• • •
The massive bronze doors of St. Patrick’s stood open to Fifth Avenue. Steve Rogers shouldered his way between clusters of people talking quietly on the front steps and entered the narthex where the crowd slowed him down even more. He remembered coming here once as a kid—some cousin from out of town wanted his family to show him the sights. They ended up attending Christmas Eve mass when the huge cathedral had been packed. Like today.
Frankly, Steve was shocked.
He knew Agent Coulson had been well-liked by the SHIELD operatives, but this turn-out spoke of something more. He wasn’t familiar enough with current events to recognize any of the mourners, but he suspected he was rubbing elbows with some big wigs. The thought of the humble, quietly heroic, slightly dorky agent mixing with this bunch made him smile a little. He imagined Coulson would have been horrified by the attention. Steve regretted that now he would never know for sure.
He craned his neck against the choke-hold of his tie. For the first time since Dr. Erskine’s procedure, he felt awkward in his body. Or maybe he was just at loose ends without a mission. Whatever it was, he didn’t like it.
People glanced at him as he squeezed by, most returning to their conversations, but a few staring in recognition. Even after all the USO tours and war bond campaigns, he still couldn’t get used to that look and the inevitable buzz that followed. Soon, the vaulted ceiling bounced whispers back and forth like radio static, and it made the hair stand up on the nape of his neck. Unconsciously, he reached back and smoothed it down.
He could handle the notoriety in 1944. It was part of the show, like being in vaudeville. But, now it just added to the anxiety crawling under his skin. Being Dr. Erskine’s science experiment had set him apart, but he always knew his purpose—his place in the world. That sense was gone. Seventy years gone.
At first he didn’t see Barton, the agent blended so well into the shadows against the narthex wall. But, Barton saw him and stepped out from his vantage point. He seemed diminished somehow without his quiver and bow—not a deadly assassin, just a guy in a suit. But his eyes gave him away. They saw everything.
“Cap.” Barton jutted his chin at Steve in greeting.
“Where is everybody?”
“Tasha’s holding seats for us. Banner said he’d meet us at the cemetery.” Barton’s eyes crinkled. “He didn’t think he should try this mob.”
“Thor’s still in Asgard?”
“As far as I know.”
“And Stark is late,” Steve finished.
Barton’s face pinched. “With the family.” He looked past Steve to rooms on the other side of the cavernous entryway.
Steve saw Fury in the doorway, a black silhouette in a tailored suit instead of leathers. One arm reached around a young woman as he bent close to speak to her. She turned a sorrowful face up to him, tissues twisting between her hands.
“Who’s he talking to?” Steve asked.
“Amy.” Barton’s lips thinned. “Coulson’s niece. She was with us in New Mexico.”
“She works for SHIELD?”
Barton nodded. “Phil got her the job—she worked in records.”
He paused. “Things were tense there, even before the Tesseract powered up. Amy made people feel better. She remembered birthdays, asked about people’s kids. She was like Phil that way.”
Steve looked again. The girl turned her face into Fury’s shoulder and let him pull her farther into the room. Someone else shut the door. So much grief. He knew a little about that.
“There’s Stark,” Barton said.
Tony Stark knew how to work a crowd, Steve gave him that much. The self-proclaimed genius-billionaire-philanthropist-playboy sliced through the throng like the prow of a ship, splashing both sides with his personality. Miss Potts followed close behind, looking distraught and tearful.
Steve had misjudged Stark. He turned out to be just the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on the wire for his troop. But, it wasn’t natural for him. Their battle with Loki and the Chitauri sobered them all, but it didn’t take long for Stark to revert back to type. Steve’s mother would have called him a smarty-pants. Steve might have used stronger words. But now he knew there was more to Tony Stark than attitude, something he could really count on.
“Stark.” Steve offered his hand as they approached. “Miss Potts.”
“Hello, Steve.” Pepper Potts sniffed into a hanky and smiled at him wanly.
“Cap.” Stark shook his hand. “Legolas.”
“Jeez!” Barton hissed. “Quit calling me that!”
Steve ignored them and focused on Miss Potts. “It’s a sad day.”
“I just keep thinking about Amy,” Pepper said, following Barton into the sanctuary. “She and Phil were so close.”
“You knew Agent Coulson’s niece?”
