Phillips' face was grim; his lips pressed together in a narrow line. "I've got to send this letter, kid," he said, and Steve could tell that he was trying to keep his tone gentle, out-of-character for the man. "You want to look it over, see if there's anything I forgot, anything you want to add, I'll be happy to send a note from you. I know you were close with his folks."
"He's not dead," Steve snapped, and he slammed his hand down against Phillips' desk, so hard that he left a fine, hairline crack in the wood. "He's MIA. We finish this, we go look for him."
Phillips eyed him cautiously, his face stone, impenetrable. "Whatever you say, Cap," he replied, but he signed the letter anyway. "You go take an hour or two. You look like you need it."
Steve had skulked away to find the interior of a burned-out bar.
"I tried," he said to Peggy, after the two left the bar, walking alongside each other down silent, dark streets, their knuckles brushing cautiously, then drifting apart.
He pulled the crumpled paper out of his pocket, smoothed it out, held it out to her, the crossouts harsh lines along the top left margin. "I don't know what to say. After my mother died, they were--"
His voice cracked. She reached out, and then tilted her head, lips puckering as she considered. She took his hand instead.
"Steve," she said softly. "Give it a day. Write it tomorrow. Or--"
She sucked in a breath. "When all this is over, I'll help you.”
“We don’t—“ he started, but he snapped his mouth shut when he took in her expression.
“Don’t say it, Steve,” she admonished. “What happened to Mister-Symbol-of-Hope?”
That made him smile in spite of himself, and he shook his head.
She watched him, quietly for a moment, and he couldn’t read the look on her face— he suspected it was some mixture of disapproval and concern, and it reminded him too much of Bucky.
He curled his fingers around hers, her hand tiny and cold in his, and he thought about kissing her.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Steve observed, as he walked into the lounge area of the Tower living quarters.
Stark tapped a button on the television remote control; the picture on the screen froze on the shot of a man in a modern army uniform, and the sound cut off abruptly.
“My house, my rules,” Stark answered, with an easy shrug, his feet, still in sneakers, resting up on the arm of the sofa.
“You don’t live here,” Steve answered stiffly. He stepped back, a half-step, suddenly self-conscious in his uniform.
The new uniform was made out of a stiff, stretchy fabric; it made him feel exposed in ways the old one hadn’t, reminded him too much of the costume he’d worn in the USO, with blue tights and tiny shorts. There were pockets he still hadn’t discovered the purpose of, zippers in odd places, and all in all, he felt a bit more like he should be dancing in a line than fighting anything in this suit.
“I pay the bills,” Stark replied. “What’s crawled up your perfectly-sculpted ass today?”
“I wasn’t expecting visitors,” Steve said, taking a breath. “You didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms, Stark.”
“What’s the monkey suit for, anyway?” Stark asked, shrugging at Steve’s accusation as if it were the sort of thing he was used to hearing.
Steve bristled at the “monkey” bit, but realized that Stark couldn’t have known especially why it bothered him. “I’m headed out to Madison Square,” he answered. “They’re…they do this thing, with the Eternal Flame.”
He glanced at the television.
“Yeah, well,” said Stark. “Have fun, Cap.”
Stark pressed a button on the remote again, and the soldier on the screen began to move, and the audio started up once again.
The music changed tempo, and a tinny brass-band rendition of a song Steve had heard all too many times before blared from the speakers.
He held his forehead.
“Look, it’s your favorite number,” Stark said cheerfully and began to sing along, boisterously and out-of-tune.
Steve was both unsurprised and supremely irritated that Stark apparently knew all the words to “Star-Spangled Man With a Plan.”
Steve could feel his cheeks get hot as the old newsreels played, a charming montage of footage from his USO days, the Hollywood serials intercut with real newsreel footage, and then he found himself staring at Bucky— grainy, flickering, but still Bucky, still alive and smiling, his eye crinkling at the corners.
“Move over,” he said. Stark looked at him blankly for a moment, and then swung his legs back down, sliding over on the sofa.
