Jamie couldn't remember a time when he didn’t love Captain America.
His dad had a stack of comics in the attic that were all Jamie’s, after the divorce. Jamie had spent one stifling summer day getting all of the longboxes out of the attic, and down the stairs and into his room. He locked the door behind him, just in case his little brother decided to barge in. Some of them were almost tattered from use, Jamie touched them reverently, imagining his dad reading them before him, and his granddad doing that, before him. Then the doorknob rattled, and even from his bed, he could hear his little brother, Eric, whining to be let in.
Jamie ignored him and eventually he went away.
Bucky was his favorite, whip-smart and around his age, even though Jamie didn’t think he’d be brave enough to follow Captain America into the jaws of death, it didn’t hurt to pretend, anyway. He caught his reflection in the mirror -- thick-rimmed glasses and a pudgy pink face looked back at him, with a mop of dirty-blond hair covering his forehead. Jamie sighed and pushed his hair off his face.
Yeah. He wasn’t exactly superhero material.
Cap was better than Superman or Batman or any of the rest, because Cap was real.
Soon, he was was absorbed back in the adventures of Cap and Bucky, and stayed that way until his mom banged on the door, in the evening, calling him for dinner. Jamie could tell by her tone that she was serious, and so he emerged, his legs feeling weak and kittenish. He was sweaty and blurry-eyed, but exhilarated.
When he got to the kitchen, the table was already set. Eric was already in his seat, his sharp elbows on the table. He was eleven, but really small for his age -- and he looked at Jamie with a cynical gleam in his eye.
“Sit down,” his mother said, putting down the baking dish down. They were having baked ziti with meatballs. As Jamie took a seat, Eric said, innocently enough, “What didja do all day, Jamie?”
Jamie mumbled something a science project and started to cram his mouth with forkfuls of salad.
“Because,” Eric said slyly, “I thought I heard you masturbating in there.”
Their mother looked up from her salad and barked, “Eric! Apologize to your brother!” And she turned to him and said, “You weren’t, right, Jamie?”
Jamie blushed (he wasn't helping himself here) and squeaked, “No! God!”
In the end, Eric didn't actually apologize anyway.
Years passed, and eventually Jamie got into college and moved out of his mother’s house. He took a couple of the Captain America comics with him. As he’d grown older -- and Google became a thing -- Jamie had become more, well, cynical about his former idol. It was pretty clear that, yeah, there was a guy in the forties who went by the moniker Captain America, and he lead the Howling Commandos and everything -- just like in the comics -- but that was where real life and the comics parted ways.
Bucky, as it turned out, had been a grown man, not a underaged ninja wunderkind.
(Jamie bit back a deep sense of disappointment at that.)
He was in for more disappointments. When Jamie dug more deeply into the history of Cap, his stomach sank to his knees when he read about the Captain in the fifties, hunting accused Communists and homosexuals, going crazy at the end of it. He read up on the speculation -- both printed and online -- and he knew the Cap from World War II wasn't the same as the Cap from the Red Scare, but still it hurt to see the shield get tarnished like that.
But then again, real life was never as clean-cut as fiction. Jamie peered into the faded, black-and-white photograph of the Captain, looking somewhere beyond the photographer’s lens, his chin jutting out. He looked calm, heroic, and totally inscrutable.
He was going to be a lawyer.
No. An actor. Maybe a stand-up comedian. A blogger? But he was that already and it didn't pay anything.
For now, he worked retail and couldn't always make his rent. Which was where Lindsay came in. She was a friend of Eric’s, they had gone to school together, and it was from Eric he learned that she was looking for a roommate.
Jamie met Lindsay the day he moved into the loft, she was lounging on the sofa as he brought the last of the boxes in. She patted the seat next to her and he went over and sat down with a groan. They sprawled for a moment before she nudged his ribs and pointed to the button stuck on his lapel. It was vintage (he had combed through almost all of the thrift stores in the city looking for it) made for the (justly tanked) nineteen-seventies Captain America movie, the one where Cap drove around in a motorcycle with a fringed leather jacket, looking royally pissed. At one point, he socked Nixon in the jaw.
