"Is it him?" Phil Coulson called over the sound of heavy wind and snow, his words further muffled from the jacket around his mouth and the machinery around them. It was astonishing Fury even heard him at all.
The man before him leaned into the hole in the snow they had drilled and touched the shoulder of an unknown man frozen inside a fallen jet plane. "No..." He said with narrowed eyes. "... But we're getting closer."
Inside the S.H.I.E.L.D. base camp was delightfully warm. Not warm by normal standards but when you factor in that outside was a frozen wasteland that felt like the middle of nowhere it was warm enough to make him sigh with comfort as the doors closed behind him.
"I'm just saying we need to move now." Coulson said. His words had undertones of urgency but he didn't dare demand anything of his superior. Removing his heavy coat to reveal his normal suit, tie, and identification badge underneath, Fury often wondered if the man even OWNED normal clothes. As far as he was concerned Coulson had escaped the womb in a perfectly pressed black suit and tie.
Fury wasn't in the best of moods. Perhaps it was because he was stuck on the northeast coast of Greenland on what he hoped wouldn't be a wild goose chase. "What I need now is for you to be a little less overexcited." He did not look at Coulson as he took off his heavy winter gloves with a snap.
"I'm not overexcited, I'm at the appropriate level of excitement." Coulson said calmly, trying to prove his point with his voice. "But a glacial shift in the coming months is an absolute certainty, which means that at any moment..."
"Relax, Coulson. We'll find your favorite action figure."
Coulson fell silent as another agent walked in and informed Fury that the council had orders for them to abort the mission, pack up camp, and go home. Again... Again his hero was out of his grasp. Never in his life had Phil Coulson been so disappointed and this time he let his disappointment show on his face.
"Phil!" A woman called out the front door in a motherly sing-song voice. "Phil, honey, come inside! We have an eeextra special surprise for you!"
Ten year old Philip "Phil" Coulson, looked up when he heard his name. The back yard was crowded with screaming children running every which way. Cheap water pistols splashed water in his face and he recoiled, moving his home made Captain America shield to protect him from his fellow party goers. The other children laughed at his distraction but Phil was a little disappointed he had let something like that take him off guard. He had to be better prepared next time. He took play time seriously. After all, one of these days he was going to join the military and do for his country what Captain Steve Rogers had, right?
The children, his classmates, all filed in the house. There weren't many he really considered close friends but he did have his own personal Bucky, his best friend Chris, so he didn't much mind the other children there. It made his mother feel better that he had other children attend his party. He knew his mother wouldn't want his shield in the house all wet like that but he kept it in his hand anyway, liking the way it felt so natural in his palm.
He stepped into the living room where he noticed everyone else had gathered in a circle. There were gasps waving throughout the cramped space and it took Phil a moment to figure out what had caused it. The crowd parted to let him through. Standing at the front door was a tall man in full Captain America costume. The man was decked from head to two in the stars and stripes, mask hiding his face, and a shield, not unlike his own, firmly grasped in his left hand.
"Look who it is, Phil!" His mother had her hands over her mouth to contain her own excitement, eager to see her son's eyes light up from the surprise she had organized. "Captain America came to your birthday party! Isn't that nice? Oh Sweetie, get the camera!"
Philip "Phil" Coulson was not stupid. Not by any stretch of the imagination. All the trading cards, all the posters, all the toys, photos, and videos he had of the man... He could tell a fake when he saw one. This man, though a decent likeness with a fairly accurate costume, was not his hero. People did not realize to the extent of which his obsession had shaped who he was. His parents never realized that his hours of pretend time in the back yard was building him lean muscle. They didn't realize that the interest in history sparked by his hero's time period had evolved into a full blown thirst for knowledge and the discovery of a keen and detail oriented wit.
They didn't realize because young Phil Coulson never showed it. Not to them. He never bragged. He never took special treatment. He never spoke out of turn or drew attention to himself. Phil Coulson was the most remarkable unremarkable boy you would ever meet; hiding in plain sight and appearing completely average in nature. Under it all, though, was an amazing intellect and the promise of great things to come.
So when they told young Phil this man was his hero, he smiled and did what he knew would please his mother.
He faked it.
'There he is,' Coulson thought to himself, trying to keep his giddiness from physically showing. 'He's sitting right there. Mere feet away from me. I could touch him if I wanted. Nono, Phil... That sounds weird. Keep that to yourself.'
Agent Coulson hardly ever got nostalgic. There didn't seem much merit in looking back when he had the present to deal with and his present was always busy and full of excitement. However, it was hard not to be nostalgic when he was literally looking right at his childhood. Steve Rogers had dominated a part of young Phil Coulson that no one back then, or even now, could fully understand. He was a hero. He was HIS hero. And here he is... right now.
