Steve was used to being a symbol, being held up as shorthand for something larger than any one person could be. He was America. He was Freedom. He was Heroism. He was whatever the reigning ideology needed him to be, and, most of the time, he bore it with a patient smile and good grace.
Sometimes, every once in awhile, he used it to his advantage.
Political discussion in Avengers Tower was rare but impassioned. Most frequently heard were Tony’s lengthy diatribes expounding the idiocy of this or that war-mongering senator, short-sighted energy policy, or absurd cuts to education, and he usually stepped down from his soap box long enough to throw money at whatever the problem was. Bruce’s attempts to explain the American political system to Thor were surprisingly successful until the conversation turned to social conservatism, at which point Thor became enraged and Pepper had to talk him out of storming out and destroying the entire GOP with one swing of his hammer. Once, even, Steve spent three hours sitting with Clint and Natasha while they argued heatedly about fiscal policies and welfare spending.
For the most part, Steve kept his opinions to himself, and he was still getting up-to-date. Once upon a time, you could guess where a politician stood by the cut of their suit. These days, though, the lines in the sand had all shifted, and the suits all looked the same. Contrary to popular belief, he did know how to use the internet, so he read and listened and paid attention and silently kept track of how and by whom his name was invoked in the political arena.
When he agreed to appear at the Republican National Convention, the Avengers collectively stopped speaking to him.
That wasn’t strictly true. Some of them left him with a few choice words, first.
Tony yelled at him for a good twenty minutes before stomping off to destroy something in his lab. Bruce just looked quietly disappointed, and Pepper said, “Of course, you’re entitled to your opinion,” in an icy, clipped voice.
Coulson vanished, managing somehow to be present without ever crossing Steve’s path. Clint gave Steve a stricken glare and said, “Well, I guess that answers that question.”
Natasha studied him with narrowed eyes and didn’t say anything.
Steve kept his opinions to himself and let them keep theirs, and he set about getting his speech just right.
The people at the convention were nice enough, even if they were a little too monied for Steve’s comfort and kept using phrases like “traditional family values” in reference to things that Steve thought were neither traditional nor valuable. The Republican candidate was a stocky, middle-aged white man who Steve didn’t recognize ‘til he was introduced. These fellows tended to all look the same, and Steve wasn’t very good with faces.
The man who gave Steve’s introduction was also stocky, middle-aged, and white, and Steve couldn’t quite remember his name. He detailed Steve’s childhood poverty, described his ascent from “sickly little boy” to “bona fide war hero” and how that transformation was exactly what America needed in the next election. America had become weak, he said, and she should look to her greatest symbol, her Captain, a “good old-fashioned hero”, to find her strength again and return to the values of “hard work, family, and faith” that had once made her great.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the speaker concluded, “Please welcome the original American hero, the Star-Spangled Man himself, Captain Steve Rogers.”
As the applause thundered around him, Steve took a deep breath and hoped nobody tried to kill him when this was over.
“Afternoon, folks,” he began, and waited for the answering cheers to subside.
“When the boys in the war department started calling me Captain America, I figured that was a pretty big deal.” Another round of cheering sounded. “I figured that said something about the sort of man I was supposed to be. Not just a soldier or a symbol or some schmuck selling war bonds, but something else, something bigger, and it took me awhile to figure out what that something was.”
He hated making speeches, hated how the whole crowd was waiting for the next words, but this was important. He crossed his fingers, praying he’d got the words right.
“See, before the army got a hold of me, I hadn’t seen much of the world outside my little corner of Brooklyn.” Applause and yelling erupted from one section, and Steve flashed them a grin. “You folks from Brooklyn?” They replied with hoots and whistles. “Well, I’ll try not to make you look bad.” The crowd laughed.
“After I got promoted, though, I got to see a whole lot more. I got to see the world, but, mostly, I got to see America, and you know what I found out? I found out it was an awful lot like Brooklyn.” There was renewed cheering from his fellow New Yorkers, and Steve raised a hand for quiet, smiling patiently.
“No matter where you go, there’s always kids playing on the street corner. There’s always a few people sitting on somebody’s front step talking about nothing. There’s always couples fighting and and parents chasing after their kids. There’s always people doing well and people getting by and people with barely enough to get through the day. No matter where you go, there’s families and folks looking out for each other, and I figure that’s what America is, what I ought to be.”
The audience applauded, and Steve thought about his own new, fragile family, about Tony waving his hands while he talked, about Bruce humming while he cooked, and about Thor laughing at everyone’s jokes even if he didn’t get them.
“Nowadays, it seems like everybody’s talking about what a family is. Well, I think a family is a lot of people who maybe don’t have a whole lot in common but who still sit down for meals sometimes. I think a family spends too much time together and fights more than they need to, but they’ve still got each other’s backs. I think a family talks things out and makes things work, and I think the big kids take care of the little kids, no matter what.”
