Author's notes: Well, the time has come. I've been working on this story now for the last six months, ever since Aggie2011 finally convinced me that my own ideas and writing were good enough to take the plunge into the Avengers' fandom. Aggie, you have been an inspiration and a push beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Without you, this story – and the universe that has developed from it – would never have seen the light of day. I also need to give credit to Nonyvole and AlphaFlyer, both of whom have continued to push me and tell me that, yes, this is worth doing. The support has been endless, so THANK YOU.
Now, a few housekeeping notes. What I have here is the background story of how Clint Barton and Phil Coulson met. It is not comic canon. It is my take on how they could have met. I've used some of Clint's background as explained in the comics – the circus, his brother Barney, being orphaned and Waverly, Iowa – but it is not canon. I think I've woven a good story nonetheless, and I really hope you enjoy. If it's not your thing, all I ask is that you walk away and not blast me for it. Thanks.
As such, this story starts in actual life. I have tried to, in many ways, tie Clint and Phil to real life – to place them on Earth, in real time, like the movies have with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and the like. Trigger warnings: the story (this prologue) starts on 9-11, and then jumps right into the Afghanistan conflict. The story does get graphic in spots, but it's not gratuitous. Reviews are welcome, but please try and keep it constructive if you see something you dislike.
Sept. 11, 2001 – roughly 8:30 p.m.
The video screens in front of Nick Fury showed several different networks – all ready to broadcast the same sight. There was a moment of silence, and then the President of the United States suddenly appeared, his face calm and grave.
Fury grimaced. He knew what was coming, thanks to an enthusiastic young SHIELD agent on the President's protection detail with more curiosity than common sense. Still, Fury had read the speech, admired its words – and sincerely doubted it would do any real good for most of the people listening to it.
Someone had to try, though. The President took a breath, and began to speak.
"Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom, came under attack, in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts..."
It took all of a sentence for Fury to begin tuning out the words. He had no doubt the words would calm – they were intended to do exactly that, to reassure a nation that what had happened today had been the isolated act of a select few, and that any further threats could and would be stopped in their tracks. The people of the United States needed to know that their government could protect them – and would, no matter what the cost.
"The victims were in airplanes, were in their offices – secretaries, businessmen and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors."
What 99 percent of the population didn't know, though, was that the job of protecting them had failed nine months earlier – and it wasn't just the government that failed, but a department that few knew existed and even fewer wanted to solve their problems. The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division could and often would do anything to solve the problems of the world, but that didn't mean that even they didn't get handcuffed some days.
Damn, he was cynical tonight. Not that it wasn't warranted. In fact –
"Sir." The voice behind him wasn't asking for permission. Instead, the title was simply stated in a voice that clearly expected attention to be paid to its presence. Fury's face quirked into half a smile, and he turned to find himself face to face with a man who was equal parts friend and one of the best agents SHIELD had.
Phil Coulson returned the smile, though it didn't reach his eyes. Fury just sighed.
"Is it confirmed then?" Fury knew what the junior agent had spent the last several hours doing, and the likely reason for his visit. It was a testament to the man's composure that the only emotion Fury read was in Coulson's eyes.
"Yes, sir. Watkins. He was in the E-ring at the Pentagon when the plane hit." Fury winced. Coulson had been in that job until three months ago – when the Security Council had begun raising holy hell with their intelligence-gathering operations in the Middle East. Coulson's value was as an experienced handler and intelligence operative, and that could calm even their temperaments.
"What the hell was he doing in the E-ring at 9:30 a.m.?" Fury couldn't keep the frustration out of his voice. A general staff meeting should have kept Watkins in the C-ring from 8 a.m. until lunch.
"He was late." Fury turned quickly, so he could see Coulson.
"Late." Coulson's face still betrayed almost nothing, but Fury knew enough to see the fire smoldering in his eyes. "His secretary said his car died on the Beltway."
Fury closed his one good eye, resisting a sudden urge to punch something.
"What about Brentley and Lerwick?" Those were the only other two agents who hadn't responded to the all-agency call that had gone out shortly after the first plane hit the North Tower. SHIELD hadn't called an alert like this since the Iranian hostage crisis – not one that had affected the entire network of bases and agents like this – but the response had been gratifyingly swift when it did. There were a handful of undercover agents whose operations just couldn't afford to be compromised, but everyone else had checked in to the tune of about a 99 percent response rate.
But both Brentley and Lerwick had been slated to be in Manhattan Tuesday morning, and neither had checked in.
Coulson nodded, though.
"Both fine, sir." Coulson's mouth quirked into half-smile. "Lerwick had bumped up his flight back to London, and since he was flying commercial, he didn't find out about the attacks until he landed at Heathrow."
"Was helping on scene and lost his cell phone."
