“You can’t go out to play until you finish your whole breakfast.” Steve’s mother scolded impatiently, replacing another odorous jar of tonic in the pantry. Sarah Rogers couldn’t afford to feed her son eggs and ham steaks for breakfast, especially in these lean times, but she was always finding some new supplement to mix into his porridge in hopes of putting a little meat on his bones.
Steve frowned a little and squirmed in his chair. He rested his chin on his hand and dug his spoon into the porridge and levered the handle over the edge of the bowl, lifting a spoonful of the suspicious smelling cereal up and then letting it glop back into the bowl as he turned the spoon over.
“And I have to leave for work in 10 minutes!” She added from the door of the bathroom, where she was tying on her nurse’s apron. With a sigh, Steve shoveled the first spoonful into his mouth, swallowing quickly to minimize the contact with his taste buds. It was just as well to get this over with, as he had plans to meet Bucky in the abandoned lot two blocks over and a few flakes of snow were beginning to stick on the windows. He obediently finished up the bowl, saving his glass of milk until the end in hopes of washing away the taste of whatever his mother had mixed in.
“Done!” Steve exclaimed, letting his mother place a kiss on his forehead before he pulled his coat on over his bony shoulders and ran out the door, and out into the cold Brooklyn morning.
By the time Steve rounded the corner on one side of the abandoned lot, Bucky had already amassed a small pile of snowballs and had piled them atop a waist high snowdrift, ready to fire them at will. Steve caught the first one in the shoulder, but reacted quickly, ducking behind an old slatted crate and scraping together a handful of fresh powder from the ground to pack into his own ammunition. He peeked around one of the slats just in time to see another snowball hurtling at him, which met its end against the wood of the crate.
Steve molded his snowball, packing it together between mittened hands, and stood up to take aim over the top of the crate. Bucky, seeing that Steve’s retaliation was imminent, turned to run, but Steve watched him trip and disappear from view.
“Bucky!” Steve yelled, dropping the snowball and running towards the place where his friend had disappeared. He approached the drift with Bucky’s pile of snowballs and tried to jump over it, but couldn’t leap high enough. Steve’s feet caught in the drift and he plowed face first into the icy sludge covering the ground.
Steve tried to get up, but the exertion had triggered an asthma attack and he could barely lift himself off of the ground. He rolled onto his side, forcing his diaphragm out in spasms that could never draw more than the shallowest breath. Laying there, trying to force the icy air into his lungs, Steve saw what must have happened: a manhole at the edge of the lot was uncovered, the metal grate propped open against the wall behind it, and Bucky must have fallen in.
Lack of oxygen was making Steve dizzy. He put his head down and closed his eyes, if only he could breathe he would be able to focus, to find some way to help his friend. The responsibility, of what was happening bore down on him. He swore to eat every one of his mother’s awful vitamins until his body started working right.
“Steve? Steve! Are you okay?” Steve opened his eyes and saw Bucky’s concerned face inches away from his. “Aww, man, I was just messing with you. What happened?” As this revelation washed over Steve, he felt less a sense of relief than a of bare luck. Bucky was just messing with him, but if he hadn’t been... Steve didn’t want to think about it, his body’s incapacity had never felt so important.
“Never. Do that. Again,” Steve managed to wheeze at his best friend before passing out.
The matron at the orphanage loved to chastise Steve if he took more than 15 minutes to walk home from school, so he rarely spent more than a moment or two at the library. This library was still unfamiliar, but it was closer to the orphanage than the one used to visit. Plus it was still too hard to go to the places his mother had taken him before. Besides, since he had become a regular visitor the librarian here had taken a liking to him, recommending books based on his interests. Steve dodged in quickly and handed his most recent loan over to her.
“You enjoyed it?” Miss Hill asked him, placing the fat volume about The Great War on a stack of other returned books.
“As much as one can enjoy these things,” Steve wavered. “It was informative.”
“Quite right.” She seemed to approve of his answer. “I pulled this for you, I think it’s a good way to follow that one.” She handed Steve a slim volume, just as another library patron came up to ask for her help. He thanked her and ducked back out, eager to get back to the orphanage in time to avoid a scolding.
In his room, Steve pulled the book out of his satchel. It was a collection of poems, but he wasn’t sure of the connection between the last book and this. Thumbing through the pages, he stopped when he saw the tell-tale crease of an old dog-ear that had been straightened in vain, and read the title of the work there
Dulce et Decorum Est
He began the poem, but had to take care not to insert his father into the images so strongly and urgently evoked. He had never learned what mustard gas actually does to a person. Reading the description of the gas’s effects, Steve tried not to think about his father’s own froth-corrupted lungs and incurable sores. The last four lines were underlined in pencil and he read them again and again:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Steve fished a stub of pencil out of his satchel and consulted a tattered Latin dictionary Miss Hill had slipped to him when the Library had replaced it with a new copy. Slowly, word by word, he deciphered the Latin couplet. A sick feeling settled in the pit of his stomach as he scribbled his final translation in the margins:
It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.
