Steve knew his family ranged far and wide. There was a Rogers branch out in Pennsylvania, with family dribbling down out of Pittsburgh into the small towns surrounding the city. It was not uncommon for aunts and uncles and cousins to send their kids to New York for part of summer as a low-rent summer camp care of the Brooklyn Rogers.
Steve didn’t mind because his poor health meant he got to stay inside with the windows open and a fan on, drawing to his heart’s content while all the other kids his mother had offered to “watch for a bit” were shoved out the door as soon as breakfast was over.
Fred was younger than Steve by almost ten years, but because Steve was so small and scrawny, they looked pretty evenly matched. People who saw them together assumed they were brothers, more often than not. Steve felt responsible to look out for Fred, who was not in any way city-wise, but it generally wasn’t necessary because unlike Steve, Fred didn’t have a temper or anything to prove. He was one of the nicest kids Steve had ever met and sometimes he tried really hard to be as darn polite as Fred was naturally, because Fred had a way of making him feel bad if he didn’t at least try.
Fred wasn’t much for baseball and he seemed to prefer reading books to playing cowboy and Indians. Since no adult could ever find it in their heart to say no to Fred, he usually got to spend his days in Brooklyn sprawled out on the bed with Steve. Fred would read, and Steve would draw, and on days when Steve was too sick to even sit up, Fred would tell stories he made up on the spot about the Neighborhood of Make Believe in his patient, quiet voice.
It was all a little childish, Steve thought at 18 years old, listening to his eight year old cousin telling stupid stories to him about made-up people, but in the end he always got pulled into the tall tales and when he was feeling better the next day, drew pictures to go with the stories. Fred would always say, “gee, Steve, those are great!” and put them in his bag, as if he was saving them up for something.
One summer when Steve was 21, his health nose-dived and no one really expected him to live through it. Fred did, though. Fred pulled out all the pictures Steve had drawn him over the years and they revisited the Land of Make Believe, and when Steve wasn’t wheezing or coughing Fred taught him ridiculous songs that he had made up about the Neighborhood of Make Believe. Steve learned them because his cousin was all of eleven and watching him die, so it seemed like the polite thing to do.
But Steve survived, against all the odds. The following year was 1940, though, and no one sent their kids anywhere. War was on the horizon, and Steve chomped at the bit wanting to do his part no matter how much Bucky told him that the Army would never take him.
Steve and Fred did not write each other. It wasn’t that kind of friendship; the age difference was too great, and Steve had his mind on other things. Fred never showed up again, at least not before Dr. Erskine found Steve two years later in 1942.
Steve was 24 years old when the plane went down in the ice. He woke up 94 years old, in a world he did not recognize, and everyone he had ever known was long dead. His first thought was for his mother, his second for Peggy. Fred never even crossed his mind until much later.
Phil Coulson was born in 1962 to a pair of 17 year old factory workers. His mother was half-Polish and his father was some kind of American mix that everyone said was mostly Irish, despite the English surname.
Not that it mattered, because his father was gone by the time he was three.
(When he joined SHEILD, the one off-the-record search he did was for his father. Phil didn’t like what he found, and erased the man’s existence off the face the Earth with few keystrokes. Since Daddy Coulson had ended up in a pauper’s grave in California, Phil figured no one would ever know, or care.)
His mother, left single with a young son to feed and no one to help, ended up in the projects. She didn’t think anything of leaving her six year old to hang out at the Black Panther community library while she went to work or out drinking, because the Black Panthers took care of every kid under ten, no matter the color of their skin. It paid off for Phil in the long run, in a lot of different ways.
But his favorite baby sitter was Ms. Kawaski, a Japanese widow who lived three stories downstairs and “watched” kids for a few extra dollars a month. The key was that her version of baby sitting was propping the kids in front of her black and white TV all day. That TV had special protection from both the mob and the Black Panthers because it was where half the kids in the building spent some part of their week, so no one tried to steal it.