He thought about Pepper going quietly about the herculean task of keeping everything running, about Natasha’s smooth way of derailing conflict before it even started, about Coulson’s hand on Clint’s shoulder when the job had everyone on edge.
“The way I see it, if there is such a thing as a real family, it’s the people you come home to, the people you trust not to throw you out or shut the door in your face, no matter what. Now, I’m just a kid from Brooklyn, and I’m still playing catch-up on some things, but it seems to me that some folks in this country have been shutting doors in an awful lot of faces.”
There was a questioning murmur from the audience, and Steve gave them a moment to let the uncertainty settle.
“America is a family. Some of us were born here, some of us weren’t. Some of us have it easy, and some of us don’t have much of anything. Some of us have one name for God, some have others, and some don’t have much opinion on the subject. Some of us speak one language loudly, and some of us speak ten but only when we have to. We’re mothers, brothers, cousins, friends, husbands, and heroes, and we all love in our own way. There’s no one way to be American, but that’s what we are. And being American makes us part of a family where everyone deserves the same respect, the same chances, and the same rights.”
The murmuring grew louder, but Steve pressed on. The ones who listened would listen, and the ones who were closed off would just be angry.
“My last name is Rogers, but people have been calling me America for a long time now, and I figure that ought to mean something. I figure that makes America my family name, and that means I get a say in how my name gets used. Folks, I don’t wanna point fingers or start a fight, but I’ve been hearing a lot of talk I don’t like about things being ‘un-American’. I hear people getting excluded from the American family because they aren’t quite right in one way or another, and that riles me up a bit. Because this is my country, my family, and I’d really appreciate it if you nice people would quit using my name to try and keep people out of it.”
He raised his hand in a wave and flashed his brightest smile-for-the-cameras grin. “Thanks for having me. You have a good evening, now,” he said, and walked straight-backed off the stage against a backdrop of dead, ringing silence.
His phone gave a buzz the moment he made the wings. “Hello, Tony.”
“You beautiful, square-jawed son of a bitch.”
“I take it you were watching.” He ignored the dirty looks as he walked past the party leaders and waved off an agitated publicist who tried to flag him down.
“The whole world was watching, Rogers! Fox tried to cut to commercial, but I had Jarvis keep the feed live.” There was a muffled voice on the other end. “Barton’s offering to do salacious things to show his approval.” The muffled voice came again. “Okay, he just said he’s gonna kiss you, but he’s very enthusiastic about it.”
“I think he’ll have to clear that with Coulson.” The two SHIELD agents escorting him fell into step, and Steve thought maybe they looked a little more smug than usual.
“Oh, Coulson’s lining up behind him.” Tony paused. “That came out dirtier than I meant it to. Still accurate, though. Ow! Coulson, your husband’s trying to beat me up.” There was a loud clamor, and Tony said, “Here, Thor wants to talk to you.”
Steve held the phone slightly away from his ear in anticipation.
“MY FRIEND! YOUR PLOY WAS MOST INGENIOUS, TO GO SO BOLDLY INTO THE ENEMY’S MIDST, ONLY TO UNDO THEM WITH WISE WORDS! SURELY THIS IS A VICTORY THE POETS WILL SING OF.”
“Thanks, Thor. That’s nice of you to say.” Steve ducked as someone lobbed an empty bottle at his head, and he put a hand out to stop the agents from going after them.
“I SPEAK HONESTLY, DEAR STEVEN. THIS DAY YOU HAVE SHOWN THE PEOPLE OF MIDGARD THE VALOR OF A TRUE LEADER. MY HEART SWELLS WITH PRIDE, AND I SHALL JOIN THE HAWK-EYED ARCHER IN SHOWERING KISSES UPON YOU.”
Steve smiled. “That’s really not necessary, buddy, but I ap-”
“HOLD, MY FRIEND! THE LADY PEPPER WOULD BEND YOUR EAR.”
He could hear Bruce calling “Good job, Cap!” into the phone as it changed hands, then Pepper’s sweet voice came on. “Oh my god, Steve, that was brilliant. I’m so sorry. I never should’ve th- No, Tony, stop, you can wait. I assumed the worst, and I never should have thought that about you. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, Pepper.” It stung a little that they’d all thought he was actually on the same side as these jerks, but he hadn’t given them much reason to think otherwise. “I should’ve taken a stand a long time ago.”
There was more shuffling, and he expected the phone to get passed back to Tony. Instead, it was Natasha’s voice on the line. “Congratulations,” she said dryly. “You meet the minimum standards for a decent human being.”
He climbed into the waiting car and tried to hide his blush. “I don’t suppose there’ll be a cupcake waiting when I get back?” he asked, and her laugh was more than enough reward.
“Only if you count Clint.” Even over the phone, Steve could hear Clint’s protest. “Come on home, Rogers,” Natasha told him. “I think he really is going to kiss you, and I can’t wait to see that.”
Steve grinned. “I’m on my way.”