"Those were near mint, sir," Coulson says when he finds out that Fury dipped his vintage Captain America trading cards in his cooling lifeblood before tossing them, careless and callous, on the table in front of Steve and Tony. He's leaning heavily on a sleek black cane that looks like it was designed by Tony and probably doubles as a rocket launcher or a laser sword.
"They needed the push," Fury says, flicking a glance at Steve. Steve doesn't avert his eyes.
"Yes, sir," Coulson says, resigned.
When Steve's Saturday mornings don't involve fighting alien robots or inept but destructive megalomaniacs, Steve spends them poking through flea markets.
The past is another country and Steve misses it sometimes. He prefers the scratch of a record player to the thudding bass of the huge speakers Tony has installed in practically every corner of the mansion, blown glass dishes and glazed pottery to most of the amorphous modern art on the walls. These are the finds Steve pulls down off dusty top shelves and carries back to his room, treasures.
Steve is in The Antiques Garage when he sees the tin box, faded red, white and blue paint flecking off in chips. He thumbs it open curiously. The hinges are loose. Inside are sepia-toned photographs, a GI wedding. Steve doesn't know the man, but he knows the uniform. Airborne. He looks carefully at each photo, the shining smile of the bride outside the white church, her desperate eyes as she dances with her new husband at the reception, fingers on his jump wings. The groom's eyes are closed in every picture.
Steve is putting a photo of three bridesmaids at the back of the stack when something slips out, a thin piece of paper that lands facedown on the worn blue carpeting. Steve bends down to pick it up.
Buy war bonds! Have you done enough? the card says, Captain America pointing straight out of the frame. Steve holds it for a long time before tucking it back between the fading photographs. He buys the whole box for $10.
Steve thinks about giving the card to Coulson, but a single card seems a poor substitute for a whole set. There's a small number 1 in the bottom right corner of the card, closed inside a black circle, and Steve wonders how many cards were in the entire run. At least ten he estimates, remembering the way they fanned out on the table, edges bloodied and slightly foxed.
Steve hunts through street sales and downtown collectors shops without success until one of the owners tells him about something called eBay. The computer in Steve's room is a bulky, boxy contraption, the keyboard wide and raised. Tony had called it a travesty and almost banned it from the mansion, but it's enough like a typewriter that Steve can use the hunt and peck method to do a Google search.
He ends up with fifteen copies of card number 8—a terrible candid of him awkwardly holding Betty's sobbing eight month old niece while she ran backstage to change out of her chorus costume—before he swallows his pride and asks Tony for help.
"Wait," Tony says, looking at Steve through welding goggles reminiscent of a pair of field glasses Steve lost in Colditz. "You want to use the internet? I thought you were scarred for life after Clint showed you The Onion."
"I was pointed to a very specific website by a much more reputable source," Steve says. "I thought I had it figured out, but now there's something to do with bidding and there's a clock counting down that looks like the timer on a bomb."
Tony pulls the goggles off. "Are you trying to buy something off eBay?" He raises a hand and the site immediately projects in front of him.
It's a little embarrassing because the card Steve wants has a picture of him in full uniform, one boot on Hitler's back, a red drop curtain behind them. Tony doesn't even blink, just enters in a series of numbers and starts bidding and swearing while Steve watches the clock tick down toward 00:00:00. "Ha!" Tony crows, jamming a finger at the bid button at the last second. "Got it!" He smirks at Steve in triumph. "Anything else?"
Steve points at a listing for card 5 and, two short hand motions later, Tony says, "On it's way from France. You coming to movie night tonight? It's Thor's turn to choose so there'll probably be a lot of explosions."
"Yeah," Steve smiles. "I'll be there."
At breakfast the next morning, Tony drops two cards in front of Steve on his way to slump against the industrial coffee maker.
Steve puts down a forkful of eggs in favor of picking up the cards. Numbers 2 and 4 sit in the top right hand corners. "Where did you get these?" Steve asks. The edges of the cards are worn thin, like they've been handled continuously, carried like talismans.
