His family has always loved heroes. They mourn them and they marry them and they are heroes, too.
“What’s the C stand for?”
There’s a pause before Phil Coulson answers; it’s a heavy silence, dripping with disbelief and I thought you were a genius. “Coulson.” His gaze flickers up to meet Tony Stark’s. “We have met, Mr Stark. On numerous occasions.” His pen hovers over the report he’s correcting and, at some point in the past few years, he became a schoolmaster as well as hero-wrangler because he can’t quite bear split infinitives. “I also wear a name badge and sign all the memoranda you so love to ignore.”
“Very funny, Phil. Can I call you Phil?” Tony Stark drops a sheaf of papers on top of Coulson’s desk, disrupting the geometric precision of his filing system. Coulson puts his pen down. His expression is icy. He has practiced this look over the years. Barton always collapses in fits of giggles when he sees it but, then again, Barton watched when it was a work in progress and they were both very new at this (at SHIELD and at fumbling towards each other).
As a rule, the Coulson Stare reduces most agents to obedience, if not abject and miserable apology.
Naturally, it proves useless when it comes to Stark.
“Seriously, Phil. You’ve been holding out on us.” Tony sits on the edge of Coulson’s desk. He waves a hand. “Don’t get me wrong. I mean, that whole thing with Hawkeye. It’s cute and all but it doesn’t matter a damn.” He jabs at the pile of papers with a finger. “But this. This is interesting. Relevant, even.”
Coulson’s not worried. He’s not upset. He’s not all that angry, even amidst Stark’s wayward insults. Perhaps it’s because Phil knew that, once Tony Stark decided that Phil was in any way interesting, he would find out everything there was to know about him. Somehow, Coulson wouldn’t be surprised if his first grade report card was in there somewhere (it wasn’t one of his finer moments).
“The C is for my mother’s maiden name, Mr Stark.” Coulson pauses. “As you doubtless already know.”
“She must have been pretty old when she had you.”
“As ever, your tact is appreciated,” says Coulson. He looks solemnly up at Stark who looks back at him like he’s a robot waiting to be dismantled, examined and reassembled. “What are you planning on doing with this information?”
She is always going to marry an American. She is always going to be a war bride, like her mother before her, who got married in her first flush of youth, in 1914 in Hertfordshire. Sergeant David Carter of the Irish Guard, 2nd Regiment, was a dashing man and Peggy was born the middle of three daughters.
After everything, Peggy spends much of the remainder of the war in France. She is an integral part of the French Resistance and she pretends that she does not hear the whispers that follow her. Her codename is La Veuve. She pretends that she does not know the significance of that, either. Hers is the perfect tragedy and she lays flowers on the unmarked graves of soldiers. Age shall not weary them, after all, nor the years condemn and she cannot be blamed if she thinks of Steve, often. She knows that Howard is looking for him. Somehow, Howard can always track her down and she’s probably the best-informed member of the French Resistance. Perhaps it’s cheating but all’s fair in love and-
The scars of the Great War are still riven into the French countryside and she knows them like a fingerprint, whorled and smudged and entirely unique. There are British airmen to be secreted to safety and cocky Americans and some of them get a little frisky but she usually rebuffs them. She wears red lipstick and her hair is always immaculate and she will never be caught in the rain again. Messages are delivered and deciphered and there is a brief, intense relationship with a Frenchman, who tastes like unfiltered cigarettes and bad habits.
Peggy Carter does not feel guilty about that.
Sometimes, when she thinks of Steve, it’s how he was when he first enlisted. Small, scrawny and Colonel Phillips’ ninety-pound asthmatic. Sometimes, when she thinks of dancing with him at the Stork Club, she is a head taller than him and he has no coordination to speak of but he is alive. Sometimes, when she thinks of Steve, it is that last and only kiss and there is wind rushing through her hair and she wonders if he felt the wind when he crash-landed, like scalding kisses on his face and all the tears she shed when she went to the Stork Club (a week on Saturday) before she rejoined the war efforts.
