Once thing Nick learns in 'nam: the jungle's not green, it's black. It chokes off the moonlight. It chokes off the starlight. And then there's just black, black all around him, and maybe he can't see the jungle but he sure as hell can feel it. Every tree and every leaf and every fucking bug and it's like the jungle's in his blood and maybe it is for how long he's been there.
Move out. A signal from the leader, a motion of fingers down the line, and Nick and the rest of his team are leaving the jungle, rushing out. There's a small village in the distance, all grass huts and shit and nothing like the almost regal French colonial buildings they saw when they first flew into sprawling Saigon. Set it on fire. Listen to it burn. The screams and the running footsteps and Nick smiles with a job well done. They make it seem like it's Viet Cong, like it's Viet-fucking-Cong burning down the little village, retribution for playing nice with the American soldiers coming through. Basic military tactics 101: turn the peoples' sympathies against the enemy. They run off. When they're far away enough that no one can hear them someone lets out a holler, a victory cry, a good-old fashioned American yippee-ki-yay. Nick laughs and whoops and fades back into the jungle.
Navy SEALs. The newest breed of American soldiers. War heros.
He smokes a blunt with his unit and they joke about how fast everything went up in flames. By the end of the war, Nick has a bronze star medal for his bravery.
It's not until the war's over, not until Nick's home and back to the real world, that it happens. Somehow he becomes civilized again, like it's a fucking on-off switch, and everything he did and all the remorse and guilt he never felt come rushing toward him. It was his job, he tells himself. He was just doing what he was trained to do. What he was told to do. He throws up when he sees a car accident and dreams of screams and running footsteps.
They say that they put him on Operation Urgent Fury1 because it's too good of a joke to pass up. He thinks it's because they want the best and Nick Fury, after several years as a Navy SEAL, has a reputation for being the best. Not that being the best helps, because the whole operation goes to shit almost as soon as it starts. Nick knows something's wrong when their briefing gives him no to little information and his requests for more are met with ambiguous, non-committal answers. There are two official SEAL teams: one to extract the Governor-General and one to take control of the island's only radio tower. Nick is in charge of the third team, a small unit that's supposed to go after the group allegedly selling weapons to the People's Revolutionary Army. A group calling themselves Advanced Idea Mechanics.
They're in Barbados for a quick moment. The locals are as beautiful as the scenery and Nick barely has the chance to appreciate either before he's on a plane going toward Grenada, and by that time it's too dark to enjoy the white sand beaches and bright green foliage of the Caribbean islands. One of the other planes misses its drop zone and all the teams lose communication almost as soon as they hit the ground, but Nick has a job to do that doesn't involve worrying about it. His fire team tracks down the A.I.M. members to a densely packed apartment building at the edge of town that's all corridors covered in piss and rooms filled with too many people. At least it's painted a cheerful shade of blue.
There's a gunfight. He can hear his heartbeat in his head and it becomes the soundtrack to the scene. His targets look like locals in ragged clothing, they look like kids, barely eighteen if that, but it doesn't really register as he sends bullets through their heads. It will later, once he's back in his apartment, and their faces the split second they realize they're going to die will be all that he can see. He'll wonder if they were really A.I.M. or just some two-bit group the government thinks is disposable, but right now he just does his job. By the end of the gunfight all of their targets are dead except for one, a woman they take back for questioning. His team suffers two casualties of their own.
His mission is deemed successful.
Sometimes, Nick feels less like a SEAL and more like something else. He works a lot in collaboration with the C.I.A. and he thinks maybe it's that, but he doesn't feel like C.I.A. either. The send him against threats and on missions the C.I.A. and the military don't really deal with. Nick has a thought that maybe the government needs a whole new agency to take care of it, but it's brief and it's passing.
Much of Nick's team is stationed on a service barge in the Gulf of Persia. It's six years into the war between Iran and Iraq and it doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon. It doesn't help that there seems to be an independent group fanning the flames on both sides, a group that the U.S. government has codenamed Zodiac for the fact that it seems to have twelve leading members, and no one's sure what their motives are aside from continuing and potentially escalating the war. Nick's job is to find out.
Nick wakes up. Brushes his teeth and takes a shower using salt water that tastes faintly of fish. Walks through the grim, grey metal corridors to the cafeteria. On his way he passes by the rooms that are currently housing the enlisted SEALs. The dull sound of something falling to the floor catches his attention and he stops, turns.