“You a fan?” Lindsay said, barely stifling a yawn. “Sorry, I was up really late all this week finishing my senior project.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Kind of. What did you do?”
She got up -- he helped her up and she murmured her thanks. They went to her workroom (which was soon to be re-purposed into his room) and Jamie looked around. Lindsay was a talented costume-designer, and a skilled seamstress. She said that she’d even gotten a call-back from Project Runway a few years ago, but hadn’t been able to go because the filming conflicted with her job.
“And at least I have a job,” she explained with a shrug. Her style leaned towards mid-century modern, with a few throwbacks from wartime America. Tweed, rose tulle, taffeta flowed throughout the room. It shouldn't have worked, but somehow it did.
A light-bulb went off in Jamie’s head. “I think I need to learn how to sew.”
Lindsay laughed. “Yeah? Just like that?”
After dragging himself through work and being squeezed and hustled on the subway, Jamie finally got back home. Lindsay was out -- she had a hot date, a gorgeous med student by the name of Nina -- and the other roommates were either out or shut up in their rooms. This was the best part of any day for Jamie. He stripped off and took a shower, later, after he had dried off, clad in only boxers, he cracked open his ancient MacBook (he’d gotten it used, it was perfect except for the sticky L button and a tendency to overheat at the worst times) and logged on to his account on the Captain America discussion forums.
The Cap fandom was one of the longest running in the world -- before the Internet was a glimmer in Al Gore’s eye, people traded zines back and forth, filled with discussions and fanfiction about Cap and Bucky and the Howling Commandos. There had even been a show, back in the dawn of television, aimed at indoctrinating kids about the glories of capitalism and the American way. It was kitsch central, and the assumption went that no one could possibly be a real fan if they hadn’t managed to track down and watch every episode, despite the series never having made it to DVD.
Jamie knew that this was a load of garbage, but all fandoms had their weird rites of passage anyway. (He actually preferred the shitty seventies movie to the classic TV show. The latter was completely ridiculous but less hysterical.)
Not to brag or anything, but Jamie had become something of a big name fan in the community. He’d risen from obscurity when he was in college -- the fandom had helped get him fit, and of course, Cap himself was a great inspiration, although Jamie had to do without the super-soldier serum.
Jamie loved fandom, loved the sense of belonging it gave him. Here was a group of people who understood perfectly how Cap made him feel, what an inspiration he was, and also whether or not the rumors about Bucky and him were true...
Before, Jamie had sworn that RPS wasn’t for him, but unlike the rest of the Howling Commandos, Bucky and Cap hadn’t left grandkids who could Google like the rest of the world, and really, some of the pictures and film-reels that they’d left were really … suggestive.
Jamie had tried his hand at writing Steve/Bucky fanfiction -- okay, it had been porn -- and he had posted it under a sock. Not because he was ashamed or anything (well, only a little) but because if Eric, for one, ever got a hold of it, Jamie would never be able to live that down.
And anyway, no one had read it -- Jamie had gotten a handful of kudos and a spam comment for Viagra. He tried to not let it get to him.
He had bigger fish to fry.
Eric blustered in through the front door, bringing the rain with him. Jamie was sprawling on the couch, surrounded by the components of his Cap costume. Eric took one look at the blue fish scales and sighed loudly. “Dude,” he said, “when’s the last time you had a date?”
“Six months ago. Why?” Jamie’s eyes never left the line of his stitches.
Then it happened, the attack on New York. Despite the instructions on TV to stay in their buildings, Jamie, like a lot of people, decided to get to the roof and see the action for himself. It was unbelievable, watching the sky over Manhattan crack open and hell pour out.
And the thing was, the monsters didn’t stay on the other side of river. Even after the fight was over, people still had to pick up debris from the streets, and frantically try to call their family and friends. The electricity didn’t come on for almost a week, and there were lines that stretched out for blocks in places that did have electricity. And Internet.
And so it was a couple of weeks before Jamie saw the footage from the battle, saw the Avengers in action. That he saw Captain America. In the flesh. Alive. Captain America fighting aliens in midtown Manhattan. It was like all of his adolescent fantasies had been smashed into an incomprehensible stew.