“No, but he talked about her all the time—and her brothers.”
“When he wasn’t mooning over the cellist in Portland,” Stark added.
Natasha Romanov stood up from the sea of black and gray, her dark red hair a beacon for them. Conversation stopped as they navigated the pews, climbing over legs and shuffling around feet.
“What are we doing in the cheap seats?” Stark muttered. “They don’t have an Avengers section?”
Romanov glared at him. “I think the Joint Chiefs and the Vice President rate a little higher than we do.”
Steve looked to the front of the sanctuary. Uniforms from every line of service filled the rows. Secret Service dotted the walls and balconies. His mouth sagged in wonder. As he sat and squeezed his shoulders between Stark and Barton, he wished for the hundredth time that he’d gotten to know Phil Coulson better.
“Nice ride,” Natasha conceded, shaking back her wind-blown hair.
Stark tossed a toothy grin at Steve. “Just a little something I’ve been tinkering on in the shop.”
Silent, Steve climbed out and opened the roadster’s back door for Pepper.
“There’s Bruce,” she said, pointing.
A lone figure hunched in the shade of an old maple tree. Not far from him, workers tended an open grave. As they walked down the sloping green, Stark came alongside Steve.
“I thought you were taking a road trip?”
“I will,” Steve said. “Tomorrow.”
“It might be a good idea to keep in touch in case—oh, I don’t know—another alien horde threatens the universe.” He pulled out a slim, black compact and handed it to Steve.
Rogers frowned. “You want me to powder my nose?”
Stark smiled. “Cell phone, Rip Van Winkle.”
He flicked it open, exposing a tiny keyboard. “All our numbers are in here, and we all have this number, so when you hear your theme song, answer like this.” He touched another button.
Stark thumbed the phone, and The Star Spangled Banner trumpeted from it. His dark eyes glittered amusement.
“Turn it off,” Steve told him.
Stark did, then handed it to him.
“Thanks.” Steve shoved it into his jacket pocket and kept walking.
The hearse and the long procession wound up the gravel road toward them. Steve paused to watch the family get out of their limo; the young woman—Amy, two men about his own age, and an older woman. The two men left for the group gathering around the hearse.
He remembered. First, when his dad died, and his mom had plastered his hair with Brylcream. He’d been miserable, and scared, and greasy. Then, in high school, he sat alone in the limo, his asthma flaring, barely able to breathe. That’s what he remembered about his mother’s death—fighting for every breath and being mad as hell.
He watched the pall bearers assemble around the back of the hearse, Director Fury and Maria Hill among them. Then, an angry shout burst from the line of cars. A big man marched up the road, yelling. Steve saw the older woman fade back against the limo, but Amy stood firm as she faced the approaching man. The closer he got to her, the louder and uglier his language. A few of his vicious words carried across the distance.
Your fault… stupid bitch…
He shoved a finger past Amy toward her mother.
Steve felt his hands close into fists. Stark, Banner and Barton moved up next to him.
“Oh crap,” Bruce Banner muttered forlornly.
“Wait.” Agent Romanov moved in front of them.
Phil Coulson’s nephews wedged themselves between the women of their family and the threatening man. It was like a dance the way they slipped into place and gradually backed the big man away. They didn’t raise their voices or their fists, just talked and kept the man moving.
“That must be Phil’s brother,” Pepper said.
“He’s their father?” Steve asked, appalled.
“Nothing like funerals and weddings to bring families together,” Stark said.
They watched the young men maneuver their father back to his car, kept watching as the old sedan spun gravel as it raced out of the cemetery.
“Impressive,” Barton said.
Steve glanced back at Amy and her mother, and was startled to find her staring at him.
She closed her eyes then, too tired to pay attention to her sad and angry thoughts. She cried instead. She couldn’t seem to do much else.
“He won’t be back,” Rick’s voice said beside her.
Amy looked up at her oldest brother—calm, sure, balanced. Uncle Phil would have been so proud.
“He was drunk,” Amy’s mother said flatly, slipping an arm around her daughter.
“Of course,” Sam added, joining them, “when wasn’t he?”
He looked at Amy and shook his head, a smile pulling at his mouth. “You knew he’d show up.”
“I thought he might.” She blew into her wad of tissues. “He had to make a scene.”
