Had Steve actually seen the progression of the world into the twenty-first century, he probably would have been more subtle. As it was, though, people “in his day” generally weren’t out to get each other; if a guy with a sketchpad was watching a group of kids march around the park, he was drawing them as he saw them, and that was all. And Steve Rogers – the man behind Captain America, war hero and national icon – had never even conceived that kiddie porn could exist, much less that anyone could suspect him of being a pedophile. Steve was quickly learning, though, that the people of New York City had somehow become even more cynical than when he had left them some seventy or so years ago.
“Hey, man. What’re you lookin’ at?”
Steve glanced up from his sketchpad and found himself almost nose-to-nose with one of the kids he’d been drawing. He was the oldest of the bunch, clearly the protector – likely someone’s older brother, as he looked to be in his early teens while the rest of the group probably hadn’t hit double-digits yet – and was clearly less than charmed by Steve’s candor.
“Oh.” Steve sat up, looked down at his sketchpad, then back up to the four young boys that had gathered in front of the bench where he sat. “I was just drawing – ”
“Lemme see that,” the teenager said, snatching the notepad. Steve let him take it. The fire left the kid’s eyes almost immediately as he got a better look at the drawing.
“Oh. Hey, wow. This is pretty good. Is this us?”
Steve nodded. One of the boys was staring up at him with the widest, brightest green eyes he’d ever seen. He smiled at the boy, who leapt forward and grabbed the teen’s pant leg. Up close, Steve could see the resemblance between them.
“You look like Captain America!” the younger boy squealed, pointing squarely at Steve’s nose.
Steve’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.
“You know Captain America?”
The boy nodded vigorously, and the other three followed suit. They were all smiles and energy and childish trust now.
“Yeah! My, my grandpa, he watched Captain America on TV and read his comic books and stuff, and then he gave them to my daddy, and then daddy gave them to my brother – ” he tugged on the teen’s pant leg again “ – and now Jeremy reads them to me!”
“Yeah, you know, it was easier to get Jimmy to be Bucky before I started reading ‘em to him,” the teen, Jeremy, said, ruffling his younger brother’s hair. “Now he’s always Cap and I’m always Bucky. He’s convinced – ”
“When I grow up, I’m going to be just like Captain America!” Jimmy crowed, climbing onto the bench beside Steve and striking the pose in which Steve had seen himself illustrated and photographed countless times: one leg set slightly forward, fists propped on his waist, head cocked and looking skyward toward the future he’d ended up missing. Well, skipping – he was in the future now, after all. Steve chuckled softly, nodding to himself, remembering how brazen he himself had been when he had decided he would enlist.
“Hey,” Steve said. “You know Captain America fought in World War II, right? And you know that they had different marches then?”
The four young boys nodded, but Jeremy scoffed.
“Oh, man. You’re not gonna teach him one, are you? If it’s as boring as this ‘left, left, left-right-left’ one we’ve been doing all day, I’m gonna lock him in the bathroom when we get home.”
Jimmy whirled on Jeremy. “You would not!”
“No, it’s not that boring, I promise. And it’s an actual march from World War II, so Captain America may have used it himself. Wanna learn it?”
The boys exploded into whoops and yeah’s, scrambling to their feet and falling in line behind Jimmy while leaving a space for Jeremy. With a shrug, Jeremy fell into ranks behind his younger brother. Steve stood, too, then knelt before Jimmy.
“Is it okay if I pretend to be Cap for a little bit so I can teach you the march?” he asked.
Without hesitation, Jimmy nodded furiously. “Yeah!”
“Okay.” Steve rose and stood next to Jimmy. “We’re going to start with the left foot, okay? I’ll say it a few times, and when you get it, start saying it with me.”
Steve stepped with his left foot – “You should have” – then his right – “stayed home,” – then his left – “but you left.” – then his right – “You’re right!” And again – “You should have stayed home, but you left. You’re right!” The boys marched close behind, the younger ones watching their feet to keep in time with Steve, who was careful to keep his strides as small as possible. After a few repetitions, he stopped.
“You have it?”
“All right, this time, I’m going to say the first part, but you guys will say, ‘You’re right.’ Ready?” They started marching. “You should have stayed home, but you left – ”
“You should have stayed home, but you left.”
And without missing a beat, Jimmy and Jeremy sounded off, “One!” “Two.”
The next two boys: “Three!” “Four!”
“Five?” And Steve filled in, “Six!”
And Jimmy picked up flawlessly, “One!”
Then, together, “Sound off!”
Steve stopped the march again, smiling down at Jimmy. He felt as though there were a fist in his chest, directly behind his heart, and every time he saw the boys’ grins, the fist lashed out. Except for Jeremy, they had no idea what they were saying, but Steve could feel every word in his gut. In fact, he distinctly remembered when he learned it: on the walk back from the HYDRA base in Austria, after his first great act as Captain America, some of the men started it up in an attempt to lighten the mood. But as more men joined in, Steve had seen for the first, very real time that the war wasn’t as romantic as he’d thought it would be. It was hard, and it was dangerous, and it was scary, and it was lethal. Even he couldn’t fathom how many men had died to that march; how could these kids possibly understand?
