recommend?”
“Drip or latte?”
“I’m going to pretend I knew what that meant and say either is fine. I don’t mind trying something new. Surprise me?”
Usually Phil hated it when people did that, but he couldn‘t help but be drawn in by how friendly the guy was. Phil poured him the Colombia bold he’d just finished brewing, threw in a sprinkle of cinnamon, nutmeg, a shot of vanilla, and finished it off with a dab honey and cream.
When Phil handed him his drink, the blond looked at him, oddly focused, “I’m Steve, by the way.”
Phil filed that away as he grasped the hand that Steve was holding out. “Phil.” He replied with customer service #5 smile (polite, but not too enthusiastic). He didn’t miss the slight drop in Steve’s expression but didn’t have time to contemplate it before it was gone.
Steve grabbed his drink and settled in the corner, the one that offered the best view of the room, before pulling out a large coiled notebook and a set of charcoals from the backpack he’d carried in with him. He stayed for hours, coming up to chat with Phil at regular intervals. Phil enjoyed the unexpected conversation, but he kept getting the vague notion that Steve was waiting for something to happen and seemed disappointed when it didn’t.
After that night, Steve became a regular, coming in nearly every Monday and sketching in the corner while Phil watched as discreetly as he could between customers. #153) Maybe a two on the Kinsey scale, Phil decided as Steve crosshatched a background with broad easy strokes of his hand.
The next time Steve showed up, he stayed until close and gave Phil a little half smile and wave as he left, the left side of his cheek quirking up and Phil mentally amended the two to a four.
When Phil woke, it was on the tail end of a big disaster in New York. Alien invasion, an orderly told him one day and Phil’s mind immediately flashed an image of a man with golden horns and a sinister blue glow and he didn’t even know he’d frozen still until the orderly snapped his fingers in front of his face and Phil came back to himself, heart racing and short of breath.
Back then his days were chequered with doctors, counsellors, and physio but in between were hours of boredom. Phil used that time for extra physio, sneaking in exercises in the hours he’d known no one would be checking on him, his roommate alternately keeping watch and cheering him on. He pushed himself easily past the limits the doctors set, knowing intuitively just how far his body could go.
When he physically couldn’t do any more, he’d spend time catching up on, well, everything. Even though it’d been weeks, the papers were still abuzz with news on the invasion. He’d read about the increase in national guard presence and knew it meant looting and crime. Read about the Avengers disappearing and recognized strategic retreat. Read about the aggressive wave of the summer flu that swept across the city and saw diversion.
The Avengers themselves were a mystery. The only one not gone from the limelight was Tony Stark and he’d been surprising closed-lipped about the issue, turning any conversation away with ease and cutting down the extra persistent with his razor sharp tongue.
It was unknown exactly who the Avengers were. From the invasion, there’d been only glimpses of the team, blurred captures of people moving too fast or too far out of range. A flash of blond hair and red cape. A series of black fletched arrows. A man and woman peeking up from behind an overturned taxi.
A few photos Phil could identify as PR shots disguised as amateur photos then smuggled into mainstream in an effort to increase goodwill towards the team - a profile of Captain America watching over a group of firefighters, his weight rested forward on one leg, shield tucked closely to his side. The Hulk drawing the attention of aliens away from a group of civilians.
Phil examined photo after photo, driven with the urge to know more and not having a single clue as to why.
They got a lot of students here during exam time. Stressed out looking kids with overflowing backpacks and too little sleep. Because of that Phil, who was usually pretty good at spotting regulars, found that with the sudden influx of students that this one somehow slipped under his radar. It took him a few weeks before he realized the guy came in regularly, not just before exams like most of the students.
The guy looked too old to be a student, grey hair slowly weaving its way through locks of his brown hair, but Phil thought he had the look of a PhD candidate. Every Wednesday, he brought in stacks of articles, a highlighter, and a laptop. He ordered a camomile tea with a soft voice and sat for hours reading through his papers, eyes skimming rapidly while his hands worried at the frayed edges of his sleeves under the table.
On some Wednesdays Tony Stark, of all people, would come and sit with Camomile guy. Not since that first time had Stark made any attempt to talk to Phil and Phil gladly dodged him in return. He just sat down with Camomile guy whenever he came in and struck up a conversation. They seemed to be discussing the papers, judging from the way Stark would occasionally dig through the pile to point out things.
Camomile guy was doing a paper on memory loss, he had mentioned offhandedly to Phil one day. A meta-analysis on the correlation between traumatic events and retrograde amnesia; and the rate and extent of memory recovery, more specifically. Why Tony Stark would be interested in that, Phil had no idea, but he himself certainly had a vested interested in the topic, for obvious reasons.
