When Phil Coulson, probationary agent (Level 1A) answered the page his boss had sent him over lunch, he heard Fury's cat in the background of the call, yowling in a way that he already recognized as self-satisfaction.
"Did you need something, sir?" he asked.
"Yeah, I can't leave my office," Fury said. "I need you to bring me a few things."
"Sure. What gauge ammo?" Coulson asked, uncapping his pen.
"Not arms. Listen closely."
"I need you to bring me two oven mitts and a lunch box and not ask any questions."
Coulson was opening his mouth to ask a question, though he wasn't sure what it would be, when the second half of the order registered.
"Permission to ask one question, sir," he said.
Fury sighed down the line. "I reserve the right not to answer."
"Square hot pads or actual oven mitts?"
"You'll go a long way in this organization, Coulson," Fury said. "Actual mitts. Fast as you possibly can."
Coulson went to Sears, because it was close to the office, and then detoured home quickly. They hadn't had any metal lunch boxes at the mall, and he suspected that whatever this was needed for, durability would be key.
Fury was standing guard on his own office door when Coulson arrived. He took the plain black oven mitts, nodded approvingly, and then his eye fell on the lunch box.
"I need you to understand, sir, that I'm only allowing you to use this because I have two," Coulson told him gravely.
"Is this a joke, Agent?"
"No sir, it's vintage. Leaded aluminum. Very durable."
Fury gave him a look, took the Captain America lunch box out of his hand, and tucked it (with at least a good deal of care) under his arm.
"I'm placing my trust in you," he said. "What I'm about to show you, if we don't report it to our department head, could get us both arrested for treason, or killed."
Coulson nodded. "You can trust me, sir," he said earnestly.
Fury popped the office door open, hustled him inside, and closed it quickly. There, on his desk, sat Goose, washing her face calmly. Next to her, the Tesseract glowed brightly in a small pile of unidentified liquid.
"Where did you find it?" he asked, awed.
"Goose puked it up," Fury told him.
"I'll explain everything," Fury told him, opening the lunch box and setting it on his desk. "Hold the box steady while I put it in there."
"Where are we taking it?"
"A secure location. I've been asked by someone with a whole lot more juice than me to keep it safe and secret," Fury said. Coulson held the lunch box, just in case, while Fury carefully lifted the Tesseract in both mitts, placing it gently in the box and then sliding his hands out of the mitts so that they dampened the glow. Coulson slammed the lid shut, then looked slightly regretfully at the Captain America shield on the front.
"Your country thanks you for your sacrifice," Fury said drily, when he saw him looking. He slipped a handcuff ring through the lunchbox handle, then snapped the other one around Coulson's wrist. "Let's go. I'll be back soon, Goose, be good while I'm gone!"
Before Nick Fury became Director Fury and a whole new crop of myths sprung up around him, he was well-known in SHIELD for his unique interrogation techniques. One of the favorite stories they told about him was his initial litmus test for whether someone claiming to be an alien (common in their line of work) was, in fact, an actual alien (very uncommon, but not unheard-of once you reached a certain clearance level).
He would walk into the interrogation room, sit down in front of the potential alien, and stare at them for a while, assessing, considering. And then he would ask a series of questions.
"So you're an alien?"
"From what planet or galaxy?"
"Can you prove it with any kind of physical test?"
And then the kicker:
"Have you ever heard of a Flerken?"
Anyone who blanched or winced, or looked around worriedly, automatically got kicked up into the "more likely to be an alien than a crackpot" category. Anyone who was recorded describing a Flerken was automatically kicked down into "probably needs mental health care" category.
If he asked the question and they reacted as if they did, his only condition of continuing the interrogation would be that he get five minutes off-record with the...individual.
"Why do you always ask them about the Flerken?" Coulson asked him once, over beers, after a particularly annoying interrogation.
"Well, it's a fast test. Not 100% accurate but it weeds people out pretty quickly most of the time."
"Fair," Coulson said. "But why do you always turn off the recorder after they answer right? Are you threatening to sic your own personal Flerken on them?"
"She's not my Flerken, she's her own Flerken," Fury said.
Fury sat back, sighing. "Honestly? I don't know what the hell you do with a Flerken. As far as I know she hasn't eaten any agents, and she seems fine with cat food. She won't eat human food."
"Well, I mean..." Coulson said.
Fury looked blank. "What?"
"She...she eats...human food."