When the war winds to an end, petering out around the world, she gathers her earthly possessions and returns to the scene of the crime. New York still bustles and there is something homely about the accents and the crisp winter snow, though it is a far cry from Harpendon and home.
Through all of this, there is one thing to know. She never gives up hope but she does not pine. She is not the sort to wring her hands and become some mad Miss Havisham, cloistered away in a brownstone in Brooklyn. She mourns and she wears her best red dress and newest nylons to the Stork Club. Every Saturday, at first, and then once a month, and then once every six months, her fingers idling over the stem of her wine glass as she watches the stage and all the pretty girls who have already forgotten the war.
Captain James Coulson of the 107th is a good man and Peggy does grow to love him but she will always be known as Captain America’s sweetheart. Not every man would take it upon himself to be understudy to the personification of the free and the brave but James rises admirably to the occasion.
His courtship is studied and slow. There are flowers and thoughtful notes. There are dinners and hands above the table at all times. Eventually, in 1955, two things happen. Peggy accepts James’ proposal and she joins forces with Howard Stark and Chester Phillips once more.
Howard makes no secret of the fact that James Coulson is no Steve Rogers.
Phil Coulson closes his eyes.
“I suppose a ‘your mom’ joke is inappropriate right now?”
“Always, Mr Stark.” Now he meets Stark’s gaze. “Are you going to tell Captain Rogers?” Repetition is the key to learning. Tell, don’t tell; Phil is no coward but to be forewarned is to be forearmed and he would like to be prepared when Captain America learns about his sweetheart’s life after death. In truth, he would like to tell Steve himself but Fury has not authorised any such thing and Phil’s hands are tied. He is not above rebellion or insubordination and he supposes he could just go right ahead and tell everything but no one said that Phil must always be a brave man.
Phil does not expect that Steve will hold it against him, or against his mother. He supposes, though, that it is one thing to know that Peggy moved on after Steve’s apparent death and another thing entirely to be faced with the flesh-and-blood consequences. Phil knows that he doesn’t look like his mother; he’s a Coulson, through and through. However, he also knows that he inherited those less definable characteristics from Peggy. Barton calls it the no-bullshit gene, or sometimes the quietly-badass chromosome. Biology isn’t Clint Barton’s strong point but Phil appreciates the sentiment. Phil is his mother’s son.
“I haven’t decided yet, Agent Coulson,” says Stark, with a too-cheery grin. “It’s one of those things I don’t want to rush and, you know, it’ll be a big shock to the system. He’s still adapting to the twenty-first century and all.”
“I can’t quite believe you have Captain Rogers’ best interests at heart,” says Phil. His scepticism is well-founded. Tony Stark’s suggestions to fill the vast voids in Steve’s grasp of modern history pretty much begin and finish with repeated playing of Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire. To be fair, Steve did raise a smile at Brooklyn’s got a winning team but it’s not the most flaw-free approach and there was a horrifying week when it seemed everyone on comms was humming it. It made a difficult mission almost untenable and, all the while, Coulson thought he was going mad and, this being the Avenger Initiative, no one was likely to notice.
Modern-day America needs a hero and, although Nick Fury isn’t renowned for his softly-softly approach, Steve needs to be cosseted, to a certain degree. The twenty-first century is an ugly place, perhaps even uglier than a world ripped apart by war because there is no one enemy. There is no single Hitler to punch and there is a certain malice taking root in the world. Steve Rogers is naïve enough still to be shocked by the human condition.
“Phil, I’m wounded.” Stark holds his hands over his heart. “I have nothing but the best intentions towards our illustrious captain. I’m just curious as to why you’ve neglected to mention this before.”
“Contrary to your opinion, Mr Stark,” says Phil, “I do not believe that it’s remotely relevant to my ability to do my job or to the functioning of the Initiative.” He shrugs and resists the urge to roll his neck and try to loosen some of the tension that has settled heavily on his shoulders. “In any case, SHIELD agents are afforded some privacy, even if you choose to disregard it.”