“The old Lie,” Steve murmured, and folded the corner of the page back down along its crease.
“War has changed.” Howard Stark’s voice was shadowed over with crackles of static from the radio speaker. “Our ability to hurt each other has outstripped our ability to protect ourselves.”
Steve had been following the news from Europe closely for the last few years but, along with the rest of the country, his life had been thrown into disarray when the Japanese had attacked Hawaii. Now that the country had newly joined the war, he was devouring all the information he could in preparation for his own enlistment. He had seen a blurb in the newspaper that Howard Stark would be making an announcement today about his contributions to the war effort and progress in weaponry.
Steve fiddled with the radio, sliding the knob gently, gently across the dial until he found a spot with the least static.
“Because we must counteract these new advances in firepower, the tank has become more important than ever. Introducing the new Stark Industries tank!” There was a fanfare of music, and then gasps from the crowd gathered in Stark’s auditorium. Steve wished more than almost anything that he could be there, witnessing in person what could be a game-changing development in the war effort.
“The metal armor is an alloy of my own creation, with a molecular structure so stable that it is nearly impossible to fracture or pierce.” There was a clanging, and then a crumpling sound.
“This is a prototype.” The inventor remarked.
Stark went on talking about the features of the tank, the ultra-powerful engine, unprecedented firepower, gravitic reversion technology - coming soon- that could lift the entire vehicle off the ground. Steve was enthralled, he tried to absorb everything Mr. Stark was saying while furiously scribbling notes about tanks and weaponry to look up in the card catalogue next time he visited Miss Hill. He had so much to learn, so many things to understand if he wanted to stand a chance against the Nazis.
A newsreel cut in with an important update from the front. Steve stopped writing just long enough to nudge the dial, trying to clear up a little more static.
Battle was one thing. Steve knew how to conduct himself in a fight and with his new body he never tired out, never had reason to doubt his ability to execute an op. The bureaucracy, though, was an adjustment.
Endless board meetings, pushing little models of men and Hydra plants around the map in an attempt to make sense of every new plan and strategy was beginning to wear on his patience. Or maybe it was the endless bickering between Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter.
“Carter, tell MI-6 they can have you back,” the Colonel had grumbled at her one day.
“I’m to report progress to General Marshall this evening, should I tell him the same about you?” Peggy had quipped back, and that had settled it for a little while, though never long enough.
Today, Phillips was campaigning to pull in troops from France to help on an op, while Peggy maintained that sending in just Steve with the Howling Commandos would have a better chance of success.
“It works better like this,” Peggy held firm. “Hydra has numbers, but Schmidt is leading brutish drones. Even with reinforcements, we can’t compete with their numbers, so we need to use what we have: a highly trained team with a strong leader.”
“She’s right.” Howard interjected. “I can equip a smaller team much more efficiently than a large one. They’ll have the same amount of firepower with fewer weapons.”
“I thought the Howlers were supposed to take the factory in Poland next,” chimed a Captain down at Philips’ end of the table.
“Hodge’s unit can handle that,” Peggy replied. “The Baltic exposes the factory to multiple entry points, so Poland doesn’t require as much skill as this op. For this, it needs to be Steve leading the Howling Commandos.” Peggy’s reasoning was greeted by murmurs of assent from around the table. Colonel Phillips, seeing that he was outnumbered, nodded brusque approval of the plan.
“Then it’s settled,” said Peggy. “Howard, fit them out and they’ll depart at 0600. Boys,” she turned to the Howlers, “don’t let us down.”
“I just don't know why you'd wanna join the army if you were a beautiful dame,” Steve had said to her once. Looking at her now, that felt like a million years ago.
Dr. Erskine had warned Steve about Schmidt; about what the serum did to those who had no good inside to amplify. Back then Steve wasn’t sure that he understood Erskine’s exhortation, but he took it to heart. The two pokes at Steve’s chest, the last thing Abraham Erskine did in his time in this world, stayed with Steve every time he went into battle.
That was why, when he had looked into Schmidt’s eyes for the first time across that flaming chasm, and heard Schmidt call out to him “We have left humanity behind!” he knew Schmidt was wrong.
Steve dreamt of that encounter often -it was one of the only things left in the world that could wind him, leaving him breathless when he was jolted awake in the middle of the night - and every time it ended the same way.
“Why?” He would yell to Schmidt. “Why would you abandon your humanity?”
Schmidt never replied, and Steve never learned the answer.