Blond. Fit. Handsome in an average, everyman kind of way. Maybe a decade younger than Nick, maybe a little bit more. The man is bending down to pick up a figure of red, white, and blue, and when he stands he looks startled to see Nick there. He stands at attention and salutes even as his hand doesn't let go of the. . . Captain America action figure.
"Aren't you a little old to be playing with dolls?" Nick asks.
The man offers a wry smile. "It's a good luck charm, sir. It's kept me alive so far."
Nick nods. He can understand that, at least. "Let's hope it keeps doing the trick."
Nick turns to go. He makes it exactly eight steps down the hall before the man calls out for him and he turns around again.
The man's half in the doorway and half still in his room. His muscles flex under a thin t-shirt as he grasps the door frame. "I just wanted to say, Commander Fury, that I've read all the reports and heard all the stories, and that it's an honor to be serving under you. You're a real hero."
Hero. The word hits Nick like a bucket of cold water thrown at his face. He remembers all the people he killed, by bullet or fire or any other method, and all the questions he never asked. He remembers screams and terrified faces and desperate begging.
"I'm not a hero," he says. "There's no such thing as heroes."
He turns once again and walks away. Behind him, he hears a quiet but certain, "I still believe in heroes."
It's hard not to notice the man from then on. He's quiet but does his work quickly and efficiently. He doesn't socialize much but he's on good terms with everyone he interacts with, all of whom seem to enjoy his company. They call him Cheese. According to his file, his name's Phil Coulson, and he starts to go out of his way to say hello to Nick. Nick pretends that he doesn't notice.
One day Phil comes to give Nick a written report on some intel secured by him from a trusted informant. Phil's reports, Nick has found, are probably the best he's ever seen, concise and comprehensive. Nick would recommend a career in bureaucracy if it wasn't such an insult.
"She's pretty." Phil is holding a brass frame that he lifted off Nick's desk. Inside the ornate border is a photograph. Portrayed in the photograph is a woman of about thirty-five in a tight sweater and jeans combination that show off her athletic build. Holding her hand is a scowling, ten-year-old Nicky Fury. "Your mother?"
"No pictures of your wife?" Phil asks, and his tone is a study in casualness.
Nick freezes with a pen in his hand and the tip of it in his mouth. He thinks. Removes the pen from his lips. It's a loaded question but he's smart enough to know Phil's not asking in an attempt to get him into trouble.
"Too busy," Nick finally says.
Phil smiles and leaves.
One of their informants is captured. They find blood on the rug of her dusty, stone apartment. They track her down to an abandoned restaurant on the outskirts of Baghdad that still smells of roasting meat. Apparently Zodiac isn't above outsourcing their henchmen needs because that's what they do, and Nick and his men find themselves under fire from local militia.
They manage to extract the woman, but not before one of them is killed in the gunfire. They're forced to leave his body there. The woman can't move and is in so much pain that her body can't stop shaking. Her pants, her long-sleeved shirt, her hijab, not one item on her body isn't covered with blood, and it looks like the result of very slow and very meticulous torture. Nick scoops her up and they move out, into a waiting helicopter. During the ride a shaking hand reaches for his sleeve. A voice, cracking from non-use and probably dehydration, murmurs a name. And then Nick feels her go still and die.
They take her away. Put her on a cot and cover her up. But Nick can still see her glazed over brown eyes, her dry, bleeding lips. Beneath the dirt and blood she looked like she could be pretty. She looked like she could be young.
"One man down," he says, to no one, "and a young woman dead."
Phil is standing there. His expression is haunted. A frown pulls his lips. But, somehow, he brings himself to make a joke, and maybe it's a coping mechanism, because his voice sure as hell doesn't sound anything but dull and dead. "Good enough for government work."
And it's so macabre, so inappropriate, so simply wrong, that Nick starts laughing and he can't stop. Two people dead, but it's good enough for government work. While he's laughing he thinks about how, sometimes, he really fucking hates his life.
"Cornelius van Lunt," Nick says. "Dutch born, Oxford graduate, current citizen of no country. In one of his college term papers he describes himself as a nihilistic neo-anarchist, whatever the hell that means, and it's an absolute certainty that he's the man we're looking for."
