Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn, New York City
The cashier at the corner store got through handing the customer his change and a plastic bag containing his purchases; a newspaper, some orange juice and a box of pencils. As soon as he was done, he plopped himself back down on his chair and picked up the magazine that had occupied him all morning.
"You know that guy?" the man's nephew and the stock-boy on duty asked. The cashier shrugged.
"His name's Mike Keane or something'. Lives in that building 'cross the street."
"What's with him? Every time he comes here, I look in his eyes and it's like his dog just died."
"The hell are you looking at men's eyes for?"
Outside and across the street, the cutomer unlocked the front door to the Leaman apartment building and entered, heading for the elevator, which was luckily on the ground floor and with the doors open.
"Back from your run, Mr. Keane?" asked the man sitting at the reception desk, an elderly man who'd retired from the Fire Department ten years ago. It took the tenant a few seconds longer than it should have before he answered.
"Yeah. How are you doing, Stan?"
"Just fine, Sir. Hope you have a good day, now. Just tell me if you need anything."
As he got in and pressed the button for the seventh floor, he thought about how he really needed to get used to people addressing him as Michael Keane. When the doors closes and he felt that sensation in his stomach that said he was being propelled upward, he wondered why SHIELD didn't give him a cover identity that at least maintain his last name. Michael Rogers was certainly something he was far more likely to get used to.
He was born in that very neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, a few years short a century ago. He spent most of his life walking its street before joining the Army. There used to be a tenement four blocks away when he and Bucky lived for three years. It was a crummy place, suffering shoddy plumbing ad obnoxious neighbors, and it was now an art gallery. His current digs was a SHIELD safehouse, an ampletwo-room in a red brick Federal-style apartment building by the Promenade, offering an excellent view of the Manhattan skyline.
In less than a minute, he made his way into it, laid his plastic bag on the counter and turned on the stereo, allowing the music of Glenn Miller's Orchestra to fill the place before setting out to make breakfast.
The discovery of the Valkyrie bomber that had served as his icy tomb for decades was months ago. After that he'd spent considerable time in SHIELD's Headquarters, contemplating the turn his life had taken, learning about the ways in which the world changed through books and documentaries. He was prodded and tested, physically, mentally and intellectually, until six week ago when it was agreed upon that he was as ready to venture out into the world.
He wasn't completely on his own, though. Seeing as how he'd met his share of spies during the war, he knew they would still be watching him. There were also conditions; he had to check in with a SHIELD psychiatrist, Dr. Fenhoff, once a week. The news of his discovery hadn't been made public yet, so he was given a cover identity he had to maintain at all times, that of Michael Keane, a freelance illustrator from upstate.
He smirked wryly as he prepared the toast. He almost wasn't released from SHIELD custody. The headshrinkers recognized that he had issues, attributing them to residual combat stress and culture shock. He recalled being presented with a cell phone to test his receptiveness to the modern world, or asked about how he felt about the Director of SHIELD being a Black man.
During the war he and his crew spared the world the devastating effects of fantastic weapons few ever learned of, not before, and by far, not even since. He saw soldiers Black, Puerto Rican, Nisei and of every other ethnicity he could fathom fight valiantly and put their lives on the line to deny the enemy their victory. He saw the things that most people never will, and witnessed the unbearable cruelty man was capable of.
Reacting to a cell phone was only a matter of learning how to use it. Seeing two people of different races or similar genders show affection to each other in public didn't offend him. The president being Black didn't bother him. He didn't bemoan the ways in which the world had changed. Thought some things were unexpected and unfamiliar, he was a soldier; he could adapt and overcome. He had no designs on withdrawing from the world.
Only about thirty agents of SHIELD, a couple of Army Generals, a couple of cabinet members and the President of the United States knew he was up and around. He'd met the SHIELD liaison to the White House's, who informed him the President wanted to meet him at some point. The Army Generals talked to him about re-enlisting. Whichever way he chose, they promised him a hefty amount of money in back-pay as befitting an Airborne qualified Army Captain with all the deserved additional pay he'd incurred during his nearly seventy years in-ice. If he'd reenlist, he would receive a promotion to Major and a posting in the Infantry, Airborne or Special Forces unit of his choice.
He told them he'd think about it. The truth was he didn't know what he was going to do next. Though he accepted the world as it had become, he didn't know if he had a place in it. Before the mission to capture Arnim Zola, a while after the Bulge, with final victory almost within grasp, the Howlers began thinking of life after the war; Dernier and Dugan had families they would rejoin, Jones had an academic career put on hold, and he had a promise of a dance with a pretty girl. It was a dark time, they'd seen their share of war by then, but they had tomorrow waiting.
However, tomorrow was different for him. In the blink of an eye, his friends had full, long lives that ended, for the most part, happily. Peggy found love in the arms of his wartime second-in-command, Lord Falsworth, for which he was glad. He was left with nothing; Bucky was long gone, and he had no one to dance with.
He'd seen enough of war, he had no interest in fighting the wars of today, and he didn't think Captain America was what was needed to win them anyway. His only friend left in the world, Gabriel Jones, was an old man, much changed by the years.
He was adrift in the life with nothing to anchor him. A half-forgotten legend, believed by many to have been an elaborate hoax to raise morale on the frontlines in a time of war. He was SHIELD's kept man, offering them nothing in return as they looked after him, either in appreciation for his service or as a courtesy to Jones, who'd been a founding member of the agency.
He placed his breakfast on the table; toast, sausages and a glass of orange juice. He sat down and flipped through the newspaper as he ate, sighing when reading the sports section and being reminded that the Dodgers were no longer a New York team.
He wasn't in the habit of reading the obituaries, but he never could help being perceptive. While flipping the pages, he caught a familiar name, that of Mathew Hollick who died at ninety years old, and was a former High School principal from Queens and a World War II veteran survived by four daughters.
Steve remembered meeting Matt P. "Doc" Hollick in the woods somewhere in Austria after he and Bucky made it out of the burning factory. He was a Medic in How Company of the 107th Infantry and a friend of Bucky and Dugan, alongside whom he was caught prisoner during the Battle of Azzano and later freed during Steve's one-man raid. He remembered Hollick tending to the wounded before they began their march back to allied lines, cracking jokes at a mile a minute, bragging about the pin-up-like stunner of a wife he had back home, which he did not hesitate to back up with a photo of her that he carried, taking their wolfwhistles as complements. Once they were in England he was discharged and sent home. Over the remainder of the war he corresponded with Dugan, and told him of the child he had on the way he was going to name after their fallen Company First Sergeant.
Steve turned off the music and finished his breakfast with a diminished appetite. All these months, he could've caught up with him, and now he'll never know he was back. It was stupid, but it bothered him. Though Steve liked Doc Hollick, he didn't know him much of for long. He hadn't thought of him in a long time, even in the later part of the war. Had he remembered him since returning, he doubted he'd have felt compelled to visit him.
The funeral was on that afternoon, and Steve wondered if he should, or could drop by. He also thought about looking up any other surviving members of the 107th, the SSR, or any of the units he'd served with. It didn't take too much thinking to decide it wasn't such a good idea. Showing up at the funeral, he might cross paths with someone from the war who'd recognize him. Aside from breaking his cover, it could prove to be a life threatening shock. Jones was something else, he had seen things that made him develop a constitution for what others may deem shocking.
With his mind made, Steve occupied himself for the rest of the day. He did a little sketching, had lunch in Manhattan, went for a long walk in Central Park and saw Key Largo and In a Lonely Place screened at a small movie house. He had dinner, visited a bar and took a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was 1 a.m. when he walked through the door in a much better mood and all but forgotten about Hollick. He had a small glass of brandy before turning in.
He dreamt of the cries of terrified soldiers, dreamt of foxholes and mortars raining down in the Ardennes forest. He dreamt of Richard Roark.
Agent Cale looked out the window of his car in abject boredom at the front door to the Leaman apartment building.
"He still hasn't left. Call it in."
Agent Garret, who'd been sitting at the passenger side with his eyes closed, spoke into the mini-receiver attached to his lapel.
"This is Garret at Ten-Hundred Hours. Yankee-Doodle remains indoors."
"Hang in there, buddy." Said Garret, "We rotate back to HQ in one more week."