“It’s not the same guy, it can’t be,” said Lynn, who was their Dugan. The Howling Commandos were crowded around Lynn’s iPad, squinting down at a Youtube video. Maybe-Cap threw his shield and it ricocheted off an alien’s head before he caught it again, like it was nothing. It was a week after the attacks and people were still picking up debris from the streets. The coffee shop where they had gathered was one of the few places that had working Internet.
Lynn stroked his mustache and looked thoughtful as he played the video clip again. Derek, who was their Jones, said that he’d read online that Cap hadn’t actually died when he went missing in the forties -- he had been frozen due to a secret government experiment and then thawed out a few months ago.
“But we agreed that that was paranoid bullshit,” Seb protested, “you can’t trust anons!”
“We should call him Capsicle,” said Kenneth (Morita) finally, and that was that.
On the way out from Lindsay’s housewarming, Jamie couldn’t help but notice that her neighbor coming up the stairs. He couldn’t help noticing that Lindsay’s neighbor was quite handsome. Objectively handsome, objectively hot, a prime-cut, grade-A, all-American hunk. With those muscles and that butt, with those blue eyes and blond hair and ---
“Dude, you’re drooling,” Lindsay said, poking Jamie in the ribs.
“Yeah, uh, yeah,” Jamie said, as articulate as he could be.
Jamie saw the neighbor -- Steve, Lindsay said his name was Steve -- off and on for the next few weeks. He didn’t introduce himself because … Well. Yeah, anyway. Steve’s sexual preferences were unknown, although a variety of men and women had been observed leaving his apartment at various times of the day, not that Jamie was keeping track of that, of course not, that would be creepy, although causally asking neighbors wasn’t creepy, it was neighborly, even if he wasn’t, technically, their neighbor. What would society be if people let stuff like that stop them from having real, human connections?
Doris, who lived down the hall from Steve, understood this very well. She’d been here forever, before they renovated the building and the whole neighborhood changed. They would often share a cup of coffee together and watch Steve’s door. Once, someone familiar went out, slamming the door behind him.
He was distracted, he had a goatee, he was talking on a Bluetooth so small as to be invisible, and Jamie could've sworn that he looked like … Tony Stark.
He turned to Doris and asked if she saw the resemblance. She sipped her coffee and said that she had once gone to a party downtown and gotten high with Howard Stark. “Kid,” she said, looking like she wanted to draw on a cigarette -- her hands twitched, but she had told him that she had quit, years ago. “The rich are just like you and me. Only a lot richer.”
“No kidding,” Jamie said, not sure what she was talking about. He tried to get her to come to the D-Day Dance, but she only waved him off.
“Nostalgia’s a young person’s game these days,” she said, with a mischievous gleam in her eye. Jamie couldn’t shake the feeling that Doris was making fun of him.
After an afternoon in crisis-mode -- everyone’s costumes seemed to be missing something and his shield had a scratch on it that wasn’t regulation, Jamie finally got back home, on the night before the dance, still in his costume. There was a large mirror in the hallway in front of his bedroom. He paused in front of it and swung the shield (now perfect, though a lot lighter than the real thing), on his back.
He practiced his Captain America swagger in front of the mirror the night before the dance. He smiled, adjusted his helmet. For the first time in a long time, he felt complete, like he was doing something right.
He murmured, “Come on, Bucky, let’s go.”
As if on cue, Eric shuffled into the room and muttered that they were out of milk.
The dance was a stunning success -- everyone turned up, wearing the right things, and their pictures were posted all over Tumblr, and Instagrammed to death, and the only fly in the ointment was when Lindsay’s hot neighbor stormed off in the beginning, before Eric could get the number of the pretty girl he had arrived with. Jamie, slightly drunk already (the punch, as it happened, was spiked), suggested that they both drink away their sorrows, and his brother surprised him by agreeing.
And that was how Jamie found himself on the subway at midnight., still in his Cap costume, with his brother, in Bucky’s felt dynamo mask that Seb had been persuaded to give up. They got off on the wrong stop, and went to an all-night diner where they ordered breakfast.
