A Day in a Life Well Lived

March 21, 2018:

An improbable situation prompts a sudden rescue from Ms. Marvel. Phil Coulson finds a kindred spirit.

Jersey City

It's a place with magical hot dogs.


NPCs: None.

Mentions: Bucky Barnes, Tony Stark, Captain America, Peggy Carter, Daredevil, Sloane Albright, Sally Stojespal, Dani Moonstar


Mood Music: [*\# None.]

Fade In…

And lo though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death.

Phil Coulson has gotten the memo. He has.

He's gotten the memo that someone has already passed through that valley and on into the light. RIP Peggy Carter, the Original.

Perhaps it was that moment of bowed-head grief and unhappiness that the clock had run out that had him off his guard for half a second. Enough to result in this kind of a day…cuffed with a gun at his side as a helicopter goes chop-chop-choppering over Jersey City. He's got his standard 'oh, I appear to be cuffed in a helicopter with a gun shoved into my side' smile on his face.

There's some villian talking, some blah blah blah, these people aren't even Hydra. They're Humans First, high ranking, well-resourced. They want him to do some stuff he's not in any mood to do. He listens. Very patient. A father who is hearing children play without paying much attention what they say.

And finally he simply nods and says, "No, thank you."

If today is the day, he will briefly regret that he's not gotten his affairs completely in order yet. He will regret that his final moments weren't more awesome, more meaningful, just him taking a stand after getting himself captured.

But he will do it on his terms.

And that is how Ms. Marvel gets to watch a 50-something handcuffed man leap out of the open door of a helicopter with no chute as a startled gunman fires over his head.

It's not the sort of thing you see— the sort of thing anyone sees— often enough to get used to it.

Kamala was really just taking some time for herself. Relaxing in the sun, no less. It's a lovely spring day and, well, there's no grass in the park to lie in so she's relaxing on the astroturf on top of a building, watching the clouds, the sky, the helicopter, the… man jumping out of a helicopter, the faint sound of gunfire…

It's a blessing for Coulson that he's immediately above the building Kamala chose for sunbathing. She stares wide-eyed up at him for just an instant, then…

…then embiggens. An awful lot. It's like watching a red and blue air mattress inflate, except that the air mattress is as wide as the top of a building and at least ten feet thick. She's calculating the physics in her head as she goes, but the numbers are getting confusing and finally she just really, really hopes that this works.

It's not the sort of thing you see every day, a young lady embiggifying. Turning herself into a mattress.

Coulson hits Kamala hard, instead of hard pavement, depending on where his ultimate trajectory put him. And his first thought is…

Huh. So this is what death is like. Landing on a giant mattress woman.

He recovers quickly enough not to say anything like that. In fact, he recovers fast enough to suddenly get with the program and gasp, "Thanks, now hurry, they're Humans First and you've just…"

Yep. The helicopter is whipping back around, and the machine guns affixed to it? Now firing at one Ms. Marvel of Jersey City. And also at Phil.

"Really gotten their attention!"

Phil really has no defense. A nice suit, cuffed hands, and he's sort of…not really able to do much while bouncing in mattressy goodness. But right now he's more concerned with making sure his savior doesn't get perforated.

The bad part of turning into an enormous Coulson-rescuing mattress is that it makes you a really enormous target. Like, impossible to miss. The great part is that getting hit with bullets isn't as huge a problem as it might be. She can't dodge them, though, which means the mattress is deflating really quickly.

Little Ms. Marvel is there, kneeling bleeding on the rooftop and gritting her teeth. "Okay," she says. "That was seriously uncool — head for the fire door, fast! I need… a minute…" But as much as she might need a minute, she's on her feet again, running through the excruciating pain and grabbing Phil's wrist to drag him along with her. It should be the work of seconds to get through that door with some bricks and a roof between them and the helicopter. There's just a very few square feet of concrete for them to stand on.

Kamala leans against the steel door, panting and clutching her side. "Humans First, huh? Sounds like a bunch of winners. Who are you?"

"Agent Phil Coulson. You're bleeding!" His hands are cuffed in front at least, and he almost ineffectually tries to clamp his hands onto one of the wounds on her arm or something.

She's bleeding, but distantly he notes she has fantastic instincts. And can apparently maintain them and continue moving through multiple bullet wounds. Who is this kid? Color him impressed.

But it's only distant, because his hazel eyes are wide with serious concern.