Stark shrugs. “Let’s agree to disagree, Phil.” There is something artless in his smile. Tony Stark is many things and, yes, occasionally he can be cruel but today he is fascinated. “Your mother was Peggy Carter.” He pauses for emphasis. “The woman was a legend. Even I know that and Starks don’t believe in legends.”
“How touching.” Phil rubs his face, betraying how tired he is and how old he feels just now.
“The thing is – “ Clearly, Tony is just warming to the subject. “I knew she got married after the war. Hell, I even knew she had kids. I remember my dad telling me that she had a son a little older than me. Weird we never met, huh?”
“I was born in England,” says Phil and it is neither the beginning nor the end of the story.
Nine months after she marries James Coulson, Peggy gives birth to a daughter. A honeymoon baby, some people say. No waiting around, say others. Two years later, Janice May Coulson is joined by Eleanor Margaret Coulson. Peggy and James declare themselves content and their family complete.
They remain in New York and James begins to teach in NYU. He had been an English lecturer, before the war, and he embraces civilian life with enthusiasm, though he still walks like a soldier and keeps in touch with the survivors from his regiment.
The girls go to school and Peggy helps them with their homework and learns that Americans do not do arithmetic but math and she teaches her daughters French on Mondays and Fridays and when they beg for a puppy, James takes them to pick out a mongrel at the point. Howard offers to build them one because he is convinced that, someday, a robot is going to be a man’s best friend.
In 1964, the family relocates to England. Peggy is on secondment to a science division at RAF Brize Norton and James gets a job teaching in Oxford University. It amuses him well enough to become an Oxford don and the girls are happy in their new school, where they are quite the exotic darlings. Janice’s resemblance to Peggy is already striking and Eleanor has her father’s eyes.
It is rather a shock when, seven years after Eleanor’s birth, Peggy learns that she is pregnant again. She is forty-eight years old. Howard gives James the stink-eye though he can hardly blame the man. Janice wants a little brother and Eleanor wants a little sister and James and Peggy want a healthy baby. Her obstetrician is almost as judgmental as Howard. Peggy doesn’t like him but he is far more professional after the initial harrumphing about women of her age.
After a difficult pregnancy and a long labour, Philip Carter Coulson is born and he is, in the eyes of his parents, entirely perfect.
He is a serious child and his sisters dote on him, although Eleanor does not quite understand why she cannot dress him up like one of her dolls. When Phil is three years old, Peggy’s contract is at an end and the family return to New York before they move to Connecticut and Yale.
At the age of four, Phil starts school. His English accent soon fades, though he is the only first-grader who has a Mummy instead of a Mommy.
James and Peggy seldom go dancing. He is certain that she is the woman he is going to marry. He loves her and he knows that Howard Stark thinks that he’s not good enough for her. Fortunately, Howard Stark knows that Howard Stark’s not good enough for her, either.
There is a shadow, though he has never felt like an understudy or second-best. His friends think that he’s nuts for pursuing Captain America’s gal. It’s been over a decade. Steve Rogers might be some sort of hero but James cannot believe that he is immortal.
The thing is – the problem is - Captain America is James’ hero, too. He was in the Hydra base and he was part of the regiment that marched to freedom behind Captain America’s shield. It was the first time he saw Peggy, except she was another man’s girl so that meant James didn’t really see her.
He doesn’t believe that Steve can come back. Even a supersoldier’s got to eat and breathe and it’s mighty cold in the Arctic, or wherever he pitched into the ice. Sometimes James dreams and it’s unsettling and cold and the ice is like a beach that stretches on for ever and the wind is a low moan, filling every corner of his dream.
James marries Peggy and he knows that they are happy. He never asks, though. He never once asks if she’s still waiting for him. He’s not sure if he can step aside even if Captain America is, by science and by definition, a far better man than he.
‘Who knows?” asks Tony.
Phil leans back in his chair. He thinks. He doesn’t want to say that everyone knows full well that he is the son of Peggy Carter and James Coulson but sometimes it feels that way. He smiles thinly. “Worried that you’re the last to know, Mr Stark?” he asks.