Steve dropped down, his back rigid as he watched the footage, the song fading out, replaced with a somber announcement. He recognized the voice of Harry Truman, too tired, too strained, less than a month after finding himself in Roosevelt’s shoes. Truman spoke over the radio in a quiet tone, telling the American people that Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America, had died on May 4, 1945, in service to his country, protecting the city of New York from a nuclear attack, the likes of which the world had never seen, and asked for a moment of silence in his honor.
Steve gritted his teeth at Truman’s mention of the nuclear attack, knowing the same man would order such an attack on Japan a few months later, knowing the missiles he had brought down were used for research to perfect the design.
Stark glanced sidelong at him. “Looking a little stiff, Cowboy,” said Stark. “Somebody put too much starch in your costume?”
Steve tried to ignore him, tried to ignore the fact that his father had been the one who retrieved the weapons, tried to remind himself that Stark had pitted himself against just such a weapon not a year ago.
Then he realized that Stark hadn’t taken his eyes off him. He was watching with a frown, a little divot forming between his eyebrows. “You want me to change the channel?” he asked, seeming more earnest, and he clicked a button, a cheery jingle for bathroom cleanser filling the room.
“No,”Steve answered. “No, put it back on.”
Stark flipped the channel back.
“...was the bravest man I ever knew,” intoned Truman’s voice again. The screen showed more newsreels, more footage of Steve and Bucky, the Howling Commandos, a glimpse of Peggy over Steve’s shoulder in one of the shots, too distant and too brief.
“His death may have been his last act of courage, but courage doesn’t leave its imprint in the grand sacrifices of war. The greatest acts of bravery are the small ones, the ones we overlook.”
“What is this?” Steve asked, looking back at Stark again.
“True courage is found in the places we least expect it, in a hand, extended in friendship,” said Truman’s voice, on the television. “In the choice to befriend, not belittle,those weaker than you. In speaking up for what’s right, not only when the chance of success is slim, but when the chance of success is impossible.”
“What do you mean, what is this?” Stark asked, looking at Steve with an expression of incredulity. He dropped the remote control into his lap, leaned back, cradling his head in his arms. “It’s your own fucking letter, Steve.”
“Courage is found in standing by one’s friends, in understanding their trials, the sacrifices they make, that all our sacrifices are different, and carry a different weight.”
“My letter?” Steve asked. “There’s no need to be an ass about it, Stark; if this should have been part of my education, someone clearly left it out.”
“There is courage in song, in dance, in giving voice to hopes for the future.”
“Your letter, yeah, the last letter you wrote,” Stark answered. “They play it every Veterans Day, with the same cheesy filmstrips. Oh, look, there’s my dad, we can wave to Dad, everyone.” He waved, a bit dramatically, Steve thought, at the television, just as Howard Stark waved at the camera.
“There is courage in our declarations of love, no matter how we deliver them, whether it is in words or gestures or the laying down of our lives.”
“I didn’t write this,” Steve said, and he frowned, listening.
“It begs the question, Cap, did you forget anything else?” Stark asked. “Any chance the ice addled your brain?”
“Your son embodied all of these things, and your love for your son shone in every act of courage he took upon himself. He was my dearest friend, and the man I loved best in the world, and he will always be the kindest, best, and bravest man I know.”
“I didn’t write that,” Steve said again, more quietly, as the television’s picture held on a single, still frame of him and Bucky as boys, very young, long before the war, when he was still tiny, their gangly limbs tangled up around each other, laughing. “I’d know.”
A single line of text faded into view on the screen. Letter of Captain Steve Rogers to George and Winifred Barnes of Brooklyn, NY, May 4, 1945
Steve sat, mouth open, absorbing the meaning of those words. He shifted, the stretchy fabric of his uniform uncomfortably itchy. “Can you-- can you play that again?”
When Peggy walked into Phillips’ office, her face was dry, but her eyes were still glassy, rimmed with red. She held a piece of paper in her hands, folded in thirds, and didn’t make eye contact as she held it out.
“I—“ she said. “Forgive me; I should have remembered—“
“Carter, I told you to take a day,” Colonel Phillips said with a sigh. “Unless that’s the location of the Führer’s bunker, it can wait a day.”
But he took the paper, nonetheless. It was crisp to the touch, neatly typed.
“It’s for Sergeant Barnes’ parents,” she said. “He gave it to me before he left.”