Taurus. The founder of Zodiac. Inasmuch as one of the twelve can stand above the others, it's him. He's on a tiny island of rock and sand off the coast of Qatar and that's where they head. Under the cover of the night their small rafts leave the cover of a U.A.E. tanker and approach the island, where everything goes to shit. Zodiac somehow knows they're coming. No sign of any of the leaders, no sign of van Lunt, just a lot of their hired hands and about a dozen hostages. Nick and his men hide out behind some rocks on the beach as they're shot at, but they can't shoot back without hitting a hostage.
"Necessary loss," says a General over their radio, and he's probably sitting in an over-sized easy chair back somewhere safe as he gives the orders. "We need to get van Lunt. Just shoot the poor bastards."
Phil stands next to him, his face stiffly blank, and Nick finds that he can't give those orders.
"I can't deliberately kill that many civilians," Nick says.
"If you can't, someone else will."
There's a unit of marines waiting on the tanker and Nick knows that the asshole in charge of them has no problem following orders. Shit, shit, shit is the litany in his mind as he realizes he's going to have to try to go get van Lunt before the marines get there. A few of them can try to take a path to the side to get to the house, anymore and they risk discovery. That's what Nick does, taking Phil and two others and trying to avoid gunfire as they crawl up inch by inch. They reach the house but gunfire forces them apart and one of them goes down with a scream. Nick can only hope that, whoever it is, he's able to hang in there and survive if and when they have the situation stabilized.
Nick makes a search of the house. Most of the henchmen are out on the beach, but the ones he comes across he tries to shoot before they shoot him. It won't be long before more show up. Nick opens the door to one room and he sees a glimpse of a bronze mask, the deformed features of a bull, twisting horns and gaping eyes, before something sharp swipes at his eyes. He screams as pain fills him and wetness gushes out to cover his face. Blood. He can't see, can't see at all, and has a moment of sheer panic. Footsteps—that fucking psycho Taurus—run away, but he can hear more coming, and he doesn't think he'll have much of a chance if he's found by gunmen right now.
Phil's voice, and Nick doesn't even have the time to think about how he's calling out Nick and not Commander Fury.
"Over here," Nick says, and he hears Phil running toward him before there's the wretched sound of something falling and an involuntary yell.
"Coulson," Nick says, trying not to panic in the blackness he finds himself in, "Coulson, what's going on?"
"I'm pinned," Coulson says, his voice tinged with pain. "And there are enemies coming. You're going to have to take them out."
Yeah, sure, easy as pie. "My eyesight's gone, how the hell am I going to do that?"
"I'll tell you where to shoot."
Phil says it like it's so easy and for a few moments Nick actually believes it is. It's not like they have any other options. Nick gets into a low position and sets up his gun. Point it at nine o'clock, Phil says, two enemies incoming, and with little, precise details Nick manages to eventually makes the hits. They work together and they stay alive and Nick is a little astounded that it works.
The sounds of gunfire have died down. The marines, Nick deduces, have taken the beach. There's frustration and anger and a sense of futility, and Nick ignores all that to go help Coulson out of the mess he's in. Wood and stone, it feels like, and it's not long before he manages to remove it all.
"You made the right call," Phil says, as they walk back to the beach. "Not firing on the civilians."
The right call. One decision out of thousands and maybe it's the right one, but how many wrong ones has he made? And besides. . .
"It doesn't matter now," Fury says. "Can't see how you can claim I'm much of hero right now."
"I'm not as naive as I seem." Phil's voice is solid and clear and maybe he's not as naive as all that. "Sometimes the good guys have to make the hard calls. Sometimes they lose. But they always do what they think is right."
Fury shakes his head. "That's a dangerous way of thinking. Even tyrannical despots think that what they're doing is right."
"Maybe. Or maybe you're just not giving yourself enough credit."
"Or maybe you're the real hero," Nick counters.
Phil smiles, or at least Nick imagines he does. He still can't see, after all.
"Sometimes," Phil says, a smirk in his voice, "I like to think so."
When they get back to the beach, the enemies and civilians alike are all dead. Taurus is gone and free to plot his war schemes another day.
On the boat ride home, the news is already reporting on how the United States killed fourteen civilians on a small private island they had no cause being on. Zodiac, Nick decides, is behind the media leak. He's alerted by the powers in charge that he'll be taking the fall for the fiasco.