But nothing he’d done back in the day had been about the War itself, not now that Steve could be – almost had to be, thanks to the serum having amplified both his inability to lie and his commitment to the truth – really honest with himself. Steve didn’t sign up to kill Nazis or HYDRA agents or…anyone, really. Steve had fought to enlist because he had been compelled to protect people. And maybe, yeah, Bucky had been right – maybe he did think he had something to prove. But what he had to prove was that the good guys really could beat out the bad guys if they tried hard enough, and he’d proven it. It had cost him Bucky, seventy years of his life, and therefore everyone he’d ever known – but he’d proven it. And then he’d awoken, back in New York, and was given the chance to meet new people, adopt a new family, and continue protecting his country and his beliefs. He should have been cut down in his prime; instead, he was a living legend, untouched by the skepticism that had warped the rest of the city, if not the rest of the country – or heck, even the rest of the world. He had to take advantage of his second wind, and part of that was to inspire people, especially the little guys.
He stepped to the back of the line and gave Jimmy a thumbs-up.
“You ready to take over, Cap?”
“Sorry about taking your notebook earlier,” Jeremy said. He was seated on the bench with Steve, watching his younger brother play tag with his friends. Steve had resumed his drawing and was now adding the finer details to the sketch of the boys.
“No problem. You were protecting them. I understand.”
Jeremy nodded, and they fell into a comfortable silence – relatively speaking, of course, since they were in New York, and Jimmy and his friends were shrieking around the area of the park Jeremy had designated as their playing field. After a while, Steve checked his watch, then tore the page from his sketchpad and handed it to Jeremy.
“You sure I can have it? You're not gonna make me pay you or nothin’, are you?”
Steve shook his head, waving the sheet toward Jeremy. “No, no charge. I’m not good enough to ask for money, but even if I were, I’d want you and Jimmy to have it.”
“Oh,” Jeremy said, taking the drawing. He glanced down at it, just long enough to register that it was the same one Steve had been working on earlier, then looked back up at Steve. “Thanks, mister.”
Steve stood, tucked his sketchbook under one arm, and then offered a hand to Jeremy.
“Steve,” he said, giving Jeremy’s hand a single, firm shake. “Thanks for letting me draw you guys.”
“Sure, sure,” Jeremy said, but as soon as Steve had said his name, he looked distracted, as though he recognized Steve but couldn’t place from where. His nose was crinkled, and he squinted as his peered into Steve’s face, focusing on his eyes until Steve smiled and turned away.
Perplexed, Jeremy looked back at the drawing. The kids in the drawing were definitely him and the boys, but something –
If eyes could pop out of heads Tex Avery-style, Jeremy’s would have then. Steve had drawn the kids as realistically as time had allowed, but he had changed all of their clothes. Jimmy was in Captain America’s uniform, but it wasn’t scaly or smooth like the comic book versions; it looked more like leather, tough and, frankly, more practical. Behind Jimmy, Jeremy swaggered in khaki cargos, boots, and a leather jacket, and Jeremy knew that he was supposed to be the real Bucky. Following him were Jimmy's friends, all slightly recostumed to resemble the Howling Commandos – Ron sported "Dum Dum" Dugan's bowler, Kevin Lord James Montgomery Falsworth's beret – but just different enough from the illustrated versions to look…real. And penciled in the bottom right corner: “Keep it up, boys. – Captain America”
Steve spared a backward glance long enough to see Jeremy bolting for Jimmy, waving the drawing as he gestured the other boys in to see it. There was a brief pause, then another wave of excited cries. Over the din, Steve could pick out Jimmy’s voice, screaming, “We met Captain America! We met Captain America! We have his autograph! Look! We met Captain America!”
As much as he didn’t want to leave now, Steve stepped up the pace. He had to get out of there if he wanted to avoid any media ruckus – not that any of the other Avengers would have cared, but he personally wasn’t a fan of having cameras and microphones and all other manner of technology shoved in his face. So he wound his way to the subway and found an empty seat on the train, leaning his head against the window behind him. About ten minutes into the ride, his cell phone buzzed – a text message, undoubtedly from Tony.
Yep. “Get lost on the subway?”
Steve’s lips drew in as he concentrated on punching the buttons on his phone. It took him a while, and he still had to make what Tony called his “goofy concentration face,” but he eventually answered, “Not yet. On my way home now.”
An inhumanly short amount of time passed before Tony’s reply. “Cool. Good to get out of the house?”
Steve lowered the phone for a moment. Tony didn’t mean anything by it besides its face value, but the more Steve thought about it, the more grateful he was to be where he was, even if he still sometimes felt…well, like a time-travelling transplant. But if he hadn’t left home the first time, he wouldn’t have this home now, wouldn’t have met Tony and the other Avengers (well, he might have, but in a completely different capacity, as he would have been over ninety years olds by then, serum or no serum), wouldn’t have done anything after taking down the Red Skull. He was getting to do what many heroes only had the chance to do once: saving, protecting, and avenging the world over and over and over again.
“Yeah,” Steve texted back, “but it’s good to be coming home, too.”