"Yeah. Just to get our next shit detail. Never would've thought watching a super-soldier would be so boring."
"What's he doing in there?"
"Discovering internet porn, I bet." Garret said, earning a slight chuckle. "Look, at least we're not tailing him all over town like yesterday. Get a book next time."
Steve sat on the edge of his couch, staring at the cellular phone on the coffee table. There was no music playing, there was no freshly prepared breakfast on the counter, and the day's paper was nowhere to be seen. He hadn't left the apartment all morning.
He wasn't bothered about missing out on reuniting Doc Hollick anymore. It was someone else now; someone he'd remembered in his dreams, whom he'd been thinking about since waking up at five in the morning; Pvt. Richard D. Roark of the 82nd Airborne Division. Unlike Hollick, he might've stood a chance at doing right by Roark. Then again it might've been too late. What he was sure of was that he couldn't reason himself out of trying something; not going through with what he had in mind wasn't an option, but how to do it was something he hadn't fully cracked yet.
He looked at the clock. It was two-thirty, and it would by the same in Philadelphia. He reached for the cell phone and dialed a number from memory, then anxiously waited for the other side to pick up.
"Hello?" answered a gravely voice on the other side.
"Gabe? It's Captain Rogers."
There was a brief pause before Jones answered,
"Captain. Yeah, this is a nice surprise."
"How are you holding up?"
"Fine, just fine. How are things in the old neighborhood?"
"Fine… It's different; cleaner, much less crime. Different kind of neighbors, too. Like I said; Fine. Listen, I had something I wanted to ask you."
"Sure. Go ahead."
"I know it's been a long time, but… After you learned that I was… Gone. What happened to my personal effects?"
"Personal effects? Let me see… Was there anything outside your footlocker?
"No. Just the footlocker."
"Yeah…" said Jones and paused, "I think Peggy got that."
"Since you didn't have any next of kin, Philips gave her the whole lot. He told her to do what she thought was right; keep them, spread them around, donate them to a museum … After VE-Day, she put the footlocker in front of us, that's me and the Howlers, and told us to take what we liked.
"There were your medals, a Luger, your photographs, a bunch of letters and a Luger. Did I already mention that? Sorry. I don't remember what else there was. It didn't feel right to take anything else. At the time we could tell she needed them a lot more than any of us."
Steve thought about what Jones said for a moment or two, before he said,
"Sure thing, Cap. Let me hear from you soon."
"You will. Goodbye."
Steve switched off the phone and placed it down and then jotted down a phone number on the edge of a sketch he'd worked on days before.
The plan was made.
Seattle , Washington
The director's office in the SHIELD's Seattle desk was cold, just the way the director liked it. Colonel Fury glared from where he sat behind the desk, with his jacket off and his sidearm on the table, at Agent Coulson, who stood before hum doing his best to hide his discomfort at the protracted silence following the news he'd just delivered.
"Captain Rogers… 'Disappeared'?" Fury reiterated calmly, "You're telling me we lost our nearly century old super-soldier? Despite all that cutting edge surveillance tech that eats up a decent chunk of my annual operations budget, a man who's only been living in the modern world a few months has managed to successfully evade our agents?"
"Yes, sir." Coulson replied, keeping his cool, "It was on his way to his weekly psychiatric session with Dr. Fenhoff. He walked into the building, and disappeared into an electronic blind spot. He ditched his clothes, keys, everything. Alex Peirce's team are placing a thorough retroactive surveillance cloud on the area., so we should pick up the trail soon."
"What leads do you have? Do we know why he's doing this now?"
"Not yet, but a couple of days ago he made a call to Professor Jones, inquiring about the contents of his footlocker from the war. Jones..."
"Yes. Jones said that it was in the possession of Margaret Falsworth. Presumably it now belongs to her daughter, Jacqueline."
Fury contemplated it all for a moment.
"Could he theoretically make it out of the country?"
"I highly doubt it. Not unless he steals a jet." Said Coulson, attempting levity to lighten the mood before realizing that the thought wasn't at all that out of the question if Rogers had managed to figure out modern surveilance, "But he won't have the chance. I'll make sure of that, Sir."
Fury didn't seem to be affected by his promises, and seemed to be in deep contemplation for a moment.
"We need to know what's so damn interesting about this footlocker."
"There's a quick way to do that…"
"…In fact, give her the assignment."
That stopped Coulson dead in his tracks. He'd worked close to the Colonel for twenty years, and had come to understand what the Colonel had in mind most of the time, but what he had just ordered struck him as out of the blue, particularly as it conflicted with earlier directives.
"Her?" Coulson asked, "Sir, I'm capable of handling this. Besides, she…"
"She's the best at retrieval. That is not a jab at you, Coulson." Fury said in a final manner, "Every minute he's out there he's liable to compromise some very sensitive elements; a situation we're not yet prepared to handle. Beside, you know your talents are required elsewhere. That will be all."
Cale and Garret were in Rogers' apartment, searching every inch of it alongside other agents, when a man walked through the door. He was of medium height, slim but well built. He wore a brown leather jacket over an untucked black shirt and carried a surly expression.
"I'm Agent Hawk." He said, "Is Agent Rushman here?"
"Yeah." Said Garret, "Over by the couch."
"Good. Are those two Rick-Stoners who let Rogers escape here too?"
"What?" said Cole, "We didn't let him escape! We were under orders to…"
"So those are you, then?" asked Hawk, "Pack your bags and report to Coulson, you're going to Latveria."
Hawk left the two to exchange a confused look as he went to the couch where Agent Rushman sat. She was in her late twenties, attractive, athletic and well-dressed. She had red hair and a milky complexion, and at present was inspecting a collection of pencil sketches that were sprawled over the coffee table.
"You knew who they were." She said without looking up, "Still pretended not to know them so you could call them Rickstoners. Bad day?"
"Bad decade, Red."
"Pseudonyms, Agent Hawk."
"Sorry." Said Hawk, "Did he do these?"
"Yes. I was hoping to find a diary…"
"Don't scoff. It's a not uncommon for a man of his era, an officer, to keep a diary. Particularly when he's got limited means of an emotional outlet. He doesn't keep a diary, though. He sketches instead."
Hawk angled for a better view of the sketches. They were impeccably, and some depicted scenes from the war, while others from the present. There wasn't a unifying theme, except for a lack of distinguishable human figures in each.
"He was feeling isolated." Said Rushman, "Not desperate, but… Looking for something."
Hawk pulled out a smartphone out of his pocket and tapped the screen a few times before handing it to Rushman. She watched the screen as it displayed several individual clips of Rogers walking in the streets.
"Alex Pierce sent it. It looks like he found a change of clothes, made his way to the roof, then jumped from one building to the next like a Hong Kong assassin. He then got back on the street and made it to nearby subway station."
"When can we see where he got off?" she asked as she handed Hawk's phone back.
"Could be a while. I think the trail stops here; there's no telling how long Rogers waited before getting off. For all we know he jumped out in the tunnels. He could be anywhere."
"And retroactive surveillance gets harder to sort through as time goes on."
"I wonder if he knew that." Hawks said, "Gotta hand it to him; our boy's got it."
"We're done here, ma'am." Said a female Agent, "It's clean. Absolutely nothing of interest."
"Hard drive?" asked Rushaman as she collected the sketches and placed them into an envelope.
"Already in the lab."
"Search again. Dismiss all but three agents who stay here at all times; no one comes in, nothing gets out."
"So it's down to the footlocker. Did you hear from…?" Hawk asked.
"Not yet." Said Rushman as she headed for the door with her partner following.
"We should lean on the Professor."
"No one leans on Gabriel Jones. He's a SHIELD founder, for god's sake."
"We were ordered to use pseudonyms. That usually means they want to make sure the job gets done."
"Well, I actually spoke to Coulson about that;" Said Rushman, getting into the elevator and pressing the button for the lobby, "And I was informed that with Jones, anything beyond asking very politely would be under much scrutiny. The locker is what's truly interesting, though. What could possibly be in it?"
"Something Captain Rogers wants to keep to himself. He could ask for anything and the Colonel would oblige. He could've easily asked for it two days ago and it'd be here by now, but SHIELD would've known about it."
"Skeletons in the proverbial closet?"