“Well, I know that Steve doesn’t have a clue so I’m more worried that I’m the second-to-last.” Tony gets off the desk and walks over to the window. The view from Phil’s office window isn’t precisely scenic, given that it looks into another room. “I take it El Jefe knows?”
“Director Fury once babysat me,” says Phil. It was the single-most terrifying experience of six year-old Phil’s life. Eighteen years passed before he could go back to Coney Island without breaking into a cold sweat.
Tony snorts. “And Barton knows, I take it?”
Phil longs to rest his head on the desktop. Anything to take away the weight that’s settling somewhere in the region of his frontal lobes. “Yes, Clint met my mother before she died. Natasha, too.” The Black Widow met La Veuve and they disappeared into the living room. Girl talk, his mother said. Phil looked from James to Clint and they looked equally confused. Half an hour later, enlightenment did not follow, although both Natasha and Peggy looked a little red around the eyes.
When Phil is sixteen years old, and the Coulson family now resides in Connecticut, he confesses to his mother that he thinks he might be gay. She isn’t remotely surprised. When he is seventeen years old, he is accepted by NYU. Peggy would rather that he go to Yale but she is not one to confine her children. Janice is married now and lives in Rhode Island and Eleanor is seeing a nice boy from Boston.
That summer, Philip travels to Europe with his parents. It is his graduation present. They go to Harpendon and to St Alban’s, where his grandparents are buried, in a large and rambling cemetery. They find the graves of other Carters. Some of the stones are so faded that they are illegible and Phil glides his uncallused fingertips over the indentations, making out the names. Frederick Carter. Mary Carter. Diana Carter. Laurence Carter.
Larry Carter, Peggy’s uncle, had been hit by enemy fire three days before the armistice and he died of wounds on the eleventh of November 1918. Peggy doesn’t remember Larry but they lay a wreath on his grave. There is a second uncle, Edward, who lied about his age and joined up in the last year of the war. He never came home.
When they reach France and commence their rambling exploration of Peggy’s old haunts and all the war memorials they can find. First World War and Second World War, during which Carters and Coulsons died (in the line of duty, always). They zigzag from the Normandy beaches to the Ulster tower and the Thiepval monument itself. Here, overlooking the rows upon rows of white crosses and headstones, they find a record of Edward Peter Carter, who died at the age of fifteen, having served less than a week at the front. They go to Verdun and they go to Reims and walk around the cathedral, with its smiling angel and scars of war and Chagall’s window of sky blue and sacrifice.
When the time comes to return to England, Phil is even quieter than before. He does not believe in martyrs, but he believes in heroes.
Perhaps it is no surprise that, following graduation from NYU, he joins the military. The surprise is that he joins the Royal Air Force.
Clint is nervous about meeting the parents. Phil is infuriatingly calm and Clint’s a bit angry. Last week was the first time Phil told him that his mother is Peggy Carter and all he’ll say today is that she’s a little frail.
He’s not prepared for the woman he meets. Her hair is silver and beautifully coiffed. Her face is remarkably unlined, though Phil told him that she’s nearly ninety. Clint supposes that adds up. She was pretty old when Phil was born. Phil doesn’t seem to mind being an afterthought.
Clint’s not prepared for the sense of family amongst the Coulsons. His definition of family is skewed, a splash of faded colour on ragged canvas. He drinks it in. Captain Coulson sits at one end of the table and Mrs Coulson at the other. Phil’s father is in his nineties but still walks ramrod straight. You can take the man out of the military, he says, his voice a little weak but entirely good-natured. Phil has his eyes and so does Eleanor, the middle child (but in this family, there is no awkwardness; no middle child syndrome, just pass the salt, please, Philip).
Peggy’s kept her accent and Clint’s ears might not be as good as his eyes but he can detect a certain change in Phil’s accent when he talks to her. His vowels shorten and his consonants are crisp and he calls her Mum.
By the time dinner is at an end, Peggy knows everything there is to know about Clint. Phil makes even more sense now, or at least his ability to acquire information makes sense. When Janice is serving coffee, Peggy declares that she likes Clint. Anyone who can make Phil smile that much must be a good man.