“This,” Eric said, eyes slightly closed, “this is nice.”
Jamie looked up from his pancakes and grinned. “It is, yeah.”
The sun was barely up by the time they got back home and all Jamie wanted to do was sleep, and he did, until his phone rang -- really close to his ear, shit, where had that come from? -- and he let go to voicemail after seeing the number. It was Lindsay, but he decided that he’d call her later.
When he got up, he realized that they were out of milk, and there was nothing to eat except dry cereal. From the other room, Jamie heard Eric fall out of bed with a groan. Jamie checked his messages with a mouthful of cereal and nearly spat it out when he heard Lindsay’s voice-mail.
“You can’t tell anyone,” she said. “I promised, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, of course, scout’s honor, you’re telling me Steve is --” Jamie choked up a little, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe. Eric pounded his back, harder than he needed to -- Jamie took a few more quick breaths before he continued on, smoothly, as if he hadn't just had a mini-panic attack right then. “Steve is Captain America.”
“Captain America lives in Brooklyn.”
“You can’t tell anyone.”
“Captain America saw me dressed up as Captain America and got upset because he thought I was being disrespectful.”
“Kinda. He thought you were all being disrespectful.”
“Captain America --”
“If you say Captain America again, I swear to God, Jamie, I’m going to kick your ass before he has a chance to,” said Eric, but Lindsay looked equally unimpressed.
“You have to make it right,” she said.
And she was right. He had to make it right.
Jamie thought about how he could make it right.
He could sell all of his Captain America memorabilia on eBay and donate the proceeds to charity for families of veterans. He could move back upstate with his mom and pretend none of this had happened. He could wait for the next alien invasion came around and run out into the path of whatever bug-faced horror the universe sent his way.
He could have done all of those things, but instead, he was here, in front of Steve’s door, knocking on it. Doris peeked out from her door and whenever Jamie looked back, she gave him a thumbs up. Lindsay was at work, but she had sent a text, indicating her approval, as had Eric (but with a lot more laughing at Jamie’s expense.)
Jamie had had an entire script about what he should say to Steve, and the entire thing disappeared from his brain, the moment Steve opened the door, looking a little apprehensive.
“Uh, hi, I’m Jamie, Lindsay’s friend, and I was -- I was in your costume last week, and I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry that you felt like we were making fun of you and the Commandoes, we didn’t mean it like that at all.”
Steve said, “You better come in.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jamie babbled on, trying not to look around Steve’s apartment, which was full of light and smelled like there was fresh coffee brewing. “You see, I’ve been a fan of yours forever, I got all of your old comics from my dad before he...”
“Calm down, son. You want some coffee?”
Speechless, Jamie nodded.
Captain America -- Steve -- took his coffee black, no sugar. There was a box of Splenda on the counter that was still in its shrink-wrap, so maybe Cap didn’t believe in sugar substitutes. Jamie pondered this instead of wondering what the hell he should say next. Seconds passed by with agonizing slowness. God, why couldn’t the aliens come now?
Luckily, Steve decided then to take him out his misery, and said, “Lindsay explained things to me, a little. I haven’t really had time to talk to … fans, even before I came back.”
“Yeah, there was a war on, I understand. But you’ve been inspiring people for a long time now, Captain --”
“Steve. You can call me Steve. It’s hard to imagine that people would still care, seventy years on.”
“Are you kidding me? Some of my friends wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for you. My grandpa served in the Pacific, and he never once talked about his experiences. I know we don’t know the whole story of what you went through, but I always … I always liked your story. And how you never back down from bullies.”
Jamie examined his feet and muttered, “Sorry. I sound like a dork right now.”
Steve’s smile was a glorious thing, like sunshine and sugar and sparkles. Honestly, who could resist such a smile?
Steve said, “You know, everyone tells me that kids these days don’t care about anything, but that’s not really true, is it?”
Jamie looked up. “It really isn’t, Cap.” And he really wanted to add, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship -- but he didn’t quite dare. Instead, he beamed, and drank the rest of his coffee, now cool and slightly bitter.
It was the best damned coffee he had ever had.