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Every Hero Needs an Origin Story

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Mike Casper walks into his office at 7:29 on the dot with a well-deserved if unwanted hangover fuzzing his head. A red button on his office phone blinks an angry, persistent red. Congratulatory messages, no doubt. He's sure he doesn't want to listen to them. But he has to deal with it. Rules of the game, and Casper plays by the rules. That's why he let his team take him out to Mulrooney's to celebrate. So he pulls out a pad, crashes into his chair, and prepares to note everyone who congratulated him. Thank you notes are also part of the rules.

"Mike, it's Tina Johnson at ATF. I heard you nabbed the gang who did the Hartford job. Good work!"

"Agent Casper. This is Nick Fury. Don't call us, we'll call you."

"Mike! Josh Lyman here. Uh... I wanted to call and see how you're doing and uh... I know you said you guys don't do curtain calls, but if you stop by the West Wing President Bartlet would like to shake your hand again. Call me, okay?"

"Mikey, old boy... you know who this is! Great job with that counterfeiting racket. From the stories going around, that was a real solid piece of detecting. Keep it up and you'll make chief in no time."

"Mike, it's your brother. Mom told me we're going to be celebrating this weekend. O'Donnell's Restaurant on K Street sound good? I know you love their dumplings. Friday night's what mom said. I can't get there before 7:30, but I wouldn't miss it for the world. Congratulations, little brother. You've made us all proud. I take credit, you know. You spent your whole childhood building cases against me for stealing cookies from the cupboard. Anyway, I'll see you on Friday."

"Agent Casper, uh... Josh Lyman again. I just wanted to say, even if you don't stop by my office, you should just call me and we'll grab a drink. It's been too long since we've caught up. I smiled when I saw your name again in the briefing book."

The messages continue in this vein for a while. Casper takes careful notes in a small, neat hand. It takes thirteen minutes to get through them. At 7:44 he throws the pad back on his desk, and goes out of his office to see what his team is up to. Without thinking about it he locks the door behind him out of habit.

"Hey, big boss man," says a tall brunette with round cheeks, a sarcastic leer, and a slight limp. "How're you feeling today?"

He follows her into the conference room and takes a seat at the head of the table. She sits immediately to his left. "Oh, I'm okay, Molly. Takes a lot more than a sophisticated gang of counterfeiters and gunrunners to take down Special Agent in Charge Michael Casper," he says as the rest of his team fills up the room and surrounds the table.

"I wasn't worried about the Hartford gang, sir." she retorts. "I was worried about the case of Sam Adams you destroyed afterward."

"You shouldn't have worried about that. I have plenty of body mass to soak up that booze. It was you I was worried about. You're a little slip of a thing and you were pounding boilermakers like you were still at BU."

"Tiny little slip of a thing who can kick your ass. While I'm drunk."

"Be that as it may, Agent O'Bannon, I'd like us to get back to work here. Richardson, update on the Meyers case?"

A short black man at the back of the table looks him straight in the eye and starts filling him in on the details. "Ballistics confirm at least two AR-15 assault rifles and a Beretta M9 were fired at the scene of crime. They're running the profiles to find a match in the database, but you know how that's going to go. Dead end, no question. With your approval, I might try to bring in Dr. Richards as a consultant, see if he can offer a different perspective like he did on the Santini case. I'm working with Agent Casillas on the money trail. She's found a few leads in, of all places, the Guatemalan National Bank. I'm liaising with Treasury to try to see what we can get from them without, you know..."

"Bringing in the heavy legal hitters?"

"You got it, boss."

"Well, keep on it and keep me up to date. Treasury owes us for Hartford. I think you're doing the best we can at the moment. Remember, everyone, what do I always say?"

The room choruses, "Work hard and the crooks come to you."

"That's right. Work hard and the crooks come to you. Now, who's next. Morales, what's on your..."

"Agent Casper? Someone's waiting in your office to see you."

The new rookie who just started a week ago, what's his name? Deangelo Smith. He should know better than to interrupt the morning staff meeting by now, damnit. Agent Casper plays it cool, though. He's tough, but he's not a disciplinarian. Casper stops short. In his office?

"In my office, Smith? Why did you unlock the door and let him in?"

