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Four Words

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Slowly that stifling heat caused by too many bodies in too small a space began to creep into the helicarrier's mess. The usual murmurs and sighs that inevitably intruded in the face of such discomfort never dared surface. Every member of SHIELD present stood at attention. Even Stark stood still and silent out of respect for the man whose personnel photo was displayed on the only lit screen in the room. At his side the small, deceptively fragile-looking Potts held his and chewed her lip with damp eyes. Dr. Banner and Captain Rogers were to his right with Romanov between them. Thor stood at the far edge of their group with his eyes blank but rapt on the image of Coulson. Barton stood beside Fury near the center of the room.

Every member of The Avengers team showed varying degrees of weariness, but only Thor looked guilty. Their Asgardian probably blamed himself felt for his brother killing Coulson. Under different circumstances, Fury might have done the same, but as things stood: Loki was the son of a bitch who stabbed a man in the back, and Thor was the god who offered to let Coulson's family have his own life to satisfy their vengeance. It was hard to hold anything against a man like that.

Fury listened to the chaplain’s droning speech about life and death and tired not to tune him out, but an imagined phantom of Coulson was standing in the empty space to his right cracking those straight-faced jokes of his. It was playing hell on Fury's composure.

"Think we'll get steak? After a speech like this, we should get steak, Boss." Coulson said that to him during the helicarrier’s christening when some bureaucrat spent an hour via video feed mulling about duty and sacrifice to people who lived it.

"...a man whose loyalty was only out matched by his bravery. His..."

"Ten bucks says he ends with "God Bless America?'" Coulson offered as they walked into the Marine Corps's Firefall facility on a security inspection only to be greeted by the Secretary with a speech in hand.

"No bet," Fury muttered as the room applauded politely when the chaplain finished. The Director took the floor as the young chaplain stepped aside, and he felt every spine get a fraction straighter, every jaw tighten.

" 'Number Four: What do you hope to achieve in your time here?' We all answered that question on the psych-eval before we even knew what SHIELD was. Our answers were scrutinized by shrinks, therapists, and doctors with degrees in tearing apart the human mind. While we answered those questions our body language, pulse, and blink-rate was recorded for further study."

"After weeks even months of review - if you were deemed fit - they told you what you were really signing up for. They told you what you'd really be up against and tried to convey what it would cost. Then you had to answer those questions again. The wording was different, but it was all the same big question: can you do this job the right way when we need you to do it?" Fury took a breath. He didn't mean to sound so angry, to all but shout at the only service most of these people would have to lay this man to rest, but he still couldn't completely divorce himself from the vicious force of his grief. "Questionnaires can't tell us that, but they can help us find those most likely to get the job done."

Swallowing Fury pulled an old, worn paper from his jacket. He unfolded it as he spoke. "I keep a copy of this. Like some men keep a prayer. It reminds me why I'm here - especially on those days when I don't want to be. I want to read you an answer from the only evaluation that passed in under three days. The only evaluation to be recommended for immediate clearance. When asked: 'what do you hope to achieve in your time here?' the respondent answered: 'To Make A Difference!"

Those four words snarled out of him, and a few of the agents sniffed or swallowed loudly. Slowly, deliberately, he folded the paper back into his coat. "Four words. That's why we're here. Four words."

Fury looked over his shoulder and didn't let himself flinch at the mild smile of his hero - a man with no powers beyond heart and dedication who stood up to a god with the same untrainable tenacity he took to every assignment. "On paper, the names of evaluees are redacted. Only a number differentiates those recruiting surveys. I kept this evaluation for years without ever knowing whose it was until this morning. When his file came off the active roster and this evaluation was also flagged inactive. Those words that kept me breathing some days, words that became my mantra, my unofficial motto for SHIELD...Those words came from Phil Coulson."

At his side Fury felt Barton tense like he was about to jump off something. Tears dripped from eyes that were resolutely trained on the wall behind the display. Breaths stuttered, and Pepper Potts was probably bending a few bones in Stark's hand. He could have said more about what Phil did, what his death gave them, but dying wasn't his greatest contribution to SHIELD. Fury wanted everyone here to know that.

"That is all." Fury stepped aside and let Hill finish the ceremony with Taps via a satellite feed from Arlington. The soldiers there didn't know who they were playing for, who their 3-volley rifle salute honored. The casket they surrounded was empty. No service beyond the salute was held there, but they had orders. They followed them.

Only Potts, Banner, and Stark flinched at the noise as each volley was loosed.

Together the assembled agents and Avengers watched the ceremony end on the screen, and Fury left Coulson's image on the screen afterward, for those who still needed to say a goodbye. "Dismissed."

He walked out, straight to the bridge because they had teams in the field, and it's where Coulson had followed him after every memorial service they'd held before now. As he turned left down the unremarkable corridor, he felt the man's absence more keenly. "Good speech, Boss," Coulson teased after he made a handful of new agents pale and tremble over a botch training assignment. "Can we make that one part of the recruiting package?"

Smiling weakly at the memory, Fury took his place at the Conn, watching his bridge crew work with their heads a little bowed. It wasn't strictly to protocol, but he was pretty sure most monitors on the carrier had tuned to the service. Few people on board hadn't dealt with Coulson at some point in their career.

It was good that they watched, good that they knew. Phil Coulson's legacy wasn't dying so that the Avengers to step up and hold together. His legacy was being everything an agent of SHIELD should aspire to be, and damned if Fury didn't hope he himself could live up to that.