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Personal Prerogative

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Staring down the barrel of his fifth decade, Phil Coulson has got his life arranged exactly the way he wants it.

Sure, some people might look at it from the outside and think it a little anal retentive, a little stuffy, with just a hint of obsessive-compulsive disorder on the side. But it suits him, down to the ground.

To understand why, all you have to do is look at his choice of careers. He entered the Army on the G.I. Bill to gain funds for college, and gave up control of virtually every aspect of his life to military regulations in exchange for his tuition. While there he trained for Special Forces, with an emphasis on counter-terrorism. That posting took him to all the parts of the world most ravaged by war, famine, toxic politics – all the big abstract forces that buffet the lives of ordinary people into complete disarray.

The Green Berets brought him to the attention of the nation’s intelligence community, and the CIA shifted his focus from counter-terrorism to psy-ops. While working there he caught the eye of Col. Nick Fury, who brought him into S.H.I.E.L.D., and took his game up to a whole new level.

Is it any wonder that Phil Coulson likes a certain level of control over his environs when and where he can get it? Including, but not limited to, his office, his vehicle, his home, and his personal relationships.

By the time he passed 30, he’d developed a solid database of opinions, rating everything from architecture to toothpaste options on a scale of best, very good, tolerable, substandard and unacceptable. Now that he has a measure of choice, he chooses the best whenever and wherever he can – it offsets the amount of time he’s spent enduring the worst the world has to throw at him. Moreover, his employers provide so many of life’s essentials so much of the time, that Coulson has the disposable income to indulge himself in the things that suit him best.

The personal relationships, though, have not been so easily bent to his choices.

Take Pepper Potts, for example. When he first met her, the day Tony Stark returned from captivity in Afghanistan, he knew she would be perfect for him. She’s beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated, discreet, and saddled with responsibilities above and beyond the call of any duty – responsibilities she manages with grace and style. With the exception of private versus military sector lives – very different points of view, unfortunately – she might well be described as Coulson’s opposite number.

So it only stood to reason that once he rescued her from Obadiah Stane’s mad rampage, Coulson made a full court press to woo her into a romance. They were evenly matched in every respect, and frictionless in their relationship – the most difficult thing was forcing their overcrowded and largely unpredictable schedules to mesh.

Pepper Potts was, unquestionably, the best of women; the best of romantic partners. Phil Coulson was not a man to say no to the best when he was lucky enough to find it, and get it.

But he did.

He broke off the relationship when it reached the decision stage: keep things casual, or exchange keys. Work was his given excuse; in his field, work is always an inarguable excuse.

But the truth is, he broke off the relationship because it was perfect. And stuffy. Airless. Stiflingly predictable.

Now, of course, he’s stage managing the Avenger Initiative, and deals exclusively with the least predictable people on the planet. Their lives are as operatically messy and sprawling as the crises they were assembled to deal with. Not least of them is Agent Barton, the mouthy, sarcastic, preternaturally accurate sniper with a penchant for archery and absolutely no sense of personal boundaries.

Barton invades Coulson’s space. He barges in unannounced, destroys the pristine symmetry of Coulson’s schedules, drags his feet on paperwork and procedure, and blows through the airlessness of Coulson’s life like a tornado. In all things but his aim, Barton is about as far from perfection as it’s possible to be.

And yet still, now that Barton’s in it, Phil Coulson’s life suits him, down to the ground.