"I didn't say that. But maybe."
"I thought you idolized him."
"I did. I do. I don't usually buy into the 'Oorah' of it all, but the man's a legend. A hero. I only met him once, and that was months ago, but even I; an Army disliking sailor, can tell he's the real McCoy. Still, you never really know. Did you meet him?"
"I will soon."
"Right. Anyway, maybe it's nothing to do with the footlocker. You said he was looking for something. Maybe he's out there looking for it. Maybe he's walking the earth, rediscovering America, like Caine or Peter Fonda."
"Easy Rider." Hawk answered, then after getting further quizzical looks, he followed with,
"A classic. With Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda. Fonda plays a freewheeling pot dealer called, amusingly enough, Captain America."
"Someone made a movie with a drug dealer called Captain America?"
"It was a sixties classic."
Philadelphia , Pennsylvania
Noreen Gray opened the front to be met with a man in a brown jacket.
"Good morning, ma'am." The man said, "Does a Gabriel Jones live here?"
"I'm sorry. Who are you?" she asked.
"Detective Bill Moreland, PPD Cold Case unit." Said the visitor, raising a police badge, "Does a Gabriel Jones live here, ma'am?"
"Yes." Norren answered, her initial apprehension wavering, "I'm his live-in Nurse."
"I'm investigating a robbery-homicide that happened on this street thirteen years ago. I had a few questions for Mr. Jones, if that's alright."
Gabriel Jones had had a light breakfast in his study and was going over a half-complete manuscript he'd worked on a year ago and only remembered the night before, when Noreen walked in to inform him of the policeman that had came calling. He asked her to let him in and then to pour him a cup of green tea.
As soon as the man entered, Jones recognized that he wasn't a policeman at all. He'd recruited and trained generations of SHIELD agents, enough to recognize one by their body language. He shook hands with the so-called detective while sitting down, as he wasn't feeling in the best of shape that day, and invited him to have a seat.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like a cup of coffee?" Jones asked as Noreen departed, having just delivered Jones' tea.
"No, thank you, Sir."
"Alright then, what's your real name?"
"You can call me Agent Hawk." Answered the man without hesitation.
"And what is the nature of your assignment, Agent Hawk?"
"Locating Captain Steve Rogers. He disappeared yesterday."
"Disappeared?" asked Jones in surprised concern.
"More escaped, really."
"Escaped? I wasn't aware he was a prisoner."
"He's not. Of course he's not. He just upped and left without informing his handler."
Jones stared at Agent Hawk for a moment, somewhat incredulous.
"Was he under duress?"
"No. He left on his own."
"Well, it sounds to me like he should be free to do go wherever he wants."
"He is allowed to go wherever he wants, just not alone."
"That's hardly free."
Hawk recognized how unpleasant the conversation was going to be, but seeing as how being on anything but his best behavior was very risky, he kept calm and replied to Jones' soft-spoken outrage.
"Those are the terms of arrangement he had with SHIELD."
"The purpose of those terms being…?"
"As far as the world knows, Captain Rogers went missing over the Atlantic in March of 1945. If it got out that he was up and around, many bad people would be very interested in capturing him. Imagine the symbolic impact a terrorist group could inflict through Captain America."
"So is Fury planning to keep him under thumb and in hiding forever?"
"That's well above my pay grade, sir."
"Well, why bother letting him out in the first place, then? Would've been a lot less effort if Fury just kept him in a cell, now, wouldn't it?"
Hawk stared at Jones blankly, then adjusted the way he sat, stretched his legs, gave a shrug and said,
"You're right. It would be much less effort if the Colonel kept him inside HQ, or in a bunker somewhere in Oklahoma, but the Captain deserves better.
"Not a lot of people would recognize a picture of Steve Rogers, the war hero. If any of those that could did see the Captain out on the street, they're more likely to think 'Oh look, that guy's a dead ringer for Captain America' than they are to think 'Captain America lives again'. But I don't have to tell you, as I'm sure you wrote the book, that 'Probably' is a four letter word in our line of work. So our boys have been watching over him ever since. And shit. When it comes down to it, you're right. He deserves better than living undercover with spooks watching him all the time, but for the time being it's the best we got.
"Now, sir, I really did have a few questions."
Jones was silent for a few second as he smiled and sized up the man sitting before him.
"I'll tell you what, Agent Hawk, you can ask away, provided I get a few questions in myself."
"That's not the way it works." Hawk tried to smile pleasantly.
"You're here on your own." Said Jones, "Colonel Fury hasn't approved you questioning a former member of the executive board of SHIELD, 'cause he'd have given me the courtesy of calling ahead. In some way I admire that you're willing to bend the rules to get a result, but Fury won't admire it, not when it is his rules that are getting bent."
Hawk resisted the urge to grimace. The old man had him by the balls. Whatever he got next was only what Jones wanted to provide.
"It is always nice to meet a fellow 'circus performer' of the new breed. Please, indulge me. You can begin, now."
Hawk set aside his own feelings at the moment, and began, asking,
"Captain Rogers regularly visited you. Correct?"
"Yes, about once every other week."
"What do you two do?"
"We have lunch. When I'm feeling up to it we walk over to St. Francis church and back. The nurse, Noreen, thinks he's interviewing me for a book, so we do a lot of talking."
"This and that. Sometimes we tell each other war stories. Or I tell him stories of the cold war and the early days of SHIELD; nothing classified, you needn't worry. He talks about normal stuff he does; books he's read, movies he's seen."
"Was he at all disgruntled? Did he feel he was… Restricted in any way?"
"I didn't get that impression. No."
"How was he adjusting?"
"You should have a better idea than I, Agent."
"Well I talked to his psychiatrist, but I'm more interested in his only friend's opinion."
"He was alright, I think. First time I saw him months ago, he was absolutely miserable, but he put on a brave face…. Typical Steve. He's gotten better since. I'd say he's doing his best. He was moving forward."
"We were tapping Rogers' phone." Hawk said matter-of-factly, "We know you spoke to him three days ago, and that he asked you about his footlocker from the war."
"Yes, that's correct."
"Do you remember anything about what was in it, aside from the items you mentioned at the time of the call?"
"It was the kinds of things every soldier had in his footlocker; medals, letters and souvenirs. It's been a long time."
"What did Rogers want with them?"
"Maybe he was feeling sentimental. I honestly have no clue."
Hawk was getting nothing, and he suspected the old man was being less than forthcoming. The fact that he could do nothing about it made him restless.
"Alright, that's all I have, sir."
"I hope I was of help to you, Agent."
Hawk stared at Jones as he got up, trying to discern if he was gloating or not.
"Yeah, well…Thank you."
"What are your suspicions so far?"
"None." Answered Hawks, who wasn't interested in being forthcoming when Jones wasn't.
"I suspect that whatever the reason he's in the wind is something that happened sometime between last Monday and the Monday before that. You and the shrink have said he was doing alright, mostly, and I don't think the shrink would steer me wrong."
Jones raised an eyebrow and the veiled remark at the end.
"Beyond that, I've got nothing. Have a nice day, Professor."
"Have a seat, Agent Hawk."
"Why, are you going to tell me something that'll get me closer to Rogers?"
"Not in the way you want."
"Indulge an old man who doesn't get many visitors. Please. Have a seat."
Against his better judgment, Hawk sat down again. Jones interlocked his fingers in his lap and eyes the SHIELD agent on the hunt for his best friend.
"How did you go about joining SHIELD?"
"I used to be a Navy Corpsman with the Marines. I served in Kosovo, where circumstances led me to a discharge. I applied to join NCIS but I was rejected. SHIELD came across my profile and recruited me."
"Have you met Captain Rogers before?"
"I have. Once. He was still confined to NYHQ. We met on the gun range and got to talking."
"And what was your impression of him?"
"I was definitely impressed."
"What was it that impressed you?"
Hawk shrugged, thinking about the best way to put it. He said,
"The man went through a lot, but shaking hands with him, I wouldn't know it. I mean he wasn't much of a talker, but the man had, I don't know… Poise. I don't see that too often. My father was the same way."
Jones nodded again, seeming in deep contemplation.