"I didn't, sir." He looks nervous now. No, looking closer, Casper realizes he's looked nervous the whole time, pinching his belt buckle through the side of his suit jacket. Smith is new, and anxiety is not uncommon among rookie agents blundering into staff meetings and earning unwanted attention from the AiC, but something else is going on. "Sir, the door to your office is still locked. I don't have the key to unlock it, only you and Agent O'Bannon do. But there's a man inside. We could see him through the window. He's a big mothaf... Big gentleman, sir. He has an eyepatch. And what looks like a military uniform, but I didn't get a close enough look to recognize the insignia. But I swear I didn't open the door, Agent Casper!" He stands straight, trying to cover his nerves with the uniform and the training. He does a pretty good job, too. Casper wonders if Smith might turn into a good agent after all.

"Thank you, Agent Smith. Go back to work. Everybody else, I'm calling this meeting over. If you had something to talk to me about, find me in my office later this morning. Apparently I have a meeting." By this point, Casper is already halfway out of the room, itching with curiosity. He glimpses his watch. 8:21. "Oh, and one last thing. Good work on the Hartford case. I've been hearing a lot of accolades this morning already, and you people deserve all of them."

Sure enough, when Casper gets back to his office, the door is locked. He edges his key into the lock as if he’s afraid it's been electrified, then snaps it around a full turn and enters his office. There is a man seated in front of Casper's desk. Casper takes him in. It was impressive observation that Agent Smith noticed the military affiliation at all. The bald, black man who has somehow entered Casper's locked office is immense and the first clothing Casper notices after the eyepatch is not the heavily modified army general's uniform but the black leather jacket that covers his broad shoulders.

"Agent Casper.” His voice is a hair smoother than a rasp and a little deeper than Hell’s Canyon. "I'm sorry I didn't make an appointment."

Casper knows what he'd like to say to the general: Who the hell are you and what the hell are you doing in my office? He also knows that showing that kind of bluntness to a man wearing this sort of insignia is not conducive to a long career with the FBI. And Agent Casper likes his job a lot. He takes a deep breath and summons the persona he wears, for example, when he's in the White House Situation Room. Submissive, competent, just inquisitive enough to act like he knows what he's doing.

"Good morning, General. Can I get you anything to drink? Coffee? Water?"

The General guffaws. "I'm Nick Fury, Agent Casper. And I'm here to kill you."

Submissive goes right out the window. "It takes a lot to kill me, General." Casper’s hand grazes the underside of his desk and he wishes desperately for an exit strategy.

Fury just grins, a smarmy, knowing, somehow infernal smile that rivals Cheshire for unbearable smugness. "I know, Agent Casper. Fired at seventeen times during a fourteen month stint with the FBI anti-terrorism squad. Survived four attempted hits while managing the Bureau's case against the Kingpin. White House FBI Liaison for three years and counting. Impressive resume for someone so... seemingly unimpressive."

Casper raises his eyebrow as his shoulders sink into his chest. "My father taught me it's deeds, not credit, that matter." The line's stood up well for all these years. It's his Irish cop bit, self-deprecating but still proud. It wilts completely before Fury's absurd humor. Thunderously jovial, it's like he's somehow larger than reality.

"I know, Agent Casper. It's in your file," Fury says, completing the deflation. "Casper, I'm a motherfucking special ops mastermind, running an agency so secret even the CIA isn't sure we really exist." Pause, with perfect comic timing. "Don't worry, this device will make sure they stay in the dark. I know you wear pajamas with cobras on them. I know it was really you who stole Tommy Cansarella's cigarettes from his gym locker. I know exactly how boring your life is when you're not working for the Bureau."

Casper looks at the device, which he must have noticed when he first entered the room. He must have. The chrome disc is about eight inches in diameter. Something red and gemlike sits in the middle, intermittently flashing to a threatening scarlet. It is not plugged in, but Casper can't see any room in it for a battery large enough to power it. For that matter, he cannot see any interruptions in its smooth metal shell. There are no screw holes or weld joints or rivets or seams.

Casper knows what it is. He's seen it before. Superhero tech. Aliens from parallel universes bitten by radioactive mutants, or something like that. Casper's senior enough to get the briefings, such as they are: If you see something, say something. Run away as fast as possible and call this number: 555-5555. No area code, even. Call this number and somebody with worse luck and better funding than you will be sent to try to contain it. And General Nick Fury, self-described special ops mastermind with casual access to superhero tech, is here in his office threatening... no, promising to kill him. Fuck.

"General Fury, sir, I have intervened in Code 555 situations on four occasions. In all situations my response and the response of my team was fully within operational parameters and the dictates of Rulebook Section 421 point 25 point..."

"Point Eight Five Nine. Agent Casper, you don’t need to quote the rulebook to me. I know the rulebook. I wrote the motherfucking rulebook."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Then given my performance, I don’t know why a secret ops mastermind such as yourself requires my execution. If you decide to execute me or get one of your all-powerful superheroes to do it for you, I will fight back to the best of my ability. My mother was from a police family. She lost three brothers and her father in the line of duty. She taught me to take pride in my work and never fear risking my life to do the job right."