He used the opportunity as it was given, asking Camomile guy question after question under the guise of idle interest, but there was nothing he hadn’t come across before in his own research.
He was never close enough to hear exactly what else they would discuss, but he had to admit he was curious. Because regardless of what he thought of Stark, there had to be something good about the guy.. The nights he came in were the only nights he ever saw Camomile guy smile.
On the weekends, Phil went grocery shopping at the small store down the street.
Once, when he got home, he found himself putting away a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch he didn’t remember buying. He tried it one morning and nearly spit out the first bite. If this was something the old him liked, then the old him had some serious deficiencies in taste.
Phil had never been one for drinking coffee past seven at night because it tended to give him strange dreams, but he’d been at the store now since five thirty this morning and had to double shift to close because the little shit he hired to open didn‘t show and he got a frantic call from Lemming Two at 5:20am wondering if he could please come down here right now and open the store because the angry caffeine-deprived zombie mob was starting to gather .
By the time 10:30pm rolled around, Phil had been there over 16 hours and all the coffee orders were starting to sound like the adults off Peanuts. He was sorting out the paperwork and sipping on timed out Sumatra when the masked guy came in demanding the contents of his register.
Strangely enough, his first reaction was to hold back a sigh, because seriously, could this day actually get any worse?
The guy pulled out a gun.
Yup, Phil thought, there it goes.
Phil felt his adrenaline jump, but without the panic that usually accompanied it. The sounds of customers shrieking and the scraping of tables and chairs fell to the background as Phil’s vision narrowed on the gunman and his weapon.
Amateur, Phil realized as the robber came into range, too close to keep his advantage and gun gripped white knuckled with both hands. His finger was on the trigger but there was no stability in his stance. There was a hint of uncertainty in his eyes, a hesitation that screamed at Phil and he acted without thinking.
Phil lashed out an arm, catching the would be robber’s wrist, twisting it hard, down and away, while his upper body jerked back to place himself out of the trajectory of the bullet just in case he got a shot off. The movement turned out to be unnecessary because in his surprise, the guy couldn’t tighten his finger before Phil forced the gun from his hand.
Still holding tight to his wrist, Phil came up and over the counter, using his momentum to knock the robber back then spin him face first to the ground, both arms twisted up behind him and pinned under Phil’s knee. Swiftly, he ejected the gun clip and emptied the chamber before dropping both out of reach.
The whole time, Phil could feel himself going through the motions, but it felt incredibly surreal, like flashes of a dream. Even after the robber was pinned underneath him, Phil’s whole body continued to drum with adrenaline, primed and ready for the next attack. Except another attack never came and Phil slowly came back to himself.
He looked around for help and caught sight of Lemming Three (the lazy one) behind the counter. He had his cell phone out and was alternately snapping pictures and gaping incredulously at Phil.
“Dude.” he said, while Phil was trying to find his bearings, “That was sick.“
“Did you at least call the police?” Phil called out dryly and he was proud to admit, without a trace of a tremor in his voice.
Lemming Three was saved from replying by Steve because of course, it was Monday and Steve was there with his sketchpad and his venti 2% half-caf, 2 pumps caramel, 1 pump vanilla, 1 pump cinnamon dolce.
Steve calmly took over, pulling out his phone and explaining the situation to the police.
By now, reality was crashing down hard. Phil thought he was actually handling things quite well until Steve was suddenly there steering Phil into the chair by the fireplace and gently pushing his head down in between his knees and ok, maybe he’d just sit this one out for a bit.
He was pretty sure he wasn’t going to get the closing list done in time and should probably leave a note for the opening manager. Was forced to ninja a robber into submission. No time to restock the coffee cups. Phil composed half hysterically in his mind. Ninja, that‘s going in the book. Phil decided and started to hyperventilate.
Steve’s hand was rubbing warm circles on his back as Phil gasped for breath, and he clung desperately to the sensation, trying to find any sort of anchor in the craziness.
Later, Phil sat at his desk and stared at his hands, curled so casually around his pen, the rough cuticles and unfamiliar patterns of calluses slowly going soft after a year of inactivity and he wondered what else they may have done.
A day later, he was back at work and other than some outrageous gossip, it was like nothing had ever happened. The only plus side was that Phil’s reputation as a badass spread like wildfire among the staff and he no longer had to ask twice to get anything done.
Phil fell back to routine easily enough, but underneath his skin was buzzing with restlessness. His mind kept wandering off as he ran the till.
“That’s impressive.” Lemming One’s comment startled him back into the present.