Behind him, on the monitor he'd been watching, Fury heard the President's speech draw to a close with a "thank you, good night, and God bless America." He let his hands curl around the railing in front of him, and looked out onto the bridge of the helicarrier.
Fury let out a long, frustrated sigh, resisting the urge to hiss the air out through his teeth. God, it had been a shitty day.
"So, what are the numbers?" He needed to ask, even if whatever the government had issued would no doubt be wildly inaccurate. Coulson responded by walking over to one of the screens, tapping in a few commands, and bringing up a file that immediately displayed "Eyes Only" across the top.
Fury read through the briefing, and inwardly felt a little bit of relief. Already the government had backed off of the initial numbers, which the media had quoted at 25,000 earlier in the day. Now, the number was lower, and the notes on the file said it was likely to drop "significantly further."
There were other notes in the file, and one in particular caught Fury's eye. He tapped the screen with two fingers, then pulled them apart to zoom in on the item. It took a moment for the words he saw to make their way through his brain.
"Believed to possibly be the work of terrorist regimes in the Central Asia."
"Goddamnitall to hell." Fury turned away from the screen, and rolled his one good eye. Then he looked right at Coulson, who stood there, seemingly oblivious to Fury's outburst.
"We gave them this information nine months ago." And they had. As soon as the information had been deemed credible, SHIELD had given not just the report, but recommendations to World Security Council – which had then deemed it a "national but not international problem" and handed it off to who they deemed was the appropriate agency.
At the time, Fury thought it was the equivalent of an ostrich and sand. The CIA didn't have the resources to track this down, not with a possible plot only in its embryonic stages. Now, the decision looked criminally negligent.
But who the hell could have predicted THIS?
"'Central Intelligence Agency,' my ass." Fury knew the anger showed in his voice, and was grateful only one person was there to witness it. "'No credible threat, my ass.'"
Coulson let the words roll off his proverbial back, then spoke.
"You don't need to convince me, sir." Coulson broke eye contact, looking back at the bridge, and Fury cursed himself silently. Of course he didn't need to convince Phil Coulson.
It had been that man's agent who'd been killed getting the original intelligence report out of Afghanistan nine months ago.
"I'm sorry, Phil. That was –" The agent just raised a hand, though.
"Never thought it was your fault, sir." Coulson shrugged, and Fury knew that simple motion cost his agent a lot. Nine months might have passed since Coulson's agent had been gunned down in cold blood in a back alley in Kandahar, but the incident had resulted in Coulson requesting a transfer to a desk job – which had landed him at the Pentagon, at least temporarily.
Fury, meanwhile, had put in a request with the Security Council to immediately put more agents in country to neutralize what had been identified as a growing threat. Instead, the Council had told him, in no uncertain terms, that the request was out of proportion to the perceived threat and flatly vetoed any direct action against the three particular groups that had been named in the agent's report.
No amount of arguing had changed their minds, and after six months, Fury had pulled Coulson back to serve as handler for Central Asia intelligence operatives. Right now, common sense at the time seemed like providence in hindsight.
He shot his friend a look with his good eye, trying to find a little humor in the situation.
"Quit calling me sir, Phil. Don't need you to make me feel old today." The joke stood tried and true between the two, the need to define the difference between friends and Director and Agent sometimes blurred, sometimes not. More often than not, Coulson deferred to formality.
Coulson simply tilted his head slightly and shrugged.
"Don't need 'sir' to feel old today." Coulson crossed his arms, and suddenly let out a sigh of his own. Close to 20 years Fury's junior, Coulson all of a sudden looked all of Fury's age and more. The man had seen a lot in his time before SHIELD – and in his time with the agency since, as much or more than Fury had. And if his friend felt old today, well, he wasn't the only one.
They were both men of action – wanting to solve the world's problems and to hell with any political consequences. The reality of the situation was that, like any other agency, division, service or bureau, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division couldn't always stop bad shit from happening.
Some days were better than others. Days like today were much, much worse.
Coulson cleared his throat, and Fury snapped back to reality, seeing the question forming in his friend's eyes.
"What do we do now, sir?"
Nick Fury had expected the question – had, in fact, been waiting for Coulson to show up and ask. The problem was, there wasn't a really good answer.
"We wait." Wait for the Security Council to call a conference, wait for the United States government to put the rest of the pieces together. Wait for a war to start that was, after today, more or less inevitable.
And the bitch of the matter was, it probably had been inevitable well before SHIELD had ever gotten its hands on the original information nine months ago. You can't stop crazy, not when it's that determined. Or that mindless.
"And then?" Behind Coulson's words, Fury heard the impatience. And Fury couldn't help a small, slightly feral grin from crossing his face as he voiced his next thought.
"Then we do what we do best. We fight it."