Lt. Philip J. Coulson is twenty-nine years old and has been an Army Ranger for nine years, three months, one week, and four days when Colonel Nicholas Fury approaches him about a position with the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division.
He is still decked out in blood-stained camoflouage, running on caffeine pills, adrenaline, and sheer power of will. He’s still shell-shocked and a little dazed because he just spent the last two hours fighting off what he could only conclude were Rodents of Unusual Size. And by unusual size, he means rats the size of wolfhounds.
It was supposed to be a simple extraction. Colonel Fury had been captured by an undisclosed party and was being held in an underground bunker in the middle of the Siberian tundra. Getting in and finding the colonel had been simple enough. Getting out had turned into a shitstorm with Phil gunning down enormous rats and a a whackjob chanting in Latin with fireballs shooting out of his hands.
Two of Phil’s men freeze up and he can’t really blame them. As he drags the colonel to cover and shoots a charging R.O.U.S. in the face, he wonders when his life turned into a science fiction novel.
It’s been a long fucking year and all he wants to do is take a long hot shower and sleep for a month. Colonel Fury tucks his card into Phil’s pocket and tells him to call when he’s feeling more human before striding away. Phil isn’t entirely sure he remembers what being human feels like anymore.
(There was trainer, back when he first joined the Rangers who used to say that feeling like shit after you killed someone was a good thing. It meant you were still human enough to care. When killing stopped being hard, when it stopped getting to you, that’s how you know something’s wrong. Phil can’t properly remember the last time he felt bad about taking a life. He thinks he might be a monster.) (Somewhere in the deepest, darkest, buried part of his mind a little boy wonders if Captain America ever felt like this.)
He tucks the card away in his storage locker and forgets about it until a year later when his contract comes up for renewal. He thinks that maybe its time to try something else. He returns to the States and calls up Colonel Fury.
“We handle the weird shit,” Fury said. They meet at a small coffeeshop in Brooklyn, six miles from Fort Hamilton Army Base where Phil is finishing up his last month of enlistment. Both of them are nursing steaming cups of coffee. Phil takes his black with one sugar. Fury, with whole milk.
“Like magic fire and giant rats?” Phil is incredulous, but not disbelieving. He’s never been one for denial and despite the base psychologists talk of a mass hallucination and nondisclosure agreements, he knows what he saw.
“Among other things,” Fury is smirking into his coffee. “I can’t go into specifics about what we do and don’t deal with,” Phil nods, grudgingly. He understands the need for secrecy, but some secrets, he learned, shouldn’t be kept. “If we do our jobs right, the rest of the world will never know what it is we deal with. It’s a dirty, exhausting, thankless job, but at the end of the day, it’s worth every second.”
“Why me?” Phil asks, staring down into his coffee.
“Because I think you still believe in heroes. You don’t believe in the Army anymore, but you want to keep fighting because you need to believe that the blood on your hands means good people stay safe.” Fury drains his coffee and tosses the empty cup into the trash as he stands. He takes a card out of his pocket and scrawls an address on the back, setting it down next to Phil’s coffee. “If you decide you’re interested, be at that address by 1100 tomorrow.”
Phil gives a curt nod without looking up. He sits in the shop for another three hours with his ice cold coffee untouched, staring at the innocuous white card in front of him. The barista behind the counter shoots him concerned looks, but doesn’t say a word as she goes about her work. When he leaves, the card is tucked safely in his jacket pocket.
When Phil returns to base, he heads to his quarters and the locker at the foot of his bunk. Buried under neatly folded uniforms, battered books, a casette player, and collection of tapes is a black metal lockbox. He pulls this out and shuts the locker, leaning his back against the cool metal and opens the box.
Each card is carefully stowed in its own protective sleeve. Most of them are of Captain America, but the Howling Commandos are there too. He rifles through the collection and finds the one he needs, buried at the bottom of the pile. It’s not the oldest card in the box, nor is it the rarest. It’s worn around the edges with a crease in the top left corner. The picture is of Captain America in his USO costume, saluting the camera with a smile.
Phil’s grandfather gave him this card for his tenth birthday and told him the story about how Captain America single-handedly crossed enemy lines to break him and his comrades out of a Hydra base. Phil remembers being so ecstatic that he couldn’t breath, looking at the card like it was the Holy Grail and terrified that he’d damage it if he held it too tight.
“I’m gonna be a hero, too,” young Phil proclaimed.
Grampa smiled, a little sad around the edges but with pride in his eyes as he patted Phil on the shoulder. “The world can always use more heroes.”
Phil turns the card over in his hands, his eyes unfocused in thought. He’s always wanted to be a hero, ever since he was a little kid reading Captain America comics and pretending to fight off evil Hydra agents with his friends on the playground. He joined the Army because he thought it was the best way to protect his country, he joined the Rangers because he believed that good people slept soundly because of the work they did. He tries to remember when he stopped believing that but can’t.
He thinks of sorcerers throwing fireballs and monster rats. He thinks it might be nice to fight against real monsters. Maybe he’d stop feeling like one.
At precisely 1100 hours, he is standing in the foyer of a bland looking office building in Manhattan. The security guard hangs up the phone and gestures him towards the row of seats by the window. “The director’s on his way.”
Phil doesn’t sit, stands at attention with his back to the wall and his eyes on the elevator. He starts forward when the doors open and Colonel Fury steps out. The older man is smiling, with smug lines around his one good eye. He holds out his hand and Phil accepts it.
“Welcome to SHIELD, Agent Coulson.”