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Measure Of A Man

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February, 1973

It had been simpler, back then. And he liked simple. Bad guys were bad. Good guys were good. White hats and black hats. Captain America beating up the Nazis, punching Hitler in the face. His father was a history teacher, he knew there was more to it than that, but to a little kid like him, it was still pretty simple. And Phillip J. Coulson liked the simple worldview of things. He liked his small town, he liked Little League, he liked trying to get all of the Captain America cards he could get his hands on, he’d liked working on the Corvette with Dad. It had all been good. Yeah, he would have liked it more if he’d had a brother or sister to share things with but now…now, that wasn’t going to be an option.

He and his mother made their way back to the house, the car quiet. He knew funerals were solemn and somber affairs, but he didn’t realize they were so depressing, too. His dad was gone. His dad was gone and he wasn’t coming back and it was just him and Mom now. He got out of the car and he just had to get away, go somewhere to be near him, be near a piece of him. He went to the garage, pulled back the tarp and clambered into Lola’s front seat. He sat behind the wheel and put his hands on it. He was still too small for it, but one day, if he managed to keep Lola, he’d be the right size.

He didn’t know how long it was that he was there in the quiet of the garage before he heard the door open and he heard a soft sound of chatter from the kitchen. The tarp had fallen back so he couldn’t see who was coming. After a moment the sound receded, and then the tarp was lifted up and he saw his mother there in her black dress. “Do you want something to eat, Phil?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No,” he said.

She pulled back the tarp a little bit more. “Lola is a beauty,” she said with a smile, running her hand over the hood. “It would be a shame to give her away when you and your father put so much work into her.”

Phil perked up slightly. “I get to keep her?” he asked, looking at his mother.

She nodded. “It’s what your father would have wanted. This car was both of your pride and joy. It’s not fair to make you give it up. Besides,” she said, going back to the door and opening it. “I want to see her restored in all her glory. I’d love to have my son drive me down the street in her so I can brag to all my friends.”

He gave her a small smile and gave the steering wheel one last pat before getting out from behind it. His mother offered him her hand and they made their way out of the garage and into the house. It was going to be hard, moving on past his father’s death, but together, they would manage.

June, 1977

He hadn’t broken the window at the place where the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity spent all their time. Bobby Hawkins had done it. But he hadn’t meant to. They’d been playing ball in the adjacent lot and the pitch had gone wild and Bobby had hit the ball weird and it had gone flying. Bobby had been terrified. The women of the church scared him. Phil didn’t think they were so bad, but he wasn’t Catholic like Bobby and he guessed it was different. So he said go on, run home, he’d take the blame.

The woman in charge had been stern and unhappy but she hadn’t been really unhappy. He’d apologized and he’d promised to work off the debt of fixing the window by coming in and cleaning up and doing odd jobs around the building, or at least the kind of odd jobs a thirteen year old could handle. He couldn’t fix plumbing or do things like that, but he could give the inside walls a fresh coat of paint, maybe, and he could sweep up and take care of the trash outside. That had seemed to satisfy her, and so they’d made arrangements for him to come every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the rest of the summer for four hours a day.

He walked his bike home and put it in the garage, seeing his mother waiting at the table. She had a look on her face that he hadn’t really seen before. Maybe pride, maybe…confusion? He wasn’t sure. “Mom?” he asked.

“Have a seat, Phil,” she said. He sat down and saw there were two glasses of lemonade. Fresh squeezed, too, from the looks of it. He gave it a look and she gestured to it, so he picked it up and took a sip. “Bobby Hawkins’s mother called. She said that he broke a window today and that you covered for him.”

Phil scowled slightly. Bobby and his guilty conscience, he thought to himself. “It’s nothing,” he said.

His mother smiled. “I think it was a very noble thing, trying to protect your friend,” she said with a smile. “Your father would have been quite proud of you. But it’s not fair for you to have to deal with the punishment all by yourself.”

“But Bobby’s scared of ‘em!” Phil said, his eyes wide. “He says they’re nuns, and he doesn’t like nuns because nuns take rulers to knuckles when you do something wrong.”

His mother chuckled and picked up her lemonade. “I don’t think it will be quite like that, Phil,” she said with a smile. “But Bobby will help until the window’s been paid off. It’s always good to help your friends, but don’t let your friends leave you in a lurch. Then they’re not really your friends. They’re just using you to get out of a tight spot.”

Phil nodded and took another sip of his lemonade. He didn’t mind helping his friends, not really. He didn’t mind being the kind of person his friends turned to when they needed help. It made him feel good, made him feel needed. But maybe his mom had a point. But if nothing else, at least now, he wouldn’t be doing the work alone. That was always a plus.