"I first read about Captain America in Star & Stripes, just when I arrived at the front in the middle of 1943. I thought it was a joke, we all did. We sat through those awful movies he made, listened to how he was going to lead the charge on Berlin. Hated the guy's gut. Then he broke me and 400 other guys out of a POW base, and his reputation with troops turned right around. He became the legend, the icon.
"Now the thing with being a legend is that the image gets so inflated that it becomes gaudy, a non-reflection of the genuine article. A lot of guys looked up to Cap; they saw him as a fearless man, who knew the US of A was the best country in the world, always in the right and was ready to dish out punishment on whoever stood against it, but there were others who didn't see the country, and thus Cap, the same way.
"As the years went on, notions of patriotism changed, and so did the image of Captain America change. A lot of people like the legend, including the brass, so that might've been the reason, but few people truly knew or understood Captain America. He wasn't fearless or stupid. He knew he could've got himself killed any minute of any day, and dreaded that happening. He didn't want to die, but he did the things he did because they needed to be done.
"He believed in the country at its core, in the bill of rights and the constitution. Captain Rogers was an idealist, his idealism not borne out of any sheltered existence, but he was an idealist in spite of the harsh realities of life. He grew up a poor, insignificant orphan in Brooklyn, he knew the world was a hard place and he did his best with what he got out of it. He wasn't naïve, or deluded, he was…. A good man.
"You think about that, Agent."
Hawk was silent for a short period of time. He wasn't sure what to make of the unexpected biography; it left him confused, yet somehow interested.
"Sir," he said, clearing his throat as Jones sipped his now cold tea, "I mean absolutely no disrespect, but I don't see how that helps me."
"Why are you telling me this?" Hawk asked.
"Tens of thousands of allied troops saw Captain Rogers in action, a total of a few hundred served under him at different points, but the ones who truly knew him, who understood him the best, were the Howling Commandos. We were with him all the way from November of '43 to March of '45. We didn't see the icon, we saw the man. We understood him like no one else… He was our brother.
"Aside from Cap himself, I'm the last of the Howling Commando, and I'm Ninety-Four years old. While I quite like living, I know I probably won't be doing it for a long time still. You, the new breed at SHIELD, you have to live with the man among you. The quicker you know what he's about, the better.
"Good luck finding Captain Rogers, Agent Hawk."
The interview was over, a fact Hawk only realized when Jones picked up his manuscript and began leafing through it. Hawk rolled his eyes and got up, then wordlessly let himself out.
Rogers thought back to that mission into occupied France. The Howling Commandos had destroyed their third Hydra base and were biding their time to move on to the fourth when they received orders to conduct a mission behind enemy lines, to rendezvous with and escort a defector to allied territory. The plan was solid, and formulated in part by Rogers himself; they would drop twenty miles outside Paris via prototype stealth jet developed by Stark Industries, then two men would make contact and act as bodyguards while the rest ran a landing zone for a light aircraft that would serve as their means of extraction.
They say no plan survives enemy contact, but in that case it didn't even go that far, as their stealth jet was not ready, so they had to use a regular troop carrier. A third of the way to the drop point, their stick was hit by Anti-Aircraft fire, injuring most of the men and rendering the aircraft unable to continue to the drop point.
The mission objective was vital, and their time window was closing, so Rogers ordered to pilot to turn around as soon as he, and the only other man in shape to jump, Dernier, were under deployed canopies.
What followed after they reached the ground were days of skullduggery as Rogers and Dernier did whatever it took to make it to their rendezvous; hiked, hitchhiked and at one point cycled. They stowed on trains and rode inside them while impersonating German and Vichy French Army officers.
It was overall not the type of heroism the allied nations expected from Captain America, but the experience had informed decisions and plans he made in the remainder of the war. It had also informed his present exodus from New York City. He'd spent part of the day he called Gabe researching and devising the route he'd travel. Near constant driving given average conditions would mean forty-five to fifty-five hours across the country. A train would be faster, but that carried the risk of discovery. Buses were a mixed affair. With any luck he'd make the trip to his destination in a little over a day.
He was in a bus driving on Interstate 80. He looked out the window at wind turbines and the vast Iowa cornfield stretching into the distance.
These days, he thought, kids went backpacking in Europe, went away for college, accepted jobs out of state and moved away from their homes. In his time most people spent their whole lives in their hometowns, sometimes not even venturing outside their neighborhoods. He'd never been three miles outside New York until he was trying to join the Army when he went from city to city trying to find a sympathetic recruiter.
In the USO, he traveled the country from coast to coast, but never did get to see much of it, just concert venues and event halls. Eventually, he was sent overseas. Before waking up months ago, the last he'd seen of the country was New Jersey in late October of 1943
For being called Captain America, Rogers realized, he hadn't seen as much of it as he wanted. He made a promise to change that, to take his time and see it all. He'd talk to the people and live among them should he feel inclined. Some day, perhaps on the return trip, but not now. Right now he only wished he was making good enough time, that he'd make it to his destination, learn of the things he needed to know, finds that which he needed to find and fulfill a duty that'd gone unfulfilled for too long.
The seatbelt sign switched off as the jet departed McGuire AFB. The team of a dozen agents aboard, lead by Rushman and Hawk, unbuckled and began to discus whatever leads they had and following up on them through contact with field offices across the nation.
As Rushman talked on the phone to the Falsworth family butler, Hawk sat in a seat opposite to her and conversed with the Nebraska State Patrol. The day before there'd been an incident at a truck stop, a potential hate crime against a family of Algerian descent averted through the interference of a man matching Rogers' description.
Normally they'd operate more overtly, send out BOLOs and enlist the aid of the Feds, but since Fury wanted to minimize the possibility of anyone outside SHIELD finding out about the Captain, they were down to chasing down leads like that, quite many of which were flimsy.
Hawk asked as he hung up the phone, moments after Rushman had done the same,
"How'd it go?"
"I spoke to Mr. Chapman. He went through the entire Falsworth estate. He had the house waiting staff search every room, even went over the charity donations over the years… Nothing, no footlocker."
Hawk rubbed the back of his head.
"Was he thorough?"
"He assured me that he was very thorough."
"Alright, then. No footlocker." Said Hawk, lowering his hands, "We find him some other way. We've got the travel routes he'd been looking at from his hard drive, we know he was in Nebraska. We'll find him soon enough."
"I hope so, or we're going to be outclassed by someone who hasn't mastered the use of FaceBook."
Hawk picked up a file and began to leaf through it.
"He's an old school guy, that's exactly why he's gotten so far."
"Yeah. Me, you, these guys, the guys we're usually after; all accustomed to the cyber-age, wouldn't be in our element outside it. He's not used to it, so he's operating on a different level."
"Old school?" she asked again, as if she hadn't heard a thing he said.
"…Yeah." Said Hawk, confused at her not understanding the phrase, "Old school. Idiomatic, of the ways or styles of bygone times."
Rushman continued to look at him quizzically, until he noticed she was actually looking at nothing in his direction. He shook his head and turned his attention to the file in his hand. He read through it for a few minutes then looked back up. She was now looking at him in a way he'd seen before, indicating she'd thought of something and wasn't sure if it was worth pursuing. Normally with her, it was worth pursuing, so Hawk asked,
"What's on your mind?"
"You fought in Kosovo, right?"
"When you ring up your old war pals, do you introduce yourself as … What was your rank?"
"Corpsman 3rd Class. And I don't."
"What are you talking about?"
She leaned forward in her seat, Hawks' answer having emboldened her.
"The phone call between Jones and Rogers. Rogers introduced himself as Captain Rogers. Doesn't sound like something old friend would do, does it?"
"Maybe if you're an officer it does. Or a slip of the tongue. It happens."
"Alright, what would you say about the Professor's mental state? Is he still sharp?"
"Oh yeah. Sharp like a mother-"
"Yet he mentioned a luger being one of the contents of Rogers' footlocker, twice. He even noted his mistake."
"He's still old, he must have his bad moments."
"I'm not so sure about that." She said, "He caught himself a little too quickly. It sounded more like it was more for the benefit of whoever was listening. And another thing, does Captain America strike you as the kind of person who'd keep war souvenirs?"
"Man liked hurting Nazis. I don't know."
Hawk's interest was piqued, he produced his smartphone which carried a partially redacted recording of the discussed phone call. After putting on his headphones, he listened the conversation.