The Carters and the Coulsons have always loved good men, she says.
Clint pretends not to notice the blush on Phil’s cheeks. Two of Phil’s nieces rush past the table and ask if Clint will play basketball with them and so he finds himself in the backyard, letting himself be turned inside out and soundly beaten and he hopes that Phil and his mother can hear all the laughter from the kitchen, where they’re doing the washing up, shoulder to shoulder.
Clint has a new definition of family now. It’s a slightly rusty basketball hoop and a big roast dinner with Yorkshire pudding and three generations of contentment and gentle pride.
Stark taps his folder. “I have to say, I didn’t see that coming. Group Captain Coulson.”
“I can assure you that my life is not nearly as interesting as you imply, Mr Stark.” Phil glances at the clock, briefly. This has been a long day and Tony is not a desperately diurnal creature. They may yet be some time. “I was moved to Intelligence and then SHIELD’s predecessor picked me up in an exercise in Afghanistan.”
“How does that even work?”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow, Stark.”
“Are you American?”
Phil lifts a shoulder. “Is Natasha?”
Stark blinks and his face settles into a frown. “But you’re always riding us about national security.”
Phil closes his eyes again. Pinches the bridge of his nose between thumb and finger and exhales. “It’s not – it doesn’t always have to be about patriotism, Stark. It’s far simpler than that. “
“Please don’t say-“ Stark purses his lips.
“You think the pursuit of good or, at least-“ Phil gestures sharply with one hand. “The pursuit of the eradication of evil is a lesser motive than the preservation of our country?”
“Our country.” Finally, finally, Phil stands up. “Peggy Carter was my mother, Mr Stark.” His smile is wry, as though his insides don’t squirm and freeze. “She was your father’s friend. “ Perhaps that’s why Phil feels so disappointed. They might have been friends, he and Tony, but there is so much red tape and cat-and-mouse to play first. It exhausts him. “You know,” he says, his mind wandering off on a new tangent. “If you’d only said you were on that yacht-“
“No one would know how awesome I am,” says Tony.
Phil can’t help but smile at that. “You’ve never heard of hiding your light under a bushel, have you?”
Stark smiles too. “My father nearly blew out Brooklyn’s electricity supply when Steve was being transformed.” Transformed is a such a kind way to phrase it; Steve was an experiment that didn’t backfire horribly. “Starks don’t do bushels, Agent Coulson.”
Sometimes, Phil thinks that Tony doesn’t know how to feel about his own father. Phil supposes he’s lucky that he was never so conflicted.
There is an accident. A stupid training accident and Clint’s arm is broken. Even Thor, good-natured as he is, gives Clint a wide berth. It is a matter of self-preservation.
There are two whose trajectories are less slingshot and more head-on collision. By the time Clint’s released from sick bay, discharging himself against medical advice and eyeing his cast with distrust and distaste, Phil and Natasha have already taken up residence in his room. Natasha is curled up at one end of the couch and Phil is in the kitchen, shirt sleeves rolled up as he concocts something that smells heavenly. Clint lowers himself onto the couch and Natasha gravitates towards him, warm against his uninjured side.
(Clint’s definition of family has expanded to include redheaded women and Phil’s fondly exasperated smile.)
“I need to talk to Steve,” says Phil. His eyebrows knit together in contemplation. “Before Stark does.”
Natasha squeezes his shoulder in solidarity and Clint snores softly between them.
“She never cried when I told her I was gay,” says Phil. “Or when I went to NYU or when I joined the RAF.” He picks up his wine glass (virtually empty now). “But she cried the day I came home and said Nick Fury had recruited me.”
In 1947, Peggy goes home. Her older sister is married, with two children under the age of two, and her younger sister is engaged. Peggy’s mother looks at her expectantly and tells her she mustn’t be so sad.
It is daft thing to tell her. It is one thing to be all stiff upper lip and mustn’t grumble and another thing entirely not to mourn.
