Pepper felt weird walking into a dead man's apartment. But Phil's funeral was tomorrow and he needed a suit. She wasn't exactly sure how she'd gotten elected to pick it up. It should have been Clint or Natalie, Natasha, she corrected herself mentally. He'd been their handler after all. But when she'd mentioned that, Clint just walked away from her and Natasha said briskly, "We don't do funerals."
Apparently what they did do was go to Budapest, start a military coup, and then proceed to drink half of Eastern Europe. "It's what he would have wanted," Natasha said, "Just like old times."
Pepper had been tempted to ask what kind of old times they had with Coulson that involved overthrowing governments but figured it was one of those, if I tell you I'd have to kill you situations.
She'd asked Tony to come with her but Tony didn't do emotions. So it was either her or some faceless drone from SHIELD and something about that hadn't set right with her. Steve had offered to go with her (and don't even get her started on how weird it was to be on a first name basis with Captain America) but Clint caught her eye and shook his head once, firmly and Pepper assured him that she'd be fine on her own.
She understood Clint's dismissal now. Phil's apartment was a bit sparse, minimalist she supposed. Obviously the home of a bachelor, no soft furnishings, not a lot of decorative accents, very little color. But every now and then, as her eyes roamed over the monochrome furniture she caught moments of blue and flashes of red amidst a sea of grays and whites.
A mint condition captain America Issue #1 in a simple frame on the wall. A well used, but long since retired, original Captain America lunch box on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen. A line of photographs, 7 in all, of a younger Phil Coulson, barely recognizable under a heavy hood of a thick winter parka with a group of guys Pepper vaguely recognized as Stark Industry employees. In each one someone was holding a sign that read, "Artic Exploration and Recovery – Project Rebirth" along with a year.
Project Rebirth had been the name of the program that created Captain America, and this had been the expedition team Howard set up to search for him and bring him back home. She picked one up at random, calculating the year in her head and figured Phil couldn't have been more than twenty at the time it was taken. She wondered what kind of twenty year old went to the coldest most desolate place on earth to search for a man all but a select few had given up on long before. The same kind of man who got killed trying to take on a God by himself she supposed.
She placed the picture back and took a deep breath before heading into the bedroom, suddenly feeling very uneasy about invading the man's privacy like this.
His bed was neatly made with perfectly executed hospital corners all around. Nothing was out of place, no drawers left open in a hurry, no shoes scattered across the floor. The only indication the room had been used at all was a book perched on the edge of the night stand, a book mark poking out of the top about halfway through. He hadn't even gotten to see how it ended. She turned to the closet before she found herself crying over a book mark and took in the row of identical black suits in front of her.
A genuine chuckle escaped her lips and she grabbed the one closest to her. She debating between a black tie or a blue tie when a shoe box balancing on the edge of the shelf above her caught her eye. It looked like it had been hurriedly shoved up there and she knew that she shouldn't, but it didn't stop her from reaching up and pulling it down. Carrying it back into the bedroom she sat down softly on the edge of the bed and took the lid off, peering inside. It was filled to the brim with Captain America trading cards and her hand flew to her mouth, tears stinging at the edges of her eyes.
She remembered Tony telling her about the cards, about how he'd had a whole set, about how proud he'd been that they were in mint condition.
These cards were nowhere near that well preserved. The edges on almost all of them were bent, some even torn completely off. The pictures were all slight faded and rubbed off in spots. Spots where a little boy might have grabbed them one too many times, held them a little bit too long. These were by no means new or fresh from a box. These were worn. These had been used.
These had been loved.
She grabbed a card from the top and saw Captain America smiling back at her. He was holding his original shield, not the one Howard made but the one from the movies. The banner across the bottom proclaiming him, The Star-Spangled Man With A Plan, and asking American's to buy more war bonds to support the troops.
A tear landed on his helmet and Pepper wiped her eyes as she put it back in the box to look at the rest. It wasn't just Captain America. He had the Howling Commandos too, and Pepper dug through the box until she found them all. Dum Dum Doogan, Montgomery Falsworth, Gabe Jones, Jim Moita Jacques Dernier, and Bucky Barnes. These were even more worn than the others. The cards themselves folded down the middle, almost as if it had been stuffed in a pocket, carried around, and taken out over and over again.
She put the lid on the box of cards and brought it back into the closet, setting it up on the shelf where it belonged. The set of Howling Commandos cards she kept though, slipping them in the pocket of her coat, not really sure why but thinking maybe Steve would appreciate them, and knowing Coulson wouldn't have minded. She picked out a tie and a shirt and a pair of shoes and walked determinedly to the door, careful to shut of all the lights when she left. Happy was waiting for her with the car and wisely didn't mention it if her eyes looked a bit redder and puffier than when she'd gone up.
She forgot about the cards in the rush of activity that led up to the funeral, which included sending an extraction team to Budapest to get Clint and Natasha out of the country, and didn't even think of them again until they were standing outside in the chilly morning air gathered around the grave site. Winter was being stubbornly resistant to spring, not allowing a single ray of sunshine through and they huddled together for warmth and companionship as the coffin was lowered into the ground.
Pepper heard Jane sniff beside her and reached in her coat pocket for a tissue only to have her fingers find the rough edges of the cards instead. She pulled them out and stared down at them, running a finger lightly over the slightly raised name of James "Bucky" Barnes before looking up at Steve. He was staring stoically ahead, hands clasped behind his back. She new today would be hard for him. He hadn't known Coulson very long but from the few times they'd spoken it was obvious that he held the man in very high regard. But this day wasn't just about saying goodbye to Coulson. It was about saying goodbye to all the friends he'd never see again. It was about all the funerals he'd missed.
Pepper looked down at the cards again and realized that every single man there was dead and gone, buried while Steve had been sleeping in the ice. And he'd never gotten to say goodbye.
She waited until the service was over and everyone started to head back to the cars before excusing herself from Tony and heading in his direction. He jumped when she laid a hand on his arm then offered her a tired, sad smile as she held the cards out to him. "I found them in his things. I just thought…maybe you'd like to have them."
Steve took the cards from her gently, as if afraid to damage them and slipped them in his pocket with a soft "Thank you," before Tony pulled her away.
He invited everyone back to Stark Towers, and with no one in the mood to really do much of anything but not yet ready to be alone, they followed with little discussion. After the drinks had been flowing for a while and Clint was telling a story about him and Coulson in Azerbaijan that was more than likely supposed to be classified, Steve finally took them out of his pocket and actually looked at them. He flipped through each one slowly, the smile on his face becoming less sad and more genuine as he took in the pictures of his old friends.
Suddenly she couldn't help but imagine Phil, just a kid, staring at those same cards, reading about the adventures, looking up to these men. These ordinary men, soldiers yes, but still very much human, fighting alongside Captain America. Helping to defeat the bad guys. Saving the day. The men who were no more special than he was, who were just as ordinary as he was, doing such extraordinary things.
And it was so very easy to see how that kid grew up to be the man she knew. A man who stood up to a God, who looked at ordinary people and saw extraordinary things in them, who'd saved her life more than once. A man who still believed in heroes. A man who was a hero in every since of the word.
"A toast," Tony said when Clint finished with his story. "To Phil Coulson, the First Avenger."
And everyone drank to that.