"…There were your medals, a Luger, your photographs, a bunch of letters and a Luger. Did I already mention that? Sorry… Did I already mention that? Sorry… Did I already mention that? Sorry…"
He listened to that last fragment of the conversation a few times. Just like Rushman said, there was something to the way he talked. Something in his tone, or perhaps something missing in his tone. Perhaps the mention of the luger twice was deliberate.
"Alright." He said, taking off the headphones, "You're thinking that Jones and Rogers were talking abut something aside from Rogers' stuff from the war, like some kind of subtext. Right?"
"Precisely." Rushman said. Their subordinates, by that point, have stopped their internal conversations, shifting their attention toward her ever word.
"You mentioned the Captain being 'Old School', perhaps he was communicating something through a code both he and the Professor are familiar with. He introduced himself as 'Captain Rogers' to signify that he doesn't want to receive sensitive information overtly on the phone. Whatever comes next must hold a different meaning. The footlocker provides a pretext for the coded-message to be delivered and also serves as a misdirection. Who know, there might not even be a footlocker."
Hawk thought about it, which he didn't have to do for long.
"Alright. It's be worth a shot." He said, before turning his attention to the rest of the cabin, "Boys, you've heard Agent's Rushman's theory. Who knows how to follow this up?"
Pairs of agents began to discus the matter. As Hawk was looking for one of them to deliver, a young, female, blonde haired agent spoke up.
"I'm not a boy, but Jeff Hurst at the academy knows more about the SSR operations than anyone else. He might know about any code system the Howling Commandos used."
Rushman got on the phone, while Hawk addressed the female agent, and the rest of the team.
"Thank you, Agent Morse. The rest of you, continue following your leads. Steve Rogers has been in the wind for over sixty hours. It's past time we got him home."
Portland , Oregon
He'd made it. Almost the entire way across the country. He was there, walking down a street in the Alameda district. From his perspective it was less than a year ago, though in reality it was closer to seventy, that he learned the address he'd arrive at momentarily. He still wasn't sure what he'd do once he got there, and figured he's play it by ear once he got there.
As soon as he arrived, and he knew it was the place, he realized something wasn't right. The house looked modern, though imitating a past style. For minutes he lingered, trying to figure out his next move.
"Are you a Marine?"
Snapped out of his thoughts, Rogers found turned to see a a kid, no older than fourteen; vaguely Hispanic, smallish, with short curly black hair, and wearing a basketball T-shirt. He held a basketball in his hands and wore headphones in one ear, allowing the other to hang on his chest and blare with the sound of modern music, which genres Rogers hadn't really begun to explore yet; something loud and jumpy, crass by the standards he was used to yet vibrant.
"No." Rogers said, "I'm a soldier. Why?"
"Nothing." The kid said, "I'm thinking about joining them when I'm Eighteen. What's the Army like?"
"Well, there were a lot of good men in it. Do you live around here, Carl?"
"No." the kid said as he gestured toward the house next door, "My grandfather does."
"Do you know who lives here? The Roarks?"
"No, the Kincaids live there. I think they're gone on vacation."
The revelation brought something down inside him. "Thanks." He said dejectedly.
He was about to leave and head for the nearest bar. Maybe even call SHIELD and tell them where they could arrest him. He cast one last look at the kid, and noticed something about the way he moved the basketball in his arms.
"How'd you hurt your elbow?"
"Basketball try-outs." He said, something disheartened in his voice, "The other kids were kind of rough."
"Did you get in?"
"No. The coach said I didn't have what it takes."
Steve nodded at the familiarity of the situation.
"What are you listening to?"
"Gnarls Barkley. Do you listen to them?"
"Can't say I do. I'm mostly into older stuff."
Just then, the kid noticed a car turning the corner, heading in their direction.
"That's my granddad. I should go inside. Homework to do."
Rogers gave him a nod as the car pulled into the drive way.
"Hey kid." Rogers called after him.
"People will always tell you don't have what it takes, for whatever it is. Don't listen to them."
The kid looked at him for a moment blankly before retreating into the house as his grandfather got out of the car. The grandfather was a man of his sixties, white, gray haired, bespectacled and fattish. He turned his attention to Rogers in suspicious protectiveness.
"Good afternoon, sir." Said Rogers.
"Hi" He said, "Can I help you with something, Mr….?"
"Tom Bowering." Said the man as she shook Rogers's hand cautiously.
"I was hoping to find the previous occupants of this house."
"You mean the Rileys?"
"The Roarks, actually."
The man didn't react for a moment, and his expression remained unchanged, as if he had heard nothing.
"The Roarks?" he repeated, "Lord… The Roarks never lived in that house. They lived in the one before it, back in the sixties."
"You knew them, then?" asked Rogers, feeling hope being rekindled inside him.
"Yeah. I knew them. I grew up right next door, went to highschool with Joey Roark, too."
"What happened to them?"
"They sold the house at the end of the sixties to another family and moved to California. A couple of years later it burned down, the family sold the land to the Kirkpatricks, they built that house right there. It was sold off a few times over the years. The Kincaids live there now.
"What do you want with the Roarks anyway, Mr. Palmer?"
Rogers answered Bowering's question with a story he'd prepared. It took a little more talking to find out he was still in Christmas card contact with Joe Roark, and little more talking to convince him to provide the mailing address.
Bowering bade 'Palmer' farewell soon after, and wished him luck. As he joined his grandson inside the house, he thought about how, while initially suspicious, the visitor had one of those faces you could trust, that were oddly very familiar.
Los Angeles , California
Throughout the past three days, Rogers had been wondering how close were SHIELD to catching up to him. He knew they were after him, they had to be. Somewhere along the way, someone was bound to get smart, or he was bound to be stupid. He estimated his time, and luck, were running out.
And he was right, for as he was stepping off the bus onto a busy depot in downtown Los Angeles, Jeff Hurt, a counter-intelligence tactics instructor at the SHIELD Academy had been hard at work, putting his considerable expertise and knowledge of the Strategic Scientific Reserve and its methods and going over their recorded operations to reconstitute the code system devised during the war for use by the Howling Commandos and their collaborating operatives by Captain Rogers and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Falsworth.
As Rushman suspected, there was another meaning to the message, and the list of possessions in the fabled footlocker. 'Medal' was a code word standing for the number '2', 'Luger' was for '5', and so on. Words like 'Bunch' stood for repetitions of whatever coded digit that followed, in this case three.
The list of possessions stood for a seven digit number, and when combined with a three digit area code, it would make a phone number.
Phone number with area codes corresponding to the vicinity of Jones' residence and surrounding areas were looked up and examined. Attempts were made to recover recordings of phone calls made since the original phone call went out and people were questioned.
At the end, they found out that shortly after the call, Jones used his live-in nurse's cellphone to call an acquaintance in downtown Philadelphia, and asked his acquaintance to deliver a message to a Mr. Hauptmann who would call sometime later. From Jones' acquaintance, it came to light that there was in fact a footlocker, and it was in the possession of the person no one would think to question about it.
But the SHIELD team's learning of the exact subtext of the Rogers-Jones conversation, and their subsequent acting upon it, was yet to occur. At present, Steve had a little luck and little time left, so he walked the streets of the City of Angels for a few minutes. It was as an insane a town as he'd remembered from his USO days.
Eventually, coming across the odd payphone, he picked up the receiver, dropped the coin, dialed the number and waited for the other side to pick up.
"Mr. Stark? This is Steve Rogers … …"
In the movies that Tony Stark grew up watching, soldiers fighting in WWII were played by older, grizzled men like John Wayne or Lee Marvin. The man he shook hands with was a kid in his twenties, who wore jeans and a "retro" motorcycle jacket, who'd be more at home at an audition across town. Even compared to the scratchy black-and-white footage he'd seen of him, he looked very young.
They were in an office building, one of the many throughout town that belonged to Stark Industries, a company that had its start in the war, just like the Captain. Stark gestured for the couch. At first Rogers thought it was to have a seat, but then noticed a footlocker by the coffee table.
"This is it, right?" asked Stark.
It was made of thick plywood with a leathery brown finish and riveted metal linings along the edges. It had metal latches and a custom combination lock, and on the top lid, painted in blue was 'Cpt. Steven Grant Rogers' 'Strategic Scientific Reserve'.