Fury's laughter this time involves exhalations of such tremendous force that they would split a lesser man in two. Casper recalls the last time he saw this kind of laughter from a trained killer. The man was sitting across the table from him in an interrogation room, having just confessed to committing a series of disturbing torture-murders in Gotham City while wearing a Hallowe'en mask. But finally the laughter stops for long enough to let him speak.

"Oh, no, Agent Casper, you've misunderstood. That's my fault. I'm not here to kill you. I'm here to kill Michael Casper. After that, I want you come work for me at the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division."

Casper blinks. "You need to come up with a better name for your division."

"Tell you what. You can make that your first assignment."

****

O’Donnell’s Restaurant. 7:45 on Friday night. Joey and his wife Miranda are late as usual, and per family custom, their food has been ordered for them. If you’re late, you lose the chance to decide what to eat. If you’re late enough, your food will be cold when you get to eat it. The Casper clan is too large to wait around while you catch up to everyone else.

“My big brother is a big fricking hero,” Joseph Casper says, loud enough to fill the whole restaurant, after he finally arrives. He cradles a bottle of Coors in one hand and has his other arm wrapped around Mike. Mike tries to squirm out of the hold, but unfortunately big brother is purely a reference to his 34 years.

“No, Mike, don’t duck out of it. We’re all here to celebrate you tonight. You know, we were all here just eight months ago to celebrate Mikey catching the Tennessee church bombers, and I know some of you were grumbling about how these get-togethers are becoming routine. Mike’s too good at his job, and we couldn’t very well get the whole family together every single night just because he put another criminal behind bars. But here he goes outdoing himself again, making an arrest so spectacular it justified another party. A hundred million dollars in funny money seized! Enough assault rifles to arm Al Qaeda for a decade! Enough drugs to make Mike attractive to women!”

At last Mike squeezes out of his brother’s hold, or Joey relaxes his hold enough. It’s unclear which. Mike punches his brother’s arm gently and affectionately and swipes the beer out of his hand.

“Thanks, Joe. Thank you to everyone. I’m so lucky to be part of this family, which is always there for me when I need them. And of course, thank you especially to Mom, who taught me never to run away from duty, even when it’s tough to handle. You’ve guided me through every difficult decision in my life and kept me from every taking the easy way out. To mom!” He raises the bottle to his lips and takes a deep sip.

****

Mike Casper will always remember that it smelled like ozone the day he died. The stakeout location is near the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant- and it rained the night before. It is not, however, the most repugnant smell he's ever experienced on a stakeout. As Casper and Agent O'Bannon wait for movement, they swap stories about past cases. There was that acrobat running a money laundering ring, for one. Casper had spent three hours camped out on top of a row of circus Porta-Johns gathering evidence. After a while, it was the nauseating chemical smell from the urinal cakes that bothered him the most. Your body gets used to natural odors, even unpleasant ones.

Molly laughs and Casper tries to shut down all other brain functions for a moment to store that laugh. For just an instant, he thinks of her as Molly instead of Agent O'Bannon. It's a carelessness he usually cannot afford.

Casper has plenty of time to put his guard back up and steer the conversation back to the idle banalities that longterm partners use to tell each other whose back they have, before they get the signal. He has plenty of time to make sure, for the fifteenth time, that his gun is loaded and in good maintenance. He has plenty of time to make sure his team has covered all of the exits except for the one they don't know about. He has plenty of time to make sure the plan is as good as he and O'Bannon can make it, which is the only way she'll fall for it.

“Repeat the plan for me again, O’Bannon. I want to make sure you have all the details.”

“You know I have it down, boss. You’re just out of interesting stories.”

“I didn’t waste my youth the way you did. Too much time studying for the Academy. Quit dodging. Repeat the plan, O’Bannon.”

“Morales will signal when the snipers are in position. Snipers at lookouts A, B, and D are covering all exits. Sniper at lookout C has an angle on almost anywhere inside. You and me at door 1, Morales and Spiegel at door 2, Jenkins at door 3. We bust in, we lock down any actives, we seize the drugs. You get a commendation. The end.” She fakes a yawn, a grin peeking through like a rainbow through a cloud.

He shrugs. “Close enough. But stay sharp. They never go according to plan, you know.”