His mother never bought a TV, at least not until Phil moved her into the nursing home in 1995. So he knew it was in Mrs. Kawaksi’s flat, at an age Phil couldn’t quite place, that he first saw Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It aired locally in Pittsburg starting in 1966, before it went national in 1968. By 1970, when Phil was eight and all of his friends looked down on Mr. Rogers as childish, Phil kept watching. He never stopped watching, not really. He was a fan of the show until it went off the air, and as with his idolization of Captain America, he honestly didn’t care who knew. Coulson felt that anyone who didn’t like Mr. Rogers was automatically untrustworthy, a fact he tested numerous times on many junior agents, including Clint Barton. People talked about the “Mr. Rogers Test” behind his back, but Phil was okay with that, and so was Fury, who particularly enjoyed the dark humor of striking terror into the hearts of trainees using a popular PBS children’s show.
The Black Panthers taught Phil self-discipline and suspicion, but Mr. Roger’s taught Phil the value of friendship, the importance of loyalty, and the advantage of a good work ethic.
While Phil could not remember the first time he saw Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, he did remember the first Captain America comic book he ever bought. What struck him then, at about seven years old, was how funny it was that the nicest guy ever (Mr. Rogers) shared a name with the greatest super-hero ever (Captain Steve Rogers). And then he never thought about that again.
Steve had asked, because he had to know what happened to the people had cared about. Some he already knew, people like Bucky who died before Steve disappeared. His mother, though, that was a different story; and Peggy Carter, of course; and his Uncle Manny. He did not expect to find them alive.
Coulson gave him the files, despite the fact that both of them knew it would have been easier to show them to Steve using a computer. He handed them over without pity, even as his voice broke with kindness.
“Would you like me to…?”He trailed off, pointing at a chair.
Steve shook his head. “No. I need…I need to do this alone.”
Coulson nodded once, efficient as always, and walked out of the small apartment SHEILD had set up for Steve. He liked Coulson, in a way that was different from all the other agents he had met. They were all smart, they were all frighteningly competent, but Coulson was also polite. He said “thank you” and “excuse me” and “Would you like me to…?” and left Steve alone without being asked. There was a way about him that made Steve think the guy genuinely cared, and it was so out of place that Steve couldn’t help but notice.
It was a long night reading the files. He still had family, out there, somewhere, but no one he knew was alive. His mother’s heart gave out in 1952; Peggy died of cancer in 1978. It was a long list of “Deceased.”
The files were replaced mysteriously one afternoon by reports about the Tesseract and an alien named Loki (Steve could not bring himself to call it a “god”). Steve’s life took a turn for the even more surreal for a week after that, and he had not really set aside any time to mourn, or even think about how alone he was.
Because, mostly, he wasn’t. Banner came through in a pinch, Stark lived up to the hype, and Romanoff and Barton were terrifying separately and together (although Steve would never admit it). They were the Avengers, and they managed to save the world because Phil Coulson had died believing in them.
At least, that was how Steve liked to think about it. Right up until Fury called a meeting and suggested that Agent Fucking Coulson might not be as Goddamn fucking dead as he should be, that fucker.,
Steve wanted to wash his mouth out with soap, until the news sank in.
Oddly, that was the moment Steve actually processed the fact that Phil Coulson had been dead, as dead as his mother, or Bucky, or Peggy. Steve had been so wrapped up in Loki’s games that when it was all over, he never sat down to regroup. Coulson, of course, turned out to be alive, but Steve was struck hard by the fact that for several days his only living friend was dead and the only people who knew he existed were complete strangers he had just met.
Coulson was in intensive care, Fury was refusing to answer questions, and Stark was angry enough to start his own war which even Fury knew was something to avoid. In the end Stark Tower became the official home base of the Avengers, with a whole state-of-the-Stark medical suite set up just to bring Coulson in for recovery. Stark gave everyone their own rooms, which Barton sarcastically called “loft apartments” (although there were no actual lofts in them), which they rarely saw over the course of the following month as emergency after emergency (and fund raising events; Steve could have told them that fixing New York City was not cheap) cropped up. Someone moved all of his things, consisting of a his duffel bag of clothes and a small box of art supplies, into his “loft” while he was assisting the Indian Army in a fight with a super-villain Hawkeye nicknamed “Bollywoody” (which everyone refused to explain to him).