Like Gabe said, Peggy had kept it after the war, but years later, when her heartache had grown dull and she found new joy with James Falsworth, she passed it on to Tony's father.
"It is." Said Rogers, fixated on the wooden box, "Did you open it?"
"I've never seen it before. I have a facility on my main site filled with nothing but my dad's old junk."
"Then I hope finding it wasn't too much trouble."
"It was nothing. I just had…"
Tony was about to explain that he'd had JARVIS scan the contents of the building to find the thing, but explaining what an AI is to a '40s high school graduate didn't s feel like something he'd like to bother doing.
"…Had a bunch of interns do it."
Stark watched as Rogers sat on the couch and wordlessly turned the dials on the lock until it clicked open. He lifted the lid, and the contents of the footlocker came to view.
One by one Rogers removed his personal effects and placed them on the coffee table, till he found his quarry at the bottom, a small envelope set aside from the bundles of correspondences he kept. He ran the envelope between his fingers, feeling the cheap, thin paper and making sure the ring was still in there. That was it, the reason he'd traveled across the country while shirking SHIELD's authority, finally in his hand.
"Thanks, Mr. Stark." Rogers said as he stuffed the envelope into his jacket pocket and began putting everything back into the footlocker.
"Is that what you're after?"
"What about the rest of it?"
"I don't know. I can't take it with me right now. Could you hang on to it for a little while longer?"
"Yeah. Sure. No problem."
Rogers replaced the lock and turned the dials around for a bit before getting up
"Well, it's been nice meeting you. Mr. Stark."
"What, you're leaving?" Stark asked, getting up from where he sat.
"I have some place I need to be."
"Come on. You haven't even had a cup of coffee."
"Some other time, maybe."
"Come on." Said Stark before pressing the intercom button and asking for a cappuccino for himself before looking back up.
"Sure." Said Steve, sitting down.
"How do you take your coffee?"
"Milk, two sugars."
"Really?" asked Stark, "You don't have to be shy."
Stark relayed the request for coffee and sat down nearby.
"Are you sure I can't talk you into trying an Espresso? It's a good drink, if prepared right."
"I've had Espresso."
"I doubt it, at least not like this you haven't. I just hired an award-winning barista. Where did you get that Espresso?"
"Ah. Well… So, you knew my father, huh?"
"Yes. He was a good man."
"I've been told. You know I'd heard all my life that he'd been part of the Manhattan Project. I never knew that before that he created… you."
"That's not exactly how it went. But sure, he did his bit."
"So, you were close, then?"
"I suppose I knew him well."
"So, what was the old man like?"
Rogers took a moment to think about the briefest, best words to describe such a figure as Howard Stark.
"He helped a lot of men survive so they could do their jobs and go home. He was a fine American."
Rogers expected mild gratitude, or a sense of the man feeling proud, but didn't quite expect the response he got.
"Well, I've been hearing about how awesome dad was since forever. I don't know, I guess I expected something a little more personal. I just want to know what was he like in his youth."
"Well, I wasn't lying."
"I don't doubt it. I suppose I want to know what kind of guy he was, rather than what kind of man he was. Do you get what I mean?"
Rogers stared at the younger Stark for a moment.
"You want to hear something … Unflattering? About your father?"
"I want to hear something genuine. I can take it. I promise."
Rogers paused again, thinking of something genuine about Howard Stark, something the history books wouldn't have bothered with.
"He liked to drink." Rogers said, instantly wondering if that's something Tony wanted to hear, "He wasn't a lush or anything, just always in the mood for a drink."
Stark didn't seem to be offended by that, so Rogers pressed on.
"And he liked to chase skirt. He hadn't met your mother at the time, of course. He coulda charmed the pants off of Eva Braun… He had kind of a devil-may-care attitude, which I admit I found came in handy on a couple of occasions. He was real cocky, too. More than a few times, he'd be talking to a bunch of non-scientists, soldiers usually, and unintentionally, possibly unintentionally, he'd start talking slow and in little words... And he loved fondue."
"Fondue?" Stark said, finding the last factoid somewhat random, "Like the German dish?"
"I think its Swiss, and he was crazy for the stuff. God knows why."
"Well, it's delicious." Stark said, "It's delicious."
"Absolutely. Didn't you have any?"
"Sure. It wasn't bad." Rogers said, "I mean it was just melted cheese and bread, and as far as that goes, it was good. But melted cheese and bread doesn't cut it."
"I'm just saying; give me a rib eye any day of the week."
"No no, I get where you're coming from."
Stark's office manager, an unlikely attractive Asian woman in a knee-length black dress walked in and delivered two cups of coffee. With a smile, she asked if anything else was required, and left when she was dismissed.
"I think you take a lot after your father, Mr. Stark."
Steve took a drink from his coffee, wondering for a second why Stark seemed to momentarily freeze.
"So, how's living in the big apple?" asked Stark, "Did SHIELD let you have your own place yet?"
"They gave me this place on the Brooklyn promenade. It's nice."
"I think I used to own a piece of property over there. Speaking of SHIELD, I'm kind of surprised you're here already. I only agreed to be Fury's consultant a short while. I'm surprised he's allowed this meeting to take place so soon."
Rogers knew the risk of paying someone like Tony Stark a visit, someone bound to be as connected to SHIELD like he was, the son of a founding member to boot. The fact that he was a recently hired consultant of Nick Fury was something he had only then learned, and the risk was now higher. However, he knew his Starks, and he guessed the Stark he was talking to would be in no hurry to report to Fury.
"Well, I insisted. Coulson wasn't keen on the idea, but he was very understanding."
"Is he really?" Stark asked with a smirk.
"Oh, sure. Hey, when you go check with him, I'd appreciate it if you would tell him that the ties were a pleasant surprise."
"Yeah, I'll get right on that." Answered Stark sarcasticly.
Rogers didn't like being dishonest, but he could lie if a lie was called for. With any luck, SHIELD would learn nothing from Stark for the rest of the day, long enough for him to wrap his affairs. The two made small talk for a couple more minutes, before Rogers stood up and extended his hand.
"Thanks for your help, Mr. Stark. And the coffee."
"Can't I convince you to have another?" Said Stark as he stood up.
"I really should be going. I have things to do, and I'm only in town for a short while."
"Didn't you just get here this morning? Stay a couple more days, take a look around. Do you like baseball? I can get you skybox tickets to a Dodgers game."
"Skybox tickets?" Rogers asked with a smirk and raised eyebrows, "You're too generous."
"It's nothing. I own the team."
"You… " Rogers started, bewildered, "You own… You bought the Dodgers?"
"Actually it was my dad that bought them. He had them move to LA, as a matter of fact. So, how about it?"
"Uh…" Rogers uttered, momentarily disliking the Starks with a world consuming fury, "No, thanks."
"Well, suit yourself." Said Stark as he shook Rogers' hand, "Enjoy your stay in LA. Hope to see you soon."
Steve stood in the empty showering room of the YMCA, starring into a mirror, holding up a safety razor. He'd been frozen in that posture for the better part of a minute.
It was the strangest thing. Pulling out those piece of his past and placing them on Stark's coffee table, he felt nothing at the time. They were pieces of metal, fabric and paper. He could hardly pay enough attention tell the significance of one from the next, he might as well have been pulling stuff out of a trash can. But now he remembered them all in vivid detail, as if they were in his hands, like some kind of delayed perception.
There were little boxes stamped with his name, each containing a Medal. Even without opening it he recognized the one with the scratch on the side, containing his second Distinguished Service Cross, awarded for extraordinary heroism during the Siege of Bastogne. Bucky got one of his own on the very same day.
There was a Bowler hat emblazoned with a Captain's silver bars, a birthday gift from Dugan when he'd turned twenty-six years old while the Battle of Normandy was raging.
There was a German rifle round with 'SG ROGERS' carved into it, which he made at Falsworth's suggestion, as per a tongue-in-cheek tradition in some units of the British Army he'd told him of. Every soldier has a bullet out there with his name on it, James told him, and if you already have the bullet, you're unlikely to shoot yourself with it.
There was a bundle of photographs of the Commandos standing by road markers or famous landmarks they'd narrowly avoided blowing up, or of liberty in London and Paris.