"They can't land," he says. "And they didn't expect that. If we stay in cover we'll be fine; six minutes and other helicopters will show up to figure out who that is not law enforcement is shooting into civilian areas. But we've got to get you medical attention…"

Because he's also really used to bossing people around. Even when they clearly don't need it. Don't mind him.

"Shh—hey! It's fine! I'm fine!" Ms. Marvel catches Phil's hands, grunting in pain and finally —

"Agent?" This brings a puzzled blink as it hits her. "…Agent Coulson. How many times've you pulled a bullet out of a gunshot wound? I can. Heal! It's fine. Except if there's a bullet there, that really causes problems. If you could just… grab it, that would be super, because it's right in a spot where I can't reach it. They got me through the—hnnngh, OW. Shoulder. No exit wound. Still there. Word to the… wise, bullet against the bone? Really. Hurts."

She stares up at him for a moment, then shakes her head swiftly: "They try that again, they're going to hurt someone. Else. Someone else. Just. Ow."

"Only about 5,000," Phil says dryly. "Once with a butter knife in Beirut. That wasn't a great day. Okay. Let's…I mean I've only done it handcuffed twice. I'll need…something to work with. Booze. Let's…"

Let's what? They're in a random apartment building. He decides her shoulder is the one to try to awkwardly clasp with pressure, and looks around, blowing out his cheeks. If they break into anyone's home they're going to freak someone right out.

"Screw this. You got a cellphone, kiddo? This is what we call a 'call for extraction' sort of situat…"

Then he trails off. Because he can't just call anyone for extraction. It will have to be one of a handful of trusted agents who might not be nearby. As his rescuer bleeds.

"This is what we call a 'call in a fake bomb threat' sort of situation. Can you look up the number for the super of this building and put me on speaker?"

"Trust me," Ms. Marvel replies through her teeth—and with an almost-smile, almost amused. "There's no booze in this building. But I can get my hands on some actual first aid stuff. We just have to get past the guard first." Very dangerous. Very nosy. Very Mom.

Yeah. Kamala was chilling on top of her own roof.

She pulls out her phone but she's shaking her head at the same time: "Only if you can do some agent trickery to hide the number. Ameer knows my cell number. It's in his contacts." This is where she kind of wishes she'd taken the Titans up on their mobile plan. Too late now. She bites her lip, but she does offer the phone.

He hesitates. It's her apartment but she wants him to call in the threat…

He realizes why. "Ahhh. Secret identity issues. Alright. Ok. Punch this into your phone first. 99-22, 84-7, pound, pound, star, zero. There should be a horrific shriek, and then you can dial Ameer. And then just stay really quiet. First aid stuff will do even better than booze."

He can't easily dial it while holding her shoulder and handcuffed, after all. "If you have some paperclips or something that would be good too," he says. "Much easier with free hands. I'm sorry to get you all wrapped up in this. You must be Ms. Marvel. I've heard of you. Everyone speaks very well of you. I can see why now."

"I— really?" Kamala stares in astonishment. She even smiles brightly. It's a little ghoulish, what with the blood and all. Obediently enough, she punches in the numbers as she replies: "Think I've heard your name in the SHIELD cafeteria. Thought you'd be… scarier. Think I've got tweezers." She shuts up then, even holds her breath as the phone starts to ring. She taps the speaker button and offers it to Coulson.

His smile is wry. He gets that a lot.

"Only on Tuesdays," he murmurs, on the matter of being scarier.

But then he speaks into the phone.

Upon the answering of…Ameer? Presumably?

"This is Agent Phil Coulson, Regional Director of SHIELD," he says, in his most official tones. The fact that a chopper was out there shooting ought to sell this. And doing this kind of illegal thing very legally (in a roundabout way) is a perk of the job. "My authorization code is 55779-beta-5; you may call that in to the Triskelion to verify. We've gotten word that your building may be under threat from an explosive device. It is important that you get all the apartments evacuated while we get the squad in here."

Which means he's going to have to get a squad in here to check and verify it as explosive-free, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. He'll put together something that looks vaguely threatening for them to find and clear so the civilians don't suspect anything. It's a huge waste of resources, but in the position SHIELD is in lately, that he is in, that his allies are in? Necessary.

Kamala actually looks pale, and not just because the blood is draining from her face. "My parents are going to freak," she whispers after he hangs up the phone. At least her brother is probably out of the house with his wife. She's due any day now, and they're constantly going to the obstetrician for something or other. And her father's still at work. But her mother…

"H'okay. If you can just hang out here for a minute…" Still bleeding. Still not pretty. She grimaces, pushing a hand over the wound, then grabbing her scarf off her neck and tying it tightly as she can. Her fingers are fumbling a little, but it's not nothing. Kamala heads for the stairs, looking down to realize at last that Coulson's wrists are cuffed. Explains a lot.