Cathy Coulson brushed her daughter’s hair away from her face. “You were so little when we left him—how could you possibly know that?”
Amy looked again at her brothers—Rick calm and sober, Sam with a smile behind his eyes. She looked at her mother, fully recovered from her father’s intrusion.
“Because we’re perfect,” she said, kissing her mom’s cheek, “and he can’t stand that.”
“How did I raise such wise children?” Mrs. Coulson mused.
“You had lots of help,” Amy whispered, watching the pall bearers steady the casket between them. “And now we have to say good-bye to him.”
Cars snaked all the way back to the cemetery entrance—black sedans and government cars, the occasional beat-up Volvo or Chevy. People trekked across long stretches of lawn toward the gravesite—people not used to long treks in high heels or dress uniforms. Amy saw a huge contingent of the New Mexico crew—scientists mixed with maintenance and car pool mechanics. She lifted her hand in greeting as her family settled in the folding chairs.
The priest started his final words, but Amy couldn’t listen to any more. Her eyes travelled over the crowd, so many people she didn’t know. Why were they all here? Did they really know Uncle Phil, or were they showing off for Director Fury? Everyone wanted to rub up against SHIELD now that it had saved the world. Everyone wanted a little piece of glory for themselves.
Her eyes stopped. There they were again. The response team. The Avengers.
She didn’t know how to feel about them. She wanted so much to hate them, hate him, but that didn’t seem fair. Uncle Phil wouldn’t want her to hate them. But, he wasn’t there to correct her anymore, was he?
Agent Barton glanced at her, his face hard and sorry. It made her want to punch something. Then, he looked at her, and acted like he’d been slapped. Good. His shocked confusion helped a little. She was able to pay attention to the honor guard folding up the flag, and not jump out of her seat when the twenty-one rifles fired. But as soon as the service finished, she left her family and slipped through the press of strangers.
She’d seen Tony Stark’s assistant moving purposefully toward the grave with Agent Barton and Agent Romanov close behind. The rest of them followed—resolute, duty-bound. Amy knew she would punch something if she had to listen to a single word any of them said. And that would be almost as bad as her father showing up. Uncle Phil deserved better.
Tears blurred her vision again. “He deserved better,” she whispered.
Another crowd, but this one seemed familiar. Steve smelled coffee and saw people holding little paper plates of food. He eased past the group standing in the brownstone’s entryway and angled to the left. The house was laid out like the one he grew up in with a “front room” connected to a dining room. He could see a loaded dining table back there attended by ladies flying back and forth through the swinging door to the kitchen. So familiar.
He saw them standing against the wall and made his way there. Rick Coulson looked up at him as he approached.
“Captain Rogers,” he said, reaching for Steve’s hand. “It’s kind of you to come.”
“I’m sorry the rest of the team isn’t here…” He still didn’t know how to explain their absence.
Coulson regarded him. “It’s not really something people do anymore—not like they would have in the ’40’s. I’m sure back then everyone came to the house after a funeral.”
“Now it’s just family and close friends.” Coulson smiled. “Uncle Phil would have been honored to have you here.”
“I didn’t know him long,” Steve said, “but he was one of the good guys.”
“Yes, he was.” Cathy Coulson joined her son and took Steve’s hand in both of hers. “You don’t know how responsible you are for that.”
“You were his hero.” Sam Coulson grinned from behind his mother. “Ever since he was a kid.”
“You’re the reason he survived growing up in the same house with our dad and grandfather,” Rick said.
“Little guys can make a difference,” Sam quoted. “Always stand up to bullies.”
Steve stared at them, his mouth gone dry.
“Boys,” Cathy chided softly. She patted Steve’s hand and pulled him toward the dining room. “Let me fix you a plate. You must be hungry.”
“Brooklyn must look pretty different after seventy years,” she said, piling shaved ham on a Kaiser bun. “Everything must look different.”
Steve swallowed. “Yes, ma’am.”
“It’s a lot to take in all at once.” She added potato salad to the plate, and a big pickle.
She looked up at him, squinting the way his mother used to when she studied him.
“You’ll be fine…” she said, giving him the plate, “…in time. Come sit with us and eat. I’ll make the boys leave you alone.”
Steve felt his face respond to her smile. Some tightness loosened, and he took his first deep breath of the day.
