They were reunited a few days later in a hallway in SHIELD headquarters, outside an otherwise nondescript door that said Philip J. Coulson, minus Thor and plus Tony's Miss Potts. Steve had never been to Coulson's office before Loki's War. He'd had to ask directions after he was notified that it was where the memorial service would be held.
The service was standing room only, but everyone left a few inches of clear space around Steve and the other Avengers. There was no coffin, just a photograph of Coulson--it looked like an enlargement of his identification photo--on his desk. There was also no priest. Agent Hill stood at the front of the room with a clipboard, and she'd already brought the crowd to order and briefed them on the precise circumstances of Coulson's death before Steve realized that that was what a SHIELD memorial service was. A few people, including Natasha, stepped up to stand by Coulson's desk and speak their own eulogies, a roughly equal mix of funny stories and praise of Coulson's unflappable professionalism.
When things seemed to be breaking up without any formal words being spoken, Steve bowed his head and murmured the requiem aeternam under his breath--he had no idea whether Coulson had been Catholic, but a prayer could never hurt. After the resquiescat in pace, he was surprised to hear a flurry of amens around him--Bruce, Natasha, and Miss Potts said it in unison with Steve, and Tony, Clint, and half a dozen people standing close enough to have heard him all chimed in a half-beat behind.
Steve looked up and over to Natasha, who was looking right at him. "Will there be a funeral? Burial service?"
"In Ohio, for the civilians," Natasha said. "That's where Phil told his cellist he was from. There's some SHIELD personnel out there playing his cover family so they can do the whole thing for Andy."
At some point Steve was really going to have to ask whether everybody nowadays called a lover whose gender they'd rather not specify a cellist, or if Coulson's Andy actually did play the cello.
"What about his real family?" Steve asked quietly.
Natasha raised her eyebrow and tilted her head toward the rest of the crowd, now all talking quietly among themselves but making no move to vacate Coulson's office. "His real family's right here."
The Avengers retired to Tony's place for drinks and the stories Natasha and Clint declined to tell to a wider audience. Natasha tried to show them a video from a surveillance camera at some gas station in New Mexico that she'd saved on her phone--"It's pretty much the only video footage there is of Coulson, there aren't even photos"--but Tony took it away from her before they could even gather around.
Tony spent ten minutes programming some kind of specialized something to make the video clearer and easier to project at full cinema size. Bruce joined him to bicker and poke things after the first two minutes, and the rest of them refreshed their drinks--Steve was sampling Tony's selection of beers, trying to find one that tasted like the beer he remembered having once in Belgium--and then sat and watched the mad-scientist show.
They did get to watch the video when the geniuses finished with it, and the sight of Coulson casually shopping hit Steve like a fist, stopping his breath for a second. The others were all equally silent. Only Miss Potts made a sound, and Steve tore his eyes away from Coulson and realized she was crying. Steve was arrested by the sight for a few seconds; it was strange to be so close to someone who could still shed tears for any one loss. Everyone at the SHIELD memorial service had been dry-eyed.
A gun in his peripheral vision jerked Steve's attention back to the video, and he watched Coulson take out two robbers with a bag of flour. They all cheered at the end, even Miss Potts, and watched it a handful of times again before they went back to telling stories.
A dull ache grew in Steve's chest with every story the others told. Even Tony, who professed brashly not to have liked--nor been liked by--Coulson, and Bruce, who had met him more recently than Steve, had stories to tell. Steve didn't. He could have, if he'd bothered to venture out of the cocoon SHIELD built for him before the war was on. His few interactions with Coulson left him no room to doubt that he'd have had Coulson's attention if he'd shown any interest in being of use to anyone, and then he'd be able to properly join the others in mourning the man who'd so impressed them all.
Miss Potts kept leaking tears, but seemed to be holding up all right; Clint turned out to be the canary in the coal mine. When he stopped taking individual drinks and started drinking tequila directly from the bottle, Natasha turned to Steve and said, "We should get home, don't you think?"
"Yes ma'am," Steve said, and helped her separate Clint from the bottle and get him into the elevator and down to the car Tony had waiting for them on the street.