"Two minutes. Tops. You need a lockpick and I need… a full first aid kit. Be right back."

Coulson looks really worried about her bleeding and moving, but there's…not a lot of choice here. A handcuffed guy wandering through a building he doesn't belong in seems like it's going to provoke a bad scene no matter what happens. So he just sits down in the little stairwell and waits for her, praying she's not going to bleed out between here and there. She seems really chipper for someone who just got shot, but what people don't realize is there are a lot of important parts of the circulatory system in the shoulders, and getting hit there is more dangerous than television would lead most to believe.

And he feels like crap for having to let her go ahead, but it's necessary. And…well. She is basically a vigilante operative at this point, perhaps in the same category as where he might place Daredevil, and that means he needs to treat her like an equal, one he isn't in charge of, at that. And that means shutting up while he beats himself up over letting a young lady who sounds like she can't possibly have found her way to her 25th year yet bleed her way down the stairs to get supplies.

The bullet wound doesn't concern Kamala near as much as it really ought to. She's in more danger than she realizes, which is primarily a result of adrenaline and secondarily due to not being as good at biology as she is at, say, programming and robotics and making too many doubles of herself that one time. She's a lot more concerned with slipping past her mother in the kitchen.

Getting to the first aid kit involves a very careful maneuver, not to mention silence and stealth to rival SHIELD's finest agent. Luckily, the tea kettle is whistling, the rice is boiling, and the radio is playing. Also luckily, there's a bathroom door just next to the apartment door. There's a first aid kit under the sink; if she can just…

One minute and forty-five seconds later and a very pale Kamala is heading a little more slowly back up the stairs. She's doing her best to keep everything contained, which means she hasn't left too many bloodstains on the tile floor. One thing at a time. "Heyyyy," she says. "Five bucks says you can absolutely pick your own handcuff lock with a pair of fine tipped tweezers? I really hope you can." Since she doesn't look up to much.

"Oh yeah, those will do."

Phil takes them awkwardly, and what follows is a thing of beauty. The man has nothing in the way of superpowers, but he can pick a lock with fine tipped tweezers in less than thirty seconds. He shakes them away and then pops open the kit. "Let's get to it," he says grimly.

He withdraws a lighter; those fine tipped tweezers are now getting field-sterilized. "I need to either cut away just a little bit of your suit around the wound or you need to…do your thing a little bit to get it out of my way, either's fine," he says gently. He's not sure what she can do, the suit, after all, seemed to basically stretch with her to make her into Airmattress Marvel. Either way he can't risk poking fabric back into the wound. Rubbing alcohol is poured over the tweezers, and then he sterilizes it again.

"So your pain tolerance seems like it's off the charts. Is that because you were scared out of your mind or is it a thing normally? Because unlike doctors, I'll tell the truth, and this is going to hurt a lot."

Kamala, meanwhile, is leaning up against the wall to watch Phil Coulson make extremely short work of a pair of handcuffs. She lets out a low and appreciative whistle.

If only people wolf-whistled at impressive actions more often than pretty ladies. Anyway.

She obediently starts pulling at the costume. "It's stretchy," she agrees. "I can't. Morph when I'm hurt? So this'll have to do. I can get.. most of it, but if you have to cut it, I can always fix it."

She slides down the wall then, sitting on the floor and giving Phil a wan but cheerful smile. "I think it was adrenaline? Because it kind of hurts now and I'm a liiiiittle light-headed. But I've done this before. Almost certainly not going to bite off my tongue. …Would probably heal even if I did."

"Okay, so your job is not to thrash, okay? I'll be as gentle and as fast as I can be. Sometimes these are mutually exclusive though."

He kneels beside her and pulls a little flashlight out. He sticks that into his mouth to act as a makeshift surgical light, pours some rubbing alcohol over the wound, which probably also does not feel great, and then goes looking to see if he can't spot the bullet before he starts digging around for it. If he can't he'll just have to gently probe, but he does the best he can.

"Talk to me while I work," he suggests, only slightly garbled by the flashlight. "Anything that will distract you. I would ask questions but they'll all be personal and full of markers to secrets you don't want to reveal. Well, maybe not. What's your favorite band? Tell me about them."