There was the straight razor and shaving kit that Peggy had sent to him when he was deployed. At the time he hadn't talked to her since that misunderstanding at the SSR with him and June Lorraine, and was convinced she wanted nothing to do with him. With the shaving kit was a message; 'We march with you. Complements of the SSR'. Though it was terse and coming on behalf of the SSR, it was in Peggy's handwriting, and it meant the world to him.
There were over a dozen souvenirs collected during his fifteen months of combat duty, and each triggered a memory, be they somber or fond. Something stirred in him, a longing to that time in his life. For a moment Steve would have given anything for it to be Nineteen Forty-Five again, but the moment passed. It wasn't the first such moment he'd had since leaving the ice, and he didn't think it would be the last.
In his hand was a plastic safety-razor, rather than a snakewood-handled straight razor. He put it all out of mind and he shaved. He got dressed and went back out onto the street. It was time to finish it.
Maggie Gallagher lay in her hospital bed. She'd made it to a hundred and one years of age, or her body did, and it showed. She was frail, brittle and tiny, hardly visible in her bed under the sheet that was as white as her skin and among those many machines that went into her. According to her chart, her last conscious moment was years ago.
Wearing Hospital scrubs, Rogers stood at the foot of her hospital bed. He'd never seen anyone like her in his life, someone reaching a hundred in the forties was pretty unheard of.
"Mrs. Gallagher…" he started, his voice raw. He knew she couldn't hear or see him. It was pointless, but he'd made that promise to Pvt. Roark, and he was going to live up on it.
"…I was your husband's CO in the war, during the battle of the Bulge..."
A door opened behind him.
"What the hell is this?"
Rogers turned around. A man stood in the doorway behind him. A tall, grizzled man of his eyes, built like he was in excellent shape in his prime, some of which he still retained. The glare in his eyes and the twitch of his lower lip indicated he was angry as hell, having heard what he perceived to be cruel disrespect at the expense of a decrepit old woman by an impudent young man who had no business being there. Despite his age, he seemed very prepared to dish out his fury, balling his fist and taking a steady step forward.
"Sir, I'm sorry." Rogers appologised, "I… It was wrong of me to… Look, I know you won't buy this, but I was…"
The man stopped, his expression softened, to be replaced with an expression of awe.
"Each one you buy…" mumbled the old man.
The old man seemed to be frozen, unable to get the word out. Utterly embarrassed, Rogers started toward the door.
"Each one you buy… Is a bullet…"
Rogers stopped dead in his tracks.
"…In your best guy's gun."
Slowly, Rogers turned around.
"Is it… Is it you?" asked the old man, his face an image of shock and wonder, "You're him? But…"
He suddenly seemed to strain. Rogers hurried to him, raising his arms to support him before his knees could buckle.
"I'm alright." Said the old man, "I just need to sit down."
"Just keep breathing." Rogers said, helping the old man into a chair. He checked his vitals, and once he felt he was stable, he went and closed the door.
A few minutes later
"Are you ageless?" the old man asked in wonder.
Rogers, who was sitting on the floor by Maggie's bed and with his back to the wall looked toward him, initially hesitant to answer.
"I don't know." He said, "Maybe, but I don't think so. Probably was the ice."
The old man was Maggie Gallagher's son, Bill Roark. Once upon a time, he'd also been the son of Pvt. Richard D. Roark of the 82nd Airborne Division. Nearly seventy years ago, in May of Forty-Three, Bill saw the Captain perform his USO show on a stage in Portland, an event he described as a bright memory in a bleak childhood.
"So, what you said was true?" Bill Roark asked, "You knew my father?"
"I knew your father. Yes." Said Rogers. He looked upon Bill's features intently, looking for signs of anguish to tell him when he should stop.
"At the start of the battle of the Bulge, his company took losses, including their CO, XO and First Sergeant. My unit folded with them until the battle was won… Except your father didn't live to see it. He was hit a week before the end. We tried, but there was no hope for him. Before he died, he called for me, he wanted to give me something."
There had been no anguish in Bill's grizzled visage, as if it was someone else's father he was learning about. Then again, as Rogers never stopped learning these past months, sixty-seven years was a very long time. He reached into his back pocket and produced the envelope he'd gotten out of his footlocker earlier that day, and handed it to Bill.
"He wanted your mother to have it."
Bill opened the envelope, and out slipped an antique golden wedding ring. He read the letter the envelope contained as Rogers let him have his quiet, and watched as mixed emotions flashed on his features, of which he recognized a few; grief, regret, and anger.
"Did you read this?" asked Bill, "How long did you hold onto this?"
"I kept it on me all the time after the Bulge. Your father wanted me to deliver it personally, but I never did get the chance. And I didn't read it."
"It's just some… Bunk about how he wanted to clean up his act; stop cheating on her, stop drinking, be a good dad." He said, his voice beginning to tremble, and then bitterly followed with, "A load of horseshit."
"It's not. He really was sorry."
"I was in Korea. I saw men die." Said Bill, the tremble gone, replaced by contained rage, "Everyone repents. I've even see men get within a hair of dying and survive, and too much of the time they don't change after all.
"I hated that man, I never really quit it. Years later, my mother found a good man that treated her the way she deserved to be treated. She forgave him the old bastard, but I didn't. I fought in Korea, I had three sons, ten grand kids and a great-granddaughter. I was a cop for forty years, busted a thousand guys like him. I don't think I care how many letter he wrote and what he wrote in 'em, he was a sonuvabitch."
Rogers could tell Bill meant every word. He wondered what it could've taken to hate one's own flesh and blood, and wondered about there being any chance of redeeming Pvt. Roark's memory.
"I never knew my father." Said Rogers, "He shipped out to fight in World War One before he knew my mother was pregnant with me. He got mustard gassed before I was even born. All I ever knew of him was a purple heart and a folded flag. I haven't thought about this for a long time.
"My mother told me he was this wonderful man, a war hero. She died when I was ten. I moved into an orphanage in Brooklyn… I saw a lot of other kids' fathers, and they were nothing like I thought my father was like. There was no one I could ask to know if he was like my mother said, or if she just wanted me to think of him in a good way. I don't know if he drank, or if he chased skirt… Or if he hit her.
"Yesterday I was talking to a guy, he didn't know a lot about his father either. Just his reputation. He wanted to know what kind of guy he was when no one was paying too much attention, as I gathered… I guess fathers, like all men, have the side they give to the world and the on they give the ones closest to them. Which's truer, god knows, maybe both…. I guess your problem is that you knew a little too much about your father, didn't you?
"Look, let me tell you what I thought of Private Richard D. Rorark… He wasn't Howling Commando material. He never volunteered for a job, he never asked to take point. He disrespected his platoon leader behind his back, talked back to his NCO, he bitched, he moaned, he didn't make being CO of How Company the funnest job in the world.
"But he was an American soldier. He was with us on the line every day. He didn't charge Hydra or the SS with guns blazing, but he didn't cower either. And Bill, he bought that ring long before he set foot in the Ardennes.
"I've seen men get hurt, I've seen men dig deep into themselves, latch onto something, live on for a few more minutes, long enough to take out the man that killed them, or to see that their death counted, but it wasn't like that… A mortar shell landed near him, I never saw a man hurt so bad and stay alive. He held himself together until his friends bought me to him, he was crying. He didn't want to die, no one ever does, but he really wanted your mother to get that letter."
Bill was silent for some time before he said, "Maybe you're here a little too late, but you'll forgive me if I don't feel like breaking down crying for my daddy back."
"You're forgiven." said Rogers as he stood up. "Are you going to be alright?"
"I'm fine." Said Bill as he hung his head.
Rogers headed for the door.
"It matters that you came here." Bill offered, "The letter, it matters… Thanks."
Rogers looked at Bill's softening features for a moment, then offering a faint smile and find nod, he said,
"Take care of yourself, Bill."
"What about you, are you alright?"
"I'm working on it."
As so Captain America left the room. Bill spent fifteen minutes, slouched in his chair, looking up at the ceiling, before he moved to a seat closer to his mother's bed.
"You're looking good, ma. You'll never believe what came in the mail for you…"
A few minutes later
Rogers walked out the hospital, out of the scrubs and back in his own clothes, and instantly found himself face to face with a man he vaguely remembered.