July, 1980

Puppy love. That was what she’d called it. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was all just infatuation. It was just high school, after all. There was still so much more of his life left to live, so many more people to meet and things to do, so much more to experience… He was a romantic at heart. He knew that much about himself, now. And he knew now, too, that the rest of the world might not be the same way. It seemed as though there was a cynicism in the world and he didn’t like it.

He trudged to Lola and got in, not entirely sure on where he wanted to go but knowing he needed to get out of Manitowoc. He pulled away from the scene of his humiliation and heartbreak and just drove. He got on the 1-43 Northbound and just put as much distance as he could between himself and her as he could, letting the radio play on the oldies station, enjoying the songs from the forties as he let the balmy evening breeze sweep over him.

Maybe it wasn’t love. He had thought it might be, but maybe he didn’t know. Maybe he had mistaken how deep the connection for her was. He was a teenager, it happened. He didn’t know everything. But he had thought he had known what was in his heart. He had thought he had known his feelings, the depth of them, the breadth of them.

Great. Now he sounded like a maudlin Shakespearean era poet. His English teacher would be so disappointed.

He made his way into Green Bay and decided to just distract himself for a while. He drove through the city until he saw a movie theater playing old classics. “The Maltese Falcon” sounded like just the perfect distraction,” he realized. He eased Lola into a parking spot and then went up to the ticket booth and bought a ticket. It wasn’t the best way to spend his birthday, alone in the city at a movie when he should have been out with friends and his girlfriend and enjoying himself with people, but it would do.

He relaxed into the seat and lost himself into the movie. There were times he wished his life was like that, full of mystery and intrigue, full of excitement. Full of something…more. He wanted a like away from Manitowoc, a life that had meaning. A life where he could do something that would make a difference in the world. He doubted he would get the chance, but…

But what? Why shouldn’t he get the chance? What was stopping him? He sat up in his seat more. If he really wanted it, if he wanted this life of meaning so badly, why shouldn’t he have it? And so right then, in the darkened movie theater in Green Bay, on what had been one of the most miserable days of his young life, he made a decision: he was going to live the kind of life where he could make a difference, so help him, if it was the last thing he did.

January, 1981

He enjoyed going to the batting cages. Baseball had always been something that helped him clear his head. It had always been one of those things he’d found he’d been good at, excelled at. He had over a .400 batting average in Little League when he was younger and he’d toyed with the idea of maybe trying out for the minor leagues, but while he liked baseball, that wasn’t where his heart was, not really. Still, it didn’t hurt to keep a hand in. Tonight it was quiet. It’s what he got for going to the cages in winter; no one wanted to be out in the cold. He didn’t blame them. It was kind of crazy, but then again, he was a weird person sometimes. It was kind of his thing.

He got into his stance and the machine sent out another ball. With a resounding thwack it connected with his bat. Most of the guys he knew liked the aluminum bats, but he was all wood. He liked the classic stuff. He was always into classic everything. Guess he was just an old-fashioned guy at heart. Most people didn’t get that. He thought he got it from his father. It really wasn’t a bad trait, he supposed, but it didn’t fit in with what he suspected this era was going to be about. He got the feeling he was going to hate the eighties so much.

“You got a good stance, kid.”

He turned slowly, his hackles raised. He’d been almost 100% sure he was alone, and this man stood out like a sore thumb. He wasn’t anyone he recognized from Manitowoc; having lived there his entire life he knew just about everyone. Something about this man screamed “big city,” it seemed. He also screamed “dangerous” but not dangerous to him. “Baseball fan?” he asked, tilting his head slightly as the machine shot another ball and it went into the chain link fence separating them.

“You could say that,” the man said with a nod. “I’m a fan of a lot of things.” He took a few steps back and then sat on the aluminum benches behind the batting cages. “You could do a lot better than staying in this small town in Wisconsin.”

Phil gave him one more glance, then turned his attention back to the pitching machine. “I suppose I could,” he said. “Are you the FBI or something?”

“Bigger than that,” he said. “Think more important.”

“Secret Service?”

“Nope. Think more…broader picture.”

“C.I.A?”

“More discrete.”

Phil was quiet for a second. “What’s left?”

“You know what Hydra is, don’t you, Phil?”

The question surprised him and he turned, almost getting in the path of the next ball. “Are you saying you’re from the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division?” he asked, his eyes wide.