"I — I know. Not my first bullet. People get really cranky when you try to thwart their evil deeds. Mind control. Cults. Gentrification and apathy. HYDRA stuff." Kamala leans back and closes her eyes, bracing herself. It's not a pleasant time, and the bullet's pretty deeply in there. She grimaces but doesn't go thrashing about, as requested, when he starts poking around.

"Uhm. Yeah, 's a good one, let's go with that. Band. Local band called Higher Than Hell Upstairs. There was this bluegrass band in — in Jersey City of… hhh… of all places, and. And the punk band lost their guitarist and they were looking for a… new one, and…" Her eyes squeeze closed. Tears actually stream out. "Um hm. So they… the punks still thrash but they got a steel guitar and they agreed on a name, and if you've never HEARD bluegrass punk you really gotta try 'em out, okay? Do you. Hey. Agent Coulson. Do you like hot dogs?"


The bullet hits the stairwell. He just lets it stay there, bloody, there's no real need to save it in a glass of alcohol or anything. Later he'll make sure it gets cleaned up, but for now he's far more concerned with giving her wound another dose of alcohol. "Can you instaheal that now or do I need to bandage it?" he asks gently. "And yes, I do like hot dogs a great deal. I should buy you one, you just kept me from becoming street pizza and got shot for the privilege, after all."

He watches her critically, putting the flashlight away but ready to administer more first aid if he needs to, ready to back off if that's the right thing to do. His hazel eyes reflect more avuncular concern, his brows drawing down even as he issues her a smile. Obviously not the cuffed-in-copter smile. This is the I'm-really-worried-for-someone-else-smile that goes with the lines crinkling about those eyes of his.

Raising her hand, Kamala nods. "I just need a sec. It's pretty insta— ah!"

She shudders, grimaces, and then itches the spot where the bullet wound used to be. "Oh, jeez. Thanks. You did a good job. The last person who pulled a bullet out of me? Was me. I am not good at it, and I had to be completely quiet because I was doing it in my own bedroom mirror, and Mom does not like the sound of screaming at two in the morning."

She takes the alcohol then, daubing a gauze pad with it and starting to clean herself off. "Which is why I hid first aid kits basically everywhere, and why the roof clearly needs one now." At last she gives Phil a proper look, and… and you can't help trusting that face. There's something very Dad about that face, even though he doesn't look a thing like HER dad, nor any of her uncles. It's the same glint in the eyes, the same genuine smile, the same worry and care. For a moment she just tilts her head quizzically at him, and then:

"Wow. You've gotta be a really good agent." Deeeep breath. "Okay. In exchange for you buying and also helping me up, I'm going to show you the best kept secret in Jersey City. Better kept than my shreds of a secret identity, Secret Agent Man. I'm going to show you… the Doom Dog."

Yeah, she is just giving him her secret identity at this point, really. What's left is the thin veneer of his respect. He plucks up the bullet, wipes her blood away, and offers it to her as a gesture of trust. He will not run DNA tests on it, say, for later. He will not put together the last final shreds to link Ms. Marvel with a young lady with a Mom in this very apartment building. "It has got to be rough, dodging Mom," he says with a wince of understanding. It's said in the same mild, gentle voice he's used for their entire interaction, save for the very early bits where there was an active crisis taking place.

A Cheshire Cat smile, now, for being told he must be a good agent. "I do my best," is all he says.

He stands and offers a hand to help her up, eyebrows lifting with interest. "Anywhere that calls itself the Doom Dog has got to be good," he admits.

And his hazel eyes genuinely light up. Like he is actually very excited to go do something simple, like eat a really great hot dog.

It's possible that's exactly true.

To be fair, Sloane knows who she is. Sally knows who she is. Tony knows who she is. Phil would just have been a matter of time; not that she really knows that, but. Well. It's politeness and respect and also the fact, possibly, that she's really easy to find even if nobody knows exactly who she is.

She's not GREAT at the secret identity thing. And since it's mostly to keep her family safe, one more person's hands are probably okay to keep it in.

She stands and finishes cleaning off the blood with the now unfortunately rust-colored gauze pad; tucking it into her pocket, she makes a mental note to clean up the floors up here. Or see if any of the other interns invented a cleaning robot. As for Ms. Marvel herself? Looking just fine.

"Okay, then," she says. "We should… maybe go down the fire escape, check if those guys are gone. And if they're not, they're going to see what it's like to tangle with me when I'm NOT a hundred feet wide." She opens the door to the roof again, stepping out cautiously but with conviction.