Tony gulps down two cups of coffee, mouth like a trapdoor, before he answers. "They were my Dad's."
"Oh," Steve says, quiet. Now that he's looking, he notices that the second card is the only one in the whole set where he's carrying his vibranium shield. The others all show him with his first prop shield, red and white stripes in long downward bars. "Thank you."
There's a collector in Harlem who has cards 9, 11 and 13, the more cartoon-styled drawings, colors a little too bright, over saturated. He lines them up on a piece of red velvet and Steve picks up one of the cards carefully, by the edges. Captain America is punching Hitler, a white starburst between his fist and Hitler's weak jaw, pow!
"How much for all of them?" Steve asks.
The man quotes a price and Steve feels something internal stagger, but outwardly he doesn't even blink as he hands over the sleek all black credit card Tony gave him weeks ago after Steve had tried to pay for a cup of coffee with a one dollar bill, expecting change, and the cashier had looked at him like he was crazy. Some things are worth more than money.
The shop owner swipes the card and Steve wonders if he was supposed to haggle the price, whittle it down the way Bucky had tried to teach him on leave in France, the Sunday morning market crowded and colorful, rolling his eyes as Steve was utterly fleeced, tripping over s'il vous plaît and merci and letting stall tenders pick the correct francs out of his cupped hand.
Steve pulls his growing card collection out of his wallet and lines them up on the glass counter while his receipt is printing. Some of the images are true to life, still renderings of moments Steve remembers. There's a picture of him in his leather bomber jacket, one boot in the air in forward march, from that very first rescue mission. Bucky ought to be walking beside him, but it's just Steve on the card, surrounded by white space, the ground red beneath his feet.
"Going for the whole set?" the shop owner asks. "I know a guy who has card 6. Might be willing to part with it. You want his phone number?"
Steve slots his new purchases in order behind card number 8. He slips the receipt with the phone number between cards 5 and 7 and slides them all carefully back into his wallet. The gold bell on the shop door clangs loudly, hollow, as Steve pushes his way back out onto the street.
The owner of card 6 offers it to Steve for a song when he realizes that Steve actually is Captain America. Since the set seems to have been produced without card numbers 3 or 12, this leaves only number 10 to be found before Steve has officially collected the entire set.
It's easier said than done. Steve spends two months scouring the internet, calling collectors, and generally rummaging before deciding that an alternate solution might be necessary. He buys cardstock and tempera paints, a detail brush set. It's not hard to remember the picture, his salute half hidden by the damp red sheen of Coulson's blood, but Steve finds a reference image all the same.
It takes Steve three failed attempts to get the reflecting light on his shield right, his hands feeling clumsy, out of practice. The fourth version comes out better. Steve initials SR, tiny and unobtrusive, in the lower corner.
"Agent Coulson, can I have a moment?" Steve says after a debriefing, alien invasion successfully repulsed. He waits for the rest of the team to trickle out of the room before pulling the cards out of his wallet and handing them to Coulson. "I'm sorry about what happened with your old set. I know you were proud of them."
Coulson stares down at the cards, blank faced. Steve watches him trace the C in the Captain America signature with the tip of a thumb. Steve hesitated before signing them. He hopes Coulson still thinks him enough of a hero now that he knows Steve in person, has ordered him two dozen reinforced punching bags and seen him fall.
Coulson shuffles carefully through the deck, a smile forming on his lips. He stops briefly at card 10, rubs the edge gently between his fingers. Steve knows the texture is a little off, slightly too thick. "I'm sorry about that one," he says. "I couldn't find a real copy, so I drew it up myself. I'll keep looking though."
Coulson looks at him like he's crazy. He makes a choking sound before clearing his throat. "It's really...It's really fine. Thank you."
Steve puts a hand on Coulson's shoulder.
"I won't let Fury near these," Coulson says, deadpan, as he puts the cards in an inner pocket of his suit jacket.
"Probably for the best," Steve agrees, smiling, as he holds open the door.