"It's an honor to meet you... Officially." Coulson said, stepping toward his hero as they glided through the air in a S.H.I.E.L.D. issue plane. Steve Rogers just returned his comment with a small smile and said nothing. He wasn't sure what to do, so to keep it from getting awkward, he kept talking. "I sort of met you, I mean... I watched you. While you were sleeping."
No! How can nearly every thought he had of Captain America suddenly be misconstrued as something sexual? The smile upon Steve Roger's face suddenly flickered into a confused and uncomfortable frown. 'Abort mission, Agent Coulson!'
"I mean... I was... I was present... while you were... Unconscious. From the... ice." He corrected, watching the cap stand up and move toward the front of the ship. Oh, this was bad. This was getting really uncomfortable. Should he keep talking? Was there anyway to save this first impression? Steve Rogers rested his arm on the archway leading to the cockpit of the plane and, not knowing what else to do, Coulson mimicked the stance on the opposite side, instantly regretting it but feeling it was too late to move. It would seem too awkward. Did he notice he was copying him? Should be move? No no, stay like that. You're fine.
"You know, it's really... It's just a... it's just a huge... honor to have you on board."
"Well, I hope I'm the man for the job." Steve Rogers said, not even looking at him. Coulson couldn't help but think his full name as he mentally addressed him. Steve just seemed too... Informal. At least for a first meeting.
"Oh, you are!" Phil insisted, afraid he may have sounded a little too desperate. "Absolutely. Uh, we made some... modifications to the uniform." He tried not to smile as pride seemed to swell in him. "I had a little... design input."
"Uniform?" Steve turned to him, a question in his eyes. Coulson blinked at him and practically froze as a defense mechanism, a little taken aback by his sudden interest. They were standing terribly close. Should he back up? "Aren't the stars and stripes a little... Old fashioned?"
Coulson took one second to ponder this. As if he had been preparing for this his whole life, and he had, he knew just the words to say to finally ease this first meeting. "Everything that's happening... The things that are about to come to light... People might just... Need... A little old fashioned."
This was nothing like how he had seen it in his head.
Phil tried to imagine what he would say if he was face-to-face with the real Captain America, trying to figure out how to reproduce the effects for his mother's sake. First surprise, he thought. 10 year old Phil let a small gasp enter his slightly parted lips and he widened his eyes in wanderlust. 'This is him,' he thought. How would you greet him?
How do you PLAN this kind of thing? Even if he had come up with something cool and witty he wondered if he would even be able to utter a single word of it when the time actually came to say them.
"It's an honor to meet you, sir." He whispered. His classmates giggled. The man in costume before him fell to one knee and Coulson gripped his shield even tighter from the unknown of this whole experience.
"This your shield? May I see it?" He asked, kind eyes staring into Coulson's. He nodded and allowed the stranger to take it, feeling a little less safe as it slipped from his finger tips. "Looks pretty beat up. Have you been battling a lot?"
"Yes sir. A lot of Hydra agents." He wasn't sure why he was answering this man so willingly and staying in character to such an extent. His classmates were starting to whisper and giggle again but a part of him didn't care. He WANTED this man to be Captain America. He WANTED this birthday to be perfect and that was the only way it would be.
The stranger smiled. "Good. You keep this safe, Phil. And it will keep you safe." He handed him back the shield and placed a hand on his shoulder. Phil actually felt his heart... Was flutter the word? That didn't sound very manly... "And you keep your friends and family safe. The world needs you in it, kid." He poked Coulson's heart with his finger. "You're going to do great things."
"Did you get that picture?" Phil's mother squeaked, fighting back tears as she slapped her husband's shoulder in excitement. Phil saw none of this. He heard none of this. All he could do was stare at this man and try to speak. His lips twitched and parted but he couldn't get them to move any further. He was too old to be speechless over something like this. For heaven's sake, he was ten years old today and this wasn't even Captain America! What had started out as a playful endeavor to please his mother had turned into something more. This was probably the closest thing he was going to get to meeting the real deal and he seemed to be taking his character seriously. Phil threw all the chips in and went for broke.
"You're my hero, sir." The words spilled from the boy's mouth before he could stop them. He caught his friend Chris out the corner of his eye shushing a girl who was whispering "He actually thinks that's Captain America." and he proceeded to do that with everyone who giggled at him. 'That's why he's my Bucky,' Phil thought briefly before his thoughts brought him back to the man in costume before him.
He put out his hand for Phil to take and take it he did. A photo of he and Captain America shaking hands was kept in his wallet from the day they got it developed on.
It was a devastating blow to Coulson's ego to be this close to Captain America himself, the real deal, and still be this awkward after several hours of knowing him. He shifted in his stance, something he never did, and rocked on his heels as he tried to fill the gap between them with words.
"So uh... Mr. Rogers... Sorry, that... That made you sound like... Made me sound like I was talking about the TV show..." Coulson stammered with a weak little laugh. When Steve Rogers didn't answer, he added, "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood." Then he thought it over. "Which you've... never heard of..."
