The morning air stung at his lungs, his breath coming in short bursts of fog. It was not yet daylight, and in the dusky dawn of a Manhattan morning, the city did not seem as alien as it once had. The mist and shadows hid the sheen of the newer buildings, and as he ran, he could hear the familiar sounds of people stirring, curses and mutters as shopkeepers and workers prepared for their day.
He quickened his pace, his breathing slow and steady, as he left the shiny upper-middle class morality of the buildings surrounding Avengers Tower, and found himself submerged in the sights and smells of the working class.
This was his city. These were his people. Throughout time, it seems, some things do not change-- there has always been, will always be, and immigrant and poor population that rises early to prepare the city for its owners. All that's changed in the time he was--away-- is the smell of the food in the air, the language of the inhabitants: no longer the mix of Irish and Eastern European accents, the shouts and cries mixing with the sounds of the previous nights revellers attending early morning Mass so they could return home and collapse with a clear conscience. In its place are snatches of languages Steve does not understand-- though that is not much different to the old days-- and women and men in dress he is not familiar with. Women in headscarves and men in turbans, as though they had stepped off the battered pages of the geography primer he had devoured as a child, memorising the tales of far-off lands and strange gods. The psychologists at SHIELD tasked with reintroducing him to the modern world had been very insistent about them, about the way he should treat-- what had they called them? 'Visible minorities'-- as though the instant he stepped out on his own he would recoil in horror, or, worse, act violently.
They had forgotten, Steve assumed, that he had been one of them himself. Well, not like that- Steve didn't pretend to understand the circumstances facing people like that, especially today, when it is so much easier for people to act on their hate- but he does remember waht it is to be an outsider. Steve had been poor, and sick, and Catholic, and the child of two Irish immigrants at a time when businesses were free to post on their doors that 'No Irish need apply'. He remembered the neighbourhood wars, the fights between Protestant and Catholic, between Italian and Irish, between Polish and Russian-- even if he was that sort of man, Steve was far too intimately acquainted with being spat on to ever do it himself.
He ran faster, eyes closing tight against the sweat and the sights and the ghosts of yesteryear that remained, even after all this time- he had been awake for months, now, and still he sometimes needed to remind himself, when faced with the scarred and pockmarks cityscape that was slowly recovering from the Chitauri attack, that this was not 1942. This was not London, during the Blitz. This was not Warsaw, after Hitler's armies and the Allied bombs had turned centuries of history to rubble and screaming children.
This was New York City. It was the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twelve. He was 24 years old, give or take seventy years.
He was, against all odds, alive.
He heard, in the distance, bells ring, and he sighed and quickened his pace.
His name was Steve Rogers, and he was about to be late for Mass.
The differences in the Church had bothered him most of all. Steve may be unsure of this new word, but he is rarely wrongfooted, or hadn't been until he stood in Church, the Priest facing his parishioners- and he wasn't sure he would ever get used to that- ready to recite the Ave Maria, and was instead greeted in English. Time was, Steve was an altar boy. Time was, Steve could recite the whole mass in Latin. He had been rattled, had left the service, and returned home to ask Jarvis everything he could about the changes to the Mother Church.
Now, he knew the ropes. He recited the Apostle's Creed without difficulty, rose for Communion and bowed his head to the Host before taking it. Soon, Mass was over, and with the final blessing and prayer, Steve rose and headed for the door.
It wasn't the same. It wasn't, and why should it be? Since that first day, Steve had been determined not to let it bother him, but today-- he hadn't slept, his nights plagued with memories and contrasts and regrets that should not matter but somehow did.
Some of the things that plagued his dreams were not memories but wishes, and those scared him all the more. Whatever else may have changed in the last few decades, he doubted the Bible was included.
As Steve filed out the door, he felt a grasp on his shoulder.
Steve turned, forcing a smile has he saw who it was. "Yes, Mrs McDonnely?"
The older woman smiled back, her eyes crinkling at the edges. "I just wanted to give you this," she said quietly, pressing a piece of bright yellow paper into his hand.
Steve glanced at it.
COMING HOME THROUGH CHRIST, the paper proclaimed, WEDNESDAY AFTERNOONS, 3:30 - 5:30. CARERS AND SUPPORTERS WELCOME.
"What is it?" Steve asked. Mrs McDonnely smiled.
"It's a veteran's group, dear. This new priest was a chaplain overseas, you know- he's quite keen on it."
Steve felt his hand tighten around the paper, tearing it slightly. "Thanks, Mrs McDonnely," he said politely. "But I'm fine. I appreciate the thought, though."
She nods, but looks concerned. "Where are you off to this morning, then?"
"Work." Steve says shortly.
"At the construction site?"
"I heard on the news that Captain America sometimes stops by to help out. Have you ever met him?"
Steve shook his head. "No, ma'am."
"I suppose he doesn't, not really, probably just something the papers put out to make them look good. Typical, if you ask me, these superheroes, setting themselves up as our saviours, but who's left to clean it up, hmm?"
After a moment, it become clear that she is waiting for a response.
"I don't know, ma'am," Steve says neutrally.
"Well, it's us, isn't it? Good, working people. They make the messes, and then we fix them. I can't tell you how many we've had through our counselling program since the attacks began--"
"--I'm sorry, Mrs McDonnely," Steve says urgently. "But I really must go."
As soon as he turned the corner, he began to run.
The summer sun was blisteringly hot, and sweat ran down Steve's back as he shifted rubble and cracked cement. It had been two months since the Chitauri attack, and it seemed they were no closer than ever to repairing the broken city.
Grunting, Steve heaved a particularly large piece of foundation to the side, relishing the burn of lactic acid pooling around his thighs.
He bends down to do it again when he heard it. Small and plaintive, the cry drove him into action. He pulled at the rubble, first with the shovel and then with his hands, the cries growing louder with every haul. Finally, he reached the source. A small scrap of grey fur no bigger than his fist, with wide, piteous blue eyes. It was far too thin, its bones sticking out at odd angles, and one of its ears was swollen and heavy with infected tissue.
It was beautiful. Steve lifted it carefully, trying to brush the dust off its face as he did so. Suppressing a curse as it sunk needle-sharp claws into his calloused flesh, he pressed it to his chest.
It mewled sadly.
"Shh," he murmured, pressing his lips against the back of its neck. "It's alright now, you're safe. I'm gonna take care of you."