A grin spread on the man’s face. “We definitely pegged ourselves the right guy,” he said. He got up off the benches and came over, reaching into his leather jacket and pulling out a card between his fingertips. “If you’re interested, when you graduate…give me a call.”

Phil took the card and read it. “Nick Fury,” he said quietly. He looked up to ask the man something else but saw he was gone. Another ball whizzed past him and hit the chain link fence, but Phil didn’t care. This…this could be the opportunity of a lifetime.

September, 1982

They said the Academy of Operations was the hardest. He thought it could be debatable, if only because anyone going into the Academy of Science and Technology had to have at least one PhD. and a lot of them were at least his age, if not younger. So if you were expecting the smartest of the smart before you even stepped foot in the door, then maybe SciTech was harder. But Operations…Operations had the most washouts. Operations had the most people give up.

And there was no way in hell he was going to give up. That just wasn’t his way.

There were times, admittedly, in the back of his mind he’d wished he’d gone to Communications. It was the easiest, after all. Not so aggressive, not so demanding. But that wasn’t what Fury had wanted for him. Fury had wanted him to be a Field Agent. He had wanted him on the ground, making a difference. And that was what he wanted for himself, too. He wanted to be doing what would have made his father proud, if he was still alive. What would make his mom proud if he could tell her the truth. He wanted to make a difference, be like his hero.

If Cap could make the world a better place, go from being a skinny kid from Brooklyn to the guy who helped win the war and make the world a better place, at least for a while, then he could too.

So he worked hard. He didn’t let the hardship get him down. He persevered and he kept going. No matter what the instructors threw at him, no matter what the people he was working with said to discourage him, no matter what the voice in his head said to bring him down a notch or two or ten, he kept going. He’d walk by the Wall of Valor and he’d look for Steve Rogers’s name and he’d remember that Captain America gave his life for this country. Captain America fought until the very end and he gave his all to keep America safe. And so he kept fighting like Cap would keep fighting.

And it was tough. It wasn’t any joke, this training. But he knew when it was all said and done he’d be better. He’d be a better man than he had been when he entered the Academy, when he started training. He’d be the man that Nick Fury had thought he could be. He’d make him proud. He’d work his hardest and he’d do what it took and one day, maybe, if he was really lucky, he’d get to do something great. He’d get to show the world what he was really made of.

He’d get to make a difference, and then it would all be worth it.

February, 1984

He stood on the hill on Bridgeway, looking out into the bay for a moment before his gaze shifted to the woman huddled in the blanket near the bushes. The bright orange shock blanket jarred with the green shrubbery of the hillside, but then again, so did the flashing police lights on the far end of the street. No one else seemed to be at this side of things, which was good. It gave the two of them relative privacy, which he got the feeling he was going to need.

He had a fresh blanket draped over his arm and he made his way partway down the hill and then lowered himself down next to Melinda. Silently he offered her the new blanket. She turned her head, glaring at it, then turned her glare at him. “Five hours, Coulson,” she finally said.

“We got the guy, though,” he said.

Five hours in the water,” she said, gritting her teeth. “In February. In the San Francisco Bay Area.” She snatched the blanket off his arm and tossed the one around her shoulders to the side before wrapping the new one around her.

He nodded. “We didn’t have an exit strategy.”

Melinda snorted slightly at that. “No shit,” she said under her breath. He had to grin at that. He liked that about her; she was straight and to the point. Didn’t mince words. Didn’t try and sugarcoat things, but she would use tact when and where appropriate. They were friendly, he supposed. Not quite friends, but maybe. One day. “I swear, Fury must hate our guts.”

“I think he picked us because he knew we could handle getting out of there and getting the guy even without having a fully fleshed out op,” he said, quirking his mouth slightly and tilting his head from side to side.

“He had that faith in you, maybe,” she said, pulling her legs in towards her.

“In both of us,” he corrected, getting up. He got the other blanket, which was damp but not sopping wet, and draped it over her legs. She looked up at him, raising an eyebrow and he shrugged. “Don’t want you getting sick. Five hours in the bay in February and all.”

“At least you give a damn about me,” she said, giving him a small smile. He gave her a bigger one back. He’d earned a smile. This was good.

“Well, can’t have my partner crashing and burning on me,” he said as he went back to his spot and sat back down.

“Partner, huh?” she asked, turning to look at him.

He nodded. “I figure we can work our way up to friends later.”

She gave him a speculative look. “We’ll see about that, Coulson,” she said before turning to look out at the sunset over the bay. He turned his gaze in the same direction. For a first mission it hadn’t gone at all according to plan, but he supposed that was the way things were always going to be. But if he had good people by his side, then perhaps he’d be okay after all.