“Left behind! In a Blockbuster!”
Phil Coulson cringed internally and gritted his teeth as he found a seat in the Triskelion’s junior employee break room. As an agent of SHIELD, he was literally living out his life-long dream, following in the footsteps of Peggy Carter, General Chester Phillips, and Steve Rogers. He’d made it past the first few terrifying hurdles - the jumps from probationary agent to junior agent to Agent Level 1B were notorious for their rates of attrition - and now at his current exalted status of Level 1A, he was finally being trusted with more than coffee retrieval and the generation of PowerPoint slideshows. He truly loved his job.
Some of his co-workers, however…
“What was it, Phil,” cackled John Garrett (Agent Level 1B), coming up and sitting down next to him as Phil unpacked his lunch. “Did they have all the Captain America cartoons!?
Technically, nobody was supposed to know about any of what Phil was referring to in his head as The Incident. However, the longstanding rivalry that characterized SHIELD’s relationship with the other American investigative agencies and a bunch of local LEOs who had spent a lot of time on the wrong end of SHIELD’s heavy-handed attitude towards jurisdictional squabbles pretty much ensured that the sorry tale of the rookie SHIELD agent who got left behind in a video rental store was going to die on the Seventh of Never.
“Hey, Blake!” Garrett waved Felix Blake (also 1A) over to their table. “What’s that sci-fi movie that’s supposed to have a shit-ton of super-secret director’s cuts everywhere?”
Blake came over with a cup of coffee and a sarcastic grin.
“Dune. Was that it, Phil? You wanted to see what David Lynch filmed for eight hours?”
Of course, the problem was that he couldn’t defend himself. The operation got wrapped up and classified so highly he’d probably never get to see anything about it ever again. And spouting off classified information in the cafeteria after his first real in-the-field mission was an excellent way to ensure he’d never get to have a second.
Also, the non-disclosure agreement they’d had him sign was absolutely terrifying.
He’d just have to bluff it out.
“I don’t know what you guys are talking about,” said Phil, outwardly calm. He forced himself to nonchalantly take a bite of his sandwich.
“It was the Star Wars Christmas Special. Do you know how hard copies of that are to find?” said another voice. Agent Melinda May sat down on his other side. “They’re collectors’ items.”
“That’s true,” confirmed Phil. “If you can find a quality copy on tape, they’re worth a good chunk of change.”
“Hey, Phil, $20 and I don’t tell that redheaded hottie from the Feeb basement about this…” smirked Garrett. Coulson stiffened a little, but May saved him from saying something he’d regret.
“Like she’d believe you anyway,” said May. “Didn’t she kick you in the balls last time you had to work with her?”
“How did you hear about that!?” Garrett sat up sharply, sounding aggrieved.
“Kneed him in the nose, too…” muttered Blake into his coffee.
“Traitor!” Garrett punched Blake in the shoulder.
Both Coulson and Melinda’s pagers went off. Melinda glanced at hers first.
“It’s Fury. Phil, we gotta go.”
“I’d love to stay and chat, gentlemen, but duty calls…” said Coulson, throwing away his trash and heading for the door with May.
“More like saved by the bell…” Garrett offered as a weak parting shot.
Melinda May knew damn well that there was more to the Blockbuster story than Coulson was saying. There simply had to be. It was the only logical explanation.
From her very first day at SHIELD Operations Academy, she had prided herself on her skills at taking the measure of each and every one of her classmates, and Phil Coulson was firmly in her mental category of “Those Not To Be Underestimated.” Skill-wise, he was not direct competition, being a Communications graduate, but since their very first days in the Probie dorms, she and Phil had been in an entirely friendly but nevertheless ruthless race for rank. She was currently in the lead, having made 1A two weeks before he had, but the SHIELD promotion ladder was as hard to ascend (and as easy to plummet down) as a greased flagpole.
They exited the elevator (it was nice to get out of the windowless lower levels) and headed down the hall to Fury’s office. They’d actually beaten him there, but his secretary told them to wait inside. They entered, closed the door, and took their seats in front of their superior’s desk.
As they sat, there came a jingling sound from the corner of the room. They both looked over at the cat bed in the corner as Goose got up and started heading for Melinda, who knew very well that she’d had been expertly-trained in the treat-providing department.