Nick doesn't know if he should feel lucky or not, but he didn't lose both eyes. Just one. The other was temporarily blinded with all the blood covering it, but now he can see it clear as day, staring out at him from a too small mirror in his tiny, grey bathroom on the barge. His other eye looks like his eyelid collapsed inward. Not nearly as grotesque as he would think. The doctors were talking about glass eyes or prosthetics or something, but Nick likes the idea of an eye patch.
There's a knock on the door. It sounds hollow in the small space of his bedroom and he goes to answer it. As soon as he does he's thrown back. He hears the door close with a heavy thud, and it's the only thing he notices because hell, there are lips on his lips and Phil Coulson is a damn good kisser. What a surprise. Nick kisses back and then he pulls away. Phil has a broken arm and is pretty bruised up but he's looked worse.
"Not that I'm complaining," Nick says, "but what the hell is going on?"
A little half-smile. "We-just-survived sex? Seemed as good a chance as any."
Nick can get aboard with that.
Afterward, they lounge in Nick's too-stiff bed and just talk about everything. The mission. How they both came to be in the military. Their families. At one point Phil asks what Nick's plans are now.
"Updating my resume," Nick says. He's being very publicly discharged, but word's still out over whether it's going to be honorable or not.
"Same. My term's up soon and I told them where they could shove a new one when I found out what they're doing to you."
Phil Coulson, Nick decides, is an idiot, but at least they'll have a lot of time to get to know each other while they're unemployed.
"So we hear you're looking for a job, Commander Fury."
There's a man and a woman standing in front of him, both dressed in crisp, neat suits. Everything about them screams government, from the starchy cheapness of the suit fabric to the way they stand.
"Depends," Nick says. "What do you have in mind?"
"The government's thinking of starting a new agency. More covert than CIA or FBI, made to handle the things that they can't. We thought you might be the perfect man to head it up."
Nick feels a smile stretch across his face. "Sure. I've even got the first recruit all lined up."
A few days later, Nick isn't very surprised to find out that one of those cheap, government-regulation suits look very much fitting on Phil.
One day they realize that they've gotten old. It's been years since they've been in the field. They've moved more behind the scenes, managing, directing, making all the hard decisions while the new generation carries them out. Agents die on Nick's orders and that's not something that makes him happy but it's something that he realizes needs to be done, and better he get his hands dirty than let someone else do it.
But back to the topic at hand. They go get drinks with their old Navy SEAL buddies. A reunion of sorts, and everyone is fat or balding or a little bit of both. They wear high-waisted shorts and loose polo shirts, complain about the chores their wives make them do, and brag about their children. It's a long way away from how all of them got to know each other.
In the car ride home Nick notices, in the rearview mirror and as though for the first time, the wrinkles around his eyes and the specks of grey in his beard. He looks over at Phil, at Phil's receding hairline and the lines etched on his face. Just two middle-aged men, Nick thinks, and no one on the street would guess them for spy or hero.
"Somewhere along the line," Nick says, a twinkle in his eye, "you've managed to get pretty old."
Phil smirks and pokes the softly rotund belly spilling out over Nick's waistband. "At least I stay relatively fit."
They both smile because, in their line of work, growing old is a blessing, and they both realize how lucky they are to have someone to do it with.
Nick stands in front of a gravestone. Large, blocky font in the middle reads "Philip J. Coulson." Below that simply reads "Beloved." Beloved because if Nick were to list out everything that Phil Coulson was, he wouldn't be able to find space in all the cemetery.
His one good eye. His conscience. His heart. Everything good about Nick Fury was found in Phil Coulson.
Nick bends down and places something at the foot of the grave. A stack of cards, splattered with fake blood, each one signed in the neatest of cursive. To Phil, my biggest fan, Steve Rogers.
"I'm sorry, Phil," Nick says, and he's not sure if he's talking about the blood on the cards or something else. But he can imagine Phil standing there and smiling, saying in the dry but comforting way he had, "What are you apologizing for?" It's so little but it has to be enough and Nick hangs on to that image like a falling man hanging onto the edge of a cliff.
"I miss you," he says, when he can't think to say anything else, and he realizes that it will always be true. He shuts his eyes to stop any tears that might be trying to fall. When he opens them he stands, gives Phil's grave one last look, and turns to leave the cemetery.
Goodbye, he thinks, but he still can't bring his heart to believe it.
1 The name for the 1983 US invasion of Grenada.