There's nobody. There are some black helicopters that definitely belong to various agencies, including SHIELD, clopping away up there, and there's no sign of the Humanity First helicopter at all. Phil, nevertheless, puts out a gentle hand, and pulls out a pair of the dorkiest looking glasses ever. They're a little cracked, but she hits a button on the top of them and runs…some sort of scan. Faint blue holographic lines move through the air, scan the alley, even ,as he leans over to look.

Then, and only then, does he nod.

"Clear," he says softly.

Sure, he loves simple things like getting hot dogs. But considering how they met, and the sword that continues to hang over his neck? Even lunch becomes a security risk. "Lead the way, Ms. Marvel," he says.

For a hot minute, Kamala really thought Coulson was trying to put on a disguise. The worst disguise she could imagine; who would fail to recognize Phil Coulson in glasses?

(Though it's fair to say that he's an ordinary looking man. An ordinary looking man with a smile that reminds everyone of their favorite uncle. He could be a truly deadly agent.

The second part of their acquaintance is a lot easier to handle. The fire escape has been well treated to avoid rust and creaking, not least because Ms. Marvel uses it most nights. Whether it's due to her cleaning herself up with the rubbing alcohol or just carefully shapeshifting it away, she's no longer bloody and messed up. When they get to the ground at last, she actually checks Phil over: no blood except for the few flecks he got when he was cleaning her up. No worse than an average day in Jersey City. Hardly anyone will notice.

The walk to the park is a short one. It might puzzle Phil that the food cart she's heading for has a pretzel on the front, but the smell of the hot dogs is darn tempting. He might even have the chance to notice, while not being shot at, the red-white-and-blue Doc Martens Kamala sports, complete with red and white stripes and a blue toecap with a big white star. They look like they were lifted from Captain America's combat costume collection.

"So why was Humanity First pushing you out of a helicopter today? Or why were you jumping out, I guess I should say?" It's casual conversation.

Indeed, Phil shucks his suit jacket and throws it over his shoulder. It's too valuable to throw away, being of a sort of bullet-proof weave that probably also helped to keep him from being perforated. He's not bothered by the lingering chill in the March air, it seems. With that gone, the blood on his person is completely concealed, leaving only a blue dress shirt with the first few buttons unbuttoned. It shows off his gun harness, but the gun in it at the moment is nothing law enforcement wouldn't wear. Indeed, those simple transformations, along with a slight change in demeanor, seem to sort of make him look like hard-jawed Jersey cop with slightly fatherly air, not agent anything. But then, he hardly ever looks like agent anything, as she has already observed.

He does look down at her shoes. And he murmurs, "You're a Cap admirer too!"

Totally delighted.

But then she's asking a relevant question, and Phil says dryly, "Pushed, jumped, the guy with the gun made it the same thing. They wanted me to reverse my anti-registration stance, and to stop trying to push SHIELD into a firmer anti-registration stance. I said no. It was a thing. Apparently when you say foolish things to the press you get some attention. Proof that yes, you can enter your fifties, have a successful anti-terrorism career under your belt and still act like a moron…"

But he's briefly distracted by the menu, eyes widening in appreciation at the selection.

It's a heck of a transformation. He just turned from battleweary secret agent to Detective Dad. "And I thought I was a shapeshifter," Ms. Marvel mutters, clearly amused and appreciative.

The delight in his voice is matched, at least, in hers when he says that: "Omigosh, you noticed? For pretty much my whole life! I have all his comic books. And action figures. And a stuffed Cap pillow and I'd really appreciate it if you didn't mention that the next time you see him, because it was hard for me not to admit it when I got to meet him, too."

His reasoning for jumping out of a perfectly good helicopter, albeit one staffed with Humanity Jerks, softens her expression and she nods her understanding. "You stand on your convictions. Even when you've got nothing left to stand on. That can't be easy for an agent." An agent with taste, she notes, as he gazes at the menu. A broad grin: "The secrets are the pretzel bun, the kosher/halal dog, and the sauce. You can't go skimpy and mild on the sauce. It's goodbye to sinus problems but hello to Planet Flavor. D'you want one or two? He has cane sugar Cokes, too, if you want one."

He doesn't always carry them.

But he's been carrying them since Dani Moonstar's revelation to him in the elevator. Nostalgia, maybe. A reminder to have courage. The baseball cards. Captain America and the special one he had made for Peggy Carter. The Howling Commandos. Bucky Barnes. He's now had the privilege to know some of these people.

Who does he have to pass them to, really?