“I’m still not sure how Agent Fury got permission to keep a cat in the office,” said Coulson. “It’s against all the regs.”
“Rank has its privileges, I suppose,” said May. Regardless of how he’d done it, May thoroughly approved. She’d had to leave her beloved Mr. Muggins at her mother’s house - SHIELD agents didn’t earn the right to live off-base until Level 3 - and she missed him terribly. (Every time she called, her mother threatened to take the “useless fleabag” to the pound. Melinda might have actually worried had she not gone home once to discover her mom chopping up wild-caught Alaskan salmon for the useless fleabag’s dinner.) Melinda smiled. She’d just gotten a new laser pointer, and was keen to see how the cat would react. She gave Goose the expected kibble and skritched her head behind her ears. Goose rubbed May’s leg while purring loudly, making sure to get extra hair on May’s impeccably pressed black pants.
“Hey, Phil, check this out,” she said, smiling. Melinda pulled the laser pointer from her pocket, pointed it at the floor in front of Goose’s paws, and pressed the button.
Goose looked at the dot on the floor and then transformed.
What happened next defied description, even when Melinda tried to compare notes with Phil later. The cat’s body was still there, as orange and fuzzy as ever, but her mouth opened to a mass of pink tentacles eight feet in diameter. The tentacles swirled and squelched before one of them snatched up the laser pointer and whipped it towards the void in its center which passed for a mouth. The pointer speedily vanished down into the monster’s nauseatingly mucosal gullet.
And then just as quickly, the primordial horror subsided back into an ordinary-looking cat. May was left in a state of shock, with a terrified expression and an empty, if slightly slimy, hand.
Melinda instantly turned to Phil, who had evidently seen the same thing, since he was now standing across the room, his gun out of its holster and pointed directly at the cat. He was white as a sheet and looked as if he was going to be sick at any moment.
“What the fuck!?” May squeaked.
“Hell if I know! Get back!” cried Coulson.
Goose cleaned her paws nonchalantly.
The door opened suddenly. Agent Fury walked in, his hands full of briefing paperwork, and kicked the door shut behind him. He took in the scene as Goose trotted over to him, chirping happily.
“SIR! Step away from the animal!” May leapt to her feet to stand next to Coulson, her sidearm also drawn.
“So I’m thinking I missed something here…” said Fury. He reached down to pet Goose on the head. “Is there a problem, Agents?” Fury straightened up, his eyebrow raising above his good eye.
“Your cat… your cat…” gasped Phil, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat. “Your cat appears to be Cthulhu…” he choked out in a pale imitation of his usual dispassionate tone. It took him a minute, but he finally remembered to add, “…sir.”
“Put those things away and sit your asses back down,” said Fury, in his most commanding tone.
May and Coulson obeyed as an almost autonomic response, very clearly fighting - and generally defeating - their panic. When Fury crossed the room and sat down behind his desk, Goose hopped up on his lap and started pushing her nose into his hand. Fury stroked the animal’s fur like a Bond villain and sized up the two shaken agents with a contemplative gaze.
Coulson and May sat in the chairs as ordered, tensed for action and unnaturally still. Neither of their pairs of eyes ever left the orange tabby.
“You’d’ve been in a world of hurt if you’d actually fired those guns, you know,” Fury said finally after much thought. May felt her face flush, and Coulson looked abashed.
“In retrospect, sir, that seems clear,” Coulson replied, not meeting his boss’ eye.
“What… what is it!?” May asked, trying to keep her voice level.
Fury turned his head to her.
“Agent May, you two don’t get to know that yet. Outside of this office, you may refer to Goose as my cat.”
“Yes, sir,” said May sharply, directly meeting Fury’s gaze. She then glanced over at Coulson and saw her disappointment very discreetly mirrored in his expression.
Fury looked back and forth between them, and that contemplative look came back onto his face.
“You two think you can keep your shit together in the face of that kind of weirdness?”
Coulson and May traded a shocked look. Had that been a test?
“With all due respect, sir, we just did,” said May, attempting to project a bravado she really didn’t feel.
“Oh really? So that squealing noise and workplace-inappropriate language came from a different office? I could’ve sworn it came from mine.”