Amy finished scrubbing off her make-up and scooped her hair into a pony tail. The black dress her cousin Jess loaned her hung on the bathroom door. She could see it in the mirror, eyeballing her.
“Oh, shut up,” she muttered to it, pulling on her jeans.
If she had to face her mother’s sisters and the rest of the cousins, she would do it in comfortable clothes.
She steeled herself as she came down the stairs. No more crying. The front of the house seemed weirdly quiet. She drifted around the corner into the front room and saw them all squeezed together around the couch. Puzzled, she found Jess and nudged her.
“Captain America is here!” Her cousin nearly squealed. “And he’s eating Aunt Dorothy’s potato salad!”
Then, Amy heard her mother’s voice. “Honestly, will you all sit down and leave the poor man alone?!”
Anger flared so fast and hard, Amy was through the swinging door and out the back of the kitchen before she knew what she was doing. On the back stoop, she stood trembling, her hands balled tight, hot tears on her face.
“Not good,” she told herself, taking shaky steps down the stairs. “Help me out here, Uncle Phil. How do I keep from slugging Super Soldier in the gut? Not that he’d feel it…”
She wobbled to the bench that circled the only tree in the yard. Why did he have to come here? I would have been just fine flying back to New Mexico tomorrow. I could pack up Uncle Phil’s stuff and let this ugliness inside me settle down. I would have been fine.
“Miss Coulson?” The voice was deep, strong, quiet.
“I wanted to say how sorry I am about… your… uncle.”
His voice petered out as she glared at him. Nothing in Uncle Phil’s collection showed Captain America looking so horrified.
“Sorry?” She repeated, leaning forward. “Sorry?”
She got up. “Uncle Phil called me when he found out he was flying with you to the helicarrier. Do you know what he said, Captain Rogers?”
Steve shook his head.
“He said he wanted to be worthy of working with you. As if Uncle Phil hadn’t proved his worth a million times.”
She moved in close, staring past that unnaturally huge chest into pained blue eyes. “I think the only way he’d ever feel worthy was to do something stupid—like try to stop Loki with a Hydra gun. What do you think, Captain? Was Phil Coulson worthy?”
Steve stood still while Amy Coulson closed the space between them. He remembered this, too—anger and sorrow so jumbled they became one emotion. How many people did he snarl at after his mother died? How many punching bags had he pulverized after they brought him back to life? Nothing eased this kind of pain. Not words, not sweat, not even saving the world. Amy could hit him if she needed to, but he knew it wouldn’t make her feel any better.
She raised her fist, her face working against tears and losing. After a moment of her trembling there, Steve reached out and carefully wrapped his hand around hers. Her face melted, and she stumbled away from him. Sobbing, she sat down hard on an old bench. Steve eased down next to her.
She tried to talk, but was incomprehensible. She covered her face with her hands, then, and just cried. Steve waited. When she started to wind down, he pulled the handkerchief out of his breast pocket and offered it to her. Amy took it, blew her nose in a loud honk, wiped her face.
“You saw my dad at the cemetery?” she finally asked him.
“Uncle Phil got us away from him. He brought us to New York so he could take care of us.” She considered the hanky in her lap. “He taught us how to defend ourselves, how to use our words and how to be funny—everything we needed to stand up for what’s right. He taught us we should always help people who couldn’t help themselves.” Her eyes darted to him and back. “My brother Rick is a jujitsu master. He could kill someone with his bare hands, but he never will. He’ll never need to. Sammy works for Doctors Without Borders—do you know what that is?”
“Your mother told me,” Steve said softly.
“They’re good men because Uncle Phil taught them how to be that way. He had a strong moral compass.”
“Little guys can make a difference,” Steve said. “Always stand up to bullies.”
Her swollen lips smiled a little. “That’s right.”
Steve shook his head. “I wish we’d had more time. I wish I’d known him better.”
“Oh, you know him,” she whispered. She touched a fingertip to the center of his chest. “He’s right there.”
Steve grasped her hand and squeezed it. He didn’t know what to say. But, that seemed to be all right. She let him keep hold of her hand as they sat on the bench in silence, listening to the Brooklyn afternoon stretch out, thinking about a little guy who made a difference.
• • •
Click to read the second installment of the story—Primrose