"She knows she's not supposed to," Fury told him. "Anyway, I don't know if she's missing some kinda vitamin or something. What happens if she gets sick? You imagine the reaction the first time a vet tries to take her temperature?"
Coulson had only ever seen Goose go "full Flerken" once, on a spider she'd found in a corner of the office. He was hoping that was the first and last time.
"So, if they've encountered a Flerken, I figure, never hurts to ask. Found out I was brushing her too often that way," Fury said. "And I got the number of a guy who specializes in exotic pet medicine."
"Yeah, space parrots," Fury said, looking amused. "Good news is, apparently Flerkens are hypoallergenic."
"I certainly wouldn't dare be allergic to her," Coulson agreed.
Natasha Romanoff had just been removed from probationary status when she was summoned to Director Fury's office late one afternoon, and she suspected she knew what it was about.
"Come in, Agent Romanoff," Fury said, indicating the chair on the other side of his desk. She sat, nervous and a little excited. "Coulson tells me you're a full agent as of this morning."
"Yes, sir," she said.
"I think you know that you've been on two forms of probation while you've been in training."
"I assumed so, Director," she agreed. "Probationary agent status, and also...because of my past, sir."
"I believe you've referred to it as the red in your ledger," Fury said.
"I didn't expect Agent Barton to tell you that, sir."
"He didn't. I have eyes everywhere," Fury said, and he must have read her mind, because then he grinned. She smiled back.
"I have a mission for you," he said. "And I think you should understand that while it may not seem vital -- it may seem unimportant, even menial -- this is the mission where you earn my trust for good."
She sat up just a little straighter. "I'm ready, sir. Who's my target?"
Fury looked to the side, to the bookshelves on one end of his office. Most of the shelves were full of operational binders, strange knick-nacks from who knew where, and the autobiographies of strategists and politicians. (Coulson said he liked to throw darts at the latter. She was pretty sure it was a joke but you could never tell with Coulson.) The only other occupant of the shelf was Goose, the Director's cat, in her little cat hutch. Goose had the run of the Triskelion, and she'd occasionally caught the cat watching her curiously, but she hadn't yet been allowed close enough to pet her.
Natasha looked at Fury hesitantly.
"I'm going to Brno. I can't explain why," he said.
"No. I need you to look after Goose."
"The...the cat, sir?" she asked.
"Yes. Coulson can give you Goose's brief."
"Your cat has a brief," she said slowly.
"My cat has a higher security clearance than you do, Agent, you'd better believe she has a brief," he said, and held out his hand, making a tch-tch-tch noise. Goose got up, stretched lazily, and jumped straight from the shelf to the desk, rubbing her cheek against his fingers. "Wet food in the morning, refill the dry food whenever it gets low. Change the water at least once a day. The litterbox scoops itself, you don't need to worry about that. Fifteen minutes of structured play, morning and evening. The brief will tell you where I hide the laser pointer."
"You have to hide the laser pointer?" Natasha asked, morbid fascination overtaking confusion and a faint sense she should be insulted.
"She keeps trying to eat it."
"My first mission is to catsit your cat?" Natasha managed.
"I want you to think carefully about why I would ask you this," Fury said, watching her. Natasha, against a rising tide of rebellious annoyance, realized this was definitely some kind of test, and wanted to pass it. She liked her new life, and the Director himself, too much to let her ego make her fail.
"You're the head of SHIELD," she said slowly. "You're paid well enough you could hire someone to do this. Or you could order any agent or even an intern to feed your cat."
"So why you?" Fury prompted.
"The cat comes to work with you every morning. She's important to you. It's important to know she's safe and cared for when you're away. Cats like routine, they like continuity," Natasha said, working her way through it. "Attention to detail is important."
She looked him straight in the eye. "You're testing to see if I am capable of real compassion. And if I can pay attention to even the small things, things that seem unimportant to me."
Fury was silent a long time.
"I was just gonna say it's because I'm giving you a key to my house," Fury said, holding up a ring of keys. "But now you said the rest of it I'm going to hold you to it. Don't eat the steaks in the freezer."
"Yes, sir," she said, feeling like she'd just gotten away with something. "I'll pick up the brief from Coulson."
Goose, who had been sitting on the desk, tail wrapped around her front paws, reached out to bat at the keys as they were passed over, then butted her head against Natasha's knuckles.
"She likes you," Fury said approvingly.