When the radio squawks, he rolls down his window to signal Agent Carter's scouts inside the building, then barks out Procedure 11 over the radio and jumps out of the car. O'Bannon is one step behind him, ever the faithful companion. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Morales and Spiegel at the side door, ready if they need backup. The rear door is locked and nobody answers O'Bannon's demands for surrender. Casper lines up his foot and kicks the door down.

They are inside a warehouse. The room is forty or fifty feet high, with a catwalk ringing three of the walls about twenty feet up. The catwalk is unsettlingly dark, despite halogen floodlamps shining down on the warehouse floor from all around it. Rusty metal shelves fill most of the room. They are largely empty. An aisle in the middle mostly separates the shelves on one side from shelves on the other, occasionally interrupted by a support beam or service conduit. The walls are emblazoned with childish graffiti tags, apparently the work of bored suburban kids for all the artistic merit it carries. As far as he can see, there's nobody in the warehouse, including renegade lacrosse players with spraycans. So far, everything is exactly according to plan.

"Team 1, down the left side. Team 3, down the right side. Keep your eyes open, radio if you see anyone. Teams 2, 4, and 5, with me. We're looking for any signs that Jenner’s people were here. Hidden caches, electrical equipment, suspicious objects. Follow the plan, don't do anything stupid, and keep your ears open for my orders."

The furthest shelf topples right on the schedule, flung down by an unseen, tremendous force. The cacophonous crash fills the empty warehouse.

"All teams report status! All units report status!" Casper shouts and he is relieved that everyone is still safe. "I'll take point and investigate. All teams hold your position. Repeat, all teams hold position. Confirm!"

"Team 1 holding."
"Team 2 holding."
"Team 3 holding."
"Team 4 holding."
"Team 5 holding."

Casper runs forward with sure footing. Some distant part of his mind counts every step he makes, keeping that information available should he need it. He doesn't think about this; it's close to an autonomic process. There are a lot of low level data-collecting tasks that his brain does without consulting him these days. His conscious mind has bigger things to worry about.

As he runs forward, he is struck by the uncanny stillness of the moment. He can hear in his earpiece a dozen agents breathing softly. The occasional crick in their breathing patterns betrays their anticipation. After that first shelf, whatever faces them in the warehouse has gone quiet. His nose is overwhelmed with the smell of ozone, growing deeper and more penetrating the deeper he gets into the warehouse. He sneezes. Casper sprints from support beam to support beam, keeping cover between himself and the end of the room as much as possible. He looks back for a second and Molly and the rest of his team are out of sight, hidden behind a massive steel girder. He's halfway through the room, an expanse of empty storage space behind him. Now, only four shelves away from the end.. He holds in a sneeze. He stops running.

Ahead of him something green and impossibly fast flashes past. He can see it out of the corner of his eye, and even though he’s been briefed on this, even though he’s practiced this moment so many times even Sharon thought it was overkill, the beast sends a burst of fear down his throat. He reaches into his jacket, slips his fingers around until he can feel the hidden pocket, and pops a small metal object with a red button out of the pocket. He presses the button.

The silent shockwave emanates from the device in all directions. Goddamn Superhero tech. The creature from Alpha-Delta-Three collapses to the ground. Casper gathers his wits together. Twenty six seconds, give or take a heartbeat, until the green monster wakes up and rampages convincingly across the warehouse.

Casper shuffles on top of the trap door and shouts into his headset, "Protocol 555! Repeat, Protocol 555! All teams, out of the building ASAP! Contact the authorities! There is something in here, it's green and huge, I don't know what it...." He fires five gunshots in a single burst, falls through the trapdoor, then waits out the clatter, the screams, the explosion that detonates the warehouse above him, the sirens, the swarms of men in black suits and bullet proof vests like his. And the uncanny silence that buzzes around his ears despite all the noise.

“Agent Casper! Report your status! Agent Casper? Mike, it’s Molly, you’d better answer the goddamn radio. Mike? … Mike?”

He sits in a small, cryptlike room and waits out his death, nibbling on MREs and reading a women's health magazine that the Department has thoughtfully provided for him. He thinks of Molly O’Bannon and Joey and Deangelo Smith and all the other people who will never know when he saves their lives. It’s better that way. He thinks of Josh Lyman and the beer they’ll never drink together. Hell, who knows, maybe someday Josh will make Chief of Staff and get clearance to learn about Casper’s new job. Won’t he be surprised. The thought makes Agent Casper smile.

It's probably six hours later when the trap door opens up and a far too large man with an eyepatch extends a hand into the crypt to help lift him out. With his weight and the General's strong touch, he flies out of the crypt and into the rubble.

"Agent Phil Coulson," he says. "It's time to brief you on the Avenger Initiative."