"Captain Rogers." Said the man, "Remember me?"
The man was well built, black, sported a trimmed beard and wore a brown jacket. He remembered meeting him once before, at the gun range in SHIELD headquarters in New York.
"Agent Hawk," Rogers said, "Or was it Winston?"
"It's Wilson. Sam Wilson. Hawk is my codename."
Rogers nodded. It didn't matter anymore. He did what he set out to do and would now face whatever consequences that entailed. It was a relief that Wilson wasn't acting very aggressive or enraged.
"Well, it took you long enough getting here, Wilson."
"Ha. What the hell did you think you were doing?"
"I made someone a promise."
"Yeah. You were visiting Private Roark's wife. We know."
Rogers looked around. He could make out five undercover SHIELD agents surrounding them, and there were probably even more that he couldn't make out, perhaps even a couple of snipers in the surrounding buildings. It was alright.
"I'm sorry. I realize I caused a bit of trouble. I won't put up a fight."
"Thank you." said Wilson magnanimously, "And it's not that simple."
Agent Morse came walking up, followed by a few other agents. She smiled curtly as she passed Rogers, before continuing into the hospital.
"Someone knows you're not MIA anymore. We can't have that."
Rogers stared Wilson down incredulously.
"You can't be serious."
"Look, they'll be fine; we just need to come to an understanding with them."
Rogers turned around and headed back for the door, gunning after Morse and the agents with her. He heard Wilson curse call after him, and then command someone to move in. Rogers did not falter, but then he heard someone else, a woman speaking with the British accent of an educated Londoner. He'd heard his share of British accents in the war, but this one was distinctly familiar. It said,
"It's all over. The word is out."
Rogers stopped and looked behind himself. A woman was speaking to Wilson. She was in her late twenties, auburn haired, fair skinned and had features he found highly attractive, and deeply familiar, but he knew that unlike Wilson, he'd never met her before.
"It's on the internet and soon to be on the news." Said the Englishwoman, "The Colonel's orders are to withdraw and meet him at Edward Air Force Base. I've already recalled Agent Morse"
She noticed that Rogers was walking back toward them, starring at her intently.
"Um… Hello." She said, finding the stare odd, "Captain Rogers, it's a pleasure to meet you."
"Hi." He said, a moment later than he should have.
"Captain Rogers, this is codename Rushman," said Hawk, "A-K-A Special Agent Sharon Carter."
Agent Morse passed Rogers on her way out again, saying nothing again.
"Well, the Colonel is waiting."
The black unmarked SHIELD sedan coasted through the streets of Los Angeles. Wilson drove, with Morse in the passenger seat, while Rogers and Carter sat in the back.
"I know this neighborhood." Said Rogers, looking out the window, "I got…."
He was on the verge of saying 'Pelted with eggs by a bunch of off-duty marines', but relented.
"Captain," said Carter, "May I ask you something?"
He instinctively turned his head to look at her, something he'd avoided doing for the past ten minutes, and the resemblance stung him as expected. At first glance Peggy and Sharon could have been confused for twins, differing only in subtle dissimilarities, chief among them was the cascading red hair.
"Go ahead." He said, looking out the window again to avoid looking at her.
"Why run all this way? You could've asked for arrangements to be made, got done with it sooner."
"I couldn't risk Fury saying no. I gave a man my word."
"I see. Is your word enough to jeopardize the safety of yourself and the efforts of others?"
"Being reasonable never was my strong suit. But yeah, I guess it matters that much to me. Time was I wasn't Captain Rogers. I was just another guy from Brooklyn; five-foot-five, eighty-eight pounds, out of a job and broke. My word was all I had worth giving. Rich or poor, black or white, a man's word is the only thing he can always give… If he lives up to it."
"A 'man'?" mumbled Morse. Wilson gave a look, and she shrugged it off with a roll of her eyes.
In the back, Carter looked away for a couple of seconds, enough to bury her unwanted smile.
On the tarmac on Edward Air Force Base, two private jets awaited. A man in sunglasses and a black business suit waited by the steps to one of the jets. Wilson disembarked to talk to the Agent, and returned moments later to open Rogers' door.
"Well, Sir, here's where we split ways." Wilson said as Rogers and the others got out, "We're flying to New York. Captain Rogers isn't. That's us. The other one's yours. Have a safe trip."
Rogers shook Wilson's hand.
"Sorry for the trouble, Wilson. When we're back in New York, I'd like to buy you a beer."
Wilson considered his quarry of the past few days before cracking a smirk and heartily shaking his hand, and saying,
"I'd love to."
After an uncomfortable farewell to the female agents, Rogers boarded his designated jet, soon finding that his only fellow passenger was none other than Colonel Fury, who remained taciturn until about ten minutes into being airborne.
"Is Fort Leavenworth nice this time of the year?" asked Rogers, getting sick of the silence and Fury's glares.
"It's lovely." Fury finally said, his voice emotionless, "We're not going there, though."
"Where are we going, then?"
"DC. President figured this was as good time as any to see you."
It was an unlikely surprise, and it showed on Rogers face as he asked, "Oh?"
"Yeah. It's probably best if you meet your commander in chief before you went on the Colbert Report. Did you like those USO shows? You're about to relive them."
"I need a drink." Said Fury, "Bourbon?"
"Sure." Said Rogers, relieved, but wary, at Fury's offer.
"Edwin. Two Bourbons." Called Fury. Rogers wondered who Edwin was, and if he had heard him.
"Aren't you going to ask me how CNN found out you're alive? What mistake you made?"
"Doesn't matter, does it?" Rogers said, as an agent entered the compartment holding a tray with two glasses of drink on it, "That was quick."
"Sure, it matters." Said Fury as he took a sip, "Aren't you going to ask me anything?"
Rogers looked down at the drink in his hand.
"During the war, I had… It wasn't really a thing, but whatever it was I had it with Peggy Carter of the SSR."
"I know." Said Fury, "I met her a couple of times. Extraordinary woman."
Rogers took a sip of his bourbon.
"Sam Wilson's partner...?"
"Sharon Carter. She's Harrison Carter's granddaughter."
"Right." Rogers said, distant memories of a conversation with Peggy about a sibling serving in the Navy coming back to him.
"If you knew about me and Peggy, why'd you send her after me?"
"I can understand why seeing her would upset you, but she's a damn good agent, and a relative of the Falsworths."
"Really?" Rogers asked with a smirk before taking a sip, "No tactical advantage in springing a familiar face to make sure you could snare me in?"
"Oh, I wouldn't do that."
It was a lie. One Fury wasn't too worried about being believed or not.
"For what it's worth, we had a portion of the recording of your and Jones' talk redacted. The team thought the Falsworths initially ended up with the footlocker because Lt. Falsworth was your second-in-command."
"You could have pulled her back when you had a definite bead on me, let Wilson and the others take me in."
"You know what they say about hindsight."
"Funny you should say that."
"Oh, why is that?"
"I might've been somewhere in Nebraska when it felt really strange you'd let me live on my own in New York, if you were so dead set on retaining my anonymity."
"Did it? You don't think we appreciate you enough to give you a modicum of freedom?"
"I figure you're the sure anonymity or compete freedom type, Colonel. It's kind of suspicious how news got out just as you pinpointed my location. That's why it doesn't matter how the news got out. I know you let it get out. "
Fury took a sip, while maintaining eye contact.
"People tend to think you're not as smart as you are, don't they?"
"What was the point?"
"I'll tell you." Fury said, setting down his glass and leaning forward, "I needed to know if we might as well left you in the ice. You've been moping around, shutting everyone out except the Professor for months. And that was alright. After what you've been through, you have every right to want to withdraw from the world. Except you do no one any kind of good that way.
"I needed to see if you still had the stones that once led you risk a court martial to break out four-hundred POWs by yourself."
"So maybe I do." Rogers said, "Now what?"
Fury took a dossier out of the outer packet at the side of his seat and handed it to Rogers.
"You served your country with distinction, now the world is calling upon you."
The Captain flipped through the dossier, taking in a few names and images.
"I don't get it. Who are these people supposed to be?"
"Howling Commandos for the modern era. It's time to talk about the Avenger Initiative."