By the time Steve got a chance to enjoy his new home, he was wrecked physically, emotionally, and intellectually. He knew he should visit Coulson, who by all reports was up and walking around, but Steve was covered in the remains of Bollywoody’s sequins and glitter which was just one step too far for the uniform. Steve stripped down, took a shower, crashed…and woke up promptly at 6:30am. He felt very justified in hating his life at that moment.
Giving it up for a lost cause he meandered into the main living area, where there was a large television (more like a movie screen, in Steve’s opinion) and fixed himself a bowl of cereal.
JARVIS turned on the TV and started changing the channels while Steve stretched out on the couch, still more asleep than awake and not really feeling up to facing his life. He’d had no time to adjust, he’d lost his whole world, been responsible for saving it (three times, at that point), had his only friend was murdered and then resurrected, and…there was more, if Steve could just focus, but he was incredibly tired. He was nearly completely out of it when the familiar voice dragged him back up into the world of the living, word by word:
So, let's make the most of this beautiful day
Since we're together we might as well say
Would you be mine, could you be mine
Won't you be my neighbor
Won't you please, won't you please
Please won't you be my neighbor?
“Wait!” Steve called out before JARVIS could change the channel.
It was Fred. Cousin Fred, looking old and worn, but just as kind as he ever did. There was something about him that was timeless. Even Steve could tell that the film was dated, and made for children, but he didn’t care.
He watched as Cousin Fred talked about being happy and the importance of friendship, his heart clinching up in his chest. His eyes burned.
He didn’t even hear Phil wander into the room.
Steve shook his head. Phil was moving slowly and dressed in a house robe, but that was all the detail Steve could make out peripherally. Cousin Fred fed his fish and then sat down and a little trolley appeared and…
“Oh God.” Steve curled forward, holding his throbbing head that felt like it was on fire. The trolley was going to the Neighborhood of Make Believe. It was going nearly 75 years into Steve’s past.
Phil’s hands on his back were firm, and Steve rocked into the touch, unashamed and exhausted and broken by grief. Phil had somehow sat down next to him and Steve leaned over him, pressing his face into Phil’s knees, grabbing at his pants legs and twisting the fabric hard enough to rip it as the shock of his losses overwhelmed him. He was shaking apart while Cousin Fred talked to some puppets that looked exactly like the drawings Steve had made to humor his young cousin. Steve was one long breath from bawling but he managed to keep himself pressed down. Phil’s hands roamed over his back and through his hair, gentle but grounding. They stayed like that until the trolley whistled its way back into Cousin Fred’s — Mr. Rogers’ — living room.
“I’m so sorry, Steve. I’m so sorry for your losses.”
Steve shook his head, pulling himself back up. He wiped his face with his hands, annoyed when some of Bollywoody’s glitter fluttered away.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Phil asked, his hands folded in his lap. Steve looked at him, at the quiet presence sitting there, patient and kind and willing to die for him because that was the right thing to do.
“You remind me of him.” Steve pointed at the TV show.
Phil’s eyebrows arched. “Of Mr. Rogers?” He asked, his incredulity clear.
“Cousin Fred,” Steve said, quietly, looking fondly at his “younger” cousin, a man of many years and so much love.
Phil’s face was a study in shock. “Mr. Rogers is your cousin?”
Steve nodded. “Is that so hard to believe?”
Phil frowned, then asked JARVIS to pause the show. “Actually, no. Because you see there?” He pointed, and Steve looked over at the image of Cousin Fred frozen on screen. “He never talked about it, would never answer questions about it. But he wore that in every episode until it went off the air in 2001.”
On the upper right lapel of Cousin Fred’s sweater was a small pin, so tiny it was easy to miss: a Captain America shield.