He cleared his throat and they both went back to looking in separate directions again. Coulson couldn't stand for this. He HAD to fill the silence.
"I was... I was wondering... If perhaps you could... Think about signing my Captain America trading cards." He tried not to make a face at how dorky that sounded now that the words had escaped where he couldn't take them back. It took all his strength to keep his face perfectly neutral as he stood beside him.
"Oh yeah, I heard about those." Steve Rogers said, not sounding very interested but at least he looked at Coulson this time, acknowledging him with a little nod before turning away again. His mind seemed much more preoccupied with their attempts to locate Loki on the monitors. Not that him watching would make it happen any faster.
"I mean, if it's not too much trouble." Coulson added.
"No, no. It's fine." Silence separated them again. Coulson spoke up again.
"It's a vintage set. It took me a couple of years to collect them all." Nothing from Captain. "Near mint, slight foxing around the edges, but..."
"We got a hit." Jasper Sitwell, a fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, sounded loudly, effectively stealing all hope of this conversation ending in his favor. Coulson was not disappointed though. He was thrown back into professional mode. "Sixty seven percent match. Weight, cross match, seventy nine percent."
"Location?" Coulson demanded.
"Stuttgart, Germany. 28, Konigstrasse. He's not exactly hiding." Said Sitwell.
Fury looked to Steve Rogers. "Captain, you're up."
"Captain, you're up!" Phil's mother said cheerfully, cutting him a slice of cake she had carefully decorated like his shield just for her son.
"Thank you, ma'am." He said. Taking his cake, he sat down beside the birthday boy as they had all saved him a seat. Kids around the table were showing off their blue and red tongues from the food coloring in the icing. One girl had swirled hers into purple and was currently painting her mouth just to be different. "Enjoying your party, Phil?" The actor gave him a soft pat on the back.
"Yes. Thank you." Phil said quietly, trying not to finish his piece too fast so he had an excuse to stay and talk to him. He only got today to do this and even if he wasn't the real deal he would keep these memories with him when he felt all was hopeless. When he needed a hero. Even a friend. He picked at his cake awkwardly. "What was it like? Being injected with the serum that gave you your strength? Was it painful? Were you scared?"
The actor, who was about to put his second forkful of cake in his mouth, froze and lowered his utensil slowly as he thought about this. "It was painful... And yes... I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little scared... But all good things are worth fighting for and take a little pain and sacrifice to achieve."
No one else seemed to notice their conversation and Phil had blocked out the entire population of his party save for the actor. "You're just like I imagined him." He said softly.
"Nothing." He said, smiling to himself as he finished off his plate of cake and adjusted his red, white, and blue party hat. "I hope I get to meet the real thing someday but until then... Thanks."
"Don't know what you're talking about..." he smiled, staying delightfully in character despite being called out, "But you're welcome." The two exchanged salutes and then showed their tongues. Red and Blue.
"What's the matter, Coulson?"
The agent was leaning over a railing of the hovercraft shuffling through his Captain America trading cards. It was rare to find an area of that ship where one could be completely alone. Lucky for the two of them, Coulson and Fury were two of the few who had clearance high enough to access them. He had collected the cards in his hand recently but he had owned some of them once before. Now they were worn and bent from play and use but these... These he bought recently. When they asked him to join the search for Steve Rogers. He had to be ready.
"He didn't sign my cards." He said calmly, a fond smirk curling on his lips.
"He's got a lot on his mind. We all do."
"I know." Coulson said. "I just thought meeting him would be-"
"Not everything you dreamed it would be?" Fury's slow steps had finally brought him to the railing and he too leaned over it beside Coulson, his one good eye. "Meeting your heroes never is."
"Oh no, he's everything I imagined him to be." Fury looked up in slight surprise. "And more." He added. In one motion he slid the cards back into a deck and tapped them against the railing lightly. "He's just focused on the mission. Which I admire. Dedication. It's perfect." Coulson turned. "I'll ask him again when we have the tesseract and all of this is over."
He began to walk away but froze in place. Fury turned around to see why when he noticed the sounds of his feet on the metal floor had stopped. Coulson peeked over his shoulder, a smile on his face. "Good talk, Director Fury." He continued walking.
"Where are you going?"
"To put these in my locker for safe keeping."
"Hey, Agent!" Fury called out, stopping Coulson once more. "Happy Birthday."
Coulson started walking again without a word.
It was painful...
Coulson breezed passed the security system on the door.
And yes... I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little scared...
"Move away, please."
But all good things are worth fighting for...
"You like this? We started working on the prototype after you sent The Destroyer. Even I don't know what it does. Do you wanna find out?"
And take a little pain...
Coulson crashed to the ground, blood dripping from the corner of his mouth.
And sacrifice to achieve.
"It's okay, boss. This was never gonna work if they didn't have something to..."