May’s face went stony.
“We were caught by surprise, sir,” supplied Coulson, looking down.
“Well, I hate to break it to you, Agent Coulson, but the Weird Shit doesn’t usually call first and ask politely before walking in the door.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” said Coulson, chastened.
“You think you’re sorry now, Ace, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.” Fury let the pair of them squirm for a minute, then hit the button for the intercom. “Evans?”
“Bring in two copies of the Level 2 Promotion Briefing, will you?”
“Right away, sir,” came the voice over the speaker. Coulson and May just stared at Fury, eyes wide, as if they couldn’t believe what they’d just heard.
“By the way, Agent May,” he leaned in, smiled, and tented his fingers as if he was about to impart a state secret. “Goose really doesn’t like laser pointers.”
ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ
After a long and terrifying lecture by Fury, they were left in an empty office across the hall to fill out the pages and pages of intake forms and to read the doorstopper of a training manual. For a time, silence reigned, broken only by the occasional scratching of a pen and turning of a page.
May zoned out for a little bit, contemplating recent events, the finally gave in to the nagging curiosity.
“The Blockbuster. It was something like that, wasn’t it.”
Coulson stopped. He looked pained for a split second, but almost instantly adopted what May was already thinking of as his “Secret Agent” face.
“I can’t talk about it. I really can’t,” he said apologetically.
She nodded. She didn’t press him. She was getting good at reading his lack of expressions.
“What if this is really what it’s going to be like, going forward?” she asked quietly.
“Incidents like these can’t be that common. You can’t keep a secret like that forever,” he replied, as if he were convincing himself as much as her.
“And if they are, I’d rather know about them than not,” he said.
Well, that was certainly true. She nodded and went back to the paperwork.
The door creaked open, but no one came in. Both agents looked over and froze.
“Mrrrrp?” trilled Goose. She paused in the doorway, then ran over to Melinda. May stared at the cat-like apparition who stared back for an agonizingly long moment. Slowly, Goose sat back on her hind legs and placed one front paw on Melinda’s thigh.
May forced herself to remain still and keep her breathing even. Was this an apology? Slowly, gingerly, she reached out a shaking hand towards the animal’s muzzle. Goose pushed into her hand enthusiastically. The tension broken, she jumped up into May’s lap and started rubbing her face on Melinda’s chin. After a couple of seconds, May screwed her courage to the sticking place, and petted Goose’s back like she always had. Goose let out a satisfied purr and, mission evidently accomplished, leapt down to the floor. She cantered back out the door, her tail held high.
“So help me God, May, you’ve got bigger balls than I do,” said Coulson in a shaky voice. He looked ashen and pale.
“Could’ve told you that, Coulson.” She was going to master the Art of the Bluff if it killed her.
“Yeah, but you let… it… on your lap…” he almost quavered.
“After what we saw? I’d really rather have ‘Fury’s Cat’ on my side than not,” she said.
“That’s a good point.” He blew out a long breath. “That’s a really good point.” He looked at the open door, got up and closed it, making sure it was securely latched this time. He sat back down.
“Hey, what kind of cat treats does she like?” he asked, trying for nonchalance.
“I’ll get you a list,” she said.
“Great. Thanks,” he said.
“Anytime,” she replied, and they went back to their work.
“Yeah?” she asked.
“I signed the paper a good half-minute before you did. I’ve got seniority,” he said, smug as hell.
“You son of a bitch…” she said. The cackle escaped her before she even realized it and kept escaping no matter how she held it back. Coulson gave a chuckle that also seemed to get away from him until they both collapsed into tension-relieving giggles. After a few minutes of this cathartic feedback loop, Evans came in the room and told them both to keep it down. May wiped her eyes as Coulson tried to pull himself back together.
“I’ll get you next time,” she said, some crazy sense of normality returning.
“I’m sure you will,” he deadpanned.
ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ ꙮ
That night, in the cafeteria, Garrett was appalled.
“You’re Fury’s pets, I tell you what. How the hell did the two of you make grade again?” he scowled.
May met Coulson’s eyes. The urge to start laughing was hard to suppress, but she managed.
“Can’t talk about it,” they both said simultaneously and kept on eating their dinner.