“Excuse me?” Phil asked distractedly while tapping orders out on the keypad.
“The Russian. It‘s a hard language to learn.”
Confused, he glanced up at her, “Russian?”
She looked uncertainly at him. “That’s what you were speaking to that couple, wasn’t it?” She jerked her head over to the couple in the corner who are curled over their drinks and speaking in rapid fire conversation. A conversation, Phil realized with a start, that he could understand perfectly well.
Huh. Phil blinked. That’s going in the book.
After his shift, he headed straight to the library where he discovered that it wasn’t just Russian he knew.
He stopped looking after the tenth language, abruptly shoving the books across the table as if it could ease the ceaseless flow of questions flooding his mind.
It was London Fog girl who brought him in.
He remembered her from her hair, beautiful fiery locks that curled around her face when she ordered. He remembered her from every Friday for a few weeks now, usually the last hour or two before close when most of the crowd had thinned out. Sitting herself in the corner with her back to the wall and spending the night slowly sipping away, eyes casually taking in the remaining patrons. When there was no one else save the staff in the store, she usually lost herself in thought, though never enough to lose awareness of her surroundings.
For the first time since he had noticed her, she'd brought company.
Phil'd only caught a glimpse of the couple out of the corner of his eye as they came in, but once inside, they had a fierce whispered conversation which drew his attention to them. He almost didn’t recognize her at first, her face was pinched and tight. It was the most expressive he’d ever seen her face.
Lemming One was at the till, getting better, but she still needed the practise, so Phil left her to it, instead he made the drinks and filled supplies for the next morning.
She made him sit at her usual table in the corner before she ordered, the usual venti London Fog for herself, and a latte with a disturbing combination of syrups for him. Irish cream and melon, Phil read the markings with a mental wince. That was just wrong.
He wondered if they were married, the two of them. They had a body language that spoke of closeness, but he had a pale strip of skin where a wedding band once sat recently and she didn’t. He wondered if maybe they were just fucking each other on the side. They didn’t seem like the type.
Phil liked to make a game of it, which couples were just starting, which ones have been going out for a while, and which ones were married with 2.5 kids and a dog. He was usually pretty good at it, but this couple was a little harder to place.
He had automatically assumed they were on a date when they walked in, but he changed his mind as the night rolled on. It was their body language. They way they turned into each other, the way they let silences lapse through their conversation, but it wasn’t flirtatious nor romantic. Just comfortable.
They were both very attractive people, but they just didn’t mesh in Phil’s mind. She was too put together, every inch of her planned and placed and poised. He was in jeans and a hoodie, combat boots haphazardly put on and laces sloppily tied. He’d been wearing sunglasses when they came in, despite the lateness of the night, and when he slipped them off, Phil could see why.
He had the air of a someone who’d been sick lately. Phil could see it in the slump of his shoulders, the dark circles under bloodshot eyes, the hunched over posture that Phil instinctively knew wasn’t there before.
They were still arguing, it took Phil a while to spot it, but he could tell the discussion had taken a turn back into heated words. Phil tried not to watch but he couldn’t take his eyes away, spending the minutes in between customers stealing glances at the couple.
One glance timed exactly right for Phil to catch the guy’s furtive look and they both froze. He looked uncertain, gaze stuck like a deer in the headlights. Then London Fog spoke and with a light touch to his arm, her boyfriend/not-boyfriend broke off, scrubbed a hand over his face as he replied.
He was easier to read than her, eyes flashing as he leaned forward to challenge her. Phil couldn’t tell what they were talking about, they were sitting too far away, but the argument continued long after their coffee was done. Finally it seemed he conceded and leaned back in his chair, head turned out the window and body tight with tension.
She didn’t look any happier than him but slid her hand over his on his coffee cup, still talking and Phil saw him relax fractionally. A minute later he pulled away with a sigh.
Crushing his empty coffee cup, he stretched back in his seat to toss it into the trash bin, a near impossible shot that Phil wouldn’t have believed if he hadn’t see it. As he did, his shirt rode up and Phil caught sight of a scar.
Right above his hipbone, a starburst shape that Phil instantly knew meant bullet wound and he blinked and suddenly Phil was seeing him in a different time, a different place. He could feel warm flesh beneath his hands, feel blood that won’t stop leaking out from between his fingers.
Phil jerked back in surprise, shaking his head violently as if to clear it and tried to slow the racing of his heart. He didn’t dare look over again. Instead he refilled the coffee beans drawers, having to concentrate to accomplish the task with hands that wouldn’t stop shaking.
That night he dreamt of flying ships and dodging bullets and two people in dressed in shadows, fighting between meagre slates of light.