She might have loved Steve Rogers. She knows that she likely did and she likely does and there’s no other way to describe the tightness in her throat when she realizes she is never going to see him again. Howard is still looking and Peggy wishes she had his faith, though she thinks Howard believes in the enduring nature of warped and frozen steel and twisted turbines; he believes in man-made creations and Captain America is man-made. Was man-made.
It feels like a betrayal to think in the past tense. Steve was. Steve was.
There is a man in New York who watches her in the Stork Club, who raises his glass with a wry smile and whose eyes speak of war. Like every young soldier, he has grown old (like every young soldier but Steve Rogers, whose name shall live for evermore).
When the time comes for Steve to learn of the fate of Peggy Carter, it is left in Phil’s hands. Fury doesn’t tell him what to do or how to handle it; he doesn’t tell him what is classified and what is not.
They leave the base and they leave New York and they drive north to Connecticut. The house is empty and a little frayed around the edges.
Phil sits Steve at the kitchen table.
Phil hopes that this won’t adversely affect his working relationship with Steve. All of SHIELD hopes it, too. If it does, if Steve gets distracted by looking for family resemblances, or if Phil’s brand of fond disapproval becomes too strange or too familiar, Phil knows what will happen. He will be reassigned. Clint and Natasha might kick up a fuss and Fury will do a fine line in regret but Phil knows what his mother knew: Captain America is worth more than peace of mind and he is worth more than uniforms and shields. Thor might be the god of the piece but there is something deific about Steve Rogers, whose fingers glide over the smooth-and-rough grain of the table and his gaze travels over the pots that hang over the kitchen counter and the sparkling white fridge door, which used to be festooned with report cards and photographs and crayon and glitter drawings of My House and My Family, with a mummy and a daddy and two little girls and one little boy.
When Peggy Carter dies, there is no ignominy that old age and cancer have caught up with her. She has lived a full life. When she is told that the cancer has spread, she proclaims that it is a bit of a bugger and her children cry and say that you can take the woman out of England but –
She has no regrets. The pictures by her bedside are of her family. There is the silver-framed photograph of her wedding day and the pictures of her daughters’ wedding days and of Phil, laughing, and of her granddaughters. There is another photograph, at the side but never hidden. She is standing between Howard Stark and Steve Rogers and she still remembers the brightness of the camera flash. It still burns on the insides of her eyelids and she can still feel Steve’s arm against hers.
She has no regrets.
Peggy is buried in Connecticut, Phil tells Steve. Her family asked if she wanted to be returned to Hertfordshire but she told them that America was her home. This was no corner of a foreign field.
Phil tells Steve that they always knew who Captain America was because he was a brand name that endured beyond his disappearance. He tells him that, when he grew up, his mother spoke of her friend Steve often and with affection.
They speak for days, on and off. There are regular journeys to Connecticut. Steve sees photographs of Peggy’s life and Phil finds her record collection and there is a reason Phil has always loved the music he does. Steve meets Phil’s sisters and everyone’s breath catches in their throat when he remarks that Janice looks like Peggy but the moment passes in do you remember and Steve being gently guided to the front room for tea. They do not use the fine china and they all sit, with their hands wrapped around sturdy, plain mugs.
Phil is anxious that Steve will think of this as a betrayal but he needn’t have worried.
Of course not. This is Steve Rogers; he is relieved that she did not waste her life in pining for him and if he still keeps his broken compass, with Peggy at due north, no one, least of all Phil Coulson, will say a word.
If Steve cannot save the world for Peggy, he can save it for her children and her children’s children and even Tony can admire this man’s nobility.
When it is over – the mission or the week or the long, hard day – whenever anything is over, Phil sits in his office with his eyes closed, for one minute or maybe two. The clock ticks and his coffee cools and his open files sit there and his mind slows down and calms.
Sometimes, he’ll put on a record, carefully setting the stylus before the office fills with 1940s jazz.
And then, and then, he picks up his pen and gets to work, scything through Steve’s careful reports and Tony’s Ask Pepper and Clint’s scrawls and smiley-faces and Natasha’s thorough descriptions and Bruce’s before-and-afters (but not so sure about the middles).
His family, of course, consists entirely of heroes.