"It's okay," he says gently. "I babbled about watching him sleep the first time we met. I was there to help pull him out of the ice. I have been almost ridiculous every time I've ever gotten to go on a mission with him. I'm just glad I never told him I dressed up as Bucky when I was 8 so I could be his bestest friend ever. Or. Bucky either. For that matter."

She tells him the secret, and a smile flickers on his features. "Two, with cane sugar Cokes. It is time to get the full experience."

Good, he got the recommendation. Even better.

But he is reaching into the inner pocket of his shirt, where his bulletproof vest also is, and where the cards are kept. He takes them out, offers them to her.

He clears his throat against a sudden lump. She's like Cap in her own way, this sweet kid from Jersey. He can see it in her, burning brightly.

"Listen," he says softly. "There's a good chance I'll be going on a…long-term mission I won't be back from for awhile, in places nobody wants to go. And I don't want these just sitting around collecting dust where nobody will appreciate them. They've…kind of been…well, not really a good luck charm. More like a…do good, Phil, charm…for a long time. But I think you kind of embody what they represent. Better than I ever could have."

The man who shot a helpless woman in the head for the greater good on Christmas Day. And has done darker deeds still. He pledged to be the shield, and he was. If the shield isn't a symbol, it doesn't much matter if it acquires some tarnish. Or a great good deal. Heroism is for others. Like Ms. Marvel. He just…does his job.

It was the choice he made, when he chose that role over all others. That his legacy would never go to any one person. That maybe, people who he only just met would carry bits of it forward.

Peggy Carter gave her his pins the day she retired, to inspire him, to help him carry the torch forward, because she thought she saw something.

He has no SSR pins. He has these. And he thinks he sees something.

Inveterate spy that he is, there's not a hint of melancholy on his face. Just a gentle smile.

Man. Hearing that? She knows he's a good guy. Nobody wears a Bucky Barnes costume when they're eight and turns out to be a bastard as an adult. It's science. Kamala actually looks misty when he says that. She's a heart-on-her-sleeve kind of person. It's hard for her to hide what she feels, and what she feels right now is fellow-feeling.

She turns then to get the Doom Dogs, waving to the vendor and calling out the order before turning back to Phil. Her expression is quizzical again when he starts to talk, and she starts to look a little worried. But surely he's just feeling his mortality after having fallen— jumped— out of a helicopter. That's all it is. Still…

She extends a hand, taking the cards he offers and peering at them in her hands. For a fellow aficionado, it takes just an instant to recognize what she has in her hands. Sure, they're worth a heck of a lot to any collector, but they're worth more to people who get it. Coulson gets it. It's a moment before Kamala can even comprehend just what they must mean to him.

A deep breath. "I… will hold on to these until you come back for them," she says. She tucks them into the secret compartment of her bangle, closing it tightly and bringing her arm up to rest over her heart. "They'll be safe. Maybe," she adds, a little twinkle in her eye, "I'll get them autographed for you. I mean, a fiftysomething agent might have a harder time asking the big Cap himself than a relentlessly cheerful nineteen year old."

The dogs are ready fast. The pop bottles are popped. Ms. Marvel gently shoulderchecks Coulson and nods toward a path in the park: "Come on. See one of my favorite spots."

He pays for them as promised, of course, the Doom Dogs, and his smile gentles even more when she accepts them without protest. There's even a little relief. Some might have turned them down. He feels a little lighter that she did not, feels that he made the right choice, when she does not.

"I'd be much obliged if you could get them autographed," he admits. "I chickened right out before I could."

He shoulderchecks her gently back, companionable, feeling like he's known her for a lifetime. He hasn't, of course. But maybe those who get it know each other on some soul's wavelength, instead. He supposes he might well know, soon enough.

In the meantime, he takes a big bite of a fantastic hotdog. Chews. Swallows. Looks blissfully impressed. It's a good hotdog in its own right, and he's learning to stop and really taste things. Not to gulp his food. To stop and have one. To appreciate it all, the dance of flavors across his tongue, the pop-hiss of the bottle of cane Coke as it's opened, a sound that he can't even be cynical about. Generations of marketers made that sound like fun and happiness and good people all around, and he can't begrudge them that. That's what it sounds like, to him.

"Sounds wonderful," he says, and he means every moment of it. Today, this moment, he has these privileges. A great hotdog, great companionship, and a favorite spot in a Jersey park that not everyone even gives a second glance. He'll breathe deeply to memorize its smell, look at everything to fix the picture in his mind, and count it as another day in a life well lived.

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