Clint leaned on Natasha's shoulder and was quiet and still until they were two blocks away from SHIELD, and then he said, "I should've been at the rest of them."
"Only people you knew personally," Natasha said firmly. "And no more than three in one day. We've been over this."
Clint closed his eyes and didn't say another word. Steve was nearly carrying him by the time they got back to his quarters, but Natasha took charge of Clint at the threshold and shooed Steve away.
Back at his own quarters, two floors away, Steve stopped sharply in the doorway, aware that someone had been in his space while he was gone. After a few more seconds he was certain that whoever it had been was gone, and that nothing was missing. One thing had been added.
There was a red-stained trading card lying in the center of Steve's neatly made bed. It had an autograph scrawled on it.
For all the stories they'd told, at the memorial and at Tony's, no one had ever mentioned the trading cards. He'd been proud of them, Natasha had said, but she'd obviously thought it was a childish kind of pride. Steve had agreed, in a way. Coulson had reminded him of all the other people who'd had--who still had, for all he knew--that same kind of childlike faith in him. He'd come through for Coulson, maybe, but too late for Coulson to know it. And Steve had never signed those cards, but someone had signed this one.
Steve walked over slowly and picked it up. He didn't recognize the handwriting, and the signature was an illegible scribble. But the inscription was perfectly clear.
Captain, Room G3-207. Insist.
Steve stared for a few seconds, until he realized his hand was shaking. Then he tucked the card into his shirt pocket and turned on his heel, heading for level G3.
By the time he got to room 207, he'd built up enough of a head of steam that it wasn't so much about insisting as it was about shoving the SHIELD agent at the door aside, ignoring the protests and radio chatter, and shouldering the door open.
The room was dim, but there was a light shining on the bed. Steve thought, irrelevantly, that he'd always thought lux perpetua would be brighter, and then he thought They're lying to his cellist about everything, and then he walked over to the bed where Coulson was lying very still but definitely alive.
Steve reached out and let his hand hover over Coulson's chest; he could feel the displacement of air as it rose and fell. His eyes prickled, and Steve blinked the sensation away and turned to look toward the door just as Fury stepped through and turned on the overhead light.
"Sir." Steve said, not a question, not a rebuke.
"Captain," Fury said wearily. "You know, and Agent Hill knows, that you're not supposed to be here."
"You lied to us."
"I made sure you would get the job done."
Steve turned away, staring down at Coulson, feeling a different heat prickle at his skin. The shame and rage of being manipulated like that coexisted uncomfortably with the joy of knowing this man was alive.
"And as it happens, I didn't lie," Fury added. "He was dead when I spoke to you. But he'd signed the consent for experimental treatment in case of severe or terminal injury; SHIELD agents are one of our primary sources of test subjects. We weren't sure we had him back until this morning, and we don't know when he'll wake up, or what exactly he'll be when he does."
Steve's hand closed into a fist. "He'll be another lab experiment."
"And as you know, Cap, we do our best for our lab experiments."
Steve shrugged. He couldn't dispute that, but that didn't mean SHIELD's best was guaranteed to be enough. "I'm going to stay with him a while. It's my turn."
Fury didn't seem to need any explanation for that. He'd have known that Coulson had watched over Steve before he woke up.
Steve heard Fury walk away, and a while after that he sat down on the chair by the bed. Coulson unconscious was as unassuming as he'd mostly looked in action, give or take that video. That reminded Steve of what Natasha had said, about how there weren't any pictures of Coulson, and Steve turned and started rummaging through the cabinet by the bed. He came up with a notepad and pen pretty quickly; the notepad fit into his hand, which made it just the right size.
Steve took the trading card from his pocket, sketched in the border on the first page, and started drawing Coulson with that bag of flour. He could fill in the story on the back, and there were certainly enough stories to do a whole set. He'd have to make up the illustrations, but he knew as well as anyone that those were always fabrications. He'd find some card stock and do the final versions in color, find some way to put that glossy finish on them.
By the time Coulson woke up, they'd be ready for him to sign.